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Totalitarianism with Pluralism

"Gorbachev Factor"

Contrary to the hopes of Sakharov and other reform-minded intellectuals, both in the USSR and in the West, the Soviet state-socialist system proved incapable of convergence with or evolutionary transformation into a Western-style democracy. Despite a whole number of significant modifications made to the system following Stalin’s departure and spanning the period of thirty-odd years until the advent of Gorbachev, the essence of the regime remained practically unchanged.  


The party-state retained its power monopoly intact and strove to control the entire sociopolitical order; no autonomy unauthorized from above was tolerated. Of the original six characteristics of totalitarianism, only the role of the leader changed, and there was a decline in terror. The ban on independent activity was particularly stringent in the political sphere: all political initiatives from below, even when they seemed to be largely in tune with the party line, were branded “dissidence” and discouraged by various means, from subtle dissuasion to blunt repression. 

Any attempts at modernizing the system to make it more flexible and efficient could be sanctioned only from above and were abrogated the moment the regime felt they eroded the totality of party-state control. This was the main reason for the repeated attempts at and failures of the sporadic reforms undertaken under Khrushchev and Brezhnev. On the one hand, Soviet leadership understood that the system was in need of modernization and that the only way to achieve this was to decentralize and infuse it with elements of autonomy and competition. On the other hand, however, all experiments in this direction were quickly abandoned, as even timid steps toward decentralization detracted from the party and state’s power monopoly, threatening to undermine the totalitarian foundations.

The fundamental paradox of the Soviet postwar development was that the diversification of economic, social, and political life diluted the classical features of totalitarianism, yet there was no breakthrough into the liberalization of social life or the institutionalization of pluralism. “Pluralism” of interest groups existed only at the level of these groups and did not determine the nature of their relations with the state. The central idea of the pluralist model is not just the existence of plurality of interests, but their independence and the ability to retain their autonomy while interacting with the state. In the Soviet Union interests were completely denied such autonomy.

It is true that pluralism of cultural and academic kinds came to play a significant role in society and in its relations with the state, but it could not modify the system to such an extent that at some point it lost its totalitarian character. Cultural and academic opposition did not pose real danger to the regime, because these groups’ primary concern was to gain maximum creative and professional freedom, rather than wield political influence.

The authorities tolerated cultural and academic pluralism because it helped to alleviate the corroding demoralization of society. It also provided the leadership with much-needed expert information and advice. As a result, controlled cultural and academic pluralism developed into a significant and influential subsystem within the totalitarian system. All substantial concessions to the intellectuals notwithstanding, real freedom of speech, expression, and research remained an unattainable dream.

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Models of Soviet Power


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