By Roger Keeran
October 10, 2022
This is a modified version of a presentation by Roger Keeran to the Institute for the Critical Study of Society of the Niebyl-Proctor Library, September 25, 2022. -THE EDITORS.
I would like to thank you for this invitation, my second invitation to speak to your group.
I would first like to acknowledge my co-author Joe Jamison. Joe deserves the credit for coming up with the idea to write a book on the Soviet collapse. This has led to 20 years of collaboration. We have spoken together in France, Greece, and Cuba. We continue to collaborate on the website Marxism-Leninism Today. It has been 20 years of work and friendship.
I will divide my comments on Gorbachev and the Soviet Collapse into three parts.
First, I will make some preliminary observations on Gorbachev’s death.
Second, I will summarize our view of Gorbachev’s role in the Soviet collapse that we presented in Socialism Betrayed.
Finally, I will deal with one of the most intriguing questions about Gorbachev: when and why did he turn against Marxism-Leninism and become a social-democrat?
Mikhail Gorbachev died on August 30 at the age of 91. According to the British Independent on September 3, he was laid to rest, in the presence of hundreds of Russian mourners. In an interesting contrast, a few years ago in France I saw a film on the funeral of Enrico Berlinguer, the leader of the Italian Communist Party. When Berlinguer died in 1984, after a life of standing steadfastly for the working class, the Italian party and his Marxist-Leninist principles, there were not hundreds but over a million Italian mourners at his funeral, the largest funeral ever in Italy.
Of course, Gorbachev was not without his mourners and eulogists, but they were not the Russian workers, the former citizens of the Soviet Union, or the workers of the world. They were not the Afghans who were left at the tender mercy of the American military and Muslim fundamentalists after Gorbachev abandoned them. They were not the Cubans whose lives were thrown into the misery of the so-called Special Period, after Gorbachev ended some billions of dollars a year in sugar and oil subsidies. They were not the Russian soldiers or Ukrainians who were dying in a war that never would have occurred had the Soviet Union persisted. Those shedding tears were the bankers, journalists and other apologists of imperialism. The western press was filled with fawning obituaries. Reading them one could hardly keep from choking on their effrontery and hypocrisy.
James A. Baker III, Secretary of State under George Bush, said: “The free world will be forever grateful to him,” a man with “an upbeat attitude that buoyed everyone, “a very courageous leader who was an inspiring advocate of more freedom.” In a similar vein, David Remnick, editor of The New Yorker, wrote: Gorbachev “possessed both the idealism and political skill to generate something in the world…exceedingly rare: a sense of decency and promise.”
The greatest common denominator of Gorbachev’s purported accomplishments was, in the words of James Baker, “the pivotal role he played in the peaceful end of the Cold War.”
To be generous, it is true the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the U.S. ended, but only because the Soviet Union ended. Gorbachev hardly ushered in a more peaceful world. Indeed, the reverse is true. The so-called end of the Cold War not only failed to lead to any reduction in nuclear arms, but it emboldened United States imperialists to engage in new hot wars in Afghanistan, Yugoslavia, Iraq, Syria, and Libya and to expand NATO in a way that provoked the current conflict in the Ukraine. We might add, it also emboldened the United States to initiate a new Cold War against China.
After Gorbachev, is the world safer from nuclear war? Not according to UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres. Speaking on August 5, three weeks before Gorbachev died, Guterres said: that a new arms race is picking up speed, almost 13,000 nuclear weapons currently existed in arsenals around the world. “Crises with grave nuclear undertones are spreading fast — from the Middle East to the Korean peninsula, to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine… Humanity is playing with a loaded gun.”
In all of the mainstream reflections on Gorbachev’s life, there are three striking images that you will not find.
The first image has to do with Najibullah who was the General Secretary of the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan. This was the party that tried to revolutionize Afghanistan. It brought economic growth of 24 percent a year to a country mired in feudalism and tribalism. It brought education to a country that was 90 percent illiterate. Indeed, the civil war of the warlords against the People’s Democratic Party began with their assassination of the teachers of girls. (See Phillip Bonosky, Afghanistan: Washington’s Secret War which recounts these accomplishments.)
The Soviet Union steadfastly supported the Afghan government. The Soviets, however, resisted sending troops until 1979. Then, after three requests by the Afghan government and after the CIA began to aid the Muslim fundamentalists in what became the largest CIA operation in the world, the Soviet Union sent troops. (Zbigniew Brzezinksi, President Carter’s National Security Advisor said, “We knowingly increased the probability that they [the Soviets] would [intervene].” One could say the same thing about the Ukraine. The American expansion of NATO and plan to incorporate the Ukraine knowingly increased the probability of a Russian intervention.)
One of Gorbachev’s first foreign policy moves was to stop blaming imperialism for the conflict in Afghanistan and to signal his desire to withdraw. Gorbachev soon reversed the policies of Brezhnev, Andropov, and Chernenko, who had viewed Afghan aid as an expression of international solidarity. Sarah Mendelson, a historian of the war points out that Gorbachev’s decision was not caused by battlefield retreats or opposition to the war at home. It was, as one says in chess, an unforced error caused by Gorbachev’s desire to conciliate the United States.
Within a few years, the Soviets had withdrawn, and the Najibullah government was overthrown by the Taliban. Najibullah and others took refuge in the UN offices in Kabul. On the night of September 22, 1996. The Taliban abducted him from UN custody, castrated him, tortured him to death, and dragged his corpse behind a truck through the streets of Kabul. They then hanged his body from a lamp post outside the presidential palace.
This image of Gorbachev’s reign did not make it into the obits.
The second image you will not see relates to Cuba. The Soviet Union supported Cuba since the revolution. Khrushchev stood with Cuba during the missile crisis. And the Soviet Union had given Cuba about $5 billion a year in cheap oil and other necessities to counteract the American blockade. Gorbachev ended this exercise in internationalism and plunged Cuba into economic misery in what Cuba calls the “Special Period.” Between 1990 and 1993 Cuba’s Gross National Product fell 50 percent.
Two decades later in 2014, Joe and I visited Manual Yepe, one of the leaders of the Cuban Revolution, and his wife Marta, both of whom were responsible for getting our book on the Soviet Union published in Cuba. Marta, who taught at the University of Havana, said it was striking how she could always tell which of her students were children during the Special Period. Because of the malnutrition during the Special Period, the children of this period grew up stunted, a fact that remained obvious about them as young adults.
This image too did not make it into the obits.
The third image to which I draw your attention is of Gorbachev himself.
In 1996, six years after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, gangster capitalists and foreign investors were pillaging the factories and mines that Russian workers had built over 70 years. The country’s economy collapsed by 50 percent. Incomes plunged. Life expectancy declined to what it was under the czar. Russia underwent what historian Stephen F. Cohen called an “unprecedented de-modernization.” This year 1996 Gorbachev ran for president of Russia. Everywhere Gorbachev campaigned Russians heckled and reviled him. In the election, Gorbachev received .5 percent of the vote. Boris Yeltsin got 36 percent of the vote, and the Communist Gennady Zyuganov got 33 percent.
At the same time, Gorbachev, the erstwhile self-proclaimed Leninist, made a television commercial for Pizza Hut, a gig for which he was reportedly payed $1 million.
The images of Gorbachev of being heckled and of Gorbachev munching an American pizza did not make it into his eulogies.
Gorbachev and the Soviet Collapse
Let me explain the view of Gorbachev and the Soviet collapse that we develop in the book, Socialism Betrayed. I will just summarize the main argument without adducing all of the facts and details that we use to support the argument. These are all available in the book.
Gorbachev’s policies were the proximate cause of abandonment of socialism in the Soviet Union and all that it had accomplished, but neither Gorbachev nor the Soviet collapse were inevitable. The Soviet Union was not in crisis in 1985 when Gorbachev came to power.
Except for the years of the Civil War and the Second World War, the Soviet economy had grown every year at a faster rate than the United States. This remained true until the late 1980s The Soviet Union showed none of the earmarks of a society in crisis. There was no unemployed or inflation. There were no strikes, mass demonstrations of protest, or riots. Surveys at the time showed that the Soviet people were as happy with their system as Americans were with theirs.
By any measure Soviet socialism was a resounding success for working people. It had made dramatic gains in raising wages, improving education and health care, and advancing the rights of women and national minorities. As the United Nations noted, the citizens of the Soviet Union read more books, magazines and journals, and attended more concerts, plays, movies, and art exhibitions than any other people on earth. Michael Parenti said it simply: The Soviet Union made “a dramatic improvement in the living conditions for hundreds of millions of people on a scale never before or since witnessed in history.”
The Soviet Union had problems.
The Soviet Union was hardly a socialist utopia. It had problems. There were complaints about the quantity and quality of consumer goods. There was a large black market and the corruption of some officials. Economic growth continued, but the rate of growth was slackening. There were gross inefficiencies and a lack of labor discipline. The Soviet Union was slow in utilizing in production the latest developments in computer technology. Plus, the Soviet Union was in the throes of a new Cold War (started by President Jimmy Carter) that forced the Soviets to divert billions of rubles into the military. Finally, there was a kind of ideological and political stagnation symbolized by the three leaders who had preceded Gorbachev. All were all old, enfeebled and died in office.
These problems while chronic were not critical. Moreover, the Soviet Union was well-positioned to deal with them, when it acquired a new leader, Yuri Andropov, upon the death of Brezhnev. Andropov was an intelligent, experienced and dedicated Communist. He was well-aware of the problems and advanced policies to address them. He undertook initiatives to reduce tension with the West, to promote new energetic leaders, to increase labor discipline, and promote the diffusion of technological innovation. Andropov had everything going for him as a leader except time. Eighteen months after assuming office, he died of kidney failure.
Gorbachev became General Secretary of the CPSU in March 1985. Gorbachev followed Andropov’s lead at the start but soon changed course.
By late 1985, Gorbachev began to abandon of basic Marxist-Leninist ideas: dialectical materialism, class struggle and the leading role of the Communist Party. He replaced them with a social-democratic approach that saw the solution of socialism’s problems by making one-sided concessions to imperialism and injecting capitalist ideas, namely private enterprise and the market, into socialism.
Gorbachev’s two main policies glasnost and perestroika amounted to taking two old Communist ideas and injecting them with new social democratic content. Glasnost that originally meant more openness on the part of the Communist Party, turned into a policy of open attacks on the Communist Party. Perestroika that originally meant restructuring to produce greater efficiency and labor discipline turned into dismantling centralized planning and promoting private enterprise.
Gorbachev did not fall from the sky. He was the product of political and economic conditions that preceded him.
First, he represented a continuation of social democratic thinking in the CPSU which was previously manifested by Nikolai Bukharin and Nikita Khrushchev. The essence of this approach was that one could advance socialism by reducing the role of the Communist Party and by introducing into socialism ideas from capitalism workplace autonomy, market mechanisms, and private property.
Secondly, reflected the class interest of a growing petty bourgeoisie rooted in the expanding sector of the second, or private, economy, a sector that existed along with the first, or socialized economy. Under Soviet socialism most private economic activity was forbidden. Farmers were permitted to have small plots and some craftsmen and professional were permitted to do some side work. This changed after Stalin’s death. Under Khrushchev more private economic activity was allowed and a black market of illegal private activity developed. In the ensuing years both increased, particularly the black market that by the 1980s reached every nook and cranny of Soviet society, involved millions of people as consumers and sellers, and accounted for a growing percentage of all economic activity. The black market created big problems. It involved stealing time and money from state enterprises. And because it was illegal, it could exist only by corrupting officials. Most importantly, it created a growing social basis for right wing values and ideology.
In short, Gorbachev as a political phenomenon was a product of historic rightwing tendencies in the Party and the new petty bourgeois basis for these ideas in the social class linked to the second economy.
Why did Gorbachev turn toward social democratic policies in late 1985 and 1986?
There are three possible explanations: 1. a leftwing or ultra-leftwing explanation, 2. a rightwing or social democratic explanation, and 3. a Marxist-Leninist explanation.
The left-wing or ultra-left-wing explanation was the Gorbachev was always (or at least for a long time) a social-democrat. He simply disguised his real views and objectives until he had the power and opportunity to implement them, and then he did so in a duplicitous way by claiming he was returning to Lenin. An extreme variation of this explanation views Gorbachev as an agent of the CIA.
The problem is this. As Xi Jinping has said, a Marxist explanation of anything must begin with the facts. And the facts are simply not there to support this first theory.
The two staunchest and most respected Communist leaders at the time were Yuri Andropov and Yegor Ligachev.
Andropov had known Gorbachev for years as both were from Stavrapol. Andropov had brought Gorbachev to Moscow and promoted Gorbachev to the Central Committee. Andropov, who was himself in charge of ideology before becoming General Secretary, never expressed the slightest suspicion that Gorbachev was a social democratic.
Similarly, Ligachev who for many years was the Party leader in Novosibirsk, and who was Organizational Secretary or second in command after Gorbachev never thought he was a secret social democrat. Ligachev held Gorbachev responsible for destroying the Soviet Union and regretted ever having supported him, nonetheless he never said he thought Gorbachev was acting on some pre-conceived social democratic plan.
The only Communist who comes close to accepting this explanation was Erich Honecker, the last leader of the German Democratic Republic. In his memoirs written in prison after being incarcerated by the new anti-Communist leaders of Germany, Honecker wrote: “The new group of leaders around Gorbachev in March 1985, Shevardnadze, Yakolev, and Yeltsin, who came to the top of the state and the Soviet party, already had a goal, which we clearly recognize today, to ‘change the system.'” “That the first steps in this direction were accomplished in the name of Lenin, the founder of Soviet power, and their faithfulness to him, changes nothing. In his memoirs, Shevardnadze reports that he met with Gorbachev in the fall of 1984 and that in the course of a walk along the Black Sea, they agreed that it was necessary to ‘change the whole system.'” (Erich Honecker, Carnets de Prison first published in 1995, in French in 2009)
Thus, even Honecker who believed Gorbachev and those around him “had a goal” to “change the whole system,” even before they had power, does not indicate what this goal was or what this change was to be.
The right-wing or social-democratic explanation of why Gorbachev changed was that he had no choice, that he met such resistance from other leaders of the Communist Party as well as from vested interests in the bureaucracy and enterprises, that he had no choice but to weaken Party and weaken centralized planning.
The problem with this explanation is that the facts do not support it. Gorbachev faced no opposition for the first two years. Gorbachev’s initial reforms were greeted enthusiastically by Soviet Communists and Communists abroad. Even Boris Yeltsin who would become Gorbachev’s wily critic the right, and Yegor Ligachev who would become his most fierce critic on the left, supported Gorbachev’s reforms at the beginning. They did not begin to oppose Gorbachev until after he had already made moves to weaken the party, turn over the media to anti-Communists like Yakolev, and open the floodgates to anti-party criticism.
The third explanation of why Gorbachev changed was that Gorbachev was not a strong leader with a firm grasp of Marxism-Leninism, and thus he was not able to resist the pressure that was coming from the right-wing of the Party like Yakolev, Yeltsin, and Schevardnadze, as well as from those petty bourgeois elements profiting off the second economy, as well as from the capitalist world that cheered his every right-wing move.
No one has studied the collapse of the Soviet Union more closely than the Chinese Communist Party. General Secretary Xi Jinping summed up the Party thinking in 2013, which dovetails with our own written years before:
“Why did the Soviet Union disintegrate? Why did the Communist Party of the Soviet Union fall to pieces? An important reason is that in the ideological domain, competition is fierce! To completely repudiate the historical experience of the Soviet Union, to repudiate Lenin, to repudiate Stalin was to wreak chaos in Soviet ideology and engage in historical nihilism. It caused Party organizations at all levels to have barely any function whatsoever. It robbed the Party of its leadership of the military. In the end the CPSU–as great a Party as it was–scattered like a flock of frightened beasts….This is the lesson from the past!”
This was Gorbachev’s problem. He either did not understand Marxism-Leninism or was not committed to Marxist-Leninist ideas.
To raise the notion of “universal human values” over class values and to make unilateral concessions to imperialism as Gorbachev and did in Afghanistan, Cuba and with Reagan’s so-called “zero option” proposal, betrayed a fundamental lack of understanding of dialectics and class struggle at the international level. One-sided capitulation was not class struggle.
To attack the authority of the Communist Party was a fundamental betrayal of the Leninist of the central and leading role of a vanguard party.
To attack Stalin and Lenin was either simple-minded or opportunistic betrayal.
To attack central planning and state ownership was to undermine the two economic pillars of socialism.
Gorbachev was not a leader of deep ideological background or rich experience. Aside from throwing around some occasional quotes from Lenin, his writing and speeches never showed any knowledge or study of Marxism. His entire political life before Moscow was spent as the leader of Stavropol, a province of spas and resorts. One historian compared his background to being the mayor of Las Vegas. His travel was confined to western countries, and he had not even traveled to other parts of the Soviet Union.
One can appreciate how shallow was Gorbachev’s resume by comparing his life to Andropov’s. Andropov had worked closely with three of the great Communist leader, Otto Kuusinen, leader of the Finnish Party, V. I. Molotov, for many years the second leader under Stalin, and Michael Suslov, for many years the leader of ideology. Gorbachev had no such mentors.
Andropov’s career was studded by occasions that demanded great courage, calmness, and tough-mindedness. During the Second World War he fought with partisans in Finland. For years, he was ambassador to Hungary including during the rebellion of 1956. During the 1960’s as head of the KGB, he was in charge of suppressing and justifying the suppression of intellectuals like Alexander Solzhenitsyn. He also was in charge of fighting corruption which among other things led to replacing the entire party leadership and government of Azerbaijan and investigating for corruption Brezhnev’s daughter and son-in-law. Gorbachev was tempered in no such fires.
Two final thoughts on Gorbachev
As disturbing and depressing as Gorbachev’s betrayal was, it is important to learn from it.
One thing to learn is that in the history of revolutionary socialism, Gorbachev’s betrayal was not unique. What was exceptional was that he was the head of state, went so far, and was not stopped.
There have been other notable betrayals. Georgy Piatakov, Nikolai Bukharin, and Leon Trotsky all had a grounding in Marxism, had strong revolutionary credentials and held responsible positions of leadership. All had helped make the Bolshevik revolution, and yet all betrayed the revolution. Nikita Khrushchev did much harm to the revolution by his wholesale rejection of much Soviet history and by his ill-conceived efforts to emulate capitalism, but he never abandoned socialist internationalism, attacked the Communist Party or contemplated the economic and political changes that Gorbachev embraced.
American Communists have suffered their own betrayals. Jay Lovestone was national secretary of the Party in 1927 when he began developing a revisionist ideas, including the idea of American exceptionalism, that United States was an exception to worldwide trend of growing class conflict. After his expulsion, he became an open anti-Communist, worked with David Dubinsky to oust Communists from the labor movement, and ended up working with the CIA as an expert on Communism. Earl Browder, the leader of the CPUSA during its heyday of the 1930s, turned to the right in the 1940s and temporarily liquidated the party. Sam Webb was the leader of the Party after Gus Hall. He moved to the right, abolished much of the Party apparatus, abandoned fundamental ideas, and eventually quit the Party and joined the Democratic Party.
It is clear that the greatest and most persistent danger of betrayal has come from the right, that is right opportunism and social democracy. Stalin said it clearly in 1928: “the Right deviation…a tendency on the part of a section of the Communists to depart from the revolutionary line of Marxism in the direction of Social-Democracy.” This will be true as long as capitalism dominates much of the world, because the capitalists not only have tremendous economic and military power but also have tremendous ideological power. Moreover, as Lenin pointed out this rightwing tendency will remain under socialism as long as small, private production exists. Lenin said, the strength of capitalism likes “in the strength of small production. For, unfortunately, very, very much of small production still remains in the world, and small production engenders capitalism and the bourgeoisie, continuously, daily, hourly, and on a mass scale.”
M. Molotov, the last surviving Bolshevik saw this. In his memoirs published the same year Gorbachev became General Secretary, Molotov said: “A struggle still lies ahead for the party. Khrushchev was no accident. We are primarily a peasant country, and the right wing is powerful. Where’s the guarantee to prevent them from getting the upper hand? The anti-Stalinists in all probability will come to power in the near future, and they are most likely to be Bukharinists.”
Molotov was indeed prescient. And he drives home one of the main lessons of the Gorbachev experience, the importance for Communists to value ideology and to be alert to the right danger that always exists. Molotov’s prescience brings me to my last observation about Gorbachev.
Recently, I read a 750-page book by a group of Italian leftists on Piatakov and Trotsky’s work to undermine the Soviet Union in the 1930s. These writers quoted Stalin as saying that a key quality of those who wished to lead the working class was the ability to see the future. Stalin had this quality to an uncommon degree, as was evident by his predictions that a war with Germany was coming and that the Soviets must prepare by quickly collectivizing agriculture and industrializing the country. To an astounding degree, Gorbachev lacked this ability to see ahead. It is very unlikely that Gorbachev wanted or foresaw the disaster that his policies would produce. It is very unlikely that Gorbachev wanted or foresaw that they would result in him being a socialist without socialism, a Communist without a party, and a president without a country. It is very unlikely that Gorbachev wanted or foresaw that he would end of being rejected and reviled by most of his countrymen
Gorbachev’s myopia may have been a personal tragedy for him, but it was a catastrophe for Communists, workers, and the oppressed of the world, and we are still paying the price for his myopia.
–Roger Keeran is the author of The Communist Party and the Auto Workers’ Unions (1980) and co-author with Thomas Kenny of Socialism Betrayed: Behind the Collapse of the Soviet Union (2004), as well as various articles in history or sociology journals. He is Professor Emeritus of the Empire State College at SUNY.