This article originally appeared in the Bulletin on July 1, 1988.
The Nineteenth Party Conference of the CPSU convened in Moscow on Tuesday, as 5,000 delegates gathered to discuss the results of Gorbachev’s policies of perestroika. For the past month, the Soviet press has been filled with letters, articles and editorials debating the central committee’s theses prepared especially for this first emergency conference to be held since 1941. The scope of the debates among the different factions of the Stalinist bureaucracy is supposed to lend an air of “democracy” to the proceedings, but as with all political phenomena, the class content of the new policies must be analyzed.
A Marxist analysis of the theses unquestionably reveals that the Stalinist bureaucracy which Gorbachev heads is by no means “raising socialism to a qualitatively new level.” Instead, the 5,000-strong Stalinist elite, and the millions of bureaucrats they represent, are pursuing policies of capitalist restoration which will bring them into a bloody collision with the Soviet working class. There are splits among the bureaucrats as to how to proceed, but neither the faction headed by Gorbachev, nor that headed by Ligachev represents the interests of the working class.
More than 50 years ago, in The Revolution Betrayed, Trotsky explained that the Soviet Union had become a degenerated workers’ state, in which capitalism had been overthrown, but which could advance to socialism only through the extension of the world socialist revolution to the advanced capitalist countries in the West. The bureaucracy which arose as a parasitic caste in the Soviet Union represents the influence of world imperialism on the isolated workers’ state, not the interests of the proletariat. The organic drive of the bureaucracy is to establish new property relations and to serve as the advance guard of capitalist restoration. Either the working class overthrows the bureaucracy through a political revolution, or the bureaucracy will become transformed from privileged managers of state industry into new capitalist proprietors, through a bloody counterrevolution.
For more than 60 years, the Stalinist bureaucracy has proven time and time again to be the gravediggers of revolution, both in the Soviet Union and internationally. This bureaucracy arose in the 1920s due to the defeats of the working class internationally and the isolation of the Soviet Union. Stalin emerged as the spokesman of this bureaucratic caste of state and party functionaries. Starting in 1924, Stalin and Bukharin advocated the building of “socialism in one country,” explicitly attacking Trotsky and the Left Opposition, who defended the theory of permanent revolution and through that the interests of the international proletariat.
Gorbachev and his supporters are the heirs of Stalin, and they are mortally hostile to the working class. As we shall soon see, the bureaucracy’s fundamental hatred for the working class emerges quite clearly in the Theses of the Nineteenth Conference.
We will begin with the tenth and last thesis, dealing with foreign policy, which is most significant for understanding the Stalinist physiognomy of Gorbachev’s perestroika:
“Perestroika in the USSR has become a factor of world significance. While possessing an inner strength of positive influence on the world, it has been in need of a foreign policy which would adequately express its humanistic essence; it has demanded the democratization of our international ties, and another position for our country in the world division of labor....
“At the basis of our foreign policy lies new thinking, which is consistently scientific, and free from historically outmoded stereotypes. It reflects the realities of the modern world—which is many-sided, contradictory, fraught with global threats to the very existence of the human race, and, at the same time, with enormous potential for coexistence, collaboration, and the political resolution of acute problems....
“We will not overlook the militarist danger which is concealed in the very nature of imperialism.... The influence of the realities of the modern world and the possible modifications of a number of objective factors which have engendered wars, allow us to think, however, that the guarantee of security of nations will be increasingly shifted from the sphere of corresponding military potential to the sphere of politics, the primacy of legality, and general human morality in the execution of international obligations....
“Radical economic reform and a new approach to foreign economic ties have yielded the first sprouts of the more effective inclusion of our nation in the world economy.”
Missing from this passage is any hint of the need for socialism on a world scale. Instead, Gorbachev demands a new position in the world division of labor, i.e., a more thorough incorporation of the Soviet Union into the capitalist world economy.
The economic and political basis of the integration of the world’s first workers’ state into the world economy is not described in any detail. But the political logic of such terms as “humanistic essence,” “general human morality” and “new thinking ... free from historically outmoded stereotypes” shows that Gorbachev explicitly rejects any Marxist concept of class struggle. Indeed, for the leading spokesman of Soviet Stalinism, the working class does not exist as a class with its own interests; instead the concept of class is replaced by “general human concerns” which, given the threat of nuclear war, take precedence over the “outmoded” Marxist concept of class struggle. Gorbachev thus emerges as the arch-defender of bourgeois ideology in the working class.
The bourgeois nature of the political conceptions of perestroika emerge clearly in the first thesis, which proclaims that nothing less than “a revolution in consciousness” is taking place in the Soviet Union. Appeals are made for a “real pluralism of opinions,” and the main threat to this process of “ideological renewal” are “dogmatic conceptions about socialism.” While promising the broadest and most democratic dialogue throughout Soviet society, Gorbachev shows that this democratization will not extend to advocates of proletarian internationalism and socialist revolution; the “democracy” which Gorbachev envisions will apply only to those discussing the reactionary set of economic and political reforms which the bureaucracy has advanced.
Moreover, in a world torn by class conflicts, “democracy” does not exist in some pure, abstract form; it must either be bourgeois democracy, which serves the dictatorship of the capitalist class over the working class, or it must be workers’ democracy, serving the dictatorship of the proletariat, based on the abolishment of capitalist property relations and on the direct participation of millions of workers in their own soviets (councils). The soviets of the working class under Lenin and Trotsky, which were the most democratic organs of class rule in human history before they were destroyed by the Stalinist bureaucracy, did not recognize the “democratic” right of the expropriated bourgeoisie to propagate capitalist ideology. It is precisely this form of bourgeois democracy which Gorbachev offers to his own “economic advisers” and supporters of perestroika, who are discussing an array of reactionary measures directed against the working class. The theses also extend the right of assembly and freedom of speech not to workers who want to form their own trade unions or political parties, but to the wide spectrum of petty-bourgeois groups which are beginning to emerge in the Soviet Union, including those with anti-working class and even neofascist ideology, such as Pamiat.
The second thesis begins to describe the material basis for the policies of perestroika. It openly states that the “years of stagnation” (usually referring to 1964-85, i.e., from the ouster of Khrushchev to the ascendancy of Gorbachev) brought the country “to the brink of an economic crisis. The extensive and essentially wasteful system of running the economy completely exhausted itself.... The growth of labor productivity, the increase in the efficiency of production, and the rise in living standards came to a halt. Many social problems were neglected ... and labor discipline weakened.”
When the bureaucracy refers to intensive rather than extensive economic development, it is calling for speedup on the part of the working class, instead of the opening up of more production facilities. Lurking behind these concepts is the threat of unemployment as labor productivity rises, as well as one of the justifications the bureaucracy offers for initiating joint enterprises with Western capitalists: the search for more advanced technology to raise productivity.
Whenever Gorbachev describes the economic crisis, however, the central culprit is centralized planning. Far from being described as one of the greatest historical gains of the working class, it is presented as one of the greatest obstacles to economic growth. Gorbachev therefore flaunts perestroika’s “transition from predominantly administrative to economic methods of leadership.” This is a roundabout way of describing the dumping of centralized planning in favor of subordinating production to the wild fluctuations of the world capitalist market.
Gorbachev further promises that his radical reforms will “emancipate the initiative of worker collectives and the entrepreneurial spirit of the people, inspire people to work with maximum efficiency, assist the eradication of wage-leveling in all its forms, and lay a material foundation for the process of democratization.” These achievements will be secured by the newly passed laws on state enterprises, cooperatives, and individual labor activity.
These laws codify the bureaucracy’s attacks on nationalized property in the Soviet Union. They establish mechanisms through which state funds will be transferred to collectives; private businesses will be set up to compete with and eventually replace the state sector of the economy; workers will be subjected to increased productivity drives and piecework schemes; greater wage differentiation will be introduced to undermine any social cohesion in the working class; and a new entrepreneurial class will arise to provide the bureaucracy with a petty-bourgeois buffer against the working class.
The bureaucracy’s loathing for the working class is expressed vividly in its promise to “eradicate wage leveling in all its forms.” Last year, Nikolai Shmeliov, one of Gorbachev’s closest advisers, was slightly more open than the theses: he denounced “the loudmouths” who are calling for greater equality of wages in the Soviet Union. Now the existence of Soviet millionaires side by side with workers making less than 100 rubles a month is declared by Gorbachev to be a vital socialist principle. This mockery of Marxism is the bureaucracy’s attempt to defend its own disgusting wealth and lavish living standards, while warning the working class that perestroika means greater wage inequality, speedup, increased discipline, and even unemployment, as sections of industry will be shut down under the new khozrashchet (cost-accounting) mechanisms.
To the extent that Gorbachev complains about the failure to meet targets in increased production of consumer items, he expresses the bureaucracy’s inherent fear of the working class. One of the central features of the shift of whole enterprises to the system of cost-accounting and self-financing (in which production of a given factory must be covered by it own revenues) is the impending cancellation of state subsidies of food, transportation, housing and medical care. Such measures will produce a drastic reduction in the living standards of the Soviet workers, inevitably leading to clashes between the working class and the bureaucracy. The lying character of the central committee theses is revealed as they call for the mutually exclusive “reforms of prices and price formation,” i.e., a series of price increases, coupled with the revamping of retail prices “without detriment to the living standards of the population.”
The fourth thesis declares that the objective examination of the economic problems in the Soviet Union has “led to the conclusion that it is necessary to reform the political system of Soviet society.” The primary change which is suggested is the limitation of the length of office to two five-year terms for any party position. A third term may be voted by a three-quarters vote in a secret election. This paltry measure does little but promise to reshuffle the bureaucrats once every 10 years instead of every quarter-century or more. Contrast this to Lenin’s call, in State and Revolution, for every Soviet official to be subject to immediate recall by the workers!
The second major political “reform” is “to return to the Soviets their real plenipotentiary powers, by transferring to them the examination and resolution of all concrete questions, without exception, dealing with state, economic, social and cultural life.” While this is presented as a means of drawing the masses into genuine self-government, it is nothing of the sort. As before, the soviets will be filled with members of the bureaucratic elite. They will not be class organs of the working class, but parliamentary bodies like those set up by Stalin in the 1930s.
What it does promise to do is to accelerate the decentralization of planning by giving greater powers to local soviets “in deciding questions of developing territories, with broad use of cost-accounting, contractual and other methods of relations with enterprises and organizations....” As the monopoly of foreign trade is scrapped, this will lead to the economic Balkanization of the Soviet economy, with local Soviets making their own deals directly with foreign capital, joint enterprises, or various factories and collectives within the Soviet Union. Such steps will rapidly create centrifugal tendencies which will pit factory against factory, region against region, and nationality against nationality.
It is no accident that the very brief thesis on the national question openly states: “Decentralization and the maximum transfer to regions of many governing functions fully corresponds to all the forms of our national rule and autonomy.” In its drive to dismantle centralized economic planning, the Gorbachev bureaucracy will exacerbate the explosive, unresolved national problems which are rooted in the uneven economic development of the different republics. The theses make no mention of the massive upsurge of national movements in Azerbaidzhan, Armenia, and the Baltic states, nor do they offer anything even attempting to resemble a Marxist approach to these national questions.
The eighth thesis promises sweeping judicial reform, with full guarantees of freedom of press, speech, assembly, etc. Here the bureaucracy cynically suggests that it is somehow limiting the repressive powers of the police apparatus which exists primarily to guard its own interests against the working class. The KGB, which is dripping with the blood of millions of workers and Bolsheviks butchered after Stalin consolidated his control of the party, will remain untouched by these empty declarations.
In the ninth thesis, Gorbachev writes, “we must in the near future define the legal basis of the activity of social organizations, voluntary societies and independent organizations.” This section serves as a cover for the introduction of new political organizations such as the People’s Front in Estonia. This and similar organizations have been hailed as ways to pressure the “conservatives” among the Stalinists. In actual fact, they will become the vehicles for the introduction of new political parties with full-fledged bourgeois policies. In other words, the bureaucracy is eager to eliminate any working class identity at all in the Soviet Union, hoping to besiege the workers with newly legalized political formations to carry out the restoration of bourgeois property forms.
What the theses reveal as a whole is a bureaucracy that is pushing ahead rapidly to dismantle the centralized planned economy and finding new property forms on the road to restoring bourgeois production relations. Gorbachev appeals to the most consciously middle class elements, to the peasant wanting his own farm, to the small entrepreneur wishing to own his own business, to the various middlemen wishing to mediate between a privatized basic industry and the capitalist world market.
The major obstacle to perestroika is the millions of Soviet workers who have no desire to see the reintroduction of capitalism in the Soviet Union. The irreconcilability of these two basic social forces, the bureaucracy and the working class, compels the bureaucracy to convene its emergency conference to work out its counterrevolutionary policies. The task of destroying the bureaucracy and advancing towards socialism lies with the Soviet workers and its class allies around the world, organized by the International Committee of the Fourth International.