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  • Mikhail Gorbachev:A Transformational Leader
  • Archie Brown (bio)

Setting a high bar for calling a political leader "transformational," I define such a leader as "one who plays a decisive role in introducing systemic change, whether of the political or economic system of his or her country or (more rarely) of the international system."1 The term "transformational" has a positive connotation, suggesting that fundamental change has produced a better system than that it replaced. Transformational leadership may, therefore, be distinguished from revolutionary leadership, even though revolutions may also generate systemic change. Revolution, as the term is commonly understood, involves a regime's violent overthrow. More often than not, it replaces an authoritarian regime with another form of authoritarianism.2

Mikhail Gorbachev, by temperament and conviction a reformer rather than a revolutionary, became in a period of less than seven years an outstanding example of a transformational political leader. He achieved this while diluting the absolute authority and ceding many of the powers that had belonged to the party General Secretaryship. To a far greater extent than any of his predecessors in that office, he relied on his political skills and powers of persuasion. When he faced stiff opposition to political reform in 1987-88, he radicalized his agenda rather than back down, though there were other occasions when his acute political antennae led him to take a step back before moving two steps forward. It was in mid-1988 that he began making the Soviet political system qualitatively different from what it had been hitherto. He pushed through the Nineteenth Conference of the [End Page 239] Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) a resolution stipulating that contested elections be held in 1989 for a new legislature endowed with real powers. That put in place the cornerstone of a pluralist polity. By the spring of 1990, if not earlier, the political system had become different in kind.

In his article for this journal, Gorbachev writes that when he became General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU), the leadership "knew that changes of great magnitude and depth were necessary" and that they were "unanimous" that "leaving things as they were was not an option" (p. 212). The entire Politburo could agree that it was time to get the country moving again and perhaps even accept the goal of giving "people ownership of their lives and the country" (p. 212) because that level of generality did not present them with hard choices. But from the outset in 1985, perestroika meant different things to different people in the leadership and what it connoted for Gorbachev and his closest allies became more expansive over time. When issues of fundamental institutional change were broached and serious democratization got underway, profound differences of outlook within the ruling circles and in the broader political elite were too clearly visible to be glossed over. As Gorbachev himself observes in these pages, the superficial unity fractured once he and those he terms his "like-minded supporters" within the leadership took concrete reformist steps. The January 1987 plenum of the Central Committee put political reform firmly on the agenda and, as a result, "the struggle between the reformers and the anti-reform wing of the CPSU began in earnest" (p. 215).

Even though the need for economic reform was initially more on Gorbachev's mind than political reform, it was change in the political system that took precedence, both in its ideational and practical aspects. Only the General Secretary could break the taboo on embracing the concept of "pluralism," and in 1987 Gorbachev did so.3 The "socialist pluralism" and "pluralism of opinion" of which he spoke favorably in that year became by the end of the decade "political pluralism." Even the initial "socialist" qualifier was not crucial, for Gorbachev and his closest advisers were constantly redefining and broadening what they meant by socialism. Conceptual innovation and changing practice went hand in hand, and, unsurprisingly, there was resistance from conservative Communists within the leadership. Thus, at a Politburo meeting on October 15, 1987, Heydar Aliyev criticized the presence of "pluralism" in the draft report Gorbachev was to present on the seventieth anniversary of the October revolution...


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