Until an insider writes on the last 30 years of his life, (1991 – 2021), it would be difficult to know how Mikhail Gorbachev, the last General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, (CPSU) felt about the evaporation of the Soviet State under his leadership. It would be interesting to know whether he felt ashamed, was full of regrets, was happy or even didn’t have any such feelings about “the greatest tragedy of the 20th century”.
What the world might not need to wait for any insider’s account is that the collapse of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, (USSR), has unsettled too many things thought to be settled in world politics. In academia, for instance, it has so embarrassed theorists of the Realist School in International Relations who had so privileged external military threat in the study of national security. When the USSR collapsed without a shot fired from anywhere in the US, China or Europe, it was its funeral. This is more so that that the theory did not predict the collapse, which is a major minus for a theory which says that great powers are all that count in international politics. It is still struggling to recover, with some of its most intelligent card-carrying believers arguing that predicting such an event is not the sole business of their camp. Of course, it is not the exclusive responsibility of any particular theory to predict such a game changer but not Realism which makes great powers its focus.
The important point Intervention seeks to make with Realism’s crisis in the aftermath of the collapse of the USSR is how that exemplifies what the collapse has done to other realms such as the global economy, military equation, geopolitical thinking and practices and even nationalism. There is no realm the collapse of the USSR has not touched and re-shaped in world affairs, to some people’s advantage and to some others’ disadvantage.
That makes Mikhail Gorbachev the most important agency in the 21st century so far, he being the man under whom the geopolitical moment unfolded, probably to his chagrin just as it could as well have been to his amusement or even satisfaction, depending on what he set out to do and what he got.
Conspiracy theorists, (although all theories are conspiratorial) still believe he was a plant by capitalism to undo the USSR. The bulk of the evidence do not point to that. More people believe he set out to reform the system but only to lose control to other variables, particularly the person/agency of Boris Yelstin who was his (Gorbachev)’s own political creation.
His loss of control, especially after the August 1991 coup attempt which gave Boris Yelstin his ultimate moment of anti-communism, makes Gorbachev a crucial case study in the Marxist theory of agency: the idea that human beings make their history but not in circumstances of their own choosing. In other words, Marx doesn’t believe an individual can make history in and of his own. There must be other variables at work too.
Well, Gorbachev forces Marx to consider a reformulation as an individual can actually make history irrespective of whatever variable Marx was thinking of. Lenin made history by inspiring a communist revolution in Russia in 1917. Gorbachev also made history by unbundling the Leninist edifice some seven decades thereafter. Both men made history but different kinds of history, depending on who stands where on each of the two developments. In that case, the more correct formulation in the view of Intervention would be that it isn’t that human beings cannot make history the way they choose but a question of what type of history? Lenin quickly and smartly amended the classical Marxist argument about the revolution as something that would come when the conditions are ripe, developed tactics of escaping the reach of the Tsarist State and mobilised others for an assault on the status quo. Gorbachev, on the other hand, set a process in motion that led to a different outcome.
That is the sense in which Gorbachev was a refutation of the powerful theory of agency provided by classical Marxism. But he is also a confirmation of that lens on the role of the individual in history. That comes from the role of variables he obviously did not anticipate or foresee, the most prominent of which was Boris Yelstin around whom the anti-communist sensibility coalesced. Some authors pose a fantasmatic perspective of what drove him: his bitterness about the communist party treatment of his own father which he linked up to Russian nationalism and the discourses of system decay, the problems created by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the felt need to open up the system. In other words, the system was manifesting creases but it was one thing for that to be the case and completely another thing for such failures to be called failures of ‘actually existing Communism’. This is where the agency of Yelstin and the variables he emphasised becomes important in explaining the collapse. If troops deployed to crush opposition to the August 1991 coup attempt had followed instructions and shot Yelstin, the story would have been different. But that did not happen and once Yelstin climbed the very tanks to have been used to shoot him, he became the global symbol of the anti-communist revolt. With the moral authority he gathered from that moment, it was a matter of time before he pushed the luck of his camp, what with autonomy seekers asserting themselves and practically declaring their republics independent.
So, the idea that there are other variables that must combine to facilitate the making of history holds to some extent but without invalidating the contention that it is not whether an individual can or cannot make history by the terms he or she chooses but rather the question of what kind of history. In the case of the defunct USSR, Lenin’s mobilisation of the variables to effect the Great October Revolution is, by the consensus within progressive forces, good history making while what Gorbachev produced has been fairly accepted as “the greatest tragedy of the 20th century”.
All these are important for all those concerned with humanising power and the role of individuals in that process. In all cases thereto, what we are called to consider is the wisdom that “a political leader’s decision can determine the fate of a nation but what determines how and why that leader?”