LONDON. — "If we had all followed the path that Czechoslovakia began, avoiding distortions and extremes, I think . . . the world would be different, and it wouldn't be so hard to implement these changes now."
Mikhail Gorbachev, on the death of Alexander Dubcek.
London. -- Anything Mikhail Gorbachev says these days must be taken with a large grain of salt, for he is not settling gracefully into his historic role as the last president of the Soviet Union. He still dreams of a political comeback.
Fresh predictions of disaster (including many by Mr. Gorbachev himself) emerge from Moscow every week, but a late October opinion poll showed that 67 percent of Russians still back President Boris Yeltsin, versus only 22 percent who support opposition calls for his resignation. They're having a miserable time, but the Russians haven't given up on democratic reform yet.
Still, Mr. Gorbachev raises a good point. The road from Communist rule to democratic prosperity is proving very hard in the Eastern Europe of the 1990s. Would it all have been different if other Communist regimes, and above all that of the Soviet Union, had followed Dubcek's example way back in the 1960s?
Dubcek, who died early this month of injuries suffered in a car accident, was Europe's key ideological figure in the decade of the 1960s. Like Mikhail Gorbachev, he was "a child of the Party," educated entirely within the Marxist-Leninist system of thought.
And yet, like Mr. Gorbachev, Alexander Dubcek tried to transcend it.
Dubcek's gallant attempt to achieve "socialism with a human face" in Czechoslovakia in 1968 was seen, even at the time, as communism's last chance to escape from its Stalinist past: an attempt to construct a socialism that broke away from its totalitarian roots without simply surrendering to the inequalities of capitalism. For a brief moment, the old socialist dream came alive again.
The "Prague Spring" was brutally suppressed by Soviet tanks after only a few months of freedom, but that very act engendered a myth: that the attempt to create a democratic Communist society in Czechoslovakia could have worked if only the Soviets had not strangled it in its cradle. And nowhere was that myth accepted more uncritically than among the intelligentsia of the Soviet Union itself.
Poor old Gorby! Nobody else in Moscow in the later 1980s, watching him maneuver desperately between the apparatchiks and the democrats, believed that he could democratize the country without bringing down the ruling party.
But Mr. Gorbachev himself believed it, for he never realized that Dubcek would have failed even without the tanks.
Failed in his own project, that is, of bringing about a democratic but Communist society. If Czechoslovakia had not suffered a Soviet invasion in 1968, it certainly would have turned into a democratic country -- but not a country where the Communists still ruled by popular demand.
Dubcek, like Mr. Gorbachev, was an essentially transitional figure: He would quickly have been shown the door by the voters once he had de-fanged the party. But Mr. Gorbachev, who has never run for election to anything and who imagined that the only problem in Czechoslovakia had been Soviet tanks, thought that he could succeed where Dubcek failed.
From his remarks on Dubcek's death, Mr. Gorbachev still thinks a democratic Communism was possible: it was only unfortunate accidents that derailed Dubcek's project and his own, not inherent flaws. But then Dubcek, like Mr. Gorbachev, lived all his life among the totalitarians.
We must give both men credit for rising far beyond their extremely narrow intellectual origins, but they could only go so far. In his last days Dubcek was toying with the idea of accepting the figurehead presidency of a breakaway Slovakia that is still controlled, in reality, by the Communist old guard.
And Mr. Gorbachev, in Berlin on November 9, publicly defended the old Stalinist Erich Honecker, former ruler of former East Germany. He even excused Mr. Honecker for having issued the shoot-to-kill orders that resulted in the deaths of hundreds of refugees trying to cross the Wall, on the grounds that sovereign countries have the right to control their borders.
He just doesn't get it. He never has, and he probably never will. Which is why, like Moses, he was destined to lead his people out of the desert, but never to enter the promised land himself.
As for his speculation on what might have happened if every other Communist country had followed Dubcek's example in 1968, it is equally bootless. The other Communist rulers of 1968 were far more realistic about the roots of their power, and they never entertained the fantasy that it was compatible with democracy -- not even a little bit of democracy.
For communism to collapse peacefully, somebody first had to come to power in the Kremlin itself who was vulnerable to Dubcek's great delusion. We owe a lot to Mikhail Gorbachev, for otherwise the eventual, inevitable collapse of Communism (here speaks the wisdom of hindsight) might have been lethally
violent. But it is his delusions that we really have to thank.
Gwynne Dyer syndicates a column on foreign affairs.