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Perestroika and the End of History


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#1 Eric Hobsbawn

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Posted 09 March 2005 - 03:08 PM

I have a lasting admiration for Mikhail Gorbachev. It is an admiration shared by all who know that, but for his initiatives, the world might still be living under the shadow of the catastrophe of a nuclear war - and that the transition from the communist to the post-communist era in eastern Europe, and in most non-Caucasian parts of the former USSR, has proceeded without significant bloodshed. His place in history is secure.

But did perestroika bring about a second Russian revolution? No. It brought the collapse of the system built on the 1917 revolution, followed by a period of social, economic and cultural ruin, from which the peoples of Russia have by no means yet fully emerged. Recovery from this catastrophe is already taking much longer than it took Russia to recover from the world wars.

Whatever will emerge from this era of post-Soviet catastrophe was not envisaged, let alone prepared, by perestroika, not even after the supporters of perestroika had realised that their project of a reformed communism, or even a social-democratised USSR, was unrealisable. It was not even envisaged by those who came to believe that the aim should be a fully capitalist system of the liberal western - more precisely, the American - model.

The end of perestroika precipitated Russia into a space void of any real policy, except the unrestricted free market recommendations of western economists who were even more ignorant of how the Soviet economy functioned than their Russian followers were of how western capitalism operated. On neither side was there serious consideration of the necessarily lengthy and complex problems of transition. Nor, when the collapse came, given its speed, could there have been.

I do not want to blame perestroika for this. Almost certainly the Soviet economy was unreformable by the 1980s. If there were real chances of reforming it in the 1960s they were sabotaged by the self-interests of a nomenklatura that was by this time firmly entrenched and uncontrollable. Possibly the last real chance of reform was in the years after Stalin's death.

On the other hand, the sudden collapse of the USSR was neither probable nor expected before the late 1980s. A prominent CIA figure interviewed by Professor Fred Halliday of the LSE thought that, supposing Andropov had survived in good health, there would still have been a USSR in the 1990s - clumsy, inefficient, in slow and perhaps accelerating economic decline, but still in being. The international situation would have been, and remained, very different. International disorder followed the collapse of the single Russian state that had been a great world power since the 18th century - as it had the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires after the first world war. For a few years even the existence of Russia itself as an effective state was in question. It is so no longer, but the necessary restoration of state power in Russia in recent years has been at heavy risk to the political and juridical liberalisation which was the major - I am tempted to say the only real - achievement of perestroika.

Did perestroika herald "the end of history"? The collapse of the experiment initiated by the October Revolution is certainly the end of a history. That experiment will not be repeated, although the hope it represented, at least initially, will remain a permanent part of human aspirations. And the enormous social injustice which gave communism its historic force in the last century is not diminishing in this one. But was it "the end of history" as Francis Fukuyama proclaimed in 1989, in a phrase that he no doubt regrets?

He was doubly wrong. In the literal sense of history as something that makes headlines in newspapers and TV news bulletins, history has continued since 1989, if anything in a more dramatic mode than before. The cold war has been followed neither by a new world order, nor by a period of peace, nor by the prospect of a predictable global progress in civilisation such as intelligent western observers had in the mid-19th century, the last period when liberal capitalism - under British auspices in those days - had no doubts about the future of the world.

What we have today is a superpower unrealistically aspiring to a permanent world supremacy for which there is no historical precedent, nor probability, given the limitation of its own resources - especially as today all state power is weakened by the impact of non-state economic agents in a global economy beyond the control of any state, and given the visible tendency of the global centre of gravity to shift from the North Atlantic to the zone of south and east Asia.

Even more questionable is the wider - almost quasi-Hegelian - sense of Fukuyama's phrase. It implies that history has an end, namely a world capitalist economy developing without limits, married to societies ruled by liberal-democratic institutions. There is no historic justification for teleology, whether non-Marxist or Marxist, and certainly none for believing in unilinear and uniform worldwide development.

Both evolutionary science and the experiences of the 20th century have taught us that evolution has no direction that allows us concrete predictions about its future social, cultural and political consequences.

The belief that the US or the European Union, in their various forms, have achieved a mode of government which, however desirable, is destined to conquer the world, and is not subject to historic transformation and impermanence, is the last of the utopian projects so characteristic of the last century. What the 21st needs is both social hope and historical realism.

http://www.guardian....1433369,00.html

#2 Raymond Blair

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Posted 13 March 2005 - 06:43 PM

If I may first gush, Dr. Hobsbawn, your writings played a key role in my education in history. I amused one of my PhD. (I never completed it) professors with my assessment of your take on Methodism, that you beat it like a piñata.

I think 1989 was a clear turning point in history. We are in an in between period right now and my government has taken an unfortunate and unrealistic turn in the direction of trying to move forward with the goal of permanent global hegemony. US hegemony, like that of British hegemony of the 19th century, is preferable to hegemony of totalitarianism be it Marxist or fascist based.

The United States could try to use its powers to create a more lasting historical legacy, a cooperative Pax Americana. We should aspire for greater social justice and try to use the potential of the UN (and the nationalism reducing trend of organizations like the UN) to help create a lasting peace. This war on terrorism we are embarked on does not need to be a war. Much better can be accomplished in having our country be more introspective and more honest about our country's negative impacts around the world. I probably am less critical of my government's long term foreign policy than you are, but our country does not often go out in foreign policy to create harm.

At times conservative/nationalistic factions operate under dubious delusions. Attacking Iraq was one of those. The PNAC attempt to spread democracy to the Middle East has an imperialistic tone. Can democracy really be imposed?

Can democracy exist in a place without an industrialized economy and without a stable prosperous middle class? Can good be accomplished while introducing a doctrine of preemptive war?

Those in the Bush administration seem to answer yes to all three. I lean to the negative on all three points.

I must go grade, but this is a great thrill for me to post in the same thread with you.

#3 John Simkin

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Posted 19 March 2005 - 09:40 AM

I have a lasting admiration for Mikhail Gorbachev. It is an admiration shared by all who know that, but for his initiatives, the world might still be living under the shadow of the catastrophe of a nuclear war - and that the transition from the communist to the post-communist era in eastern Europe, and in most non-Caucasian parts of the former USSR, has proceeded without significant bloodshed. His place in history is secure.

But did perestroika bring about a second Russian revolution? No. It brought the collapse of the system built on the 1917 revolution, followed by a period of social, economic and cultural ruin, from which the peoples of Russia have by no means yet fully emerged. Recovery from this catastrophe is already taking much longer than it took Russia to recover from the world wars.

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I hold very mixed feelings about Mikhail Gorbachev. I believe he was a genuine humanist. In his autobiography he claims that his political opinions dated back to an incident that took place when he was only a boy.

Gorbachev's grandfather, Pantelei Yefimovich Gopkalo, was a staunch member of the Communist Party (CPSU) and was chairman of the village kolkhoz. It was from his grandfather that he found out about the political ideas of Karl Marx.

In 1937 his grandfather was arrested by the NKVD Secret Police and charged with being a leader of an underground organization supporting Leon Trotsky. After enduring nearly two years of torture and imprisonment, his grandfather was released in December 1938.

I remember well the winter evening when Grandfather returned home. His closest relatives sat around the hand-planed rustic table and Pantelei Yefimovich recounted all that had been done to him.

Trying to get him to confess, the investigator blinded him with a glaring lamp, beat him unmercifully, broke his arms by squeezing them in the door. When these 'standard' tortures proved futile, they invented a new one: they put a wet sheepskin coat on him and sat him on a hot stove. Pantelei Yefimovich endured this too, as well as much else.

Those who were imprisoned with him later told me that all the inmates of the prison cell tried to revive him after the interrogation sessions. Pantelei Yefimovich recounted all this just once - that very evening. Nobody ever heard him speak about it afterwards.


It was this incident that turned into a liberal reformer. Although t was to be a long time before he was in a position to do anything about it.

It is worth remembering that Gorbachev owed his power to Yuri Andropov, head of the Committee for State Security (KGB). Andropov used his considerable influence to promote Gorbachev's career. in 1982 Andropov became General Secretary of the Communist Party. Andropov attempted to introduce a series of reforms but he died in 1984 before he could complete his programme. It was therefore left to his protégé, Gorbachev to finish off the job.

Gorbachev’s greatest success was to create a climate where it was possible to discuss reform. My own view is that Gorbachev was wrong to believe that the market economy would solve the problems of the Soviet Union. In fact, it has created the kind of obscene inequality that exists in the United States. This problem was made far worse by Yeltsin and we now have the situation where the Soviet Union is controlled by a small group of multi-millionaires. Most of these were either senior party officials or the close relatives of these officials.

The real beneficiaries of Gorbachev are those people living in neighbouring countries who for over 40 years lived under Soviet sponsored regimes. The end of the Cold War has also benefited those living in the West. However, for those living in the Soviet Union, life seems to have gone from bad to worse.

I would be very interested in the opinions on this of those members who lived in Eastern Europe, both before and after Gorbachev.



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