Breaking Away from Lenin

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By Alexander Dallin; Alexander Dallin is the Raymond A. Spruance Professor of International History and director of the Center for Russian and East European Studies at Stanford University | Published: April 24, 

1988 THE GORBACHEV PHENOMENON A Historical Interpretation. By Moshe Lewin. 176 pp. Berkeley: University of California Press. $16.95. RUSSIA AND THE WEST Gorbachev and the Politics of Reform. By Jerry Hough. 301 pp. New York: Simon & Schuster. $19.95.

THE Gorbachev era presents major challenges not only to the statesmen in the West who try to deal with the Soviet Union but also to the analysts who try to understand it. Recent developments have, for instance, discredited those who have assumed that the Soviet system could never change in any significant respect.

But Mikhail Gorbachev’s policies have also raised more questions than they have answered: how  rofound are the changes, how lasting, how far will they go, and what will be the nature of the system that will emerge as their result? How similar are the reforms – and the resistance to them – to trends elsewhere in the Communist world, from China to Eastern Europe, or, for that matter, to attempts at liberalizing authoritarian systems in Latin America or the Philippines?


Even if the returns are not yet in on many of these and other current questions, we need fresh thinking on what goes on in the Soviet world, and both ”The Gorbachev Phenomenon” by Moshe Lewin and ”Russia and the West” by Jerry Hough help provide it. Mr. Hough, a political scientist at Duke University and the Brookings Institution, and Mr. Lewin, a professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania, are among the leading American analysts of Soviet affairs. Each has made seminal contributions to the interpretation of Soviet life. They both take the recent changes in the Soviet Union seriously. They would agree that the new maturity and complexity of the Soviet economy and society make imperative changes in the way that country is run. And in varying degrees both writers are optimistic about the future.
The events of the past three years in the Soviet Union have brought into focus questions about at least six fascinating relationships: between past and present, state and society, politics and economics, system and individual, equality and efficiency, and ideology and behavior. Both books, though with different emphases, highlight these tensions, which the Soviet reformers will have to take into account.
To what extent, to begin with the first question, does a people’s vast historical experience, including its entrenched institutions, constrain the choices of today? Mr. Gorbachev appears to show how a leader can break away from what have often been considered characteristic Russian patterns of governance, but the resistance – often rooted in personal fears or ideological objections – he encounters in trying to institute economic, cultural and political reforms may well be augmented by widespread unfamiliarity with open, pluralistic and participatory modes. As for the relationship between society and the state, there are indications that it may be changing. As Soviet society has developed since the Revolution of 1917, it has acquired a measure of autonomy from the official structures that the Stalinists had deemed impermissible and that theorists, Communist and anti-Communist alike, had long considered impossible. May we now speak of the emergence of a civil society in Russia? Could the state ever reimpose full control?


The failure of the economic system reopens the question of the relationship between economic and political goals and means. The sorry state of the economy seems to make it clear that what the Soviet Union needs is not only economic reforms but also political, social and cultural change. But is it possible to encourage economic and cultural pluralism while maintaining the framework of a one-party regime?
Historically, the dialectic between the needs of the individual and those of the collective has been complicated in Communist ideology. According to Marx, individual people were to be beneficiaries of the revolution, but in the Stalinist system they were sacrificed to serve the regime’s ends. In Mr. Gorbachev’s scheme, the model is again modified, with the demand for obedience replaced by some recognition of individual choice and initiative – though this carries obvious risks for the Soviet political system as it has existed to date.
THE fifth dilemma that Mr. Gorbachev faces stems from the tension between the empirical discovery that to promote efficiency, innovation and productivity there must be incentives and competition, and the commitment to social justice and equality. While wantonly trampled for much of Soviet history, these values remain high among the principles of many Soviet citizens; yet the present reforms, by encouraging wider disparities in income, may do some violence to them.
All of these conflicts illustrate the more general problem of the increasingly obvious uselessness of official ideology, which has time and again prompted serious misjudgments and misperceptions by Soviet policy makers. The present leaders, heirs to the Leninist mantle, cannot – and no doubt do not want to – turn their backs on their ideological heritage. But, in fact, they seem to be discarding and ignoring major parts of the Leninist world view, as indeed they must if they want to survive and succeed in the present world.
Mr. Lewin’s book is a grand essay of wide historical and sociological sweep. His major concern is to understand how ”the Gorbachev phenomenon” became both necessary and possible. And perhaps the study’s most valuable contribution is the emphasis on the social changes Russia has undergone since 1917, symbolized by the shift of population from village to city and all the characteristic byproducts of urbanization, including the rise of the educated professionals with middle-class values and attitudes. The many millions of new city dwellers soon began to develop informal networks and ”microworlds,” from the private domain of the family to professional associations, from the pop music scene to the underground ”second economy.” Such informal structures, Mr. Lewin argues, ”represent correctives or straightforward defensive mechanisms against the tensions and imbalances that the formal structures fail to overcome.” Ultimately the formal authorities must tolerate these unofficial networks, even incorporate and legitimize them, for the whole system to function.
Mr. Lewin is interested in long-term trends, not specific events. His essay is tempting, teasing, and leaves us hungry for more. In particular, the reader fails to see just how the social and economic changes he discusses so aptly are translated into the language of politics – specifically, Mr. Gorbachev’s politics. ”Russia and the West,” by contrast, is thorough, rich in specifics and details, impressive in its command of the facts but also full of bold, provocative statements. Some of them are hard to accept; others provide brilliant insights. Mr. Hough’s strength is the analysis of the Soviet domestic scene.
He argues that by opening the Soviet Union to Western ideas and Western technology and trade, Mr. Gorbachev is breaking not merely with the Stalinist legacy but also with the Leninist past. But to make this point Mr. Hough insists that ”we have been misunderstanding Russian history”: the upheaval of 1917 was, in his view, Russia’s Khomeini revolution, a ”reaction against Westernization.” This is an argument that most specialists will vigorously dispute. Anticapitalist the Revolution may have been, but it was neither anti-Western nor antidevelopmental; in fact, in the early days the Bolsheviks saw their own success as a fluke and looked forward to moving the headquarters of the Communist International to Berlin or Paris within a year.
IN this up-to-date analysis, Mr. Hough provides a detailed picture of the attitudes of different social, ethnic and occupational groups toward reform. Stressing Mr. Gorbachev’s considerable authority, he asserts that opposition to him comes primarily not from those who want less reform but from those who want more, and he sees the bureaucrats as Mr. Gorbachev’s strongest supporters. Yet all the evidence, including that from Soviet sources, points precisely to the foot dragging and obstruction by many within the vast bureaucracy who fear the reforms, not without reasons. There have also been indications of the fears of workers (who, Mr. Hough says, will support the reforms, like the workers in South Korea) and the skepticism of many military officers, ideologues and party officials. Mr. Hough sees even the multinational character of the Soviet state as a source of strength; but as the recent unrest in Armenia and Azerbaijan has shown, ethnic tensions pose enormous difficulties for Moscow.
Finally, Mr. Hough argues that, unlike his predecessors, Mr. Gorbachev has wanted to pursue a foreign policy oriented more toward Europe and Japan than toward the United States. On the basis of the record to date, this is a hard case to make persuasive. But in any event, Mr. Hough sees great opportunities for the United States in the end of Soviet-style protectionism: ”We could do a lot worse than to return to President Coolidge’s prescription about the business of America [ being business ] .”
This is a stimulating and exceptionally well-informed study. Even where its argument needs to be challenged, it contributes to what should be a vigorous national debate concerning American policy toward the Soviet Union. In the meantime, it can only be hoped that Mr. Lewin’s benign prognoses about internal changes within the Soviet Union itself will be borne out.

Source: The New York Times
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