The Second Kerensky Falls, the Revolution Continues

WILLIAM PFAFF

August 20, 1991|By WILLIAM PFAFF

PARIS — Paris. -- There are always attempts to go back in the course of a revolution. They always fail. That will be true of yesterday's coup in Moscow, but it is not a consideration that offers much consolation to the people swept up in a crisis that may end in sanguinary violence.

The only restorations of an ancien regime that succeed are those put in place by foreign powers after crushing a revolution by military conquest. After Napoleon the allies put Louis XVIII back on the throne. He lasted 15 years. What followed him was, in essential respects, a continuation of what had begun under the revolution.

The coup d'etat in Moscow sees the forces which lost most in Mikhail Gorbachev's revolution attempting to re-establish their own domination. Army and police are naturally reactionary: to be so is their social function. The Communist Party of the Soviet Union has no reason to exist with Marxism explicitly rejected as the governing ideology of society.

However, reactionary restoration confronts the reality that no social basis remains for what the ''restorers'' want to restore. Mikhail Gorbachev did not create this second Russian Revolution, begun in 1985-1986. He orchestrated the forces which made the revolution, and which had made him.

The governing elites of the Soviet Union, including the party elite itself, no longer really believed in Leninism or Marxism. They understood that the system they professed no longer worked, and was taking the country to ruin. No ''radiant future'' existed for the U.S.S.R. -- contrary to the iconography and ideology of Leninism. These elites knew the West, and acknowledged the vertiginous gap between prosperity and a humane politics there and what existed in the Soviet Union.

The Gorbachev revolution had to happen. Mikhail Gorbachev was responsible for the fact that until now it has been a generally constructive and peaceful process. It produced a series of self-reinforcing reforms and averted a destructive implosion. Mr. Gorbachev began as a communist reformer, ambitious to combine ''socialist values'' with a form of democracy, and to bring into the Soviet system economic and administrative techniques which could modernize it and make it efficient.

This, of course, proved impossible. The reforms he launched swept out of his control. Until early Monday he had managed to ride the turbulence and prevent its explosion into violence. He was, as I have argued in the past, the Kerensky of this second Russian revolution. It is an honorable role in a revolution. The lately murdered Shahpur Bakhtiar, prime minister of Iran in January-February 1979, was another who attempted it, and failed. It is a role destined to failure.

What usually has followed reform's failure in the past has been radicalization of the revolution: the ayatollahs in Iran; terror, in the French case; a Lenin, followed by Stalin, in Russia's. The new energies released by revolution are despotically consolidated, and exploited by the new leaders to extend their own power. This is not what is happening in the U.S.S.R. The KGB, army and party are doing the opposite. They are attempting to suppress the new forces released in their society, so as to reinstall what existed before.

This is why this coup cannot, in the long run, succeed. It goes against the deep currents of change released in Russia and the Soviet republics by what Mikhail Gorbachev and his colleagues have done. The reactionaries will also fail because they have no remedy for the economic crisis the U.S.S.R. suffers. A tortuously inefficient economic and industrial system existed in the past. That has been dismantled by Mikhail Gorbachev's reforms. No functioning substitute system has been put in its place. That is the reason the army and KGB thought Mr. Gorbachev had to be overturned.

But the new dictators cannot recreate a production and distribution system already destroyed. They have no prospect of foreign aid or sympathy, or -- one hopes -- even of foreign trade. Under the reformers it was possible to argue that the country, however painfully, was moving toward something better. The coup's leaders promise merely to go back -- at that, a promise they cannot keep.

The makers of this coup may nonetheless install themselves for some time. They have gone about their coup with efficiency. One fears for Boris Yeltsin, Mr. Gorbachev and the other more prominent reformers (although non-lethal succession was the signal contribution of Leonid Brezhnev to the Soviet system). The coup leaders seem to control communications inside the country. They do not control foreign radio, whose role now becomes crucially important. It is vital that the elements of resistance in the country know what is going on, and it probably will take time to reinstall jamming.

There is, however, nothing serious on which the coup's makers can build. Their authority defies the vital forces in Soviet society. Sooner or later it will break down. One would like to think that constructive forces will then prevail. It is impossible to be confident. Enormous energies have been released by reform, but those energies never found fully effective political expression. The practical problems of economic and industrial reorganization, and of social reconstruction in the wasteland made of Russia by communism, remain unsolved.

This coup accomplishes nothing; and it may open the door to something still worse. One hopes that is not so. The people of Russia and the Soviet republics have suffered enough since 1917.

William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.

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