A riddle wrapped in an enigma — Gorbachev: His Life and Times by William Taubman

I commemorated the 100th anniversary of the 1917 Bolshevik revolution by reading the latest biography of the man who ended it, and arguably saved the world from the threat (for the time) of nuclear war: Mikhail Gorbachev.

William Taubman makes a brief nod to my favourite Cold War theory — that it was actually ended by Nancy Reagan’s Astrologer! The story goes that President Ronald, under the sway of his advisors who were an earlier generation of neoconservatives, was inclined to see glasnost and perestroika as more Soviet propaganda. However first lady Nancy, who listened ‘religiously’ to her astrologer Joan Quigley even concerning the timetables of White House events, relayed to Ronald that Joan thought Gorbachev should be taken seriously. The President took the advice — to the great benefit of peace between the superpowers.

Taubman’s biography successfully evokes a time when the world breathed a palpable sense of relief that the superpower leaders were meeting, and getting along! Contra Joan, Taubman largely credits the relationship to Gorbachev’s character and political inclinations. The General Secretary, he argues, didn’t have to try reforming the Soviet Union, or ‘reset’ superpower relations, or remove the Soviet yoke from Eastern Europe. While all the Communist Party leaders with a grasp on reality could see that the Soviet system was slowly, but palpably deteriorating — Gorbachev could easily have gotten away with continuing in the leadership style of his predessesor who embodied Soviet ‘stagnation’: Leonid Brezhnev. He might have adopted a ‘Brezhnevism with a human face’: awarding himself medals, and reviewing the May Day parades atop Lenin’s Tomb. Why Gorbachev choose a different, more radical path is a question Taubman asks but doesn’t entirely answer. ‘Gorbachev is hard to understand’ is both the first chapter of the book, and a direct quote from the man himself.

The biography makes clear that Gorbachev is entirely a product of the Soviet system. In many ways, Taubman observes, he was the ideal of the ‘Soviet man’ the system claimed to want to create — which made him very appealing as a successor for the ageing bureaucrats Brezhnev and KGB Chief Yuri Andropov (Gorbachev’s mentor). Despite these leaders’ reputations for being out-of-touch gerontocrats, Taubman credits them with being at least partially aware of both their own limitations, and the limitations of ‘actually existing socialism’. However their hope for the future was that their system could produce someone such as Gorbachev — cultured, intelligent, and non-corrupt! Brezhnev was impressed that Gorbachev actually read the works of Marx and Lenin — which most of the Soviet leadership barely bothered to do.

Gorbachev was the most successful, and the last gasp, of a lost political tendency called ‘Reform Communism’ — the hope held by many in both the East and West that the ‘liberatory’ potentials of Soviet Socialism could overcome its bureaucratic, authoritarian practices. He began his political rise in the earlier reform era of Nikita Khrushchev (of whom Taubman has also written a biography), and his university friends included Czech Communist Zdenek Mlynar, who became a leading figure of the Prague Spring in 1968. They bonded over common criticisms of the system bequeathed by Stalin, although it should be noted that, when the USSR crushed the Spring, Gorbachev supported the military invasion of Czechoslovakia just like any other loyal Stalinist. Nevertheless, once he became Soviet leader Gorbachev developed an aversion to using force in international disputes — thus he refused to intervene to ‘save’ Warsaw Pact governments in 1989 when they were being threatened by mass protests.

Reform Communism stressed the need to go ‘back to Lenin’ to regenerate the legacy of the original October Revolution, before it was distorted by Stalin’s cult of personality. Despite their anti-Stalinism, these reformers still tended to broadly accept ‘official’ Party history in that they would avoid any re-examination of Trotsky, or indeed most other ‘purged’ Bolsheviks with the possible exception of Bukharin. Thus the ideas of the early post 1917 ‘Left Opposition’, with its advocacy of direct worker control of the economy, could not be considered because to do so would recquire criticism of Lenin’s supression of party factions.

After the collapse of the USSR Gorbachev got attacked (and still gets attacked by social media based neo-Stalinists) for taking a ‘capitalist road’ to reform (looking to introduce markets etc). However Taubman shows that Gorbachev took the foundational ideas of the Bolshevik revolution very seriously — more seriously than his ‘conservative’ Party critics i.e. those who defended the existing system (the political categories ‘left’ and ‘right’ get muddled when discussing late Soviet history). Gorbachev really did ‘walk the walk’ back to Lenin to try to find a new way forward. Therefore the limitations of his approach are partially the limitations of Lenin himself as a political thinker.

Lenin was a talented improviser in politics: he could make a concrete analysis of a particular situation, and decide ‘What is to be Done’. Thus his most powerful, long lasting political idea was that of the Leninist Party: an organisational form very well suited to marshalling the resources of small groups of revolutionaries operating inside vast, authoritarian systems such as Tsarist Russia. That is why many non-communist, or even anti-communist, parties have adopted Lenin’s structures (the Islamist Hamas organisation, for example, has a Politburo as its executive).

However, while Lenin occasionally turned his mind to ‘big picture’ theorising (such as Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism and State and Revolution), he had, like Marx, very little to say about how a post-revolutionary society would work beyond generalisations. The Bolshevik seizure of power in 1917 was premised on Lenin’s belief that a Europe-wide revolution was imminent and that Russia was only the beginning. Many revolutions and social upheaval certainly took place around the world during 1918–19. However afterwards, when the Russian revolution was left on its own, Lenin tacked between different, highly provisional positions. There was a partial return to capitalism with the ‘New Economic Policy’ (NEP), which partially justified both the ban on other political parties, and the ban on ‘factionalism’ within the Bolshevik Party itself (the reasoning being — if you restored the bourgeoise economically, you had to suppress them politically). Sometimes Lenin supported national self-determination within the old Tsarist empire (independence for Finland), and sometimes he opposed it (in Central Asia).

When they examined Lenin’s post revolutionary writings, Reform Communists were particularly impressed by his strong attacks on bureaucratisation, which certainly anticipated their criticisms of Stalinism. Unfortunately Lenin’s actual ‘solution’ for bureacratisation was a sort of ‘anti-bureaucracy’ bureaucracy called the Workers and Peasants Inspectorate. It was said at the time that the Inspectorate would have had to be a ‘Commissariat of Angels’ in order for it to work, and the first man Lenin chose to lead it was — Joseph Stalin! Lenin’s ‘Last Testament’ criticisms of Stalin were rendered less effective than they could have been because he criticised most of the other Bolsheviks as well, which made it difficult for anyone else to use his words against Stalin. Taubman also suggests that the more trenchant criticisms of Stalin may have been inserted by Lenin’s wife Nadya Krupskaya after Lenin’s death.

Essentially, Lenin provided very little practical guidance for Reform Communists when the chance came to implement their ideas. Gorbachev himself, as Taubman shows, was also making it up as he went along. His reforms started as a traditional anti-corruption drive, which only became a more radical democratisation after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. There was also a strong puritan element to the early reforms as Gorbachev tried to tackle chronic alcholism in the Soviet population.

Gorbachev’s economic reforms effectively ‘defaulted’ to the reintroduction of a more capitalist economy as there was very little else on offer. While he did show some interest in Yugoslav versions of worker owned factories, and the ‘Eurocommunism’ of the Italian Communist Party, the USSR’s unfolding political and economic crisis made it difficult to implement such ideas while the nation itself was breaking up.

The wasted historical opportunity represented by ‘Gorbachevism’ was the possibility that an intact USSR could have had a managed decline to a more social market system. Had the West decided to be more accomodating, the world might have spared the separatist wars and gangster capitalism of post-Soviet Russia — with the consequent rise of Putism. The West however, saw the opportunity for a cheap Cold War victory. After the collapse of the USSR, NATO quickly broke its assurances to Gorbachev that the organisation would not seek to expand its membership into post-Soviet countries. The price is the new Cold War today.

Taubman’s biography is a compelling and readable account of one of the most fascinating world-historical figures of recent times. While Gorbachev is indeed ‘hard to understand’, his life story is indispensible for understanding the late twentieth century. The West has elevated Reagan and Margaret Thatcher in its heroic version of the end of the Cold War, but very little would have changed for the better without Mikhail Gorbachev. Arguably much could have changed for the very worst without him i.e. the end of the world.

Dr Tim Dymond has PhD in History from the University of WA, where he was also sessional tutor and lecturer.

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