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Why Gorbachev Had to Happen : THE GORBACHEV PHENOMENON : A Historical Interpretation by Moshe Lewin (University of California Press: $16.95; 153 pp.)

May 22, 1988|Michael Scammell | Scammell won the Los Angeles Times book prize for biography in 1985 for his "Solzhenitsyn" (W. W. Norton). and

The rise of Mikhail Gorbachev to power in the Soviet Union, and his apparently radical new policies of glasnost (meaning publicity rather than openness and perestroika (reconstruction) have presented Western statesmen with something of a challenge.

Is this a genuine change of heart on the leadership's part? Can these policies be taken at face value? Is the Soviet Union truly willing to reform itself? Or is the whole thing a trick and a public relations exercise, designed to lull the West while Gorbachev strengthens his country before returning to the offensive? And even if it is not a trick, is the Soviet system capable at this stage of its development of overcoming its bureaucratic inertia and economic corruption to introduce any meaningful reforms?

Statesmen naturally look to specialists for answers to such questions, but the interesting thing about Gorbachev is that he has puzzled them too. Sovietologists nowadays tend to be split down the middle. Optimists are inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt, while pessimists tend either to patronize or to fear him, according to their estimate of the true nature of his intentions. But there is no doubt about the fascination that the man holds for Western observers. As Lewin comments in his new book, "The Gorbachev Phenomenon," whoever would have predicted five years ago that a man like this would come to power in the Soviet Union, let alone proclaim the kind of policies that Gorbachev has done?

As the author of several outstanding studies of Soviet history, Lewin is better qualified than most to interpret the new policies, and in the matter of Gorbachev, he is an avowed optimist. His optimism is based not so much on faith in the intentions of Gorbachev, as on an analysis of the evolution of Soviet society over several decades, and in particular of what he perceives as a transformation of Soviet society that has taken place since World War II. It is a transformation that guarantees, in Lewin's view, the continuation of the reforms even if Gorbachev were to be replaced by someone else.

In Part 1 of his book, "From Village to Megacity," Lewis traces the rapid and generally unnoticed evolution of Soviet society during the last 30 years, quoting Soviet statistics to show that whereas peasants constituted more than half the Soviet population before the war, they now make up little more than 12% of the nation. The working class, meanwhile, has virtually doubled in size to make up 61% of the population, meaning that the Soviet Union now approximates the West in its balance between the two.

Still more important, according to Lewin, has been the spectacular growth in the number of white-collar workers, who now make up one-quarter of the Soviet population. There are now said to be more than 31 million "specialists" in the Soviet Union, compared with just over 2 million in 1941. Of these, about one-half have received a higher education. Furthermore, they represent the fastest-growing segment of the population, having increased by more than fourfold since 1960.

This transformation of the educational and professional character of the Soviet people, according to Lewin, has been accompanied by a massive urbanization, and again he quotes figures to show that more than 65% of the population now lives in cities ("during the last three decades an average of 22 new cities were created every year"). The quality of life in those cities is of course substantially different from life in the countryside, and Lewin's thesis is that urbanization plus education have created a network of new elites and sub-elites that have begun to exert pressure in their own right, not only on the bureaucracy, but also on the Party leadership, for social and political change.

It is Lewin's opinion that what we are seeing now in the Soviet Union is not the traditional spectacle of a strong leader and a strong Party imposing change from above, but rather a leader and a Party responding to pressure from below--as Khrushchev was obliged to do--only more intelligently and with more conviction. Gorbachev himself, moreover, is a product of that very meritocracy he is responding to, and is therefore perfectly placed to interpret and carry out its wishes.

What evidence is there that such pressure really exists and is being acknowledged? In Part 2 of his study, "The Gorbachev Phenomenon," Lewin traces the rise to prominence and influence of a school of social scientists in the Soviet Union whose proposals for social change amount to what Lewin calls "a new ideology." It is an ideology of pragmatic and incremental change based on careful analysis of existing data, without reference to the ideology of Marxism-Leninism, and its outlines are to be found in a wide variety of influential journals dealing with sociology, systems analysis, economics, social psychology, labor relations, management techniques, urban studies, ethnic studies, and so forth.

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