The Last Revisionist

Gorbachev believed, mistakenly, that communism could be reformed

MIKHAIL GORBACHEV did not fail because of the West. Flagellating ourselves for nonexistent faults, we risk missing the meaning of this man's endeavor. We tend to forget that Mr. Gorbachev came to power not to dismantle communism, but to restore its alleged, long-denied humanist potential.

In his belief that communism included such a dimension and his insistence that Stalin had been a vicious traitor to the original Marxian and Leninist messages, Gorbachev was part of a long and distinguished tradition within the communist chapels. Students of Marxism refer to the attempt to turn such beliefs into policy as revisionism.

Of course, Gorbachev was not the first celebrated revisionist. Before him, attempts had been made by others to reconcile socialism with democracy and to jettison the repressive features of the system as distortions of an intrinsically healthy order.

Consider Imre Nagy, Hungary's premier during the 1956 revolution, executed in 1958, and Alexander Dubcek, the leader of the Prague Spring reform movement in 1968. Both Mr. Nagy and Mr. Dubcek failed because Soviet intervention crushed their experiments and dashed hopes of renovating socialism from within. But when Gorbachev came to power in March 1985 and announced his program of renewal, there was no foreign force to threaten the great shaker in the Kremlin. The seeds of the negation of the old order we re planted in the empire's innermost sanctum.

What have been the main illusions of Gorbachev and other revisionists? First, that the Communist Party, as the initiator of reforms, should preserve a central role during their implementation. Second, that there was a middle way between the conservation of Stalinist structures and their complete disbandment. Third, that a compromise of sorts could be reached with the exponents of the old regime. And fourth, that the population at large was ready to enthusiastically espouse the revisionist program and end orse the new leaders in the frantic search for modernization. The revisionists naively believed in their popular mandate.

But as Polish dissident historian Adam Michnik wrote years ago, this logic was basically flawed. The system could not tolerate structural changes and secreted antibodies. In the case of the Soviet Union, instead of foreign intervention, Gorbachev was faced with the morose inertia of the bureaucratic colossus. His exhortations increasingly fell on deaf ears, as economic performance failed to improve. The work ethos was plagued by apathy and indifference.

Conceived as political myths to energize the masses, glasnost and perestroika managed to stir the intelligentsia and allowed nationalist passions to reawaken. Civil society developed, not across all-union lines, as expected by the Gorbachevites, but rather across ethnic ones. The Leninist harangues excited no one. Instead, people perceived Gorbachev as a quixotic figure, with little to offer other than hackneyed tenets of an obsolete ideology.

Was Gorbachev a true believer? In a sense yes, because only a true believer would have engaged in such destructive action while hoping that there was enough loyalty to the system among its subjects to keep the country together. Like Lenin - definitely his role-model - he thought that the social contract offered to the long persecuted Soviet population would be enough to convince these people to support him. A true Leninist, he believed in the vanguard role of the Communist Party. Eventually, he found him self in a political no-man's land: The democrats perceived him as an incorrigible child of the nomenklatura; the apparatus as an unforgivable traitor to the cause.

For the nationalists in non-Russian republics, Gorbachev represented the centralized police state. For the Russophiles, he was the author of the country's ruin. In August 1991, he met not only the challenge of the enraged apparatus, but also the revolution from below of those for whom Leninism was nothing but the name of their oppression.

Like other revisionists, Gorbachev was mentally ill-prepared for such challenges. He had thought that he had offered the best deal under the existing circumstances. He learned, in the months to follow, that his ideas belonged to a bygone era. Other people were to succeed Gorbachev and make up the former Soviet Union's new political elites.

Because he did not know how to join the plebeians' rebellion and remained secluded in the castle of his Leninist dreams, Gorbachev lost to people, like Yeltsin or Anatoli Sobchak, who were able to break with the Leninist creed. Hence, Gorbachev's inevitable political demise consecrates the final act of Marxist revisionism. It demonstrates a truth that East Europeans had been long familiar with: There is no communism with a human face.

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