Back in the USSR, Part I

Against the Current No. 22, September/October 1989

Susan Weissman

I RECENTLY WENT to Moscow on a delegation representing the families of Leon Trotsky and Victor Serge. Trotsky’s grandson Vsevolod Volkow did not accompany us, but Victor Serge’s son Vlady Kibalchich, himself a victim of Stalinist repression, was part of the delegation. We carried a letter from Trotsky’s grandchild and great-grandchildren to the Soviet leadership calling for the exoneration of Leon Trotsky and the publication of his works in the Soviet Union. We also carried the petition of the Moscow Trials Campaign Committee.

My specific purpose was to continue the search for four manuscripts written by Serge and confiscated by the CPU upon his expulsion from the USSR in 1936.(1) I did not return with the manuscripts, nor had I expected to find them so easily, but I was able to generate interest in Serge, whose revolutionary novel of the purges, The Case of Comrade Tulayev was just serialized in the provincial literary journal, Ural, and traces the history of the stolen manuscripts with a little more precision.

We were fortunate to be in Moscow during the election campaign and to participate in the pre-founding Congress of the Narodny (People’s) Front.

Three years ago our trip would have been inconceivable. Four Americans and one Soviet/Mexican traveling to Moscow, with enormously heavy suitcases laden with Russian copies of the Bulletin of the Left Opposition, Trotsky’s writings, Serge’s Memoirs and novels, the journals Across Frontiers, Against the Current, Critique and Socialist Action, not to mention a letter from actual members of Trotsky’s family—and not only bringing this literature to the Soviet Union, but openly talking about rehabilitating Serge, and that “arch-demon and lubricous viper, agent of the Okhrana, Japanese imperialism, and the gestapo,” Leon Trotsky! We wouldn’t have been able to get the literature in, and people would have run from us at the mention of our mission.

Instead we found mostly open doors and avid interest, from the intellectual, official-political and activist communities, and from major glasnost-flagship press organs such as Moscow News and Komsomolskaya Pravda. So what has changed in the USSR to have allowed supporters of the Left Opposition—a revolutionary minority routed from the Bolshevik Party in 1927 and rounded up and murdered in the years 1928-1939—to once again bring up these forbidden words and ideas? To petition for the rehabilitation of Leon Trotsky and to publish his works, to rehabilitate Victor Serge and seek out the four books stolen from him by the CPU upon his expulsion from the USSR in 1936?

Clearly there are many changes which Gorbachev’s twin programs of glasnost and perestroika have tin-leashed. The point is to understand them. Why is perestroika necessary, what does it mean in terms of global politics and whose interests does it serve? The aims of the reforms are to introduce the market, reintegrate the Soviet Union into the world economy, and essentially “social-democratize” Soviet society, Gorbachev is gambling that he can keep control of a process that brings many of the contradictions of Soviet history and economic development out into the open political arena. The current group in power in the Soviet Union is reexamining and reclaiming the forbidden history of the ’20s and ’30s to suit their own needs: to entirely discredit the Stalinist system, which has not been successful in maintaining control of the economic mechanism.

What are the concrete changes? Economically we found the USSR a dismal and depressing place. The chronic lack of goods was everywhere in evidence, expressed in empty shelves, long lines, a dearth of fruits and vegetables, soap, and shampoo. Less essential items like batteries, film and cassette tapes were next to impossible to find and in great demand. Living quarters were cramped and dreary.

Economically little has changed since Gorbachev came to power, except perhaps for the worse. Yet other changes are visible and real: changes in foreign policy, in the abolition of censorship, changes in the mood of both intelligentsia and working class, changes which allow more freedom of association and expression.

The recent stunning election campaigns proved to be an excellent barometer of public sentiment The town hall meetings and spontaneous demonstrations gave people an opportunity to voice their absolute intolerance for the bureaucratic apparatchiks who are seen as unaccountable opportunists with undeserved privileges. This intolerance was reflected in the ballot box as millions of Soviet voters crossed out the names of candidates associated with the status quo.

As the election fervor begins to subside, however, we find that we know more about what Soviet voters are against, rather than what they are for. What is needed is a hard look at what is being proposed, in whose interests and benefitting which social sectors, and what it all means for the Soviet working class.

The movement for reform has appeared in response to deep structural problems in Soviet society, problems which both point to the need for change and stand in the way of change. The “pre-crisis’ situation Gorbachev described at the 27th Party Congress is not simply an economic crisis, but social, political and national as well.

The crisis is manifest in declining and even negative growth rates, in the decline of life expectancy, which went down to 62.4 by 1984 and has since risen to 65 in 1986; and in the apparent solutions, which consist of direct pressure on the workers through the introduction of the market, and a controlled de-Stalinization.

The pressure on the workers so far remains at the level of constant exhortations to work harder and various experiments to raise productivity. To make the market compatible and even integral to the Soviet model of socialism, key economists and intellectuals such as Shmelyov, Popov, and others are busy revising traditional concepts of socialism to include the morality of profit and the immorality of egalitarianism, euphemistically called “leveling.” (See David Mandel, “Perestroika and the Working Class,” ATC 20.)

The immediate cause of the crisis stems from the inability of the regime to control labor, and the end of the labor surplus. Workers can no longer be drawn from the countryside and the home (women) to make up for inefficiency and waste, leaving no alternative but to tackle inefficiency itself. The solutions sought are unemployment and austerity, through the introduction of the market to discipline the work force. The Soviet Union is at a crossroads, and choices are being made as to the direction ahead.

In the meantime, the elite is buying time for itself by introducing a democratization process which gives more the appearance than the reality of democracy. So far the economic reforms have resulted in a stalemate, but any movement from here could provoke unrest on a large scale, as the regime takes on the working class.

To understand the current crisis we have to go back in history, to examine the nature of the Stalinist system established in the years 1928-41. These were the years of forced collectivization, crash industrialization, the first three five-year plans and the purges.

The significance of these events were the lasting effects they were to have on the formation of regime-worker relations. This is also the period in which the distortions of the economy began. These ‘distortions’ are today the entrenched, permanent features of the Soviet production system which glasnost and perestroika address. The Soviets no longer equate Stalin’s system with socialism, and the Stalinist system is now widely referred to as a “bureaucratically administered command economy.”(2)

The Legacy of Terror

The Stalin years have become a reference point of Gorbachev’s policy of glasnost and perestroika today, because long term contradictions in Soviet society were created by Stalin’s method of rule. Stalin used terror (the purges) to systematically break resistance, undermine all sense of security in personal and social life, while concentrating political power into his own hands. At the same time he destroyed the Bolshevik Party as a Marxist political party, transforming it into an integrating agency for the elite.

Thus the purges played a dual role in youthful Soviet society: disciplining an economically backward society in the first stages of industrialization, as well as selecting a new economic and political elite which would organize and dominate Soviet society from that time until today. Yet the form of industrialization itself, founded on coercion with terror at its heart, created a particular form of class relations and defective production, reproducing itself and becoming a permanent feature of the soviet system.

During the 1930s, policy was initiated by Stalin and executed zealously and bureaucratically by a new elite who were fearful of what could happen to them. The combination of privileges and fear cemented the loyalty of the new leading strata to Stalin. Past successes were repeated and innovation was avoided at all costs. At the base, workers had to adapt the plan’s taut instructions to fit their needs. Their managers colluded with them to meet quotas in a number of ways designed to minimize the loss of workers in dreadfully short supply and to look good to their higher-ups.

The tightness and extreme centralization of the plan represented an attempt to control economic events and thus the economic mechanism. But the response of the workers and managers produced the opposite effect as they lied on paper and events slipped further from the control of the center. Lying became a necessary part of the system in the atmosphere of terror.

Although the response of the workers and their managers was logical, it produced unpredictable results. The industrial structure, organized without forethought under conditions of terror, proved unworkable in practice and in need of reform to eliminate disequilibrium, disproportionality, rapid depreciation of machinery, defective construction, etc. While the society functioned at a low level of technology, simple growth was the result Today’s economy is much more complex and sophisticated, yet the problem created in the days of terror—of working with inaccurate information—makes economic calculation very difficult.

The Soviet Union in the ’30s was caught in various contradictions resulting from “socialism in one country” and the emergence of a bureaucratic ruling group with Stalin at the center, who acted to maintain their power and control the system. They were compelled to run the system without going to the market, while retaining the language of socialism.

In order to make the system work, the resistance of the peasantry, intelligentsia and workers had to be broken, so that mobilization and direction of labor would be met with compliance The secret police were used to atomize the population into submission, accomplished through draconian labor laws on the one hand and slave labor in the camps on the other.

But the system could not be brought under total control The recourse to killing indicated the historical vacuum of the regime which was neither capitalist nor socialist and had no method of known incentives or control(4) over labor.(3) There was no threat of the reserve army of labor to compel productivity, nor were the workers masters of the society.

The elite were left with terror as a method of control, but it brought its own problems: the killing got out of control4 and persistent attempts to control economic events resulted in production of questionable quality except on paper.

Khrushchev attempted reforms which represented a turn to the Bukharin or Kirov solution, a limited introduction of the market The reforms of the 1960s failed however. During the Brezhnev period, known as the time of stagnation, the system was stabilized, the standard of living rose while the economy began to decline. The ruling group became increasingly corrupt, and waste and inefficiency were the standard in the economy, as huge projects were undertaken, drawing in ever more workers. Many of the construction projects lasted decades without being completed, using old technology and obsolete materials. One of Gorbachev’s first acts was to call a halt to all uncompleted projects.

During the Brezhnev years, a new social force capable of going to the market was reconstituted, the new intelligentsia that today is in favor of market reforms. At the same time, however, there still exists the successors of the old Stalinist elite favoring direct control, as well as a new working class that resists price increases and unemployment. The situation then is one of stalemate. In order to attack Stalin’s heirs, Gorbachev has enlisted the help of history, and that is why the examination of the past plays such an important role in Gorbachev’s attempts to reform the Soviet present.

On History and Rehabilitations

The hidden meaning of the allegorical Soviet film “Repentance” is that until Stalin is exhumed and made to stand trial for his crimes, the truth cannot emerge and the society cannot go forward. The group Memorial pushes much the same point In other words, the reforms cannot succeed based on a false understanding of Soviet society and Soviet history. Without a knowledge of the past, the roots of the present dilemmas cannot be evaluated and without that alternatives for the future cannot be proposed.

In order to attack the group in the party apparatus which blocks Gorbachev’s reforms, he has resorted to attacking Stalin and rehabilitating some of Stalin’s victims. This has created a dynamic which has resulted in the spectacular growth of Memorial groups across the USSR pressing for the rehabilitation and remembrance of Stalin’s victims.

We attended an impressive spontaneous meeting of some 3000 people in Gorky Park on March 5, called by Memorial, one of many such meetings in Moscow. The meetings have become a focus for the survivors and their families who no longer wish to grieve in silence.

When Gorbachev first opened the lid on the forbidden history of the USSR, the spotlight was on the rehabilitation of Bukharin, who has become the symbol of Gorbachev’s reforms, elevating him in the media to the status of anti-Stalinist hero.

Bukharin was not an anti-Stalinist, however, until he and his group faced repression. He took part in the anti-Trotsky campaign, originated the concept of socialism in one country, and even in his famous speech before he was shot he protested his innocence, meaning he had always been a good Stalinist He was in favor of the market and increased concessions to the peasantry, and that is what interests the Gorbachev group.

Bukharin endorsed the one-party system, tightly controlled from the top, but liberal in the sense that NEP was liberal. In order to rehabilitate Bukharin, (Feb. 1988) the new leadership rehabilitated everyone who was on trial with him in 1938 (the trial of the 21); this included Christian Rakovsky, one of the most famous Left Oppositionist theoreticians, whose writings are a penetrating critique of the dangers of bureaucracy and the crisis of the first five-year plan.

While the rehabilitation and readmission into the Party of Bukharin has meant the Soviets have published a sanitized selection of his works which suit their needs, Rakovsky’s revolutionary critique has thus far not been able to get a hearing.(5)

The question of Leon Trotsky has repeatedly come up in the Soviet Union, both in the press and society. We found a surprising receptivity to the idea of publishing his works and restoring him to his proper role in Soviet history. Most Soviet citizens are completely ignorant of LDT’s ideas, but they are sure they don’t agree with them.

For the Soviet left, however, Trotsky is the real anti-Stalinist symbol. They see him as the only one of the Bolshevik Old Guard who had the political courage and personal strength to struggle against Stalinism from the very beginning till the very end.(6) He was the only one who organized political resistance to Stalin, to present a socialist alternative to Stalinism, and even in defeat, never surrendered to Stalin.

Even abroad, Trotsky along with Victor Serge were among the tiny few who never abandoned their anti-Stalinist struggle, never abandoned Marxism, and never went over to the other side. For this reason, Boris Kagarlitsky said in an interview I conducted with him, Trotsky is an important symbol for the left in the USSR and his rehabilitation would be the most significant.

The regime has had to recognize that all the Moscow Trials were rigged and the charges fabricated. Since Trotsky was painted as the main culprit for all Soviet ills, this is an implicit recognition that he was slandered. The press now admits that Trotsky was an important figure of the revolution, and the historians Yuri Afanasiev and Roy Medvedev, and the economist Otto Latsis have called for his rehabilitation, wanting to restore him to his proper place in the museum of the revolution. Articles about his grandson and his assassin have appeared in recent issues of Moscow News, he has been the subject of public and private meetings, newspaper and magazine articles.

But the purpose of the leadership is to neutralize the left, by turning Trotsky into a harmless icon, a victim whose memory should be honored and preserved.

The press has printed new distortions about Trotsky’s role The new biographer of Stalin—General Volkogonov—has stated Trotsky opposed the revolution of 1917 along with Stalin, and when he isn’t being attacked as a cosmopolitan revolutionary, read Jew (and we were all surprised by the ferocious anti-semitism rife in the USSR today), he is attacked as a super-industrializer, as an arrogant authoritarian, with the implication that he would have been worse than Stalin in power.

This is the way at least one section of the elite wishes to treat Trotsky. This is in stark contrast to the media treatment of Bukharin, often mentioned as Lenin’s favorite. Trotsky on the other hand, the Soviet press says, was different Lenin warned about Trotsky’s administrative approach. Administrative is a code word, synonymous with the Stalinist “bureaucratic administrative command” system.

What this means is that the regime has to revive Trotsky along with the rest of the Old Guard, though there are those in the Central Committee who are adamantly opposed to the dangerous symbolism of any Trotsky revival. Hence the new falsification of his role, to prove that Trotsky, though not a counter revolutionary agent, was nonetheless wrong. He is thus cleansed of the most grotesque absurdities, while his real ideas are eviscerated.

Trotsky’s analysis of the bureaucracy, his critique of privilege, his views of workers’ democracy and genuine democratic planning in the real Marxist sense cannot be mentioned. Some of Gorbachev’s reformers appear at times to be wearing bits of Trotsky’s clothes however. There is a powerful anti-bureaucratic sentiment in the streets, which various politicians have picked up. Thus Gorbachev attacks “bureaucracy” and Boris Yeltsin criticizes privilege. Bureaucratic privilege, that is, since what they want to replace it with is the legitimate privilege conferred by money.(7)

But no one in the regime is proposing a revolutionary socialist solution to the problems facing the Soviet Union today. Once again, a kernel of Trotsky’s ideas is appropriated, robbing them of their revolutionary content In fact one of the meetings held during Memorial’s “Week of Conscience” in November 1988 was entitled “Stop the Second Assassination of Trotsky’s Ideas?”

We also attended a private meeting on Trotsky at the House of the Writers Union, where we were introduced and Vlady, Victor Serge’s son, spoke about his father and Trotsky. Apart from meeting old Bolshevik survivors, including Nadezhda Joffe, Adolf Joffe’s daughter who joined the Left Opposition in 1929 and spent twenty-seven years in camps, Aleksander Davidovich Briansky, a 106-year-old Bolshevik veteran of the revolutions of 1905 and 1917, who was with Trotsky in the Civil War, and Irma Gogua, Victor Serge’s niece who survived twenty-one years in the cruelest camps, we found little affinity with Trotsky’s ideas and many distortions of what he really represented.

Yet the interest we encountered was at times enthusiastic and emotional. The Union of Writers’ meeting on Trotsky greeted our delegation with a rousing ovation and were visibly delighted with Viady’s comments about his father and Trotsky. One of the speakers, the historian Startsev said that had Trotsky won instead of Stalin, the Soviet Union would be a better place today. The crowd divided into boos and cheers. We were told that most of the “boos” came from Pamiat supporters.

Pamiat, or Memory, is a Great Russian chauvinist, anti-semitic group with a large following. Pamiat had members inside the Writers Union, as well as at most of the election meetings we attended. They raised their familiar vulgar refrain of “Trotsky-zhid” (“Trotsky-Jew”) and anti-semitic attacks against the left, but there as elsewhere, we found resistance to their neo-fascist filth.

The importance of these meetings is that they demonstrate the widespread and insatiable thirst for the real truth to emerge from their hidden history. While there is little danger for the regime that the Left Opposition will be reborn out of such meetings—the intelligentsia has more interest in the market than Marxism, and the working class is still suspicious and cynical about change—the lurking danger behind the rehabilitation of members of the Left Opposition is that theirs was the first working-class critique.

The regime is moving very slowly and step by step on the rehabilitations and cosmetically publishing only what suits its purposes, consigning the rest to the museum of the revolution. Its contradiction is between the need for a true understanding of social reality, which necessitates the rediscovery of the past, and the problem of how to deal within that discussion with the nature of socialism itself.

For the present we have seen the new inventions, which now claim that socialism is against leveling (egalitarianism), for ‘efficiency being the only morality”—this from economist Shmelyov, who added “we have to get rid of this perversion of an egalitarian tradition.” In an interview with literary critic Alla Latynina, Shinelyov said “I’m now thinking of patenting a new law: every kind of inefficiency is amoral, and vice versa, everything amoral is inefficient.”8

How will the elite deal with Trotsky’s ideas, when they are published? We can’t know for sure, but! think they will accept with open arms his defense of the USSR and its “planned economy,” found in the Revolution Betrayed. For a section of the elite, Trotsky’s critique of bureaucracy can be compared to their own, as well as his critique of privilege, even though his critique differs fundamentally with theirs. His anti-Stalinism is fine with them too. By usurping Trotsky in this way they neutralize the left, undercutting potential opposition.

As for Trotsky’s analysis of the degenerated workers state—well, they can also agree, saying they are regenerating it by abolishing official privilege (and replacing it with differentials in wages based on the market). This could be the social democratization of Trotskyism. [The second half of the article will discuss perestroika, the economic crisis and Soviet labor.]


  1. See ATC 12-13, 45.
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  2. This formulation is now commonplace in the Soviet press.
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  3. H.H. Ticktin, “The Political Economy of the Purges,” Paper delivered to the American Association for the Advancement of Slavic Studies Boston, November 1987.
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  4. Estimates of the numbers killed vary widely, both in the West and the Soviet Union, where the subject has been passionately taken up by the Memorial movement. One sociologist estimates that up to 50 million were killed by Stalin in the course of collectivization, famine and purges. See Dr. Igor Bestuzhev-Lada in Nedelya Feb. 1988, and Anton Antonov-Ovseyenko in his The Time of Stalin. Although the estimates are still estimates and not “counts,” what is interesting is that now that the Soviets are looking into the issue, they are coming up with numbers far higher than ever estimated in the West, even by hard-line cold warriors.
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  5. There are people who are trying to get Rakovsky’s famous letter to Valentinov published (“On the Professional Dangers of Power”).
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  6. Interview with Kagarlitsky, Critique 22.
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  7. YeItsin interview, conducted by Pavel Voshchanov, Komsomolskaya Pravda, Dec. 31, 1988, 4.
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September-October 1989, ATC 22