Reform Impossible?

On Twitter, I’ve seen several replies to Keith Gessen’s response to William Taubman’s new biography of Mikhail Gorbachev. I’m writing this having not yet read the book, although I think now I’ll have to add it to the to-do list.

The passage I want to respond to—and about which I think Gessen does a good job of getting down to the point of contention—goes as follows:

Could the Soviet empire have survived in some form? The answer for the Warsaw Pact and the Baltic nations is almost certainly no: Any amount of liberalization would have led almost immediately to their independence. Might the USSR have survived in its pre-1939 borders? Perhaps. But here as in so much else, the Soviet state had to answer for Stalin’s crimes: His 1939 annexation of western Ukraine, for example, made it less likely that Ukraine would want to remain in any hypothetical USSR. On the question of whether Russia might have survived as a socialist experiment, the answers are even less clear. Some economists have argued that the entire Soviet economy was based on coercion and that any liberalization—even one less haphazard than Gorbachev’s—would have led to economic collapse. Thus Philip Hanson’s mordant quip: “Mikhail Gorbachev was the first Soviet leader who…did not understand the Soviet system. He was therefore the last Soviet leader.”

I’ve highlighted the second part of this because the first is uncontroversial. On the second, whatever economists and other historians suggest, we have decades of scholarship showing the ways in which the Soviet Union, however coercive it was under Stalin (spoiler alert: extremely), gradually evolved away from the extreme reliance on coercion at the expense of material incentives (wages and other material rewards) after his death in 1953.

For more than 30 years—including all of Gorbachev’s adult life, the changes in the Soviet system were visible. Unlike under Stalin, no one was ever shot for missing their production target. We accept as normal, for instance, that you’d be fired if the unit you manage underperforms, and the same happened in the Soviet Union. (Albeit rarely by the 1960s and 1970s.)

What’s more—and I don’t lightly inject my own research into a blog post—the basic trend of post–Stalin reform in the agricultural sector, which included a much larger percentage of the population than in other industrialized countries—was to introduce wage labor, largely absent under Stalin. Again, the presence of coercion declined over time.

This is where Gessen seems to avoid making a clear response to the economists, writing only, “But this seems to underestimate the power of actually existing socialist idealism.” Yet this is not a question of ideas or idealism, but one of structural changes.

Despite these real structural changes, historians often write of the Soviet Union as if reform were impossible. In fact, it had been reforming all along. Fundamental reform of the Soviet Union seems impossible only if reform is defined as becoming more like a free-market capitalist democracy. If the Soviet Union were to have pursued such reforms, it would have ceased to be the Soviet Union. What Gorbachev hoped for was to overcome the failings of the Soviet Union’s economic and political practices, with a social-democratic result. What Russia got was far from it: a pseudo-democratic state-dominated cronyism that remains today, in 2017, far from the ideal of free-market capitalism and democracy that those positing a “transition” imagined.

“Time-bound structural weaknesses,” as the historian Stephen Kotkin calls them, made reform incredibly difficult. They did not make it impossible. To argue otherwise is to embrace a Whiggish narrative of the Soviet Union’s history in which the things that did happen had to happen because there was no other path. Any reform would have led to the outcome that was, which this narrative sees as a systemic collapse. Such a rejection of the power of contingency appears to be ahistorical, and detracts from the work of understanding what happened.