Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Michael Lee

Will Gorbachev succeed in his reforms?

Soviet Union embarks on path toward historic changes

First Published: Unity, Vol. 11, No. 12, August 8, 1988.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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Mikhail Gorbachev’s attempt to transform Soviet society is historic in its vision and implications. What he is trying to accomplish may be of immense benefit, not only for the Soviet people, but for the rest of the world.

The leadership conference of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in late June dramatically revealed the scope of the reforms begun three years ago when Gorbachev assumed office.

The conference confirmed the direction of the changes and evaluated their progress. For four days, with unprecedented openness, 5,000 delegates debated their country’s future. The delegates endorsed sweeping proposals aimed at democratizing Soviet society.

If fully implemented, the reforms would shift much power from the party to more representative national and local government bodies. The party’s role would become more ideological. Now the party monopolizes political power.

Reflecting glasnost, Gorbachev’s policy of openness, Soviet television broadcast much of the conference proceedings. Scores of speakers candidly spoke their minds. Party leaders heatedly argued the issues. Some delegates even called for the resignation of some old-line officials, including former foreign minister, Andrei Gromyko. In a country where political disagreement was met with exile or worse in past years, the Soviet public is relishing the fresh spirit.

Humane socialism

The conference endorsed Gorbachev proposals that aim to: strengthen the elected legislatures of the people; reduce direct party involvement in government; limit the terms of party and government leaders; and create a presidency that will have the mandate of the people. Another controversial but symbolic decision was to erect a monument to the victims of the repression suffered under Joseph Stalin, Soviet leader for over 25 years.

At the closing session, Gorbachev stated the goal is “to proceed from the interests of the people and to assert the humanistic values of socialism.” The purpose of perestroika, or restructuring, is to create “a new, humane image of socialism.”

Major obstacles

Gorbachev faces immense difficulties in fully implementing his reforms. The bureaucracy which controls the highly centralized political and economic power of the country is resistant to reform, and many officials benefitted from the old ways.

Many in society at-large also fear change and its uncertainties. Some are unsure if they want to radically alter the old system with its relative stability (stagnancy, some might say), and embrace new ways that stress individual responsibility and initiative.

Gorbachev’s promise of improvement in the standard of living is still just a promise. His reforms have so far brought few economic benefits. The living situation has worsened for many consumers, and many conference delegates complained of longer lines and less food in the stores.

Gorbachev also faces serious, long suppressed social problems. The policy of openness has allowed some of these to erupt, including serious ethnic conflicts.

Armenia and Azerbaijan, two neighboring republics, are locked in a bitter territorial dispute over control of Nagorno-Karabakh, a region now within Azerbaijan. The area’s largely Armenian population wants to return the province to Armenia. Huge demonstrations, general strikes, and now talk of armed violence are escalating the conflict. Over 30 have already died in clashes.

Local Communist Party members are polarized along with the situation. Protests against Moscow have also surfaced in the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, which the Soviet Union took over in 1940. There are some calls for independence.

Reformers fear that old-liners could use these disturbances to spark a backlash against reform.

Hopeful future

Despite these difficulties, Gorbachev exudes confidence that his reforms will succeed. He stresses that there is no other choice if society is to progress, and the majority of people seems to agree, as Gorbachev is immensely popular.

He has also assembled a new group around him, committed to reform. Professional, intelligent and hardworking, they are bringing vitality to public life, gradually replacing the old guard. Intellectuals, worker-activists, and even many military leaders agree that the Soviet Union needs major change if it is not to become irrelevant in the 21st century.

In his short time in office, Gorbachev’s work has begun to change the Soviet landscape. Not since the early 1920s have Soviet politics and culture been as lively. Economic reforms similar to China’s experiments in market socialism and decentralization are underway. Criticism of defects and “new thinking” to solve problems are taking root, from the factory floor to the top military command.

In foreign affairs, Gorbachev is pulling Soviet troops from Afghanistan and seeking peaceful solutions to the conflicts in Kampuchea and Angola. Moscow is eager for detente with the U.S., China and other former adversaries. All these efforts help ease world tensions.

If Gorbachev and the Soviet people succeed in ushering in a new era, this will also contribute to reshaping world politics.