Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Irwin Silber

Perestroika: ’Historic Impulse Flowing Out of Socialist System’

First Published: Guardian December 16, 1987.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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Arthur Maglin’s cavalier dismissal of the proponents of “actually existing socialism” (Guardian, Nov. 25) as being the most discomforted by the changes now taking place in the socialist world is not only a half-truth, but a cheap set-up. Its barely disguised point is to suggest that anyone who thinks that socialism actually exists in the world today–in the Soviet Union, China, Cuba, Vietnam, etc.–is intellectually compromised.

What Maglin fails to see is that a historic debate among the supporters of “actually existing socialism” is now underway–both in the Soviet Union and throughout the world. Since it is a debate whose framework excludes the proponents of all the other theories Maglin cites–deformed workers’ states, bureaucratic collectivism, state capitalism and other variants on Trotskyism–it is not surprising that Maglin has overlooked it.

Certainly it is easy enough to ridicule many supporters of “actually existing socialism”–some of whom are undoubtedly embarrassed by “glasnost”–for all kinds of sillinesses. (Even then, as one who was for some time influenced by the anti-Soviet precepts of Maoism, such criticism should be tempered, it seems to me, by an appreciation for what it takes to defend the Soviet Union in the heartland of imperialism.) But at least as many–and in the Soviet Union first of all–feel that Gorbachev has begun to remove an onerous intellectual burden from defenders of socialism.

In an odd way, the absolutist supporters of the Soviet Union have always been the mirror image of its ultraleft critics. Both are locked into an idealist mind-set which, in effect, holds that major flaws and significant contradictions cannot exist in a genuine socialist society. While the former therefore deny (or trivialize) such problems, the latter see in each the ”proof” that socialism does not “actually exist.”

Gorbachev has broken out of his ideological cul-de-sac by acknowledging that socialism must be subjected to a historical materialist analysis–and by starting to do so. At the center of such an analysis are two critical theoretical propositions: 1) that aside from a handful of the most general principles, there is no blueprint for socialism; and 2) that socialism unfolds and develops on the basis of concrete historical conditions which cannot be anticipated in advance. As a result, socialism is a constant process of self-invention guided by broad principles that are profoundly mediated through complex circumstances actually confronted.

Maglin’s narrow outlook is nowhere more vividly demonstrated than in his statement that “there is nothing very original in perestroika,” which he sees simply as “an effort to rely on material incentives.” In fact, the whole point of perestroika is to overcome a tendency toward voluntarism and arbitrariness–probably inevitable in the early stages of socialism–by reorganizing the Soviet economy on the basis of objective economic laws.

But like all real historical processes, perestroika did not grow out of an abstract analysis of what socialism “ought” to be like. Rather it emerged from a developing crisis–in the first place, in my opinion, a structural crisis in the Soviet economy–which had been obscured during the Brezhnev years. The essence of that crisis, it seems to me, is that the Soviet economy was locked into outmoded structures characterized by an overly centralized command system which attempted to direct by administrative fiat every aspect of economic life. And while these had proven useful in an earlier period, as so often happens, they had become fetters on continued growth and development.

Perhaps the single most sobering assertion in all of Gorbachev’s many comments on the weaknesses besetting the Soviet economy was the following: “Scientific-technical progress in our country slowed . . . mostly because the economy was not responsive to innovation,” Perestroika, however, is not simply an economic process, although radical economic reform is a major component of it. Rather it is an all-sided overhaul of Soviet society based on the (dialectical) view that drastic political action is required to implement the structural changes underway and that the altered economic base of socialism cannot help but give rise to new political forms and processes in the social superstructure. The new political culture unfolding now in the Soviet Union– and not without its opponents, obviously–is a broad and unprecedented democratization in every area of life.

Like any real historical process, perestroika does not appear in a “pure” form. Not only are there advances and retreats, but it is filtered through the ideas and actions of imperfect human beings who bring all their own histories, strengths, weaknesses, insights and prejudices to it. Which is why any attempt to judge it by abstract ahistorical criteria–such as “genuine” workers’ empowerment or the existence of opposing political parties– misses the point.

The exciting thing about perestroika is that it shows that socialism is growing up. Born into a hostile world, it was, in many ways, an enfant terrible. Its achievements were magnificent even while many of its contradictions were terrifying. No one epitomized its dual character more than Stalin, who exacted a fearful price for laying the foundations of a socialist economy and holding the Soviet Union together through its most trying hours of the Nazi invasion. Nevertheless, socialism took hold and the long process of the world transition from capitalism to socialism was underway.

Perhaps the most negative aspect of the Stalin legacy was the view that the structures and processes–both economic and political–which characterized Soviet society during the 1930s and 1940s were actually universal principles of socialism which could not be tampered with or abandoned. This view provided an all-too-convenient theoretical cover for a whole sector of the Soviet party and state apparatus which had developed a vested interest in the status quo. (Needless to say, it also seriously blocked the ability of Soviet Marxists to add critical new theoretical reflections on the socialist experience to Marxist theory generally.)

But to say that socialism is shedding its swaddling clothes–and, one might add, none too soon–is not to suggest that the world is now about to witness at long last the appearance of “pure” socialism. Such a category is a contradiction in terms.


Rather, perestroika is ushering socialism into a new era in which it is already demonstrating its capacity to be not only a self-reproducing mechanism but a self-correcting one. (A note, of caution: The victory of perestroika in the Soviet Union is not yet assured. A serious struggle that will determine this question is now underway. But even if the present attempt should fail, it seems to me that perestroika represents a historic impulse flowing out of the very nature of the socialist system. In this sense, it is bound to appear again in new forms if the present effort should fail or–what is more likely–fall short of its ambitious goals.)

Closer to home, I believe that the resurgence of materialism and the fresh air of glasnost in the Soviet Union are bound to have a salutory effect on the U.S. left, even though we can expect resistance from those–both pro- and anti-Soviet–who will see the new spirit unleashed by Gorbachev as threatening to themselves. If nothing else, Gorbachev’s surrender of omniscience lays the ideological groundwork for undermining sectarianism and creating a climate in which various tendencies on the left could develop better relations of both dialog and united action.