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After Chernobyl February 14, 2013

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Uncategorized.

Here’s something to think about. According to this piece on Slate, from a week or two back, for Mikhail Gorbachev the primary reason for the demise of the Soviet Union was the nuclear accident (though accident doesn’t quite sum up the enormity of what happened) at Chernobyl. It’s an interesting thesis though he sort of ducks and weaves by linking it to the policy of ‘glasnost’ or openness. Or as he puts it “opened the possibility of much greater freedom of expression, to the point that the system as we knew it could no longer continue.”

Thing is does he believe that absent Chernobyl glasnost, which he introduced a year earlier, would have wended its way to the ultimate collapse of the system? According to one analyst quoted in the article Gorbachev was committed to the Soviet system while simultaneously believing that glasnost would somehow provide the additional extra that would support the system or make it stronger and more resilient.

And another point is made that is well worth thinking about.

Chernobyl, then, represented a fundamental shift in the relationship between the Soviet citizenry and the state. Before the explosion, most Soviets were not discontented dissidents; they believed in the Soviet system, forgave its flaws, and hoped for a better future within its confines. But after Chernobyl, the system seemed potentially unredeemable—and actively dangerous. In the early days of glasnost, stories of Stalin’s mass murders decades earlier slowly bubbled to the fore, but those generally receded, so far removed were they from everyday life. After Chernobyl, though, every citizen’s safety was at stake.

There’s an argument that the pre-Chernobyl situation was a fools paradise, at least in terms of appreciating the realities of the situation, for no state or regime could possibly guarantee every citizen’s safety, and indeed as we’ve seen in the example of Japan in recent years natural and unnatural catastrophes combined – with a connect to nuclear power – make a mockery of any assurance on the issue in the contemporary period (though it is interesting how the extension of nuclear power is now being supported in places that are somewhat unexpected these days). But it is plausible that the mythos of the state, inefficient as it might be in daily life – and on occasion brutal, albeit radically less so than during the Stalinist period (and hard to believe that that wasn’t appreciated by all its citizens), once broken was all but irretrievable.

That said to fix upon Chernobyl as the only element seems difficult to sustain as an argument. As comments under the piece note Afghanistan had a detrimental effect – not least in that the conflict there was one of attrition and a lack of success on the part of the Soviets. And, of course, there were broader socio-economic issues. And as important, perhaps, was the real sense that the USSR was technologically and in many other ways far behind what was termed the ‘West’.

I’ve read some analysis before which suggests that an hardline leader in place of Gorbachev might have kept the show on the road longer, and it is possible that a third alternative, the Chinese route, might have been successful too, at least in terms of consolidating CPSU power in the state. It’s an interesting question as to how long the USSR could have survived and whether that could have been indefinitely. Though another question is what would have been the point of survival alone if it were essentially in the context of political and economic stagnation?


1. LeftAtTheCross - February 14, 2013

A few quick lunchtime comments on this.

On the man himself: Gorbachev certainly positions himself as someone with deep belief in the correctness of Marxism and the Soviet system. His “Memoirs” is a great read. His self-described motivation for glasnost and perestroika was to improve those aspects of the system which were not functioning to the benefit of the people.

On the nuclear industry: It was in the news just the other week that the projected cost of the clean-up for the British nuclear industry is in the order of €100bn. These are figures from a report by the Public Accounts Committee of the UK parliament. This is without any major catastrophes happening. Not related to Chernobyl of course but it does put the externalised costs of nuclear energy into a context.


On economic stagnation: Is there an problem with this? I don’t mean in the USSR case where there was clearly a reasonably well functioning producer sector but issues in the consumer sector which remained to be addressed, but generally. Once the supply of consumer goods reaches some acceptable level, and is based on a people-centric economic model rather than one geared to private profit, what is anything is wrong with stopping economic growth?


WorldbyStorm - February 15, 2013

I’d generally agree with what you’re saying. Re stagnation though… I’m in two minds. Growth isn’t something that I think is entirely necessary for its own sake – and there are interesting red/green and green critiques in this area – but… I do think there was a problem in how all this translated to the level of the citizen, in terms of how well crafted goods were, etc, etc and that’s something that would have to be addressed. There’s also the thought that there are aspects of the entrepreneurial which socialists should attempt to harness. Not for frippery’s sake but for efficiency, etc.


LeftAtTheCross - February 15, 2013

It depends on what is meant by efficiency though as well doesn’t it? Even leaving aside the classical economics definition, what is the purpose of efficiency? If we take it that employment is a desirable outcome of economic activity then really one doesn’t want too much efficiency, in the sense that it creates under-employment if not unemployment. Ok, there’s the Marx notion of work in teh morning and leisure in the evening etc., and Gorz’s ideas of the different types of work, but carried to an extreme would it really be desirable to reduce the volume of necessary work to the extent that idle hands start finding other things to be doing? I agree that efficiency on terms of non-renewable inputs is desirable in terms of externalised costs such as pollution, but in an economic system which is not geared for profit why would one be concerned with efficiency beyond a certain point? Just on the point of the quality of consmer goods, it’s a question of expectations really. At a personal level when I worked in Britain I had Renault 5 that i sold and bought a Skoda Estelle as a replacement. The Renault was lovely, western modernity. The Skoda was less refined but got me from A to B and when it broke it was easily repaired. I don’t personally have any issue about reducing societal expectations in terms of consumer goods, as the level of production we have at the moment is simply not sustainable in ecological or economic terms. If we were forced to pay the real economic price for consumer goods on the basis of non-globalised prodiction we’d have to reduce our consumption and no harm either.


WorldbyStorm - February 15, 2013

It’s an interesting question, but my sense has been that doing more for less isn’t impossible ie smaller/more efficient/high technology. There’s also what I suspect is a reality that short of total societal collapse it will be very difficult to reverse the process. I’d also wonder if in the medium to longer term whether it is sustainable to eschew more advanced tech (or rather if it is possible to reduce populations etc to live in a world with lower tech). And then there’s the point that in practice socialist states (however flawed) did tend to attempt to push technology forward and in some areas faster than in the advanced democracies.


2. Ceannaire - February 15, 2013

It’s interesting to hear the Chinese model mentioned, because what destroyed the USSR was similar to what destroyed socialism in the PRC, and even in parties like the British Labour Party. The Left (and I include parties like Labour here, because I mean this in a tribalistic sense) tends to build organisations with democratic centralist structures (not in the Leninist sense, but that’s the best term that comes to mind). The reason this is more important than for the Right is that because they want to keep the status quo, there’s no danger of major fundamental disagreement, but the Left needs more centralised structures to avoid divisions that are risked by an ideology of change.

Yet both under Stalinism and in Labour, trust that was placed in the leadership was abused when right-wingers like Gorbachev (incidentally, his claim that he was trying to make Marxism work better is rewriting history) used that same deference to the leadership to force through a rightist agenda. It wasn’t until August 1991 that Gorbachev’s opponents finally got their act together, but by then it was way too late, as they just hadn’t been able to conceptualise acting against the leadership.

It raises a difficult question for the Left in terms of how to balance the need for displine designed in the interests of a consistent ideological platform with the need to keep debate open enough to make sure it’s kept to. I don’t think there are many leftist parties which have got the balance right.


WorldbyStorm - February 15, 2013

I wonder if Gorbachev thought in 1985 that the system would be over by 1992? I seriously doubt it. Indeed I’d doubt he envisaged the way things were going even by late 1990/91. He always struck me as wedded to the idea of the CP while it was extant at state level (and he was in charge 🙂 ).

Still, those are very interesting questions you raise re discipline and debate. Hard to see any parties getting that right but do you think there are even one or two?


Ceannaire - February 16, 2013

Well after pulling the rugs from under the feet of the Eastern European leaders I don’t know how he expected socialism to survive in the USSR on its own, unless he wanted to retreat into a radical version of Stalinist socialism in one country.

No, I can’t really think of one that fits the bill, which probably because it’s so problematic.


WorldbyStorm - February 17, 2013

Issue is did he have much choice at that point? The effective lack of popular support across the Warsaw Pact for those regimes was such that only by extreme measures could they be maintained. I don’t think that for anyone who didn’t support such measures there was much else that could be done. Personallyid have loved them to have had sufficient support, but see them become armed camps in the name of socialism in the absence of that support. Not really. Either we give citizens authority or we don’t.


Ceannaire - February 17, 2013

Yes the fact that those regimes were undemocratic must have been a factor in people rising up against them, but they had been that way for decades, so it wasn’t as if there was a sudden realisation. If anything, they were vastly more liberal at that time than they had been twenty years previously.

By the time people were demonstrating openly, yes, the genie couldn’t have been put back in the bottle, but it wasn’t a case of Gorbachev not stepping in at at that stage that was what I was referring to. For example, earlier he had effectively ended special Soviet support for the East German economy in terms of subsidised supplies, etc. Because the GDR’s economy was parasitic on the USSR’s, it was doomed. It was this sort of economic withdrawal of support rather than the political side of things in terms of supporting the regimes against protesters that was fatal.

Once Gorbachev had cut off Eastern Europe economically, it was only a matter of time before those countries collapsed, and the inevitable crisis spun itself out in the form of intra-regime intrigue and popular demonstartions against the impotent governments, which obviously made more of an impact on the popular imagination. The protesters were just knocking on ann open door.


WorldbyStorm - February 18, 2013

Just to plus one your point about being vastly more liberal than twenty years previously. That said although the realisation was there presumably the sense that something old be done wasn’t.

That’s an interesting point re economic support and I see what you meant previously now. I wonder would it have been possible for him to maintain economic support while withdrawing political support in order to push for change short of liberal democracy or alternative to it, or was it a case that once something altered in the overall balance all bets were off?


3. Gewerkschaftler - February 15, 2013

My guess (and I wouldn’t claim to be any kind of expert on that period in the USSR) is that Chernobyl and Afghanistan together contributed significantly to a crisis of legitimacy, that led to the fall of the Eastern block.

Chernobyl undermined the confidence in Soviet engineering while the military defeat in Afghanistan undermined the status of the military, both domestically and among the USSR’s neighbours.


WorldbyStorm - February 15, 2013

That sounds about right to me.


4. Michael Carley - February 16, 2013

I think Moshe Lewin says somewhere that communism collapsed because the USSR ran out of communists.


Ceannaire - February 18, 2013

(I’m not sure where this is going to show up on the thread, but I’m replying to WorldbyStorm’s point in the latest post on the thread I started because I couldn’t seem to reply directly.Mods, is there a limit to the number of posts on a thread, as I’m new to posting on the site?)

I can’t really say what would have happened if Gorbachev had not done what he did as it’s a counterfactual, but it’s an interesting question. I would have preferred democratisation, and even liberalism to a large extent as far as personal freedoms were concerned, and the extension of democratisation to the planned economies. I certainly think the political oppressiveness of the regimes was far more objectionable to most people than the planned economy: witness the comeback the ex-Communist parties made under liberal democracy.

Despite what I said above, I wouldn’t have opposed economic pressure too. Gorbachev could have perhaps temporarily cut off economic support to show them he was serious. That way he could have got the crusty old Stalinists like Honecker to stand aside and let a younger generation less wedded to the old system into power. So economic policy was undoubtedly a useful tool, but it should have been used differently, to force reform in the countries rather than to fell them outright.

Had Gorbachev done so, Eastern Europe could have been used as a laboratory so that he could see how well the reforms worked before taking the risk of implementing them in the Soviet Union without any idea how the system would cope. Ultimately, it could have saved the Warsaw Pact countries and led to the development of a truly democratic socialism. Sadly, we all know that didn’t happen.


WorldbyStorm - February 18, 2013

No limit at all Ceannaire, were there any links in your last one? Sometimes that messes up commenting.

That’s a very interesting series of ideas. Indeed one could go further and argue that a range of different approaches could have been tried across the Warsaw Pact (and indeed perhaps in specific parts of the USSR itself). Maintaining both the core of the project and enabling and extending democratic socialist approaches would have been well worth the effort. Though perhaps that would have necessitated fighting on two fronts as it were – against those who wouldn’t countenance any change and those who wanted change too deep too fast without any of that effort mentioned to see how it worked.

I’ve often wondered what would have happened in relation to Yugoslavia had it not foundered. That seemed to me to offer a similar sort of test case of attempting to use significant aspects of collective and socialist thinking in ways that were fairly innovative but avoided more centrally planned cul-de-sacs which were appropriate in the early period of such states but not so much as time went on.


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