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Mikhail Gorbachev Was A Socialist Through And Through – Not The Heroic Pro-capitalist He’s Being Painted Out To Be

Written by
5 September 2022
Originally appeared in Sky News Australia

Gorbachev has been widely remembered for his promotion of free enterprise and democracy, but not for his true goal of restoring the socialist Bolshevik principles upon which the Soviet Union was founded.

As former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev is laid to rest, most media commentary in the Anglosphere seems to be singing his praises.

He is portrayed as a great reformer who apparently helped end the Cold War by promoting free enterprise, democracy and nuclear disarmament.

As this column shows, reality is a tad more complex than that.

Gorbachev wasn’t on a mission to bring his country – let alone the world – closer to freedom.

As a classical Leninist, he never saw the Soviet Union’s countless problems as proof of the failure of socialism.

He blamed those struggles on the incompetence of his predecessors who he felt were too authoritarian.

Notably, Joseph Stalin and Leonid Brezhnev.

When Gorbachev took office in 1985, he believed he could save the Soviet Union by restoring the original Bolshevik principles upon which it was founded.

A worker-led, democratic and egalitarian socialism.

In fact, he saw centre-left political parties in the Anglosphere as proof that socialism works better in a multi-party system.

Former President of the Soviet Union Mikhail Gorbachev giving a speech during his visit to Ottawa, Canada, on May 30, 1990. Picture: Wojtek Laski/Getty Images
Former President of the Soviet Union Mikhail Gorbachev giving a speech during his visit to Ottawa, Canada, on May 30, 1990. Picture: Wojtek Laski/Getty Images

His support for nuclear disarmament was the result of international pressures following the disaster at Chernobyl in 1986.

The Soviet Union didn’t collapse in 1991 due to any heroic pro-capitalist efforts from Gorbachev.

It collapsed because his signature policies ironically ended up creating the requisite conditions that enabled the opposite. 

Russia, after its Civil War (1917-1922) and China, after its own Civil War (1927 to 1949), both fell to socialist regimes.

In 1947, US President Harry S. Truman announced his policy of containment.

Known as the Truman Doctrine, its objective was to undermine Soviet-aligned socialist regimes around the world.

Soviet leaders Nikita Khrushchev (1953-1964) and Leonid Brezhnev (1964-1982) found themselves at the brunt of two mammoth tasks.

One, to compete with the United States abroad in an arms race and a space race.

Two, to make socialism work at home through a state-planned economy.

In China, Chairman Mao Zedong pursued similar socialist policies until his death in 1976.

Costly wars between American and Soviet-backed regimes in Korea from 1950 to 1953 and in Vietnam from 1955 to 1975 became the centre stage of the Cold War. 

As the United States ran an open society with free enterprise, it was easier to innovate and outperform the Soviet Union on most fronts.

By the mid-1970s, the world could see a stark contrast.

Gorbachev pictured in June 2015. The revered world leader wasn't the great supporter of free enterprise, democracy and nuclear disarmament he is portrayed to be, writes Sherry Sufi. Picture: Sasha Mordovets/Getty Images
Gorbachev pictured in June 2015. The revered world leader wasn’t the great supporter of free enterprise, democracy and nuclear disarmament he is portrayed to be, writes Sherry Sufi. Picture: Sasha Mordovets/Getty Images

American-backed capitalist societies like West Germany, South Korea, Taiwan and Japan enjoyed high economic output, high standards of living, cutting edge technological advances and democratic institutions.

Soviet-backed socialist societies experienced stagnant economies and a miserable standard of living across Albania, Poland, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, East Germany, Hungary and Mongolia.

In 1979, Brezhnev launched a military operation to incorporate Afghanistan into the Soviet Union with support from the Parcham faction of the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA).

Meanwhile, socialist policies had barely worked for China either.

Almost 90 per cent of its population survived on $2 per day.

Its economy was equal to roughly 5 per cent of the American economy.

China’s GDP per capita was the same as Zambia’s.

Seeing the failures of authoritarian socialism, Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping took office in 1978 and began undoing his predecessor Mao Zedong’s policies.

After Brezhnev’s death in 1982, his short-lived successors Yuri Andropov (1982-1984) and Konstantin Chernenko (1984-1985) struggled to keep a sinking Soviet Union afloat.

Abroad, fierce resistance from the Mujahideen militia armed and funded by the United States, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan meant that the Soviet operation in Afghanistan was proving too costly.

Defeat looked imminent.

At home, the Soviet economy was at a complete standstill.

Soviet bureaucracy was corrupt.

Dissidents were thrown in prison. Shortages of food resulted in large queues at shopping centres. Workers were neglected. People turned to alcoholism to escape.

Bad urban planning resulted in housing shortages. Pornography became a lucrative industry despite being outlawed by Article 228 of the Soviet criminal code.

By now, Soviet citizens were all too cynical about their country’s future.

There were two major news outlets Pravda (Truth) and Izvestia (News).

A popular joke was that you don’t bother reading either outlet.

There was apparently no truth in Pravda and no news in Izvestia.

Costly wars abroad coupled with an economic and social mess at home is what Gorbachev inherited in 1985.

Rapid wealth from foreign investment in China next door following Deng Xiaoping’s reforms only encouraged Gorbachev to attempt similar measures. 

It was against this backdrop that he launched his three signature policies.

Perestroika (Restructuring) brought in limited free enterprise.

Glasnost (Openness) allowed public debate and released dissidents from prison.

Demokratizatsiya (Democratisation) enabled political parties to form and participate in elections.

By the late-1980s, there were three major forces in Soviet politics.

Ironically, each used Gorbachev’s policies against him.

One, the authoritarian conservative “old guard” of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) pointed to Perestroika as proof Gorbachev had gone too capitalist for their liking. 

Two, the ethnic nationalists used Glasnost to openly mobilise separatist sentiments and demanded independence.

Three, the pro-capitalist moderates led by Boris Yeltsin thought Gorbachev’s reforms didn’t go far enough and used Demokratizatsiya to run for office and eventually win in 1991 – making him irrelevant.

Abroad, the war in Afghanistan was lost in 1989.

At home, ethnic separatists won.

New countries began emerging on the world map, starting with the Baltic States in 1990: Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia.

The rest broke off a year later.

The leftover territory became the Russian Federation in 1991, led by Boris Yeltsin. 

The Soviet Union was no more, not due to, but despite Gorbachev’s efforts to save it.

After 40 years of Deng Xiaoping’s reforms, China has managed to lift 700 million people out of poverty.

Its share in the global economy has gone from 1.8 per cent in 1978 to 18.8 per cent in 2022. 

None of Gorbachev’s reforms come remotely close.

In a live interview in 1993, Gorbachev was asked by a caller on CNN’s Larry King Live if he thought communism was still a viable ideology.

In classical Leninist fashion, he replied that “socialism” was.

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Sherry Sufi

Senior Fellow, The Centre for the Australian Way of Life at the Institute of Public Affairs

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