In The End of the Communist Revolution, Robert V. Daniels proposes a model for revolutionary cycles. According to this model, the Gorbachev period can be seen as a moderate revival, closing the period of post-revolutionary dictatorship. In the Soviet Union, this stage was to be marked by a number of difficulties, leading to the question "Is there socialism after Communism?"
Gorbachev is in many ways not the man one would think of as playing the major role in dismantling the "Soviet System". He had been a member of the Komsomol, joined the Communist Party at 18, and otherwise done all the "right things." Yet he was to dismantle the "circular-flow of power", to tear the veil away from Stalinism, and thus bring the Soviet Union to an end. Why? It would seem that a combination of the Khrushchevian "thaw" and the blatant failure of the Soviet Union to provide materially for its people, had produced in Gorbachev a need to seek a better way. In doing this, he went back into the Soviet past, layer by layer, until finally he found himself all the way back at the February Revolution. Once there, public dissatisfaction and reactionary backlash combined to take matters out of his hands, and bring the Soviet period to a close.
Gorbachev labored under a number of difficult conditions unusual in a moderate revival. The Stalinist post-revolutionary dictatorship held sway for an inordinate period of time, and had draped itself in the rhetoric of the earlier revolutionary period. Because of this, once Gorbachev had peeled back to 1917, the tender green onion set at the center appeared to the people as rotten as the Stalinist and Neo-Stalinist layers he had thrown away. This led to a complete revulsion for the entire Soviet period, and the present inchoate situation which Yeltsin is trying to steer Russia through.
It is to be remembered that the October Revolution, which brought to an end a heady period of democracy, resulted in a complete identification of Marxism with the Bolsheviks. Socialism, which had existed in a wide spectrum, became the prerogative of only one sect, whose belief in centralism, militarism and imperialism was to be the new orthodoxy. As a result of Lenin stepping back from War Communism, and introducing NEP, the Soviet Union was placed in a situation that would ultimately produce severe repercussions for Gorbachev's attempts at reform. Functionally, Lenin brought about his own Thermidorean Reaction, which was to play a major role in Stalin's ability to retain the rhetoric of Marxian revolution into his post-revolutionary dictatorship. Without NEP, it is hard to imagine that Stalin would have been able to attain the degree of power that was wielded in the various purges.
NEP prepared the opening for a man like Stalin in two ways. Firstly, it kept the Bolsheviks in control, maintaining the unity of rhetoric, giving a well-managed "counter-revolution" the ability to manage an already constructed power-base. Otherwise, Russia would have been plunged back into civil war, with the likely victory going to an authoritarian government, but one with a distinguishable opposition. Secondly, NEP set up a perfect opportunity for Stalin to declare a religious revival crusade against a lapse into heresy, i.e. a slide back into capitalism, with a rally around de-kulakization. Without this, Stalin's "revolution from above" and the Five-Year Plans that were its manifestation, would not have been able to get the support of the Bolsheviks who unwittingly helped their executioner into power. As a result of Lenin's introduction of NEP, Stalin was left with the enviable position of having all the people who could have halted his ascent, have the choice of assenting or being branded an infidel. By the time they realized it was no choice at all, they had lost the brief window during which they might have been able to halt Stalin, had they been willing to cooperate instead of pursuing internecine squabbles.
Once the former players were safely silenced, Stalin was free to play a whole range of propaganda games, establishing himself as the legitimate heir of Marxist-Leninism, by selectively reading the writings of Lenin to provide justification, and by producing the wildly skewed "short course" of Marxist-Leninism.
Because of this peculiar "continuity", a moderate revival following in the wake of Stalinism would be faced with the Scylla of being labeled a traitor to the "revolutionary cause" and the Charybdis of being thought to partake too much of the preceding painful past. This was the situation that Gorbachev found himself in during the endgame of his implementation of glasnost and perestroika. While he escaped the maw of the August Coup, which was conducted by "too mild" reactionaries, he in the end was swallowed by the waterspout of public reaction which he could no longer control. Even so, he was more successful in this second attempt at a moderate revival, in that he did bring the Stalinist/Neo-Stalinist post revolutionary dictatorship to an end.
Second moderate revival? I would agree with Daniels that Gorbachev was following a path already taken, though he was to travel it farther. The "thaw" appears to have been an earlier attempt to bring the Soviet Union to a greater state of "normalcy". However, unlike Gorbachev, Khrushchev did not realize that the "circular-flow of power" was as a gyroscope stabilizing the very Stalinism which he was working against. As a result he was ousted by the very minions he had brought to power, providing Gorbachev with an important warning for his subsequent attempt; there are no half measures in dismantling Stalinism. This realization prevented a Soviet-inspired Tiananmen, and brought the Soviet Union's days as a world power to a close. The secret was out; there was no more fear to fear.
The former Soviet Union, and its former satellites have been left in a bizarre twilight realm as a result of seventy-plus years of "Communism" that draped itself with the phrases of socialism. Traumatized by this experience, they have been set up for the potentially dangerous embrace of "utopian capitalism". That is, in their understandable need to separate from the terror of their recent past, they have been convinced that their only option is for complete privatization of all aspects of their economies, believing that immediate transition to capitalism will ensure democracy.
The dangers are manifold. First of all, the form of capitalism they are being sold has little contact with the reality of the global market and large corporations. It is laissez-faire in conception, which is an even older theoretical construct than Marxism. It has at its root a number of "hidden costs" such as periods of high unemployment and other forms of "obsolesce", planned and otherwise. Additionally, it is likely to permit the entrenchment of foreign profiteers and ousted Partymen in a new age of "spheres of influence". Second of all, the resulting inflation, resource siphoning and general deprivation sets up the newly freed states for a takeover by the Right, with the potential of ethnic unrest, authoritarianism and possibly even Fascism.
Because of the Eastern bloc's experience with something called "socialism", they have been led by a fallacy of the excluded middle to embrace something called "capitalism". The notions of centralization, planning, and state ownership have been conglomerated into an unholy blob, hiding a number of different options found under "real live capitalism" as opposed to the theoretical model they are being shown. Modern capitalism includes a number of "non-capitalist" forms, such as cooperatives, non-profits, and state-owned independently operated institutions.
I think it is important to note the West has not really known capitalism, at least not in the sense that I believe Adam Smith considered the concept, in any large extent. While I admittedly base this consideration on Jerry Z. Muller's reading of Smith1, it seems to me what is usually considered capitalism is rather a modern form of mercantilism. Under the rubric of Smithian capitalism, the goal is to assure the highest wages possible with the lowest price for goods as possible, with the free operation of the market determining what is "possible". In order for "the invisible hand" to do its work, it was Smith's view that government would at times have to visibly interfere to prevent circumvention of the free market through monopoly, either on the part of labor or capital. To my knowledge, such capitalism, which I think would look much like what Jefferson had in mind, has not existed for any significant length of time. Instead we have had what I would consider "mature" Mercantilism, where individual corporations play the part of countries as seen under small m mercantilism.
The former Soviet Union and former satellites are in a dangerous period, as a result of decisions being made in reaction to years under Stalinist/Neo-Stalinist rule. Gorbachev's attempt at a moderate revival, and Khrushchev's before him, were compromised by the apparent unity of rhetoric over successive revolutionary stages. It remains to be seen if people like Boris Yeltsin can steer the newly freed countries between the twin perils of economic ruin and authoritarianism.
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