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Former President of the Soviet Union Mikhail Gorbachev attends a symposium on security in Europe on November 8, 2014. (Photo: Odd Andersen/AFP via Getty Images)

Gorbachev Rode the Tiger and Ended Up Inside It

The late Soviet leader ended the Cold War, but his botched reforms opened the way to Russia’s modern crony capitalism.

Walden Bello

 by Foreign Policy In Focus

So what are we to say about Mikhail Gorbachev, who passed away on August 30?

For one, the late Soviet leader triggered a process of socialist reform that ran out of control and ended up with Soviet socialism swept away. Under his successor, the drunken Boris Yeltsin, the West, and the International Monetary Fund were given a free hand to bring about the birth of capitalism in Russia.

Progressives would probably say the Soviet system needed reform, but Gorbachev botched it and paved the way for Putin’s authoritarian and crony capitalist rule

This destructive process of sweeping away all the institutions of state socialism via radical privatization did not give birth to the free market capitalism that the ideologues of the IMF and their Russian acolytes desired. Instead, it gave way to a system where privatized assets passed into a few hands that had mastered the system of pirate capitalism.

So great was the pain, both physical and psychological, inflicted on the Russian people that when a “savior” from unbridled capitalism emerged from the ranks of the former KGB, the Soviet security agency, they embraced him. So associated in the Russian consciousness was the chaotic liberal democracy under Yeltsin with the economic shock therapy imposed by the West that they’ve tolerated Putin’s two decades of authoritarianism cum crony capitalism as a lesser evil.

The Chinese said Gorbachev’s lessons boiled down to three: 1) never trust the West; 2) reform the economy and allow the development of private enterprise, but keep the state in a leading role; and 3) make sure the Communist Party has a firm hold of the political process.

Now one may quarrel with one, two, or all three of these propositions, but it is hard to deny the results of this approach: the emergence of China as the world’s second biggest economy, the reduction of poverty to less than 5 percent of the Chinese population, and a political system that is both stable and broadly considered legitimate within the country.

To be sure, there are problems that many point to, like environmental crises and lack of democratic participation, but the ordinary Chinese would probably respond: “Sure, we have many problems, but would we exchange this system for that of the United States? Of course not.”

The U.S. infrastructure and economy overall are in such a decrepit state that some Americans say all it takes to convince an American to realize that the Chinese system is superior is to take the high speed train that travels the 819 miles from Shanghai to Beijing in just 4.5 hours. (Amtrak, by contrast, covers the 457 miles from Boston to Washington, D.C. in 7 hours—and it ain’t no point-to-point train!)

But back to Gorbachev. How should he be judged?

Certainly to the Western elite, he was and is a hero since he helped eliminate a major rival to capitalism. Progressives would probably say the Soviet system needed reform, but Gorbachev botched it and paved the way for Putin’s authoritarian and crony capitalist rule. And the Chinese would probably say he’s important as an example of how not to manage an economy and political system.

And what do I say?

I think Gorbachev was naïve in his dealings with Ronald Reagan and the West, who were not interested in Soviet reform but in bringing down the Soviet Union. But being a product of the Soviet system, he realized that he was unleashing a process in a complex system of control dominated by the gargantuan Soviet Communist Party that could only have unpredictable consequences.

Gorbachev knew he was riding the tiger. And while I may have had disagreements with some of his policies, I’ve always respected people who don’t fear to ride tigers even when they know they might end up in them, as Gorbachev did.

© 2021 Foreign Policy In Focus
Walden Bello

Walden Bello

Walden Bello is the co-founder and current senior analyst of the Bangkok-based Focus on the Global South and the International Adjunct Professor of Sociology at the State University of New York at Binghamton. He received the Right Livelihood Award, also known as the Alternative Nobel Prize, in 2003, and was named Outstanding Public Scholar of the International Studies Association in 2008. His books include: "Counterrevolution: The Global Rise of the Far Right" (2019) and "Capitalism's Last Stand?: Deglobalization in the Age of Austerity" (2013).

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