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Book Review: Dismantling Utopia

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Dismantling Utopia: How Information Ended the Soviet Union
by Scott Shane (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 1994); 324 pages; $25.00.

Ten years ago, on March 11, 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in the Soviet Union as General Secretary of the Communist Party. While great attention was given to Gorbachev’s youthful 54 years of age in comparison to the other Soviet leaders in the Politburo, when he assumed power he told his Communist colleagues, “I promise you, comrades, to do my utmost to faithfully serve our party, our people and the great Leninist cause.”

A decade later there is no Soviet Union, no ruling Communist Party in Russia, and no “Leninist cause.” To use Karl Marx’s phrase, they have been relegated to the dustbin of history. How could this have happened? Only fifteen or twenty years ago, the Soviet Union was still considered a global menace, a military giant that threatened the Free World. In a matter of a few years, the entire Soviet empire crumbled, first in Eastern Europe and then inside the Soviet Union itself.

Scott Shane was the Moscow correspondent for The Baltimore Sun from 1988 to 1991. In his recent book Dismantling Utopia: How Information Ended the Soviet Union, he tries to supply some answers to this dramatic set of events. A theme that runs through Mr. Shane’s narrative is that the end of the Soviet Union was itself an example of the failure of planning.

Gorbachev came to power with the intention of saving Soviet socialism. From his first day in power in 1985 to Christmas 1991, when he stepped down as president of the defunct Soviet Union, Gorbachev never swerved from his belief that socialism was a better system than capitalism. What he wanted to do was to reform the Soviet system out of the stagnation that it had sunk into under Brezhnev in the 1970s and early 1980s. Glasnost (“openness”) and perestroika (“reconstruction”) were his new “planning techniques” for reviving the Leninist cause. “The ideals of socialism will receive a new impulse [with] the success of perestroika,” Gorbachev said, demonstrating “the advantages of the principle in the socialist system.”

Reforming the Soviet economy, Mr. Shane explains, was also part of the KGB’s own master plan to preserve its control over Soviet society. Nobody knew the actual state of disarray in the Soviet Union as well as the KGB. Their informers were everywhere, the true facts concerning the failures and distortions caused by central planning were collected in their archives, and they knew the extent to which the information revolution developing in the West was leaving the Soviet Union far behind in the new world of “high-tech” and computer science. The KGB, therefore, wanted to open the Soviet economy just enough for these new technological and informational tools to be absorbed into the Soviet system, but not enough to undermine the system itself.

The new freedoms that emerged in the Soviet Union in the late 1980s were all part of the Gorbachev and KGB plans to make the country stronger and more powerful. All the Stalinist “embarrassments” of the past — the slave labor camps, the forced collectivization of agricultural and the planned famines, the mass murders, and the infamous show trials — were to be openly admitted. The system would be cleansed of its dirty past, so the pure and sound Leninist foundations could be restored for a healthy, new socialist beginning.

The Soviet news media would be allowed to investigate and uncover the crimes and corruptions of the entrenched Party structures of the present. The Party deadwood that stood in the way of reform and reconstruction would be swept away so a new corps of honest and idealistic Party members could lead Soviet society into a dynamic and prosperous new epoch of socialist development. State enterprise managers would be given greater autonomy to introduce technological innovations, and small, private “cooperative” enterprises would be permitted to increase the availability of some limited consumer services.

But these new freedoms were to go no further than preserving the system; and that was why they were being permitted. In 1988, for example, Gorbachev reminded the Soviet news media, “Glasnost is necessary. But it must be based on our values. . . . Publish everything . . . aimed at defending and strengthening the line of perestroika and the cause of socialism.”

It was no different with Gorbachev’s defense of democratization. Grassroots movements by various groups in the society were legally permitted and even supported, but only as long as they served the ends that Gorbachev wanted them to. When a new Congress of People’s Deputies was elected to office in 1989 in relatively free elections for a large number of the seats, Gorbachev valued the criticisms and suggestions made by the new parliamentarians only as long as they, again, endorsed his plans. But when these voices were raised in opposition or in the name of more radical, antisocialist causes, he soon lost his temper and used his power to cut off the microphone in the Congress against those he wanted to shut up — most noticeably, the dissident and Nobel laureate Andrei Sakharov.

But as Mr. Shane argues, freedom can be neither planned nor controlled once it begins to be liberated from its bonds. Gorbachev “cooked the porridge and it didn’t turn out the way he had expected,” Shane quotes one of the members of the freer news media. Historians in Russia and the other Republics of the Soviet Union began to ask questions about parts of Soviet history Gorbachev preferred to leave untouched; they “discovered” that the evils of the Stalinist years actually had begun under Lenin, and they concluded that the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 had been a wrong and disastrous turn for the country from the very start. In the Baltic Republics of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, historians published the forbidden secret protocol between Hitler and Stalin that resulted in the occupation of these little nations by the Soviet Union in 1940. Historians also revealed the physical damage done to tens of thousands of people during the atomic-bomb tests from the 1940s into the 1960s and 1970s.

The new investigative reporters for publications like Moscow News dug into the corrupt and privileged behavior of not only Gorbachev’s enemies but his Party friends and supporters, as well. Movies, the arts, and literature all began to undermine everything upon which seventy-five years of Soviet power was based. Computers, cable television, e-mail, and fax machines were liberating all sources of information and freeing those sources and their information from the control and supervision of the Soviet State. At the same time, once the central planning controls began to be loosened over the Soviet economy, the entire socialist economic structure began to disintegrate, with private market alternatives starting to emerge in ways that Gorbachev neither planned nor desired.

Freedom, once unleashed, follows its own course. It could be controlled by neither Gorbachev nor the KGB. Once the Soviet powers-that — be decided that repression and rigid central direction could no longer work, they tried to create a form of managed or planned freedom. But once the restraints were loosened, people began to make their own plans, guided by their own purposes and values. And finally a point was reached when there was no turning back, because any turning back would have required such a degree of repression and renewed rigidity to be imposed on Soviet society that it would have created conditions that would have led to the system’s collapse anyway. There was no way out. Once Gorbachev said to the people of the Soviet Union, think forbidden thoughts, write about forbidden ideas, speak forbidden words, act in forbidden ways, the end of Soviet socialism had begun.

As a postscript, one other merit of Mr. Shane’s book should be mentioned. One of the chapters is devoted to the issue, “What Price Socialism? An Economy Without Information.” I found his discussion of the nature of the Soviet economy to be one of the best brief analyses I have read. I say this because, though he never mentions either Ludwig von Mises or Friedrich von Hayek, his entire analysis of why socialism does not work is very “Austrian” in its approach. At the same time, his explanation of why socialism failed — because it suppressed markets and prices — also demonstrates why only a free-market order can successfully clear away all the economic debris that socialism has left in its wake.

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    Richard M. Ebeling is a professor of economics at Northwood University. He was formerly president of The Foundation for Economic Education (2003–2008), was the Ludwig von Mises Professor of Economics at Hillsdale College (1988–2003) in Hillsdale, Michigan, and served as vice president of academic affairs for The Future of Freedom Foundation (1989–2003).