Was the Soviet Union Reformable?

9 September 2016

The universal meaning of reform is not merely change, but change that betters people’s lives. ” (Cohen, Stephen) In his book, Soviet Fates and Lost Alternatives, Steven Cohen addresses in details in chapter 4 about whether the Soviet Union was reformable. Following how Cohen views the NEP, the answer is that he believes that it was. He contends that the evidence that the opposition presents as to the unreformability of Russia is for the most part, evidentially wrong. Cohen’s reasons for believing that the Soviet Union was reformable was aided by the arguments that he wasn’t.

It is in rebutting these arguments that Cohen attempts to establish facts about why the Soviet Union could have been saved. On the matter of “original sin” which proffers that the way the Soviet Union came to be was through illegitimately evil ways, and thus was made a forever “absolutely evil without redemptive alternative possibilities of development and thus too fatally flawed to be reformed.

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Cohen posits that if original sin disqualifies a political or economic system from redemption, how then did the once slave holding America eventually become a leading example of democracy? For over 20 years, the U.

S held people captives, and believed it could get beyond that and still be considered a great world power. But Ronald Reagan was campaigning strongly against the USSR and deeming it unsalvageable only three years into Gorbachev’s reforms. A major interpretation by western media according to John D. Nagle is that postcommunism had “restored national independence… and has given new hope to ethnic nationalities that want to restore or expand their political sovereignty…” Nagle 176. This could then prove, that the Soviet Union post-communism could have continued in the same stride to prolong the effects of the reforms meant to change it.

The second commonly held view is that the end of the Soviet Union was proof its unreformability. Besides this argument being rather fallacious, it doesn’t help itself when it offers up alternatives that could have worked were different tactics employed. Cohen bucks this by asserting that coming up with points on how it could have been salvaged was proof then, that it was in fact, reformable. Since these arguments present the possibility of workable alternatives, the criticism of its unreformability due to inevitable doom is contradictory.

In an interview with Aleksandr Yakoblev, a specialist in North American affairs who was sought by Gorbachev to be one of his closest political advisors explained that it had seemed was that all they had to do was to remove some faulty issues. They just had to free everything up and it would start to work. “There was a good engine there. It had gotten a bit old and rusty. It needed oil. Then just press the starter and it would all set off down the track. ” I would have liked to see Cohen argue more distinctly between the Soviet system and the Soviet state.

It could have been important to note that the demise of the former did not have to be accompanied by the end of the latter. It could be asserted that Cohen’s argument could be based on a minimalistic definition of the requirements for the survival of the “Soviet Union” and ignores the essential internalized and structural violence that was at the heart of the Soviet System. On the contrary, from the early years of the revolution the Soviet state modified itself to suit the needs of its government, ideology, and population.

From creating war communism, to NEP, to five year plans, the destruction of Stalin’s ‘cult of personality’ together with Khrushchev’s reforms, a movement of what some label ‘neo-Stalinism’ under Brezhnev, to a reform minded Gorbachev who instituted Glasnost and Peterstroika, considered by some to have been the most ‘democratic’ period of recent history. Are these the actions of an unreformable empire? While Gorbachev’s leadership after being overtaken by Yeltsin “failed miserably,” it speaks only to his systems and not the reforms themselves because it is these reforms that is still being used to build the country that became Russia.

The third argument is that the way of living and the system of government pre-Gorbachev’s reforms were set up mostly to benefit the bureaucratic nomenklatura who would have never have conceded to a reform that would limit or restrict their monopolistic hold on power. This assumption was not completely unfounded. According to Nagle, Gorbachev under the slogans of perestroika and glasnost, ended party control over significant aspects of cultural, social, and economic life in the soviet Union. “Yet, as long as the ruling party retained its political monopoly, these choices were still onsistent with the traditional or classic communist system” (Nagle 173). Cohen however explains that all of Gorbachev’s major political and economic reforms during the decisive period from 1985 to 1990 were introduced, discussed, and ratified in the highest communist nomenklatura assemblies – the Politburo, Central Committee, a national party conference, and two party congresses. (Cohen, 464) He further explained that these parties and systems even voted to abolish the practice within their own denominations.

It was division between these institutions, and the divisions between those of them that were in favor of the abolition and those who weren’t that worsened the bedrock of the system. The favorite argument of those who believe that the USSR was unreformable is that the SU was “mutually exclusive with democracy” and therefore could only die from it. Cohen asserts that since reform is actually gradual and takes time to develop, the attempts and trials of Gorbachev’s government between 1985 and 1987 were actually enough to prove that reform was in fact of possible for the Soviet Union.

In his book, Perestroika: New Thinking for Our Country and the World, Gorbachev states: “More socialism means more democracy, openness and collectivism in everyday life, more culture and humanism in production, social and personal relations among the people, more dignity and respect for the individual… We will proceed toward better socialism rather than away from it… We want more socialism and therefore, more democracy. (Gorbachev 37). Failed attempts at reform does not prove the impossibility of reform. While Gorbachev’s leadership after being overtaken by Yeltsin miserably, it only speaks to his systems, not the reforms themselves because it is these reforms that is still used to build the country that is Russia.

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