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The Ethnic Conflict Research Digest

2000, Vol. 3 No. 2 .

Leaders of Transition
Martin Westlake, ed.

London: Macmillan. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2000
178pp. Index. Hb.: ISBN 0-333-73394-0

Articulating his self-image as a man of action rather than of stasis, the American civil war general and president Ulysses S. Grant once chortled, "I think I am a verb instead of a personal pronoun." The same grammatical compliment might be paid to the six men examined in editor Martin Westlake's Leaders of Transition: Mikhail Gorbachev of the Soviet Union, F.W. de Klerk of South Africa, Wojciech Jaruzelski of Poland, Neil Kinnock of Great Britain, Achille Occhetto of Italy, and Adolfo Suárez of Spain. Despite rising to power through orthodox channels, each man turned iconoclast. Each helped initiate significant change in his national government and/or political party, yet each failed to make himself the immediate beneficiary of the transformations he engendered. In this cruel circumstance Westlake finds not simply the human drama of foiled expectations, but "the very rare phenomenon of political altruism" (p. xix). He labels the leaders under scrutiny "ethical actors" inasmuch as they conducted themselves "with reference to a set of higher moral values - be it patriotism, loyalty, or commitment to parliamentary democracy" (p. 170). Gorbachev liberalized the political and economic pillars of the Soviet Union, leading to that country's eventual disintegration. de Klerk ended more than three centuries of white rule in South Africa in 1990 when he released Nelson Mandela from prison and lifted the ban on the African National Congress. Jaruzelski, despite having imposed martial law in 1981 as Poland's prime minister, permitted semi-democratic elections in 1989. Kinnock was instrumental in weaning Britain's Labour Party away from extremism and union-dominated politics toward a center-left philosophy which appealed to the mainstream electorate and which foretold Tony Blair's triumph in 1997. Occhetto dissolved the largest communist party in the west, the Italian Communist Party, and replaced it in early 1991 with a new non-communist party, the Democratic Party of the Left. And Suárez, as Spain's prime minister from 1976 to 1981, helped cement the country's transition from dictatorship to democracy. Leaders of Transition offers tantalizing portraits as to how and why these men undertook the actions they did, even if readers familiar with the events being recounted will find little that is particularly new. What is new, and what renders the volume especially useful, is Westlake's effort to pluck common themes - and to do so despite the apparent incongruity of case studies pertaining to authoritarian regimes on the one hand and to liberal democracies on the other. One of the most provocative of these themes is all the more delicious because it is also entirely counterintuitive: That the reformists "most likely to succeed are those who come from the heart of the system they wish to reform" (p. 164). The brevity of the sketches in Leaders of Transition and the predilection of some authors to explain "change" by accentuating individual personality at the expense of historical context are but minor misgivings about an otherwise well-conceived and stimulating book.

Scott W. Webster

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