[Book] Russia: From Revolution to Counter-Revolution

7. The Meaning of Perestroika

An absolute fetter

The bureaucracy imagined it would rule, like tsarism, for a thousand years. Yet, in a very short space of time, all its dreams turned to dust. In only two and a half generations, the bureaucracy had utterly exhausted any progressive role it may have played in the past. From a relative fetter on the development of society, it had become transformed into an absolute fetter. Thus, what was beginning to look like a fixed and permanent order of things now stood exposed for what it always was – a temporary historical aberration which was doomed to be swept away in the coming period. By the late 1970s, all the chickens came home to roost.

Just take the following example from a key sector of the Soviet economy. The old gas and oilfields were becoming depleted, but the USSR had almost unlimited resources in west Siberia alone, which they could not develop. Why? In one year alone, in 1983, 20 per cent of Soviet oil wells were out of action because of lack of repairs, incompetent management and shortage of labour. This was 2,000 more wells than anticipated. Why was there a labour shortage for work on the oil rigs? Bureaucratic planning concentrated everything on production but often neglected housing and recreation facilities for workers. Such things were usually given low priority. Given the fact that the oil and coal in Russia is often situated in the most remote and inhospitable regions, it is not surprising that many workers did not want to go there. In spite of high wages, there was a high labour turnover.

In the last decades, the ruling clique tried all manner of combinations involving decentralisation, recentralisation, re-decentralisation. To no avail. Some, like Isaac Deutscher, imagined that the bureaucracy was going to reform itself out of existence. Vain hope! The privileged ruling caste was prepared to do anything for the working class – except get off its back! A modern economy producing one million different commodities each year could not be organised properly without the conscious control and participation of the majority of society. But the introduction of a regime of workers’ democracy would have immediately spelt the end of the power and privileges of the bureaucracy, which they could not accept.

More than 30 years ago, we explained that every year anything between 30 and 50 per cent of the wealth produced by the Soviet workers was lost through bureaucratic mismanagement, theft and corruption. By the mid-1970s, as we have seen, the rate of economic growth had been lower than the major capitalist powers in the period of the world economic upswing or even in some years of economic decline. In 1979 the GDP grew by 0.9 per cent, in 1980 1.5 per cent, and about 2.5 per cent in 1981 and 1982. The bureaucracy acted as a gigantic brake on the economy, which had been slowing down for decades, weighed down by the burden of parasitism, chaos and outright sabotage.

Rampant corruption and crime represented a cancer which riddled the body of Soviet society from top to bottom. The shameless looting of the state by the bureaucracy was well documented and numerous examples appeared in the Soviet press. In 1984 the manager of Gastronom Number One, a high-class food store in central Moscow, was shot for corruption. When police dug up his garden they found bundles of rotting roubles he had not had time to spend. By the late 1970s, things had gone so far that there was a black market, not only in blue jeans and ballpoint pens, but in steel, coal and oil. This was known in the West as ‘the parallel market’. And woe betide the manager who tried to ignore it!

There was a case reported in the Soviet press of the manager of a department store, a model member of the Komsomol, who announced to his assembled staff on the first day that he would not tolerate any stealing, corruption or blat[1], and that only the official state prices must be paid for deliveries. Within a week, the store faced bankruptcy. No goods were delivered and the shelves were empty. The manager drew the necessary conclusion and fell into line with the accepted practices. There were millions of such examples.

In the early 1980s, Soviet society had reached a complete blind alley. The whole of the bureaucratic system was on a knife edge. Not only in social relations but in the development of industry too, the contradictions between the economic basis of the Soviet Union and the role of its bureaucratic leadership had become extreme. The ruling bureaucracy was split in several directions over which path to take. The mass movement of the Polish workers around Solidarity in 1980-81, with its clear revolutionary potential, was a warning of the processes that could take place in Russia if nothing was done. Even the aged Brezhnev, hoping to dissipate the discontent that was beginning to build up, was stirred into berating the so-called Soviet trade union leaders for not ‘representing’ the interests of their workers. The ruling elite was clearly worried.

The sclerotic nature of the system was graphically reflected in the geriatric leadership which became a standing joke. Brezhnev was artificially kept alive by the Kremlin doctors and specialists when he was clearly a walking corpse. This was no accident. The ruling elite was deeply divided and worried about the future. They feared that the death of Brezhnev would open up the floodgates. When he finally went the way of all flesh, they first settled on Yuri Andropov, who appeared to be a substantial figure, with his background in the KGB. Paradoxically, this meant that he was more in touch with reality, since in a totalitarian state the secret police are almost the only ones who are well informed. It is probable that he realised how dangerous the situation had become and was planning some kind of reform from above. But Andropov died unexpectedly in 1984. The ruling elite then settled on Konstantin Chernenko as a compromise candidate, but he let them down by dying only one year later. The succession was thus left open to the younger Mikhail Gorbachev, who had been promoted by Andropov.

This consummate representative of the ruling elite was quite prepared to strike blows against a section of the bureaucracy upon which he rested in order to preserve the power, perks and prestige of the ruling caste as a whole. In the same way, for more than a century, Russian tsarism frequently attempted to preserve itself by administrative reforms, such as the emancipation of the serfs in 1861, balancing between the classes, at times attacking the interests of sections of the bureaucracy and the gentry and even attempting to lean on the ‘people’ in order to do so.

The election of Gorbachev as Party secretary in 1985 proved to be a turning point. Gorbachev’s speech at the 27th Congress of the Communist Party, together with his speech to the January 1987 plenum of the Central Committee, marked a new stage in the process. Speeches by Kremlin leaders attacking corruption, waste and inefficiency were nothing new, but Gorbachev’s reforms went much further than anything put forward in the previous 30 years. He called for a loosening of the bureaucratic stranglehold in the economy and in Russian society generally. Gorbachev advocated greater ‘democracy’, the election under certain conditions of factory managers, elections within the Communist Party and other such reforms. These attempts to reform the Stalinist system were seen as necessary to loosen up the economy and provide an impetus to economic growth. This process took place under the banner of glasnost, and perestroika.

These proposals were nothing to do with genuine workers’ democracy, which is incompatible with the bureaucratic system, but were simply aimed at removing the worst log jams in the stagnant Soviet economy. The crisis of the Soviet economy, the split in the bureaucracy that these measures of ‘reform’ represented, were symptomatic of the turbulent period that was unfolding in the Soviet Union. In his campaign to reform the system, Gorbachev partially lifted the lid off a seething cauldron of corruption, crime and discontent throughout all the Republics of the Soviet Union. Gorbachev realised that the situation could not continue without the danger of a social explosion. Enormous discontent had accumulated within Soviet society. Thousands of examples of corruption had been given in the Soviet press.

In his report to the 27th Party Congress, Gorbachev justifiably boasted that in the last 25 years:

The fixed production assets of our economy have increased seven times over. Thousands of enterprises have been built and new industries created. The national income has gone up nearly 300 per cent, industrial production 400 per cent and agriculture 70 per cent. Before the war, and in early post-war years, the level of the US economy appeared to us hard to attain, but it was really in the 1970s that we have come substantially close to it in terms of our scientific, technical and economic potential and had even surpassed it in the output of certain key items. These achievements are the result of tremendous effort by the people. They enabled us to enhance considerably the well-being of Soviet citizens…

However, Gorbachev was compelled to admit:

At the same time difficulties began to build up in the economy in the 1970s, with the rates of economic growth declining visibly. As a result, the targets for economic development set in the CPSU programme and even the lower targets of the 9th and 10th Five-Year Plans were not attained. Neither did we manage to carry out fully the social programme charted for this period. A lag ensued in the material basis of science, education, health protection, culture and every day services … the economy, which has enormous resources at its disposal, ran into shortages. A gap appeared between the needs of society and the attained level of production, between the effective demand and supply of goods.

Gorbachev also exposed the chronic bureaucratic waste in the agricultural sector:

Reducing crop and livestock produce losses during harvesting, transportation, storage and processing is the most immediate source of augmenting food stocks. We have no small potentialities in this respect; the addition to consumption resources could amount to as much as 20 per cent, and in the case of some products, to as much as 30 per cent. Besides, eliminating the losses would cost only between a third and one half as much as raising the same amount of produce.

He concluded:

Today the prime task of the party and the entire people is to resolutely reverse the unfavourable tendencies in the developing of the economy, to impart to it the due dynamism and to give scope to the initiative and creativity of the masses, to truly revolutionary change.

In an attempt to lean on the workers, demagogic attacks were made on the bureaucracy:

Owing to a slackening of control, and a number of other reasons (?), groups of people have appeared with a distinctive property mentality (?) and a scornful attitude to society. Working people have legitimately raised the question of rooting out such things. It is considered necessary in the immediate future to carry out additional measures against parasites, plunderers of socialist property, bribe-takers and all those who embark on a path foreign to the work-oriented nature of our system.

And again:

We are justifiably exasperated by all sorts of shortcomings and by those responsible for them … hack writers and idlers, grabbers and writers of anonymous letters, petty bureaucrats and bribe-takers. (Quoted in The Times, 26/6/86.)

It was admitted that Party leaders had “lost touch with life”, and that they encouraged “toadyism … and unbridled praise for people of rank”. (Daily Telegraph, 26/2/86.)

Cautiously, moving from above, Gorbachev encouraged an element of freedom of criticism, but always within the prescribed limits. The Soviet press was full of the most outrageous examples of the rapacity of these gangsters with their bloated salaries, official limousines and unchecked expense accounts. Slavishly the foreign Communist Party press had reprinted these stories without comment. The same people who for decades justified every crime of Stalinism, talking about the ‘wonders of socialism’ in the USSR now said precisely the opposite without so much as blinking.

Gorbachev and Stalin

It is not generally remembered that Stalin himself also tried to lean on the masses to strike blows against the bureaucracy. During the period of the first two Five-Year Plans, Stalin was compelled to try and curb the greed of the bureaucrats, who were tending to devour an excessive amount of the surplus produced by the working class. By introducing the secret ballot, Stalin intended to lean on the masses to cow the officialdom he represented. There was a mock-up of a bourgeois parliament, but with only one party. This was a farce. Even if there had been more than one candidate, only the candidates vetted and accepted by the Party would be allowed to win anyway. However, Stalin did not dare to introduce his reforms in practice. The Spanish Revolution caused Stalin to back away from his intended reforms and launch the Purges, as we have seen. The sole method which remained to keep the greed of the officials in some kind of check was police repression and terror. But this engenders a new and even more monstrous corruption, dislocates and disorganises society, and represents a movement away from socialism, not towards it.

Trotsky explained how the Stalin constitution, which on paper seemed very democratic, was intended as a “whip against the bureaucracy”. Bonapartist rule involves, among other things, balancing between different groups and classes – between the workers, the peasants, and the bureaucrats themselves – playing off one section against another. In the same way, Gorbachev was compelled to lean on the working class to strike blows at a section of the bureaucratic caste which had gained enormously from its parasitic grip on the economy and the state. Gorbachev wanted to introduce controlled reforms from above, but it was, as we predicted at the time, impossible. As soon as the grip of the bureaucracy was loosened all sorts of pent-up forces were released.

Whereas in the 1930s the working class made up around 20 per cent of Russian society, the figure in the mid-1980s was nearer to 70 per cent. Russia was no longer a backward country, but a sophisticated economy with the largest working class in the world. These reforms could trigger the Russian workers to take independent action. Despite the limited character of Gorbachev’s aims, they could set the masses in motion. Inevitably, once the workers managed to get a certain measure of control they would inevitably lead to a striving for workers’ democracy: why does the bureaucracy get more than the wages of superintendence? Why must the bureaucracy have their perks, country houses, special cars, special food shops, and so on, which can only be used by party and state bureaucrats?

A man who rides on the back of a tiger finds it difficult to dismount. Once he had embarked on the road of so-called reform, Gorbachev found it impossible to reverse the process he had set in motion. Like Stalin, Gorbachev took measures against the lower and middle bureaucrats, and even some of the higher bureaucrats, as scapegoats for the sins of the entire system. Thus, in his first 11 months Gorbachev purged 46 out of 156 of the regional Party hierarchy.

At bottom, the reforms were aimed at raising the productivity of labour through cost efficiency. By a mixture of stick and carrot (discipline and incentives) the regime hoped to get the Soviet workers to produce more. While trying to lean on the working class, Gorbachev also attempted to revive the old Stalinist method of Stakhanovism, named after a miner who allegedly produced over 100 tonnes of coal per shift (six times more than the norm!). This was an extreme version of what used to be called Taylorism in the USA – payment by results, involving extreme exploitation. In Stalin’s time, this involved the creation of a special elite of shock workers (udarniki) who were responsible for setting the norms of production at abnormally high levels.

Trotsky pointed out at the time that it was easier to motivate a minority of shock workers than the mass, but explained the contradiction between a society allegedly ‘building socialism’, which aped the worst and most exploitative features of capitalism. Instead of moving towards greater equality, this meant far greater inequality, and the establishment of a privileged layer within the working class. While some Stakhanovites were honest workers, the majority were careerists and toadies, who were hated by their workmates, who attacked, beat and sometimes killed them. This was a retrograde step even in the 1930s. But in the context of an advanced modern economy, which was supposed to be moving towards ‘communism’, the contradiction was still more glaring.

Trotsky explained that:

Wage labour does not cease, even under the Soviet regime, to wear the humiliating label of slavery. Payment ‘according to work’ – in reality payment to the advantage of ‘intellectual’ at the expense of the physical, and especially unskilled, work – is a source of injustice, oppression and compulsions for the majority, privileges and a ‘happy life’ for the few.

Instead of frankly acknowledging that bourgeois norms of labour and distribution still prevail in the Soviet Union, the authors of the constitution [the new constitution introduced by Stalin in 1936] have cut this integral communist principle in two halves, postponed the second half to an indefinite future, declared the first half already realised, mechanically hitched on to it the capitalist norm of piecework payment named the whole thing ‘principle of socialism’ and upon this falsification erected the structure of their constitution!

Trotsky went on to explain:

At the same time – and this is of no small importance – a protection by law of the hut, cow and home furnishings of the peasant, worker or clerical worker, also legalises the town house of the bureaucrat, his summer home, his automobile and all the other objects of personal consumption and comfort, appropriated by him on the basis of the ‘socialist’ principle: ‘From each according to his abilities, to each according to his work.’ The bureaucrat’s automobile will certainly be protected by the new fundamental law more effectively than the peasant’s wagon. (Trotsky, The Revolution Betrayed, pp. 259-60)

In his desperation to find a way out of the impasse, Gorbachev tried to inject some spark of life into the economy by appealing to the workers and making an example of the most malignant cases of bureaucratic control. Nevertheless, Gorbachev did not represent the interests of the workers. His reforms were intended to wage war on the ‘illegal’ privileges and perks of the officials, while steadily increasing the ‘legal’ ones. Already under his rule, income differentials steadily increased – the exact opposite of Lenin’s conception.

In fact, Gorbachev’s proposals had nothing in common with the democracy of Lenin nor of genuine socialism. The bureaucracy feared the working class. The legal and illegal perks, bribery and theft had to be curtailed. Nevertheless, in doing so, Gorbachev did not want to interfere fundamentally with the privileges of the bureaucratic caste. The ‘legitimate’ privileges had to be maintained, if not increased. In fact, Gorbachev was very careful to put forward the erroneous definition of Stalin: “We are fully restoring the principle of socialism: ‘From each according to his ability, to each according to his work’.” (Gorbachev, Perestroika – New Thinking for Our Country and the World, p. 31, my emphasis.) The original formulation of Marx was deliberately distorted. Marx explained that under communism there would be no compulsion to work, each member of society giving “according to their ability”. The superabundance of this classless society would allow its members to take “according to their needs”. This concept had nothing whatsoever to do with the situation under Gorbachev, and was nothing more than window dressing for his policies.

Bureaucratic mismanagement

Bureaucratic bungling had given rise to all kinds of distortions in the Soviet economy. While some sections were very modern, others had been starved of investment, like the Likino bus manufacturing plant in the Urals which was producing the same model as in 1970 with machine tools built 40 years earlier. And yet Gorbachev insisted that the workers must produce quality goods and be penalised if they did not. But with outdated machinery and hamstrung by red tape and mismanagement, it was virtually impossible to comply with the standards laid down. Thus, for many workers, perestroika meant a worsening of wages and conditions. In effect, the bureaucracy, like the Western bosses, was trying to get out of the crisis by putting pressure on the workforce, trying to increase productivity at the cost of the workers’ sweat, muscle and nerves.

Significantly, the only time Gorbachev attempted to deal with ‘theoretical’ questions in his book Perestroika is when he tried to justify wage differentials as being consistent with socialism! Under conditions of poverty, deprivation and backwardness, with a semi-literate working class, and an illiterate peasantry, the Bolsheviks were compelled to concede to the bourgeois specialists salaries far in excess of the Party maximum. But for an advanced country to tolerate such inequalities would have been regarded by Lenin and Trotsky as quite unpardonable. Lenin envisaged that, as the Soviet economy advanced, so the inequalities would gradually be reduced. When the Soviet Union developed into an industrial nation with a highly-educated working class, the existence of differentials of this sort was completely anti-socialist and anti-Marxist. Yet far from disappearing, seven decades after October, inequality was increasing all the time. Far from standing on Lenin’s position of greater and greater equality, and the progressive abolition of differentials, Gorbachev was increasing them.

Like Stalin, Gorbachev attempted to broaden the base of the bureaucracy by creating a special privileged layer of labour aristocrats, on high bonuses linked to productivity. The problem was that the growth of differentials and inequalities within the workforce, setting worker against worker and factory against factory, would only serve to stoke the fires of resentment. It was no accident that Gorbachev, in his speech on the anniversary of the October Revolution, spoke of opposition to his reforms not only from the bureaucracy, but also in “work collectives”. This indicated the growing alarm of the bureaucracy at the spate of strikes which for the first time were widely reported in the Soviet press. For instance, the workers at the Likino bus manufacturing plant went on strike for three days in protest at having a wage cut of Rbs60-70 a month because of non-payment of bonuses. Moving towards socialism would mean a lessening of inequality, not a reinforcement of inequality as Gorbachev was undertaking. Thus, the argument that ‘socialism’ had been achieved in the Soviet Union, when the state had reached such monstrous proportions was a total mockery. Despite this, Gorbachev received the praise of the Stalinist leaders internationally, together with the left reformists, for his ‘socialism with a democratic face’.

Yet the USSR was no longer the weak, impoverished, embattled state of Lenin’s day. As Gorbachev himself had commented, the Soviet Union was now a vast and wealthy country. If the workers were really to take into their hands the running of the state, industry and society, all the bottlenecks produced by the bureaucracy could have been quickly eliminated. Freed from the dead hand of bureaucracy, the planned economy would soar ahead. In the space of one Five-Year Plan, the wealth of society could be enormously increased on the basis of unleashing the initiative and enthusiasm of the masses.

In 1919 when the workers took power in Saxony and Bavaria, Lenin immediately appealed to them to introduce the seven-hour working day so that the workers would have time to run industry and the state. Gorbachev claimed to stand for a return to the ideas of Lenin, but in reality, he was as far away as Stalin from genuine Leninism. If an appeal was made to the Russian workers and peasants to take control of society and industry into their own hands, it would have been possible immediately to move to a reduction of the working day, the prior condition for establishing a genuine regime of workers’ democracy.

This is true even today, although as a result of the ghastly chaos caused by mafia capitalism, it is probable that initially the advance will be slower than what would be warranted by the real possibilities created by the planned economy. But within one or, at most two, Five-Year Plans, with the democratic control and participation of the masses, the whole situation will be transformed. Given the present level of development, it should be possible quite soon to introduce the 32-hour week, followed by a further reduction of hours. Such a measure would transform the situation, not only in Russia, but throughout the world.

The material conditions for beginning a move towards socialism had been built up in Russia over the previous six or seven decades. In fact, the scientific and technical resources necessary to begin the move towards socialism, absent in 1917, were now present. Even on the most conservative estimate, the Soviet economy in the 1980s, under these conditions, could have attained two or three times the then rate of growth, far exceeding even the best results under capitalism. On a sustained basis, within ten years, the Soviet Union could have overtaken the USA not only in absolute terms but in terms of the productivity of labour – the most fundamental index of economic progress. On such a basis, it would really have been possible to begin to move towards socialism, with an unparalleled flowering of art, science and technique.

Gorbachev’s solution was to carry through “all-round democratisation of management, heightening the part played in it by work collectives, strengthening control from below, and ensuring accountability and publicity in the work of economic bodies”. But his declared intentions proved to be pure demagogy as a serious move in such a direction would strike at the very heart of bureaucratic control. He certainly had no intention of going that far. The changes were really only cosmetic, although a certain consultation was allowed with workers in an endeavour to involve them in some decisions, without introducing genuine workers’ control and management. Nevertheless, Gorbachev continued to hammer away in the same demagogic manner:

The elective bodies should be more exacting and strict towards their own apparatus. One cannot overlook the fact that executives who remain in offices for long periods tend to lose their feel for the new, to shut themselves off from the people by institutions they have concocted themselves, and sometimes even hold back the work of elective bodies. It is obviously time to work out a procedure which enables soviets, and all social bodies in general, to evaluate and certify the work of responsible executives of their apparatus after each election making desirable personnel changes.

Ever more active involvement of social organisations in governing the country is needed in our time. When the work of our social organisations is considered from this angle, however, it becomes obvious that many of them are lacking in sufficient initiative. Some of them try to operate above all through their regular staff, in a bureaucratic way, and lean only a little on the masses. In other words, the popular collective, independent nature of social organisations is not being fully realised by far.

Gorbachev even came out in his speech to the 27th Party Congress for the “electivity principle for all team leaders and then gradually to some other categories of managerial personnel – foremen, shift, sector or shop superintendents, and state-farm department managers”. He was stretching things to the limit in order to propel the economy forward, but he was playing with fire. Once you introduce ‘electivity’, as far as the workers were concerned, where would it end?

The fact that he was compelled to raise the question in his January 1987 speech of the election of all the posts in the ‘Communist’ Party was an indication that not much success was achieved in the election of foremen and the rest. The bureaucracy blocked the development of this so-called principle. Gorbachev was attempting to use these ‘reforms’ as a whip against the bureaucracy within the Party itself. The real situation in Soviet society was indicated by the desperate attempt of Gorbachev to use the secret ballot, as Stalin had done, in elections from lower to higher levels of the Communist Party, as a means to break the will of the more reactionary sections of the bureaucracy, who wanted to continue their unhindered looting of the Soviet state.

In a capitalist society, the secret ballot is meant to defend the exploited from the terror of the exploiters. If the bourgeoisie finally adopted such a reform, obviously under pressure from the masses, it was only because it became interested in protecting its state at least partially from the demoralisation introduced by itself. But in a socialist society there can be, it would seem, no terror of the exploiters.

From whom is it necessary to defend the Soviet citizens? The answer is clear: from the bureaucracy. Stalin is frank enough to recognise this. To the question: Why are secret elections necessary? He answered verbatim: ‘Because we intend to give the Soviet people their freedom to vote for those they want to elect.’ Thus, humanity learns from an authoritative source that today the ‘Soviet people’ cannot yet vote for those whom they want to elect. It would be hasty to conclude from this that the new constitution will really tender them this opportunity in the future. ( Trotsky, The Revolution Betrayed, p. 264-5, emphasis in original.)

The bureaucratic system under Gorbachev remained in essence what it had been during the course of the rule of the bureaucracy. The attempt to hold a whip over the bureaucracy was doomed to fail. “It is not a question of sociology, but material interest,” as Trotsky put it. The economy could not develop without the participation and control of the working class. Gorbachev was gambling on maintaining control with some elements of participation and control by the workers. However, there is no such thing as a partial control by the mass of the population. Either the workers get control or control is taken back from them. Partial control could never succeed.

A parasitic caste

This was the fundamental flaw in Gorbachev’s position. To encourage greater initiative and therefore greater productivity from the workers, while simultaneously defending the privileges and perks of the bureaucracy, was to attempt to square the circle. In order to get the Soviet economy moving again, in order to eliminate corruption and motivate the working class, it would have been necessary to grant freedom to the workers to organise, discuss and criticise. But this was impossible. The very first point the workers would have raised would be the parasitic nature of the privileges of the millions of officials, their wives, dependants and hangers-on. From an economic point of view, this argument remains unanswerable. But Gorbachev could not allow this question to be put, for the simple reason that he represented the material interests of the ruling caste.

The big majority of the 19 million or so officials who made up the bureaucracy were now the children and grandchildren of bureaucrats. They now had all the attributes of a special ruling caste, like the dominant caste in ancient India, increasingly divorced from the life and thought of ordinary workers. The bureaucracy itself, despite the new Gorbachev image, was profoundly demoralised, divided and pessimistic. After more than 70 years, all links with the ideas and traditions of October had been severed. In his famous satire, Animal Farm, George Orwell depicts the pigs and farmers in a meeting where it is impossible to distinguish one group from the other. Two generations of bureaucratic rule produced a layer of privileged functionaries utterly divorced from the working class and the ideas of the October Revolution.

Apart from their inflated salaries and privileges, they lived a life totally apart from the masses, with special shops, restaurants, clinics, rest-homes, and even beaches. Their wives did not have to queue in the cold. Unlike their fellow citizens, they could travel abroad and had access to foreign currency and all the luxury items denied to the rest. Although not officially admitted, there were even the equivalent of private schools under the thin disguise of special foreign language schools, where the children of the bureaucracy had a virtual monopoly. The outlook of this group had nothing to do with the working class or socialism, as the following quotations point out:

The jet-set are what one would expect: the sons and daughters of the very rich and the very privileged, who have no intention of working, believe in nothing at all (not even in revolt), and do their best to turn their fathers’ Sochi villas into imitations of Palm Beach. They dress in imported European clothes; they drink themselves silly; they philander and fornicate; they gamble and they dance. Regarding the mass of the people as cattle and the intelligentsia as prigs and bores, they live almost entirely to themselves, in and out of each other’s houses, and are thus rarely seen. ( Crankshaw, op. cit., p. 134.)

And again, in The Guardian, (19/2/86):

But there have been so many of these children of the party elite that even out of mainstream politics they constitute a new class of their own. And their children are now also going to the privileged schools. There is today a Soviet middle class, urbane and sophisticated with its own old-boy network and that is entirely separated from the nomenklatura. ( My emphasis.)

The luxurious living conditions of the elite were no secret. The special Kremlin supermarket in Granovsky Street was conveniently situated next door to the special Kremlin clinic:

The special hospitals for top Party officials are unique in their access to Western drugs and they have the use of country estates and lavish flats that go with their jobs.

…He [ Brezhnev] lived well, he agreed, but earned no more than a top factory manager, who could expect, with bonuses, about £200 a week. Even the Soviet press found it difficult to keep a straight face at that statement. (Ibid.)

For the bureaucracy, the revolution had served the purpose of giving it unheard-of power and privileges. In the words of Kirpichev in Zorin’s play, they were “white collar aristocrats, greedy and conceited, far from the people”. The old Stalinist officials were corrupt gangsters, but at least had some link with the old traditions. Here we had a new generation of aristocrats ‘born in the purple’, used to French perfume, expensive foreign suits and Cadillacs. Raisa Gorbachev was a classical specimen of these creatures. Pierre Cardin described Raisa as “one of the most charming wives of foreign dignitaries that has ever visited my salon”. By some strange irony, Mrs Gorbachev had been a lecturer in Marxism-Leninism at Moscow University, though what kind of Marxism that would have been defies the imagination.

In the 1920s, the Left Oppositionist Sosnovsky coined the phrase ‘the automobile-harem factor’ in relation to the rise of the bureaucracy. Aspiring bureaucrats would marry the daughters of bourgeois and aristocrats and imitate their outlook and habits. The big cars of the officials and their ‘painted ladies’ recalled the protest of Gracchus Babeuf at a similar phenomenon in the period of Thermidorian reaction of the French Revolution, when former Jacobins took to wining and dining with aristocrats, and marrying their daughters: “What are you doing, small-hearted plebeian? Today they are embracing you and tomorrow they will strangle you.” Nothing expressed more graphically the reactionary petty bourgeois character of the new clique of sleek bureaucrats represented by Gorbachev than their wives.

The rulers of the Soviet Union were, in fact, even more remote from the population than the ruling class in the West. This fact was expressed in an outburst from one of the delegates at the special conference of the CPSU held in 1988. (Incidentally, this was the first such conference since 1941):

We know more about the position of President Reagan and the Queen of England than we know about our own leaders. (Quoted in The Wall Street Journal, 5/7/88, my emphasis.)

The ruling elite fell more and more under the influence of capitalism, the more alienated and remote they became from Soviet society. Here we have a graphic example of what Engels meant when he referred to the state as a “power standing above society and increasingly alienating itself from it”. In particular, the elite of the diplomatic corps got used to hobnobbing with bourgeois circles in the West, and clearly enjoyed the experience. Eduard Shevardnadze was typical of this layer. Unlike the old crude and ignorant bureaucrats who could not even speak a foreign language, the new layer was educated, sleek, cosmopolitan – and with the mentality of petty bourgeois upstarts, which is the hallmark of reformist leaders in their dealings with the big bourgeois, where fear and envy struggle with a secret and slavish admiration.

Nowhere was the rottenness of the bureaucracy more evident than in the period of so-called perestroika (or katastroika, as the Soviet workers soon dubbed it). Gorbachev was smart enough to realise that, unless drastic measures were taken by the leadership, the whole thing would seize up. At this point, there is no reason to suppose that he intended to return to capitalism. The pro-capitalist elements in the bureaucracy were almost certainly in a minority at this time. But Gorbachev had set in motion processes which had a logic of their own.

Ferment of discontent

Gorbachev’s reforms – like those of Khrushchev – gave an initial fillip to the economy. Even so, the target of 4 per cent was a miserable travesty of what could have been achieved by the economy under a regime of workers’ democracy. Soviet industrial output rose 5.6 per cent by September 1986 compared to a year earlier, largely as a result of Gorbachev’s ‘efficiency drive’. This was an improvement on the figures achieved under Brezhnev, but still did not even reach the growth of the capitalist economies in times of boom. This was in a country with 25 per cent of the world’s engineers, technicians and scientists, and the resources of a sixth of the world at its disposal! The relative improvement was achieved in part by chopping away some of the dead wood, eliminating the most scandalously inefficient and corrupt officials. About 50 per cent of government ministers and chairpersons and 30 per cent of Party secretaries were removed. Some 200,000 officials were sacked. Compared to a total of 19 million bureaucrats, this was chicken feed. Yet it provoked a fierce resistance on the part of that section of the bureaucracy, headed by Ligachev, which opposed the reforms. Without the check of workers’ democracy, the bureaucrats had a thousand and one ways of getting around perestroika.

In fact, the reforms, far from solving the problems of the bureaucracy, exacerbated and intensified them. Gorbachev was forced to balance between the different wings of the bureaucratic elite to move along the ‘reform’ road. On a number of occasions, he threatened resignation if his reforms were blocked. This was intended as a warning to the more conservative layers of the bureaucracy. But the bureaucracy would never de-bureaucratise itself. On the contrary, they were trying to reinforce their privileged position.

As for ‘democracy’, apart from some secondary concessions, nothing much had changed. The masses were well aware that everything was rigged from top to bottom. The introduction of more than one candidate in elections was an attempt to camouflage the existence of a one-party totalitarian system. But all candidates either belonged to the Communist Party or else had to agree to the programme of the Party, which amounted to the same thing. Instead of proceeding from bottom to top, the system worked from top to bottom, like an inverted pyramid. Gorbachev leaned upon the growing discontent of the masses with the system, which was tolerated as long as there was no revolutionary pole of attraction in the West. But Gorbachev’s appeasement of US imperialism had far reaching consequences at home. The ‘threat from without’, which for decades had been used by the bureaucracy to paralyse any opposition on the part of the workers, was undermined.

The impasse of the bureaucratic regime, manifested in the slowdown of the economy, had an effect on the psychology of all strata of Soviet society beginning with the bureaucracy itself. The ruling elite became conscious of the fact that it was no longer able to carry society forward. Increasingly it felt itself to be a brake on progress, and this malaise pervaded the whole of society. There was a constant ferment of discontent among the intellectuals. The youth, who were the standard bearers of the October Revolution, had been the most heroic fighters in the civil war, and had flung all their energies into the first Five-Year Plans, were now completely disaffected. Discontent manifested itself by an epidemic of hooliganism and drunkenness, reflecting the despair of the most inert layers. The situation of the youth in the Soviet Union up to the recent period constituted an annihilating commentary on the role of Stalinism. After more than three generations, we saw all the signs of demoralisation: drunkenness, lumpenisation, thieving, hooliganism and anti-social behaviour of all kinds.

Of all the barbarous features of tsarism, one of the most retrograde was the fact that half of the state budget was derived from the vodka monopoly. There is, of course, a long history of hard drinking in Russia going back to a surprisingly remote period. In the Chronicle of Bygone Days, written in the twelfth century, Vladimir prince of Kiev, in rejecting Islam in favour of Christianity, is supposed to have said “drink is the joy of the Russian people”. But the role of vodka in Russian life is all too often associated with phenomena that are far from joyful. The excessive consumption of hard alcohol is more a reflection of hopeless demoralisation. The Bolsheviks at first attempted to combat the consumption of vodka. But the state vodka monopoly was reintroduced under Stalin as a useful source of revenue, a measure which was openly in contradiction with the assertion that ‘socialism’ had been built in Russia.

The consumption of alcohol quadrupled in the four decades after the Second World War: one in seven of the population was classified as alcoholic; heavy drinking was starting in the schools; the numbers of babies born with mental and physical defects increased – which was drink related. In 1985 Izvestia reported that as many as 27 million workers had serious problems with alcohol. They were so drunk, or ill from drinking, that at least two days a week they did not show up for work. An investigation into 800 Moscow factories found that in the last hour of each shift, only 10 per cent of workers were still at their job.

Gorbachev ordered a crackdown. In 1986, nine out of ten vodka shops in the capital were closed and alcohol consumption initially fell by 40 per cent. However, in the absence of a genuine regime of workers’ democracy, even measures that in themselves might have been correct, had the opposite result to what was intended. The attempt to curb the consumption of alcohol actually did result in an improvement of health, but it proved a two-edged sword, leading to a collapse in the state’s revenues. There was a 30 per cent drop in taxes in 1985. Nor did this measure totally remove the scourge of alcoholism, an evil rooted in the conditions of a bureaucratic totalitarian regime, which provoked increasing frustration and alienation in broad layers of society. In these years, the Soviet press was full of cases of people who had been made ill by consuming cologne. The number of arrests for illicit distilling doubled in 1987 compared with the year before, to reach 440,000. By 1988, the illicit stills were producing 40 to 50 per cent more spirits than the state plants. There were reports of pilots stealing alcohol-based fuel and anti-freeze to use as drink. This was a clear indication of demoralisation and despair on a massive scale.

The weight of the repressive regime bore down hardest on the youth, who displayed an open cynicism and frustration at the totalitarian rule of the so-called Communist Party. The Soviet Weekly (8/11/90) published a poll which claimed that only 14 per cent of young people in the USSR trusted the CPSU. Having had a formalistic parody of Marxism-Leninism rammed down their throats at school, they reacted against it. Scandalously, the same poll concluded that only 15-20 per cent believed in socialism. The widespread scepticism and disillusionment among people was reflected in political jokes such as “have we reached real communism yet, or is there worse to come?” Of course, these young people had never had access to the real ideas of socialism and Marxism, only a lifeless and mind-numbing caricature. The only ‘socialism’ they ever knew was a totalitarian monstrosity. Given the lack of any alternative, they tried to find a way out through escapism.

An article in the trade union paper Trud presented this phenomenon in an exasperated but semi-jocular tone. But the subject matter is too grim to provide much real humour:

Hair lotion is particularly popular among Moscow alcoholics, but if this is not available, there is Kara Nova eau de cologne, at 65 kopeks a bottle. Avoid at all costs a perfume known as Carmen which makes the customer feel as if his throat has been cut.

Gorbachev’s measures in the end fooled no one. The universal scepticism was reflected in the following anecdote:

A man walks into a shop and asks for a bottle of beer which the day before cost 50 kopeks. The shop assistant charges him one rouble.
“But it was only half that price yesterday.”
“Yes, but you have to pay 100 per cent extra for glasnost.”
The man reluctantly pays the rouble, and is astonished when he is given 50 kopeks change.
“But didn’t you say it cost one rouble?”

“That’s right. The 50 kopeks are for glasnost. We don’t have any beer.”

A gigantic zero

The economic situation was in a mess. Even the niggardly target of 4 per cent had not been met. Since the launching of the new Five-Year Plan in 1986, growth had been about 2 per cent a year. The economist Abel Aganbegyan revealed that economic growth in 1989-90 was practically zero. But per capita income actually declined. This was the death sentence of perestroika. Moreover, participation on world markets had not helped but made things worse. The bureaucracy imagined that participation on the world market would solve their problems. Foreign trade increased in a decade from 4 per cent to 9 per cent of Soviet GDP. For a while it did help them, particularly in the field of technology. But it also gave rise to new contradictions which the narrow-minded empiricists in Moscow had not foreseen. The USSR’s debt to the West, which was only £9 billion in 1983, had now doubled to £18 billion. This was still quite small in proportion to the size of the Soviet economy, but gave an alarming answer to the question “who shall prevail?”

The economic crisis made itself felt in a fall in living standards, queues and food shortages. Out of 1,000 basic goods, only four were consistently available in the shops. This was a result of bureaucratic chaos. There had been a record harvest and plenty of grain and potatoes, but they did not reach the shops. Large amounts of goods were being held back in anticipation of price rises. One million tons of food was rotting in the ports. The trade union paper Trud gave an example of shop shelves which should have been full of fresh fruit and vegetables, but which only contained tins of Bulgarian apricots. This was in spite of increased agricultural production in 1984. Subsequently the situation got worse. According to the Soviet Weekly (8/11/90): “A staggering 70 million people – a quarter of the population are now living on the breadline.”

An article in Pravda on the 18th October 1990 painted an alarming picture of social and economic disintegration:

The situation continues to worsen. Output is falling, economic supply links are being broken. Separatist tendencies are growing stronger. The consumer market is in a shambles. The budget deficit and the state’s credit-worthiness has reached critical levels. Anti-social behaviour and crime have grown. Life is becoming more difficult, incentives to work have weakened, faith in the future is collapsing. The economy is in a highly dangerous condition.

Shortages of food and other goods were endemic. The discontent of the population was fuelled by the realisation that these shortages were artificial – the result of bungling and sabotage. Vodka stolen from the shops was being sold on the black market at inflated prices. There were no cigarettes in the shops but plenty in the factories. Meat was left rotting in the warehouses. Demand was only satisfied by 66 per cent. The moment goods appeared in the shops people bought them up to hoard, thus adding to the shortages. The official press admitted that “over the past four years 13,000 separate items have disappeared from the shelves”. (Soviet Weekly, 1/11/90.)

The anti-alcohol policy broke down and once again there were long queues for vodka. On the 22nd August 1990, the accumulated anger and frustration boiled over. There was a riot in Chelyabinsk provoked by the breakdown of alcohol supplies. When the militia arrived, the crowd attacked them and forced them to withdraw:

The militia then closed shields in the ancient Roman testudo-fashion, but even that handmade fortress could not resist the onslaught of the furious mob. Surrounding the militia on all sides, the hooligans rained cobblestones at the troops from close range. (Ibid.)

The situation in Chelyabinsk was made worse by the scandal that subsequently emerged, involving the local Communist Party – “Public catering inspectors uncovered a secret warehouse full of delicacies at the Communist Party headquarters”. The same article admitted that: “The social and political situation at the time of the vodka riot was typical of that existing in several Soviet cities today.” In other words, the temper of the masses was reaching breaking point, and that any incident could provoke an explosion. It also showed that the masses were beginning to lose their fear of the repressive forces of the state. But in the absence of a serious alternative, a revolutionary party and a programme, the discontent of the masses found no effective outlet.

Faced with the blind alley of the regime, a growing section of the bureaucracy looked for a way out to the West, which was still passing through a temporary and artificial boom. The representatives of the bureaucratic elite had occasion to rub shoulders with millionaires, diplomats and presidents on their ever more frequent visits to the West. They contrasted this glittering spectacle with the picture of impasse and stagnation they had left behind, and the comparison did not appear very flattering. In this way, gradually the idea of the West as a model began to take firm root in a section of the bureaucracy.

This showed the complete ideological bankruptcy of the leaders of the Soviet Union and the CPSU. Shallow impressionists like Gorbachev and Shevardnadze were taken in. Like all bureaucrats, they had picked up bits and pieces of the garbled nonsense which passed for Marxism-Leninism in the USSR in their student days. But real Marxism was for them a closed book. Their complete lack of a class standpoint was shown by Gorbachev’s typically philistine remarks that the capitalists were ‘also human beings’. In other words, one could converse with the Western leaders ‘man to man’ and iron out one’s differences round the fireplace, as if it was all a question of ‘personal chemistry’ and not the irreconcilable differences between two incompatible social systems!

They were not the only ones who had jumped ship. The Bulgarian ‘Communist’ leader Todor Zhivkov admitted in 1990 that he had believed for a long time that socialism was dead and impractical. Jaruzelski, the author of the Stalinist coup, now said that it was all a terrible mistake and apologised to the Polish people! He too suddenly realised that “capitalism was the only way”. Such apostasy was only a logical step for these people. After all, they had broken with socialism in practice a long time before. This had been predicted by Trotsky half a century before, when he wrote that the bureaucracy would not be satisfied with their usurped power and privilege, but would seek to secure their position, and that of their children, by transforming themselves into private capitalists.

At first, Gorbachev attempted to resist the radicals’ demands for a quick movement towards capitalism. Ryzhkov had a similar position, in favour of maintaining the basic core of the economy in state hands but with elements of a market. Gorbachev continually vacillated between the opposing wings of the bureaucracy. In the meantime, the generals were getting increasingly restless about the Union treaty, and the threat to the USSR. Finally, towards the end of 1990, Gorbachev published the outlines of his plan. This was a hopeless mishmash of good intentions and contradictory ideas.

The stabilisation of the currency was to be achieved by a hard currency fund to finance foreign trade. There would be denationalisation, but only of small businesses, and only by degree; price flexibilisation; decentralisation (but maintaining the USSR); and, of course, deregulation of wages. Last but not least, a balanced budget of less than 3 per cent of GDP (this is what the Maastricht conditions stipulate for the EU states, who are finding it all but impossible to meet) through stringent credit controls. His conclusion was typically optimistic – “A balanced economy should emerge, with a market saturated with consumer goods and services”. But it was the optimism of a man walking off the edge of a cliff.

Gorbachev continued to pay lip service to ‘socialism’ and ‘communism’, but his entire conduct indicated that he did not believe a word of it. This was shown by one interview which he gave on British television when he repeated the absurd myth that all would have been well in Russia, if only the February Revolution had succeeded! This shows his complete lack of understanding of either the February or the October Revolution. We have dealt with this question elsewhere, so it is not necessary to expand on it. But what a condemnation when 70 years after October, the General Secretary of the CPSU could repeat such arrant nonsense.

While publicly lionising Gorbachev, Reagan and the other Western leaders must have had a good laugh behind his back. The cold, calculating American politicians and diplomats must have rubbed their eyes in disbelief! This accidental petty bourgeois element was rapidly drawn into the logic of capitulation by these nice human beings, who were intent on throttling the Soviet Union, and bringing it to its knees. To this day, Gorbachev continues to harbour illusions in ‘Western democracy’, or, to be more accurate, in ‘democracy as such’, typical of a middle-class reformist who imagines he can reconcile antagonistic class interests. And as with the latter, the appearance of ‘practical realism’ is only a fig leaf to cover the most pathetic impotence.

In all probability, Gorbachev did not want the restoration of capitalism in Russia, yet he prepared the ground for it and was duly thrown to one side by the faction of the nascent bourgeoisie, led by his protégé Yeltsin, once he got into the saddle. Nevertheless, he is quite prepared to accept the fait accompli of the so-called reform, while impotently whimpering about its ghastly consequences. In this respect, also he is a faithful copy of the Social-Democratic leaders in the West, who are ready to embrace capitalism, but do not like the things which inevitably flow from it.

Yeltsin’s demagogy

We had predicted from the beginning that Gorbachev’s reforms could have a temporary effect for a few years, before running out of steam. It was clear to us that Gorbachev would either do a U-turn back to centralisation and repression, or he might even be removed, as happened with Khrushchev. The fundamental flaw in Gorbachev’s reforms was that economic advance was to be achieved, as in the West, mainly at the expense of the working class, through speed-ups, productivity deals, cuts in subsidies and even factory closures. The abysmal mess in which Soviet political economy found itself was shown by the irony that Gorbachev’s economic advisers tried to ape the Western witch doctors advocating the introduction of elements of market economy at the very moment when the system on a world scale was beginning to break down. Lacking any Marxist understanding, they were impressed by the temporary boom of 1982-90, which, by an accident of history, coincided with the crisis in the USSR.

At this time, there was a section of the bureaucracy which hankered after a return to the ‘good old days’, of capitalism. Disillusioned by the impasse of Stalinism, they were increasingly impressed by the economic boom in the West. At this point, bureaucratic chaos and sabotage had brought about a situation where, according to the official economists, 13 per cent of Soviet factories actually ran at a loss. The reply of elements like the economist Abel Aganbegyan, echoing the Thatcherite monetarists in the West, was to allow thousands of factories to go to the wall! The same people argued that subsidies on food and rent were too costly and should be removed, allowing prices to find their own level. A few years later this advice was carried into practice with devastating results for the Russian people. But, for the time being, Gorbachev was not prepared to go down that road, fearing the reaction of the masses.

Boris Yeltsin, an ambitious apparatchik from Sverdlovsk, tried to make a name for himself as the most outspoken advocate of perestroika. A natural demagogue, with a flair for theatrical gestures, Yeltsin made a point of travelling on public transport and visiting markets. He even took the metro to the Kremlin, dispensing with the services of his official chauffeur and limousine, and protested loudly against bureaucratic privileges. This undoubtedly, at that time, gave him a certain popularity in Moscow, where his demagogic attacks on corruption received a big echo.

Such was the damage done by the suffocating bureaucratic control that, without wholesale corruption and black marketeering (or blat as the Russians call it), the economy would have ground to a halt earlier. This was well-known to the workers, and openly admitted by Gorbachev who stated shortly after becoming leader: “Try to get your flat repaired – you will definitely have to find a moonlighter to do it for you, and he will have to steal the materials from a building site.” (Financial Times, 2/7/86.)

Even in Moscow, it was impossible to get such elementary services as plumbing done without recourse to blat. The same is true of other cities and regions, as was indicated by Yeltsin’s speech to the 1986 Party Congress.

He [Yeltsin] asked why the CC secretariat at the centre of power in the Soviet Union had done nothing about widespread corruption in Uzbekistan and Kirgizia. (Two Central Asian Republics where the entire Party leadership was removed.) “Why?” asked Mr Yeltsin, “were the same problems brought up over five years at Party congresses? Why after so many years have we not succeeded in tearing out of our life the roots of bureaucracy, social injustice and abuses?”… Mr Yeltsin said Moscow, a city of eight million people, had a stagnant economy and inadequate public transport, shopping centres and health care. He blamed this squarely on the city’s previous leaders. (Financial Times, 28/2/86.)

In another aside to the Congress, Yeltsin said:

For a number of years, the whole retail sector has lived through a period of corruption and we are eating the fruits of that today. If we cannot solve the problem of personnel, if we cannot get rid of the dishonest people, and clean up the whole sector we will have shortages, there will be regular artificial deficits. (The Guardian, 29/1/86.)

Yeltsin sacked no less than 40 per cent of the Moscow local Party workers, but that did not help to solve the chaotic situation he described at the Congress, nor did it prevent a large number of those sacked for bribe-taking from being surreptitiously readmitted with other jobs in no time at all. At the same time, Yeltsin’s campaign actually worsened the economic situation in Moscow because corruption and black marketeering were the oil which kept the bureaucratically-run economy working. Even the supply of raw materials to the factories often depended upon black market wheeling and dealing to get around the obstacles of the bureaucratic system.

This experience proved once again that the brick wall which the anti-corruption drive ran into could only be smashed by the complete dismantling of the bureaucratic state and the creation of a workers’ democracy. That meant a political revolution. And rather than contemplate such a thing, Yeltsin and his cronies preferred to move towards capitalism. However, Yeltsin’s ‘populist’ measures offended the conservative section of the bureaucracy who feared that glasnost was getting out of hand. The sacking of Yeltsin in November 1987 was a clear indication that the Gorbachev reforms were running into difficulties.

Yeltsin demagogically pretended to stand for equality as a means of boosting his popularity. But what happened afterwards? At the present time, this gentleman and his friends have looted the Russian state. Under the reign of this ‘egalitarian’, seven fabulously wealthy gangsters own and control half the country, while tens of millions of Russians live in poverty and wages are not paid for months on end. Some equality! In fact, the inequality in present-day Russia is greater, not only than before, but it is far greater than the developed capitalist countries. It is much more similar to the state of affairs that existed in the ‘crony capitalist’ regime of Marcos in the Philippines than in the genteel capitalist regimes of Western Europe, America or Japan. This fact is not lost on the working class, which is drawing its own conclusions. And let no one forget how the Marcos regime ended up.

Illusions in Gorbachev

It was incredible how many on the Left were taken in by Gorbachev. Not just the right and left reformists, but even some self-styled ‘Trotskyists’ fell over themselves in their haste to pay tribute to this ‘great reformer and statesman’. These people were incapable of differentiating between shadow and substance. In reality, Gorbachev stood for the interests of the ruling caste. True, his image was different from that of the old Stalinist leaders. But the difference was more of style than content.

Gorbachev was an articulate, educated and well-travelled bureaucrat, quite unlike the coarse, narrow and ignorant upstarts of Stalin’s day. He realised the impasse in which the bureaucratic system found itself. Without the participation and enthusiasm of the masses, nothing can be done. Even under capitalism that is the case. Most big factories would grind to a halt if the workers did not apply their intelligence and initiative, sometimes bending the rules to keep the machinery running. Hundreds of millions of pounds are made out of the ‘suggestions boxes’ in Britain every year. That shows the enormous potential for a system based on workers’ control and management, which would give full reign to the workers’ creativity, intelligence and initiative.

There were many who nurtured illusions that the Russian bureaucracy could reform itself. One such was Roy Medvedev, a capable historian who, although he displayed great personal courage in standing up to the regime, failed to develop a really consistent Marxist analysis and fell into a trap. Roy Medvedev represented a ‘left’ wing of the bureaucracy. He wanted the regime to reform itself in a strictly legal and constitutional fashion.

As for ways and means of political struggle they must be absolutely legal and constitutional, there are certain extreme groups that believe in the use of illegal methods including for example the organisation of underground printing presses. (Medvedev, On Socialist Democracy, p. 314.)

He then quotes one of his opponents who evidently had a correct appraisal of the bureaucracy:

You believe that the leadership would support a certain degree of democratisation, but this would amount to the leadership liquidating itself and the whole of political history confirms the unreality of such an expectation. No government withdraws of its own free will. Your ideas are harmful as they create illusions about the ease with which your proposed programme of reforms might be realised. You suggest that because of a change in social and political conditions, fresh forces will become part of the ‘apparat’ and transform its bureaucratic style. But this only encourages the false idea of an automatic and spontaneous process – in reality these fresh forces will undoubtedly encounter fierce resistance. (Ibid., p. 313.)

Again, Medvedev gives the game away again by saying:

Overhasty reform can also cause problems with the Socialist bloc (as the experience of Czechoslovakia has shown.) (Ibid., p. 314.)

Clearly, any movement of the working class to throw off the yoke of the bureaucracy would ‘cause problems’. But to imagine that the ruling caste would give up without a fight was just wishful thinking.

Another example was Isaac Deutscher. His name is frequently linked to Trotsky’s on the strength of his three-volume biography of the great revolutionary. But politically, the two could not be further apart. In fact, in his political biography of Stalin, Deutscher attempts to glorify Stalin’s role. Rather than being portrayed as the leader of the counter-revolutionary bureaucracy, he is built up as some kind of great misunderstood revolutionary:

Stalin has been both the leader and exploiter of a tragic, self-contradictory but creative revolution. Like Cromwell he embodies the continuity of the revolution through all its phases and metamorphoses, although his role was less prominent in the first phase. Like Robespierre he has bled white his own party; and like Napoleon he has built his half-conservative and half-revolutionary empire and carried revolution beyond the frontiers of his country… But in order to save it (‘the better parts of Stalin’s work’) for the future and to give it its full value, history may yet have to cleanse and reshape Stalin’s work as sternly as it once cleansed and reshaped the work of the English revolution after Cromwell and of the French after Napoleon. (I. Deutscher, Stalin: a political biography, pp. 569-70.)

Deutscher never understood Trotsky or his great contribution to Marxism – his analysis of Stalinism. What is correct in Deutscher’s trilogy on Trotsky he borrowed from Trotsky, but his attempts at theorising are of no value whatsoever. He dismisses Trotsky’s “fiasco with the Fourth International” and “his fumblings about reform and revolution in the USSR” as mere flights of fancy. (Ibid., p. 513.) In reality, without an understanding of Trotsky’s ideas on Stalinism, it is impossible to grasp what is taking place in the former Soviet Union today. Far from being mere “fumblings”, his ideas have been entirely borne out by events. The same cannot be said of Isaac Deutscher’s own prognosis.

After Stalin’s death, Deutscher hailed the so-called de-Stalinisation of Khrushchev as a great step forward. Here is Deutscher’s conclusion in his third volume of his biography of Trotsky:

It is clear that even under Stalinism Soviet society was achieving immense progress in many fields, and that the progress, inseparable from its nationalised and planned economy, was disrupting and eroding Stalinism from inside. In Trotsky’s time, it was too early to try to draw a balance of this development – his attempts to do so were not faultless; and the balance is not yet quite clear, even a quarter of a century later. But it is evident that Soviet society has been striving, not without success, to rid itself of the heavy liabilities, and to develop the great assets, it has inherited from the Stalin era. There has been far less poverty in the Soviet Union, far less inequality and far less oppression in the early 1960s than in the 1930s or the early 1950s. The contrast is so striking that it is an anachronism to speak of the ‘new totalitarian slavery established by the bureaucratic collectivism’… It is still a matter of argument whether the Soviet bureaucracy is ‘a new class’ and whether reform or revolution is needed to bring its arbitrary rule to an end. What is beyond question is that the reforms of the first post-Stalin decade, however inadequate and self-contradictory, have greatly mitigated and limited bureaucratic despotism and that fresh currents of popular aspirations are working to transform Soviet society further and more radically. (Deutscher, The Prophet Outcast, pp. 511-2.)

All along, Deutscher had the illusion that the bureaucracy could ‘de-bureaucratise itself’, and introduce socialism. This was fundamentally false. No ruling class or caste in history has given away its power and privileges without a struggle. Trotsky was a thousand times more correct when he predicted that the bureaucracy would turn to capitalism as a means of reinforcing its privileges, rather than hand power to the working class. This was even more the case in the context of the temporary economic boom in the West which coincided with Gorbachev’s reforms.

Deutscher’s central thesis was entirely formalistic and un-Marxist in character. If the bureaucracy arose out of Russian backwardness, he reasoned, then as society advanced to a higher economic and cultural level, it ought to disappear painlessly of its own accord. This overlooks the basic class contradictions in society. In any class society, once the state arises, it acquires a momentum and a life of its own. The whole of history demonstrates precisely the opposite of Deutscher’s thesis. At a critical moment, when the productive forces have outgrown the existing property relations, the ruling class and its state by no means reconcile themselves to the logic of historical progress. They fight to maintain their power and privileges, even when these are in flagrant contradiction to the demands of progress. The capitalist system has long been a brake upon the development of the productive forces, which does not at all mean that the capitalist class will voluntary surrender to the proletariat!

The development of the productive forces does not automatically determine the nature of the state. If that was so, revolution would be unnecessary, and not just in Russia. The whole of human history would be a smooth, gradual evolution in the direction of progress – something that every schoolboy knows is not the case. The inevitability of revolution arises precisely from the fact that no ruling class or caste ever surrenders in this way. The Russian bureaucracy is no exception, particularly after Stalin had exterminated the representatives of October. The way in which the bureaucracy established its power – wading through a sea of blood in the Purges – was an indication that this ruling caste would stop at nothing to maintain itself in power. As Trotsky put it:

No devil ever yet voluntarily cut off his own claws. The Soviet bureaucracy will not give up its positions without a fight. The development leads obviously to the road of revolution. (Trotsky, The Revolution Betrayed, p. 287.)

Deutscher’s entire line of argument was entirely in the tradition of Menshevism. It reflects the same logic as reformism, which seeks to show that revolution in general is an unnecessary inconvenience. His brand of ‘realism’ was, in effect a crude empiricism with no understanding of history whatever. It is the same kind of mentality which leads the Social-Democratic leaders in the West to abandon socialism and finally go over to the market economy, that is, from reforms to counter-reforms. Thus, this alleged realism turns out to be the worst kind of utopia.

Deutscher’s vision of a self-reforming bureaucracy provided a comforting hope for the radical ‘Friends’ of the Soviet Union, the dream of a painless transition to socialism. In reality, this was impossible without a mass movement of the working class. Success or failure depended not on the wishes and good will of the bureaucracy, but exclusively on the willingness of the working class to fight for their emancipation. The experience of Hungary shows how a mass revolutionary movement of the working class could split the bureaucracy and win over large numbers to the side of the political revolution. By contrast, the so-called reforms of Gorbachev, which aimed to prevent a revolution from below and preserve the rule of the bureaucracy, merely prepared the ground for the going over of a big section of the bureaucracy to capitalism, rather than accept the abolition of their privileges. Nowadays, Deutscher’s theories do not even have an historical interest. In all fairness, it is necessary to add that Isaac Deutscher’s widow, Tamara Deutscher, in a BBC television programme shortly before she died had the courage to admit publicly that Trotsky had been correct all along on this question.

Looking back on this period, it was incredible how anyone with the most elementary knowledge of Russian history, let alone Marxism, could have entertained the slightest illusion in Gorbachev and his policies. Yet we had so-called Marxists praising Gorbachev, and even travelling to Moscow to witness the strange spectacle of the bureaucracy ‘abolishing itself’! Of course, the advocates of the theory of state capitalism, were unimpressed, since, as far as they were concerned, capitalism already existed in Russia. What was all the fuss about?

When every other tendency was praising Gorbachev as the great Saviour, we alone pointed out that his reforms were bound to fail, and characterised him as an accidental petty bourgeois figure, doomed to be swept away. Admittedly, we thought that this would come as a result of political revolution and not a movement in the direction of capitalism which, at that stage, we erroneously considered to be ruled out. The only way to solve the problem was to reintroduce a Leninist regime of workers’ control and management, which would easily have been possible on the basis of a developed economy that now existed in Russia. But that was the last thing Gorbachev had in mind! Instead of improving things, Gorbachev’s reforms introduced a further element of destabilisation, hastening the dissolution of the system. Only two alternatives were possible. In the abs ence of a movement of the working class in the direction of a political revolution, the balance tilted sharply in the direction of a move towards capitalism.


[1] An untranslatable Russian word, originally derived from thieves’ slang, in Soviet parlance it signified the use of personal connections to obtain illicit gains.

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