A Western-Soviet Inquiry Into Perestroika

Edited by Abraham Brumberg

Pantheon. 266 pp. $25

WRITING BOOKS about perestroika is a bit like running to keep up with a deluge. Since the summer of 1989, each month has brought forth transformations in Eastern Europe of a magnitude that used to require years. It should now be apparent, a half decade into the Gorbachev era, that we are not dealing with the "restructuring" of a basically viable system, but with a headlong revolutionary process of unknown destination -- whether disintegration or some more hopeful democratic outcome.

The present book, which seems to have been finished sometime in the fateful summer just mentioned, makes a wager on hope. Eight Western specialists on the Soviet Union analyze the course of perestroika in every important domain. Ten Soviet reformers comment on these essays with the frankness born of glasnost. The result is an informative and comprehensive guide to the first years of perestroika, as well as an urgent brief for the optimistic position.

The analytic framework for this view is provided by Abraham Brumberg's introduction, which sets forth the contrast, now ritual in American Sovietology, between the totalitarian and the evolutionary "models" for analyzing the Soviet Union. The former sees its subject as a monolith wholly controlled from the center and incapable of fundamental change, a perspective presented as dominant in Western thinking. The latter approach holds its subject to be in constant historical transformation which, since Stalin, has been moving toward increasing "pluralism." Brumberg places Gorbachev's perestroika under the aegis of this evolutionary model.

S. Frederick Starr begins the chronicle of this revolution with a much needed reminder that perestroika antedated Gorbachev. Most of its components were adumbrated in the wake of Khrushchev's failed reforms and beneath the surface of Brezhnevite stagnation, a process pursued both in open dissident activity, as with Andrei Sakharov, and behind closed government doors, as with Tatiana Zaslavskaia's "Novosibirsk Report." Archie Brown then chronicles the rapid progress of "democratization" once glasnost had opened the flood gates to the pent-up energies of the population. The result was the emergence of what the Soviets now call "civil society," or a world of voluntary associations independent of the all-encompassing state. Politicization of these groups has indeed been the main achievement of perestroika -- the other positive achievement, of course, being the "new thinking," leading to retrenchment in foreign affairs.

Nevertheless, recent events have made clear that democratization is by no means democracy, especially at the presidential level, where direct election is eschewed and the power of decree has been expanded. Mobilization of society for change also has been destabilizing, especially among the national minorities, whose disaffection, it is now obvious, threatens the very cohesion of the Soviet Union.

The domain of the economy, where failure triggered perestroika, is treated by Alec Noye. The chronicle which he offers is one of "slow pace" on the part of the leadership and "dogged resistance" from the apparat. The result has been a series of half-measures that, except for the cooperatives, remained basically within the existing command economy and left the country still confronted with the "unresolved dilemma of the plan versus the market."

SINCE LAST year, however, this dilemma has become a pre-catastrophe. Gorbachev's half-measures have only disorganized old structures without creating new ones, while also generating a budget deficit and inflation, thus leaving the country in effect without either a plan or a market, and now moving toward a localized, barter economy. It is the contradiction between this economic near-collapse and the success of glasnost in unleashing social energies that now threatens the very survival of perestroika.

The causes of this structural impasse are best set forth in the commentary by Gavriil Popov, the radical economist who is now mayor of Moscow. His basic point is that the Soviet economy is not an economy at all, but a "political-administrative" system of production. It therefore cannot be restructured, but must be replaced by a new system founded on the market. And, since the economic and the political are at present totally fused, this transformation must begin with the recovery of the autonomy of politics.

But the view that the governing principle of the Soviet system is the subordination of all aspects of life to politics and the Party is, of course, the essence of the totalitarian model which this book largely rejects. And unfortunately so, for the model is quite serviceable if it is used historically to take account of evolution (as indeed it was used by such a leading advocate as Merle Fainsod). In fact, the model is indispensable if we are ever to grasp the magnitude of the task of Soviet reform.

This is clearly recognized by radical critics of the system within the Soviet Union, such as Popov, who are now organized as the "Democratic Platform" group. Their program was finally printed in Pravda on March 3, replete with the diagnosis that the Soviet problem is not simply bureaucratism and stagnation, but "totalitarianism," now much decayed to be sure, but still institutionalized in the Party and a wholly nationalized economy. And the stunning collapse of Communist regimes in Eastern Europe, even reformist ones, has obviously reinforced the view that a clear choice must now be made between plan and market, between the apparat and democracy.

This once taboo idea has even begun to penetrate the leadership, if only in the first months of this year when the government gave up the principle of the Party's leading role and began to study the Polish example of "shock therapy" marketization. Although the leadership has since drawn back from this precipice, the goal of a radical break has at least been publicly accepted. So if the accent must be placed on hope regarding Soviet development, as this book urges, then the first hope of the West should be that the Soviet leadership at long last musters the decisiveness to match its rhetoric -- and that the population will have the patience to wait still longer for some results. Martin Malia, a professor of history at the University of California, Berkeley, is the author of "Alexander Herzen and the Birth of Russian Socialism."