The beginning of the end was glasnost

J. Herbert Altschull

September 30, 1991|By J. Herbert Altschull

IT IS certainly comforting to hold that the collapse of the Soviet empire proves the failure of communism and the triumph of democracy -- but like most sweeping and comforting beliefs, it just isn't true.

First of all, what was practiced in the Soviet Union for the past 70 years was not communism. And second, it is questionable whether the Soviets gave up their form of government because they wanted to turn their state and its various republics into democracies.

OK, you say, if it wasn't communism, what was it? Socialism? Well, it wasn't socialism either. What the Russian revolution of 1917 accomplished was to convert a czarist dictatorship into a different kind of dictatorship, no longer run by an absolute

monarch and his lieutenants but run now by sometimes idealistic, sometimes cynical, intellectuals and bureaucrats.

Yes, Lenin, Stalin, and their lieutenants proclaimed Russia to be a "socialist republic," and proceeded not only to gobble up the rest of the czarist empire but to extend its dominion across Asia and deep into Europe. But they maintained their power not by the force of their "socialist" ideas but by their control of the country's institutions -- the police, the economy, the schools, the news media. Their main weapon was the same one the czars had used: the secret police.

They declared their ideology to be "Marxism-Leninism" and announced that they were moving toward a classless society where the government would "wither away" and all people would be equal under "the dictatorship of the proletariat."

The idea sounded good to utopians all over the world, and a lot of Americans and Europeans bought into it for awhile. But by the 1930s it was clear the Soviet leaders didn't want any such thing, and freedom and equality were out of the question under their rule.

Communism was a perfectionist's dream. Marx, who was a 19th-century political theorist, railed against what he called utopians, but he was a utopian's utopian. Once oppressive governments were overthrown, Marx believed, there would be no further wars.

He imagined that workers everywhere were united against oppressive governments and wouldn't fight each other in "imperialistic" wars their governments might wage against each other. World War I proved him wrong; French workers and German workers went on killing each other for the honor of France and Germany.

Why, then, did the Soviet empire fall? Didn't Lenin, Stalin and their successors keep a tight lid on their empire? Yes, they did, and revolt ought not to have been possible. But it turned out that they were just as wrong on this score as Marx had been in his belief in the solidarity of workers everywhere.

What tore the Soviet Union apart was lack of incentives. Over the long haul, it seems clear enough now, people will not work hard for the benefit of society if they don't get anything for themselves. Soviet citizens could see for themselves in movies and television that hard work at factories and farms in market societies meant (as it didn't in the U.S.S.R.) more and better food on the table, refrigerators, television sets, computers in the home and cars in the garage.

Soviet leaders tried to keep this information away from their citizens through censorship, but it became harder and harder to do that. Moreover, the leaders were growing older and more tired.

Then, in the 1950s, Nikita Khrushchev came to power and made a move toward opening up the closed Soviet society, allowing greater freedom and introducing a system of incentives. The old-line leaders were strong enough then to force him out of office and make sure they got their own man back in power: Leonid Brezhnev.

But Brezhnev died, and it wasn't long before the younger generation came to the fore. Mikhail Gorbachev emerged as the top man. He saw which way things were going and in 1985 really did open up Soviet society with his policy of glasnost. All at once, Soviet citizens could read and write what they wanted. That was the beginning of the end for the old regime and its distorted ideology.

When the old-liners tried to stop Gorbachev's reforms last August, as their predecessors had stopped Khruschev's reforms, they failed. It was too late. History has shown many times that when a restrictive society begins to remove some of its restrictions, it can't stop the snowball effect that ultimately brings the restrictive society down. Something similar is happening now in South Africa.

The introduction of glasnost -- openness -- marked the beginning of the end for the Soviet empire. August's failed coup provided the finishing touches. We don't know yet what will replace it. We may yet wind up with a system or systems that are just as restrictive.

Does this mean the triumph of democracy? Maybe, but likely not, if by democracy we mean people working for the common good. That's a pretty utopian idea, too.

Some say capitalism defeated communism. But that's another story. My suspicion is that it wasn't any kind of "ism" that defeated the "ism" in the Soviet Union. Rather, it was the fact that people, whether in the Soviet Union, Uruguay, Sierra Leone or Maryland, don't like the idea of governments telling them what to do or how to think.

Or how to spend their own money.

J. Herbert Altschull teaches in the Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins University.

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