Gorbachev: An Appraisal in Human-Rights Terms

Against the Current, No. 20, May/June 1989

Witold Jedlicki


TO UNDERSTAND Gorbachev, one needs to recall Jimmy Carter — particularly in the matter of human rights.

Carter’s human-rights extravaganza was at the time mostly greeted by nothing short of stupendous acclaim on the part of virtually everyone who counted. But following its inception in 1977, mild criticism was also occasionally voiced to the effect that “geostrategic” considerations would not allow the United States to duly ”punish” some of the worst human-rights offenders by halting the flow of American military or economic aid to them. Pre-revolutionary Iran and South Korea were then typically cited by such critics as cases in point.

In other words, in the view of the critics Carter’s idea was just fine; only its practical implementation was bound to remain “tainted” as the foreign-policy interests of the United States “would occasionally” prevent consistency in measures applied.

Such criticism amounts to putting the cart before the horse. The fundamental feature of Carter’s project was the sheer illogic of its conceptual foundations, in which all subsequent massive abuses and distortions of the human-rights idea were already implicit.

If a government strikes a pose as arbiter of international morality and for that purpose proceeds to monitor the violations of human rights worldwide, it can only mean that it at the same time promises to keep and to disclose its most-guarded official secrets, that it at the same time promises to condemn some of its best allies and to cultivate alliances with them by flattery and lavish gifts, that it at the same time promises to form alliances with some against others and to judge both friends and enemies ”evenhandedly.”

This monumental absurdity could not fail to yield abominable results. Remember Haiti, invariably exonerated of all human-rights abuses in the U.S. State Department’s reports, so that the Haitian “boat people” apprehended on Florida’s shores could without any qualms before being summarily deported back to their “free” country?

Remember Iran, whose Shah-of­Shahs on his Peacock Throne was on various ceremonial occasions regularly credited by Carter and his associates as a paragon of democratic virtue, most deeply concerned about human rights?

And remember Israel, alternately blamed for interrogatory torture and exonerated from it, depending on whether, at a given stage of the Camp David process, Carter needed to cow Begin into submission or to woo him?

Too Important for Governments

But let us go a little deeper. Characteristically enough, the debates of 1977 and subsequent years all revolved around the documentation of human-rights abuses. Mountains of such documentation were produced by the Human Rights Division of Carter’s State Department. But documentation is only one of the five routine tasks of human-rights work, which by1977 had already become a well-established and fairly professionalized occupation.

The other four tasks are: dissemination of documented information in or to a country concerned; relief (ranging from fund-raising to meet judicial or legal aid or family support costs, to the provision of warm clothes or blankets to prisoners); intervention (ranging from the humble petitioning of a repressive power to breaking windows in its overseas embassies); and of instruction (mainly in the legal rights of detainees and in anti-surveillance protection).

Human rights professionals could only welcome the help of a willing government in the provision of relief, for instance, or in intervention. Documentation, however, is too sensitive to entrust to any government. The bashful reticence of government reporting amounts to direct encouragement of aggravated repression, which always shies from publicity and always thrives on the ignorance or unconcern of the international public.

Real human-rights professionals were not at all amused by the comedies the White House was playing. They were afraid, with all the resources at the U.S. government’s disposal, that they might simply be out-yelled, their documentation and their desperate appeals reduced to the level of a barely audible whisper, their credibility in the eyes of the public at large undermined by fraudulent and deceitful means, and the entire painstakingly built international network of information about governmental repression and atrocities corrupted beyond redemption by this unwelcome “competition” from the White House and the State Department.

Martin Ennals, in the guarded terms befitting an Amnesty International chairman, left no doubt that he bitterly deplored such competition’” and was keenly concerned about its effects. Noam Chomsky, using the strongest words passible, denounced Carter’s venture from the start as fraud and hypocrisy. And I also recall Edward Thompson’s subsequent anguished cry to finally put governments out of the human-rights business.

On balance, however, there is in my view some evidence that the unintended consequences of Carter’s human-rights initiative were not all bad. At a time when virtually all Latin America, Southeast Asia, large parts of Africa and the Middle East as well were terrorized by extraordinarily savage dictatorships that penetrated mass murders and other wanton atrocities without restraint, practiced interrogatory torture, “disappearances” of individuals and “pacifications” of whole rural areas — making such “security measures” a worldwide epidemic — Carter’s human-rights rhetoric did probably contribute in the long run to drawing the outsideworld1s attention to these unhappy lands, even while the U.S. government continued to be chummy with their rulers as usual.

But Carter’s reign brought little or no relief to the victims. Thereafter, Ronald Reagan never showed any particular zest for human-rights shenanigans, and in the end, to his lasting credit, scrapped them in practice if not in theory. Thus, the short lifetime of Carter’s venture at least prevented the wholesale corruption of professional human-rights reporting.


THOSE WITHOUT DIRECT access to the Soviet press had no way of knowing that a grandiose human-rights “offensive” had been waged on its pages since Gorbachev’s enthronement as the secretary general of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) in March 1985. Those who (like this writer) can read Russian knew it but had every reason to dismiss it with a shrug of the shoulders as just one more instance of clumsy Soviet sloganeering without a chance of having the slightest impact on public opinion m the outside world, and therefore hardly meriting any attention.

But the crucial events of 1986 — the general amnesty in Poland, the opening attempts to extricate the Soviet Union from the quagmire of Afghanistan, the release of Sakharov and above all Soviet pioneering of the idea of comprehensive nuclear disarmament in the face of American resistance to it — changed that situation. In this context Gorbachev’s human-rights campaign is as well-timed as its Carterian antecedent was in 1977.

I leave it to historians to determine what the exact motives of Carter and of Gorbachev were, in launching their respective human rights “campaigns.” But clearly both were intended in the first place for public relations.

The international reputations of both the United States in 1977 and the USSR in 1985 were in a state of devastation. In both cases, national self-esteem needed to receive some uplift, some change had to promised, some moral commitment declared so as to provide an inspirational contrast to the sheer venality of the policies and political conduct of the recent past.

In the second place, Carter needed human rights to score some propaganda points against communism, and Gorbachev against imperialism. For that purpose, both in advance intended to manipulate human-rights problematics: Carter by stressing democracy, freedom of speech due process of law and by de-emphasizing counter-insurgency pacifications and the desaparecidos; Gorbachev exactly reversing the emphases.

Gorbachev’s motives are as suspect as Carter’s were; but his initiative coincides with the terrorization of large parts of the world by American Israeli and South-African spies, mercenaries, kidnappers, gunrunners and plain killers. With this extraordinary collection of goons on the loose, Gorbachev has al­ ready had a rhetorical field day.

Gorbachev certainly does not intend to turn the Soviet Union into a flourishing democracy. But the events of 1986 proved that he does intend to get rid of the most visible “stains” on the Soviet human-rights record. Hence the rehabilitation of Sakharov, the Polish amnesty, the plethora of minor liberalizations in the Soviet economy and high culture; hence Gorbachev’s constant clamoring for far-reaching disarmament measures, his desperate attempts to terminate the war in Afghanistan. Ultimately, only time will tell how he will use his enhanced prestige.

The Polish amnesty case is particularly instructive in giving us some dues about how Gorbachev’s mind works. Early in 1986, the Polish police finally succeeded in apprehending the heroic leader of the Solidarity underground structures, Zbigniew Bujak. Subsequently, the Jaruzelski government gave all indications of its best intentions to prosecute Bujak and his associates for high treason.

Suddenly in August 1986 these best intentions came to naught: some power higher than the Jaruzelski government must have prevailed. Along with many scores of other previously imprisoned underground Solidarity activists, Bujak went free, the case against him dismissed.

Contrary to what the Polish revolution of 1980-81 was all about, there are still no free trade unions in the Poland of today. But there are no “prisoners of conscience” either, apart from a few hapless Jehovah’s Witnesses, who lack any lobby that could support their cause and press for their release.

Gorbachev apparently calculated that once he made token concessions on a few of the Western media’s pet issues, he would shut them up. But in this, Gorbachev is probably sorely mistaken, because the Western media will always find new anti-Soviet causes. The Western media will constantly regurgitate stories of an ever-looming Soviet or communist threat, characterizing domestic repression and imperial adventurism of the West as either “responses” to or “preemption” of that threat.

In exactly the same way, the Soviet press has habitually justified all the villainy the Soviets have ever committed by the “necessity” to counter the ever-looming threat of imperialism. Perfect symmetries still exist in this otherwise rather unaesthetic world of ours.


IN ALL TRUTH, Lenin’s teachings help the Soviets mirror the Western cold warriors in these respects. For the fundamental message of Leninism is simple. In the contest with the bourgeoisie, you stand no chance unless you imitate and even outbid the bourgeoisie’s methods; unless you out-hierarchize its power structures, out-bureaucratize its bureaucracies, out-diplomatize its diplomacies, out-police its police forces, out-militarize its armies and out-nation state its nation states. Once you follow your moral impulse and become squeamish about the means, you are a loser. Moral squeamishness is weakness and weakness means defeat.

To be sure, there is a noteworthy difference here between the authentic ideas of historical Lenin and their modem apparatchik interpretation. For Lenin such operational rules were to guide the pursuit of a single overriding goal: the world-wide revolution. Compared to this goal, even the survival of the Bolshevik Russia was conceived of by Lenin as a mere means.

For the present-day apparatchiki, by contrast, the connection with any goal whatsoever — at least any impersonal goal — becomes highly blurred and uncertain, with the effect that the same rules amount to a license.

Through this travesty, Leninism has become a profoundly gratifying doctrine. Hence its longevity as a “cry from the heart” of successive generations of the apparatchiki, and hence also the endless professions of their commitment to it which remains constant throughout all the variations in actual Soviet policies.

The point is not just that the Soviet power elite is dogmatic: rather it is that its Leninist dogmatism, by virtue of being so self-serving, has a self-perpetuating dynamic that inhibits change even if it thereby also fosters economic stagnation. This is why the official cult of Lenin and his doctrine cannot be dismissed as an ideological adornment of the exercise of naked power. Leninism in the Soviet Union is for real.

At present, Leninism in this apparatchik version cannot but set severe limits to Gorbachev’s glasnost and perestroika initiatives. Obviously, Gorbachev can ill afford to be branded as a heretic or “deviationist.” This is why glasnost does not even compare to the Freedom of Information Act in the United States. For all the limitations and imperfections of the latter, it at least contained some firm legal guarantees, whereas glasnost is merely a statement of the authorities’ retractable intention to permit the intelligentsia to debate matters of concern to them “freely,” although (as it turns out on closer inspection) “under the Party’s guidance.”

This is also why the releases of political prisoners proceeded at such a tortoise pace. In this respect, again, a comparison can only work in favor of Carter. For although Carter did not lift a finger to extricate from jails the victims of earlier political frameups — Leonard Peltier, Gary Tyler, Geronimo Pratt, David Rice and others — and excelled even Nixon and Ford in mean-spirited harassment of Philip Agee, he at least amnestied some long-imprisoned Puerto Ricans. Further, he rather speedily settled the matter of self-exiled Vietnam War deserters and draft resisters, permitting them on more-or-less acceptable conditions to return home. Whereas under Gorbachev, many political prisoners remained in jails, camps and “psychiatric wards.”

Certainly, Gorbachev does want to speed up change. Given the depths of stagnation in which the Soviet Union has found itself since the late Brezhnev years, he is even bound to succeed in it to a certain extent But Leninism — this time in the shape of the determination to retain the “Party guidance” over everything that moves — cannot but frustrate his hopes for rapid and impressive domestic achievements.

Also, Gorbachev obviously seeks to broaden the base of popular support for the regime, in particular by courting intelligentsia by glasnost. Not to be lost from sight, however, is the anti-working-class thrust of his policies. His efforts to increase productivity and “tighten work discipline” amount to a “socialist” counterpart of monetarism. Such measures mean a more thorough and ruthless exploitation of labor, pure and simple.

It is to be granted, however, that domestic policies of Gorbachev cannot be adequately described as a public-relations effort. They go far beyond that; whereas in foreign policy public relations remain a primary consideration.

Doomed to Geopolitics

Yet it is exactly in foreign policy that Leninism — even in its original, but certainly in its apparatchik, version — proves more and more self-defeating. For Leninism dooms the Soviet Union to be “a state like any other state”: to play all the games of the conventional politics of “national security,” including the “deterrent posturing” and the “geostrategic” thinking that invariably dictates territorial expansion.

In pre-nuclear times, this may have served the Soviet Union just fine in the sense that it could at least repel a sequence of mortal assaults on its very existence, enabling the USSR to survive in a shape uncannily resembling the empires of Genghis Khan or Ivan the Terrible.

But the advent of the nuclear era changed the terms of the traditional political calculus of gains and losses. In the 1980s, it has been the Reaganites who have wanted the Soviet Union to pursue “national security” politics: to satellitize Nicaragua (and thus legitimize a U.S. intervention), to cling tenaciously to the last bit of real estate, not just in Afghanistan but also on the Kurile Islands and Ussuri River (and thus perpetuate the conflict with the Moslem world, Japan and China), to view its military as its last-ditch salvation and to delegate more and more authority to it (and thus weaken the political leadership).

Before Gorbachev, the Soviet leadership was totally impervious to serious modern (that is, largely pacifist) thinking about the balance of security, disutilities of deterrence, or delusions and deceptions of strategical planning. The simple idea that too much security for one side at the expense of means insecurity for both sides was too sophisticated for the Soviet leadership’s comprehension. Now, Gorbachev’s disarmament proposals may for the first time reflect some traces of influence by modern ways of thinking about security in the nuclear era.

If so, the Soviet Union’s popularity in Western public opinion is almost sure to grow. People want to live; they are terrified by the horrors of nuclear warfare — and also by the horrors of technologically advanced conventional warfare, overt as well as “covert.”

Humanitarian concern with mass­scale physical violence is now bound to somewhat eclipse the more traditional human-rights concerns of democracy and individual freedom. It is natural an understandable, given this priority of concerns, that a superficially “humanized” but still ugly and despotic dictatorship, as long as it shows slight comparative restraint in jumping into wars and perpetrating mass murders on foreign soil, may yet get a hearing when it preaches morality to the world.

Toward Consensus Engineering?

A LONG TIME has lapsed between the submission of this article and its publication. Inevitably, during such time new observations are made and new ideas formed in the author’s mind.

Do Soviet leaders have inferiority feelings toward the West? This question needs to be broken down into particular aspects. Quite possibly, they may remain unimpressed by the West’s greatest prides: parliamentary democracy, for instance, or the supposed rule of the law, or the freedom of dissent, or the entire Western ethos of supposedly unconstrained and critical discourse as a guarantee of the creative process.

In this writer’s opinion, there are also some grounds to believe that the Soviet leaders are genuinely convinced that theirs is an economy superior to capitalism. But the existence of inferiority feelings in some respects can be amply documented. What better proof of that is needed than Khrushchev’s formula of “catching up with and surpassing America”?

Although Khrushchev’s slogan was discarded after his downfall, Soviet official pronouncements of the present time also clearly demonstrate that the Soviets continue to perceive themselves inferior in terms of technological advancement, and certainly in terms of productivity.

Virtually any issue of any Soviet newspaper reveals the salient preoccupation of Soviet officialdom with productivity (“work efficiency” is the literal translation from Russian). Productivity is pronounced to be low in the Soviet Union and in urgent need of being significantly raised. But low by what standards? By comparison with India or Zaire, Soviet productivity may well be quite high. Western productivity as a term of comparison looms therefore large in Soviet deliberations on the subject, even when it remains implicit.

There is a detectable element of sheer curiosity about it in the Soviet press: how come the West succeeds where we fail so badly? Given the salience of Soviet concerns with productivity, temptations to emulate the Western ways of wrestling it sky-high from the workforce can be presumed to exist.

As is known, this question has a conventional Western answer, which is that market-generated incentives make all the difference. The Russians take this doctrine seriously; the best proof being law-enforcement authorities.

But at the same time they cannot accept the Western doctrine as the whole truth. The reason is simple. Deep down, the Soviet apparatchiki equate politics (at least domestic politics) with order enforcement, in the narrowest sense of the term.

This is not just a matter of their habitual zeal or mental obsession with maintaining order at whatever cost. Rather, this is a matter of their role concept as the “cadre” destined to “guide” the nation. Common to all the measures for “strengthening the work discipline” adopted in the Soviet Union in recent years is the notion of productivity as a disciplinary problem, to be solved by the law-enforcement authorities.

Every cop in the world romanticizes order maintenance as a tough and ungrateful job. The Soviet cop — high or low — finds a particular rationale for this sentiment in his knowledge that discontent looms large in the Soviet Union and that only the harshest of penalties and e consequent intimidation can prevent its uncontrollable outbreaks.

At higher levels of authority this “knowledge ” cannot fail to arouse some curiosity about how the Western democracies by and large succeed in keeping their populace fairly compliant. Just as in the case of productivity, the temptation to emulate Western techniques of “consent manufacturing” can be presumed to appear.

Discovering Repressive Tolerance

Some of the most interesting evidence a USSR watcher can run across is contained in Soviet discussions of “agitation and propaganda,” or, if schoolchildren are the target, of the “ideological upbringing.” Briefly, the concern with the effectiveness of indoctrination is the theme of the day.

Survey research methods of testing the actual impact of indoctrination upon its audiences are encouraged. In propaganda work, reliance on exclamations and commands are discouraged. In education, rote learning and routine drilling are much railed against as ineffective. Occasionally, one may even find expressions of encouragement for stimulation (or simulation) of a genuine debate with bourgeois ideologies whose presentation in optima forma to the audiences is urged. All this goes in the name of making the indoctrination effective and thereby the citizenry loyal.

In the West, social critics including Herbert Marcuse, Jurgen Habennas, Noam Chomsky, Edgar Friedenberg and Bertram Gross have described “consensus engineering,” “gentle repression,” “repressive tolerance” and the “pluralist” techniques of conformity conditioning. Now Soviet educators and propagandists, from their own vantage point, are trying to apply some of these modern techniques of control.

They have come to realize that compared to television, concentration camps are obsolescent as a technology of producing national unanimity. To be sure the Soviets deliberated on the effectiveness of propaganda before the ascent of Gorbachev to top leadership. Glasnost, nevertheless, expresses the dominant mood of these deliberations and the intent to put their findings and conclusions into practice.

How, exactly, can the change be described? In the first place, the reliance of the Stalinist and post-Stalinist propaganda on exclamations and commands, crude emotionalism, and a propensity to ceaseless and repetitive sermonizing can now be expected to be discarded. Their place is already being increasingly filled by framed definitions of reality and agendas.

Avoiding any overt value judgments, television can very well enlighten people about what is possible and impossible, necessary and unnecessary, moderate and extremist, down-to-earth and utopian, responsible and irresponsible. Likewise, television can tell people where the “real” problems are, what is and is not at issue.

Secondly, a single party line is now likely to be abandoned in favor of a plurality of “responsible” viewpoints, their range to be determined administratively, of course. The viewer will have no reason to get upset by incessant trumpeting of the same messages. Instead, he or she will have to think, choose between perspectives and even feel gratified by being treated “like an adult.”

Third, dissent beyond the authorized pluralism’s range can be marginalized, instead of or in addition to being suppressed. Moreover, power, which was the overt source in the old-style propaganda, under the new style becomes rather invisible. The functions of ruling the country and informing the public become then dissociated in the popular mind.

Finally, there is no need any more for perfect ideological consistency. In the last analysis, the totalitarian obsession with saying everything “right,” in strict accordance with the canon, only obstructs the proliferation of media messages. When the sheer quantity and frequency of messages becomes astronomical, an element of randomness in their contents can be allowed on the plausible presumption that most of them will be forgotten as soon as they are heard. The proliferation of messages thus helps educate the public in the art of disconnection.

There is no advance guarantee that the system will work in the Soviet Union as well as it has been working in the West. In all probability, the uncertainty over “effective” propaganda’s actual impact explains the Soviet apparatchik opposition to Gorbachev and his glasnost. If so, this opposition is not irrational.

In short, glasnost seems to be good public relations abroad and probably the right way to keep the populace — or at least a significant majority of it – fairly compliant at home.

May-June 1989, ATC 20

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