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Perestroika's Blueprint

"Gorbachev Factor"

Thousands of articles, books, and political portraits have been written about Gorbachev in his own country and abroad. Some were mystified by the seeming unpredictability of his actions. Some said he had a secret plan, which he concealed even from his associates but implemented persistently, often taking by surprise both his friends and his foes. He was extolled by some and vilified by others. In light of perestroika’s results, it would perhaps be fair to say that Gorbachev was an innovative leader and a reform-minded politician. However, the scale of his innovations was constrained by the fetters of Soviet ideology.  

Despite all evidence to the contrary, Gorbachev believed that the core of the system was sound and that Soviet socialism could be reinvigorated. Moreover, he never questioned the viability of the two main pillars of the Soviet economic system: public ownership and planned economy. In his book, Perestroika: New Thinking for Our Country and the World, which appeared two years after he took office, Gorbachev continued to swear his allegiance to the socialist ideal:


Socialism and public ownership, on which it is based, hold out virtually unlimited possibilities for progressive economic processes.

What is offered to us from the West, from a different economy, is unacceptable to us. We are sure that if we really put into effect the potential of socialism, if we adhere to its basic principles, if we . . . use the benefits of a planned economy, socialism can achieve much more than capitalism.


Gorbachev and his Politburo colleagues were unambiguous about perestroika’s objectives. One prominent Politburo member, Yegor Ligachev, for example, saw the essence of perestroika in the simple formula “more socialism!” In other words, the reforming leadership believed that socialist foundations were basically sound: the problem was not so much that socialism was flawed, but that its potential was not used to the full.

No wonder that Gorbachev’s first moves resembled those of his immediate predecessors—replacing administrative personnel, trying to enforce tighter discipline, inaugurating draconian measures to reduce the consumption of alcoholic beverages, and the like. However, as Gorbachev’s perception of the severity of economic problems deepened, his prescriptions for remedies became less traditional. At the Twenty-Seventh Party Congress in February 1986, he declared the need for “radical reform” of the economic mechanism, including a reexamination of the nature of property ownership under socialism. He spoke of the need to make each worker feel like an owner of his or her firm and, contrary to established ideology, suggested an expanded role for producer cooperatives. He called for accelerating the country’s development and opening it to the outside world.

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