Getting Gorbachev right

Archie Brown responds to Ferdinand Mount's critical review of his new book "The Myth of the Strong Leader"

April 08, 2014
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Mikhail Gorbachev and Margaret Thatcher in London in 1987 ©Getty Images

I don’t think I have ever before replied to a book review, but there is too much that is misleading in Ferdinand Mount’s lengthy discussion of The Myth of the Strong Leader(Prospect, April) and of my views on the Soviet Union for it to pass unanswered. My first objection is to the silly title the piece was given, “V for vendetta.” To say, as Mount does, that I have a “personal vendetta” against Tony Blair is absurd, although I am certainly very critical of much of what Blair has said and done.

The main reason Blair appears in my text quite often is that his view of political leadership has been influential and it represents much of what I am arguing against. It is important to challenge Blair’s notion, which too many politicians and commentators have gone along with, that “the leader”—one individual who has been elevated to the leadership of his party for a variety of reasons, but not because he was presumed to have a monopoly of wisdom—is entitled to take the big decisions, and that it is up to party members to follow him for as long as he is there.

Mount’s suggestion that I concocted “a general theory of leadership” simply to bolster a “particular polemic” against Blair is outlandish. All my adult life I have taken a dim view of people who believe they are born to rule and of those who conflate political leadership with personal hegemony. In an article on British politics published in an academic journal in 1968, I wrote that “a Prime Minister who is autocratic pays the penalty not only in terms of policy failures but party rebellion and, in all probability, ultimate dismissal. He stands where he is because his party put him there and he must continue to satisfy them broadly if he is to remain.” Underlying the “is” was an “ought.” Such prime ministers deserve to be removed from office.

Much of my book is, however, about leadership in totalitarian and authoritarian regimes where “autocratic” has a different meaning from what it implies about even the most high-handed of leaders in a democracy. If, as I argue, collective and collegial leadership is generally to be preferred to a domineering head of government in a democracy, so collective leadership is almost always a lesser evil than personal dictatorship within an authoritarian regime. An essentially collective leadership does not mean that nothing will change. Mikhail Gorbachev, to whom, as Mount notes, I have paid a lot of attention (starting long before he became the last General Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party), illustrates the point spectacularly. Even his opponents noted that the Politburo discussions he chaired were freer than ever before. To carry more conservative colleagues with him as he radicalised the political agenda and challenged basic norms of the system was difficult and required great political skill. I don’t blame Mount for an oversimplified summary of what happened between 1985 and 1991, but I do object to his attribution to me of two contradictory views of Gorbachev’s role—that he did not have “much inkling” of what he was doing and that “it was all part of a master plan.” Neither the one view nor the other corresponds with what I have argued in my latest book and, in much more detail, in other publications.

Mount also misrepresents my view of the fall of Communism in Eastern and Central Europe in 1989. He suggests that I see Romania as the exception to my generalisation that the collapse of those Communist regimes should not be classified as revolution. I do regard violence as one of the defining characteristics of revolution, but there are others. I do not make the illogical inference that because violence was used in Romania in 1989, this, accordingly, was a revolution. What I said (p239) was that in Romania there was something that looked more like a revolution, but which, nevertheless, did not meet the criteria of a revolution I had already outlined. I noted that “there was a strong element of manipulation of the process with one section of the political elite seizing the opportunity to replace another.” In an endnote I quoted approvingly Timothy Garton Ash’s remark that, inasmuch as the immediate outcome in Romania was “the transfer of power from one set of communists to another,” in substance, this was “one of the least revolutionary of them all.” I distanced myself, however, from Garton Ash’s desire to include “new-style, non-violent transfers of power over states” within “a new genre of revolution, qualitatively different from the Jacobin-Bolshevik model of 1789 and 1917.” The romantic aura that still clings to the concept of “revolution” leads to its being stretched to include systemic change brought about by other means.

The worst distortion of my views and writings comes, however, when Mount tells us that, not content with concocting “a general theory of leadership” in order to chastise Blair, I had “another hidden agenda.” That was to portray the transformation of the Soviet system under Gorbachev as the final stage of a reform process that his predecessors in the Kremlin had begun. He alleges that I “saw great hope in the reform programmes announced by successive rulers of the USSR” and that, overall, I “saw the Soviet regime since the death of Stalin in 1953 as gradually evolving away from totalitarianism towards something approaching democracy.” I do not imagine for a moment that Mount has read the hundreds of thousands of words I wrote in books and academic journals, but even if he were to do so assiduously, he would not find evidence to support those wild allegations. To imply that if a regime is no longer totalitarian, it must be becoming democratic is a non-sequitur of which Mount appears to be guilty, but I am not. Between these ends of the spectrum of regime types, there are others, including a variety of authoritarian systems. Prior to the second half of the 1980s the post-Stalin Soviet Union was never less than highly authoritarian—an authoritarianism of a very specific Communist type. Qualitative change came only with perestroika.

Thus, I never wrote of Soviet leaders adopting democratising measures or of Soviet institutions becoming more democratic prior to the perestroika period. An early liberalisation of the system under Gorbachev gave way to serious democratising measures in the late 1980s, though the Soviet Union did not become a fully-fledged democracy (and neither, for that matter, did post-Soviet Russia). There were some reforms in the post-Stalin Soviet Union—under Khrushchev and, in a limited way, during Andropov’s brief ascendancy —but none of them touched the fundamentals of the system.

I did not confuse, as Mount appears to do, very limited change at the top with developments in the broader society—including, and importantly, in the ranks of the ruling party which recruited members in disproportionately large numbers from the most highly educated segment of the population. One of the keys to understanding political change in the Soviet Union is to be aware that behind the monolithic façade which the Communist Party of the Soviet Union tried to present to its own people and the outside world, there was real diversity of views. The party contained Stalinists, Russian nationalists, social democrats, enthusiastic marketeers (such as Yegor Gaidar, whose economic outlook was close to that of Margaret Thatcher, and who became Boris Yeltsin’s first prime minister) as well as Leninists and a great many careerists. The burgeoning freedom of speech and of publication that followed soon after Gorbachev became General Secretary brought to the surface of political life ideas which had long been developing. Previously, however, their authors had been able to express them freely only around kitchen tables or in circumspect and sometimes Aesopian language in their pre-perestroika publications. An open-minded reformer acquiring the most powerful position within the party was of decisive importance for real political change, but it is of scarcely less consequence that there was a constituency of people ready to respond to the entirely novel encouragement from above not only to think the unthinkable but even to say it out loud. Those who believed that the Soviet Union was, on the eve of perestroika, best understood as a totalitarian state were the most astonished by what followed (although the scale and speed of change, as Mount correctly observes, surprised everyone).

Having some understanding of the heterodox views held by social scientists (for whom party membership went with the job) in important Moscow institutes is utterly different from writing of democratisation or finding grounds for “great hope” in the programme of any party leader prior to Gorbachev. Far from seeing the post-Stalin but pre-perestroika Soviet system as becoming democratic, I published analyses criticising those who used the term “pluralism” to describe the institutional rivalries or variety of opinion they observed at levels below the top leadership. I argued in a long article published in 1984 that even in the qualified form of “institutional pluralism” or “bureaucratic pluralism,” the use of “pluralism” with reference to the Soviet system was a bad case of conceptual stretching. Pluralism exists only where there are autonomous institutions. The diversity of opinion in Soviet society notwithstanding, no Soviet institutions below the level of the top party leadership possessed autonomy—and still less did societal associations.

Thus, in a paper I produced for a Chequers seminar convened by Margaret Thatcher in September 1983, I wrote: “All Soviet leaders seek to preserve those features of the political system (including the leading role of the party, ‘democratic centralism’ within the party, censorship, and KGB surveillance) which they regard as safeguards of the stability of the Soviet state and bulwarks against political pluralism (for political pluralism they see as but a short step to disintegration and anarchy, a view which has much more plausibility in the case of the vast and multi-national Soviet state than it had in 1968 in Czechoslovakia).”

In that same paper I referred to the “Prague Spring” which had shown that “the party intelligentsia can play a decisive part in introducing not only piecemeal reform but also more fundamental change.” I went on:

“The Soviet Union is a very different country with different historical traditions and it would be rash indeed to predict an early ‘Moscow Spring.’ But in principle it is clear that a movement for democratising change can come from within a ruling Communist Party as well as through societal pressure. It would be carrying an historical and cultural determinism too far to say that this could never happen in the Soviet Union.”

The words “early ‘Moscow Spring’” and “democratising change” were underlined by Mrs Thatcher in her copy of this paper. Ferdinand Mount, as well as anyone unwise enough to believe his version of my views, should note that I was talking about “democratising change” as a hypothetical possibility, something that had never occurred in the Soviet Union but might happen sometime in the future. It happened earlier than I expected, so in retrospect my paper was too chary. I had expected Gorbachev to be a serious reformer, but not as daring as he turned out to be. Even if I was less wrong than the “totalitarian-and-impervious-to-change” school, far from being starry-eyed about the prospects for democratisation, I erred on the side of caution. In the Chequers paper I wrote that Gorbachev “is the best-educated member of the Politburo and probably the most open-minded. He might well be the most hopeful choice from the point of view both of Soviet citizens and the outside world, though no General Secretary will have a free hand and what is at issue is the style and nature of Soviet authoritarianism (either more benign and ameliorative or more Stalinist) rather than a transition to political pluralism. That is not in prospect for the foreseeable future.”

So, if I am to be attacked, I should be criticised for not appreciating how bold Gorbachev might turn out to be and how quickly a transition to political pluralism would, indeed, occur. That at least would make more sense than Ferdinand Mount’s piffle about a “hidden agenda” and the fantasy that I saw Gorbachev as the ultimate embodiment of a gradual Soviet development towards democracy.

There is much else that I disagree with in Ferdinand Mount’s review. I take, for example, a far less rosy view than he does of the government headed by Margaret Thatcher which he served, for a time, as Head of the Prime Minister’s Policy Unit. But different values and policy preferences are, of course, both acceptable and understandable. Plainly unacceptable are imaginative reconstructions of my views and downright distortions.