Gorbachev Couldn’t Reform the Soviet System — but a Better Socialism Is Possible

Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev, who died last week, was a tragic figure. He tried to build a humane socialism on the rotten foundations of authoritarianism. Today, without the albatross of Stalinism, we can fight for an entirely different kind of socialism.

Former leader of the Soviet Union Mikhail Gorbachev attends a literary festival in Cologne, Germany, 2013. (Ralf Juergens / Getty Images)

The final leader of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, was laid to rest on Saturday in Moscow. It wasn’t officially designated as a state funeral, although it had “elements of a state funeral,” and Russian president Vladimir Putin skipped it.

The snub isn’t surprising. Gorbachev’s program of perestroika (restructuring) and glasnost (openness) represented an attempt to liberalize the Soviet system from within. At the same time, he allowed the Warsaw Pact nations in Eastern Europe to determine their own destiny. As a militant Russian imperialist who presides over a brutally unequal society marked by very few vestiges of the socialist past, Putin has little reason to remember Gorbachev fondly.

Western media, for its own reasons, seems unsure of how to remember him. By the end of his tenure in office, Gorbachev was wildly popular in the West because he ended the Cold War and removed what had been the ever-present danger of mutual destruction. But in his later years, he railed against NATO expansion and warned that renewed great power rivalry could bring that danger roaring back — a message that’s unlikely to resonate with journalists who put Ukrainian flags in their Twitter bios. After all, even if he wanted to reform Soviet Communism, he was a Communist.

From the perspective of those of us who hold out hope for a better kind of socialism than what existed in the Soviet Union, Gorbachev can be viewed as a tragic figure, ground down between “oligarchs in waiting” who were salivating for the return of capitalism and Brezhnevite hard-liners who thought the USSR’s authoritarian and deeply dysfunctional economic system, bitterly resented by much of its population, could totter along the way it was forever. His reform program failed, and the first group came to power — an outcome that generated an explosion of economic inequality and immense human suffering.

Perhaps Gorbachev couldn’t have succeeded. It’s possible that the system simply didn’t have the internal resources for successful reform. But at least he tried to find a third path. For that alone, he deserves to be remembered more warmly than either his Stalinist predecessors or his gangster-capitalist successors.

Meanwhile, we should recognize that the kind of socialism worth fighting for today has very little in common with the system inherited by Mikhail Gorbachev in 1985, or even the liberalized version that collapsed in 1991. If we’re ever lucky enough to achieve a fully socialist future, it’s going to have to be a kind of socialism that promises more freedom, more prosperity, and a deeper kind of democratic self-government than what exists in Western capitalist democracies, if only because that’s the only kind that will have any chance of securing popular support.

The Tragedy of Gorbachev

In his book Beyond Perestroika, the anti-Stalinist Marxist theoretician Ernest Mandel notes that at the meeting of the Politburo — the ruling body of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union — where Gorbachev was elevated to his position as general secretary, his candidature was formally proposed by Andrei Gromyko, one of the Politburo’s longest-serving members. Gromyko might have been chosen for this task because he knew how to reassure Brezhnevite hard-liners that Gorbachev wouldn’t change too much too quickly, and would be willing to defend the system by force if push came to shove — Gromyko’s speech is supposed to have included a line about Gorbachev having “teeth of steel” behind his “enticing smile.”

But Gromyko’s role on the occasion is also a potent symbol of the fact that long-serving party leaders like him understood that something would have to change. The Soviet economy had been declining for a long time, both because of its own internally generated dysfunction and the drain imposed by the Cold War arms race with the United States. Within the Soviet Union itself, and to an even greater extent in the nations of the Warsaw Pact, the alleged “workers states” were resented by the actual workers under their thumbs. The rise of the Polish trade union movement Solidarność had been quashed a few years before, but more such explosions were inevitable. The status quo couldn’t last forever.

Gorbachev’s reform program had three prongs. The first, and the most important in explaining Putin’s disdain for his memory, was that he wound down the Soviet Union’s de facto empire. He ended the Soviet war in Afghanistan — overseeing, as left-wing foreign policy expert Kuba Wrzesniewski writes in Sublation magazine, “a more dignified exit than Biden managed in 2021” — and negotiating an arms control treaty with the United States, a considerable diplomatic feat considering that he had “the arch hawk Reagan as his counterpart.” Even more consequentially, he formally abandoned the Brezhnev Doctrine that asserted Soviet control over the nations of Eastern Europe. This in turn emboldened nationalists within the USSR itself and ultimately led to the dissolution of the union after Gorbachev lost power.

The second was perestroika, the economic restructuring that involved introducing market mechanisms within the basic framework of centralized state planning. The third, glasnost, was a gradual process of political liberalization.

Mandel believed that the second prong would fail because the third didn’t go far enough.

Socialist democracy is not a normative demand, nor is it an ideal to be realized little by little. It is an immediate practical necessity for the proper functioning of the Soviet economy and Soviet society. Without this democracy it is impossible for the planners to know the workers’ preferences both as producers and as consumers. Ignorant of these preferences, it is impossible to allocate the social product and the social surplus in the correct proportions. The mobilization of the potential knowledge and initiative which still remains hidden in the Soviet working class remains a mirage. Gorbachev’s plans remain suspended in midair, dependent on the good will of the bureaucrats.

Mandel was right about the information problems faced by Soviet planners, even in the Gorbachev era — though his proposed alternative is a bit vague. What ultimately happened was a catastrophe. Instead of the Soviet model of being replaced by a better, more democratic form of socialism, Gorbachev was succeeded by the openly pro-capitalist Boris Yeltsin, and a handful of oligarchs looted the state economy that had at least nominally been the collective property of the entire Soviet people.

Mandel was surely right that adding a bit of liberalization to the crumbling edifice of Soviet planning wasn’t enough to fix what was wrong with the Soviet economy. Meanwhile, trying to keep the basic structures of authoritarian control in place with a population increasingly unafraid to speak its mind, protest, and call for change was an increasingly difficult proposition. “Dissenting views,” Wrzesniewski writes, “could be expressed in increasingly less guarded ways, to the point of rising to a chorus in the late 80s.” The “peaceful decolonization” of Eastern Europe inspired Soviet citizens themselves “to protest and defy central authority, confident that they too would be spared the tanks, the secret police, and the camps of the Soviet apparatus of repression.”

Hard-liners nervous about the pace of reform staged an unsuccessful coup against Gorbachev in August 1991, and in the wake of their failure, the capitalist-restorationist faction led by Yeltsin seized the steering wheel of what, by December, was no longer the Soviet Union. The results were grim. Economic inequality grew to towering heights, and while opportunity and prosperity increased for those Russians who became part of the middle class, overall life expectancy sharply declined. Anyone who remembers reading news from Russia in the 1990s can remember article after article painting a picture of immiseration and lawlessness that sounded like something out of a dystopian science-fiction novel. Things have stabilized considerably since, but it’s hard to look back on the last thirty years of Russian history and think, “Gosh, I sure am happy that what replaced the Soviet system was capitalism.”

A Better Socialism Is Possible

Is there a version of Soviet history where Gorbachev succeeded in reforming the Soviet Union into something qualitatively different and better? It’s hard to answer that kind of counterfactual question with any kind of certainty, but one problem is that the Soviet working class wasn’t engaged in a democratic process of considering and deciding on reforms to a state they fundamentally recognized as theirs.

Wrzesniewski gives Gorbachev credit for the “socialist humanism” he displayed in trying to reform and defend the Soviet system without “spilling any more blood.” That may well be an accurate description of Gorbachev’s subjective intentions, but given the kind of system he was inheriting, much of the Soviet Union related to him not as their representative but as a more generous and liberal prison warden. And state officials who exercised actual power either saw him as a threat to the system with which they identified or as a roadblock that had to be swept away as they transformed themselves from state socialist bureaucrats to wealth-hoarding capitalists. In such a scenario, it’s hard to see how any result could have come about except a transition to capitalism, a reversion to the pre-Gorbachev status quo, or some Chinese-style combination of the two outcomes. At the outer edge of possibility, perhaps, there’s a timeline where Gorbachev steered the USSR (or just Russia) to a more humane and social democratic form of capitalism — “Sweden with nukes.”

But a better version of a fully socialist society would have to come about in radically different circumstances. As Rosa Luxemburg presciently wrote as far back as 1918, when she wrote a pamphlet criticizing the authoritarian aspects of the early Bolshevik regime, socialist democracy can’t come about “as some sort of Christmas present for the worthy people who, in the interim, have loyally supported a handful of socialist dictators.” If you want your socialism to end up democratic, it has to start that way.

But what would that actually look like? Mandel’s diagnosis of the problem with Soviet planning is convincing enough, but simply postulating “democracy” as the solution makes it sound like every decision regarding how to “allocate the social product and the social surplus” would be put to a vote — or worse yet, some endless mass meeting where everyone spends interminable hours searching for consensus. After all, it’s not easy to see how representative democracy could give planners detailed, fine-grain information about “the workers’ preferences both as producers and as consumers” — the absence of which led to the shoddy products and empty grocery store shelves that routinely infuriated ordinary Soviet citizens. Would every issue about which kinds of breakfast cereal to produce, which factories should have first pick of raw materials, and so on, be a campaign issue in the representatives’ elections?

In The Blueprint, a book I’m cowriting with Bhaskar Sunkara and Mike Beggs, we lay out an alternative vision that disaggregates the issue of workers’ democracy from the issue of consumer preferences. The most important reason socialists have always advocated democracy at the workplace is that the workplace is the place where most adults have to spend at least half their waking lives most days of the week. No one should have to spend all that time taking orders from bosses over whom they can’t exercise any kind of direct democratic accountability. And the lack of democratic input in deciding what happens to the product of workers’ collective labor — the lack Marxists call “exploitation” — generates an utterly indefensible level of economic inequality.

But there’s no reason that democracy at the workplace, and marketless planning of those public goods where markets generate the most socially undesirable consequences, can’t coexist with the use of market mechanisms to solve the information problems that plagued even Gorbachev-era Soviet planners. In the model outlined in our book, full democratic socialism would entail not only domains like health care and education but banks and other commanding heights of the economy would be state-owned. The remaining quasi-private sector would be made up of competing worker-owned cooperatives that would essentially rent the physically means of production from the public as a whole through grants from state-owned banks. When all this is combined with a robust civil society, a free press, and real multiparty elections, it is possible that such a setup could give us a world fundamentally different from both what existed in the Soviet Union and the neoliberal order that’s become globally hegemonic since the USSR’s collapse.

Wrzesniewski expresses some discomfort with Gorbachev’s behavior in the decades after he lost power and accommodated himself a bit too comfortably to what came next. (Most notoriously, he starred in a Pizza Hut commercial.) But he offers a qualified defense. What came after Gorbachev left the stage — “the ‘shock therapy’ transition to capitalism, the plunder of national wealth by well-connected gangsters, the fatal solutions peddled by Western advisors, and the social, economic, and political catastrophe which still bedevils the post-Soviet state” — was neither “his intention nor his doing.” He tried to steer a different course.

Gorbachev himself doubtless made a multitude of errors as he set out on that course, and it’s impossible to know whether another man could have achieved a different result. But the more basic problem may have been that, as Rosa Luxemburg foresaw decades before Mikhail Gorbachev was born, a socialist democracy couldn’t emerge from any allegedly “temporary” or “transitional” dictatorship. If we want to achieve the kind of society where Pizza Hut is not just nationalized but placed under workers’ control, the road there is going to have to be a democratic one in which an organized and politically engaged working class is operating in its own interests. Most likely, this would mean first fighting for social democratic reforms and then fighting to go beyond social democracy’s limits. There are many ways to start on that road and never get to your destination — because your enemies have defeated you, or because of your own errors, or simply because you’ve lost popular support. But it’s the only one that leads where we want to go.

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Ben Burgis is a Jacobin columnist, an adjunct philosophy professor at Morehouse College, and the host of the YouTube show and podcast Give Them An Argument. He’s the author of several books, most recently Christopher Hitchens: What He Got Right, How He Went Wrong, and Why He Still Matters.

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