Against the Current, No. 24, January/February 1990
IT IS NOW close to five years since Gorbachev came to power. Yet only now is it possible to begin to understand the logic of Soviet disintegration and the regime’s response to it.
Gorbachev’s strategy is one of pragmatic movement in the most successful direction politically and economically. In other words, he began with no pre-determined direction, other than one of saving the elite. He has said, very explicitly, that the integrity of the USSR is not in question, that reforms must proceed gradually to avoid disruption, and that there can be only one political party.
He has never at any stage criticized privilege, unlike Boris Yeltsin, who has virtually made it his platform. He favors higher prices, greater differentiation of incomes, workers working harder and managers managing better. He stands for pluralism of opinions among the intelligentsia. No one has proposed genuine trade unions or working-class clubs. It is too dangerous.
This brief recital of Gorbachev’s views shows him to be elitist but to have no real strategy. It could be argued that he wants to go to the market. That it is true but it is little more than a truism today, since it is not possible to reach it without provoking widespread revolt.
The question is not whether Gorbachev is for the market. He is; but then the Soviet elite in the most profound sense have always wanted the market. The question is what method they will adopt to move toward it. It now appears that the regime is evolving a viable way of marketizing the Soviet economy and becoming capitalist.
Gorbachev’s Economic Strategy
The evolution of the Soviet economy towards capitalism cannot proceed by any direct method. In the first four years, 1985-1989, various ploys were tried which might have led to the full introduction of the market. But the danger was too great. To reduce the standard of living of a substantial part of the population and make them work harder at the same time is not a =for mass support. That, however, is what the market is about in the context of the USSR.
In the USSR, there are proponents of social democracy (Le. welfare capitalism), such as Abalkin, and others like Shmelyev, who are obviously closer to monetarism. All would publicly deny that they want anything other than socialism. It is quite clear, however, that they regard the present system as dead and look to the Western alternative. At the same time, none of them have actually come up with viable political solutions. Shmelyev wants unemployment to control the workers but does not explain how he could introduce unemployment and maintain political stability.
The real initial strategy of the regime was to absorb the intelligentsia and buy off a section of the skilled workers. They have successfully incorporated the intelligentsia, but not much more. And even the intelligentsia is a fickle ally. If it does not obtain a higher standard of living in a short time, it will (and indeed has begun to) turn against the elite.
The initial euphoria has given way to apprehension. The protests over the election to the Standing Body of the Supreme Soviet and the cross- questioning of Gorbachev and his deputy in the “electoral college” of the Supreme Soviet are only the most open expression of the current discontent of the intelligentsia.
The discussions of that electoral college were often bitter Both Gavril Popov, editor of Voprosy Ekonomiki, the premier economics journal, and former dean of economics at Moscow University as well as Zaslavskaya, the well-known sociologist, were highly critical of the proceedings. These two representatives of the intelligentsia have been theoreticians of perestroika and their vocal protests can only mean that the intelligentsia is losing patience with the lack of movement.
Effectively the intelligentsia wants to enter the elite itself and that is the hope being offered them. Since it is quite obvious that 18 million persons cannot enter elite of one third that figure, the majority of the intelligentsia is bound to be disappointed. Even if the women are excluded the numbers are too many for complete inclusion, although the elite could, of course, share its privileges among a larger number of persons.
One of the main demands separating the legal opposition around Yeltsin from the official elite is the question of privilege. It was discussed before the 27th Party Congress and Yeltsin raised the issue again at the 19th Party conference. These were obviously only the open forms of protest against privilege.
The forms of bureaucratic privilege are an open sore. Though hidden from view, privilege is a feature of Soviet society known to all. It directly contradicts the apparent ethics of the society and hence has to be denied, as indeed Gorbachev’s opponent Ligachev and others have done.
It is again clear to any sensible member of the elite that the anger and indeed rage in the society against privilege needs to be addressed first before any real reforms become possible. There can be little meaning to democracy and talk of equality as long as the ruling group remains so obviously bureaucratically privileged.
The opposition to privilege, however, is largely of a market form, which amounts to the acceptance of market or money privilege rather than bureaucratic privilege. For the intelligentsia, the market would give them higher pay at the expense of the less powerful or efficient members of the elite. In effect, they would share privilege, but through money. They want the market, not because they have any ideological understanding of either socialism or capitalism but because it suits their particular stratum of the society. Thus the slogan of the intelligentsia is against bureaucratic privilege but for a better deal for the intelligentsia in the market.
The Soviet elite are well aware of its actions and hope to draw in sections of the skilled workers in the same way. Hitherto, the doctors, teachers, scientific workers and factory intelligentsia have all had their salaries raised under Gorbachev. He has stressed ad infinitum the importance of increased differentiation of incomes, which means that the managerial group, engineers and skilled workers will get more—though less than their superior group—and ordinary workers will get less.
What, then, is the strategy to introduce a market which would buttress the position of the major section of the elite and so convert them into a class? In fact, the standard of living may well have fallen over the Gorbachev period, if we are to believe Abalkin, the Head of the Institute of Economics in Moscow, which has exacerbated tensions rather than the reverse.
An immediate solution to the problem is therefore essential. The tactic being employed has two aspects. Firstly, wages have been raised and consumer goods production stepped up. Secondly, elections and discussions about elections and congresses as well as reforms have been provided for the intelligentsia. But these measures can have only a temporary effect.
The regime tried to raise prices but discovered that it was politically impossible. While they are naturally being encouraged by the Western economists to raise prices, the Soviet economists agree with the recipes and ignore them, since raising prices can only be described as politically naive at best and idiotic at worst.
If prices cannot be raised, then money is not money and value does not exist in the USSR. As a result, all talk of the use of profits or economic independence remains idle. Volume remains the crucial economic indicator.
The alternative economic strategy for muddling through the next five years involves something of a pincer movement toward the market. In the first phase, the cooperative movement is being encouraged. This includes various forms of services, restaurants, even cases of publishing and the provision of spare parts. Given the scarcity of provision for spare parts and services in general, the scope is unlimited. The cooperative supply of food is clearly being expanded and will continue to do so as agriculture becomes private.
The conversion of the collective farms into holding operations for family farms is now being proposed and introduced. In principle, the proposals put forward by Gorbachev amount to the privatization of agriculture. If there is any area where the USSR could expand production quickly, it is in food supply. The correct Soviet perception that it is food which is the crucial determinant of public attitudes and hence of working class willingness to accept changes—which are against their interests—has led to an emphasis on solving agricultural problems first.
The third part of the economy to be brought closer to value is foreign trade. The increasing relation between foreign sales and purchases brings part of the Soviet economy under the domination of the world market. This part of the economy is closely related to the special economic zones being introduced together with the joint ventures, which are being attempted.
The concessions now being made in this sector of the economy have gone far and no doubt will go the whole way. The right to hire and fire and to take over fifty percent of the equity and manage the firm gives complete control to the foreign firm. Up to now, however, the USSR has not permitted the export of exchangeable rubles or foreign currency unless it is earned in the West.
These three moves to the formation of value in the USSR can achieve, by stealth, what cannot be done directly. It is being done by stealth because neither prices nor work conditions of those in state employment for the home market are being changed.
As the private sector expands and the export market grows, the numbers involved in the old Soviet style economy will decline. In turn, while state prices may stay the same, private prices need not. Already, the state has stepped in to deal with the consequent inflation, but if the process is gradual it can be successful. More services and more consumer goods can be available—at higher prices.
Food can be differentiated between the market sector and the state sector with the difference between then and now being that the market sector will be vastly expanded. For instance, non-staple fruit and vegetables may only be available in the market sector.
Gorbachev’s Strategy Toward the Workers
The regime is playing on differences inside the working class, trying to extend the differentiation between regions, large and small towns, Moscow and the rest of the country, men and women, one nationality and another, white collar and blue collar workers, and skilled and unskilled workers.
The regime is trying in this way to prevent the workers from acting as a class both as a defensive and an offensive measure. Hitherto the regime has successfully prevented the emergence of the workers as a class through a different mode of control. To understand how and why it is necessary to understand that mode of control in the USSR and its disintegration. It will then be possible to understand the possibility of the regime achieving its goal in the USSR.
The fundamental form of control over the working class has been one of atomization, which involves a dialectical interplay of coercion and individualization.
On the one hand there are no genuine trade unions or independent means of expression for the workers, who all must carry labor books—internal passports which restrict movement—and the KGB is present in every institution. On the other hand, the individual worker—who has no means of acting collectively—regards individually through controlling her or his own work process. She or he is able to work slowly and ignore quality control.
This relative control over the work process established the negative and blocking power of the workers in the Soviet system. Workers cannot control the surplus product which the enterprise management and elite appropriate and direct, but they can limit that surplus product and so alter it that the elite, ultimately, can only be said to have a limited control over the surplus product itself.
Examples of the poor quality of Soviet products are legion. Shoes are a classic case: they may wear out quickly, be outdated in design and indeed ugly, fit poorly and only be produced in a few sizes. In producer goods, the usual example is that of nails. The factory may only produce large numbers of very small nails or one large nail. The nails themselves will no doubt rust quickly, have tiny heads, bend very quickly when tapped, etc.
The point, however, is that the worker is not interested in producing anything which is not easily reproduced on a well-worn pattern. Anything new, whether a product or a technique, disrupts established patterns of work. Workers do not care about the final user, but only about their respective work patterns.
This constitutes a necessary defense for workers, given conditions where they have no other means of dealing with the exploitation and indeed the brutality of the system. Hence management complies with demands from above to organize production more efficiently, but only through formal means; it cannot compel workers to perform differently.
Put differently, the defeat of the October Revolution by Stalin and the new bureaucratic elite did not imply the formation of a new class controlling the surplus product. The USSR is neither socialist nor capitalist; its ruling group as a result is neither fish nor fowl. Its dynamic is either that of change back to capitalism or ongoing stagnation.
Gorbachev and his men have already downgraded the claims to growth over the past sixty years and even declared that there was none during the Brezhnev years. Economists have declared that the USSR—uniquely—can have an increase in investment and a consequent decrease in production!
In this context, the real question is not why the Soviet economy is stagnant, but rather how it ever grew at all. The answer lies in its large labor supply from the countryside and the elite’s ability—because of nationalized property—to direct that labor pool. But once the advantages accruing from that control cease—as they now have—the underlying stagnation of the regime was bound to reveal itself.
Labor today is largely urbanized, specific to the skill and factory and increasingly organized, even if only in spontaneous ways. Hence the center cannot direct labor in the old way, both because there is no flow of labor coming into the labor force and because the existing labor resists efforts to direct it The socialization of labor, that is, has reached the point where the centralization of labor is counterproductive.
On the other hand, labor remains atomized—even if it is now more powerful than it has been since Stalinism gained sway in the USSR. As a result, the regime has the worst of all possible worlds: workers who are both performing badly in production and resisting any change or improvement Management under these conditions opts for the path of least resistance, bargaining with the workers to get some result rather than none at all.
There are only two ways out for the regime. One is to move toward socialism and genuine democracy. It constantly makes genuflections in this direction by talking of democracy and popular control. The other is to move toward the market and control the workers through wage labor and unemployment, operating through an enterprise based on profit.
No ruling group ever surrenders the reins voluntarily; hence the Soviet regime can only proceed through the second of these options, introducing the market gradually while masking the real worsening conditions for the majority by providing the workers with some of the consumer goods which they are demanding.
There are those who argue that the bureaucratic forms are worse than the market and that therefore the workers will be better off under a market. But while long lines are both time-wasting and corrupting, at least the worse paid and underprivileged have access to consumer goods otherwise unobtainable. And while it is true that privileges in the USSR are exclusive to the elite, they are also limited by their patent illegitimacy.
There can be no argument in favor of the status quo, but it must be understood that the market will almost certainly worsen conditions for most Soviet workers. It might be the case that their children would enjoy the fruits of their suffering, but the last 70 years of the USSR have been ones where every generation has been asked to sacrifice for their children and never seen the results.
In any case, it is clear that there is an alternative, the socialist one. This would include the extension of democracy to include workers’ control over management, at both the enterprise level and nationally. Its potential leaves the regime twisting and turning—through its various cosmetic changes and concessions of real democracy to the intelligentsia—to avoid going down that path.
Despite Gorbachev’s economic failures, these concessions to the intelligentsia have won him broad support and staved off an imminent crisis. Though he cannot proceed with anything more than gradual economic reforms, and then with only limited success, he has saved the elite by opening up discussion.
Nonetheless, the workers have only been given more and more promises. They have seen no improvement in their standard of living. They have not even been given a few elementary concessions at the level of the shop floor, but instead have been constantly threatened with new and more effective sanctions.
It is quite clear why the elite cannot make even the poor gesture of civil rights for workers. Were they to do so, they would quickly be swept away in the ensuing torrent of working class demands. Instead, they will buy a few more years with the anti-Stalin campaign and the gradual move toward the market.
It might be asked why they needed to do anything given their enormous power over the working class. The answer lies in the nature of the contradictions of the system. Because Soviet workers cannot find a direct outlet for their opposition—and because they alienate their labor power rather than selling it—they have tended to act spontaneously and in an atomized form. Hence the contradictions of the system manifest themselves through its gradual disintegration rather than through an open crisis of social relations.
A contradiction consists of the movement and interpenetration of opposites in an entity. In the case of the USSR, the opposition is between an organized ruling group and atomized labor, neither of which is able to assert their control. Meanwhile, the different parts of the system are puffing apart Consumption stands opposed to production. In a capitalist society production cannot always be bought. But in the USSR, it can be acquired; the trouble starts when it is used.
Apparent use value stands opposed to real use value. As a result, each unit stands individualized in its needs, opposed to its customers and suppliers. Labor pulls away from management and the society begins to fall apart.
The most obvious manifestation of this disintegration—republican nationalism—is only a symptom of the underlying disintegration of the entire system. As each unit stands increasingly alone, the regions, and particularly the republics, necessarily show their independence. In fact, the very tight centralized control of the system is only present to hold the tendencies to disintegration in check.
Gorbachev’s Political Strategy
This is the situation facing the Gorbachev group. Its real political response has been classically Stalinist in method. They have embarked on a massive political campaign from above to convince the population that everything hitherto had been wrong but that they would put things right To this end, they were eliminating all the bad leaders.
At the same time, this campaign has been effective in ensuring the stability of the new governing group of the elite. All those associated first with Brezhnev and then with support for Stalin have either been eliminated or been so tainted that they have had to adapt to the new group.
This, in principle, has been the attitude of all the new leaders since Stalin. Stalin pioneered the method, of course, by accusing the old Bolsheviks of being responsible for numerous acts of sabotage, betrayal, etc. The contemporary leaders cannot do that, because no one will believe it On the other hand, they have a genuine accusation to hand: that Stalin and his supporters were mass murderers and indeed directly responsible for the atomization of the population.
No one should be under any illusion that the rehabilitations and discoveries of Stalin’s crimes are occurring as a consequence of the leadership’s drive to finally uncover the truth. On the contrary, the campaign to rehabilitate the victims of Stalin has served two important purposes.
First, it has put the opposition to Gorbachev on the defensive, if not actually in the dock. Second, it has produced a new and false orthodoxy for those years. Various reasons have been produced for continuing to maintain how wrong the Left Opposition was, while Bukharin is promoted as the author of the correct line to the peasants and regarding support for the market.
Gorbachev has indeed succeeded politically precisely because he has touched on the truth: that the USSR is not socialist and that Stalin and Stalinism are the enemies. He has therefore obtained a measure of mass support for change. His program, such as it is, does not have general support except among the intelligentsia, but his constant attacks on the right targets, as well as on the wrong targets—the workers—have roused hopes for a real movement to a better society.
It is this political support rather than the former mode of social control—which nonetheless remains in place—that is now integrating the system. It is true that the secret police continue to play their accustomed role in maintaining the system and indeed have become more central to it, but in a new form. They have been appointed to numerous “civilian” posts over the society, where they can deal with the old forms of corruption and ensure that the new line is enforced. But they continue to imprison those who go beyond the boundaries of what is permissible. Indeed, the Gorbachev regime has promulgated a new version of the law on committing crimes against the state.
Real opposition, therefore, remains illegal. Yet the secret police is now supplemented by political campaigning or so-called forms of democracy which undoubtedly have incorporated sections of the intelligentsia and beyond.
Can Gorbachev Succeed?
The interesting questions are two-fold. How long can the political campaigning and economic liberalization function to prevent the workers acting and fully asserting themselves as a class? Is there logic to reform which cannot be aborted?
It is already clear that the failure to deliver food and consumer goods has made the population more impatient; hence the urgency of the agricultural reform around which the answer to the first question must be made. While that reform will inevitably succeed in producing more food for a period of time, it is more than likely that it will only do so for a short period of time. The age structure of agriculture cannot be altered—however private it is—while the inputs from industry are inevitably going to be of the same low quality.
In industry, even though the workers may be divided for a time between those who are more and less successful, the divisions are not likely to be very deep. The reason lies in the impossibility of going too far with a reform against the working class, given how meager its reward will be.
Only a Soviet type Marshall Plan involving West Germany and the United States can guarantee success for the reforms. That, however, seems to be ruled out by the world economic crisis, the decline of the United States, and the relative dependence of the Europeans on the United States itself, Moreover, such a Marshall Plan would need to involve hundreds rather than tens of billions in order to have the necessary impact.
Will the logic of political openness or glasnost lead to the next step, open discussion of a socialist alternative, with the right of workers to form organizations? Clearly, such a movement would lead directly to the abolition of the elite itself and hence is likely to remain unacceptable.
The Communist Party is being limited in its power and the Supreme Soviet is acquiring real power The intelligentsia has a limited freedom of speech and right to assembly; workers can also have the same as long as they express the views of the elite or intelligentsia. Indeed, in principle, the Communist Party can be abolished without altering the production relations of the society: Control by a privileged elite over the surplus product through the organization of society.
Yet while every attempt is being made to provide democracy and civil rights under the banner of the rule of law for the intelligentsia, even this cannot succeed except for a short time because bureaucratic forms make a rule of law impossible.
Briefly, no one has found a way of codifying the enormous number of rules necessary for a non-market system. Rules, under such conditions, have to be constantly created, enforced, broken and remade. Uncertainty is therefore inevitable.<.p>
Moreover, a full extension of democratic forms to the intelligentsia would eventually open the way to the emergence of a workers’ opposition. While the gradual democratization of the USSR now being introduced has its own logic, the elite also must assure its own continual rule. There is, therefore, no clear path to total reform.
The only logic in this context points toward an inevitable end of the reform process. What will then happen is not at all clear, except that the workers are increasingly mounting the stage of Soviet history. The elite recognize as much, but know as well that they have bought a valuable period of time to either remain in power or find alternatives for themselves as individuals. (April, 1989) Postscript (June, 1989)
The mood of the intelligentsia has now swung from euphoria to pessimism. The regime has bought time, but the limits of civil rights to the intelligentsia are bringing its nemesis in the form of working class negativism. Although workers cannot organize today, they are immensely powerful in potential and they are growing stronger rather than weaker. The disintegration of the economy can only be followed by the disintegration of the society and so of the state. A weakened state will ultimately have to make concessions to the workers, who will reject the tutelage of the intelligentsia and the pseudo-reforms, and demand power That is what the intelligentsia fears and the elite knows will happen.
On the day that the workers of the Soviet Union are able to assert their collectivity, and thus their class nature, on that same day the regime will crumble. Before that day, however, there are years of disintegration and disorder.
© 2020 Against the Current
January-February 1990, ATC 24