Book Review:

April 1, 1999

There are No Happy Reformers: A Review of "Conversations with Gorbachev"

By Mikhail Gorbachev and Zdenek Mlynar

Published By: Columbia University Press

On: October 29, 2003

Buy Here $27.95

Reviewed By: Robert English


There are no Happy Reformers: a dialogue about Perestroika, the Prague Spring and Socialism ("Refonnatori nebyvaji stastni: dialog o Perestrojce, Prazskem jaru a socialismu")

Mikhail Gorbachev and Zdenek Mlynar - Praha, Victoria Publishers, 1995, 210 pp. Forthcoming in English translation from Columbia University Press.

This book is comprised of a series of conversations held from late-1993 through mid-1994 between Mikhail Gorbachev and the late Zdenek Mlynar. The former, of course, was Soviet leader in the era of perestroika (1985-91) while the latter was one of the principal architects of the "Prague Spring" reforms in communist Czechoslovakia (1967-68). The similarities between these epochs have often been noted; when asked what was the difference between the two, one of Gorbachev's spokesmen replied, in an oft­quoted quip, "twenty years." That, and the strong personal tie between the two men - a friendship going back to their time as Moscow University classmates in the early "thaw" era-offers uniquely rich material for reminiscence and reflection on the two failed attempts to reform Soviet-style socialism.

In fact, the book reaches considerably further. Organized around three main chapter-length "conversations," its subjects range from the authors' youthful experiences in the 1930s to the fate of world civilization on the eve of the new millennium. The three core chapters are titled How Fate Brought Us Together, How We Tried to Revive Socialism, and There Exists Only One World. They coverrespectively: the authors' (and their countries') early experience, crises, and the genesis of reform; the drama and eventual defeat of their efforts once in power; and the lessons and legacies of the Prague Spring and especially perestroika in the post-communist countries as well as the fate of socialism and the "socialist idea" on the eve of the 21st century.

Though the text has obviously been closely edited, it retains much of the free­flowing though sometimes disorganized flavor of conversation. A larger irritant is that this "dialogue" is more frequently a monologue. The general pattern is that Mlynar sets the context of a particular issue, then queries Gorbachev about his experience with perestroika.

Nowhere does Gorbachev question Mlynar about his often-corresponding experience, so it is left to Mlynar to go on at some length - absent any potentially fascinating probing from his interlocutor - about the Prague Spring. This is unfortunate, but Mlynar plays his subordinate role well and, in fairness, it is probably true that most readers will be more interested in the more momentous events of perestroika.

How Fate Brought us Together

For many readers, this chapter will likely be the most interesting one in the book. This is so because it is rich in personal detail in exploring such issues as "Why we joined the Communist party," "How we perceived Stalin's terror," "Knowledge destroys faith," and "Tanks in Budapest." Here, in rather more concise and readable fashion than in his memoirs, Gorbachev tells of his own family's experience with Stalinism-one grandfather jailed and tortured, another a loyal collective farm chairman. Equally interesting is Mlynar's reminiscences of the belief in socialism that nurtured faith through the postwar years and (relatively) brief period of Stalinist repression in Czechoslovaika. The authors' paths then first crossed as students at Moscow State University in the early-mid 1950s, and their recollections of this experience-from particular professors and reading assignments to the general atmosphere of a gathering thaw-is again better told than in their other published writings.

The broad Khrushchev-era revival of belief in socialism's prospects, motivated by de-Stalinization's "cleansing of deformations" and Sputnik's impetus for rapidly "overtaking the West," is nicely recounted in Mlynar's and Gorbachev' sown experience. A key point stressed by both authors, and overlooked in many Sovietological writings, is how the latter-regardless of its success or failure-radically changed the prevailing Stalinist outlook. As Mlynar describes,

Stalin never permitted comparisons of socialism or communism with capitalist realities because, as he emphasized, here we are building a completely new world that cannot be compared with anything before. That led, naturally, to isolation from the "other world," but it had its own logic: our successes can only be measured by our own unique communist ideological standards…If some people in the West live better than us, or in some cases worse, little of that mattered. But Khrushchev, with his slogan "Catch up to America," fundamentally changed all that…now the goal was to live the way they do ...He wanted to strengthen faith in the Soviet system, but [eventually] the impact of such comparison was the opposite, to weaken it.

Here Gorbachev also describes two personal traits that would prove central in his acquisition-and wielding-of power. One was that "from my earliest years I enjoyed rising up above those around me-such was my nature. And it continued when I joined the Komsomol and later the Party-it gave me a kind of fulfillment." Another was faith in the power of key personnel changes to effect change: "I personally paid dearly for those beliefs that I came to hold during the Khrushchev epoch. Even in 1985, when I occupied the very highest Party post, I believed in the decisive significance of changing cadres ... "

In the prevailing Cold War atmosphere of the mid-1950s, and with their admitted "blind faith" in the correctness of the Soviet line, neither author was immediately much moved by the invasion of Hungary in 1956. Soon thereafter, as repression tightened throughout Eastern Europe, Mlynar came to think otherwise and his anguished reflections became the subject of a long letter ("an entire notebook," Gorbachev recalls) to his former classmate. Gorbachev, still full of Khrushchev-era optimism, candid! y admits that he did not share Mlynar's fears and guilt. For him, rethinking of the Hungarian invasion and much else only came considerably later-when disillusion at Khrushchev's '\voluntarism" set in, especially as, in tandem with his rise in the Party ranks, he gained ever-greater access to the closed-circulation "white books" of critical foreign (and dissident Soviet) political, economic, and philosophical writings. As in his memoirs, Gorbachev emphasizes in particular the influence of his reading of such Eurocommunist or social-democratic figures as Gramsci, Togliatti, Boffa, Garoudy, Brandt and Mitterrand.

Also paralleling his memoirs, Gorbachev describes in vivid detail his frustrations as a regional party boss attempting to make the centralized "command-and-administer" system function more efficiently. Still, in the mid-to-late 1960s, Gorbachev's horizons remained fairly limited and the concurrent efforts of the Czechoslovak reformers-and Brezhnev's crushing of them in 1968-did not register as much more significant than the events in Budapest of a decade earlier, his friendship with Mlynar notwithstanding. What did have "far-reaching consequences" for Gorbachev's outlook was a visit he paid to Czechoslovakia a year later, in November of 1969:

I saw with my own eyes how the people rejected what had been done. In Brno we visited a factory ...b ut we couldn't make contact with the workers. People just turned away from us, they didn't want to talk to us. The same thing happened in Bratislava, so there too we found ourselves isolated. For me this was a shock-I suddenly understood that for global, strategic and ideological reasons we'd crushed something that had ripened within society itself. From that moment on I thought more and more about us, and came to some inescapable conclusions-that something was seriously wrong with us.

How We Tried to Revive Socialism

The details of the Prague Spring' s rise and fall-and, thanks to Mlynar' s probing, a sustained comparison with the inception and execution of perestroika-are treated in considerably more detail in this second chapter. Here the authors step back from the invasion's aftermath to recall Mlynar's highly unusual 1967 visit to Gorbachev at his regional party post in Stavropol. Unfortunately, they shed only a bit more light on this episode than that already published elsewhere. Mlynar's enthusiasm for the budding reforms in Czechoslovakia was received rather equivocally by his friend: "That's interesting, and I agree that what you're trying to do may have real prospects. But to do it here would be impossible." How Gorbachev would later come to attempt the "impossible," and in particular the central place of a thoroughgoing democratization of Soviet society, is one of the main, recurrent themes of this chapter.

There are, as elsewhere in Gorbachev's writings, unresolved contradictions. On the one hand, perestroika moved from a brief and ill-fated emphasis on economic "acceleration" to broader political reforms largely in response to the (unexpected, given Gorbachev's faith in the power of key appointments and in his exhortations to dynamize the party) fierce resistance of the privileged nomenklatura elite. On the other hand, Gorbachev stresses that under the influence of experiences as varied as eye-opening foreign travel, frustration with domestic stagnation (as a regional and, later, national Party leader), and study of diverse political and social thinkers (principally, he stresses, the late Lenin), he had become deeply committed to the broad democratization of Soviet society-and the Soviet bloc­well before his appointment as General Secretary in 1985.

But how was such radical change to be accomplished? Early in the chapter Gorbachev describes the program he'd hoped to implement-utilizing glasnost to engage intellectuals and society at large in support of evolutionary reforms, as well as his (idealistic, if not naive) faith in those party cadres (many fewer than he thought) "who'd been waiting for this all of their lives." While indirectly admitting the shortcomings of his program-that his early economic emphasis on the machine industry failed to guarantee the consumer goods that would have bought broader societal support for perestroika, and that the totalitarian system was more resistant to change than he understood at the time ­Gorbachev' s central conclusion remains that perestroika's failure was essentially the fault of self-interested individuals on both the political right and left.

The former were those powerful nomenklatura officials who clung to the old system and sabotaged reform, while the latter were those opportunistic republican leaders (and their allies in the liberal intelligentsia) who simultaneously pushed for even more radical change. In other words, reform failed because of "the revanchism of the reactionaries and the revolutionism of the radicals." Ultimately, in a conclusion familiar to readers of Gorbachev's writings since the USSR's collapse, an attempt by the reactionaries to tum back the clock (the August 1991 putsch) only played into the hands of the radicals by sabotaging the implementation of a new Union Treaty that Gorbachev confidently asserts could have saved the USSR-and socialism.

Later in this chapter, Mlynar returns to the question of democratizing a totalitarian society by raising the analogy-familiar to those who followed perestroika-era debates in Moscow-of "a plane taking off without knowing where it will land." Further, in one of his best sustained probings of Gorbachev, he recalls the Prague Spring's conception of a more regulated, gradual path to genuine pluralism: first permitting "freedom of the press and contending opinions," then "allowing various social groups to speak out publicly and take part in political decision-making through societal organizations (trade unions, youth and womens' groups), and likewise organs of local self-management in towns, villages and regions, organs of self-management in work collectives and enterprises, and so on." And only later, "when society had become accustomed to taking part in a democratic political process, would it be possible to permit free elections with the participation of both the ruling and opposition political parties." During this time, the encouragement of various platforms and fractions within the Czechoslovak Communist Party would have facilitated its transformation "from democratic centralism. .. to a more social-democratic organ." Anything more rapid than this envisioned eight- to ten-year process would have been "political suicide."

Juxtaposing this orderly scenario with the tumult of Gorbachev's reforms, Mlynar pointedly asks: "Didn't perestroika appear as chaotic to most regional bosses as Khrushchev's changes had once seemed to the younger Gorbachev?" Gorbachev's answer is two-fold. On the one hand, he emphasizes the practical problems in regulating the path to democracy, that opposition groups and incipient political parties spring up themselves at the first opportunity. Here, coming ominously close to rationalizing the 1968 invasion, he reminds Mlynar that the Czechoslovak reformers ceded control over change not in eight to ten years, but more like eight to ten months: "It's enough to recall that the summer of 1968 was already something very different from the Prague Spring." On the other hand, Gorbachev also stresses a point of principle, that democratization has a dynamic all its own that cannot be managed like a laboratory experiment, arid that "either freedom of choice exists, or it doesn't." That democratization in the USSR quickly led to polarization and political paralysis Gorbachev again blames on the actions of particular radical (and reactionary) officials who failed to act responsibly-not on any failure in the design or execution of the process.

The same, Gorbachev argues with particular passion, applies internationally as well as domestically. He had early come to the belief that Soviet domination of the socialist camp was illegitimate - and that each country's communist party had to take full responsibility for its own society-and told the East European leaders that the "Brezhnev Doctrine" of limited sovereignty was dead immediately upon taking office in 1985. The collapse of the socialist camp clearly surprised and pained Gorbachev, as it did Mlynar, but he rejects the latter's suggestion that "more forceful measures" could have successfully saved it. Again, it was not only a practical impossibility, but also a principled one. The use of force to maintain control of democratization, at home or abroad, was simply inadmissible. To the example of President Lincoln's conduct of the Civil War to preserve the United States, Gorbachev answers that "reference to the history of the USA" is inappropriate:

In the first place, this is an inadmissible, ahistorical approach. Granted Lincoln was ahero in his time, of his country. While giving him his due, I cannot forget what an awful experience the Civil War was forthe people of the United States. It's enough to recall Mitchell's novel Gone With the Wind ... In the second place, I think that in our discussion about the use of violence we can't ignore [over a century later] the change of beliefs concerning such fundamental values as the worth of human life.

Again, the failure of perestroika to revive socialism within the USSR -as well as to preserve it as a system of states -derived largely from the failure of others to join in the reforms in a timely, responsible fashion, not from the nature or execution of the reforms themselves.

Here, on the fate of socialism in Eastern Europe, Mlynar changes course and questions Gorbachev not from a conservative but a liberal perspective. In response to Gorbachev's assertion that the East European leaders were to blame for the collapse of the socialist bloc since he'd early served notice that they must take responsibility for their own countries, Mlynar reminds him that 40 years of Soviet diktat had left those countries - and their leaders - crippled:

To say, in that situation, "Now you are free, we will no longer interfere in your affairs," resembles the case of somebody who, having broken another's leg, then says "And now you're free to go wherever you please."

Gorbachev protests this, noting that in fact he sought to aid East European reformers. But here Mlynar interrupts with barely-contained anger:

When you came to Prague in the Spring of 1987, the entire nation was waiting for you to say at least something like that which you later said in Germany, that life will punish those who lag behind [the need for reform]. That you would somehow communicate that you sympathized with the "Prague Spring." ... But you told those people that they should be proud of what they'd accomplished over the past 20 years, that 1968 had been chaotic but that difficult time had passed, that you'd "been with them" in that difficult time! Yes, with them, together with your tanks! How could you speak that way? I didn't understand it then and I still don't...

Gorbachev protests that he has been misunderstood and that, in any case, he had to tread carefully so as not to undermine the Czechoslovak Party leadership at the time and destabilize the country.

But Mlynar will have none of it:

I don't doubt your good intentions, but what you said at that time had the opposite effect on people. You disappointed them terribly, your words sounded like praise of the past. You challenged people to follow the path of perestroika, but under the leadership of those "normalizers" [i.e., those who crashed earlier perestroika-like reforms] who proved themselves faithful representatives of the Brezhnev era that you yourself, at home, criticized as the time of stagnation. There's no sense in taking this as a rebuke. I just want to explain to you how it affected me. And to ask completely openly: Didn't you realize that without condemning the intervention, without the political rehabilitation of the "Prague Spring" in Czechoslovakia, that it would be impossible to carry out your own policy of perestroika?

This conversation concludes with Gorbachev reminding Mlynar of how high the stakes were at that time (in 1987), how difficult it was to see where perestroika would lead and then, as communist regimes began collapsing just two years later, "how terribly difficult it was to stand back and not interfere."

There Only Exists One World

In contrast to those in the Politburo who pressed hard for steps to preserve the Soviet bloc, Gorbachev's acceptance of the events of 1989 was eased by an earlier transformation of values that had fundamentally altered his view of social and political development. It was not only the principle of non-interference that prohibited forceful measures to "save socialism," it was a radically altered perspective on socialism (and capitalism) itself. This is the central theme of this third chapter, though it begins already in chapter two. In 1987, in tandem with his embrace of more radical steps toward political pluralism to overcome nomenklatura resistance to reform, Gorbachev recalls undergoing a process of "fundamental reassessment and critical reflection" that led to "a new understanding of socialism" and, accordingly, to his "striving to overcome [Europe's] division into blocs and recognition of freedom of choice no matter what the social system in a given country":

I no longer supported the view of socialism as a particular formulation to which the universal norms of civilization do not apply. Although it is true that I, like you, thought that the result of this freedom of choice in the socialist countries would instead be a synthesis of democracy and socialism.

This rethinking-"the disappearance of the understanding of 'the socialist world' as a special formation existing in only a few states, and the beginnings of an understanding of socialism as one of many forces contributing to a worldwide process in search of the future developmental path of civilization"-was what lay behind Gorbachev's ever more frequent public references not to socialism per se, but to "the socialist idea" or "the socialist choice."

Mlynar cautiously agrees, but is quick to emphasize socialism's importance as a counterweight to "the tendencies of capitalism which seek the complete subordination of people to the laws of the market and the profit motive." Gorbachev, less hostage to this capitalist-socialist dualism, stresses instead the virtues of liberalism.

The liberals proved themselves much more capable of reacting to new challenges than we socialists and communists did. We were too much hostage to doctrine, wearing ideological blinders. They took the initiative, and even showed themselves capable of employing some socialist values and institutions-beginning under the pressure of events-to permit regular interference in the operation of capital. In other words, the possibilities of cooperation, of synthesis, of compromise between different approaches were proven in practice and shown to be advantageous for all.

Gorbachev makes clear his embrace of social democracy which, notwithstanding its emphasis on such "socialist" values as justice and equality, remains a system founded not on a class basis but instead on principles of individual liberty and freedom of choice. To Mlynar's probing, Gorbachev replies that yes, what he is saying is in fact praise of classical liberalism. Further,

We both have to acknowledge a major mistake which we made as supporters of communist ideology, when [Eduard] Bernstein's thesis that "the movement is everything, the final goal nothing," was declared a "betrayal of socialism." Bernstein's central idea was that socialism cannot be understood as a [specific] system that emerges as a result of the predetermined, unavoidable collapse of capitalism, but rather that socialism is the never-ending quest to realize the principle of the equal self-determination of the people who make up society, the economy, and the state.

Based on this perspective, and while praising some societal accomplishments and the prevailing popular orientation of "socialist values" in the USSR, Gorbachev is firm in arguing that, on the whole, what existed there was not socialism but totalitarianism.

On the basis of these somewhat divergent views the authors also discuss the role of socialism (or socialist ideas and values) for contemporary civilization on the eve of the 21st century. Here there is much of value and it is interesting to read a thoughtful critique of liberalism's problems and prospects from the usually overlooked perspective of two "failed" socialist reformers. Here too the authors approach the issues from their now ­familiar vantage points-Mlynar the more orthodox, and pessimistic, critic of capitalism -liberalism, and Gorbachev as the optimist and believer in the possibilities of intelligent leadership for overcoming crisis and finding a path to greater peace, prosperity and justice.

There Are No Happy Reformers

Certainly no individual did so much to end the deadly Cold War confrontation (popular paeans to Ronald Reagan notwithstanding) and bring freedom to Russia as did Gorbachev, so it is a great shame that he is so reviled in his own country. Of course, that is largely because he is roundly blamed for having left that country a truncated and deeply troubled shell of the mighty superpower it had once been. And it is about these two aspects of perestroika-the union's territorial and economic collapse -that this book tells least. Beginning with the latter, why did early attempts at "acceleration" fail? What was the impact of the anti-alcohol campaign? What was the law on unearned income, the cooperative movement, and the experience with joint ventures and efforts to attract foreign investment? Perhaps more important-given the recent claims of some embittered erstwhile allies-was a "Chinese model" (putting radical economic reform before political liberalization) ever seriously considered? In this book, as elsewhere, Gorbachev focuses his criticism (sometimes unjustly) on the radical "marketer" economists, from Nikolai Shmelev to Yegor Gaidar. The former is unjustly associated with those "radical intellectuals" who could criticize the past but offered no concrete suggestions for the future. As for the latter, chief architect of Yeltsin' sill-fated "shock therapy," Gorbachev nowhere acknowledges that Gaidar inherited unpaid bills, an empty treasury, and collapsing inter-republican economic structures from perestroika.

Probably the book's most glaring omission is an even cursory discussion of nationalism. There are passing references to particular episodes, but the non-specialist reader may not even remember what happened in Tbilisi or Vilnius. More than just these events (massacres of dozens of nationalist protesters, who were unarmed civilians), the role of separatism in the USSR' s collapse is almost completely overlooked. At one point Mlynar suggests that it was popular nationalism in the republics that destroyed the union.

Gorbachev replies no, it was instead merely a cabal of the republican leaders, led by Yeltsin. But elsewhere Gorbachev admits that one of his early mistakes ("communist prejudices") was a failure to appreciate the continuing depth of national grievances and the extent to which national minorities understandably felt themselves the victims of "Russification."

Still, these should not be taken as damning criticisms for there is much that is extremely interesting and revealing in this book. It will certainly appeal to specialists on the history of the Prague Spring and perestroika, and should also be attractive to general readers interested in more global questions concerning the fate of socialism and the future of Western civilization. Above all, it is an intimate and extended conversation between two friends and philosophical soulmates who-rather than "failed" reformers-contributed mightily to the (final?) downfall of totalitarianism.

Robert English, Ph.D., is Resident Assistant Professor of International Relations at The Johns Hopkins University SAIS Bologna Center, and author of the forthcoming Russia Views the West: Intellectual and Political Origins of Soviet New Thinking.