Go West

Interesting programme on Channel Five yesterday (and it’s not often you hear me say that) with Mikhail Gorbachev presenting Big Ideas That Changed The World; in this case the big idea being communism. We were given a little potted history of communism, which was interesting if not revelatory, but interspersed with Gorbachev’s own commentary it became quite fascinating.

Gorbachev is still clearly a fan of Marx’s theories, and was at pains to stress how the central planning, repression and cult of personality of the Stalin era had nothing to do with the Communist Manifesto. Growing up in a staunchly communist family it is little wonder Gorbachev was attracted to the theories at first; less so when you learned that his grandfather, who was a party member, was tortured by the secret police for withholding some grain for his family. Self-delusion seems to have been, to some extent, the order of the day, as Gorbachev’s grandfather insisted that Stalin could not have known the true barbarity of the regime; today, Gorbachev tells that he has seen with his own eyes the execution orders signed in Stalin’s hand.

But despite this early eye-opener into the Soviet Union’s totalitarian nature, Gorbachev became a loyal party worker, and rose rapidly through the ranks. The Red Army’s success in the Second World War actually illustrated one way in which central planning, however brutally applied, could be a huge advantage in times of war. Following the end of the war, as communist governments sprang up across eastern Europe and the world, as Gorbachev recalled the Soviet superiority in technology, sport, the arts and the space race, and while Khrushchev made some modest reforms, you can imagine how Gorbachev, amongst others, would be unlikely to question communism, and could see it as a system for the future.

For Gorbachev, disillusionment set in when Brezhnev replaced Khrushchev and turned the clock back to the Stalinist era of centralisation, the arms race, tyranny and ultimately stagnation. Gorbachev laughed when he remembered politburo meetings that even discussed the minutia of the production of women’s underwear.

When he became leader he was still an advocate of communism, but wanted it to be reinvigorated with greater freedoms and democracy. Today he speaks of how Marx’s followers (but not Marx) did a lot of damage, by suppressing trade and enterprise, and much of what drives a normal society. Interestingly he also believes that the west needs its own perestroika; that capitalism suppresses other human values of equality and solidarity, and that the lesson from communism, that it is an error to try to suppress universal human values, can equally apply to capitalism. I am not quite sold on this theory myself, but certainly I feel that any strict adherence to one ideology is likely to be a mistake, and that capitalism is capable of some pretty unpleasant outcomes that we should not turn a blind eye to. Surely, just as elements of free market liberalism were required in the Soviet Union to make it a more free society, so in the west the state must also play an important role in making society a fairer one. Many people seem to have an automatic aversion to either markets or to state involvement, but I think they both have a role to play; it is just a question of balance. But I am repeating what I have said in previous posts, now, so I will shut up.

One final thing, though; this programme was also a timely reminder of Europe’s recent history. As the television screen was filled with images of the Berlin Wall being torn down, Gorbachev spoke of how he refused to use the Red Army to intervene as the old communist leaders of eastern Europe were swept from power. I couldn’t help thinking of how, last year, when he died, Ronald Reagan was considered almost solely responsible for the dismantling of the communist regimes and the end of the cold war. This year it was the Pope’s turn. No doubt next year, when Thatcher dies, she will get all the plaudits. I think that Gorbachev, more than anyone else, deserves the credit.