20 Years Later: A Requiem for Perestroika

Dateline: Jan. 27, 1987

At a Central Committee of the Soviet Communist Party plenum, Gorbachev announces his perestroika program, aimed at “restructuring” Soviet economic and political policies. “We need democracy just like we need air to breathe,” he said.

As a young student, while wading through the eerily desolate aisles of the University library and the dusty thick volumes on the deliberations of the CPSU Congresses of the 1950s and 60s, I was bemused that the Party resolutions from those years that confidently spoke about achieving communism in the next 20 years. I was, of course, wiser and knew, in that tumultuous decade of the 1980s that it was a wrong analysis. Communism would be a long haul.

I was very confident that this long haul would still be achievable in my lifetime, it was just a matter of another decade or two, maybe three, but then, all of us are allowed the illusions of our youth.

While I was walking up and down the aisles of the library that City that is both meticulous and drab in its imitation of European sensibilities of city architecture, that the CPSU General Secretary Gorbachev was ushering in Glasnost and Perestroika in the Soviet Union. Today(27January ) marks the 20th anniversary of the two words that brought down the superpower, the flag bearer of ‘existing socialism.’

But in those years, Perestroika and Glasnost was music to my ears, and I believe, to many of my generation. It brought the shine back to those glorious names as it invoked the trinity of Lenin, Bukharin and Trotsky. It also brought into the tradition of the Old Left, questions of what in those years was termed as the Scientific and Technological Revolution and Environment.

It brought an immediate sense of urgency for ending the nuclear arms race. It raised questions on the limitations of class analysis and issues that transcended class-these had been the themes of the New Left in Europe in the 1960s, but ignored by the most organized global political movement of the 20th century.

Perestroika and Glasnost meant hope.

The Gorbachev of those years,confident, smiling, youthful if not cherubic remains the face of that last, and grossly failed, attempt of socialism with a human face.

Inside his own country, Gorbachev had opened a Pandora’s box with its myriad of seemingly unsolvable problems.

In August 1987, a minister reported that there were still 1.3 million people in prison in the Soviet Union — almost three times as many as in the United States — and that 10,000 crimes were being committed each year in the prison camps alone. “Our prisons,” an agitated Gorbachev commented, “are producing hundreds of thousands of thugs and furious opponents of Soviet power. Millions of people have passed through the camps — the best sort of school for turning them into hopeless criminals.”

At that point his perestroika had been going for almost two and a half years. And virtually nothing had changed. It was like tilting at windmills — in a country that was being plagued with a new disaster on an almost weekly basis. link

Increasingly sidelined in the face of opposition from his own Party (which he called, at one time, “mangy, rabid dog”) and the liberals under the leadership of Yeltsin, Gorbachev was, fighting losing battle and his outbursts against the Yeltsin ultra liberals came too late.

Yeltsin, the then speaker of the Russian parliament, who had left the Communist Party three months earlier and had since emerged as the shining light of the great Soviet republic, had given the Kremlin an ultimatum the night before: His republic would no longer consider itself subservient to the Soviet leadership. Yeltsin was threatening Gorbachev with secession…

Gorbachev was at the meeting and, as Chernyayev wrote, he “listened, depressed and moved at the same time.” But he was mostly silent. Only as he was leaving did he angrily strike out at Yeltsin and his supporters: “They ought to be punched in the face.” But it was a moment in which he probably sensed that perestroika, his great historic project, was coming to an end. link

Russia, the primary successor nation to the Soviet Union, has since then borne brunt the neo- liberal onslaught which has resulted in a human catastrophe. The dominant media continues to portray as a legacy of the socialist state, rather than locating it in the disastrous recipes churned out by the West for the former superpower. Eric Hobsbawm has pointed out:

“The scale of the human catastrophe that has struck Russia is something we simply don’t understand in the West. It is the complete reversal of historical trends: the life expectancy of men has dropped by ten years over the last decade and a large part of the economy has been reduced to subsistence agriculture. I don’t believe there has been anything comparable in the twentieth century… I believe it is (entirely due to the application of free market rules)if for no other reason than that free market rules, even if adapted, require a certain kind of society. If that kind of society does not exist, the result is disaster”. link

Alongside the wholesale destruction of Russian society in the last decade and half, it has also played havoc with the Russian intelligentsia, a phenomenon to which Perry Anderson has drawn attention to in his recent sweeping article in LRB:

Fifteen years later, what has become of this intelligentsia?Economically speaking, much of it has fallen victim to what it took to be the foundation of the freedom to come, as the market has scythed through its institutional supports. In the Soviet system, universities and academies were decently financed; publishing houses, film studios, orchestras all received substantial state funding. These privileges came at the cost of censorship and a good deal of padding. But the tension bred by ideological controls also kept alive the spirit of opposition that had defined the Russian intelligentsia since the 19th century – and for long periods been its virtual raison d’ être. link

This decimation of the intelligentsia is also on a world scale which drew much from the unique position that the Russian intelligentsia has occupied since Napolean’s armies left a burnt down Moscow. Its ambivalent position as part of the Western world found an echo in those who too were placed in an ambivalent situation with respect to the West, especially in the former colonial world.

But above all, the failure of Perestroika and Glasnost robbed socialists of dreaming- of dreaming big, of dreaming of carrying out world shaking events leaving that to neo- liberal globalizers. Socialists now need to be content with incremental changes, tweaking here and there, sometimes looking at the liberal heaven in Sweden, and sometimes to the Chavezistas in Venezuela for inspiration.

Gorbachev is now memorable for little more than the advertisement for Pizza Hut.

Not altogether uncharacteristic for a man who, whatever may have been his intentions, who ended up as a pizza deliveryman for capitalism.

Was the collapse of the might CPSU inevitable? Most opinion seems to favor this view, Manuel Castells in his celebrated three volume Rise of the Network Society provided gist to the idea that the Soviet Union had failed to catch up in the knowledge, network based economy and had collapsed under its dead weight. Roy Medvedev in Post-Soviet Russia, however has pointed out it has been was possible to reform the Soviet State- in a work that has been neglected.

Stephen Cohen, in a recent article in The Nation, too has argued on similar lines.

Political and economic alternatives still existed in Russia after 1991. Other fateful struggles and decisions lay ahead. And none of the factors contributing to the end of the Soviet Union were inexorable or deterministic. But even if authentic democratic and market aspirations were among them, so were cravings for power, political coups, elite avarice, extremist ideas and widespread perceptions of illegitimacy and betrayal. All of these factors continued to play a role after 1991, but it should already have been clear which would prevail. (link)

Altogether, the failure of Perestroika and Glasnost left behind them, a sea of uncertainty and a world that no longer has the option, in Rosa Luxemburg’s evocative phrase, the choice between barbarism and socialism. Barbarism rules. Anarchism, if at all it is an option, is still available for those who cannot do without one.

Perestroika and Glasnost left behind a world that is no longer safe for socialists.

Image Acknowledgement: No Road

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Published by

bhupinder singh

reader, mainly and an occasional blogger

9 thoughts on “20 Years Later: A Requiem for Perestroika”

  1. Bhupinder, terrific post man. We need to have memories, and if we dont, its good to have some one to remind us. great work man !!

  2. Reminds me of the term used to describe Muhammad bin Tughlaq by many Indian historians. They call him the “transendental failure”. (though comparing Gorbachev and Tughlaq may not be appropriate.

  3. socialists as dreamers? first, you introduce the idea that an elitist agenda was a national ‘ethos’ and now you project this little myth that the socialists were agreeable dreamers… when the hindutvavadis rewrite history we know they’ve been there. but when the socialists do it… they do such a clean job !.

  4. sorry for responding so late to your query. but my disagreement is with the use of the term ‘dreamers’- it seems to suggest naive, harmless romantics, which they were definitely not. weren’t they planners with designs on everything in the world?.. and like all planners, who suspect that they might go wrong, this blame-the-west-for-everything gambit seems like a convenient escape route. russia imploded from the inside, collapsed in on its own unviable economic/social structure. and this was bound to happen in the initial years of the perestroika etc., whichever economic/ideological prescription russia followed, in my view.

  5. Of course the communists were exceptionally good planners and had a well oiled party machinery- which is the reason the Bolsheviks ‘picked up the Revolution when it was lying in the streets of St. Petersburg”, in Trotsky’s memorable quote.

    But they were dreamers too- at least many among them. Who else would have imagined building socialism in a peasant Russia? Then there was the short lived resurgence in the early 1920s, before it was smothered under Stalin’s iron hand.

    Some of these dreamers were the first to lose heart as well- remember Arthur Koestler and others who wrote The God That Failed.

    I think your explanation of the Soviet Union’s collapse is rather deterministic (and let me add, tongue in cheek :-), in the tradition of mechanistic Marxism.

    The Western intervention came much later, I feel that it was the Soviet leadership, above all, Mikhail Gorbachev, that failed. More probably, it was a combination of both subjective and objective factors.

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