Gorbachev’s reforms

Gorbachev's reforms of the Soviet Union's political structure however did not, to begin with at least, represent a basic political turnaround in who controlled the USSR. He was of the view, in Walker's characteristically sarcastic turn – of – phrase, that "… the Soviet system was basically sound. The problem was that people were not behaving as they were supposed to. " (R. Walker, Six Years that shook the World, Manchester University Press, 1993, p.77)

Political reforms, in fact, did not accompany economic ones until approximately 1988, despite Gorbachev's earlier promises. The period between 1987 and 89 can be characterised as one of 'revolution from above. ' Glasnost (openness) was the essential element in process of political reform, opening up opportunities for genuine criticism of the government and society. It did not entail however, an entirely tolerant Communist Party.

Glasnost was to provide an incentive for people to work towards the Soviet ideal, "…but he intended that the whole process should still remain within limits set by the party and, in particular, by himself. " (ibid p. 136) The media silence in the USSR in 1986 concerning the Chernobyl nuclear disaster was demonstrative of the very gradual nature of the implementation of a culture of democracy and free speech. As was hinted at in the way in Gorbachev became such a media personality both in the Soviet Union and in the West, the power of the leader was greatly increased with the creation of the post of executive President.

Although this may have been in the name of democracy and reform, by reducing the power of the bureaucracy and the entrenched Soviet old guard, it was constitutive of a half – baked attempt at 'modernisation'. It is notable that although Gorbachev may have done a great deal in turning the USSR towards popular democracy, he himself never stood for election. As with his economic reforms, there were inherent contradictions between elements of his political changes.

The staid institutions of the Soviet Union, the monopoly of the Communist Party, its clumsy and extensive bureaucracy clashed with a freedom of expression that unleashed years of repressed angst against the culture of secrecy, suspicion and 'doublethink' that had castrated society for decades. "The media – newspapers, television, journals – which had always painted a rosy picture of society, began to fill up with horror stories about crime, corruption, disasters, prostitution, drug taking, poverty, rape, murder, hooliganism, appalling environmental pollution, the irresponsibility of state officials…" (ibid p. 137 – 8)

Gorbachev's naive understanding of liberal societies, no doubt influenced by the culture of homogengy and centralised control under which he had grown up, led him to believe he could still control the reform process even after granting the people the freedom to disseminate ideas and organise outside of the gaze of the party. Once glasnost was in place, although for example the Law on Press Freedom was not introduced until June 1990, the 'revolution from below' had begun.

Continuing desires of Gorbachev's to protect elements of the old system – the elections of 1989 for example which were far from democratic – only served to frustrate public opinion further. He could not succeed in pursuing intrinsically opposed ideas simultaneously. I have attempted to argue throughout this essay that the problem was not that Gorbachev tried to carry out political and economic reforms simultaneously, but that many areas within his political and economic polices were simply not compatible.

The command economy could not accommodate democracy, and the social democratic model in politics would not function without an overhaul in the thinking behind the economy. Gorbachev was in many ways a product of the Marxist tradition – he did not believe that many elements of the Soviet system were incompatible with the 'best practise' of the liberal nations; freedom of speech, the rule of law etc.

He nevertheless failed to adhere to Marx's most basic assertion the humans will behave only as their circumstances force them to. "It is not consciousness that determines life, but life that determines consciousness. " (K. Marx, Capital, The Modern Library, 1932, p. 10) Russian political culture would not be changed merely by an insistence from Gorbachev for increased responsibility; it required an economic, not political or moral incentive.

Gorbachev succeeded in many areas, or at least laid very substantial groundwork to an eventual solution to the USSR's problems, but he failed in a fundamental sense because of his attempt to introduce aspects totally alien to the Soviet experience, into that very society which itself continued. I am not trying to argue the contradiction between democracy and socialism; capitalism has as many undemocratic elements, but the country that Gorbachev attempted to reform was very much a 'Soviet' one, undemocratic, oligarchic, inefficient and ultimately unmemorable.