Mikhail Gorbachev and the End of History

The passing of Mikhail Gorbachev deserves mention, as it is a teaching moment for us all.  He personified the collapse of Soviet Communism, a great experiment in the intentional organizing of human society, idealist, to be sure, but evil at the same time, a gnostic theocracy shaping persons (square pegs) to fit in (round) collectivist holes.  What’s not to like?

The collapse of Soviet Communism was described as the “End of History” by Professor Francis Fukuyama.  His intent, I think, was to mark the failure of that experiment as a turning point for humanity in putting a failure behind it and accepting the reality that individuals, not collectives, carry the Holy Grail of possibility within themselves.

When push came to shove in the struggle to shore up and carry on with the Soviet clunker of a system, as First Secretary of the Communist Party ruling the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, Gorbachev neither pushed, nor shoved.  He presided over the inevitable.

He was a wise man, in some ways, heroic, not turning his back on the system which had raised him to great power for a time, but also not seeking to do the impossible, which was to revitalize it.

His attempt at overcoming systemic entropy and its decreasing output of work was to open it up to individualism – glasnost in thinking and speaking and perestroika in modes of organization.  Neither modification could surmount the entropic forces slowing the system down and hastening its collapse.

The lesson for us to learn from Gorbachev is to ever respect reality: cooked spaghetti cannot be pushed up a straw, but uncooked spaghetti can.  His foresight in anticipating the collapse of his system, shared with others in and around the KGB, such as Vladimir Putin, was unremarkable. The KGB recruited smart people with analytical minds, not slavish ideologues.  They knew the world outside the Soviet Union, tracking its dynamics and accomplishments.  They knew that their Marxist-Leninism would never bury capitalism.  The pithy Marxist aphorism, I understand, is “The proletariat is the undertaker of capitalism.”

His course, I think, was wise and moral.  At some level, he understood that Lenin’s and Stalin’s system had outlived its possibilities.  I heard Gorbachev speak to the Center of the American Experiment in Minnesota in April 2000.  While he did not repudiate the Soviet experiment, neither did he praise it.  I found that cast of mind prudent and befitting a statesman.  His remarks were subtle, but directed towards universal values embracing the agency of human persons.  In this sense, I found him to be a man inclined more to principle than to power.

I think he would have had no difficulty accepting the Caux Round Table’s ethical principles.  As for the end of history, I have trouble with that one.  History is something like the Dao, I would suggest.  It just “is” and goes on and on, to what end, we know not, though we are agents of its evolution.

The Dao De Jing advises that the Dao that can be named is not the real Dao.  Thereby, we create names for that which is historical, but by doing so, we do not necessarily get our hands on or wrap our minds around real history.

Fukuyama cautioned us about the hubris of thinking that this system or that system is “it” – the culmination forever and ever more of a Dao in some kind of stasis.  He pointed to thymos, (sometimes thumos) the Greek concept of impassioned spiritedness – glory, honor, ego – within our character that draws on emotions and therefore, can become blind to reason and prudence. Thymos drives us to create systems and structures and it also drives us to destroy them, as times change.  Such spiritedness grates against norms and order.

Thus, Fukuyama warned, the system of “capitalism and constitutional democracy” – the liberal order – which seemingly “won out” over Soviet Communism – could be corrupted, even destroyed, by the energies which thymos sets loose in person after person.

Ethics and morality are important checks on thymos, more so than reason.  Thus, they have a role to play, as the Dao of history just goes on and on.