What Glasnost Is–and Isn’t

Against the Current, No. 24, January/February 1990

John Marot

IN JULY 1999 the greatest strike movement in the Soviet Union since the 1920s caught the bureaucracy by surprise—but not unprepared. Half a million miners, from Siberia to the Ukraine, downed tools to protest bureaucratic oppression and exploitation. Gorbachev at once declared the mass movement of the miners a most serious threat to glasnost and perestroika. The general secretary’s first thoughts turned to the army. He magnanimously promised not to use it—this time.

Gorbachev is right. The miners did jeopardize glasnost and perestroika. Gorbachev’s policies are incompatible with any and all independent activity of the organized, mobilized working class.

Boris Yeltsin and other radical supporters of Gorbachev’s reforms agreed with the general secretary: They observed total silence throughout the two weeks of the strike. They did nothing to show solidarity with miners, let alone help them develop and strengthen their movement Once the immediate danger was over and the miners returned to work, Yeltsin and other fair-weather friends of the working class declared the goals of the miners legitimate—but not their methods.

When Soviet railway workers threatened to follow the example of the miners, Yeltsin at once mobilized his parliamentary followers to preempt the strike by urging workers not to trust in themselves but in their parliamentary representatives. By his actions Yeltsin demonstrated his complete solidarity with Gorbachev.

All wings of the bureaucracy will unite whenever the self-activity of the working class threatens its position. That no wing of the bureaucracy can be trusted ac-lively to defend workers’ interests has become an ideological stock-in-trade for Polish workers. In this respect. the Polish working class remains the most advanced in Eastern Europe. Hopefully, Russian workers will learn from their Polish comrades and speedily conclude that no member of the bureaucratic crew can be trusted one iota when it comes to actually defending the independent movement of the working class, let alone giving it leadership.

Nevertheless, the miners’ strike was given broad coverage in the Soviet print and electronic media. This was unprecedented. The bureaucracy dealt with this menace from the depths in a “popular” and “open” manner, confident that “social-democratic” means would defeat the miners without violent repression.

Such confidence is an index of the political flair and sophistication of the Soviet Union’s leading political personnel. For the time being, the bureaucracy is able expertly to roll with the punches and so confronts the advanced representatives of the Soviet working class with new and daunting political problems to solve. It also requires that socialist militants in the West develop more fully their political analysis of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.

Conventional Views of the Gorbachev Era

Virtually all commentators, inside and outside the Soviet Union, Marxist and non-Marxist, see Gorbachev’s program of political and economic reform as responding necessarily to the dismal performance of the Soviet economy.

Many socialists, for example, often speak of a “contradiction” between the repr9duction of the bureaucracy as a ruling class (or caste) on the one hand, and the development of the forces of production on the other, principally the working class itself The state still strikes down every attempt by the associated producers to associate for the purpose of organizing production.

The workers are thereby alienated and consequently have no interest in working skillfully, diligently, creatively. Socialists interpret Gorbachev’s policy of openness-1asnost—and of democratization as an implicit recognition by the bureaucracy that the roots of the economic crisis lie in its failure to overcome worker alienation. The political measures taken from above by Gorbachev to get the Soviet economy moving again will, they argue, inadvertently open the way for workers to struggle from below for socialist democracy and workers’ rule. Socialists are evaluating Gorbachev’s moves according to whether they tend or do not tend toward this wished-for end—workers’ democracy.

Non-socialists, liberals and conservatives alike, also argue that the bureaucracy is an obstacle to economic growth. But they interpret glasnost and economic restructuring—perestroika—to mean that the bureaucracy has recognized the failure of planning per Se. They look forward to the day when the market will be allowed to operate fully and freely, restoring the untrammeled rule of capital and creating the conditions for the establishment of political pluralism. Free-marketeers are evaluating Gorbachev’s economic moves according to whether they inadvertently tend or do not tend toward this wished-for end—free enterprise.

The left and the right are fundamentally correct to state that bureaucratic rule is antagonistic to socialist democracy and/or economic growth. But the advent of glasnost and perestroika can by no means be portrayed as an attempt to transcend this antagonism either from the left or from the right, as is commonly argued. Rather, Gorbachev’s program articulates this antagonism—only in a more sophisticated and developed way.

The Gorbachev era represents the maturation of bureaucratic rule, not the embryonic beginnings of a qualitatively different society: Gorbachev is not planting the seed of either socialist democracy or the rule of the market, even unwittingly. Nor can “change from above” be meaningfully understood as a response to the fear of “change from below—the recent miners’ strike notwithstanding.

In view of all the fanfare of the past five years, the Soviet working class has, on the whole, lain remarkably quiet, showing little or no enthusiasm for bureaucratic change. This does not mean that it will not awaken one day. It already has. The point, however, is that it is the Soviet bureaucracy, not the working class, which has shown remarkable initiative and movement in the past five years, disclosing in the process the novel way in which it is reproducing itself as a ruling class. In this essay I offer an extensive critique of existing accounts of the Gorbachev era and attempt to provide an alternative explanation of the nature and origins of the past five years in the Soviet Union.

What the Economic Reforms Are Not

Contrary to the hopes of the right and the fears of the left, the Soviet Union is not moving one flea-hop closer to capitalism. Gorbachev and his economic advisers have made it clear from the outset that the planned economy is here to stay. Nevertheless, almost all commentators have identified Gorbachev’s much ballyhooed decentralization of decision-making in the Soviet economy as marking an infant’s step toward capitalism, toward competition of individual enterprises on the market This is incorrect.

“Decentralization” has a different meaning in a planned economy than it does in a capitalist economy. Decentralization in a capitalist economy expresses the right of enterprise managers to make investment decisions independently of any authority outside the firm. The reverse is the case in the Soviet Union. All investment decisions are made outside the firm and independently of the enterprise managers. As long as these decision-making powers are exercised separately from the manager, the planned character of the Soviet economy will not be impaired.

Gorbachev, unlike Brezhnev but like Khrushchev, is decentralizing planning decisions by redistributing decision-making power among the levels of the planning hierarchy downward. Decentralization means giving local planning organs greater rights of supervision over enterprises. This planning hierarchy incorporates the managerial hierarchy at the level of the firm. Nevertheless, the two hierarchies are separate. The manager remains administratively subordinate to and dependent on a planning authority—whether that authority is sitting next to the manager or thousands of miles away in Moscow.

The principle of managerial subordination to a planning authority is at all times respected because the Soviet Union has a planned (or administered) economy. In this regard, it is useful to represent the Soviet Union as a single gigantic corporation producing all that is necessary for the Soviet Union to continue to be the Soviet Union. There is a ramified division of labor. All labor is concrete, specializing in the production of definite quantities of use-values—steel, toilet paper, refrigerators, suspenders, jails, cars, TV sets, shoes, etc. The total labor of society must be divided and brought together so as to ensure reproduction.

All such directly social or cooperative labor requires a directing authority to secure the harmonious cooperation of the many qualitatively different labors as well as to establish their correct quantitative proportions. This directing authority can be exercised by the workers as a whole precisely because the function of organizing production is a general function, affecting all workers in equal measure, regardless of their specific position in the general process of production. Or this general function can be the special function of a distinctive group of people. In the Soviet Union this group is known as the “bureaucracy.”

The Soviet bureaucracy runs the economy not because it fulfills a general (because necessary) function, but because it systematically acts to exclude workers from running the economy; it systematically acts to make this general function its exclusive function, to make it a way of life.

To paraphrase Marx, it is not because a man in the Soviet Union is an organizer of production that he is a bureaucrat; on the contrary, he is an organizer of production because he is a bureaucrat In the bureaucratic collectivist mode of production the “interconnection between the various labors” of workers confronts workers, In the realm of ideas, as a plan drawn up by the [bureaucrat] and, in practice, as his authority, as the powerful will of a being outside them, who subjects their activity to his purpose.”(1)

Marx’s description of the relationship between capitalist and worker within the individual unit of production under the capitalist mode of production can be used to describe the relationship between working class and bureaucracy under the bureaucratic collectivist mode of production. Production gets done despite this antagonism between bureaucrat and worker, not because of it.

The move toward capitalism is given a semblance of reality because there is much talk about making the Soviet economy subject to market pressures. Gorbachev’s leading economic advisor Aganbegyan has spoken about the need to shift from a system of “administrative commands to regulation by economic means.(2)

Upon closer inspection, however, Aganbegyan is seen to be speaking about a system of “economic” commands by means of centrally determined or administered prices, wages, interests charges, etc. The fact is that neither Aganbegyan nor Gorbachev nor any of the Soviet marketeers advocate the free operation of the market to determine production and resource allocation. Specifically, Gorbachev’s economic reforms do not give managers the right to run “theft” firms as if they owned them because Gorbachev will not allow the enterprise to go bankrupt and cause unemployment if managers incorrectly respond to “marker signals.

Richard Smith, in an important article, explains:

“The bureaucracy’s economic base is limited to its own-national economy—but it “owns every firm in that economy… (Tjhis means that the bureaucratic owners cannot penalize one enterprise against another, cannot allow some firms to drive others “out of business” because from the standpoint of surplus extraction, the bureaucracy constitutes a single collective class, a single “owner. Since this single investor owns all firms, the efficient and inefficient alike, a gain by one firm is simultaneously a loss for a competitor which is also owned by this same investor.”(3)

What Smith says applies fully to all planned economies, including the Soviet Union. There is no penalty for failing to compete, because there is no competition. Managers need not cut costs by means of specialization, accumulation and innovation to remain in business.

Consequently the revolutionizing of the forces of production is not a regular phenomenon in the Soviet economy, as is universally acknowledged. The head of a firm may be fired for mismanagement, but the productive powers of the firm he manages on behalf of the State, the ultimate “owner,” are never terminated just because those productive powers are inefficiently used.

Aganbegyan is vaguely aware of the foregoing. Asked about bankruptcies and redundancies in inefficient enterprises, he replied that “the law now permits the winding-up of non-viable enterprises” but only “after help has been given to overcome the problems, help drawn from a special ministry fund” (emphasis added).(4) But Aganbegyan cannot know whether a firm is viable or not independently of the planning authorities because it is the planning authorities who determine the viability of enterprises in the first place!

A firm “fails” only because it is not being “helped” from the central planners. Once such help is given it becomes “successful” and the threat of bankruptcy is removed. Drawing regularly on a ministry fund specially created to help “failures” regularly short-circuits the process of moving “away from centralized allocation of resources to buying and selling in the market.”(5)

An additional obstacle to the bureaucracy engineering a capitalist restoration is the unemployment that is the inevitable corollary of bankruptcy. In an economy geared toward the production of use-values, workers who produce something poorly and inefficiently are better than workers who are idle and produce nothing at all. This is admitted by Soviet ideologues—only in a self-serving way. They say they would never tolerate significant levels of unemployment among workers as this would be detrimental to the workers’ interests.

This line of argument gives the bureaucracy “popular,” pro-working-class virtues it does not actually possess. In fact, the bureaucracy is only making a class virtue of a class-determined necessity and in the process misleading quite a few left-wingers regarding its “responsiveness” to workers’ needs.

Gorbachev’s economic reforms also involve selecting and giving greater prominence to one indicator—profit, sales revenue, value of gross output, etc.—over another in order to determine and evaluate the performance of individual enterprises. The indicator chosen for such a role is “declared some sort of remedy for the economy.” Under Gorbachev, profit has been chosen.

Fyodor Kushnirsky comments:

“Sometime after the introduction of an indicator or a group of indicators, the shortcomings become apparent and leading planning specialists begin to write memos on the subject If the question is open for discussion, articles relevant to it also appear in the economic literature. It takes a few years before changes are made (if they are made at all), and, since none of the indicators possess only advantages, the process repeats itself … .Since planners cannot propose a change of principle [that is, abandoning the planning principle] they substitute one indicator for another, believing that the shortcomings of the former are fewer than those of the latter. There is always room for hope.”(6)

The foregoing process of indicator selection describes a “perpetual pattern,” Kushnirsky concludes, and it expresses a law of motion of the bureaucratic-collectivist mode of production. In an economy geared toward the maximization of the production of use-values no “universal criterion” will ever be hit upon to judge the relative performance of enterprises because no universal criterion will ever exist to compare and evaluate thequalities of the use-values produced in thousands of Soviet enterprises.

In a capitalist economy there does exist a qualitative criterion that can be quantified—the maximization of exchange value. It is realized by striving for the highest rate of profit possible. It expresses a law of motion of the capitalist mode of production.

Tune and again, then, there is constant “conflict between radical ideas for the future which push the Soviet Union towards a market economy, and the instinctive [sic] reactions to short-term pressures which pull exactly in the opposite direction.”(7)

But long-term pressures are nothing but the sum-total of short-term ones and express the non-capitalist character of the Soviet economy. The Soviet bureaucracy is forever moving toward the market with the consequence that the market is never actually reached and bureaucratic planning never actually left behind. The biggest obstacle to “marketization” in the Soviet Union, as elsewhere in Eastern Europe and China, is the absence of the capitalist mode of production.

In the West many socialists have become infatuated with market socialism. Their defense of a mixed economy speaks less to the capacity of the working class to achieve a fully democratic socialism than to the incapacity of the left to visualize such an achievement; it expresses inside out the demoralization of many left-wing intellectuals today. In the Soviet Union market socialism is foremost an ideological reality because the material reality of the Soviet society is so firmly and deeply anchored elsewhere, in the bureaucratic-collectivist mode of production. As all official Soviet ideologues are agreed on the need to retain this mode of production (as if they had a choice) there is no debate on the merits of planning, only debate about measures to tinker with it.

What the Political Reforms Are Not

The hope of the left that Gorbachev is inadvertently moving the Soviet Union toward an authentic socialist democracy is, unfortunately, unfounded. Gorbachev’s democracy is not workers’ democracy in homeopathic doses; it is something qualitatively different.

In an economy run by the immediate producers elections are an expression of democratic choice among alternative policies, domestic and foreign. But “elections” in a bureaucratically run economy are more in the nature of referenda on the bureaucracy’s policies. Workers cannot choose an alternative to these policies because they cannot present their own policies. As a result, the outcome of such referenda are foreordained. This kind of plebiscitary “democracy” was pioneered by the French Emperor Napoleon 111 in the mid-19th century.

In the electoral campaign to the Congress of People’s Deputies in the summer of 1987, 85 percent of candidates nominated by the party were elected. The winners were proclaimed to be ardent champions of glasnost and perestroika. But the 15 percent who lost were dismissed as lukewarm sympathizers of Gorbachev’s policies at best, or as determined opponents at worst There is no way to verify actual support for Gorbachev’s policies because no one is allowed openly to use electoral campaigns to criticize glasnost and perestroika and to offer an alternative.

The interpretation of electoral results, although not the results is rigged. Gorbachev has skillfully drawn political dividing lines in these electoral contests—but in a thoroughly apolitical manner All opponents of glasnost and perestroika are defined in exclusively psychological, moral, even criminal terms. They are “comipt? “timid, “lazy? “incompetent? etc.

Gorbachev’s cheap populism ultimately refuses the “necessary institutional means for the masses to be able to make coherent choices among a series of alternative strategies—that is, different parties and tendencies.” As a result Gorbachev demogogically sanctions—and insidiously enforces—what Ernest Mandel calls a “harmless anarchistic spontaneity at the rank and file level” fully compatible with a “regime of bureaucratized single party at the summit.”(8)

Mandel’s criticisms refer specifically to the reform proposals put forth by Rudolf Bahro in his book The Alternative, A Critique of Really Existing Socialism. In my view, these criticisms apply fully to bureaucratic electoral practices, however advanced and modern.

Gorbachev’s political and economic reforms, then, are designed to serve the interests of the bureaucracy. Gorbachev is the bureaucracy’s supreme delegate, the leading member of its executive committee, voicing its collective desires. At no time is he echoing the interests of workers in the Soviet Union, even inadvertently, for their interests are fundamentally counterposed to those of the bureaucracy.

If they were not so counterposed then Gorbachev would not insist on a monopoly of state power for the Communist Parts This is Gorbachev’s backhanded way of recognizing that there is irreconcilable class conflict in the Soviet Union. Never, even for one moment, will Gorbachev open Pandora’s box by “accidentally” forgetting this and allowing all classes to form parties to represent and advance class-determined interests. For Gorbachev the Communist Party must function as its own opposition.

The Methodology of Conventional Analyses

One could say that since Stalin’s death there has always existed a marginal potential for a renewal of workers’ democracy and/or a full restoration of the market—in the abstract Perhaps this margin is wider today under Gorbachev than it ever has been. Still, for this marginal potential to be properly assessed one must look at the “text” of Gorbachev’s political and economic program, in relation to which the potential for socialist democracy or for the free operation of the market lies at the margin.

Unfortunately, socialists and non-socialists too often think that the margin is the text Driven by wishful thinking, they engage in patently teleological analyses: Gorbachev’s glasnost threatens ultimately to be about workers openly and collectively organizing themselves to defend and advance their interests; or perestroika threatens ultimately to be about restructuring the Soviet economy into a market economy.

The method works this way: focus on unintended and subsidiary tendencies spun off by Gorbachev’s policies to rationalize bureaucratic planning, strenthen one-party democracy and, in general, advance the interests of the Soviet bureaucracy. Then, extrapolate these tendencies—”profit-making” for enterprises and democracy “for all”—into the distant future and progressively inflate their importance. Finally, have would-be capitalists or revolutionary workers realize in practice the immanent and ineluctable “logic” of these subsidiary tendencies and voila!—the illusion of capitalism or workers’ democracy becomes flesh.

Gorbachev’s every move, then, is not analyzed for what it actually is, but praised for tangentially leading—or condemned for not leading—to the analyst’s preconceived political agenda, that is, socialist democracy, market socialism, or free enterprise outright Everyone reads into Gorbachev’s program what they want to read. The political conclusions are “quantitative” in character. Gorbachev must be encouraged, or threatened, or cajoled, to push for more glasnost and more perestroika to accelerate the Soviet Union’s evolution toward the analyst’s preferred outcome, capitalism or socialism or market socialism.

I shall argue that the Soviet Union is not on the road toward capitalism or socialist democracy or a mixed economy, but “mutating in place” toward a more refined and civilized form of bureaucratic rule, toward a democratic dictatorship of the bureaucracy. Gorbachev’s ascension to the post of general secretary expresses the further, superstructural, development of the bureaucratic collectivist mode of production.(9)

The Actual Character of the Gorbachev Era

Glasnost has been the term chosen by all and sundry to label what is going on in the Soviet Union. In my view, the advent of glasnost can be fully understood only in connection with material processes lying deep in the interior of this mode of production and evolving long before Gorbachev ever bobbed to the surface to become general secretary.

Gorbachev’s central, self-conscious goal, like that of his predecessors, is to reinforce and strengthen the Communist Party’s leadership of the bureaucracy, its “vanguard role. Glasnost, rendering public that which Gorbachev wishes to render public, is about realizing this goal. How does glasnost do this?

In one respect Gorbachev’s glasnost is an ideological weapon in the fight against the Brezhnev holdovers. It is the flag under which Gorbachev is advancing and rallying his supporters. Many officials appointed by Brezhnev have lost and are losing their position, removed under the familiar guise of fighting nepotism, favoritism, corruption, incompetence, abuse of power or, increasingly, for opposing glasnost and perestroika.

But glasnost is not just one ideological slogan among others with which to hit opponents over the head. Glasnost also has a regulative and an expressive function to serve for the bureaucracy as a whole. It functions to regulate intra-bureaucratic conflict historically fostered by the advance of one bureaucratic faction at the expense of another. Through glasnost Gorbachev is openly appealing to the bureaucracy’s sense of class consciousness, calling on it to be a class “for itself” and not just In itself.” All bureaucrats can govern best if they govern in conceit Glasnost means openly striving for the cooperative development of the collective power of the bureaucracy.

A better and smoother cooperation of bureaucrats can potentially be used to overcome the Soviet Union’s economic woes, as such heightened cooperation allows for, though by no means guarantees, a better organization of the social division of labor. This is critical. As noted, in the Soviet Union there exists a ramified social division of labor which needs to be more properly organized and coordinated. The Soviet Union’s economic crisis is rooted in the misorganization and miscoordination of that division of labor. Gorbachev is using glasnost openly to launch a moral-ideological campaign among all holding responsible posts in the bureaucracy to show a sense of moral-ideological responsibility, to adopt a broader, more enlightened outlook, to demonstrate initiative and flexibility.

Glasnost is also an index or measure of bureaucratic self-regulation. Glasnost is unique not so much in its regulatory function but in the unique fact that this regulatory function has now assumed such massive proportions that it can no longer operate subterreaneanly. What distinguishes this index or measure from others is its uniquely public or open character. Its expression is open for all to see. This is what is new.

The public character of this index does not signal “Political crisis at the top.”(10) In my view, glasnost expresses openly and is, in turn, the open expression of, the bureaucracy’s growing sense of self-organization and cohesion at all levels. It is a public demonstration of increased and increasing confidence, within ever larger sectors of the bureaucracy, that the bureaucracy as a whole possesses sufficient political maturity to allow conflicts of all kinds, even very sharp ones, to be expressed and settled openly, and that, indeed, conflict and its resolution should be regarded as a natural phenomenon, as a normal or regular feature of modern Soviet society. Glasnost can fully realize this regulative function only in public. Hence its name.

Glasnost in Historical Perspective

Gorbachev’s “bureaucratic openness” reflects, and is a further step toward, the increasingly sophisticated self-organization of the Soviet bureaucracy. The (growing) reality of glasnost long antedated the term glasnost. The use of the term signals a point of maturation.

By the time Brezhnev had become general secretary, regional party officials had long ceased to be totally subordinated, as in the Stalin era, to the central party apparatus and the secret police. This trend expressed itself “in regional party leaders speaking in greater numbers like national politicians,” by boldly seeking “solutions to local administrative, economic, and social issues in national policy or in greater devolution of authority to the region.”(11)

Frequent publication of regional demands in the regional press and criticism of national policies outside party congresses and in regional party conferences became the rule rather than the exception. More channels were opened to articulate demands publicly in the central and republic-level print media. Ever greater numbers of Obkom secretaries or provincial governors, such as Gorbachev from Stavropol, spoke out on national is- sues, a right hitherto exercised almost exclusively by officials in Moscow, the seat of bureaucratic rule.

The end result of all this activity was to reproduce on an expanded scale the conditions of existence of the bureaucracy:

“In the changing political context of post-Stalin politics, central party officials need to build or maintain their authority by demonstrating that their social, economic and administrative programs are working. This need gives them stake in gaining the cooperation (not just coerced compliance) [as under Stalin] of regional party officials in important provinces, who might otherwise surreptitiously defied or sabotage those programs. Regional party leaders, in turn, have a stake in acquiring resources and administrative authority required to meet their plans, to showcase their accomplishments, and to advance their careers. Lobbying central party and state officials is one means toward these ends. Thus the bases of an asymmetrical, but genuine, exchange relationship are in place.”(12)

It is in and through this exchange relationship that the interests of individual bureaucrats are valorized and made congruent with the collective interests of the bureaucracy. Under Stalin, the asymmetry of the exchange relationship was extremely pronounced, overshadowing its equivalency but never ultimately threatening its basis in exchange. In building his own power, Stalin had to build the power of the bureaucracy.

Once the bureaucracy had consolidated itself the range of policies made by it did not significantly change because these policies were, in their totality, geared toward reproducing bureaucratic rulership at home and in relationship to other potentially threatening ruling classes abroad. This is as true now, under Gorbachev and perestroika, as it was under Stalin. However, under Stalin policy-making was more or less secret, while under his successors gradually, though not uninterruptedly, this ceased to be true This process defined de-Stalinization, marked by the end of political terror and the growth of collective leadership, and by “the expanded opportunities for lateral communication among regional leaders, and the emphasis on consensus building and trust in cadres.”(13)

De-Stalinization was as much the objective result of a “modernized” economy as the subjective intent of a “modernizing” bureaucracy; in the bureaucratic mode of production the development of the economy by the bureaucratic state is inseparable from the development of the bureaucratic state itself.

The process of de-Stalinization had progressed so much overall that Gorbachev issued it an official death certificate, signing it Glasnost. This is the discontinuity that characterizes the Gorbachev era, distinguishing it from the Stalin and, even, the Brezhnev era.

The Present as History

But this real discontinuity should not obscure the underlying continuity that links Gorbachev to all his predecessors, beginning with Stalin: bureaucratic rule Gorbachev rose to power by obeying to the letter the “rules of reproduction” for the bureaucracy. Under Brezhnev, Gorbachev gained the cooperation of central party officials by fulfilling their programs, showcasing their accomplishments (real or illusory) and shoring up their authority. In turn, central party leaders used their authority and influence to assure Gorbachev’s own authority and influence, to provide him with adequate resources to fulfill his plans, to showcase his accomplishments (real or illusory) and to advance his career.

As chairman of the board and chief executive officer of USSR Inc. Gorbachev has strengthened his managerial team by appointing as many of his followers as possible to a maximum number of policy-making and policy-executing organs of the bureaucracy, at all levels. Gorbachev is directly responsible for the bulk of turnovers only at the highest levels of the hierarchy. Below that, Gorbachev’s followers, and the followers of his followers, have taken the lead in reshuffling personnel. This is how the bureaucratic snake sheds its skin and grows a new one.

The initial cadres’ policy of the Gorbachev regime

“demonstrates that informal patronage networks continue to structure the coalitions which govern the Soviet polity. Gorbachev’s consolidation of power has been nothing short of spectacular and it has relied greatly upon the extensive transfer of personnel and the recruitment of proteges and clients. New, younger politicians are coming to the fore, but the reasons for their advancements are traditional ones (emphasis added).(14)

Upon becoming general secretary Gorbachev immediately rewarded followers and penalized opponents by virtue of his enormous but not unlimited power of appointment.(15) Gorbachev’s ascension to the post of general secretary will mean, in the long run, a huge turnover of Brezhnev loyalists, especially at the top. The run is bound to be a long one. Gorbachev is young and, if he plays his cards right, will be around for a long time Consequently, he is likely to do as thorough ajob as Brezhnev did.

Not every Gorbachev can become general secretary, but there is a Gorbachev in every general secretary. The key to his success—besides sheer luck—was respect for the rules of the game, rules which, indeed, incorporate a large measure of luck. In this respect, Gorbachev’s ascent to the top reflects an overarching continuity within the Soviet political process.

Gorbachev cannot change the rules of the game. Even if he wanted to he would have to accumulate the power necessary to change them. Since power is in the hands of the bureaucracy he is compelled to obtain its assent and cooperation and so becomes dependent on the latter. The only way to go against the bureaucracy is to operate outside it An unlikely prospect for a man who has operated within it all his life.

Nevertheless, Gorbachev is in a position to use the advances made in the self-organization of the bureaucracy to tackle and overcome the economic crisis facing the Soviet Union today. This is not to iay he will be successful. Far from it Gorbachev has developed a program of political and economic reform independently of the working class. Workers are not asked to offer an alternative to it, they are asked to implement it.

Response Determined by Economic Crisis?

An economic crisis undoubtedly exists in the Soviet Union. Extensive growth has less and less been able to make up for the decline in intensive growth. Total production has stagnated.(16) But Glasnost and perestroika are not the only responses possible to the lack of economic development, as is commonly argued. These very serious economic difficulties have only conditioned a response. They have not, by themselves, determined Gorbachev’s response.

Speaking very broadly, the Polish bureaucracy, like the Russian, faced a growing economic crisis in the latter 1970s, one that eventually took on unprecedented proportions in the winter of 1981-82. But the Polish ruling class did not respond by attempting to implement glasnost and democratization. It responded by establishing a ruthless military dictatorship. Why? Because workers had struck at the root of the economic crisis: bureaucratic rule. There was a genuine crisis in Poland because the reproduction of the bureaucracy as a ruling class was being threatened at the point of production by the free and independent activity of the workers. In these conditions the bureaucracy had, and could only have, one response: to attempt to destroy the organized, mobilized working class.

Should Russian workers follow the example of their Polish comrades Gorbachev will not hesitate to call in his marshals to restore law and order. There should be no illusions. The bureaucracy is determined to have glasnost and perestroika its way or not to have it at all.

Prospects of the Socialist Opposition

Gorbachev’s call for “democratization” through greater openness is directly addressed to the bureaucracy and its ideologists. Writers, artists, filmmakers have celebrated glasnost because they have been given the freedom to highlight its limitations. This is no paradox. The post-Stalinist intelligentsia wishes its relationship to the State to be a collaborative one. Whenever it evinces protest, the protest “is not in opposition to state control but is intended as criticism of Stalinist vestiges, a reaction to official nostalgia for the culture of martial law.” Such protests demand that the State “recognize its own victory.”(17)

Nevertheless, as the bureaucracy is in daily and direct contact with the population over which it rules, the call for democratization has been echoed by workers and students.

Boris Kagarlitsky is one of the guiding spirits of the new Federation of Socialist Clubs. The Federation is independent of the bureaucracy, but the latter has given it its blessings. The Federation supports the goal of moving toward a classless society and sees the “formation of independent social groups and associations, and an increase in their influence” as one of the ways of achieving this goal.

The current reform movement is about achieving this goal, according to Kagarlitsky. Its success “will depend on the level of mass support and participation that it encourages.(18) Clearly, this is an attempt to use glasnost to sanction the Federation’s independent existence and (hopefully) growing influence. However, judging from Kagarlitsky’s comments, it is not clear that the Federation uses its independence to present a politics distinct from the bureaucracy’s. If anything it encourages “mass support” for Gorbachev’s policies, not its own.

“The life and death of socialism in the U.S.S.R. hang on whether perestroika succeeds.” Indeed, Kagarlitsky has recently gone further and stated that the “survival of the Gorbachev leadership is necessary because without Gorbachev “it would no longer be possible for movements coming from the grass roots to be really influential.”(19)

In what sense can movements be “grassroots” movements if they depend on Gorbachev’s influence and require his leadership to survive? Is Kagarlitsky saying this for purely tactical reasons? To lull the bureaucracy into a false sense of security as a way temporarily to gain political maneuvering room? No doubt this is an important consideration for some in the Federation. But if this consideration overrides everything else it can lead to false political analyses. “Some of us, Kagarlitsky says, were “very critical” of Polish Solidarity which, despite the undoubted mass support it enjoyed among millions and millions of workers, nevertheless tried to dissociate itself from the labor movement traditions of Poland and so ended in “intellectual bankruptcy and self-destruction.”(20)

What Kagarlitsky probably means is that Solidarity earned the enmity of the bureaucracy, something which Soviet groups should avoid at all costs, at least initially, lest they too “self-destruct” This is indeed a dilemma. But if learning to police oneself is raised to a strategy by the Federation, then acting as policeman is counter-posed to the Federation’s self-proclaimed goal of fostering the self-organization of the working class. It was so counterposed in Poland.

If, however, Kagarlitsky is secretly in sympathy with Solidarity but criticizes it simply for the benefit of the bureaucracy, then worker opposition to bureaucratic rule in the Soviet Union has yet to reach a point where it can hold the bureaucracy’s apparatus of repression at bay and create the space for socialist militants in the Soviet Union to speak their minds freely, or both. Until that point is reached glasnost will, on balance, benefit the bureaucracy, especially its ideologists.

The potential for workers’ democracy in the Soviet Union will remain a marginal one so long as glasnost and perestroika retain their bureaucratic essence. But the interests of workers will best be served and defended by those groups that develop a politics based on the fullest understanding of the Gorbachev era.


  1. Karl Marx, Capital (Vintage, 1977) v. 1,450. I have substituted “bureaucrat” for “capitalist” in Marx’s description of the relationship of classes in production.
    back to text
  2. Abel Aganbegyan, “The Soviet Economic Crisis,” New Left Review May/June 1988: 93.
    back to text
  3. Richard Smith, “Class Structure and Economic Rationality: Problems of Industrial Reform in China”: 10-I1. Columbia University Seminar on Modern China.
    back to text
  4. Aganbegyan, 95.
    back to text
  5. Aganbegyan, 95.
    back to text
  6. Fyodor Kushnirsky, Soviet Economic Planning, 1965-1980 (Boulder, Colorado) 15-16.
    back to text
  7. David Dykker, Gorbachev’s Economic Revolution: The Realities of Perestroika (London: Center for Security and Conflict Studies, 1989)20.
    back to text
  8. Ernest Mandel, From Stalinism to Eurocommunism (London. 1978) 122.
    back to text
  9. The opposite thesis is defended by Ernest Mandel in Beyond Perestroika: The Future of Gorbachev’s USSR (London, 1989) 33. “What is the most striking in this [current] crisis… is the fact that the dominant layer in that society seems incapable of developing the system.”
    back to text
  10. David Seppo, “Political Crisis at the Top,” lnternational Viewpoint, Oct. 26, 1987.
    back to text
  11. George Breslauer, “Provincial Party Leaders’ Demand Articulation and the Nature of Center-Periphery Relations in the USSR,” Slavic Review, Winter 1986.
    back to text
  12. Breslauer, 669-670.
    back to text
  13. Breslauer, 668-669.
    back to text
  14. John P. Willerton Jr., “Patronage Networks and Coalition Building in the Brezhnev Era,” Soviet Studies XXXIX, no. 2 (AprIl 1987): 199.
    back to text
  15. Miklos Haraszti, The Velvet Prison Artists Under State Socialism (New York, 1989) 51.
    back to text
  16. For an assessment of the Soviet economic performance, see Mike Haynes, “Understanding the Soviet Crisis,” International Socialism 34 (Winter 1987) and Mandel, Beyond Perestroika,” 1-9.
    back to text
  17. Haraszti, 98.
    back to text
  18. Alexander Cockburn Interview with Boris Kagarlitsky, The Nation, Dec. 12, 1987.
    back to text
  19. Boris Kagarlitsky, “From Perestroika to People’s Front,” International Viewpoint, Nov. 28, 1988.
    back to text
  20. Kagarlitsky, The Nation, op. cit.
    back to text

January-February 1990, ATC 24

Leave a comment

ATC welcomes online comments on stories that are posted on its website. Comments are intended to be a forum for open and respectful discussion.
Comments may be denied publication for the use of threatening, discriminatory, libelous or harassing language, ad hominem attacks, off-topic comments, or disclosure of information that is confidential by law or regulation.
Anonymous comments are not permitted. Your email address will not be published.
Required fields are marked *