The Soviet System: From Crisis to Collapse

By Alexander Dallin; Gail W. Lapidus | Go to book overview

6 The Friends and Foes of Change:
Reformism and Conservatism
in the Soviet Union

STEPHEN F. COHEN

The combination of conservative institutions with revolutionary ideas meant that the Republic was the first successful attempt to reconcile the conservative and revolutionary traditions in France. But it also meant that in the twentieth century the forces of change were resisted and obstructed to the point of frustration.

—David Thomson, Democracy in France

The theme of the meeting, "Tradition and Innovation," offers an occasion to talk about serious things.

—Mikhail Romm (1962)

Change in the Stalinist system, and stubborn resistance to change, have been the central features of Soviet political life since Stalin's death in 1953. The rival forces of "innovation and tradition," to use the language of the official press, have become "two poles" in Soviet politics and society, which are expressed through "sharp clashes between people standing on both sides of the psychological barrier." 1

Western students of Soviet affairs were slow to perceive this deep-rooted conflict. Accustomed to seeing only one political tradition and thus only continuity in Soviet history, and to imagining the Soviet Union as a frozen "totalitarian" system, most scholars began to think seriously about change and the large controversies it has engendered only in the mid-1960s. 2 Although a valuable scholarship on the subject now exists, 3 it remains inadequate in important respects. Conflict over change is often treated narrowly—either in terms of high Soviet politics and thus apart from society itself, or, at another extreme, in terms of avowed dissidents and thus outside the official political system. No less important, many treatments of the subject lack historical dimensions; and quite a few are couched in a jargon‐ ridden or value-laden language that obscures more than it reveals.

I propose to argue that the fundamental division between these "two poles" in Soviet life is best understood as a social and political confrontation between reformism and conservatism in the sense that these terms convey in other countries. In generalizing about different aspects of this great conflict during the quar

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