From the end of World War II until the mid-1980’s, those Americans who strongly condemned communism also feared the Soviet Union as a menace whose expansion could be contained only by force or the threat of force. In The Grand Failure: The Birth and Death of Communism in the Twentieth Century, Zbigniew Brzezinski, a Polish-born American political scientist, expert on Soviet Bloc politics, and former national security adviser, presents as thorough an indictment as one could wish of what he sees as the crimes and follies committed by world communism since the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. Yet the book does not breathe that sense of danger that once pervaded the writings of American anti-Communists, and that is present to some extent even in Brzezinski’s 1986 work, Game Plan. By the time he wrote The Grand Failure, Brzezinski had come to view the Soviet Union not as a militant new Nazi Germany on the march, but as an empire in decline. The change in mood is accounted for by the political changes that occurred in the Soviet Union in the latter half of the 1980’s.
After Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in March, 1985, the art of Sovietology was thrown into turmoil. Nothing in the regime of Leonid Brezhnev, who had ruled the Soviet Union from 1964 to 1982, or in the brief reigns after 1982 of Yuri Andropov and Konstantin Chernenko, both of whom died in office, had given Sovietologists any hint of the Gorbachev phenomenon to come. Western observers tried to divine what this new leader’s liberal-sounding promises of glasnost and perestroika might mean for the future of both the Soviet Union and Soviet-American relations. In The Grand Failure, Zbigniew Brzezinski answers some, but not all, of the many questions raised among thoughtful Americans by the events that have taken place in the Soviet Union since 1985.
Brzezinski views the Gorbachev phenomenon as merely one stage of an agonizing reassessment, by Communists throughout the world, of their hitherto sacrosanct ideology, a reassessment spurred by the poor performance of Communist-run economies. The balance sheet of the 1970’s and the 1980’s, the author argues, shows that the all-powerful state created by Communist regimes is not a mighty engine of economic progress but rather a source of economic stagnation. During these two decades, Brzezinski contends, Soviet technological development fell far behind that of the United States, Western Europe, and Japan. By ably mining the glasnost era Soviet press, and by comparing economic statistics for Communist and non-Communist states at roughly similar levels of industrial development, the author does an excellent job of showing just how badly the world’s Communist regimes have failed to deliver on their promise of a better life for the masses. Such manifest economic failure, Brzezinski demonstrates, has not only disillusioned onetime sympathizers in the Third World nations and among the intelligentsia of Western Europe, but has also opened the eyes of once-doctrinaire ideologues within the Communist Bloc.
Some American Sovietologists, such as the economic historian Moshe Lewin and the political scientists Jerry Hough and Robert C. Tucker, think that Gorbachev has an excellent chance of success in his attempt to create a politically freer and economically more progressive Soviet Union. Brzezinski does not share this optimism. By raising popular expectations and lowering the price of dissent, Brzezinski suggests, Gorbachev’s liberalization makes greater unrest inevitable. The prolonged unrest associated with the reform process, the author argues, could lead to a coup d’etat by the Soviet military or the KGB (the Soviet secret police), or even to the disintegration of the Soviet Union as a state. Brzezinski thinks that even if Gorbachev does stay in power, he is likely to end up severely curtailing his reform program. The author perceives a trade-off in Soviet society, between economic renewal and political stability: the one, he contends, can be achieved only at the expense of the other.
Economic reform, the author reasons, requires the decentralization of economic decision-making; yet such economic decentralization, he asserts, brings with it pressure for political decentralization, which threatens the unity and cohesion of a multinational state such as the Soviet Union. Brzezinski, his awareness of the importance of ethnic differences undoubtedly sharpened by his Polish emigre’ background, points to both the riots in Azerbaijan in early 1988, and the vocal movement for autonomy in the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania in the same year, as evidence of what a time bomb for Gorbachev the nationality question is. Even in the large and economically vital Ukraine, Brzezinski suggests, anti- Russian nationalists were beginning, by the summer of 1988, to gain some popular support.
Brzezinski detects not merely considerable practical obstacles to the success of the Soviet reform movement, but also a profound ideological contradiction within that movement. Gorbachev, after he came to power, repeatedly insisted that his reform...