The Significance of Gorbachev



0805 500 1974                    

“A great man is not a hero in the sense that he can stop, or change, the natural course of things, but in the sense  that his activities are the conscious and free expression of this inevitable and unconscious course. Herein lies all his significance; herein lies his whole power…”  – George Plekhanov (1856-1918).

In the vibrant days of the Communist Party of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), the roles played by the  would-be successors at the funeral  of a deceased party leader was imbued with a lot of political and ideological messages. The sitting arrangement during  the solemn occasion was not a random affair. The relegation or promotion of party cadres often began with the recognition accorded them at the funeral of a departing leader.

So the funeral of a party leader was not just a ceremony to bury  the dead. It was often meant  to make a statement about the future of the living.

When the leader  of the Bolshevik revolution, Vladimir Lenin,  died in 1924, Joseph Stalin tactfully and strategically assumed prominence in the funeral activities. By implication, this  was more than a  symbolism to Stalin’s rival, Leon Trotsky,  and his tendency in the Bolshevik party. Stalin eventually succeeded Lenin as the leader of the party and  expectedly moved against the great revolutionary,  Trotsky, and others who could challenge the authoritarian  leadership. Perhaps, the USSR of which Gorbachev emerged as the leader in 1985  could have been a more democratic one in socialist terms if Trotsky had succeeded Lenin. Well, that would ever remain a matter of historical conjecture.

Although Russia today  is not governed by a communist party, yet it was in the context of this political culture  that the conspicuous  absence of Russian President Vladimir Putin at the funeral of the  historical figure, Mikhail Gorbachev, at weekend should be understood.  Putin’s   absence has been variously interpreted by observers.

To the admirers of Gorbachev, the man who presided over the dissolution of the USSR , a world power that existed for over eight decades in the last century, Putin snubbed the memory of a “hero of democracy.”  For many  on the left the  memory of Gorbachev  is cast in that  of a “traitor to the cause of socialist revolution.” For Putin,  an avowed Russian nationalist,   the dissolution of USSR for which history would hold Gorbachev responsible was the “greatest geo-political catastrophe” of the 20th Century. 

In between these polar ends of the assessment will eventually lie the true verdict of history on Gorbachev.

Now,  pondering the historical significance of Gorbachev, his role in the collapse of USSR  is really the central question.

Those who  still mourn the USSR do so not for  mere emotional reasons. There is a material basis for this deep sense of loss.  The positive impact of USSR on humanity cannot be denied even by the worst cynics  at least in three areas. First, Soviet Union was a formidable force against fascism in the first half of the 20th Century. That  great country made enormous sacrifices.  The  West alone  could not have broken the teeth of Hitler’s Nazism without the wise alliance with the Soviet Union under the leadership of Stalin. Soviet Union lost over 20 million persons and hundreds of towns and villages were destroyed during World War II. Secondly, it was  the Soviet Union that supported anti-colonial struggles in Africa, Asia and other parts of the world. The struggle for national independence  was a major issue  of  democracy in the 20th Century. The USSR supported these struggles for human freedom. The West focussed on the Iron Curtain in Europe; but they ignored the Steel Curtain of colonial brutalities and inhumanity in Africa. Soviet Union did the opposite. Thirdly, the rise of the welfare state was in response to the revolutionary inspiration that the exploited and “the wretched of the earth”  got from the Soviet Union in the struggle for social justice and equity.

The USSR was in this respect  a force for the good of humanity. That is why its dissolution is  lamented by  forces of human progress.  The collapse of the Soviet Union posed a dilemma to progressive forces worldwide. And Gorbachev was seen as the culprit.

The British Marxist historian, Eric Hobsbawm,  summarised things in 1990  as follows: “ Capitalism and the rich have, for the time being, stopped being scared…

“Why should the rich, especially in countries like ours (Britain) where they now glory in injustice and inequality, bother about anyone except themselves? What political penalties do  they need to fear if they allow welfare to erode and the protection of those who need it to atrophy? This is the chief effect of the disappearance of even a very bad socialist region from the globe.”

Incidentally, it was the Russian Marxist George Plekhanov, an ideological and political forebear, who theorised 33 years before the birth of Gorbachev  in his   famous essay entitled The Role of the Individual in History, that individuals with certain qualities of character could change the course of events for good or for ill. As quoted above, Plekhanov, however, put the action of the individual as   an expression of an “inevitable course.”  Gorbachev must be squarely situated in the context of the of USSR in which he emerged as a leader in 1985. 

To be sure, Gorbachev never set out to destroy USSR. He actually wore the garb of  reformer.

One point must be strenuously stressed. Between 1985 and 1991, Gorbachev manifestly lacked the luxury of hindsight which is now amply available to his  assessors right, left and centre. In those tumultuous years of the USSR, Gorbachev had no  option than  to confront the enormous contradictions of the  historical moment he found himself, what with the groundswell  of political  pluralism and economic liberalism. The well – educated  products of public educational institutions in the USSR  demanded freedom of speech as they craved for consumer goods readily available in the western supermarkets.  Meanwhile, the economic cost of the mad  arms race  with United States of America was becoming  unbearable for the USSR. That  huge country of 15 republics  with five time zones that Gorbachev led was in  dire need of reforms. The communist party under his leadership  responded   with glasnost (openness)  and perestroika (socio-economic and political restructuring).

Notable Nigerian Marxist Edwin Madunagu was on tour of the USSR in the late 1980s. He captured the mood in that country  in a series of articles published in The Guardian. More than anyone else in the Nigerian media, he focussed on the history that was  unfolding in the USSR especially in the late 1980s. Madunagu’s testimony was that Gorbachev, as a communist leader, was on course to democratise USSR. In fact, Madunagu posited in one article that Gorbachev’s option for democratic reforms was in the true Leninist tradition.  

It is  undialectical   to frame Gorbachev’s role in history in the Aristotelian  logic of either a hero or a villain. Such a contrast might not  capture the essential Gorbachev. For Gorbachev  was  a  historical figure whose role affected the 20th  Century  the in a way that no diligent historian of the future could ignore.

In the process, like all mortals, Gorbachev committed  his own errors. In discussing actions of comrades,  Madunagu often says that  “the greatest error is the error of doing nothing.” No judicious assessor of Gorbachev could accuse him of committing that error. 

Gorbachev’s errors are, of course, legion. For instance, he underrated the power of the upsurge of nationalism in the Soviet Union. He proved incapable of handling the groundswell of nationalism from the various republics cobbled together after the Great October Revolution. Outside power, he himself expressed support for Putin’s nationalism while criticising the  anti-democratic steps. Gorbachev supported the annexation of Crimea. As a result,  he was once barred from entering Ukraine. Ironically, Gorbachev had a maternal Ukrainian heritage.  He shared this Ukrainian heritage with other USSR leaders such as Nikita Khrushchev, Leonid Brezhnev and  Konstantin Chernenko. And Gorbachev  died at period  when Russia is waging a war with global implications against Ukraine.

Gorbachev was also politically naïve  dealing with the West. As a he received one award after the another from western institutions, the reforms floundered at home  as the emergent contradictions became unmanageable. He could not see the double standards and hypocrisy of the West in their conception of  human freedom. American President Ronald Reagan proclaimed in 1987 that “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall,’’ in reference to the Berlin Wall, which  eventually fell two years later. The West insisted on the removal of the “Iron Curtain”  between the east and west of Europe. But Reagan continued having  “constructive engagement” with apartheid South Africa. British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was still calling  the African National Congress  (ANC) , which is the governing party today in South Africa,  a “terrorist organisation’ even in 1988.  

The cold war was essentially an ideological war. It was supposed to have ended with the collapse of  the USSR. The Right erroneously prefers to call it the “collapse of communism” as if ideologies collapse and disappear just  like that without any trace! The failure of the socialist experiment in the USSR which Gorbachev could not reform despite his good intensions could not mean the end of the socialist ideology as it has been proved  31 years after Gorbachev resigned as the first and the  last President of the USSR.   In the twilight of his life, Gorbachev  regretted the “triumphalism”  of the West. Gorbachev allowed the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact, a military alliance between the defunct USSR and the eastern European countries, which also experimented with socialism. The western opposite number of the Warsaw Pact,  the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, NATO, is still spreading eastward instead of dissolving. The cause of the present tragic  Russia-Ukraine war is the western resolve to  expand the  NATO area of influence to the border of Russia. 

Besides, the struggle for reforms and genuine democracy in the USSR did not actually start with Gorbachev. Brezhnev  began perestroika before him and Khrushchev attempted  the de-Stalinisation of the party by making sharp criticisms of Stalinism. More significantly, the battle which Trotsky and other party leaders waged against Stalin after Lenin’s death was the harbinger of the reform of the union along the democratic path and  towards human progress.  

The Chinese have mastered better the geo-political reality of the world in their own -self-propelling reforms. Under the leadership of Deng Xiaoping China embarked on its own reforms in 1979. Unlike Gorbachev, Xiaoping and his successors have refused to be influenced by the western judgement of the reforms. Warts and all, China has made a significant progress on the path of development. Problems have been thrown up, but they have been managed on China’s own terms.

The Historical Consequences of Comrade Gorbachev

The above sub-title of this piece is actually an attempt to paraphrase  the great liberal economist, Maynard Keynes,  who, in a vastly different context,  wrote some commentaries on the economic policies of the former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill.  Churchill at the time was Chancellor of Exchequer. Keynes entitled his  work as The Economic Consequences of Mr. Churchill. According to Keynes, about his conclusion, “there is no difference of opinion”

Doubtless, posterity will continue to examine the historical consequences of Comrade Gorbachev. There can hardly be a difference of opinion on that point.

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