Reply to Question on Reform & Bureaucratic Power

Against the Current, No. 10, September/October 1987

Michael Löwy

FIRST, I’M HAPPY that Justin Schwartz took a two-year subscription to Against the Current and hope many other Marxist scholars will follow his example.

In answer to his friendly criticism I would like to offer a few remarks. I entirely agree that my phrase-“reform of the bureaucratic state is an impossibility”-is wrong. It is obviously an overstatement that does not correspond to historical reality: there have been several reforms of the bureaucratic system, from Khrushchev to Gorbachev, as well as in other post-capitalist societies (Yugoslavia, Hungary, etc.)

But I would argue that none of these reforms changed the basic structure of the system: the monopoly of power in the hands of the bureaucratic layer. And I still would argue, as I wrote in my article, that there is a structural incompatibility between this kind of state (the so-called “actually existing socialism”) and workers’ democracy or independent… social movements; and that only a genuine anti­bureaucratic revolution “from below” will be able to replace this system by real socialist self-management.

Now, more concretely, what about the present reformist attempts by Deng and Gorbachev? I must say that I do not share Justin Schwartz’s optimism in relation to the new course in China. The economic reforms introduced by Deng are a mixed blessing (more economic efficiency but also growing social inequalities) and his political reforms are extremely modest — even compared to Soviet or East European standards.

There is no real freedom of expression. Oppositionists are still being jailed and independent social movements (like the students a few months ago) are slandered as “counterrevolutionary” and are repressed.

More interesting are the developments in the Soviet Union. I agree with Schwartz that reforms being introduced (or proposed) by Gorbachev are indeed significant and a welcome change after twenty years of immobility. But as Schwartz himself recognizes, it is too early to say if his program will bring about fundamental, emancipatory change.

The economic innovations are so far modest “market reforms,” with rather ambiguous consequences for the workers: intensification of labor, danger of unemployment, higher prices for food, etc. The experiences in workers electing managers are only local and limited. In any case, the Yugoslav example shows that workers’ participation in factory management can go along well with the persistence of bureaucratic dictatorship on the political (and therefore the macro-economic) level. On the political level, I would rather agree with Ernest Mandel’s skeptical assessment: if Gorbachev “speaks more and more of a veritable ‘revolution’ being necessary, it is to save the bureaucratic system, not because he wants to overthrow it.” (E. Mandel, “Gorbachev’s Dilemmas,” International Viewpoint, no. 114, February 23, 1987.)

Of course, Gorbachev’s proposition to hold competitive elections for the party posts is a positive change, but one cannot forget that in the same report at the Central Committee meeting in January 1987 he energetically defended the one-party system, insisted on the necessarily leading role of “the party” and praised the KGB as an institution.

Schwartz recalls that he released ten percent of the remaining political prisoners. That is an excellent initiative but — what about the other ninety percent? This figure gives us an almost mathematical assessment of how limited the reform has been. After all, Jaruszelski in Poland, who is not precisely the model of a socialist democrat, was able to release (for the moment, at least) all the political prisoners?

Gorbachev has often been compared to Khrushchev and indeed there are similarities between their attempts to reform the system. But there is one area in which the new leader of the Soviet Union is still behind his predecessor-in the attempt to deal with the crimes and horrors of the Stalinist past. The only reference to it in his January 1987 speech is rather ludicrous: ‘The circumstances that we are aware of … [in the course of which] authoritative evaluations and judgments become unquestionable truths that needed only to be commented upon.” What about the millions of deported and killed, the purge of a whole generation of communists?

Fyodor Burlatsky, political commentator in Literaturnaya Gazeta, who is considered a reformist and close to Gorbachev, was recently asked by Monty Johnstone (in an interview for Marxism Today, published in February 1987) about the eventual rehabilitation of the victims of the Moscow Trials. The answer was that this is “a big question, a difficult question,” and that hopefully there will be an answer in a “not too distant future.” True, this answer is better than the one you would have gotten ten years ago from Brezhnev, but it is a far cry from the officially proclaimed glasnost.

In the above mentioned interview Burlatsky was asked if it would be possible for a group of citizens-for instance, like the Greens in Germany — to associate in order to present their views. His answer was not very encouraging: “Such things do not belong to our traditions.”

This takes us to the key issue-reform from above is limited, in the post­capitalist bureaucratic systems, by the refusal to accept independent social or political activity-the elementary precondition for socialist democracy.

Zhores Medvedev, a Soviet oppositionist known for his socialist convictions and his sympathy for reform, has said in a recent interview in a French Marxist journal: “Gorbachev’s speech at the Plenum was good ….but the fundamental issue lies elsewhere: without democratic institutions, without independent unions, without the right of association, etc. there can be no development of democracy. None of these are in Gorbachev’s program.” (Z. Medvedev, M, No. 10, avril 1987, p. 22).

Having said all this, I certainly agree with Justin Schwartz’s concluding sentence: What starts as a reform, or a “revolution from above,” may not end up that way. The most important aspect of the reforms that are being introduced by Gorbachev and the present Soviet leadership is that they may lead to mobilization from below. Only an independent (that is, not controlled by the state) social movement by the Soviet people themselves — by the workers, peasants, women, youth, students, intellectuals and national minorities-can produce a revolutionary break with the bureaucratic system and open the way for a democratic socialist development of the Soviet society.

September-October 1987, ATC 10

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