Hello Lenin, goodbye Lenin!

Issue: 116

Vladimir Unkovski-Korica

Archie Brown, Seven Years that Changed the World: Perestroika in Perspective (Oxford University Press, 2007), £25

Archie Brown is credited with being the first person to advise Margaret Thatcher about the likely accession of Mikhail Gorbachev as a radical reformer to the post of general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. He is seen, therefore, as one of the few Sovietologists to accurately predict imminent and far reaching change in the USSR. Brown’s Seven Years that Changed the World confirms him as a major exponent of the liberal consensus: “The long term causes of the end of the Cold War include the indubitable fact that democracies, with all their imperfections, turned out to be more just, more efficient, more prosperous and, it goes without saying, freer societies than the Communist regimes of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.”

Brown’s account of the crisis of the Soviet system will be seen as inadequate by readers familiar with the political traditions of this journal. The East’s defeat ought not to be seen as the victory of one socio-economic system over another, but as a sideways mutation from bureaucratic state capitalism to market capitalism in response to the anticipation of wider social upheaval.

Bureaucratic state capitalism had managed to place the USSR on a position of near military parity with the US by the 1970s. But the perennial burden of having to invest in the military and related sectors at the expense of the civilian sector (notably working class consumption), while starting from a much lower material and technological base, ultimately formed the conditions for crisis. Such a process had become the established pattern in the other countries of bureaucratic state capitalism in its various stages of development: in East Germany in 1953, Hungary in 1956, Czechoslovakia in 1968 and Poland in 1980-1.

However, Brown’s faulty long term explanation of the reasons for the crisis forms only the backdrop to the more immediate concerns of his book—the question of why the crisis came when it did. His answers here may also be flawed, but his analysis does suggest valuable avenues of thought. For while most Communist governments in Eastern Europe had been installed and maintained by Soviet troops, the system was “home grown” in the USSR. The course and timing of its crisis were bound to be different. Brown tries to provide an explanation in his book, which is divided into three major parts. The brief first part places Brown’s work in historical perspective. The second part is a selection of his academic articles published during the years of perestroika, which serve both as an account of the period and as illustration of his extraordinary insight into the Soviet system at that crucial juncture. The third part discusses some of the conceptual issues and tools that have arisen in “Post-Soviet Studies” to explain the 1991 collapse.

The major thrust of Brown’s thinking is that perestroika was not a result of “crisis producing reform, but reform precipitating crisis”. This in many ways goes against the claims that US president Ronald Reagan’s renewal of the arms race in the 1980s forced the Soviet leadership into reform and capitulation. It also negates the simplistic argument that when the complexity of society reaches a certain level, market reform is the immediate and only option for a stifling bureaucratic superstructure. The initiative for change in the USSR is seen as having come from above in a pre-crisis situation. Moreover, “in pointing out the decisive role played by Mikhail Gorbachev in the initiation of perestroika…I am offering neither a ‘Great Man’ interpretation of history nor an explanation of the breakthrough primarily in terms of charismatic leadership”.

Instead Brown offers a complex vision of the processes that shaped Gorbachev as well as Soviet Russia in the 1980s. He leaves much room for human agency and contingency. Gorbachev is depicted as the product of a particular milieu with its own socio-political history, but he is also presented as being only one candidate among many for the Soviet leadership. Brown contends it is only by virtue of his having attained the position of general secretary that Gorbachev was able to force radical change on the Soviet polity.

Brown surveys new archival evidence to suggest that there was no sign of panic among the Soviet elites over the domestic state of affairs in 1985 and no keen dissatisfaction regarding the USSR’s geo-strategic position vis-a-vis Reagan’s US. Instead there were two fundamental novelties in relation to previous reform efforts: an opposition that was ready for radical change and in the incipient stages of organisation within the old apparatus, and a general secretary who was self_consciously not a child of Stalin’s terror in the 1930s but of Khrushchev’s reform oriented 1960s.

Some of Brown’s insights can profitably be put to use. As Chris Harman pointed out in his book Class Struggles in Eastern Europe 194583, intellectuals in bureaucratic state capitalist societies inevitably faced an explosive dilemma—to reconcile the lofty goals pronounced by the self_proclaimed followers of humanity’s greatest philosophers with the grim reality of competitive accumulation driven by competition with the West. Brown’s focus on the influences on the Soviet intellectual elite makes it clear they saw the West as more efficient and equitable than the USSR.

The failure of 1968 had much the same effect on the Soviet “left” as it had on the Western left: neither believed socialist democracy could arrest falling growth rates. Still, Brown misses a key point. The ruling bureaucracy was increasingly worried by the USSR’s lag behind the US which threatened its superpower status. This made the turn to perestroika and glasnost in the 1980s possible.

As for the personal influence of the general secretary, Brown argues that a reform minded figurehead was a necessary but not sufficient condition for radical change to begin. For Brown, Gorbachev’s willingness to move beyond inherited paradigms was shown by his decision to end the Soviet presence in Eastern Europe. The Politburo felt it had nothing to gain from withdrawal, yet Gorbachev insisted on it, holding the sincere belief that those ruling Communist Parties lacking popular support ought not to be in power. This, and similar examples offered by Brown, must be placed in context: the USSR’s decline in growth rates created space within the bureaucracy for various strategic positions. Gorbachev represented a minority view within the bureaucracy but was able to use his office to manipulate the apparatus to effect extensive change on the Soviet polity. It was this that inaugurated a period of crisis.

Despite the useful insights provided by Brown, his overall approach remains myopic in relation to social dynamism below the elite level. For it was not the case that, when the crisis hit, the vast majority of the Russian population stayed immutably locked in the dilemma Brown presents: between the market and a command and control economy. However scattered and uneven, groups existed across the USSR that saw perestroika as a sign of crisis among the elites and glasnost as an opportunity to voice their own independent demands from below. Boris Kagarlitsky’s memoir, Farewell Perestroika, shows how revolutionary socialist groups tried to intervene in this process. Such accounts remain an irreplaceable corrective to the prevailing elitist bias of official Sovietology.