Once again, we are talking about opposition in the Kremlin and asking whether ambiguities in Mikhail S. Gorbachev's speech on the Bolshevik Revolution reflected a defeat for the Soviet leader. We are strongly inclined to think that conservative opposition may stop reform in the Soviet Union. All of this only shows that we are continuing to analyze the Soviet Union without any sense of perspective.
Thus, why should we be surprised when we see different views being expressed (actually hinted) by Politburo members who are respectively more conservative or more liberal than Gorbachev? Does any intelligent leader, even a dictator, surround himself exclusively with "yes" men? Near the end of his life, Josef Stalin chose Georgi M. Malenkov and Nikita S. Khrushchev as his top two lieutenants. The fact that both were more moderate than Stalin only demonstrated the dictator's sophistication. All the usual indicators show an extraordinarily rapid and successful consolidation of power for Gorbachev, but he too is sophisticated enough to have a variety of views among his lieutenants.
Similarly, why should we be surprised at ambiguity in a Gorbachev speech, all the more so one delivered for a ceremonial occasion? When we interpret conservative themes in Gorbachev's speeches as evidence of a defeat for his policies, we are implying--without realizing it or meaning it--that Gorbachev's views are as democratic as Andrei Sakharov's. Not so. Gorbachev's speech on Tuesday was a major step forward in the legitimization of radical reform, an openness to Western ideas and a more honest discussion of history. But it is only radical reform that Gorbachev wants--not a constitutional democracy.
Yet most of all, when we continue to emphasize the powerful conservative opposition to Gorbachev, we forget everything we know about the political consequences of industrialization.
If modern history has any lesson, it is that industrialization is very corrosive of dictatorship. Poor countries such as Haiti or the Philippines have great difficulty in maintaining stable democracies, but industrialized countries have great difficulty in maintaining stable dictatorships. This is true not only in Western Europe, but also in industrially advanced Third World countries such as Argentina, Brazil and South Korea and in communist countries such as Poland and Czechoslovakia.
The basic reason seems to be the large, educated middle classes that industrialization produces. They are self-confident enough to accept the uncertainty and ambiguity of democracy in the business cycle. They define their self-interests much more broadly than job security and want the freedom to travel, to read interesting newspapers, to watch interesting television and films. Indeed, at work they generally prefer interesting jobs with a challenge or risk over ones that are boring but secure. That's the way you and I are, and our attitudes are typical of the middle class around the world.
At the time of the revolution, over half of the population of Russia was illiterate. As late as 1939, 93% of the workers had only a grade-school education or less. Now the situation is radically different. About 45% of workers have a high school diploma--some 70% to 80% of workers in their 20s and 30s. The "bureaucrats" are the college-educated middle class.
In Europe in the mid-19th Century, in Poland in 1980 and in South Korea today, such middle-class people and educated blue-collar workers have fought for liberalization and freedom. Why should their counterparts in the Soviet Union today want Brezhnevism and Stalinism? We are retaining our stereotypes about the Russians of 1917 and not thinking clearly about Russians of 1987. For decades we have seen Soviet youth who wanted blue jeans and rock 'n' roll and Western films, and this is only the tip of the iceberg of a new set of attitudes and values.
In my judgment, the conservative opposition to Gorbachev is very weak. But the general secretary faces an enormous potential problem with his liberal opponents--with the "bureaucrats," the workers, and, most of all, with the intelligentsia. Today they are supporting Gorbachev because they have an exaggerated fear of the conservative opposition and because they are reading all their fondest hopes into the new leader. As time goes on, they will keep pushing for more, and Gorbachev will disappoint them.
The one factor that will save Gorbachev over the next 15 years is the multinational character of the country. Intellectuals who would demonstrate for meaningful elections and workers who would demonstrate for free trade unions are likely to be restrained by fears of what such possibilities would mean in the Ukraine, in the Baltic states and in central Asia. They will fear that real democratization would lead to separatist movements in the non-Russian republics and perhaps the break-up of the union.
But the problem of preventing reform from getting out of control as it did in Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Poland is a major one. The social base in Russia for dictatorship in 1917 has given way to a social base for democracy in the 1990s. If we do not comprehend that Gorbachev is trying to maintain a dictatorial system--to be sure, a much looser dictatorial system--in the face of powerful liberalizing forces in society, we will never understand the complex policies that he must undertake and the ambiguous speeches that he must make.