Gorbachev’s reforms have created a new and critical situation in the Soviet Union. What is new is that the Soviet system has entered a transition phase that makes it more susceptible to the influence of internal and external pressures than it was earlier—or will be afterward, in all likelihood. What is critical about the current situation can be understood by asking: what will the Soviet Union be like if its economic and strategic situation improves? I think there are two realistic possibilities. Either the Soviet Union will become a more vital and powerful political empire, still pursuing its old strategic goal of “the victory of Communism everywhere”—with the danger that entails for world peace and security. Or it will become a vital member of the peaceful community of developed nations and, while remaining unique in many respects, will abandon its messianic political claims.
On what basis should we assess the prospects?
Consider the following phenomenon: the developed world is divided into three great capitalist economic centers: the U.S., the European Economic Community, and Japan. Gradually, other important centers are coming into being. It might seem that the competition among these centers would beget new wars; but, to the contrary, the possibility of such armed conflict arising has become more and more remote in most of the capitalist world. How can we explain such a remarkable turn of events? Why are these major powers so peaceful in their dealings with each other?
One reason that peace prevails among these economic centers is the extraordinary degree to which their economies are interlinked. The single world government that some people expected after World War II has still not come to pass. However, today we have in the developed capitalist nations one world, a gigantic economic commonwealth. Now every developed capitalist nation simultaneously plays the role of colony and metropolis with respect to other such nations. As the figures show, it is these nations, taken as a whole, that constitute the largest market for the community of developed capitalist nations, not their former colonies and other developing nations. Thus, war today between two developed nations would not be a war for markets but, instead, a war against their markets.
Moreover, we have seen nothing resembling the “inescapable imperialist wars” for markets and raw materials that Lenin predicted, partly because now, after decolonization, the sources of raw materials in developing nations are not owned by developed nations. Sometimes they are exploited by transnational corporations with the agreement of national governments. Experience shows that these corporations pursue their own interests, ones that would not be served by wars among the main capitalist centers.
Peace among the developed nations has been produced also by a shift in mass psychology. That shift away from viewing war as a serious option has been partly the result of a greatly improved standard of living since World War II, and the large number of people moving into the middle class. A great many people now stand to lose economically from the disruptions of a war.
But probably the most important source of the shift in mass psychology has been the discovery, use, and—especially—proliferation of nuclear weapons. The thought of a new world war now throws millions of people into a legitimate panic. Wiser, better-informed than ever before on the subject, they know that a new war could easily turn into a holocaust. So they have a broader, more tolerant view of differences among people and nations. They increasingly understand that everyone shares the responsibility for peace everywhere and they have the freedom to express that responsibility. Many actively express that responsibility by participating in the movements for disarmament and peace, and do so independently of their governments—indeed, not infrequently in opposition to them. (There is no such freedom for the millions of people who hold similar views in the USSR; participation in the independent peace movement still requires a readiness for self-sacrifice. But this is the result of the totalitarian mentality of the regime. I have no doubt that the Soviet leaders themselves wish to avoid a war with the nuclear nations.)
Finally, the developed nations are at peace because they are much more open to scrutiny by one another’s governments and citizens than they were earlier, say before World War I. Their mutual openness has created a great deal of mutual understanding and confidence. They are not, unfortunately, completely open; but they have a degree of openness that stands in stark contrast to the guarded nature of contacts among the peoples of the socialist bloc, let alone their contacts with citizens of capitalist nations. The developed nations have a free flow of information about virtually all aspects of life, both positive and negative; no mentality of secrecy in ordinary life; and open borders, with an opportunity for citizens to travel everywhere (excluding, perhaps, a few sensitive military sites) and to meet people from other countries. Moreover, their standard of living permits millions of citizens to take advantage of that opportunity. And of course this has great economic benefits for everybody: travel and tourism are big business in the developed world.
Supporting this mutual openness is openness between the government and citizens of each nation, which has greatly increased since the beginning of the century. This, too, has promoted peace—indirectly by being one protection against a recurrence of totalitarianism, and directly by making possible, and indeed encouraging, more informed popular participation in strategic matters. It is true that there is a long way to go: citizens of the developed nations still cannnot prevent their leaders and governments from engaging in some secret military operations or local military conflicts. But even so, their situation is incomparably more advanced than the one in the USSR. And their freedom to receive and impart information is such that after a conflict begins, public opinion can help bring it to a halt.
We see at work here in concrete ways the important influence of economic health, civic freedoms, and human rights on peace in the developed nations. Those nations are so much a community that their citizens would reject as idiotic the very undemocratic notion of the ideological or military hegemony of any one member over all the others, and would reject as equally idiotic the very idea of a war within the community, because a war against a member nation would turn out to be a war against one’s own.
If the factors I have mentioned help contribute to the peaceful coexistence of nations differing so greatly in history, culture, and style of government as the developed nations do, then perhaps analogous confidence-building factors can replace mutual deterrence in the relations between the capitalist world and the Soviet Union. How will the reforms recently initiated in the USSR influence the prospect of that occurring?
To answer this question we must consider the reforms in light of the circumstances that gave rise to them.
The first reason for reform in the USSR has been economic stagnation. The Soviet leaders had only to open their eyes in order to see what had long been evident to many Soviet intellectuals, both dissident and non-dissident: the Soviet system long ago lost its ability to compete economically with the West, which has continued to survive, develop, and even thrive after World War II. The system does not work and cannot work in its current form. The great historical theory—tested directly on the lives of the people, as in Kafka’s penal colony—has failed. Now one can read about it not just in the works of Soviet dissidents, but even in the Soviet press.
The failure is profoundly threatening to the Soviet leadership because it challenges the material basis of, and ideological justification for, the party’s power within the USSR and its expansionist political ambitions outside it. And the degree of failure is threatening because it shows that the Soviet Union could irrevocably collapse into the ranks of the underdeveloped countries. From now on Soviet leaders will not be able to dismiss that idea out of hand. The possibility of such a collapse is shameful not just from a Communist or an imperial Soviet perspective. It is shameful—and this is a source of great hope—also from a Russian national perspective. For Russian competitiveness with the West has historical roots (dating back to Peter the Great) in a nationalist desire to be counted not simply among, but even ahead of, the nations of Europe as a cultivated, economically sophisticated country.
The degree of failure is monumental. Today, seventy years after the revolution, at the end of the Soviet experiment, we see that meat and butter are rationed in a good part of the Soviet Union (a thing unnecessary in capitalist countries during peacetime); the country as a whole is rapidly falling behind the capitalist West in labor productivity, in advanced technology, and in standard of living; and, according to Gorbachev, national income has not grown in the last twenty years if you exclude the extra income realized from the international sale of oil at inflated prices, and the artificial income generated by the sale of vodka. Indeed, over the last few years national income has actually fallen.
This is the catastrophic result of the “wise Leninist policy” (as the policy of the moment has been called by every Soviet leader). And for this, tens of millions of peaceful lives were destroyed during the pre-Khrushchev years—lives of entrepreneurial peasants, thoughtful workers, the more capable intellectuals, and, of course, just ordinary people.
What counts as much as the idea behind a social experiment is the manner in which it is conducted. It is probably impossible to test a social theory without some experiment affecting human lives. But it is absolutely immoral to destroy a human life because a person’s qualities and ideas do not satisfy the wishes or the inevitably simplified assumptions of those conducting the experiment. (And, of course, from the scientific standpoint that the Communist party claimed as its own, it completely invalidates the experiment as a test of theory.) Yet that was exactly what the Communist party in the Soviet Union did, like the Nazi party in Germany, in the name of carrying its experiment through to the end.
The readiness to destroy human lives—the murderous manner—is the main reason for the Soviet Union’s historical failure. Although it is difficult to imagine, if the Communists had recognized and given any priority to individual civic and human rights, then they would not have eliminated directly, or by means of famine, the peasants who did not want to join a kolkhoz (collective farm). Then, the idiotic idea of the kolkhoz on Russian and Ukrainian soil would have remained only an idea and not have led to such deplorable results as the chronic food shortage, which endangers the Communist party’s own strategic goals.
That there is a direct link, in modern circumstances, between civic and human rights on the one hand, and the economic well-being of a country on the other, has been plain to Soviet intellectuals for some time. Over the last thirty years, a few have openly pointed out the link (thereby earning the label “dissidents”) and many more have discussed it privately in their own circles. I am certain that the gradual spread of this idea, together with the surprising determination and fortitude of the dissidents, led to today’s official, if partial, adoption of it. For it has been officially adopted. Gorbachev, in disclosing the real economic situation, has made clear that no matter who heads the Soviet regime, there is no rational route back to a centralized, murderous Stalinist structure. And Pravda, in its debate with Sovietskaya Rossiya, has said straight out that perestroika cannot be implemented without democratization, and that the country’s former system, lacking glasnost, was not efficient. That is why, contrary to the view of some Soviet analysts, a reversion to Stalinism is not likely. (But Satan can perhaps be seen grinning here, for Stalin’s writings also contain references to the importance of “self-criticism.”)
The whole Soviet leadership, in addressing the problem of inefficiency, seems to have accepted the idea of shifting to a different model of socialism, one that is more efficient than the old model and therefore can better support the party’s ideological claims and goals both within and outside the USSR. So the argument in official circles does not concern the need for change—no one has seriously disputed that for a long time—but rather what level of economic and political liberties will be sufficient to correct the existing model while leaving inviolate the most cherished tenets of the Communist leadership: (1) key posts in the hands of the Communist party; and (2) strategic planning and long-term decision-making as the prerogatives of a limited team of leaders, and kept as secret as possible from the world.
The first conclusion to be drawn from a review of Gorbachev’s economic efforts to correct the model is that neither the idea of democratization nor anything else has been translated into a more or less detailed master plan. The lack of such a plan is indicated by the rather haphazard character of the first reforms, their resemblance to naive test runs. For example, despite his access to the whole seventy-year history of the Soviet system, Gorbachev somehow failed to foresee that his proposals for reforming the construction industry would turn into nothing more than another repetition of former bureaucratic reshufflings, or that the local authorities would use the law on unearned income to harass ordinary people with supplementary earned income, since they were easier prey.
The absence of a master plan is not a good recipe for saving the Soviet economy, but it does give Gorbachev flexibility. And to his credit, he uses it, learning from his mistakes and appearing ready to listen to the advice permitted under glasnost. Thus, the situation with respect to unearned income improved somewhat after it was criticized in the press. Backward steps then followed: for instance, the tax rates on individual incomes were set so high that they undermined the incentive for individual businesses from the very beginning. But then, after protests, a lowering of the rates was promised.
A review of Gorbachev’s economic reforms shows, secondly, that there is a tendency to try to solve difficulties “from the top down.” Consider the situation of the workers. Feeding the workers, and as quickly as possible, should have a high priority from a humane and democratic standpoint—for the workers’ situation has been deteriorating, and workers comprise the bulk of the population. This standpoint is, as developed states well know, closely bound to a practical economic standpoint, because the health of an economy depends on the cooperation and energy of its workers. To get results quickly it would be natural to use the “New Economic Policy”1 as a starting point in agriculture and light industry. Both sectors are painfully inefficient in comparison with the West. The industrial base for agriculture, for example, is little suited to support modern Western methods of farming. Thus, arguably, what is needed is not only the dissolution of the majority of the kolkhozes and many of the sovkhozes (state farms), but simultaneously the involvement of Western corporations and specialists in order to introduce modern farming methods without delay.
However, the workers are not starving and they are not rebelling. That is enough reason for Soviet leaders not to waste much time thinking about their needs. For it is the party custom to take a purely strategic approach to problems. The leaders are worried first of all about a potential setback to their ambitions for world leadership and do not regard improving the situation of the workers as an immediate strategic imperative. And so, before helping the workers, they are rushing into the lengthy process of restructuring the “higher” sectors of the economy, like high technology, not realizing that this approach can boomerang.
A third conclusion to be drawn about Gorbachev’s economic reforms is that they are half-measures. Inside the Soviet Union, the opinion is widespread among the intelligentsia that the reforms will begin to produce results only if they are carried through to their logical conclusion. Self-financing without self-planning, different kinds of contracts without a free market, and the rest of the “innovations” in place now, are in fact more likely to disorganize the old economic order than they are to create a viable new one. The recent experimenting with the election of industrial managers reflects an illusion that in Russia it may be possible, simultaneously and without conflict, to satisfy management—whose priority is production—and the workers—whose priority is compensation.
Why such wishful thinking? Why the half-measures? It is because the Communist party apparently understands that if management receives real freedom of action, then workers will seek the right to defend themselves against actions by management that violate their interests. In other words, an independent workers’ movement of the type existing in the West and even in czarist Russia might well appear on the scene to challenge the control of the party.
This points to an obvious dilemma facing the party. Carrying some of the current “democratizing” reforms to their logical conclusion would greatly increase the probability of the party getting what it wants ideologically and strategically: escape from the current economic crisis. But such reforms would entail that the party give up considerable power within the USSR, making the party and the system radically different.
The second reason for the current Soviet reforms has been moral corruption. To apply the label of moral corruption to the Nazi and Stalinist regimes, which incited thousands of zealots to torture millions of victims, would be an obscene understatement. But it is quite appropriate to talk about moral corruption in the post-Stalin period, when Soviet society became as different from that of the Stalin era as the sky from the earth.
The facts about moral corruption in the Brezhnev era are known. More and more highly placed bureaucrats (procurators, police officials, ministers, KGB officials, party bosses, and even members of the General Secretary’s own family) became involved in common crimes: bribery, theft of government property, fraud of all sorts. Why? It is illuminating to note that this did not happen earlier. Soviet officials under Stalin tortured or killed when ordered (or permitted) to torture or kill. They wrote false denunciations. They were, in short, too busy to steal on anywhere near the scale that developed under Brezhnev.
But after Stalin, Khrushchev introduced radical changes that made the Soviet system less inhumane and more concerned with legality; the exciting blood sports of earlier days were strictly forbidden. For a time, Khrushchev focused on the country’s internal problems, and the bureaucracy had an opportunity to manage its affairs in an environment free of hysteria. However, Khrushchev himself slowed the effort to address those problems; Brezhnev brought it to a complete halt. This left the bureaucracy hanging in a void. What could the secretary of the Krasnodar region party committee find to do? He was permitted little leeway from above, but no one controlled him from below. Why not engage in a few swindles?
As soon as a group of war veterans tried to expose the Krasnodar party secretary’s machinations, the KGB stepped in. One of the veterans was convicted of slandering the Soviet system (I was in labor camp with him), another was sent to a psychiatric hospital, and the rest were pressured into silence. When Andropov replaced Brezhnev, the party secretary was sentenced to ten years, but the veteran in my camp was freed only in Gorbachev’s time.
Corruption infects all bureaucracies, and all governments have to fight this disease continually and decisively. But the corruption of the bureaucracy—especially the sort handed down by Brezhnev—is an especially serious threat to the Soviet government because bureaucracy is built into the Soviet system, with its centralized planning, centralized, tightly classified information, and centralized leadership.
Along with bureaucratic corruption, there has been a certain degree of corruption in everyday life. Everyone has become accustomed to it. For example, white-collar and blue-collar workers, and even scientists, do not consider it a sin to take home from work in their pocket or briefcase some small item that they need—it would cost money to buy it in a store, and it probably wouldn’t be available anyway. It is difficult for people to draw a strict line between private and state property when it is impossible legally to obtain bricks for a new house or a truck to transport potatoes or a replacement part for a radio or good quality writing paper. Life would come to an end in the Soviet Union if such legalities were strictly observed.
This everyday sort of corruption occurs against the background of a system of privileges and services that is itself both corrupt and corrupting. Soviet society has a money-based economy only in part. For the rest, it depends on a complex hierarchy of free privileges and services (“free” meaning paid for by society as a whole) which, in theory, are given out depending on the recipient’s usefulness to society. This socialist idea would not be bad if there were some kind of adequate mechanism to define “usefulness” and some mechanism to give timely and positive feedback of the type, “such-and-such action results in such-and-such privileges and services.” Such mechanisms exist in the capitalist world, for example. “Usefulness” is defined by and proportional to the consumers’ desire for the product or service involved, as expressed by the price they are willing to pay. Feedback often takes place on the spot. In this fashion millions of people take part in mutually advantageous useful activity. The system is by no means entirely just—a money society is hardly the best foundation for morality. But it has turned out to be more humane and efficient than the Soviet system despite predictions to the contrary by Soviet theoreticians.
In the Soviet system, the lack of a free market excludes from the system the interaction of millions of individual preferences. Both the definition of “usefulness” and the norms of compensation are fixed by the bureaucracy and are far removed from the producer and consumer. To a significant degree, compensation by privileges and services in the Soviet Union tends to be allocated according to a person’s status in the political and social hierarchy without regard to any work he has accomplished. That is why the Soviet system of compensation by privileges and services tends to demoralize and corrupt people, rather than stimulate production—or probity.
Consider the following: in a union resort for miners, you are less likely to meet the men who work in the mines than a flock of senior and junior officials and engineers, union personnel, and party activists. If you work in the district party office or are the son of a deputy minister, you can buy sausages made of real meat from a special store. If you are an officer guarding dissidents in a labor camp, you can buy scarce American jeans from a special store. If you work for the local executive committee, you will have to wait only five years for a family apartment, not fifteen years as an ordinary worker will.
All of this is the kind of environment in which the Soviet citizen is born, lives, and dies. If you criticize it, you can be repressed and also be slandered with impunity and called an agent of the CIA.2 If you expose the wrongdoing of local bigshots, you can be sent off to the loony bin. You have to learn how to survive in this Soviet world. As people say, “It’s possible to live if you just know how”—and even live not badly by Soviet standards. But Soviet citizens live badly if you judge by the standards of many other countries, and not only the United States. They live not just badly but dishonestly, and openly oppressed by an ugly caste system.
Gorbachev’s merit consists partly in his ability—while being himself a product of the bureaucracy and still caught up in its treadmill—to look at this creeping universal rot through the eyes of a normal person. And that is why glasnost is a priority for him.
But here is another dilemma for the Soviet leaders. A glasnost that can genuinely keep bureaucratic corruption at a tolerable level must be based on guarantees of certain civic and human rights: the right to seek information (as in the American Freedom of Information Act) and the right to publicize it without any fear of reprisals. If people had, and energetically exercised, such rights—submitting the bureaucracy to sustained scrutiny, continually holding it accountable—it would mean de facto democratic control of the bureaucracy from below. Such control would undermine control by the party and create tension in the system by running counter to its centralized nature. Yet to use a weaker version of glasnost to fight against bureaucratic corruption is like applying a band-aid to a tumor.
The same holds for the fight against the problem of privileges and services. This is a structural problem, created by fundamental features of the economic system: how value is defined and control distributed. Current versions of glasnost cannot significantly change that system, and genuine glasnost would significantly challenge it. But it is far from clear how much this dilemma concerns Gorbachev and the other leaders. For the main losers by the system of privileges and services are the mass of ordinary people. And although the party press has begun to publish truthful portrayals of their lives, so far Boris Yeltsin (who was fired as head of the Moscow party committee) is the only leader to have shown a conspicuous interest in them and their problems as such.
But the decline among them of the prestige of the Soviet system—this does concern the other leaders, just as they are concerned with a similar decline among the scientific and technical intelligentsia, members of the Eastern bloc, and abroad. This widespread decline is strategically threatening, and has therefore become a reason for reform.
A third reason for the current reforms has been the declining prestige of the Soviet model of socialism. Although much of the Soviet Union has been off-limits to its own citizens (not to mention foreigners), information reflecting unfavorably on the Soviet system has been disseminated quite widely over the last thirty years, especially in the area of human rights. The first shock was Khrushchev’s “secret” speech at the 20th party congress in 1956. The second shock (especially for the West) was the appearance of The Gulag Archipelago, reinforced by many other independent reports on the Stalin era. Even though very few Soviet citizens got the opportunity to read The Gulag Archipelago, Solzhenitsyn’s name became known throughout the country.
In the late 1950’s, even before the appearance of his book, the first dissidents and human-rights advocates dedicated themselves to informing the Soviet and Western publics about human-rights violations in the USSR of the post-Stalin era. They were soon joined by Academician Andrei Sakharov, who greatly enhanced the authority of the human-rights movement inside the country and in the West. By the 70’s, every Soviet citizen knew the famous (if officially damned) name: Sakharov. Other human-rights advocates were less well known, but practically everyone inside the USSR had heard that Sakharov had allies. Looking back, I recall how the legendary General Pyotr Grigorenko and Anatoly Marchenko (both now dead) and hundreds of others fought for human rights in the USSR with superhuman determination, always by nonviolent means, spending many years in a labor camp or psychiatric hospital for words alone—for collecting and passing on information about such things as malnutrition in the penal system or the destruction of houses of worship or the removal of unregistered believers’ children from their parents’ custody—and then, after serving their terms in the camps and hospitals, returning to continue their struggle.
The main source of their fortitude may well have been the sympathy they sensed from members of the intelligentsia. Many of the intellectuals, like others in the country, failed to understand the strict focus on human rights adopted by this group of dissidents and their deliberate abstention from political ideology. But they respected and some perhaps even envied the dissidents’ point of view and the firmness with which they defended it. I was personally acquainted in one way or another with about 10,000 intellectuals, mostly scientific colleagues, and I can say that the dissidents were only the tip of an iceberg that now, in the Gorbachev era, is revealing itself.
The declining prestige of the Soviet system among the scientific and technical intelligentsia has been a cause for concern among Soviet leaders not simply because it makes members of this intelligentsia tacit allies of critics in the West and elsewhere. Also, and more importantly, this is the group whose immediate help Gorbachev needs most in economically restructuring the country.
One of the many ideas for reform circulating in the Soviet Union over the last thirty years has been that, in our technological age, the modern scientific and technical intelligentsia and not the working class should manage the state (as if the working class ever really had done so). It would appear that the new Soviet leaders aim to realize this idea through perestroika, aim to create a union between the scientific and technical intelligentsia together with their cultural milieu on the one hand, and the party leaders on the other. This is the notion of a party technocracy, which is to supersede the old, purely party bureaucracy. The workers are conceived in the model as mere building blocks.
Because the country is in a desperate situation with respect to its geopolitical goals, the decision has evidently been made to go to very great lengths—while retaining the key positions in the party’s hands—in order to inspire enthusiasm in the intelligentsia. For they are the only horse that can get the hopelessly mired cart moving again. This and only this explains the surprisingly free rein given now to Soviet culture and to cultural and scientific contacts between the Soviets and people in the West. And it explains why Soviet leaders, with an eye partly on Soviet prestige in the West, have released a considerable number of political prisoners from camps, psychiatric hospitals, and exile. Even the KGB has apparently realized that the more the dissidents are persecuted, the greater the effect of their message on the intelligentsia, as well as on nations abroad.
In other words, the release of prisoners is, like the enlarged cultural freedom, a tactic—and a provisional one. This is evident from the fact that labor camps for political prisoners still exist and the inmates include prisoners serving harsh sentences for advocating exactly what world leaders praise Gorbachev for advocating. Perhaps half the political prisoners, including some members of the Helsinki Groups, remain in detention; those who were released were not rehabilitated; unofficial human-rights groups suffer official harassment; and, not least, the whole KGB apparatus has been preserved intact and key personnel remain untouched. (Even Khrushchev made changes in personnel. But the KGB is not the bureaucracy Gorbachev has been criticizing.)
So far the tactic has been very effective in gaining the enthusiasm of the intelligentsia; maintaining it is another matter. Indeed, its provisional, limited nature leaves open the possibility that the intelligentsia will demand a higher price for their cooperation. Their demands could include freedom for all political prisoners, for example, or even dismantling of the domestic arm of the KGB, a two-party system, and radical economic reforms. Any demand along those lines would obviously pose a challenge to the party’s control over the system.
Unlike the view of the Soviet system held by the intelligentsia, that of the workers and peasants has been virtually untouched by the dissidents’ human-rights argument. They have had the important knowledge that there were people who were speaking out against official policies, but little comprehension of what the dissidents have been talking about. It has been possible, in general, to interest workers in political and economic ideas, but not in human-rights questions as such. Indeed, the very idea of the basic human rights of the individual is still received by them with a surprising lack of understanding, and the sending of information to the West about human-rights violations in the USSR is still on the whole condemned.
Nevertheless, my impression is that even decades ago, many found the image of socialism far from shining, many knew there was plenty to protest against: unjust privileges; the excessive influence of the bureaucracy; the lack of attention to housing, food, and other vital necessities; and the inefficient management of the economy. And certainly now, despite the enormous Soviet propaganda machine, the image of Soviet socialism in the popular consciousness has become greatly tarnished, even for the generation which has had no direct experience of the mass repressions of earlier years. It is no longer possible to persuade such people through appeals to their socialist spirit to do something that involves personal sacrifice. Now it is necessary to buy them instead of trading on their enthusiasm, to pay a pretty price, and to settle for whatever they produce. In capitalist countries, this is far from uncommon and indeed is often an operating assumption. But for the Communist party, which has become a victim of its own inspirational propaganda, this is a startling new situation. If the economy cannot effectively accommodate it, things are bound to get worse. So this is yet another reason for perestroika. As we have seen, however, the Soviet leaders do not regard ordinary people’s dissatisfaction with the system as a strategic problem. Not surprisingly, then, the leaders have formulated for the workers singularly unimaginative and ineffective reforms. The workers remain dissatisfied, unmoved, and by all accounts unmoving. Moreover, having received no benefits from Gorbachev’s program, they are skeptical about it.
The decline in prestige of Soviet socialism within the USSR has taken place more slowly than—though it has been fed by—the serious decline in Eastern Europe. Occurring on the Soviet Union’s very doorstep, as it were, this decline in Eastern Europe is a direct and deeply embarrassing challenge to the Soviet leaders’ global ambitions.
In 1956 the Hungarians revolted. Soviet Communists tried to convince themselves that the uprising was the revolt of a country which had recently been an enemy of the Soviet Union and which therefore still had a negative attitude toward it. But it was more difficult to explain the 1968 Prague Spring in that way: after all, the Czechs had greeted Soviet soldiers with great enthusiasm in 1945. The Czech intervention, directed against yet another nation rejecting the Soviet model of socialism, not only split the European Communist movement, but also gave rise to differing opinions (secretly expressed or secretly held, as Soviet custom demands) among Soviet Communists.
As for Poland, the appearance of Solidarity (an independent union of workers) and the participation once again, as in Czechoslovakia, of many Communists supporting the idea of change—this pained and frightened the naive among Soviet Communists (there are not many of them left) and puzzled the cynical majority.
Here was the first really serious sounding of the alarm: the empire is beginning to crack. “We won’t give back Poland!” Chekists in charge of my labor camp assured me. “To whom?” I asked, “the Poles?” “You’re mixed up in all this too,” they complained. (It turned out that I and my fellow dissidents were, without knowing it. Later, when I got to the West, Polish emigrés told me that the very existence of Soviet dissidents, acting in rather more difficult conditions than the Poles, provided moral support for the Polish intellectuals supporting change in Poland.) The alarm was very serious indeed, because Poland is a highly explosive nation of forty million people for whom rebellion against Russian despotism is almost a national tradition.
Brezhnev found an effective administrative solution for the Polish problem—the imposition of martial law. But no political solution was found, and it was clear that one wouldn’t be found. Poland could be permitted to continue in its current direction, or it could be suppressed—a thing that would taint the whole image of the USSR as the invasions of Hungary and Czechoslovakia had. Either way, the global ambitions of the Soviet leaders would be undermined.
Gorbachev was, I believe, well aware of this difficulty when pondering glasnost and perestroika. I can certainly imagine him thinking that if the Communist party were to take the initiative and introduce a degree of liberalization that would give the Soviet Union a more European appearance, then (among other benefits) the Soviet Union might cease to be a bogeyman for the Eastern European peoples; this European appearance, together with a discreet use of force, might reconcile Eastern Europe to Soviet control.
The sources of declining Soviet prestige within the USSR and Eastern Europe have, in the West, fed a decline of Soviet prestige among Soviet sympathizers, made critics of many people who before were indifferent or neutral or tolerant, and deepened the enmity of old opponents. When one is competing with the West, as the Soviet Union is, a decline of prestige there is a setback. When, at the same time, one desperately needs Western technology and expertise to help avoid economic and strategic catastrophe, such a decline can be disastrous.
The process of declining Soviet prestige took longer to register in the West than in the USSR itself. And it might have stabilized after the invasion of Czechoslovakia (or indeed not occurred at all, despite Poland and Afghanistan) without the continual SOS signals sent out from inside the USSR by human-rights advocates, and without the publicity that their Western supporters gave to the martyrdom many suffered for their beliefs.
For long years, human-rights advocates had to beat against a wall of silence and even indifference in the West. But the cumulative effect of their efforts finally made a difference. President Carter became the first U.S. President to raise the issue of human rights to the level of international politics and diplomacy. At the 1986 Vienna Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, practically all the Western delegations energetically criticized the USSR, citing it by name. (By contrast, a decade earlier at the Belgrade Conference there was very little criticism of Soviet human-rights violations, and even the Western delegations did not consider this question very important.) Today, not only public but also parliamentary commissions on human rights exist in most Western countries, which deal with problems in the Soviet Union as well as in Africa and Latin America. And President Reagan made human rights in the Soviet Union a centerpiece of his agenda during his summit trip to Moscow in May-June 1988.
The Soviet Union has faced the fact that human-rights violations have not been helping its image in the West and has taken steps to adjust that image. Soviet leaders released many (but far from all) political prisoners after the Vienna Conference opened in 1986, formally acknowledging at the time that doing so would help improve relations with the West. They have permitted an increased number of Soviet Jews to emigrate. They have, also, formally acknowledged that human-rights violations are not exclusively the internal affair of the country involved. And they have even felt moved to create their own—“official”—commission on human rights, which has held discussions with human-rights groups from the West.
Such developments within the USSR are indeed constructive. Unfortunately, they are not a sign of a dramatic change of values, but are an extension to the West of the provisional change of tactics directed at the Soviet intelligentsia. The harsh reality of what lies behind the scenes of the Soviet human-rights show leaves open a possibility discussed earlier in relation to the Soviet intelligentsia: in exchange for its urgently needed cooperation, the West could extract from the Soviet leaders a price that is very high, one that posed a serious challenge to their control. The West could, for example, make demands ranging from the release of all political prisoners to freedom for all Soviet citizens to travel outside and even emigrate from the Soviet Union.
Finally, Gorbachev’s decisions to withdraw from Afghanistan and to pursue disarmament, while not exactly reforms, are important changes that must be included in our discussion. For they reflect pressures for reform (the cost of Afghanistan to Soviet prestige within and outside the USSR; the cost of the nuclear arms race to the Soviet economy), and they obviously have a direct bearing on the subject of a peaceful Soviet Union.
For the Soviets, the war in Afghanistan—that eight-year adventure in genocide, complete physical destruction of a country, and forced exile of a third of its population—has resulted not only in a loss of Soviet prestige around the world (including the Muslim world). It has also resulted in the deaths of many Soviet soldiers, growing discontent on the home front, and the moral degradation of the surviving Soviet soldiers, who, sent to repel alleged American aggression, instead found themselves killing women and children. Gorbachev, who was free from personal responsibility for the war, could hardly not have decided to withdraw from Afghanistan.
It would therefore be premature to infer from the withdrawal that the USSR has become less aggressive in nature. I say “less” because the USSR has not been especially peaceloving: consider the partition of Poland in 1939; the occupation of the Baltic states in 1940; the war against Finland in 1940; the annexation of Tuva on the Mongolian border in 1944; the suppression of the Hungarian revolution in 1956; the occupation of Czechoslovakia in 1968; and then the occupation of Afghanistan in 1979.
But at least Soviet leaders after Stalin have never displayed any desire to begin a nuclear war. Even before Gorbachev, they had advanced the idea in principle of destroying the whole nuclear arsenal. Soviet strategy does not rest on the concept of “a final, decisive war,” but on the concept of nibbling away piece by piece, making use of localized conflicts. Thus, Gorbachev’s general approach to nuclear disarmament is not so new. What is different is the logical conclusion he has drawn from it: if no one is planning a nuclear war and the upkeep of a nuclear-missile arsenal is a crushing burden for the economy, why not eliminate nuclear weapons?
The introduction of glasnost made the solution easier. The idea of greater openness permitted taking such psychologically difficult steps as having foreign observers at maneuvers and on-the-spot inspections. However, disarmament, despite its great importance, is not sufficient to assure a stable peace: a war between the two blocs can still break out, even if it is fought only with knives. (Or tanks, which the Soviets are still energetically producing even as they are conducting negotiations for the reduction of nuclear weapons.)
Let me now return to the questions with which I began. If we consider the factors that help make for the peaceful community of developed nations, we can say—speaking very generally at the moment—that the current interests of the Soviet leadership create some grounds for hope that the USSR will become a member of that community.
Soviet leaders do not simply want to avoid economic catastrophe; they plainly want their country to achieve a level of economic well-being comparable to that of the developed capitalist nations. Such well-being, in modern times, entails close and constructive ties with other developed nations; also, it implies a standard of living that gives many citizens an economic stake in peace and the money to learn about and form ties with citizens of other nations through travel.
Moreover, Soviet leaders have identified some level of civic and human rights as necessary means for achieving that economic well-being.
However, the prospect of economic success is being limited by the Soviet leaders’ habitual orientation to strategy, which is being expressed by their “top down” approach to defining problems and setting priorities for economic reform.
A more fundamental problem is the dilemma I touched on earlier: to reform effectively what the Soviet leaders have made targets of reform, by using the means they themselves have identified as necessary, will entail—in some cases certainly and in others possibly—profound challenges to the party’s sphere and degree of control, its strategic goals, and, indeed, to the fundamental nature of the Soviet system.
Let me briefly summarize the sources of that dilemma. First, even to begin to be effective, the current innovation of self-financing and contracts must be coupled with self-planning and some kind of free market. But doing so would already be a serious challenge to the party and the system, apart from the fact that real self-planning for managers would be bound to create immense pressures for an independent workers’ union.
Consider, too, the targets of bureaucracy and the system of compensation by privileges and services. A glasnost that would effect real reforms here would have to be, as I suggested above, one grounded in absolute guarantees of freedom to seek and impart information without any reprisals. And an effective glasnost would certainly entail a de facto democratic control that would undermine the basic structure of the economic system and party control over it.
At the heart of the dilemma, then, is the issue of human rights. It is a stumbling block inherent in the situation, not one imported into it by Soviet human-rights activists or by their supporters abroad.
The issue of human rights is critical to the prospects of a more peaceful Soviet Union. For the dilemma that faces Soviet leaders is acting as a brake on reform in the region of economics as well as of civic and human rights. There are, it is true, people within the party leadership who are willing to go rather far by traditional Soviet standards. But most of the leaders have not achieved power in order to lose it or to see it radically transformed. The changes they are making are a calculated effort to strengthen their own position, to strengthen their ability to carry out the party’s self-appointed global task. Thus, even for the so-called liberal members of the Soviet leadership, the dilemma is a grave one.
It is recognition of its gravity that accounts, I believe, for the lack of a master plan, the tentativeness, the half-measures, the selectivity in defining and implementing ideas like glasnost. These are, too, symptomatic of the leaders’ perception of the economic problem as a technical one to be resolved by trial and error. Through experimenting with the judicious application of fertilizers abstracted from democracy, they will learn (they think) what each degree of economic growth costs the party and how to get the most success with the least loss of party control along the way. And they think they will learn, before the fact, the answer to the delicate, technical, all-important question of the critical point at which their means of reform will irrevocably erode their end: power. In other words, the Soviet leaders are willing to settle for something less than what the developed world would regard as a fully developed economy.
The optimism with which Gorbachev and his supporters are pursuing perestroika suggests a belief that they can achieve an economic success sufficient for their strategic purposes before reaching the critical point. If they are right, then the answer to our initial question is that the Soviet Union will indeed become a more vital, powerful, isolated empire, and so will continue to pose a danger to world peace and security.
Are they right? If they maintain their current approach, I am certain that they will not prove to be. Their economic situation is so bad that it is beyond discussion in terms of degrees of improvement. Any non-trivial improvement at this stage requires a comprehensive and radical change of the whole system, not experimental tinkering with parts of it and with granting selected civic and other rights, all infused with exhortations from above.
Even if they change their approach, there is still an important psychological question. What they call “democratization” is a collection of features of democracy abstracted from their context and regarded as techniques for achieving certain results. But these things are not techniques. They are historic and fundamental human rights of liberty, equality, and fraternity translated into practical, interrelated principles. Those principles speak to and can create powerful human desires. So it is possible that the Soviet leaders greatly overestimate how isolable and controllable their democratizing “techniques” are; greatly underestimate how a taste of one can quickly develop into a powerful desire for more of the same and quickly ramify into equally powerful desires for others; and greatly underestimate how these desires can be expressed in powerful social pressure for increased civic and human rights.
I simply do not know whether the Soviet leaders will ever dare to take a different approach to economic reform. They could conceivably do so without facing such social pressure, and therefore could achieve their strategic economic goal. It is also conceivable that they can continue to tinker without facing that pressure. The result in either case would not advance world peace and security.
But if their reading of social psychology is wrong—if their experiments in “democratization” produce escalating, powerful, internal pressure for increased civic and human rights—then it seems to me one of two things will happen, the first bad and the second potentially good for world peace and security.
The pressure will occur when (if the leaders have stopped tinkering and are lucky) the current economic situation has at least been stabilized. Faced with that pressure, the leaders will cut short their whole program of reform; they will, in effect, engage in a salvage operation to keep intact the party’s control and global ambitions.
Or, the pressure will occur before the economy has been stabilized, forcing the leadership to choose between economic catastrophe and a transformation of the system into something democratic. I find it hard to believe that, faced with such alternatives, sane leaders would choose catastrophe. For selfish if not patriotic reasons, leaders would want to keep their position as leaders and would want to have something to lead. The prospect of leading a developed world power, one different from the old one but still unique, would surely be better than nothing.
On this analysis, the future of Russia and its contribution to world peace and security now depend on the intelligence and courage of its intelligentsia, and on the forcefulness and timing of their demands for civic rights and for human rights. (In the USSR, the struggles for each have become indivisible.) Unfortunately, it is very possible that the intelligentsia could settle for increased civic and human rights only in the sphere of culture as the price of their cooperation. Such a settlement would indeed be a gain from the standpoint of improving conditions within the Soviet Union, but not from the standpoint of world peace and security.
From that standpoint, it is critical that the Soviet leaders’ reading of social psychology be made incorrect. It is critical that the Soviet intelligentsia as well as the leaders of the Western nations pressure the Soviet leadership for increased civic and human rights in all spheres: political, social, and cultural; individual and collective. And it is critical that the pressure be exerted now, during this period of transition when the Soviet leadership is so vulnerable to it.
At the same time, the intelligentsia needs to be urged to develop for Soviet leaders realistic models of how the system can be transformed and how the economy can be raised to world standards within a relatively short time (something like fifteen to twenty years), while keeping some of the ideas it has long lived by. I myself think that any new political models must at a minimum contain provisions for independent trade unions and at least two political parties. And in thinking of economic models, I find myself returning to the idea I developed years ago in the article “Is a Non-Totalitarian Socialism Possible?”3
In that article I called for a shift to “private initiative without private property,” a capitalist model with some government regulation but without private ownership of any substantial means of production. Formal ownership of the means of production would reside in the state, but effective ownership would be exercised by leaseholders. This might be called a model of “a democratic society of free leaseholders.” The current economic reforms based on the idea of rent as the main type of economic relation are in fact already compatible with this model.
I did not see when I wrote the article in 1975, and do not now see, any other road leading to an evolution away from a Soviet socialist structure toward a democratic one on a non-capitalist basis. And I certainly did not foresee in 1975 that there would come so soon as now such an important, probably unique, opportunity for the Soviet leadership to be pressed into making the USSR a more humane country and a real member of the community of developed nations, competing with them through ideas, culture, goods, services—but no longer through physical force and weapons.
1 Soviet economic policy from 1922-28, aimed at revitalizing the economy by allowing private property and encouraging private initiative in agriculture, industry, and trade.
2 As in the book by Nikolai Yakovlev, CIA Target: The USSR, Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1984.
3 This essay, written in March 1975, was circulated in samizdat—Ed.