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New Left Review I/169, May-June 1988


Teodor Shanin

Introduction to Aganbegyan

The Soviet Union is going through its most radical transformation since the 1930s or, arguably (indeed, as argued by its leaders), since the 1917 Revolution. Many ‘impossibles’ become possible overnight. There has been a rapidly broadening political involvement of different social forces: administrators and officers, artists and writers, workers and peasants, of the different ethnic, gender and age strata and of different political generations. Major cities are alive with informal groupings; newly created clubs debate, and factions rapidly break surface. The mood suggests the Europe of 1968, from Paris to Prague, both in the explosion of new ideas and in the rapidly opening gap between words and deeds. And, as in every revolution initiated from above, the assumptions and the ideas professed by the main theorists matter profoundly. Only with their help can an extraordinary phenomenon be explained—a section of state bureaucrats leading a revolt against the Old Regime which bred them and pampered them for generations. Also, the language of ideas is the major means by which elites locked in conflict can establish bridges with their political hinterland, evoking mass support which could make the programme of change, or else provoking the foot-dragging or sabotage which could break it. Last but not least, in such historical moments some individuals, leaders and theorists assume extraordinary roles. When social structures harden, the force of inertia and of the reproduction of the status quo seem unlimited while the leaders appear as no more than privileged operatives of a machine which runs them. But then, occasionally, the human-made nature of the social structure becomes clear; the historical process opens up, and ideas as well idea-makers begin to ‘make history’. The Soviet Union finds itself at this stage today.

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