It is not surprising that Sovietologists have been entranced by this book. Their careers depend on an ability to forage for bits and pieces that might help them put together a tolerably accurate picture of the state of the Soviet system. This involves working their way through pages of the peculiarly dead and unrevealing prose that has become the hallmark of official Marxism-Leninism. Imagine the relief at being handed a book that is authentic as well as authoritative, written in a direct, and sometimes almost terse style.
It would appear that Mikhail Gorbachev also found the ponderous approach of his predecessors extremely irritating. What comes over most strongly in this book is not the deep insight of his diagnosis nor the promise of his prognosis but his sheer exasperation with those who denied that the Soviet Union was 'problem-free' and encouraged 'mediocrity, formalism and loud eulogising'. He rails against 'eyewash and bribery, servility and glorification', `pompous campaigns' and 'grandiloquent twaddle'.
Gorbachev became leader in early 1985 on the death of Konstantin Chernenko, a man who epitomised the stagnation of political thinking. The task he then faced was to bridge the gap between the 'world of day-to-day realities and the world of feigned prosperity'. The new guard asses- sed the situation, saw how awful it was, with 'society . . . becoming increasingly unmanageable', and so resolved on recon- struction — Perestroika.
Instead of searching for the signs of disquiet beneath the bland assurances, at last the Sovietologists have been provided on a plate with honest confirmation of the severity of the problems facing the Soviet Union and, well nearly, honest descrip- tions of how they are being tackled. (Gorbachev cannot quite get over the need to assert unanimity in the Politburo and enthusiasm among the masses. This has been belied by the fate suffered by Com- rade Yeltsin, the former leader of the Moscow Party, since this book went to press).
Hardly surprising then that for profes- sional reasons alone the Sovietologists are desperate for Gorbachev to succeed, along with those sections of the Soviet intel- ligentsia who are enjoying Glasnost while it lasts, taking opportunities for foreign travel and serious conversation until the shutters come down once more. At last one can discuss all aspects of Soviet policy without working through coded references. Who wants to return to the code-books?
As a rule Sovietologists do not belong to
The last best hope
PERESTROIKA: NEW THINKING FOR OUR COUNTRY AND THE WORLD by Mikhail Gorbachev
Collins, £12.95 the school that considers that the security of the West lies with the impoverishment of the East (a school whose influence clearly alarms Gorbachev). The Sovieto- logists tend to the view that a more modern and prosperous Soviet Union will become consumerist and open rather than aggres- sive. In the second half of the book, Mr Gorbachev argues for co-operation in Europe, nuclear disarmament and de- velopment in the Third World. This would be easy to dismiss as propaganda if policy was not clearly moving in this direction. Hence the conclusion, which has now achieved virtually consensus status in the West, putting the cold warriors on the defensive, that Gorbachev is the best Soviet leader we could hope for and that it is in everyone's interest that he succeeds. That is not a conclusion from which I would dissent. Yet reading Perestroika one starts to get nervouS. on Mr Gorbachev's behalf. Appreciating the extent of the problem is not the same as identifying a solution. The picture he presents is of a socialist system that can claim great achievements but has unfortunately been allowed to stagnate; now it is to be re-invigorated by a dynamic leadership mobilising popular support. Perestroika will require discipline here and enterprise there, local responsibility and straight talk- ing, but all within a socialist framework. The framework cannot of course be any- thing other than socialist, but Gorbachev is a persuasive advocate of socialism — it is more than ideological baggage which he is obliged to carry.
Whether or not socialism in some recog- nisable form is compatible with an adv- anced economy is in many ways the central political question of the late 20th century. The evidence up to now suggests not. Although he makes a cogent case for a socialist approach, new Soviet style, Gor- bachev is on the ideologically defensive throughout this book. The provocation for the American right has been substantial and no doubt there are lies and mis- apprehensions that must be corrected, but one cannot imagine any Western leader feeling obliged to answer point by point the rantings of hardliners in the Central Com- mittee of the CPSU. Forty years ago that might not have been the case; the ideolo- gical challenge came from the East to the West and this was reflected in party politics and intellectual debate. Now the challenge is posed in the other direction. In this sense Gorbachev appears as the last best hope of Soviet socialism. One suspects that his successor will have concluded that if one wants socialism there will have to be less reconstruction, or that if one wants recon- struction then socialism will also have to be reconstructed.
What is missing from this book is any sense of the hard choices that lie ahead. At the moment all the good things of which Mr Gorbachev approves are assumed to be compatible with each other, and the pro- cess that he has set in motion has a clear direction from which there need be no deviation. As he copes with an unrespon- sive bureaucracy and workforce, as he seeks to reassure both his natural consti- tuency and the wary traditionalists, as he encourages reconstruction in Eastern Europe through regimes that derive their legitimacy from the crudest exertions of Soviet power, one suspects there will need to be a number of agonising reappraisals. The basic question is not whether Mr Gorbachev can see through his current programme as stated in this book, but whether it will need to be toned down into something altogether more tame or whether it becomes overtaken by far more radical pressures.
Lawrence Freedman is Professor of War Studies at King's College, London.