(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 8)

Varying interpretations of the character and intentions of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev have proceeded alongside renewed speculation about his country’s relative strengths and weaknesses. Conflicting views have been possible partly because, beginning early in his career as General Secretary, Gorbachev became visible to an extent that has been rare among Soviet politicians. Not only has he traveled more widely than his predecessors but to many observers he has also appeared more frank and forthcoming than most Soviet officials. He has acquired a reputation for being alternately flexible and intransigent in the exposition of his positions, whether in formal statements or in more offhand encounters. On the one hand, he has been remarkably candid in admitting some shortcomings in Soviet policy; on the other, he has resolutely defended decisions and policies with which he has chosen to associate himself. All the while, he has manifested a lively interest in economic methods and political techniques employed outside the Soviet bloc. Nevertheless, at times the depth of his commitment to changing Soviet approaches to foreign and domestic concerns has remained unclear.

Perestroika means a restructuring or reorganization; it is a term that has taken on specific connotations beyond those ordinarily implied by “reform” or “renovation.” The term is used to designate social, administrative, and economic measures which, in Gorbachev’s view, are intended to realize the productive potential of Soviet institutions. It is also meant to suggest attitudes and frames of mind which Gorbachev believes that his policy has instilled in the peoples of the Soviet Union. As a political program, perestroika is meant to uphold beliefs in the essential soundness of the Soviet form of government while admitting that there are certain weaknesses to be corrected. Gorbachev contends that systemic shortcomings became apparent during the later 1970’s, and that such failings were of a moral or technical character; indeed, he suggests that some of these weaknesses have stemmed from a failure to apply Leninist principles consistently.

According to Gorbachev, the first symptoms of economic troubles were found in declining growth rates, which indicated that labor and resources were being allocated by relatively inefficient means. In many ways, he maintains, this inefficiency was the result of planning according to a gross output system, which set production goals without regard for monetary realities; moreover, insufficient foresight was exercised in attempting to coordinate efforts in various branches of industry and agriculture. Concern for quality dropped as meeting production goals became a primary focus. Soviet managers also hesitated to adopt innovations that were commonly used in Western nations. Furthermore, in many ways the Soviet economy did not adequately utilize natural resources that could readily be exploited.

Other negative developments were declining morale and the complacent pursuit of narrow self-interest among both executives and ordinary working people of the Soviet Union. On this matter, Gorbachev seems to maintain that social problems have been the result of policy failures on the economic level. Among the evils he enumerates under this head are slackness, lack of labor discipline, and parasitical attitudes. Alcohol abuse, which he has repeatedly denounced in a well-publicized campaign, became a major concern; Gorbachev contends that his country’s very future was threatened by the prevalence of this vice. On a more general level, he maintains that previously the Party had been given to making exaggerated claims which repeatedly failed to recognize any discrepancy between its ideals and Soviet realities. Awards and bonuses often were given to those who had not actually earned them. Furthermore, a taste for ostentation and high living had also undermined the moral authority of those in high places.

It should not be thought, however, that Gorbachev holds any misgivings about the ideological bases of Soviet politics; much to the contrary, he repeatedly affirms the validity of doctrines that have become enshrined since the Revolution of 1917. In various connections he points to the great accomplishments that have been made since that time, particularly during the early years of the Soviet state and in the aftermath of World War II. At one point, he asserts that in seventy years the Soviet Union has achieved what it took other countries centuries to carry out. He maintains moreover that the Soviet system has not even approached its full capacities; his program is meant to open the way for further growth and development while recalling the spirit in which the Soviet state was founded.

Gorbachev refers repeatedly to the example of Vladimir Lenin, largely in order to provide assurances that his ideological course is in accordance with the principles laid down by the first Soviet premier. In some ways, indeed, Gorbachev maintains that his own concerns resemble those that faced Lenin. By putting matters in these terms Gorbachev evidently means to inspire a spirit of heroism and self-sacrifice in the Soviet people. He repeatedly refers to the difficult times during and after the Revolution, when challenges had to be met on every front. Gorbachev maintains that his proposals constitute the most sweeping program for reform since Lenin’s government put its New Economic Policy into effect in 1921. He also mentions Lenin’s last written works, which have not received the attention bestowed upon his other pronouncements by Soviet officials and political theorists. In these late works, Lenin dealt with problems of economic reorganization in the wake of the Russian civil war; it can be argued that in these writings he manifested a more flexible and pragmatic outlook than was found in his earlier, theoretical works.

While it has been commonplace for Soviet politicians to invoke Lenin’s thought as the ultimate arbiter in cases requiring ideological guidance, Gorbachev’s line of argument suggests some more specific applications by which his approach to politics and...

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(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 8)

Booklist. LXXXIV, January 15, 1988, p. 810.

Business Week. February 8, 1988, p. 12.

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The New Republic. CXCVIII, February 1, 1988, p. 34.

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