The Gorbachev-era earthquake that led to the collapse of communism and the disintegration of the Soviet state was due in significant part to autonomous changes in Soviet civil society, changes that were in some respects no different from the type of social evolution going on in other regions and countries with no experience of totalitarianism. The failure of a large section of the Sovietological community to perceive these underlying changes accounts in some measure for their blindness in not being able to anticipate the coming revolution.
Before making the case that changes occurring in civil society were important factors both in the collapse and in our blindness about the collapse, let me state at the beginning a number of caveats and qualifications. It should be absolutely clear that the Gorbachev-era earthquake had fundamentally political causes, which were its sine qua non. Perestroika was in no way a revolution from below. Frederick Starr's assertion that Gorbachev merely uncorked change rather than created it goes too far,and those like Jerry Hough who argue that the USSR had become a pluralistic, participatory society prior to the late 1980s understand neither pluralism nor participation. It is perfectly possible to imagine substantially different and quite plausible outcomes to the events of the 1980s, given changes in the personalities involved. If Andropov or Chernenko had been younger and/or healthier men, perestroika most likely would never have happened. If Grishin had won the subsequent power struggle, if Gorbachev's personality had been different, if he had been less adroit in political maneuvering or Yegor Ligachev more so, the entire sequence of events leading to the collapse of the Soviet Union would have been derailed and might never have happened. Moreover, to say that civil society was a factor is not to deny the myriad of other causes that contributed to the collapse, including pressures from the international system, and the United States in particular. One can argue that a healthy Andropov would have put off the collapse only for a decade or so, but the importance of such purely political factors is undeniable, and perhaps even central in explaining these events.
On the other hand, political factors do not tell the whole story. For while the major mileposts of Soviet reform may have been initiated from above, they received crucial support, or at least acquiescence, from below. The Soviet intelligentsia did not react suspiciously to glasnost, but rather embraced it enthusiastically and proceeded to push the boundaries of the permissible in journalism and the arts. Soviet voters, when given a chance to express a preference, did not elect the old apparatus or neo-fascist Russian nationalists; they voted in 1990-91 for candidates from Democratic Russia and for Boris Yeltsin. Elites in the different Union republics organized themselves quickly into nationalist groups once given the chance, despite the fact that many Western Sovietologists believed they had been successfully assimilated as "new Soviet men." And finally, perhaps the most important factor was not what happened in civil society, but what did not happen: the old system's entrenched interests, particularly the Party, the army, and the police, did not act decisively to end the reform process, as they were designed to do. Clearly, something had happened "from below" to make all this possible.
To say that civil society played a significant role is to challenge one of the fundamental premises of classical Sovietology: namely, that the very uniqueness of communist totalitarianism as a political system lay in the fact that civil society had been all but abolished. It was politics, ideology, and the state that were supposed to shape the course of social life, and not the reverse. The sharp differences between communist societies and all others made the study of the former unique as well: the disciplines of Sovietology and, to a comparable degree, Sinology, were segregated in a separate ghetto from the rest of the field of comparative politics. The chief social science paradigm governing studies of comparative politics for the first two postwar decades, modernization theory, was held to apply to virtually all human societies except for communist ones, where the "normal" processes of political development had been arrested by an all-powerful state.
Sovietologists, therefore, did not study issues like political participation, party formation, or the development of civic culture, as did specialists in the politics of Europe, non-communist Asia, or Latin America; rather, they developed their own methodologies, like Kremlinology, to interpret the actions of the relatively small group of leaders-members of the Politburo, the Secretariat, or at most the Central Committee of the Soviet Communist Party-whose actions were deemed decisive in shaping Soviet politics and society. Communist societies were compared only to one another, not to non-communist societies.
In the final analysis, then, it was the totalitarian model that was responsible for the failure of many observers of the Soviet Union to foresee its collapse. This model was severely criticized by Sovietologists well before the end of the Brezhnev era, but the critique was often done in so polemical and clumsy a way that it was not taken seriously by many. In retrospect, this was a great misfortune for both sides of that debate, and it prevented everyone from anticipating the end of Soviet communism as clearly as they might otherwise have done.
The Totalitarian Model
The underestimation of the importance of civil society in the former USSR is thus simply the reverse side of the overestimation of the "totalitarian model." That model, in its original formulation by Friedrich and Brzezinski, was meant to describe both Nazi Germany and Stalin's USSR, which were held to be qualitatively different from, say, the right-wing dictatorships that characterized contemporary Latin America. Most traditional authoritarian regimes prior to the twentieth century maintained a monopoly of political power and could act in cruel and capricious ways, but they generally left a substantial segment of civil society free of state control. Totalitarian regimes, by contrast, sought a complete monopoly of power throughout society, and the history of their rise to power was the history of their systematic conquest of all conceivable rival sources of power.
Other critical aspects of the totalitarian model as defined by Friedrich and Brzezinski included domination of society by a vanguard party, that is, by a small, elite, highly centralized Leninist-style organization; the existence of an official ideology; and technologically-conditioned monopolies of control over mass communications, the military, and the economy. The active manipulation of consciousness was critical in distinguishing totalitarianism from other types of authoritarian regimes: Soviet communism sought not just to enslave society, but to make the victims love their chains and affirm the legitimacy of their servitude.
In institutional terms, it was believed that the Soviet Communist Party maintained itself through the "circular flow of power." Within the confines of an elite Leninist party, a Central Committee appointed a general secretary and Politburo, which in turn appointed the members of the Central Committee. This relationship of mutual dependence, while not guaranteeing freedom from internal conflict, supposedly gave everyone an incentive not to diffuse power outwards beyond the 250 or so officials who made up the Central Committee and the Central Control Commission.
The totalitarian model was an "ideal type," and like all ideal types, it never fully described Soviet reality. But for all the criticism that the model came under in later years, it was a reasonably good description of the Soviet regime from the late 1920s up through Khrushchev's secret speech. That is to say, all institutions in Soviet society bearing names like labor union, church, newspaper, university, professional society, enterprise, peace committee, and the like, were emanations of the state, bearing very little resemblance to their counterparts in the non-communist world. And on the level of consciousness, there is copious testimony from those who lived through that period that a large number of Party members in those years, and an even larger number of those who staffed its apparatus, believed fervently in the ideology. They cried when Stalin died and listened in shocked disbelief when Khrushchev accused him of crimes against the Party.
Moreover, even after the totalitarian model had ceased to be an accurate description of Soviet reality by the late 1950s, the "post-totalitarian" state remained a distinct category of regime, different in crucial respects from a Latin American military dictatorship or an "oriental despotism." For while the iron grip of police terror and ideological fervor had been lifted, the damage done to the normal institutions of civil society remained. This difference is quite evident if one considers that even under the most severe right-wing dictatorships-like those of Franco in Spain, Salazar in Portugal, South Korea under Park or Chun, or Chile's Pinochet-the church remained independent, a strong private business sector prospered intact, and labor unions and political parties survived either underground or in exile, ready to reconstitute themselves. While there were important differences among post-totalitarian regimes (Poland, for example, had a large private agricultural sector and an independent church), the revival of the institutions of Soviet civil society for the most part postdated rather than predated the coming of Gorbachev and reform.Essay Types: Essay