The “Revolution from Above” Fallacy

Against the Current, No. 24, January/February 1990

John Marot

IF THE ANALYSIS presented here is correct, glasnost is not a discrete “policy,” among others. Rather, glasnost is more in the nature of a ”general ether” in which definite and specific policies, collectively known as perestroika, are being elaborated and implemented. Glasnost is the expression of more self-confident and sophisticated bureaucratic rule. The structured processes through which the bureaucracy reproduces itself as a class are becoming increasingly visible to the public, as are the internal conflicts expressed there.

At the same time these structured processes assure the rule of the bureaucracy over the immediate producers and continue, as before, to set strict, immanent limits to Gorbachev’s or any other bureaucrat’s freedom of action. This is rarely acknowledged and integrated in accounts that characterize the Gorbachev era as one of “revolution from above.”

The revolution-from-above theorists write as if the processes by which the bureaucracy reproduces itself as a whole, processes that articulate and limit the range of action of anyone of its members no matter how powerful, did not exist. What limitations they perceive are generated by Gorbachev’s personal or subjective deficiencies or, alternatively, by bureaucratic obstruction.

Thus the bureaucracy is said collectively to obstruct the policies of its chief only because Gorbachev in turn is said to operate outside the bureaucracy altogether and, so, outside class property relations. The illusion that Gorbachev, like Superman, flies high above the bureaucracy, with no visible means of support from the latter, allows many, inside and outside the Soviet Union, loudly insists that Gorbachev has begun a revolution—from above.

The theorists of revolution from above, falsely identifying the distinctly novel form of glasnost with the actual content of perestroika, inevitably conclude that the full realization of perestroika means the demise of bureaucratic rule.

In their accounts, the progress—or lack thereof—of Gorbachev’s program of political and economic reform initiatives is determined either by the action of a “bureaucratic opposition,” which has already perceived the allegedly anti-bureaucratic potential of Gorbachev’s program and so opposes it, or alternatively by the inaction of a working class that has yet to perceive, and so fails to support, the allegedly pro-working class potential of Gorbachev’s program. The solution is to overcome “bureaucratic opposition” from above to Gorbachev’s policies by mobilizing the “popular support” from below for those very same policies.

Tariq Ali’s book Revolution from Above: Where is the Soviet Union Going?(1) exemplifies this approach. Indicatively, All’s interpretation lacks even the most cursory analysis of the workers’ movement in Poland. Rather than integrate the experience of Solidarity into his interpretive framework. All prefers to ignore it entirely, no doubt because it cannot be integrated, because a revolution from below is, in reality, incompatible with a so-called revolution from above.

To avoid generating these illusions the ideological context of Gorbachev’s program, glasnost, which is unprecedented, must be distinguished from the text of that program, perestroika, which is not unprecedented as David Mandel recognizes(2) Mandel ends his excellent survey of the economic, administrative and political reforms undertaken by Gorbachev by concluding: In their totality, these reforms “will not establish a genuine market environment that will determine enterprise strategy” and consequently will not “threaten the bureaucratic base of the political regime in the Soviet” Because these reforms correspond fully to the interests of the bureaucracy they are incompatible with and “do not correspond to working-class interests.” There is no revolution from above.

Anyone, therefore, who wishes to find out what is new in the Soviet Union will not find it by looking at the content of these reforms, of perestroika. Glasnost—that is, the unprecedented ideological discourse that envelops, and yet remains distinct from, perestroika—is new. The medium is the message; the new content is the novel, that is, public, form in which the old content appears. But the new form expresses, and has contributed to, the development of the old, a development which is by no means formal, illusory, but is all too real.


  1. Ali, Tariq, Revolution from Above: Where Is the Soviet Union Going” (London, 1968).
    back to text
  2. Mandel, David, “Perestroika and the Working Class,” ATC 20.
    back to text

January-February 1990, ATC 24

Leave a comment

ATC welcomes online comments on stories that are posted on its website. Comments are intended to be a forum for open and respectful discussion.
Comments may be denied publication for the use of threatening, discriminatory, libelous or harassing language, ad hominem attacks, off-topic comments, or disclosure of information that is confidential by law or regulation.
Anonymous comments are not permitted. Your email address will not be published.
Required fields are marked *