COMMUNIST IS GORBACHEV'S COMMUNISM?
of Transition: Eastern Europe and the USSR. Ed.
by George Breslauer. Center for Slavic and East European Studies
Is He or Isn't He?
join the world economy without a steady transition to a free
market," declared Gorbachev before departing for the G7 meeting in
London. But then, giving his audience a bad case of double bind, he added
that the anticipated transition to a free market
does not mean,
though, that we are departing from socialist ideals. On the contrary,
through democracy we'll assert the principle of socialism.
So, is Gorbachev
a communist, a "reform communist,"
bent on preserving the party even at the price of giving it a human face,
or is he a new politician whose mission is to destroy the party, as some
of his party comrades seem to suggest? And what does it mean to say that
he is or is not? These questions are crucial not only because of their
immediate policy implications but, more important, for understanding
the longterm ideological dynamic of perestroika and the postcommunist
Soviet Union, whatever name and shape it will eventually assume.
If speeches are a
guide, Gorbachev sees himself as a communist in three different
ways. First, he is a communist as one who is in the employ of the
It so happened
that my professional employment did not last very long. Soon [after
graduation from the University], I was recommended for a post in the
Communist Youth organization. Since that time, I have held only Komsomol
and Party posts.
is a member of the Communist Party. This fact, as the saying goes, must
speak for itself. Yet, even a cursory examination indicates that the
designation is problematic. For even though Gorbachev does acknowledge
publicly his membership in the organization he happens to head, he does so
not without quite a bit of hedging. Take, for example, his appeal to a
gathering of Byelorussia's scientific and artistic intelligentsia this
past February [my italics]:
I can repeat to
my dear fellow party members: I have never
no matter before what audience
experienced any shame in saying that I am a communist and committed
to the socialist idea.
to the "socialist idea" define one as a communist? Or is the
socialist idea something that Gorbachev is committed to in addition to
being a communist? Even more remarkable is that Gorbachev's commitment is
not to socialism as such, but to a socialist idea. These are
striking ambiguities, coming as they are from the head of the Communist
terms as communism and socialism have progressively been displaced in
Gorbachev's statements by the socialist idea and, coupled with it,
the socialist choice, allegedly made by the people of the Russian
empire in accepting the Bolshevik Revolution. Now, an idea is ordinarily
associated with something rather dreamy and nebulous, and, for a Marxist
especially, something suspiciously insubstantial. The socialist
choice does not quite fit with the Marxism scheme either, substituting
for the virile dialectic of class struggle, the nambypamby notions of contingency
and choice, implying that the people, having decided one way in 1917, may
yet change their mind and make a different selection.
That such an idea
can be implied by the General Secretary of the Communist Party should not
be entirely surprising. Back in 1987, in a speech commemorating the
seventieth anniversary of the October Revolution, Gorbachev renounced the
Party's old Leninist claim to absolute control over public discourse.
Towards the end of the speech, when the attention of his hardy comrades
must have begun to flag, Gorbachev all of a sudden declared that nobody
possessed a monopoly on truth, that individual and groups were entitled to
see the world differently, according to their knowledge and experience,
and, adding insult to injury, that truth itself could be arrived at only
in the course of a dialogue among a variety of perspectives. Prior to this
astonishing statement (ignored, incidentally, by the American press),
truth used to be identified with the Party line at any given historical
moment, exceptional deviations notwithstanding. Even Khrushchev at his
most radical, as he was debunking Stalinism at the Twenty Second Party
Congress, could not give up this essence of the Soviet communist creed.
But on 2 November 1987, the party in the person of Gorbachev, and very
probably in a manner surprising to most of its members, renounced its
monopoly on the meaning of words, which is to say gave up its ghost. In
ideological terms, everything that has happened since, including the
abandonment of the constitutional guarantee of the Party's monopoly on
power, is an epilogue of party history.
thus put to rest the party's monopoly on truth, communism ceased to be
used as a positive term, and socialism, for its part, metamorphosed from a
term designating a mature, incomplete, objectively
functioning, barracks, or an evolving form of social
organization into, well, an idea. From then on Gorbachev was no longer
under any compulsion to build socialism; a "commitment to the
idea" alone would do just as well.
Communist, faute de mieux
has been presenting himself as a communist for apparent pragmatic reasons,
for until recently one could not realistically expect to engage in bigtime
political activity outside party channels. And since there was no other
developed party around (one is being set up only now by Shervadnadze and
Gorbachev became a communist faute de mieux. Gorbachev's interview
with The Washington Post's Robert Kaiser in May, 1988, affords a
glimpse of this faute de mieux communist. Trying to explain to the
American correspondent why he kept maintaining his commitment to socialism
(an oddity in Kaiser's view given the general drift of perestroika),
Gorbachev let down his guard and complained about the human material he
was obliged to work with in his line of duty: [emphasis is mine]:
Our country is
such that today nine tenths of its
population consist of the people who were
born and grew up during the socialist period. And look at the present leadership: there is
simply nothing they know how to do except
And pulling back, he concluded the
sentence with a qualifier reminiscent of contemporary
Soviet absurdist prose: "which has
opened for us a great road in all spheres of life."
cannot help recalling the proud tirade
of Yegor Ligachev that rang out at the
Nineteenth Party Conference (MayJune
ask: and what were you doing during
the stagnation period? Building socialism!
That's my reply.
The Specter of Alexander Herzen: Peasant Commune and Russian Socialism
elliptical equivocations notwithstanding, it would be too simplistic to
paint him as a political opportunist, who has taken advantage of his party
career merely for personal or some other unworthy aim. For Gorbachev is a
patriot of the Soviet Union, the heir of Imperial Russia, which, according
to him, was exceedingly generous, unlike its Western fellowimperialists,
with the peoples it incorporated into its realm:
Just think: this
country of ours has a thousand yearlong history as a multinational state.
We all bear the imprint of
this history. We all, the Russians
in particular, have this history in our
genes, yes, we do very much so. And unlike other empires, this state did not emerge as a
result of pillaging others (although we had that, too).
according to Gorbachev, the statehood of the Soviet Union should be
traced, not to the October Revolution, not even to the Imperial Russia of
Peter the Great, but to that hallowed moment a millennium ago, when St.
Vladimir, the sovereign of Kievan Russia, baptized his subjects in the
Dnieper. Whether Gorbachev addresses his home audience or foreign public,
as in the March 20, 1991, interview with Der Spiegel, he never
tires of emphasizing that "our state has been shaped as a
multinational one throughout the entire millennium."
Russia at the moment of conversion to Christianity as the symbolic
starting point for the presentday Soviet Union Gorbachev offers his compatriots
a vision of a holy center, a pure and fabulous source in which the
tarnished institutions of the Russian state, Russian "multinational"
nationalism, a.k.a. RussianSoviet imperialism, and the Russian Orthodox
Church could redeem their erstwhile sanctity and authority. This conjuring
up of continuity between Russia's holy past and the presentday Soviet
Union, however questionable it may be as history, loudly proclaims
Gorbachev's patriotic, nationalist credentials. A sensitive rhetorician,
he avoids using the word Motherland when speaking about the USSR,
choosing Fatherland (Otechestvo), a term far more preferable in
the patriarchal tradition and a key shibboleth of the true patriots
of the Russian State. Gorbachev's nationalism should help explain his
continuing emphasis on the "socialist choice," for it was
made, according to his scheme, by the people, the source of the
sovereignty of a nation state, and not, as a true Bolshevik would insist,
by the messianic class, the proletariat.
allow us to reconstruct what might be called Gorbachev's philosophy of
Russian history. In a manner similar to the construction of a classical
novel, with its obligatory associations and mutual determination of
ideas, characters, and events, Gorbachev paints the history of the Russian
state in accordance with the principle of intergenerational continuity
based on the belief in a particular historical predestination of Russia
and its special role in the history of European civilization. Aware that
this aspect of Russian messianism plays
a significant role in his understanding of Russian history, Gorbachev
goes out of his way to emphasize its nonaggressive nature:
We must enter
the new democratic form of existence, reach out for the humane democratic
socialism. How? Should we once again begin hacking with an axe? Should we
once again herd the people into these democratic forms? First of all, this
would mean a total lack of respect for the people, and, second, nobody has
a right to claim to be a messiah.
As to the
messianic claims themselves, Gorbachev does appear to be protesting a
little too much, and his protestations tend to reveal rather than conceal
his proud Russian "multinational" nationalism. One such
protestation slipped into his recent interview for Der Spiegel.
Insisting that the Soviet Union is ideally suited to play the role of an
international mediator in conflicts between the "rich and the
poor," Gorbachev, in a nonsequitur, warned his potential critics
against accusing him of messianism:
This approach is
perceived as a claim to a messianic role, as an illusion, that is,
negatively. But let us not forget that many [movements] which began as a
heresy subsequently conquered the world.
Gorbachev, the key events of Russian history, and certainly the October
revolution, are not accidental but are determined, as in a myth or a
novel. Gorbachev's determinism has little in common with that of Marx or
Marxist philosophers of history, who see history as a story of class
struggle; rather, it is based on certain collective characteristics of the
Russians as a people, in particular their alleged commitment to the ideals
of social equity and, consequently, their predisposition to a socialist
revolution. As Gorbachev himself has acknowledged, if indirectly, on more
than one occasion, this predilection, married to the utopian illusion and
Bolshevik lust for power, has led to catastrophic failures. "We must
continue to be grounded in reality and not abandon ourselves to
illusions," he pleaded with Polish intellectuals in Warsaw in July of
To do otherwise
would be most dangerous. Again I emphasize, we have learned this lesson on
the basis of our own experience. Sometimes, what we know about our own
history has such an effect that we get practically thrown out of kilter.
catastrophes occurred, above all, because in the intraparty struggles; the
"party of power," to use Alexander Yakovlev's formula, has
vanquished the "party of the idea." Speaking to members of
"Democratic Unity," a group of liberal delegates to the Twenty
Eighth Party Congress last July, Yakovlev explained:
beginning] there have existed two parties: the party of the idea and the
party of power. For a long time, the leadership was in the hands of the
party of power. If only we can transform the party into the party of the
idea, then we will have accomplished a historical feat. I wonder if we can
As to the socialist
idea itself, it has still retained considerable historical energy,
and not just because it allegedly made such a nice fit with the alleged,
deeplyrooted aspirations of the Russian people, or, in a less charitable
version of the same argument, because the Russians were alone gullible or oriental
despotic enough to take seriously the fairy tales of Western utopian
sages. No, Gorbachev requires a more disinterested, preferably Western
guarantee of the idea's viability. And what better proof can there
than the conviction and experience of a Western Social Democratic leader
currently in power the Prime
Minister of Spain, Felipe Gonzales, for one:
I have recently
had a discussion on this subject with Felipe Gonzales, also a committed
socialist, who has his own ideas, his own approach, his own arguments.
And I see: this idea is alive. I am not defending it merely out of duty as
the General Secretary [of the Party], no, but out of conviction, because I
reason: if it is socialism, then it is, above all, democracy. If it is
democracy, then it is, above all, freedom. Or, perhaps, freedom comes
first, and democracy follows from it, [I mean] political freedom, human
freedom, spiritual, and economic. And, of course, increasing [social]
A form of
European humanism, the "socialist idea" has been developing not
only in the Soviet Union and the countries of what unabashedly used to be
called the socialist camp, but, more important, in the
SocialDemocratic movements of the prosperous and irresistibly attractive
belief in the historical predisposition of the Russian people to socialist
ideologies has an eminent pedigree in Russian intellectual history: the Russian
socialism of Alexander Herzen and his followers among the Russian
Populists, who tended to see in the egalitarian practices of the Russian
peasant commune a form of "organic socialism." Invoking the
pathos of Russian Populism, Gorbachev is able both to advocate a
transition to a market economy and to retain a nominal, if only emotional,
link to socialism. The following exchange between Gorbachev and a group of
writers and artists was reported in Izvestia on 1 December, 1990:
While I am in
favor of the market, I cannot stomach, however, private ownership of land
do what you wish, I cannot. Leasing, even if it is a hundredyear
lease with the right to sell the lease or bequeath it,
that I can accept! But private property on land with the right to
sell land that I can't
stomach. This is, by the way, the tradition of our peasant commune.
(writer): We have stood
on this for a thousand years
You mean the peasant commune?
Yes. Our peasant commune developed before the state.
Comrade Mozhaev, I offer you my hand. Just as I have always thought, we
are with you.
hundredyear lease, which can be bought, sold and inherited, does
not conflict with a market economy, and sounds like an eminently
reasonable formula for the present period of transition. In fact, all that
it has in common with socialism is an idea, and, as Gorbachev and Mozhaev
point out, a Russian idea at that. Capitalist wolves need not fear such a
socialism. Whether the sheep will be able to go on feeding and enjoying
the relative tranquility of a "socialist" economy is quite
of such concepts as the "socialist idea" and the "socialist
choice," combined with a particular understanding of Russian
history and patriotic feelings, constitutes the ideational, background
plot of Gorbachev's political narrative. His reference to the peasant
commune can be seen as an ingenious attempt to expiate before the god of
Russian history the unforgivable sin of collectivization and mass
persecutions by associating collective farms with the indigenous tradition
of the peasant commune. Such a link, if established, would at the same
time create a framework which would allow Gorbachev and his compatriots
to reconcile in their minds the surviving shreds of the now defunct faith
of the fathers, the catastrophes which have resulted from it, and those
apparent achievements which past generations can still claim to their
plot, one of return to the old Stalinist ways, is not taken seriously by
Gorbachev. Nor does Gorbachev accept a picture or Russian history painted
by Solzhenitsyn, in which the period between 1915 and the transformations
of today is presented as a yawning gap, as non or antihistory.
In this regard, Gorbachev seems to have learned well the lesson of the
Russian thinker, Peter Chaadaev, who a century and a half ago remarked on
the Russians' destructive tendency to let their recent memory be
supplanted by every shift in the trade winds of history. After seventy
years of a different kind of forgetting, Gorbachev is in no mood to repeat
this error. Given the fact that "nine tenths of the Soviet population
were born under socialism," not to mention the seventeen or so
million members of the communist party, some in mufti, some in uniform, a
repressed the memory of the Soviet period may return with a vengeance. And
in order to avoid the repetition of the postOctober utopia, Gorbachev
insists on maintaining, at least, a partial symbolic continuity between
Soviet power and the indigenous form of Russian socialism, with its
alleged roots in the peasant commune.
Just Like In Spain
The heart of
Gorbachev's story may consist of the peaks and valleys of Russian history,
but his master plot, which his story reënacts, belongs to the West and
would gladden the heart of the proponents of Western Civilization
courses. He refers to it as simply "the civilization," meaning
the Western European strand of the modern period
European humanism, in short. Speaking before Byelorussian artists
and scientists in late February of this year (politically, the gloomiest
February in the history of perestroika), Gorbachev offered an
interpretation of socialism as a totality of "socialist movements
that are powerfully developing throughout the world."
"The socialist idea," Gorbachev went on, anticipating his
opponents who refuse to take his socialism
seriously (e.g., the editor of the liberal Moscow News, Yegor
Yakovlev), "is not just words intended to provide some sort of a
symbolic link with the past, but an altogether clear representation
of the future." What this socialist future holds was understood by
Gorbachev as follows:
When we speak
about it, we mean, above all, the humanistic values, the rights and
freedoms, the focus on man as the chief value. We also mean a democratic
structure of society, a parliamentary system, the principle of separation
of powers, creation of a state based on the rule of law, the triumph of
law. Finally, we have in mind a mixed economy, a variety of forms of
ownership under the conditions of social equity and solidarity.
If this is the
basis of the socialist idea that Gorbachev is committed to the ideals of Erasmus, the French and American revolutions (manrightsfreedoms);
the British political arrangement (parliamentary system); political
theories of Locke, Montesquieu, Madison (separation of powers); the
AngloAmerican tradition of the lawabiding state, champion in Russia by the
Constitutional Democrats before the revolution and, more recently, by the
dissident advocates of human rights, Chalidze, Tverdokhlebov, Sakharov,
the institutions of mixed economy, common in Western democracies, and
finally, the no less common systems of social security and guarantee of
the rights of organized labor then
the political position Gorbachev is advocating must be placed on the
continuum somewhere between the Socialism of Francois Mitterand and the
American Republicanism of George Bush.
was not only to neuter socialism, by extracting from it the notion of
class struggle, but also to establish a direct kinship between socialism,
as it had been experienced in Russia, and Western European civilization.
In other words, if we are to follow Gorbachev's reasoning, by adopting the
prescriptions of socialism in this world, the Russians, at least in
part, were trying to cash in one of the biggest promissory notes of that
same civilization. Like Peter's westernizing reforms of nearly three
centuries ago, the socialist scheme may have endowed Russia with the
status of a great power, as Gorbachev likes to emphasize, but at the
price, as he also acknowledges, of catastrophic repression.
Gorbachev's reasoning, this experiment in realizing the socialist dream
was not accidental, but occurred because the Russian people, he assumes,
are organically predisposed to socialist ideals. In this sense, Russia,
and its modern incarnation, the Soviet Union, turn out to be linked to
the WesternEuropean humanistic tradition and values in more ways than one
organically, as it were, thanks to the Russians' alleged innate
predisposition to social equity, and by elective affinities, as the
"socialist choice" made in 1917 should plainly indicate. Thanks
to this conception of Russian national character, the "socialist
values" to which Gorbachev pledged his allegiance in the first years
of perestroika could be painlessly grafted onto the tree of "common
human values" of the European civilization, including ... the
institutions of a market economy:
First of all, I
think that for us a market economy means the same as it means to all. This
institution was not invented by the Germans, the Russians, or the Chinese,
but is the achievement of civilization. In this sense our transition to a
market economy is a normal phenomenon. We cannot go on living the way we
have. We have been suppressing the stimuli, initiative, we have lacked
freedom of economic activity. This was a dead end.
Given such a
capacious interpretation, there is no longer any need to denounce the
"socialist idea." First, because there is nothing particularly
socialist about it. Second, because it appears fused with the entire body
of Western humanistic values, which are no easier to denounce than the
institution of motherhood and, related to it, apple pie. And finally,
how can one denounce an idea that has such deep roots, as Gorbachev would
have it, in the native Russian soil! Like Herzen and the Russian
Populists, Gorbachev "backdates" socialism in Russian history,
thereby rendering rejection of socialism tantamount to the rejection of
Western humanistic heritage and, God forbid, one's own blood ties
the Fatherland. What can be more unconscionable than that! And
who cares that this sort of "socialist idea" has no content of
its own, expanded to contain the timehonored forms of WesternEuropean
democratic polity and social organization. What is important is to
preserve the word, to hallow with it the continuity of generations, to
create a basis, however illusory, for a national reconciliation:
"Just like in Spain," where "there is a monument to all
those who have clashed in the civil war, when they fought one another,
brother against brother."
Prince Hamlet and King Lear on the Kremlin Stage
mental universe can be imagined as a series of concentric circles. The
outermost circle represents the values of WesternEuropean civilization,
including what is loosely referred to as humanism and, of course,
the "socialist idea." Closer to the center is the circle of
Russian history, which in its own way has dramatized, has been acting out
the ideas of European humanism. The center is formed by Gorbachev's own
fate, the personal fate of the grandson of a "dekulakized
farmer" and of a peasant who took active part in the collectivization
of agriculture. When Gorbachev descends into that innermost circle, his
narrative becomes personal, his style acquires the tone of a confession.
The following is from his speech before the members of Soviet cultural
elite delivered on 28 November 1990:
Take my two
grandfathers. One was tried and convicted for failing to fulfill the
sowing quota in 1933, when half of his family starved to death. He was
shipped to Irkutsk [in Siberia] to cut timber, leaving behind in 1933 the
surviving half of his tormented family. And my other grandfather was
organizing collective farms as
a representative of the Chief Grain Procurement Authority. In those
days, such a representative cut a big figure. He came from a farming
family and was a "middle peasant." He, too, was imprisoned and
spent fourteen months under interrogation: confess that you've done what
you haven't done. Well, thank God, he survived the ordeal. But he lived in
that "plague" house, the house of "the enemy of the
people," and his relatives, our kin, could not visit him there.
Otherwise they would have followed him to jail. So we, too, have had our
share of everything, saw it from the inside, knew and know that life, and
we can judge for ourselves.
these two legacies is something that Gorbachev finds humanly impossible.
And he bids his audience to perform a dialectical mental leap, as it
were, to renounce renunciation ("it is dialectical and clear all in
all") in the hope that it would help to overcome the trauma, born
virtually by everyone in the Soviet Union
the trauma of an inner split between a victim and victimizer,
between an expropriator and the expropriated, the trauma of one who does
not merely straddle but for generations has been rooted on both sides of
the barricade. It is worth noting that in an autobiographical interview
given to a new Central Committee journal in May 1989, Gorbachev traced his
lineage to the grandfather who was a peasant activist, passing in complete
silence over the other grandfather's fate.
described this split in individual consciousness with greater poignancy
and frankness than Alexander Yakovlev, one of Gorbachev's closest allies
and chief strategists of perestroika. As he spoke informally about
the party's past before the members of "Democratic Unity," he
kept insisting on the fundamental duality of the postStalin generation.
His chief example was Khrushchev: on the one hand, one of the most cruel
members of Stalin's Politburo, on the other, an exceptionally
courageous politician who was risking everything with his famous deStalinization
speech of 1956. Brezhnev and his cronies, such as Azerbaijan's Alyev, also
appear to Yakovlev in an ambiguous light: victimizers and criminals, but
at the same time themselves victims of the system. Remarkably but not unexpectedly
for this man, Yakovlev presented himself as a member of this generation:
I, too, went
into battle holding my rifle and crying "For Motherland, for
Stalin!" Yes, I did. I was a believer, I was an honest believer. Such
were the circumstances in those days. This is why I always ask: and who
are we we ourselves? We are
victims. We, those who have managed to survive
we, too, are victims. As I have said once, both we and the party
Hamletic duality, which he intimately disclosed to an audience of Soviet
artists and literati, reached its culmination at the end of 1984 during
what is by now a wellknown nighttime conversation between him and Edward
Shervadnadze. It is then that these two men, among the most powerful
in the empire, acknowledged to each other that "everything was
rotten." The decision to begin perestroika was made by Gorbachev in
Moscow after his appointment as the General Secretary early on the morning
of March 11 1985, as he himself indicated with pointed precision:
"having served in Moscow over seven years, I have come to the
conclusion: we cannot live like this any longer." Following this
series of admissions, Gorbachev and his comradesinarms began to act on
their words, with each passing day increasing the tempo of dismantling the
Stalinist political edifice. The original plan involved a complete
restructuring of state and society. Apart from its other obvious functions
in the sphere of economics, social development, and foreign policy, this
undertaking was supposed, on the one hand, to redeem the party's
historical guilt, shared, among others, by members of the party leadership,
and, on the other, to revitalize the "socialist values" which
had shaped the thinking and imagination of the Soviet people for
generations, not the least of it, the party leadership. The consequences
of this policy, as is often the case, were not altogether anticipated (one
may argue to what extent, but the strong democratic propensity of the
early perestroika leaves little doubt that the unanticipated was itself
anticipated and was not, on the whole, unwelcome). As it has turned out,
perestroika was merely the first stage of a complete dismantling of the
building, which at this point cannot be stopped, no matter what. Any
moment now, Gorbachev remarks with increasing apprehension, the time may
come out of joint, and the new generations will begin renouncing their
predecessors. Judging by his speeches made between November, 1990, and
March, 1991, this apprehension is Gorbachev's real nightmare.
The irony of the
historical moment goes far beyond a stock interpretation of Hamlet, for
Gorbachev is not merely a victim of the fast approaching break with the
past. He is at the same time one of the more vigorous initiators and
champions of this process. Herein lies the internal logic of
perestroika: after chanting yet another incantation meant to revive if
not socialism, than, at least, the pathos of its idea, Gorbachev
bends over its lifeless body and, plunging into it the lancet of a sober
observer, begins the dissection, recording for the public the causes of
socialism's demise. Gorbachev's speech before the cultural elite in late
November, 1990, reaches its highest emotional peak precisely at the point
when his own discourse on the horrors of forced collectivization leaves
him without any argument that could rescue the Soviet experiment in
socialism. The exposures and demystifications of the last few years,
which have saturated the consciousness of every Soviet citizen, and
especially Gorbachev, lead to the inevitable conclusion: the horrific
sacrifices of Soviet history could not be justified. If this is so, then
the people building socialism in one country, however wellintentioned,
have indeed lived their lives in vain and caused irreparable damage to
their country and mankind. This dreadful conclusion, reached by the
rational observer Gorbachev cannot be accepted by Gorbachev, the
Who or what are
we supposed to renounce? In his day, my grandfather served as a collective
farm chairman for seventeen years. And I never heard him express any doubt
regarding what is happening in this land of ours [...] I cannot go
against my own grandfather. I cannot go against my father, who stood
ground at the Kursk encirclement, who crossed the Dnieper, which was all
filled with blood, who reached the border, crossed into Czechoslovakia and
was wounded there. Must I, then as
I am purging myself, as I am renouncing all this barracks [socialism],
Stalinist rabble renounce my grandfather, father, what they had done? Must I
renounce these generations? Or did they live in vain?
Balancing at this
emotional brink, the Kremlin Lear regained his composure by switching to
the wornout patriotic argument that Russia became a great power only
following and therefore (so goes the magical reasoning) because of the
Bolshevik revolution: "You and I, as I've said before, did not grow
up in a swamp: what we stand on is pretty much firm ground."
Pretty much, indeed.
Balancing the Books
months had passed since Gorbachev's November 28 meeting with the
"cultural workers," but these three months were long enough for
the argument based on the socialist choice to lose much of its
alleged power. As Gorbachev somewhat torturously concluded with the
benefit of historical hindsight, socialism had a rather limited potential
as political and economic system. "It often happens," he
admitted wistfully to his interviewers from Der Spiegel in late
February, 1991, "that not every choice is realized in the context of
civilization as a whole."
Any regrets? Not really. For
the values of that same civilization, which he has in mind here (and he
means WesternEuropean civilization), have been firmly woven into the
public discourse of the perestroika Soviet Union. The man who is
responsible for this transformation in public consciousness more than
anyone else is Gorbachev himself, even if he accomplished it in the course
of elaborating the socialist idea. A rose by any other name...
Gorbachev's educational activity of recent months involved a
careful balancing of two key elements: on the one hand, the incantatory
communist vocabulary of socialism in one country, which still retains its
power over the consciousness of many of his compatriots and, very likely,
of Gorbachev himself, and, on the other, the rational political language
of the "New Thinking," which does not assign priority to the
notion of class struggle and, therefore, avoids the conventional communist
dualism of "bourgeoisvs.socialist," "friendsenemies,"
and similar shibboleths of the Manichean Marxist vision. I would even
venture to suggest that Gorbachev set before himself the task of bringing
the magical vocabulary into the service of perestroika. This was
accomplished by gradually replacing its ritual, incantatory function
with a rational referential one, that is, by endowing a central symbol
of the Soviet civic religion, socialism, with a specific set of meanings,
transforming it into a term of WesternEuropean humanism. By resorting to a
gradual approach and eschewing, by and large, the sharp rhetoric of
demystification, Gorbachev was aiming at a smooth transition from the
ritualized to a rational political discourse; the care, subtlety and
patience paid off, enabling Gorbachev to retain the sanction of the very
same state religion that the New Thinking was designed to demystify. The
fundamental incompatibility of these two languages rendered the task
impossible a priori, but the goal pursued by Gorbachev involved not
so much a final solution to the postcommunist philosophical paradox, but
precisely the careful balancing of these two discourses. As a result, the
magical vocabulary of socialism was lending its legitimacy to the New
Thinking at the same time as the ritualized incantations themselves were
being gradually demystified by coming into contact with a rational
repetition of the "socialist idea" served Gorbachev as a pretext
and a cover for the task of reorienting public consciousness away from
the communist utopia and in the direction of the "common human
values." Crucial for Gorbachev was the recently diminished authority
of the Russian language, diminished, in part, because of the diminution in
stature of the Party, the habitual arbiter of public meaning for the
seventy or so years. Gorbachev hastened to take advantage of the few
magical embers that are still glowing in the smoldering ruin, forcing
himself, despite all of the New Thinking, to conjure up circuitous
mental labyrinths in which he himself gets lost
all for fear of offending the tender hearing of his compatriots
used to the siren song of Soviet socialism.
efforts at reconciling the two discourses may no longer be necessary.
Judging by the results of the June, 1991, elections, most voters do not
experience a deep psychological conflict in renouncing the socialist
choice, the socialist idea or other oldfashioned magic incantations meant
to mollify the specter of Hamlet's father. And if this is so, they no
longer require complex epistemological schemes which Gorbachev has
habitually constructed in order to assuage the pangs of conscience
disturbed by communism's demise. Indeed, what better proof can there
be than the comfortable, but not outrageously comfortable, victories of
Yeltsin, Popov and Sobchak in this summer's direct, truly popular
elections. Today, the majority of the electorate favor action over words
and results over promises. Reconciled, by and large, to a transition to a
market economy, they care precious little for such "accursed
questions" as continuity in the consciousness of the public born and
raised under socialism. And while the problems of historical identity
may sooner or later return to haunt Gorbachev's compatriots, what people
want now is a leader who is not distracted by a search for positive
meaning in the nation's communist past, one who is not preoccupied with
the dilemma of whether or not "he must renounce his grandfather and
father." How to lay one's hands on some sausage or chicken
that is the question people are forced to address, poised as they
are between the nothingness in the shops and their future, imagined
Berkeley, July 1991
Now that the
failed coup d'etat has crossed many t's and dotted the i's,
it is becoming clear that Gorbachev was willing to tolerate an
extraordinary degree of risk in order to preserve the ambiguity of his
position which had enabled him for a long time to safeguard the process of
reform. In a strategic sense, this risk has turned out to be justified:
the new political mentality and political institutions, in particular
those that were based on the separation of powers, did what they were
supposed to do. The constitutional requirement for the state of
emergency to be approved by the Supreme Soviet and the republic
involved empowered the people in the "White House" to fight
the junta according to the letter of the law. As I myself have witnessed,
Yeltsin's people put this legal point to good use in conducting propaganda
among the military both in the streets and when the deputies of Russia's
Supreme Soviet were sent into the military units to speak to the troops on
the 20th of August (Russia's Supreme Soviet Session was to begin on the
In the tactical
sense, however, Gorbachev had overplayed his hand. The expulsion from
the Party of Aleksandr N. Iakovlev, his chief ideological mentor, on
August 15 was the first direct blast, or the last warning, that the
plotters aimed directly at Gorbachev (Central Committee Secretaries, Oleg
Shenin and Iurii Manaenkov, both among the key plotters, attended the meeting
of the Central Committee's Control Commission, which
"recommended" Iakovlev's expulsion). The Party apparat, which
had been resisting Gorbachev ever more actively since the fall of
1990, had finally become desperate enough and decided to deal its nemesis
a blow, no-holds-barred. For his part, by not offering an immediate public
response to the news of the expulsion of one of his closest allies, the
General Secretary may have emboldened the plotters, perhaps, even
given them hope that he himself could be pressed into joining the plot. On
the day before the coup, there was no way of knowing how miserably they
On August 18, in
a frontpage report on the purging of Iakovlev, Vladimir Todres wrote in Nezavisimaia
gazeta: "Iakovlev's expulsion is an action directed against
Gorbachev; next is the General Secretary himself as the `leftmost.'"
An even graver foreboding was expressed by Iakovlev in his letter to his
local Party cell (cited in the same article): "Party leadership, contrary
to its own declarations, is jettisoning the democratic wing of the
Party, and is actively preparing for a social revanch, for a Party
and state coup [perevorot]."
Was it all over
for socialism, then, Todres put this question to Iakovlev? The reply is
a fitting conclusion to this essay, and I shall cite it at length:
It depends on
what kind of socialism you are talking about. That's the crucial issue.
After all, Marxism did not invent the socialist idea. It emerged much
earlier. And before that, Christianity used socialist ideas as its
foundation: equality, fraternity, goodness, justice. And so forth. What is
the socialist idea? It is the idea of justice
as it was originally understood. How, then, is it possible for us
to reject it as such? Eventually, all mankind will accept it.
What I object to, however, is that any idea should achieve
predominance through force. And that our unfortunate [historical]
experience has alienated our people from the idea
that is quite another matter... We have never had any socialism
anyway. What we did have was the purest kind of deception and travesty.
Yakovlev both in his press conference on August 22nd and, especially,
on the following day, as he was addressing Russia's Supreme Soviet, when
some inquisitive deputies demanded that he explain what he meant by socialism.
His response shows that with respect to ideology, the coup was not a
conversion experience for him. He had abandoned his faith in Communism
long before that. Still, what we saw was a different Gorbachev, one
liberated from the compulsion (born of his inner need as much as political
expediency) to display Learlike remorse or Hamletian hesitation. When he
stepped onto the stage following the farcical interlude of the coup, he
did so not as a protagonist of a tragic plot but as a diminished
chracter in an open-ended historical play.
by Gregory Freidin
reported by David Remnick, Washington Post, 13 July 1991
(reprinted in The San Francisco Chronicle, 13 July 1991).
Malia, "A New Russian Revolution?" NYRB, July 1991.
For a review of recent interpretations of Gorbachev by American
Sovietologists, see George Breslauer, "Understanding Gorbachev:
Diverse Perspectives," Soviet Economy 7, no. 2
statement was made in May 1989. See M.S. Gorbachev, Izbrannye rechi
i stat'i (Selected Speeches and Essays), vol. 7 (Moscow, 1990), p.
Izvestiia, 1 March 1991.
David Remnick's report in The Washington Post, 30 June 1991.
Vol. 6, p. 249.
Vsesoiuznaia konferentsiia Kommunisticheskoi partii Sovetskogo
Soiuza: 28 iiunia-1 iiulia 1988 goda: stenograficheskii otchet
v dvukh tomakh. Moskva : Izd-vo polit. lit-ry, 1988.
Izvestiia 1 December 1990.
Izvestiia, 25 March 1991.
Izvestiia 1 December 1990.
Izvestiia 25 March 1991, p. 4.
from the original tape recording of the meeting; transcribed and
translated into English by the author.
speech of 28 November 1990. Izvestiia, 1 December 1990, p. 4.
Solzhenitsyn, Kak nam obustroit' Rossiu, Literaturnaia
gazeta 38 (18 September 1990).
Izvestiia, 1 March, 1991., p. 2.
Interview for Der Spiegel (Izvestiia 25 March 1991).
speech of 28 November, 1990 (Izvestiia, 1 December, 1990).
Izvestiia 1 Decemeber 1990.
Selected Speeches, vol. 7, p. 498.
the original taperecording, transcribed and translated by the author.
Izvestiia, 1 December 1990.
Izvestiia, 1 March 1991.