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Gorbatchóv in the light of history

Henrique Canary
Mikhail Gorbatchóv

Mikhail Gorbatchóv, the last general secretary (1985-1991) of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU)  and the first and last president of the USSR (1990-1991), died on August 30, at the age of 91. Gorbatchóv’s death had been expected for some time, considering that at least since 2011 he had been facing a series of relatively serious health problems linked to old age. From what is known from the published medical bulletins, Gorbatchóv had heart, kidney and spine problems and also diabetes.

Shortly after the death of the former Soviet leader, the liberal press around the world sang odes to his work, remembering his efforts to “end the cold war” and to implement a Western-style democracy on the territory of the former Soviet Union. On the other hand, Stalinist and Putinist circles described him as a traitor who would have been primarily responsible for the disintegration of “historical Russia” and, ultimately, the one to be blamed for the fratricidal war that is currently taking place on Ukrainian territory. 

30 years after the end of the USSR, Gorbatchóv’s death allows us a deeper reflection on his role in the dismantling of the Soviet state and in the civilizational tragedy that devastated Russia during the 1990s, and whose consequences we are still experiencing today.

Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbatchóv was born in 1931 in the North Caucasus (South of the USSR) in a typical peasant family. At the age of 10, the boy faced 6 months of Nazi occupation in the region, while his father fought in the war. At the age of 15 he started working as a tractor driver on a collective farm and at 19 he became an aspiring member of the CPSU on the recommendation of teachers and the director of the school where he studied. In 1950 he entered Moscow State University to study law. In 1952 he was finally accepted into the CPSU and in 1955 he completed college with honors, being assigned to work in the Stavropol region, also in the south of the USSR. Gorbatchóv had a typical career as a Soviet bureaucrat and partisan, first in the structures of the Communist Youth, then climbing the ladder of the CPSU itself, until in 1971 he reached the Central Committee of the CPSU, under the protection of the then powerful Yuri Andropov (KGB), Mikhail Suslov (ideological work) and Andrei Gromiko (foreign affairs). The key to Gorbatchóv’s meteoric rise was his work at the head of agriculture in the Stavropol region, where he had impressive harvests.

In 1978, Gorbatchóv was elected to the Secretariat of the CC of the CPSU, moving with his family to Moscow and in 1980 he was already a member of the Politburo of the CC of the CPSU. It was in this condition that, in 1985, after the death of Konstantin Chernenko, Andrei Gromiko proposed his name as general secretary of the CPSU, that is, the supreme head of the Party and the State. Gorbatchóv had his appointment confirmed on March 11, 1985 at a meeting of the CPSU Politburo. 

Mikhail Sergeyevitch was then 54 years old and one of the youngest and most dynamic members of the Soviet high-level. He inherited a country in crisis, which came from at least 20 years of political and economic stagnation, being led by a nomemklatura whose average age did not drop below 70 years.

But the worst was the economic crisis. The Soviet economy had lost dynamism. Had then been years since the post-war economic upswing had come to an end and both the industrial and the agricultural park in the huge country were in deep technical backwardness, with its productivity far behind the most dynamic centers of the capitalist world. Gorbatchóv began by promoting a renewal of Soviet leadership. At the beginning of 1987 the renewal had reached 70% of the members of the Politburo, 60% of the regional secretaries and 40% of the members of the CC.

Although not well known, Gorbatchóv’s first economic initiative was not perestroika, but “uskorenie”, which can be translated as “acceleration”. As the name suggests, the “acceleration” did not seek to change the country’s economic bases, but only to obtain an increase from work efficiency with palliative measures, mainly the encouragement of personal interest in work, the fight against waste, bureaucratism and other phenomena that were holding back the dynamic development of society. It is from this period, for instance, the famous government campaign against alcoholism and its consequences. Eventually, the “acceleration” led to an even greater disorganization of the economy and a deepening of the economic and social crisis. By the end of 1986, 25% of companies had failed to comply with the state plan and the budget deficit had risen to 17 billion rubles and continued to grow. The government acknowledged failure. The way was open to perestroika.

The Perestroika

“Perestroika” means “reconstruction”, “restructuring” or even “reorganization”. The term emerged as a verb for the first time in May 1985, when, on a visit to Leningrad, Gorbatchóv, in a speech to the city’s party group, declared: “Apparently, comrades, we all need to reorganize (restructure). All of us!”. Later, in January 1987, the Plenum of the CC of the CPSU adopted the policy of perestroika, which should mean: “the democratization of all aspects of life in the Soviet society”, reform of all political institutions and, on that basis, the construction of a new model of society, the “socialism with a human face”. The first step would be new elections to the Soviets at all levels with the participation of several candidates, which should become the rule of Soviet society from then on. In the economic sphere, perestroika should mean greater autonomy for companies and their performance according to the principles of free competition. 

It is interesting to note that, at the beginning of perestroika, Gorbatchóv denied any possibility of a return to capitalism. On the contrary, perestroika was presented all the time as a “return to Lenin”:

In the West there are different interpretations of perestroika, including in the USA. There is the view that it was necessary due to the disastrous state of the Soviet economy and that it means disappointment with socialism and a crisis of its ideals and ultimate goals. Nothing could be further from the truth, whatever the unrevealed motives for such interpretation.

Perestroika, of course, was largely fueled by our dissatisfaction with the way things were going in our country in recent years. But it was much more inspired by the awareness that the potential of socialism has not been fully utilized. (GORBATCHEV, s.d., p. 9)

 Justifications aside, the fact is that in June 1987 the Law on Companies was approved, which started to take effect on January 1, 1988. The law defined the new functions of the ministries of each of the branches of industry as being the elaboration of the sector’s general development strategy, in addition to the definition of the state part of the annual plan. The same law defined that state orders should not exceed 85% of the company’s production. Anything the company produced above the state order could be sold at market prices. Companies could now establish direct relationships with each other, without having to pass through the Gosplan (State Plan, a kind of Planning Ministry). The law also provided for a gradual decrease in the state percentage of production. With a market development still incipient, about 30% of the companies became loss-making, starting to seek state orders at any cost.

Internationally, Gorbatchóv also took the political and ideological offensive. His book “Perestroika: New Thinking for Our Country and the World” was published in several countries, with the central idea of the superiority of universal human values in relation to class values. Imperialism immediately saw where Gorbatchóv’s perestroika was headed and gave it wide support. The nice general secretary, who talked to the people and talked about peace, became the darling of the world press, although behind the scenes the pressure for more economic, military and political concessions on the part of the USSR continued (it is known, for instance, Reagan’s tough stance in the peace talks with Gorbatchóv in Geneva in 1985).

In the summer of 1987, the policy of democratic opening was announced. Called glasnost, a word that can be translated as “publicization” or even “transparency”, this policy included a significant weakening of the censorship regime, the release of several dissidents, as well as other democratic measures.

The other fundamental pillar of perestroika, in addition to the liberalization of relations between state-owned companies, was the concrete introduction of private property into the Soviet market, which was achieved with the so-called Law on Cooperatives, enacted in July 1988. This law allowed the creation of cooperatives, that is, private companies controlled by groups of people, in the commerce and services. What actually happened was that cooperatives began to buy goods at state prices and resell them at exorbitant prices.

As a result of the deregulation of the economy, the foreign debt of the USSR reached 40 billion dollars in 1988, reaching 57.6 billion in 1990. The budget deficit reached 11% of the GDP and the public debt came to correspond to 2/3 of the national income. The USSR began to move rapidly towards becoming an economic semi-colony.

The deeper consequences of perestroika

The most important thing about perestroika were not the measures themselves, but the fact that these measures started a process within Soviet society that it was no longer possible to control. By liberalizing the economy, Gorbatchóv unleashed the hungriest of monsters, the kraken capable of destroying any and all the achievements of socialism: the bourgeois and petty-bourgeois appetite of the population in general and the bureaucracy in particular.

It should be noted that Gorbatchóv’s perestroika, despite its long strategic reach, had something timid about it: it did not provide for the privatization of state property. You could create new companies, but you couldn’t buy a company from the State. And it was precisely this subject that a section of the bureaucracy began to raise against Gorbatchóv: Privatization!

This demand was expressed in the conflict between Gorbatchóv, leader of the Soviet state, and Boris Yeltsin as a representative of a sector of the bureaucracy that had no time to lose, criticized Gorbatchóv for his indecision and demanded a concrete and even bolder plan for transition to the market. Thus, the “national question” in the USSR was fed both by a real oppression, exercised by Great Russians against nationalities oppressed had been centuries, as well as by maneuvers carried out by the leadership of the republics in search of gigantic state ownership. One of Yeltsin’s phrase became known. In his typical rude style, he said “Take as much sovereignty as you can swallow” in a speech in Kazan in August 1990, referring to the demand for national sovereignty.

Thus, to use an image from Marx, Gorbatchóv resembled the wizard who could no longer control the forces he had awakened. It had happened to him exactly what Trotsky had predicted in 1936 in his classic “The Revolution Betrayed” (1991, pp. 10-11):

The question of “Who will win?”, posed by Lenin, concerns the correlation of forces between the USSR and the world revolutionary proletariat, on the one hand, and the internal enemy forces and the world capital, on the other. The economic successes of the USSR make it possible to settle, move, arm and, when necessary, retreat and wait. In a word, to maintain itself. But by its very essence, the question of “Who will win?”, not only in the military sense, but above all in the economic sense, is placed before the USSR on a world level.

Military intervention is dangerous, but the intervention of cheap goods in the train of capitalist armies would be incomparably more dangerous.

All the warning made by Trotsky in “The Revolution Betrayed” goes in this direction: the greatest crime of the Soviet bureaucracy is that, with its policy of isolated national economic development, it arouses restorationist moods within society itself. In other words, the fair demand for sovereignty or even national independence was instrumental for Yeltsin and the bureaucratic sector he represented.

From criticism of bureaucratism, national oppression and lack of democracy, Yeltsin immediately moved on to the real plan, the so-called “500 Day Plan”, prepared by a group of Soviet economists linked to Chicago and which aimed to carry out the transition to capitalism (“to the market” was the expression at the time) within a period of 500 days, with the focus on privatization of state property. The end of the USSR and Gorbatchóv’s melancholy resignation on December 25, 1991 paved the way for Yeltsin to implement his policy. And the consequences we saw throughout the 1990s: crisis, hunger, unemployment, mafia, cold, oligarchs and in the end… Putin.

Gorbatchóv in the light of history

Gorbatchóv’s crime does not exactly consist in having “sold the USSR” to the United States in some secret negotiation, as both Stalinist and Putinist conspiracy theories claim. It was not like that. Secret negotiations certainly took place, but that was not the most important. What Gorbatchóv did, he did primarily in broad daylight. Gorbatchóv began a process that not only would overthrow himself but destroy the greatest achievement of the Soviet working class in its entire history. Again, everything happened as predicted by Trotsky (1991, p. 208):

The fall of the Soviet regime would inevitably cause the collapse of the planned economy and thus the abolition of state ownership. The mandatory link between trusts and factories would be broken. The most favored companies would be left to themselves; they could become joint-stock companies or adopt any other transitory form of ownership, such as workers’ profit sharing. The kolkhozes would disintegrate immediately, even more easily. Thus, the fall of the current bureaucratic dictatorship, without its replacement by a new socialist power, would mean a return to the capitalist system with a catastrophic decline in the economy and culture.

We saw well this “catastrophic decline in the economy and culture” in the 1990s.

As far as we can tell, Gorbatchóv wanted a controlled reform of the economic and political system, similar to what had been happening in China since 1978, with the “four modernizations” of Deng Xiaoping. In Gorbatchóv’s dream, a mixed economy would be built, with a strong state sector, a generic and merely reactive planning and a political regime with relative democratic freedoms. But only in a dream. Gorbatchóv ignored the fact that the mechanisms of capitalism, however small and insignificant they may be, once set free within a society, tend to encompass it completely. Again, we turn to Trotsky (2005, p. 224-224):

Throughout its career, bourgeois society has often changed regimes and bureaucratic castes without changing its social foundations. It has preserved itself from the restoration of feudalism and corporations by the superiority of its mode of production. State power was able both to cooperate with capitalist development as well as to put a brake on it. But, in general, the productive forces, based on private property and competition, developed on their own. On the other hand, the property relations established by the socialist revolution are indissolubly linked to the state. The predominance of socialist tendencies over petty-bourgeois ones is assured not by economic automatism – we are still far from that – but by the political actions of the dictatorship. The character of the economy therefore depends entirely on the character of state power.

It was this “economic automatism” characteristic of capitalism that was ignored by Gorbatchóv and that ended up being the source of his downfall. Marxists also call this mechanism the “anarchy of production”. It is opposed by the vertex to the rationality of socialist planning promoted by the State. This is the secret of the vertiginous growth and prosperity observed in all the societies that made their socialist revolution and planned the economy. That is why we say that state ownership, economic planning and the state monopoly of foreign trade are the three economic pillars of socialism.

Gorbatchóv was not exactly a “weak” either, as some current critics claim. Those who make these criticisms today admit, consciously or unconsciously, that it was necessary to support the August 1991 coup (to which, by the way, Gorbatchóv turned a blind eye), since it was carried out by a section of the Soviet bureaucracy that wanted to “end with the disorder in the country” and to preserve the State from disintegration. If the support to a figure like Yeltsin was never admissible, neither it was admissible to drown the popular uprising in blood, as proposed by the putschists of the  military junta GKTchP (State Commission for Extraordinary Situation).

Where, then, is the whole problem? In our opinion, in the Stalinist theory of socialism in one country. The Soviet bureaucracy never admitted the possibility of resorting to the world proletariat to solve the crisis of isolation and backwardness of the USSR. It preferred to introduce the market in the USSR (and consequently to end it) than to internationalize the revolution. Today’s Stalinists need to explain this contradiction. Was it all due to a personal “betrayal” by Gorbatchóv? But how did he emerge from within the bureaucracy itself? How did the ruling caste approved his plan? Why did it support him? Inspired by Stalin, Stalinists of all stripes always maintained that the mission of the world proletariat was reduced to supporting the foreign and domestic policy of the USSR. The rest is history. Accused of being “supporters of imperialism”, the Trotskyists, on the other hand, always denounced that, ultimately, the policy of the Soviet bureaucracy led to capitalist restoration. The fact that some Trotskyists were confused in their heads and celebrated the end of the USSR as a “great victory of the masses” does not deny this fundamentally correct position (the objectively anti-defensive stance of some Trotskyist groups would be a great topic for another article).

Gorbatchóv’s crime was that, in order to resolve the structural crisis of the USSR, he sought allies in Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher and John Paul II, instead of the workers of the whole world. Gorbatchóv was consistent with the policy adopted by the Soviet bureaucracy over 60 years and carried that policy to its logical outcome. When he realized the monster he had awakened, he quickly changed his speech and swore loyalty to it: he denied communism more than three times, declared himself a social democrat, admitted the need for a full transition to the market, even if at a slower pace. The monster thought it was too little and preferred Yeltsin, who was promising absolute obedience and “market economy in 500 days”. And then came the privatizations, the “savages 1990s”, Gaidar, Tchubais, Berezovsky and the “new Russia” was born.

One cannot deny Gorbatchóv’s intelligence, daring and a good dose of charisma. Maybe even some goodwill. But this fundamentally refers to the first years in power. From 1988 onwards, what we see is a man diminished in the face of gigantic events that he himself provoked: maneuvering, retreating, surviving. Its bureaucratic nature and the historical heritage from Stalinism did not allow him more than that. Gorbatchóv was too much used to personal negotiations, the pomp and respects paid to him in the West, which culminated in the Nobel Peace Prize in 1990. It is no wonder that he will always be remembered by the Times, Forbes and Washington Post as a symbol of the “fight against communism and for democracy”. For socialists around the world, however, his image will always be associated with the loss of the greatest proletarian achievement in history and with what existed of most reactionary  at the end of the 20th century.


GORBATCHEV, Mikhail. Perestroika: Novas ideias para o meu país e o mundo. São Paulo: Círculo do Livro, s. d. 300 p.

TRÓTSKI, Leon. A revolução traída: O que é e para onde vai a URSS. São Paulo: Editora Sundermann, 2005. 288 p.

________. Predannaia revoliutsia. Moscou: NII Kulturi, 1991. 256 p.

Translation: Daniel Kraucher 

Versão em português.