Gorbachev’s Place in World History

Mikhail Gorbachev

By Kayode Komolafe

“A great man is not a hero in the sense that he can stop, or change, the natural course of things, but in the sense that his activities are the conscious and free expression of this inevitable and unconscious course. Herein lies all his significance; herein lies his whole power…”
– George Plekhanov (1856-1918).

In the vibrant days of the Communist Party of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), the roles played by the would-be successors at the funeral of a deceased party leader were imbued with a lot of political and ideological messages. The sitting arrangement during the solemn occasion was not a random affair. The relegation or promotion of party cadres often began with the recognition accorded them at the funeral of a departing leader.

So the funeral of a party leader was not just a ceremony to bury the dead. It was often meant to make a statement about the future of the living.

When the leader of the Bolshevik revolution, Vladimir Lenin, died in 1924, Joseph Stalin tactfully and strategically assumed prominence in funeral activities. By implication, this was more than symbolism to Stalin’s rival, Leon Trotsky, and his tendency in the Bolshevik party. Stalin eventually succeeded Lenin as the leader of the party and expectedly moved against the great revolutionary, Trotsky, and others who could challenge the authoritarian leadership. Perhaps, the USSR of which Gorbachev emerged as the leader in 1985 could have been a more democratic one in socialist terms if Trotsky had succeeded Lenin. Well, that would ever remain a matter of historical conjecture.

Although Russia today is not governed by a communist party, it was in the context of this political culture that the conspicuous absence of Russian President Vladimir Putin at the funeral of the historical figure, Mikhail Gorbachev, at weekend should be understood. Putin’s absence has been variously interpreted by observers.

To the admirers of Gorbachev, the man who presided over the dissolution of the USSR, a world power that existed for over eight decades in the last century, Putin snubbed the memory of a “hero of democracy.” For many on the left, the memory of Gorbachev is cast as that of a “traitor to the cause of socialist revolution.” For Putin, an avowed Russian nationalist, the dissolution of the USSR for which history would hold Gorbachev responsible was the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the 20th Century.

In between these polar ends of the assessment will eventually lie the true verdict of history on Gorbachev.

Now, pondering the historical significance of Gorbachev, his role in the collapse of the USSR is the central question.

Those who still mourn the USSR do so not for mere emotional reasons. There is a material basis for this deep sense of loss. The positive impact of the USSR on humanity cannot be denied even by the worst cynics at least in three areas. First, the Soviet Union was a formidable force against fascism in the first half of the 20th Century. That great country made enormous sacrifices. The West alone could not have broken the teeth of Hitler’s Nazism without the wise alliance with the Soviet Union under the leadership of Stalin. The Soviet Union lost over 20 million persons and hundreds of towns and villages were destroyed during World War II. Secondly, it was the Soviet Union that supported anti-colonial struggles in Africa, Asia and other parts of the world. The struggle for national independence was a major issue of democracy in the 20th Century. The USSR supported these struggles for human freedom. The West focussed on the Iron Curtain in Europe, but they ignored the Steel Curtain of colonial brutalities and inhumanity in Africa. The Soviet Union did the opposite. Thirdly, the rise of the welfare state was in response to the revolutionary inspiration that the exploited and “the wretched of the earth” got from the Soviet Union in the struggle for social justice and equity.

The USSR was in this respect a force for the good of humanity. That is why its dissolution is lamented by forces of human progress. The collapse of the Soviet Union posed a dilemma to progressive forces worldwide. And Gorbachev was seen as the culprit.

The British Marxist historian, Eric Hobsbawm, summarised things in 1990 as follows: “ Capitalism and the rich have, for the time being, stopped being scared…

“Why should the rich, especially in countries like ours (Britain) where they now glory in injustice and inequality, bother about anyone except themselves? What political penalties do they need to fear if they allow welfare to erode and the protection of those who need it to atrophy? This is the chief effect of the disappearance of even a very bad socialist region from the globe.”

Incidentally, it was the Russian Marxist George Plekhanov, an ideological and political forebear, who theorised 33 years before the birth of Gorbachev in his famous essay entitled The Role of the Individual in History, that individuals with certain qualities of character could change the course of events for good or for ill. As quoted above, Plekhanov, however, put the action of the individual as an expression of an “inevitable course.” Gorbachev must be squarely situated in the context of the of USSR in which he emerged as a leader in 1985.

To be sure, Gorbachev never set out to destroy USSR. He wore the garb of the reformer.

One point must be strenuously stressed. Between 1985 and 1991, Gorbachev manifestly lacked the luxury of hindsight which is now amply available to his assessors right, left and centre. In those tumultuous years of the USSR, Gorbachev had no option but to confront the enormous contradictions of the historical moment he found himself, what with the groundswell of political pluralism and economic liberalism. The well–educated products of public educational institutions in the USSR demanded freedom of speech as they craved consumer goods readily available in the western supermarkets. Meanwhile, the economic cost of the mad arms race with the United States of America was becoming unbearable for the USSR. That huge country of 15 republics with five time zones that Gorbachev led was in dire need of reforms. The communist party under his leadership responded with glasnost (openness) and perestroika (socio-economic and political restructuring).

Notable Nigerian Marxist Edwin Madunagu was on a tour of the USSR in the late 1980s. He captured the mood in that country in a series of articles published in The Guardian. More than anyone else in the Nigerian media, he focussed on the history that was unfolding in the USSR, especially in the late 1980s. Madunagu’s testimony was that Gorbachev, as a communist leader, was on course to democratise USSR. Madunagu posited in one article that Gorbachev’s option for democratic reforms was in the true Leninist tradition.

It is undialectical to frame Gorbachev’s role in history in the Aristotelian logic of either a hero or a villain. Such a contrast might not capture the essential Gorbachev. For Gorbachev was a historical figure whose role affected the 20th Century in a way that no diligent historian of the future could ignore.

In the process, like all mortals, Gorbachev committed his errors. In discussing the actions of comrades, Madunagu often says that “the greatest error is the error of doing nothing.” No judicious assessor of Gorbachev could accuse him of committing that error.

Gorbachev’s errors are, of course, legion. For instance, he underrated the power of the upsurge of nationalism in the Soviet Union. He proved incapable of handling the groundswell of nationalism from the various republics cobbled together after the Great October Revolution. Outside power, he expressed support for Putin’s nationalism while criticising the anti-democratic steps. Gorbachev supported the annexation of Crimea. As a result, he was once barred from entering Ukraine. Ironically, Gorbachev had a maternal Ukrainian heritage. He shared this Ukrainian heritage with other USSR leaders such as Nikita Khrushchev, Leonid Brezhnev and Konstantin Chernenko. And Gorbachev died during a period when Russia is waging a war with global implications against Ukraine.

Gorbachev was also politically naïve in dealing with the West. As he received one award after another from western institutions, the reforms floundered at home as the emergent contradictions became unmanageable. He could not see the double standards and hypocrisy of the West in their conception of human freedom. American President Ronald Reagan proclaimed in 1987 that “Mr Gorbachev, tear down this wall,’’ about the Berlin Wall, which eventually fell two years later. The West insisted on the removal of the “Iron Curtain” between the east and west of Europe. But Reagan continued having “constructive engagement” with apartheid South Africa. British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was still calling the African National Congress (ANC), which is the governing party today in South Africa, a “terrorist organisation’ even in 1988.

The cold war was essentially an ideological war. It was supposed to have ended with the collapse of the USSR. The Right erroneously prefers to call it the “collapse of communism” as if ideologies collapse and disappear just like that without any trace! The failure of the socialist experiment in the USSR which Gorbachev could not reform despite his good intentions could not mean the end of the socialist ideology as it has been proved 31 years after Gorbachev resigned as the first and the last President of the USSR. In the twilight of his life, Gorbachev regretted the “triumphalism” of the West. Gorbachev allowed the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact, a military alliance between the defunct USSR and the eastern European countries, which also experimented with socialism. The western opposite number of the Warsaw Pact, the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, NATO, is still spreading eastward instead of dissolving. The cause of the present tragic Russia-Ukraine war is the western resolve to expand the NATO area of influence to the border of Russia.

Besides, the struggle for reforms and genuine democracy in the USSR did not start with Gorbachev. Brezhnev began perestroika before he and Khrushchev attempted the de-Stalinisation of the party by making sharp criticisms of Stalinism. More significantly, the battle that Trotsky and other party leaders waged against Stalin after Lenin’s death was the harbinger of the reform of the union along the democratic path and towards human progress.

The Chinese have mastered better the geo-political reality of the world through their own -self-propelling reforms. Under the leadership of Deng Xiaoping China embarked on its reforms in 1979. Unlike Gorbachev, Xiaoping and his successors have refused to be influenced by the western judgement of the reforms. Warts and all, China has made significant progress on the path of development. Problems have been thrown up, but they have been managed on China’s terms.

The Historical Consequences of Comrade Gorbachev

The above sub-title of this piece is an attempt to paraphrase the great liberal economist, Maynard Keynes, who, in a vastly different context, wrote some commentaries on the economic policies of the former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. Churchill at the time was Chancellor of Exchequer. Keynes entitled his work The Economic Consequences of Mr Churchill. According to Keynes, about his conclusion, “there is no difference of opinion”

Doubtless, posterity will continue to examine the historical consequences of Comrade Gorbachev. There can hardly be a difference of opinion on that point.

*Kayode Komolafe, labour activist, is an Executive Director in Thisday