Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

Throughout the Cold War, Sovietologists contended fiercely with one another over the nature of Communist regimes. Engrossed in that pursuit, they missed altogether the one development that really mattered. Taking for granted the permanence of the Soviet Empire, virtually none of them perceived its fragility or anticipated its abrupt demise.

In the decade since, these experts have turned with comparable single-mindedness to analyzing their failure, a project that has given rise to new wrangling, this time over competing explanations for the collapse of communism. This is a worthy enterprise. Lest that enterprise descend into little more than an intramural quarrel, however—old adversaries arguing amongst themselves about who got what wrong—participants should be mindful of the insularity that led to their collective embarrassment in 1989. If the effort to explain the disintegration of the Soviet Union proceeds with the same blinkered dogmatism, it will prove sterile. Pursued with broad-mindedness and even a measure of empathy, that effort just might yield insights into political legitimacy and political stability from which democracy itself may benefit.

However much it is the subject of contention in the groves of academe, in the typical American household the collapse of communism does not qualify as a hot topic. When it comes to explaining who and what routed the Communists, Joe Six-Pack, it seems fair to say, requires no instruction. The story, as he sees it, is a simple one: the Good Guys prevailed. They did so with assertiveness backed by military power. If credit for bringing the Evil Empire to its knees belongs to any particular individual, that credit goes to Ronald Reagan, or to Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, or to Reagan and John Paul II. In short, the Soviet Union succumbed to external pressures, mounted above all by a resurgent United States that by the 1980s had recovered its self-confidence after a decade or more of confusion and doubt.

For most Americans, this interpretation works on two levels. It explains the outcome of the Cold War in a way that is both gratifying and uncomplicated: as the contest entered the late rounds, the Soviet Union, like an exhausted and overmatched boxer, refused to answer the bell. At the same time, it fits with the inclination, dear to Americans in this century, to view history as a triumphal march, with the United States leading humanity, however fitfully, onward to a better life.

In Political Will and Personal Belief , Paul Hollander, an eminent sociologist who teaches at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, advances an alternative explanation for why the Soviet Union and its satellites foundered. In this account, Reagan scarcely figures. Indeed, the entire world beyond the boundaries of the Soviet Empire scarcely figures. According to Hollander, the cause of collapse was internal, stemming directly from a loss of conviction, not only in the Kremlin, but in other centers of Communist power: Prague, Warsaw, and East Berlin.

The Soviet order unraveled not due to pressure from the West but because those who benefited most from that order—the privileged members of the nomenklatura —no longer believed in the enterprise. Unable beyond a certain point to ignore the disparity between the declared ideals of the Revolution and the drab, suffocating (and under Stalin, terrifying) reality of “real existing socialism,” disillusioned members of the political elite gave up on communism. Although the distribution of boodle—dachas, chauffeured limousines, access to special stores, opportunities for travel abroad—made it possible for a time to sustain the appearance of a functioning system, at the core there existed only rot: corruption, mendacity, and rank cynicism. After Stalin’s death, even ruthlessness proved to be in short supply: none of the tyrant’s successors possessed anything like his remorseless determination to eliminate any and all threats to his hold on power. In this view, the gradual, but progressive and irreversible, dissolution of the Soviet Empire began not in the 1980s with Mikhail Gorbachev’s reforms but in 1956 with Nikita Khrushchev’s acknowledgment of Stalin’s crimes.

To support this thesis, Hollander profiles nearly two dozen members of the Communist elite, some from the Soviet Union itself, others from Eastern Europe. His subjects include familiar figures such as Gorbachev and Eduard Shevardnadze as well as other, more obscure officials—not only politicians, but also military officers, intelligence operatives, and diplomats. They include defectors, dissidents, reformers, and functionaries who insistently absolve themselves of all responsibility for any “errors” committed on the regime’s behalf.

As portrayed by Hollander, they are, with certain honorable exceptions, a sorry lot: party hacks who send subordinates to do the dirty work while themselves enjoying a pampered existence; opportunists whose discovery of the regime’s shortcomings somehow coincides with their own career disappointments; die-hard loyalists who only at the very end admit to certain “imperfections” in the system they had served.

Having waded through their self-serving memoirs, and having subjected himself in interviews to their flimsy excuses, Hollander may be forgiven for the evident distaste that he feels for his subjects. And yet, there is something unnervingly familiar about the privileged elite that he describes and the political milieu in which they flourished.

Central to Hollander’s explanation of the Soviet Empire’s apparent durability and its sudden collapse is the concept of “cognitive dissonance.” Even as the contradictions grew between the Party’s description of the world and what was plain for everyone to see, members of the Communist elite refused to think through the implications. The myths of the Revolution (that communism would liberate the masses from oppression) and of the Great Patriotic War (that the USSR had saved the world from fascism) created a huge barrier against understanding—a barrier that few prior to the 1980s possessed the intellectual or moral courage to scale. As even General Petro Grigorienko, one of the exceptions, admitted, “I saw many things but I was unable to generalize from what I had seen.”

Only when the risks of generalizing diminished—in large part due to glasnost—did members of the nomenklatura acknowledge (in ever increasing numbers) that they had been living a lie that was becoming unsustainable. With that, the entire system crumpled. “It is agonizingly difficult to acknowledge that you have worshiped the wrong god,” Schevardnadze reflected. Once admit its fraudulence, however, and it is surprisingly easy to topple that false god from its pedestal. What seems solid, strong, and durable turns out to be hollow and flimsy.

One need waste no sympathy on these chastened members of communism’s privileged class on account of their diminished status. All humanity is better off for the demise of the political order from which they benefited at the expense of their own fellow citizens.

And yet, whether intentionally or not, Hollander’s rendering of a political class that exists chiefly to perpetuate its own prerogatives and its hold on power seems very familiar. For example, Hollander indicts Communist functionaries for manipulating such “indisputably laudable goals as full employment, better childcare, and lower crime rates” to rationalize their “possession of power at virtually any cost”—about as succinct a description of politics in the Age of Clinton as one could conceive.

By almost any other measure, the United States of the present-day—swaggering, affluent, pressing to widen further the claims and prerogatives of “freedom”—bears scant resemblance to the Soviet Union of the 1980s. Yet it is not an indulgence of the great error of “moral equivalency” to suggest that the scandalous state of our national politics may constitute an exception to that statement. Disgusted with sleaze and dissembling—the pandering to money interests, sacrifice of principle, and inability even to define the common good—Americans are choosing in increasing numbers to opt out. Many no longer even bother to vote. The result is to forfeit the governance of the country to America’s own class of apparatchiks, who, not wholly unlike the Soviet officials of former times, pretend to cherish the old myths while managing to do well even when they are not doing much good. As a basis for long-term political legitimacy, Paul Hollander would seem to suggest, such an arrangement may well be fraught with risk.

Andrew J. Bacevich is Professor of International Relations at Boston University.

Image by Soviet Artefacts via Unsplash. Image cropped.

Dear Reader,

Your charitable support for First Things is urgently needed before July 1.

First Things is a proudly reader-supported enterprise. The gifts of readers like you— often of $50, $100, or $250—make articles like the one you just read possible.

This Spring Campaign—one of our two annual reader giving drives—comes at a pivotal season for America and the church. With your support, many more people will turn to First Things for thoughtful religious perspectives on pressing issues of politics, culture, and public life.

All thanks to you. Will you answer the call?

Make My Gift