Gorbachev’s Authoritarian Turn

Against the Current, No. 32, May/June 1991

David Mandel

HAVING SUCCESSFULLY beaten back a conservative assault at the 28th Communist Party Congress last summer, Gorbachev appeared ready to fully embrace the liberals’ reform program, thus completing his slows but steady evolution to the “left” begun six years ago.

By the end of January 1991, however, Gorbachev had been abandoned by virtually all his liberal colleagues and advisors. In the intervening four months he had rejected the liberals’ “500-Day Plan” for the rapid transition to capitalism, including sweeping privatization made a series of top-level conservative appointments; accorded the KGB broad powers to investigate economic crime, especially in the burgeoning private sector, applied lethal force against the Baltic independence movements; placed joint police-army patrols mover eighty cities; and taken measures to rein in the mass media.

This turnaround—which to be sure still leaves the Soviet Union very far from the harsh dictatorship it was six years ago—was Gorbachev’s response to growing economic chaos and accelerating disintegration of central state power. To reassert central authority—and to save his own power—he had no choice but to rely upon the army and KGB as well as the party apparatus, which is attempting to return from the margins of power to which it had been relegated.

These largely conservative bodies of course also have their own interests, which Gorbachev must now consider. Thus rather than seeing Gorbachev as the “prisoner of conservative forces,” it would be more accurate to speak of a conservative-Gorbachev alliance, an unstable one at that.

Gorbachev’s hard line against the independence movements is not really new. He had made clear from the start that while willing to allow broad autonomy for the republics, he would not allow separation except as a vague and distant perspective. When persuasion failed he applied an embargo against Lithuania for five months last year.

Since then the Russian republic has come to add to Gorbachev’s worries: If he lets the Baltic republics leave, how can he refuse Boris Yeltsin, president of the Russian republic, the broad powers he demands at the expense of the center?

Top army and KGB officers as well as the party apparatus largely share Gorbachev’s interest and desire to maintain the unity of the USSR, led by a strong central government The army brass has been particularly upset by the discriminatory and hostile, sometimes even violent treatment of its soldiers in the republics, whose youth have been evading conscription in large numbers.

To Market or Not?

A key question is whether Gorbachev has in fact abandoned the market reform. Opinions on this differ both inside and outside the Soviet Union. However, a plenum (full meeting) of the Central Committee of the CPSU at the end of January reaffirmed the course toward a “market economy,” though it called to give this process of “destatization” a popular character, “transferring the overwhelming part of property into the hands of work collectives.”

The sudden “workerism” of the resurgent party apparatus should not come as a surprise: Alter all, what else has it to offer against the liberals? But Yuri Prokofiev, first secretary of the Moscow party committee and member of the Politburo, while also insisting that the market reform should lead to a revival of socialism and not a revival of capitalism, stated that Gorbachev and the party leadership have changed only tactics, not strategy.

Prokofiev explained that the USSR did not have the decades that it took for Western Europe to accumulate its wealth and create a market economy. In the Soviet Union, like Japan, South Korea, Spain “and I would not be afraid to name even Chile,’ centralized authoritarian state structures are necessary in order to create the market and its structures in a brief time and in an organized manner.

Actually, in the weeks preceding Gorbachev’s “right” turn, an increasing number of prominent liberals were openly calling for an authoritarian regime capable of pushing through the market reform over the opposition of an increasingly resistant population.

Many of those who have now distanced themselves from Gorbachev did so not because of his growing authoritarianism, but because they no longer see him as an instrument of their market reform. They were also upset that Gorbachev used force against the Baltic nationalists, the vanguard of the liberal market reformers and the only liberal politicians with a real mass base.

A Soviet Pinochet?

Yet even today, this most influential wing of the liberals—for whom freedom is primarily the freedom to individually own capital—advocates an alliance with the reformist wing of the bureaucracy, even the army, in order to carry out a market reform in the Chilean manner.

“Pinochet was totalitarian in politics but not in economics. The army helped set up a normal economy,” approvingly explains economist Sergei Kugushev.

Gorbachev, for all his shortcomings (from the market liberals’ perspective), represents the reformist wing of the bureaucracy. “Gorbachev is still a big asset,” recently said Leonid Gurevich, a prominent member of Boris Yeltsin’s “Democratic Russia,” a loose grouping of elected liberal politicians.

Gurevich argued that Gorbachev and Yeltsin, who is the most prominent liberal politician, have to find a way to work together because the bigger danger is that the masses of people will throw their weight behind a third force.

The third force is, of course, the people itself. Professor Jeffrey Sachs, leading theorist on the transition to market capitalism and advisor to East European governments, recently told a gathering that privatization must proceed as quickly as possible, otherwise there is a threat of a return to “ruinous third way theories of workers’ control.”

According to Gavriil Popov, liberal mayor of Moscow, in the final analysis the liberal and bureaucratic variants of the transition to the market lead to the same result The difference lies in who becomes the capitalists, former bureaucrats or entrepreneurs “from the people.”

The latter variant is “democratic,” according to Popov, even though he admits it must be imposed upon the people. Any third way is “neo-Bolshevik.” Indeed!

Socialists have always argued that the struggles for democracy and for socialism are the same struggle.

Nowhere is this clearer today than in the Soviet Union.

May/June 1991, ATC 32