Critiquing the Failures of Sovietology

By Beichman, Arnold | Insight on the News, May 24, 1993 | Go to article overview

Critiquing the Failures of Sovietology


Beichman, Arnold, Insight on the News


A "grand inquest" on the 20-year failure of mainstream Sovietology to diagnose correctly the incurable ills of the Soviet Union has just been published in the foreign affairs quarterly the National Interest.

The critique, titled "The Strange Death of Soviet Communism: An Autopsy," comprises a series of studies by a group of noted academics. It places no blame on the failed Sovietologists for not having predicted the unexpected Soviet implosion. As far as misprophecy is concerned, Professor Charles L. Fairbanks Jr. of Johns Hopkins University, who edited the issue, writes, "We were all wrong." Fairbanks is too modest. In the spring of 1990, he published an article in which he said: "The end of rule in Moscow by people who identify themselves as communists ... will probably come by 1995. It could conceivably happen as early as this summer."

The underlying reason for the acknowledged failure of mainstream Sovietology was a common assumption by its practitioners that "the Soviet leadership almost seems to have made the Soviet Union closer to the spirit of the pluralist model of American political science than is the United States." (Don't you love that "almost"?) This inane "pluralist" finding was made by Professor Jerry Hough of Duke University and reflected a view widely held by other mainstream Sovietologists.

So influential was the pluralist view that the 1983 book Pluralism in the Soviet Union was published in the same year that Yuri V. Andropov, former leader of the KGB, was serving as the new Soviet leader and that the Politburo dictatorship was demonstrating its idea of a pluralist, participatory society by shooting down a Korean Air Lines plane.

This misattribution of pluralism to the Soviet Union arose from two other intellectual idiocies, namely "convergence," that is, the idea that because of the "rational" demands of technology, both superpowers were converging toward similar goals, and "moral equivalency," that is, the idea that if the Soviet Union suffered from Stalinism and concentration camps, the United States suffered from racism and McCarthyism. Big deal.

Two of the National Interest essayists, Francis Fukuyama, an official with the State Department, and Myron Rush, a professor at Cornell University, agree that with the end of Soviet error under the leadership of Mikhail Gorbachev, it became possible, to quote Rush, for Russian society "to impose its will on the Soviet leadership."

Fairbanks criticizes Professor Seweryn Bialer of Columbia University, one of the leading mainstream Sovietologists, for trying to "de-exceptionalize" the Soviet Union in order to show that it "had become essentially a normal state." Professor Peter Reddaway of George Washington University argues that Professor Stephen Cohen of Princeton University mistook the disaffection of the Russian people as "reformist and pro-Gorbachev in nature rather than, in large measure, anti-establishment, anti-imperial or anti-communist.... Why, then, did most Sovietologists not perceive the nature and significance of popular disaffection in the Soviet Union? …

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