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Remembering Mikhail Gorbachev and his Legacy

Mikhail Gorbachev has passed away at the age of 91. In the West Gorbachev is still held in high esteem for ‘ending the Cold War’. His policies of Glasnost (‘openness’) and Perestroika (‘Restructuring’) opened the way for reform, but also perhaps sadly the disintegration that then followed, with the effective theft of peoples’ assets and industry that was later to occur under Boris Yeltsin. The world of (capitalist) ‘oligarchs’ that has followed the collapse cannot seriously be considered as in any way better than the former state of affairs; and liberties did not last long in the former USSR following Gorbachev’s fall from power. Though it’s interesting that we do not call our own billionaires ‘oligarchs’ in the West; and especially in the United States where corporate lobbyists have unmatched power.

Gorbachev understood that the USSR could not compete militarily with the West while it failed to compete economically. In the 80s military competition had accelerated and there was a widespread fear of nuclear war which we have now forgotten. Gorbachev agitated for peace at the same time as Reagan pursued his ‘Star Wars’ plan, which aimed to make a nuclear war ‘winnable’. At the same time there was repression, terror and mass murder closer to home, in countries like Guatemala, Nicaragua and El Salvador. And yet the United States outpaced the East largely because of a ruthless exploitation of its economic periphery (eg: including Central and South America). In many ways Gorbachev heralded the kind of reform democratic socialists had long been hoping for, legitimising the USSR for many, but also helping to precipitate a collapse. In retrospect it would have been better if the USSR had not collapsed. But decades of Stalinism meant there was little in the way of a mobilised and independent civil society. The consequence was that when the collapse occurred there was little resistance. In light of all this it would have been better if Gorbachev had mobilised civil society in defence of democratic socialism from the outset.

Gorbachev’s passing reminds us of missed opportunities, and begs the question of whether there was a better way forward. Today there is war in Ukraine; and the Russian Government entertains ideas of an Imperial restoration. Russia may find a place as an important trading partner of China, but cannot really hope to restore ‘former glory’ when opposed by almost the entirety of Europe; and the US. Also the rupturing of Russia’s trade ties with Europe is harming both sides immensely. Though Russia’s still-massive nuclear arsenal deters uncontrolled escalation.

In later years Gorbachev commonly referred to himself as a Social Democrat ; and tried to establish a social-democratic party in Russia. On the other hand, arguably the USSR was still ahead of Western Social Democracy on many fronts prior to its collapse. Mainly in regard to the spread of socialised industry. Maybe Gorbachev was trying to move with the times, and promote the best possible outcome available at the time. Though his efforts to promote social democracy in the Russian Federation largely met with failure. In some ways China demonstrates how in certain respects compromise with capitalism can help an ostensibly socialist state to economically compete with the West. Though this could also lead to a crisis of legitimacy and identity.

Perhaps attempts to consolidate a democratic USSR might have failed given the influence of various nationalisms, but now we will never know. In the mid to late 1980s Mikhail Gorbachev represented the best hope for peace, détente and avoiding nuclear war. With his passing we should also consider the world that ‘might have been’; and mourn the ultimate failure of Gorbachev’s reforms; with capitalist restoration and the rise of an Imperial Russian State.

This article was originally published on ALP Socialist Left Forum.


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  1. New England Cocky

    ”At the same time there was repression, terror and mass murder closer to home, in countries like Guatemala, Nicaragua and El Salvador. And yet the United States outpaced the East largely because of a ruthless exploitation of its economic periphery (eg: including Central and South America).”

    Much of this clandestine warfare originated and was pursued as part of US foreign policy to dominate Central & South America and establish American interests in those foreign countries. Bolton exposed about 72 foreign adventures by American operatives, after 1947, including the demise of the democratically elected Australian Whitlam government in 1975.

  2. Alasdair

    We know that the true legacy of Gorbachev and his reforms can only be decided by the long eye of history; at this moment we can only see the immediate aftermath and fallout, which as you observe, has been immense. But those of us old enough to have lived through the Reagan years, when America seemed to be putting all its economic eggs into one military basket (so to speak), Gorbachev seemed like the best hope for peace. In one of the many news items about him over this last day, one Russian commentator said that “he offered us freedom, and we didn’t know what to do with it.” It’s impossible to know, right now, how much of the fallout Gorbachev can be held responsible; he has certainly been a convenient scapegoat. I think he was at least well-meaning, if maybe a little politically and socially naive, imagining that (Soviet) Russia could move from repressive autocracy to something more approaching a̶ ̶f̶r̶e̶e̶ ̶m̶a̶r̶k̶e̶t̶, political freedom, without huge upheavals. Would that we could look back from 100 years hence and see how he appears then!

  3. Tristan Ewins

    Why is ‘free market’ our measure of political freedom? They are not one and the same. Though to a degree people should be able to determine their personal needs structures through markets. Pinochet shows ‘free market’ does not equal ‘human rights’.

  4. Alasdair

    Thank you – good point – I have edited my response.

  5. ajogrady

    Not One Inch Eastward:’ How the War in Ukraine Could Have Been Prevented Decades Ago America broke its promises about Eastern Europe. Now Ukraine is paying the price.
    Thirty years ago the current conflict with Russia was foretold and feared. George Kennan, James Baker, Senator Edward Kennedy, Senator Sam Nunn, and Thomas Friedman, among others, all warned in the 1990s of a new Cold War if NATO was expanded without including Russia.
    In order to understand what’s going on in Ukraine from Vladimir Putin’s point of view, you have to go back to 1990 when the Soviet Union was collapsing. Talks were proceeding
    about the pending unification of Germany, which the Soviets could have vetoed.
    There is no question that the U.S. and NATO — President George Bush and Secretary of State James A. Baker — made a deal in early February 1990 with Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev and Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze.
    According to documents declassified in 2017, the deal essentially was that the Soviets would allow German unification with the written “ironclad guarantees”, that NATO would not expand “one inch eastward”, in the words of James Baker.
    ‘Not One Inch Eastward:’ How America Broke Its Promises About Eastern Europe
    A week later Gorbachev began German reunification talks. So what happened next?
    At this point with Russia in chaos and its nascent democracy and free market was just emerging. They needed help. The U.S. could have entered into a real Marshall Plan arrangement, as we did after World War II with our enemies, Germany and Italy. This plan could have included Russia and all of the Eastern Bloc and offered an opportunity for a long standing partnership to nurture the roots of democracy and capitalism in the region.
    But this opportunity was lost because Cold War hardliners, within President George H. Bush’s foreign policy circle could not see the enormous differences between an emerging Russian democracy/capitalism and the Soviet Communist Empire.
    These hardliners proclaimed the Wolfowitz/Bush doctrine in 1992 which held that the US was the only remaining superpower and should thus project its dominance over any region in the world.
    Senator Edward Kennedy described the doctrine as “a call for 21st century American imperialism that no other nation can or should accept.”
    But in 1998 after the Democrats took over, Bill Clinton’s foreign policy team said “we’re going to cram NATO expansion down the Russian’s throats because Moscow is weak…, The cold war is over for you but not for us.” according to an article in The New York Times.
    George Kennan, who helped create NATO and fashioned America’s original cold-war containment policy, said years ago of NATO expansion, “This has been my life, and it pains me to see it so screwed up in the end.”

    ‘Not One Inch Eastward:’ How the War in Ukraine Could Have Been Prevented Decades Ago

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