Mikhail Gorbachev: Reformer, revolutionary or reactionary? Bogdan Harasymiw (1990)

Mikhail Gorbachev: Reformer, revolutionary or reactionary? Bogdan Harasymiw (1990)


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That the political leadership of Mikhail Gorbachev has made a difference to the USSR and the rest of the world must be by now universally accepted. But what puzzles many people in the direction in which he is steering the changes that have been released by him and that are taking place around him. Is he a genuine reformer, a radical revolutionary, a traditional Marxist-Leninist, or just a pragmatic politician? Does he have a notion of where he wants to go, or is he just flying by the seat of his pants?

“Does he have a notion of where he wants to go, or is he just flying by the seat of his pants?”

Rather than engage in long-distance psychoanalysis to try to answer these questions, or in the always dubious endeavour of deriving his intentions from the man’s actions, it is better to try to assess Gorbachev’s disposition towards change based on his philosophical outlook. This outlook can be discerned in his writings and speeches. Whether and how committed he is to change can help to explain what he has done so far and to anticipate what direction he might pursue as long as he remains in office.

Three of the most commonly asked questions about Gorbachev’s outlook are: Is he strictly a pragmatist? Is he a hidebound Marxist-Leninist? Is he really committed to the program of fundamental reform known throughout the world now as perestroika (restructuring or rebuilding)? Depending on the answers, we may know what to expect next from Gorbachev. Unfortunately, the usual answers are misleading—either because they proceed from incorrect basic assumptions, or else from an unfamiliarity with the ideas that Gorbachev has actually expressed. The net result is that he is considered by some to be a dyed-in-the-wool Marxist-Leninist masquerading as a liberal reformer, and by others as a liberal reformer in the guise of a Marxist-Leninist, neither of which is true. Gorbachev is neither an unreconstructed Communist fundamentalist nor a Western-style pragmatic politician.

“Gorbachev is neither an unreconstructed Communist fundamentalist nor a Western-style pragmatic politician”

A better answer to those three straightforward yet crucial questions can be found by carefully studying what Gorbachev has said and written, and making appropriate comparisons so as to highlight the significance of his basic ideas. It makes no sense to argue in the abstract, without referring to evidence (as is so often done), that Gorbachev has been moulded by a lifetime of indoctrination and successful career-building, that his policies can be no different than his predecessors’, and that the Soviet Union therefore remains a military and security threat to Canada. Gorbachev is radically different from previous Soviet leaders because he encourages change; Western policies towards the USSR must change, too. At the same time, Gorbachev is not like an ordinary Western politician, either. While not everything is now the same as it always has been in Soviet politics and political leadership, not everything has changed.

Gorbachev’s Ideological Outlook

One of the things that has not changed is that Mikhail Gorbachev is fundamentally a politician with a predominantly ideological, rather than pragmatic, style of thinking. This is not uniquely Soviet; there are politicians of both types in many countries. According to the American political scientist Robert Putnam1, however, politicians of the “ideological” type are not necessarily “antagonistic to the give-and-take of pluralistic politics”. So Gorbachev is “ideological” without being dogmatic.

Assuming that politicians of the “ideological” and “pragmatic” types or styles are polar opposites, Putnam has characterized the “ideological” type as tending towards one end of the scale on a series of measures. Generally, the “ideological” politician is one who:

  • focuses attention on the general instead of on the particular, on general moral principles rather than on specific details; 
  • argues deductively from general or abstract principles or theories; 
  • places his discussion in an historical context; 
  • evaluates policies not by their political acceptability, administrative efficiency, cost, or practicality, but rather by the interests of the group; and 
  • makes reference to a named ideology and a future utopia, which in the case of Gorbachev should be Marxism-Leninism and communism.

Using Putnam’s criteria, a study of eight reasonably representative speeches delivered by the General Secretary between February 1986 and September 19892 shows Gorbachev as being “ideological” yet flexible.

“In his focus of attention, his manner of argument and his concern with context, Gorbachev is unquestionably ‘ideological’.”

In his focus of attention, his manner of argument, and his concern with context, Gorbachev is unquestionably “ideological.” He is a generalizer, he uses deductive rather than inductive reasoning and he makes frequent reference to history. He also ignores practicality as a criterion when evaluating policy. In other respects he is less “ideological” and more “pragmatic”. He is less likely to invoke group benefits, to ignore costs, or to overlook political acceptability when assessing public policies. He does not always invoke Marxism-Leninism in support of his argument, and almost never talks about a future utopia. In sum, Gorbachev is not at all wedded to “communism,” is not even fully committed to “socialism,” does see some need for political accountability, but is a person for whom ideas have primary importance in politics—ideas, and not empty rhetoric—which explains why he has discarded the official ideology yet still believes in what he’s doing.

Is Gorbachev a Leninist?
If ideas are important to Gorbachev, which ones are they? In particular, are they Leninist, in which case his political leadership ought to be characterized by a fundamental continuity with the past. For a Soviet leader, nothing could be more basic that abandoning Leninism. If Gorbachev is still a Leninist, then he is not seriously committed to reform or transformation of the political system; if he is not a Leninist, then his reformist impulse is something more profound than mere image or style.

Leninism was one man’s recipe for Marxist revolution. It accepted Marxist philosophical and historical materialism, as well as its epistemology, adding to that its own theories of the vanguard party, of tactical flexibility and of imperialism. Lenin’s concern with organization and ideological rectitude provided the basis for the familiar Stalinist command model of Soviet socialism. Leninism is perhaps best remembered for its voluntarism revolutionary fervour, implacable hostility not only to bourgeois liberal democracy but equally to democratic socialism, and its notion of the superiority of Bolshevik socialism.

The 1989 essay, said to have been written by Gorbachev himself, “The Socialist Idea and Revolutionary Restructuring” (Pravda, 26 November 1989), gives a full statement of his ideology, and can serve as a convenient means of assessing his adherence to Leninism. In it, Gorbachev attempts to explain the continuity of perestroika with Marxism and Leninism, as well as to rehabilitate or revivify these ideologies. That effort shows Gorbachev to be neither a Marxist nor a Leninist, but—of all things—a liberal.

“Gorbachev is, of all things, a liberal.”

He is not a Marxist because, instead of economics, class struggle and the dialectic, his understanding of history emphasizes ideas, survival and cooperation. He is not a Leninist, either, because he is concerned with survival instead of revolution, with integrating the USSR into the capitalist-dominated global economy instead of struggling to overcome it, and with what Lenin scornfully referred to as “bourgeois democracy”—parliamentarism, individual freedoms, personal rights, and the rule of law. Although his essay is sprinkled with references to both Marx and Lenin, Gorbachev has abandoned the major tenets of these two forebears as well as their outlooks on the world. He has opted for the earlier, humanist Marx, and has tried to depict Lenin as a more flexible, undogmatic, and moderate thinker and politician than he actually was. Just as Leninism was long ago rejected by European democratic socialists—and well before then by the unfortunate Mensheviks—as inappropriate and inapplicable to twentieth-century industrial societies, so Gorbachev is finally discarding it for himself and the Soviet Union.

From a Western point of view, this break from Leninism is easily seen as revolutionary—considering the long period of ideological continuity which Gorbachev is now deliberately rupturing. From a strictly Leninist point of view, Gorbachev is a liberal reformer—not a Marxist revolutionary. This is a significant and fundamental change in Soviet politics, regardless of one’s perspective.

Perestroika as Gorbachev’s Ideology
If Gorbachev is indeed by and large an “ideological” politician, but if he has also discarded the contents of his Marxist-Leninist ideological luggage, then perhaps the only plausible replacement for the lost article is to be found in his program of renewal, perestroika. For perestroika is the idea which he seems to believe in most ardently. It means modernization.

But is Gorbachev sincere in his advocacy of perestroika, and is he genuinely committed to it? In fact, he is. His conception of perestroika is coherent, consistent with his ideological (but not Marxist-Leninist) thinking which combines elements of pragmatism and liberalism, and directed towards the future well- being of the Soviet Union. Perestroika as a political program is for Gorbachev based on a set of ideas; it is not a cover for a series of ad hoc responses.

“Perestroika as a political program is for Gorbachev based on a set of ideas; it is not a cover for a series of ad hoc responses.”

To show that this is so, a cognitive map can be drawn of the concepts that recur in Gorbachev’s thinking which link together what he considers as contributing to the success of perestroika, and how that in turn affects the interests of the USSR. A cognitive map is a graphic representation of a decision-maker’s perception of the causal links among phenomena in the world around him. It is derivable from that statesman’s written or spoken utterances and is what guides him unconsciously in making decisions. By means of cognitive mapping, the researcher makes the politician’s mental map explicit and open to view.3

Subjecting just the first chapter of Gorbachev’s own book, Perestroika,4 in which the origin and meaning of the concept are discussed, to the technique of cognitive mapping produces results of which the following are most important. What could threaten the success of the perestroika policy? In Gorbachev’s mind, these would be:

  • an unfavourable shift in public opinion; 
  • a breakdown in “democracy” and “democratization” (as Gorbachev understands these); 
  • economic mismanagement and slowdown; 
  • reversion to a command or dictatorial (but not presidential, presumably) style of political leadership; 
  • separatism or secessionism, with different republics going their own ways, rather than all pulling together in support of perestroika; and if either the impulse “from above” or “from below” for transformation fails or falters. 

What can act as a critical accelerator of the process of perestroika, Gorbachev significantly believes, is that the population must feel (positive) results from it.

What does he see as the effects of perstroika? On the one hand, its success will serve to avert serious social, political and economic crises; on the other, it will give momentum to the transformative process. That, in turn, will affect everyone in Soviet society in various (not always beneficial) ways, will jolt many out of their customary state of calm and satisfaction with the existing way of life and will, he thinks, positively affect the level of social responsibility and expectation. Ultimately, the policy of perestroika helps the interests of the Soviet Union, as does the adoption of the fundamental principles for a radical change in economic management; slowing economic growth does not help those interests, and the sale of Soviet resources on the world market definitely hurts them.

This depiction of Gorbachev’s cognitive map is not only consistent with what was said earlier about his ideology, but it emphasizes how his whole impulse towards modernization draws him away from almost everything in the hitherto existing Soviet system. Especially noteworthy is his taking into account public opinion and his concern with the improvement of economic performance. Equally important are the traditional elements of Soviet politics that are absent from Gorbachev’s mental map; the official ideology of Marxism-Leninism, the indoctrination of the population, and the existing institutions and organizations. These missing elements either have no role to play in realizing the aims of perestroika, or else, by benign neglect, they can define their own roles in that process by themselves.

This selectivity on the part of Gorbachev is quite understandable in light of the philosophical profile of the man that has been drawn up here. Unlike Lenin, who was an organization man par excellence and who created the communist Party as a dedicated and disciplined military-monastic order, Gorbachev is basically not interested in organization, as the foregoing analysis shows. He therefore quite naturally and consistently with his fundamental beliefs allows such important institutions as the CPSU, its professional apparat, and the KGB (Committee for State Security) to go their own ways. He has left them to sink or swim, and they are doing just that. The CPSU is sinking, and the KGB, for the time being at least, is adapting to the new circumstances by trying to make itself indispensable to perestroika. If public opinion turns against the KGB, however he may not protest too much that it be preserved. In the meantime, and despite his liberal inclinations, he is quite satisfied to live in peace with and to accept the support of the KGB, distasteful though that may be to Western liberals.

Mikhail Gorbachev is a politician with an “ideological” style, one for whom ideas are important, but he is not a Leninist. He is still committed to something he calls “socialism,” by which he means an economically, socially and politically developed society modelled on the leading industrial countries of the world. In the Leninist sense, he is a reformer, not a genuine revolutionary—he wants to improve things, not to overturn the existing order. From the viewpoint of world history, he is simply a modernizer who has finally given up on the Marxist-Leninist formula for modernization in favour of the Western liberal- democratic welfare-state market-capitalism.

He is committed to reform, to improving and preserving the Soviet Union; he is a genuine reformer.

This ideological style means that he reasons by reference to where he thinks history is moving and to ideas, not in relation to discrete, personal experiences as many Western decision-makers tend to do. At the same time, he is not averse to give-and-take political dealing; he yields to pressure. As long as Gorbachev remains leader, therefore, his efforts at fundamental reform, but not wholesale transformation, of the Soviet Union can be expected to continue in its now familiar stop-and-go manner.

He is committed to reform, to improving and preserving the Soviet Union; he is a genuine reformer. He has discarded the encumbrances to thinking imposed by Leninism, which definitely improves his vision. He will act to counter threats to perestroika, which—according to him—can stem from public discontent, economic failure, the reversal of democratization, or a loss of public support. But Gorbachev is a confident man, not much concerned with security. What this implies for Canada’s security, in turn, is that reining in the KGB in either its domestic or foreign operations has no place in his political agenda, in his concept of perestroika and with controlling its fissiparous consequences, Gorbachev seems predisposed to leave matters of domestic and national security to the specialists.


Putnam, Robert D. “Studying Elite Political Culture: The Case of ‘Ideology’.” Paper presented at the 65th Annual Meeting of the American Political Science Association. September 8-12, 1970, Los Angeles, California.
Gorbachev’s speeches in: Partiinaia zhizn’, nos. 6-7 (1986): 6-77; Pravda Ukrainy, 28 January 1987, Pravda, 3 November 1987, 10 April 1988, 29 June 1988, 14 July 1989, and 19 July 1989; and Izvestiia (Moscow evening edition), 30 September 1989.
Axelrod, Robert, ed. Structure of Decision: The Cognitive Maps of Political Elites. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1976.
Gorbachev, Mikhail. Perstroika: New Thinking for Our Country and the World. New, Updated Edition. New York: Harper & Row, 1988.


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