Was Communism Reformable?

Was Communism Reformable?

Never in history until the Soviet Union collapsed eight years ago had a great empire gone through such cataclysmic changes and accepted such staggering territorial losses without suffering defeat


Never in history until the Soviet Union collapsed eight years ago had a great empire gone through such cataclysmic changes and accepted such staggering territorial losses without suffering defeat in a general war. Now the crippled successor state known as the Russian Federation is trying to draw the line to prevent the secession of the small non-Russian minorities who remain under its jurisdiction. But as the former Moscow correspondent of The Times of London, Anatol Lieven, argues in Chechnya: Tombstone of Russian Power, Moscow’s brutal assaults on the Chechens, in 1994-96 and again now, only underscore the weakness of the new Russia. Was this breakdown inevitable, inherent in the defects of the old Communist system, as the conventional wisdom now has it? Was it the only possible outcome if would-be reformers tried to tinker with the old system? Or was it simply the result of errors or betrayal on the part of the country’s latter-day leaders? Could a “third way” have been found between Communism and capitalism? (Lenin, for one, thought not.) Was the subsequent Russian disaster under Boris Yeltsin the fault of the Soviet legacy, or the consequence of new crimes and blunders? Did the events of 1991 amount to a new revolution, intended or not?

Experts have vigorously debated the implications of the Soviet collapse and will long continue to do so. And now the Russian money-laundering scandal and the renewed war in Chechnya have propelled these issues to general awareness at the political level in this country, to the particular discomfiture of Vice President Al Gore, point man for the Clinton Administration in its Russia policy. Naturally, as the Russian question is politicized, it is likely to generate more heat than light. Fortunately, a spate of recent books on the Gorbachev and Yeltsin eras, including those under review here, brings light to the subject.

The Soviet collapse was actually a succession of distinct crises. First was the collapse of Communist Party rule, starting with Gorbachev’s efforts at democratization in 1988-89 and culminating in the failed coup of the Communist conservatives in August 1991. Second was the breakup of the Soviet Union, or, more accurately, the decolonization of the Russian Empire, consummated by Yeltsin’s abolition of the Union (and with it the job of his rival Gorbachev) in December 1991. Finally, less heralded but even more fundamental in its effects was the dissolution of central authority in nearly every sector of the old system, a process set in motion by Gorbachev’s reforms but fully realized only in the early Yeltsin years.

How and why the Soviet system actually came to grief cannot be explained solely by social forces or the legacy of the Communist past. Leadership politics and the clashing egos of the major players were decisive. Indeed, the history of Russia over the past decade and a half of transition can readily be told in the stories of two personalities, Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin, and the implacable rivalry that arose between them. This fateful conflict, recalling the struggle between Joseph Stalin and Leon Trotsky in the twenties, is the stuff of three powerful new books, Archie Brown’s The Gorbachev Factor, Jerry Hough’s Democratization and Revolution in the USSR and Lilia Shevtsova’s Yeltsin’s Russia. Gorbachev has updated his own perspective in On My Country and the World, already familiar as regards the breakup of the Soviet Union and his “new thinking” on international relations, but fresh and candid in its initial section on the pluses and minuses of the Revolution of 1917.

Archie Brown, Oxford don, dean of British Sovietology and adviser to successive governments, has masterfully exploited the memoir literature made possible by Russia’s new freedom to bring his readers inside the inner workings of the Gorbachev regime. The story is a Greek tragedy of rising hopes and cumulative errors, compounded by the mobilization of reform against the reformer that was accomplished by the antihero Yeltsin. Gorbachev, Brown shows, was a complex figure who evolved toward democracy both before and after his by no means foreordained selection as Soviet leader in March 1985. In time, “by embracing ideas that deviated from accepted orthodoxy, Gorbachev altered and undermined that system to an extent far greater than he initially foresaw.” The upshot, according to Brown, was that “from the spring of 1989,” i.e., from the election of the First Congress of People’s Deputies, “the most important defining characteristics of a Communist system, whether structural or ideological, had ceased to apply.” Despite all his errors of political and economic judgment, Brown concludes, “Gorbachev has strong claims to be regarded as one of the greatest reformers in Russian history and as the individual who made the most profound impact on world history in the second half of the twentieth century.”

As Gorbachev’s reforms unfolded, he was torn between rejecting the authoritarianism of the old regime and using his inherited power to put down the Communist Old Guard. In his own reassessment, Gorbachev underscores the task of rescuing the ideals of the Revolution from a Communist system that was “not socialist but totalitarian.” Meanwhile, Yeltsin was stealing Gorbachev’s most impatient supporters and forcing him to fight an ultimately losing war on two fronts, against the party conservatives on one side and the radical reformers on the other.

Why the vendetta between these two giants of democratization? Brown is one of the few writers to recognize how power-driven Yeltsin’s personality was, surpassed in this respect only by Stalin. Brought to Moscow by Gorbachev in 1985 to clean up the city administration, Yeltsin could not bear the slights he felt at the hands of the Communist Party leadership, particularly a neglected event that not even Brown mentions: his failure to be promoted to the Politburo in June 1987. From that time on, Yeltsin did everything he could to sabotage Gorbachev’s leadership. He defied the Communist Party, rejected the economic compromise of market socialism and fanned separatism among the non-Russian regions of the Soviet Union in order to enhance his own position as leader of the core Soviet republic, the Russian Federation. (He became chairman of its Supreme Soviet in May 1990 and was elected its president in June 1991.) Gorbachev comments, “The president of Russia and his entourage in fact sacrificed the Union to his passionate desire to accede to the throne in the Kremlin.” The irony is that when the Chechens claimed for themselves the independence that Yeltsin had endorsed for the major Soviet republics, his answer–not once but twice–was the mailed fist.

After his fall, Gorbachev was asked on Italian TV why he allowed Yeltsin to challenge him so: “I should have listened to those who begged me to send Yeltsin to Africa as an ambassador. But I wanted to give a signal of change, to show that even in our country dissenters could stay in politics. With Yeltsin I ended up as a victim of my own principles.”

To extrapolate from Brown’s picture, there is a certain analogy between Yeltsin’s defeat of Gorbachev in 1990-91 and Stalin’s defeat of the moderate Communist Nikolai Bukharin in 1928-29 (following the purge of the Trotskyists in 1927). In each instance, a reformer was confronted by a power-hungry rival who took extreme positions to discredit his enemy and then, oblivious to the consequences, made these tactical commitments ends in themselves. In Stalin’s case it was the totalitarian command economy; for Yeltsin it was the free-market utopia in an “independent” Russia.

Brown’s book is closely paralleled by that of Jerry Hough of Duke University and the Brookings Institution, one of the most prolific as well as controversial of American Sovietologists. Both see the “Gorbachev factor”–a top leader who rejected ideological dogmas–as the decisive push precipitating the breakup of the old system. They differ in their evaluations, however. For Brown, Gorbachev was an extraordinary success, breaking Soviet politics open through his steps toward democracy. Hough thinks Russia would have been better off following the Chinese model of controlled reform. For him, Gorbachev was a failure who never understood the destructive forces that his over-hasty efforts had set in motion. Discounting Gorbachev’s appeals to the “socialist choice” of 1917, Hough supposes that from the time he came to power he had rejected the Communist economic system in favor of the free market, without realizing its practical dependence on rules and authority. Further, he went overboard against the use of force: “Gorbachev had none of the sense that democracy was a state that involves some repression.” For his part, Gorbachev still reaffirms the mixed economy, while he abjures responsibility for armed actions against the Georgians in 1989 and the Lithuanians in 1991.

The differences between Brown (and Gorbachev) on one side and Hough on the other highlight the question of whether the Soviet system was in fact reformable, or whether it could only be changed by a total overthrow. Was the old regime under such tension that a serious attempt to reform it could result only in revolution? This is Hough’s core argument, as he applies Clarence Crane Brinton’s renowned model (The Anatomy of Revolution, 1938) to categorize Gorbachev as the revolutionary moderate and Yeltsin and his acolytes as the “Robespierres” of the Second Russian Revolution. This, Hough asserts, was a “bourgeois” revolution by members of the Soviet Union’s own bureaucratic ruling class (i.e., nomenklatura), resentful to find that their amenities of life paled in comparison with those of their Western counterparts. They seized the opportunity offered by Gorbachev’s defanging of the apparatus of control and revolted against their own collectivist system in order to appropriate individually all the wealth and property they could get their hands on. Thus, “nomenklatura privatization,” and the Russian pun on privatizatsiya: prikhvatizatsiya, meaning “grab-it-ization” (as the noted economist Marshall Goldman has translated it).

It may nevertheless be too facile to think of events in Russia since 1985 as a new revolution. The regime that fell was, after all, a product of the Revolution of 1917, and both Gorbachev and Yeltsin harked back to earlier stages of the revolutionary experience. Gorbachev found his model in the early Soviet years, before Lenin created the one-party dictatorship and Stalin the command economy, while Yeltsin, as I have recently shown (“The Process of Revolution in Russia,” Problems of Post-Communism, May-June 1999), looked back to the semiconstitutional czarism of 1905. Meanwhile, the bureaucratic elite survived all the commotion and simply found a new setup to advance its interests.

Revolution or not, Hough’s concept of a social transformation at the death of Communism is supported independently by the work of David Kotz and Fred Weir and of Steven Solnick. Kotz is an economist at the University of Massachusetts and his collaborator, Weir, reports from Moscow for Canadian and other Commonwealth papers. They conclude: “The Soviet system had been dispatched, not by economic collapse combined with a popular uprising, but by its own ruling class in pursuit of its own perceived interests.” Solnick concurs, on the basis of a close study of the Communist Youth League (Komsomol), together with the military draft and job assignments of university graduates. Cynicism and opportunism, he finds, undermined the Soviet control system and rolled ahead unchecked when Gorbachev tried to decentralize: “Soviet institutions were victimized by the organizational equivalent of a colossal ‘bank run,’ in which local officials rushed to claim their assets before the bureaucratic doors shut for good.”

We still do not know enough about how nomenklatura privatization was accomplished. Kotz and Weir are broadly schematic, relying heavily on the work of the Russian sociologist Olga Kryshtanovskaya; they focus on the political backing that the new business elite gave to Yeltsin. Solnick’s examples come from the fringes. We do not get from these authors a full explanation of the rise of the financial empires of the new oligarchy (detailed, however, in the book Kapitalizm, by Business Week correspondent Rose Brady) or of the now familiar export of plundered Russian capital to Western banks. And at the other extreme, there is not enough appreciation of the millions of competent and hardworking Russians who continue somehow to make their particular institutions, public and private, work.

This gap is partially filled by Paul Christensen of Syracuse University. His new book, Russian Workers in Transition: Labor, Management and the State Under Gorbachev and Yeltsin, faults both leaders for taking advantage of the industrial workers to start their respective programs and then betraying them. Left with no effective independent organization, the workers raised only sporadic protests. But looking back, Gorbachev’s pursuit of social democracy, however bungled in its execution, “would have provided a better basis for an ultimately successful economic transition and for an eventual consolidation of democracy than did the policies of Yeltsin.” Gorbachev, Christensen holds, was more realistic about the Russian statist heritage than the politics-only “transitologists” who advised the Yeltsin regime on the basis of their observations of Latin America.

In any case, the Hough-Kotz-Weir-Solnick thesis of an uprising by the bureaucrats against the bureaucracy is hard to deny, though it has been overshadowed by the more spectacular struggles on the political plane. It might be understood by analogy with the economics of inflation. Soviet society in Gorbachev’s last years suffered from an “inflationary overhang” of unspent rubles that could not find enough goods at controlled prices. De-control by the Yeltsin government in 1992 unleashed one of the most severe inflations in history and contributed to a state of economic anarchy and mass impoverishment, from which Russia has not yet recovered. Paralleling this, in the sphere of institutional relationships, was the rising thirst among the Soviet bureaucracy–the “New Class”–for personal affluence and aggrandizement, a sort of “ego-ambition overhang,” if you will. Gorbachev’s curbs on arbitrary central authority and his toying with privatization and marketization in the so-called Five Hundred Days Plan of 1990 signaled to this elite that the time was ripe to seize everything in sight. Given Russia’s inadequate framework of law and financial accountability to contain the new robber-capitalists, the price the country had to pay was the chaos, crime and corruption that persist today. Yeltsin’s subsequent decrees on privatization, it would appear, only ratified what was already going on.

In this perspective, the Soviet system was not so much overthrown as it was pulled apart without much change in the elite. This was literally true for the non-Russian republics, as they went their separate and usually undemocratic ways, sanctioned in 1991 by the abolition of the Union. But it was also true for the overall Soviet institutional structure, notably the centrally planned economy, thrown into chaos by the removal of direction from above, without a matrix of laws and rules like the framework that evolved to support the capitalist order in the West. The Polish political scientist Wisla Suraska, in a very original work, How the Soviet Union Disappeared, stresses the territorial and institutional dissolution latent in the “anti-modern” character of Communist “despotism.” In the course of this general breakdown, state functions that by their nature depended on public financing suffered especially, and this included the military.

The decline and fall of the Soviet military during this era of reform and revolution are recounted in great historical and technical detail by retired Lieut. Gen. William Odom, former director of the intelligence-gathering National Security Agency and a longstanding expert on Russia. No fan of Gorbachev, whom he considers “duplicitous” and to the end a “Leninist,” Odom nevertheless depicts a military deprived by Gorbachev of the centrality it had enjoyed under both czarism and Stalin’s “garrison state.” It was wounded by arms-reduction measures and paralyzed by the liquidation of its ideological raison d’être. Democratization disrupted discipline and triggered a revolt against the draft, especially in the non-Russian republics. Squeezed between a reforming government and a restive society, the Soviet military was well on its way to “disintegration” even before the 1991 coup and Gorbachev’s fall (the end point of this tale; Odom does not go into the Chechnya debacle of 1994-96, detailed by Lieven, which only proves Odom’s thesis). Odom holds that perestroika fractured the Humpty-Dumpty of ideological legitimacy on which he believes all forms of authority in the old regime depended. As noted by Robert Strayer of the State University of New York, Brockport, in his short survey of these events, Why Did the Soviet Union Collapse?, “the declining ‘self-legitimation’ of the Soviet elite” paralyzed their will to hang on by force, but this did not prevent their turning to peaceful theft.

If revolutions can be explained after the fact, it is much harder to foresee them, and it is impossible to specify their timetable. Everyone agrees that the Second Russian Revolution (if it may be called that) was started by Gorbachev personally. It was thus a true accident of personality in history, both in his determination to reform the Soviet system and in his narrow margin of victory in 1985. “To ignore Gorbachev’s choice-making is a fundamental error,” Odom writes. The collapse of 1991 was equally accidental, set up only by the Gorbachev-Yeltsin feud plus the latter’s exploitation of nationality separatism, and made irreversible only by the conservatives’ failed coup, which blew away the whole psychological basis of authority. Had it not been for these fortuitous events, there is no reason to dispute the contention of Hough and others that at least for a time Russia could have pursued the Chinese path of reform under dictatorship without the societal breakdown that democratization permitted. “The USSR was killed…by politics, not economics,” and above all by “Soviet Academicians concocting fantastic reform plans,” observe Michael Ellman and Vladimir Kontorovich in introducing their collection of essays by insiders of the Gorbachev era (The Destruction of the Soviet Economic System).

The Chinese outcome would have satisfied many in Gorbachev’s entourage, including his number-two man of the early years of perestroika, Yegor Ligachev, his middle-of-the-road prime minister, Nikolai Ryzhkov (Hough’s hero), and even the putschists of 1991. These scoundrels, Gorbachev appointees all, were mainly interested in preserving the Union, and never mentioned Communism or even socialism in their pronunciamento. Their real creed was the Russian imperialism that was the underlying ideology of the post-Stalin rulers, as Yitzhak Brudny shows in his Reinventing Russia: Russian Nationalism and the Soviet State, 1953-1991. However, the course of authoritarian, centralist reform, Chinese-style, had already been ruled out by the democratic steps Gorbachev had set in motion at least three years before the coup attempt and by the loosening of restraints over the property-hungry nomenklatura from that time on.

What if Yeltsin had provided a different kind of rallying point for the democratic reformers as well as the rebellious officialdom, and had not been so fixated on personal power and revenge against Gorbachev? Brown thinks that if Yeltsin and Gorbachev had collaborated, they could have saved the Union and averted the economic and strategic disruption that its breakup entailed. Likewise there was no compelling reason, other than politics, to subject Russia to economic shock therapy in 1992–more shock than therapy, as even Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott later acknowledged. Shock therapy was as callous and stupid as Stalin’s collectivization of the peasants, thinks Esther Kingston-Mann of the University of Massachusetts, Boston (In Search of the True West: Culture, Economics, and Problems of Russian Development.)

Were wrongheaded Western advice and financial lures a factor? Perhaps, by encouraging Yeltsin’s pro-capitalist advisers, notably Yegor Gaidar, the engineer of shock therapy. Still, as Kotz and Weir point out, the free-market blunder was overwhelmingly supported at first by the same Russian Parliament whose later unhappiness caused Yeltsin to dispatch it with gunfire in October 1993. Ultimately Yeltsin has to bear the responsibility, even if he hardly understood what he was doing.

If as president Yeltsin had used the immense authority he earned in facing down the 1991 coup to curb the individualistic ambitions of the nomenklatura instead of egging them on, Russia’s transition could have been a lot less bumpy. Under Gorbachev, Russia appeared to be headed toward some sort of social democratic mixed economy, the goal he retrospectively endorses. Whether anyone could have sustained this course against the disintegrative forces of the nomenklatura revolution is another question. Evidently none of the political actors at the time recognized what was really happening.

In the actual event, Yeltsin was Yeltsin, and in the name of anti-Communism he gave free rein to the movement of grab-it-ization and the formation of the robberbaron financial oligarchy. It is a sad saga of lost opportunity and democratic betrayal, chronicled with acute objectivity by Lilia Shevtsova, who is a Russian political scientist with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Moscow and in Washington. Contrary to Western wishful thinking, Shevtsova holds, Yeltsin was never a democrat but a “demagogue” to whom “power is more important than life itself.” She even likens him to Lenin–“the goal of power justified the means.” Indeed, Yeltsin made no bones about this instinct when he wrote, “I act as I see fit.” The result was “a regime in which elements of democracy, authoritarianism, post-totalitarianism, delegative democracy, bureaucratic authoritarianism, oligarchic rule, sultanism, and even monarchy are intertwined in sometimes strange ways.” “Delegative democracy,” by the way, comes from the work of Guillermo O’Donnell on Latin America: “Whoever wins election to the presidency is thereby entitled to govern as he or she sees fit.”

Still, Yeltsin’s power was never as absolute as that of his Bolshevik predecessors, though the czarist-style Constitution he imposed in 1993 scarcely restrained him. He was limited, on the one hand, by the pitiful state of central authority that he had capitalized on to gain power– another “revolution from above,” according to Shevtsova. On the other hand, his own state of physical and mental health repeatedly got in the way. After every crisis, Yeltsin has gone into an alcoholic depression, and well before his re-election in 1996 his physical health deteriorated besides. For the past couple of years he has been manipulated by the “Family,” his entourage of relatives, staff and financial supporters. He is incapable of governing, except to intervene on occasion to fire ministers who arouse his jealousy or cannot make his will reality.

What lies ahead after this grim story of leadership miscalculations that abetted an empire’s decline and fall? If the immediate past is any guide, the politics of individual ambition and personal rivalry will continue to play a decisive but unpredictable role. Last summer the new coalition of Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov, former Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov and key regional leaders seemed hard to beat democratically, either in the parliamentary elections now taking place or in the presidential election next June. The Yeltsinite Family faced the uncomfortable alternatives of either being dispossessed or resorting to force. Now, ironically, the renewed war in Chechnya has pumped up the popularity of Yeltsin’s new prime minister and anointed successor, Vladimir Putin. Putin may not even need to proclaim a state of emergency as the putschists did in 1991.

All such machinations aside, will the hazards of political thrust and parry make as much difference for the fate of Russian society as they evidently did in the eighties and early nineties? Shevtsova, the most present-oriented of the authors reviewed here, sees only more of the same: a standoff between a fractionated political establishment and a victimized populace that is hard to mobilize for any protest, let alone a “social explosion.” Kotz and Weir speculate about various capitalist alternatives, all incompatible with democracy, and hope (despite their analysis) that the workers will support a return to the “socialist reform project.” Christensen concurs: The future will be either “Russian Peronism or social democracy.”

But radical developments are discounted by most writers. Anatol Lieven, for example, concludes, “There seem few reasons to fear a new revolution, which is what would be needed in order to replace the new elite and transform the nature of the state and economy.” Market socialism might be the preferred outcome, but it is hard to detect the forces that could actually get Russia back on that path. Perhaps the most that can be expected of any conceivable Russian leadership is to subject the financial oligarchy and the managerial elite to the normal discipline of a law-governed state and make their wealth serve society. But given Russia’s record of the past dozen years, even that achievement would be a long and difficult task. The question now is, is post-Communism reformable?

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