Living With Perestroika

And confronting the obstacles to change

One of the articles in The Next Agenda (IC#19)
Originally published in Autumn 1988 on page 20
Copyright (c)1988, 1997 by Context Institute

The search for a workable next agenda is hardly limited to the U.S.. The advent in the Soviet Union of economic restructuring (perestroika) provides us with an opportuntity to observe how a large and complex nation is dealing with deep social change. The following pieces will give you some of the character of the debate now going on in that society. They are excerpted from an article entitled "Barricades of Perestroika" in XXth Century and Peace (February 1988). While this is officially permitted criticism – at the moment – from what I know of the Soviet Union I would not discount the courage required by these writers and scientists, or by the journal’s editor, Anatoly Belyayev (see IC #15, p. 13).

I share the passion and the criticism of the opinions that have been expressed here about our present situation. But I feel that something is missing in our conversation. It is the question mark. Over the years of silence we have accumulated in ourselves a whole symphony of exclamatory notes, and they all want to break out. We need strength not to give hasty answers, and I would like to put in some questions marks.

What hampers the perestroika, what is in its way? Well, everything hampers it, all and everything! The first problem is in the very object of the perestroika. The problem is not just to correct a number of rather serious but still incidental breakages and shortcomings of a generally healthy social system. Today the object of transformation is the social system as a whole. That this system is well established, in a way complete, integral and, in a sense "mature", is a fact that cannot be questioned either because of its separate contradictions or because of the general crisis in which it has been sinking over the recent decades. Both the shortcomings of the system (stagnation, lack of democracy) and its advantages (planning, political stability) are a logical result of the same basic principles and actually perpetuate each other.

This system (G. Popov aptly called it the Administrative System in the April issue of Science and Life) is obviously not interested in the perestroika which is imposed on it from above and which is not accepted by it. Hence the problem: how can this doomed but integral system be transformed into something different in principle but also integral? Another problem arises from the fact that so far the restructuring policy is carried out by the same social institutions (the Party apparatus, Soviet and economic leadership, scientific establishments, mass media, judicial bodies, etc.) that were the instruments of stabilization of the previous structure and have adopted this role as their primary function. Their organization and their activities have been adjusted for this purpose. They can be instructed to become agents of the reform and they will attempt to assume this new role (or at least will pretend to assume it), but it should be borne in mind that in assuming their new role they will have to act against their own functional nature, against themselves. Hence the inevitable tendency to hinder the process of democratization and restructuring (a tendency far more pronounced than is demanded by moderate conservatism), the threat to depreciate it and turn it into sheer sloganeering. Hence the question: what new social institutions should be established and how should the old ones be reorganized to become efficient and independent motive forces of the reform that need not be encouraged from above?

The third difficulty (and our hope too) lies in the people and their interests. The difficult part is that in all the above-mentioned institutions, all the commanding positions with very few exceptions are occupied by the same people that have held these positions for some years, or the like of them. At the moment people of a different kind are nowhere to be found. But this is not only a "personnel problem". The years of stagnation, bureaucratic arbitrariness, lack of openness, public apathy, and social parasitism of all sorts have drastically lowered the general standard of public morality; these years have morally devastated whole generations, especially those that are to translate perestroika into reality.

Motivation for perestroika is another controversial issue. We all understand to some extent that we have to restructure our society, otherwise we shall be threatened by a catastrophe. But each one of us will at most benefit from the perestroika in a not too near future, and will get hardly anything or almost nothing today. The reform even threatens to take, if not a post or some unearned income, then stability, an opportunity to work without effort. Who will be the winner in this conflict of the personal and the social which is taking place in virtually every living soul while numerous "dead" souls have no idea of such a conflict? How will this contradiction in the "human factor" affect the result of the reform? There is no ready answer.

And the final question. As the result of the 70 years of the Soviet history there exist two systems in the modern developed world, the viability of which has been proved by time: capitalism and the real socialism, the way it has been formed up to now. My question is the following (I have already mentioned it before): can a certain third structure be as viable as that? The democratic system that we desire, can it be integral as well? This question should be considered now in a most detailed and unbiased manner. With the consideration of the NEP [Lenin's New Economic Policy] experience, of the reforms started in the sixties, of East European practices, bearing in mind the circumstances of time and place. No one will relieve us of the need to answer this question: is a third way possible? And what is it going to be like?

We are not alone in seeking the answer to this question – it is sought by the whole of humanity: East and West, North and South. In modern capitalism there is a pronounced socialist element, and it is gaining ground. In fact, the search for a "third way" is going on here and there, suggesting that in this way a new state of civilization is emerging, the one that would respond to the vital needs of the whole mankind. That is why, whenever our propaganda pays lip service to the slogan of "more socialism", I feel like asking for a more specific definition: what kind of socialism? The one we have had, or the one we want to build? Because the more perfect our present socialism is, the closer to the administrative "ideal", the worse. On the contrary, the more diverse and multiform our socialism, the more vital and attractive it is for the whole world, the closer it is to the Leninist ideal of democracy that we want to promote.


20th Century and Peace


"The masses are considered to be indifferent, but that is wrong. An ordinary mechanic reasons about his problems as sensibly as we do. He looks me in the eye and asks: Look, do you really believe that the perestroika is possible with the present [state planning bodies] intact? What is the essence of perestroika, I ask him back, and I get a sarcastic answer: they want to work in the new way provided everything remains just as it has always been."- B. Mozhayev

"Society is an integral whole where the system controls all the elements. Due to its nature the system as a whole is capable of regenerating, and even when penetrated by alien elements or deprived of some of its own, it returns to an equilibrium which is more or less [the same as] its original essence. In this particular case the core of the system has been forming for centuries, and it is not easily changed. Resistance will be put up on all levels." - A. Arsenyev

"For me and for the people of my generation, whose adult life passed during "the stagnation," the impetus of the October Revolution has come down as something vague and distorted. What then is it like for today’s teenagers who were born in the odious Seventies? We have to think of it because the fate of the perestroika is in their hands, not ours…. You must realize that these are people whose identity has been formed in the absence of any ideal." – L. Saraskina

"Everyone who is committed to the peresroika must make a step towards understanding the threat of a dead end. We can support the perestroika by criticizing it. Yes, it is time to submit the perestroika to criticism! Not the concept of it, which is brilliant, but the ephemerality of its forms, the uselessness of some of the means, the concessions gained by the main enemy of the perestroika – the army of bureaucrats and administrators." - A. Nuikin

"Another method of the opponents of perestroika is the abuse of the notions that are sacred to us. They tend to dress up as the commissars of the Civil War or the soldiers of World War II, claiming to be the unique champions of patriotic feelings and calling us to watch out for "slanderers" throughout the country. This speculation on natural patriotism is designed to distract our attention."- L. Karpinsky

"I feel something like a sad optimism about the perestroika. I do not think I [need to] explain why it is sad, and there is only one reason for optimism: a most profound crisis in this country and the absence of any alternative to Gorbachev’s course at all levels. An intellectual ready to follow this course must promote a perestroika of the perestroika – a permanent development of its concept, its structure and methods, and an extension of its limits." - L. Batkin