Editor’s note: This piece by Peter W. Rodman appeared in the January 20, 1992, issue of National Review. Rodman passed away after a fight with leukemia on Saturday.
Mikhail Gorbachev will go down in history as the man who destroyed the Soviet system, by mistake. This explains both the great that the world owes him, and the inevitability of his downfall.
His reform program consciously and deliberately discredited the old Soviet system — its stultified ideology, its command economic structure, its empire ruled by brute force, its foreign adventures. But events went far beyond his intention. Until the bitter end, his vision was not of a constitutional democracy but of a more benign, reformed Communist structure that would thrive because he had put it on a new basis.
Gorbachev had begun in 1985 with the correct perception that reality was rendering the old system unworkable in the modern age, It was a system dependent on lies and brutality — lies about the system’s performance and brutality to enforce obeisance to the lies. He sought a New Model Communism that could attract the voluntary efforts and willing cooperation of its people — an economy that would be more decentralized and flexible, a political process that would be more participatory.
In Eastern Europe, similarly, his avowed aim was to replace the coercive relations of the past with a more voluntary basis for bloc unit. He sought to replace old-line Party bosses with reformers like himself, seeing this as the perfect answer to the satellites’ chronic problems of economic performance, internal legitimacy, and relations with Moscow. Such reform Communists would feel themselves natural partners of the reform leadership in the Kremlin, making common cause against the hard-liners in all their countries.
The flaw in this vision, of course, was that when the factor of fear was removed, there was nothing left that Soviet or Eastern European peoples had the slightest interest in. Given a free choice, they didn’t want a benign form of Communism; they wanted the real thing: democracy and independence. They couldn’t wait to throw the bums out — an unsurprising anti-incumbent reaction after a forty-year (or seventy-year) record of criminality and incompetence unmatched by any political party in world history.
Thus, Gorbachev’s vigorous pursuit of change was enough to delegitimize the old system and sap its strength, but not to save it. Gorbachev had let loose a process of demoralization and political unraveling he could not stop.
To his everlasting credit, he let this process run its course. There were outbursts of bluster, to be sure — peremptory presidential decrees, sporadic threats to stomp on the republics (the Nancy Sinatra Doctrine) — but, overall, he refrained from systematic (or effective) resort to the brutality of the past. On this point he stood his moral ground, and for that in a perverse way may even deserve the Nobel Peace Prize. (Only in a Soviet leader, however, can it be considered an exemplary act to refrain from murdering one’s own people.)
He was justly praised for his tactical brilliance. He maneuvered between the zealots of Right and Left, splitting the difference between their programs, convincing each side that he was shielding it from the excesses of the other. He thus maintained a balance between them that averted a civil war, while the tide inexorably flowed in the direction of reform. When a coup was attempted in August 1991, the hard-liners had been to much weakened and the trend of democratization in the society had become too strong for the coup to succeed. That was to his credit, too. but when the hard-liners were defeated, his balancing act was over.
Gorbachev’s ultimate failure was intellectual. “Splitting the difference” between Communism and freedom was not a policy that had ultimate meaning. He lacked the clarity of vision to understand that the system had to be destroyed and replaced, not just reformed. His own faith in the socialist ideal made him cling, far too long, to the Communist Party and the central apparatus, which remained his political base. He never understood that wholesale marketization of the economy — a leap to private property — was the only hope. He offered the republics a variety of improved union treaties, but he denied their right to sovereignty, which to them was the starting point.
Therefore, Gorbachev was not, and could not be, the one to lead the country where it had to go. He did not — and may still not — understand the totality of the break with the past that was required. Boris Yeltsin — who long ago renounced the Communist Party, who long ago repudiated the socialist economic system, who long ago conceded the sovereignty of the republics — was in a far better position to build a new structure on the ruins of the old. Even the army recognized that any hopes for stability and cohesion rested with the new voluntary commonwealth that Yeltsin conceived. Nor was there any hope for economic revival until the political structure was settled. Yet Gorbachev’s final performance was a pathetic combination of desperate resistance, whining incomprehension, and cynical alarmism directed toward the West.
In Moscow they joked that Gorbachev was Moses not Joshua; he would not make it to the next phase of history. But that’s unfair to Moses. Unlike Gorbachev, Moses had seen and understood what the Promised Land looked like; he wasn’t clinging to a “restructured” version of the pharaonic code. Gorbachev’s clinging to the old ways prolonged and deepened the economic crisis, even as the political process he had unleashed propelled his country toward a Promised Land of democracy he had never sought.