26 December 2020

After 70 Years – USSR needs a political revolution

Originally published in The Leninist No.55 November 1 1987, available on our archive here

Today, 70 years after the October Revolution, comrade Mikhail Gorbachev says he is carrying out a political revolution. The Soviet Union is certainly in need of reorganisation and openness. We have long advocated this and been attacked for it. During the Brezhnev years the economy stagnated and sordid corruption in the highest ranks became an open secret. Brezhnev is rightly criticised. The Soviet Union cannot afford sponging bureaucrats and their mismanagement. Socialism cannot stay still. The existence of a world economy makes that impossible. All countries, whatever their system, are interlinked and interdependent.

The world needs socialism. Imperialism is a system of merciless exploitation causing the relative and absolute impoverishment of backward countries, a system of ecological disaster, malnutrition, disease, unemployment and pauperisation. The working class will fight for socialism not just in this or that country. For socialism to show its full potential it must operate on a planet wide basis. A World Union of Socialist Republics will rationally plan the world economy and enable mankind to liberate the forces of production. The kingdom of necessity will be left behind and the world will enter the kingdom of freedom and all will enjoy a material abundance on a scale unimaginable today.

Imperialism is clearly a moribund system. But it still dominates the world economy. And as its internal contradictions become ever more antagonistic, it tries to save itself through redivisionist war in order to gain new markets, new areas to rob and exploit. All Imperialism can guarantee its economic decay, a World War III holocaust and the poverty of nuclear winter, a new dark age. So imperialism and living socialism can only co-exist on a temporary basis; in the end one or the other must triumph.

Only through further revolutions, especially in the advanced countries, can socialism be made irreversible. In the meantime living socialism must make enormous sacrifices to defend itself against imperialist warmongering. In the 1970s the Soviet Union achieved, to the detriment of its economy, something approaching nuclear parity with the US. This strengthened the cause of peace. But, under the god fearing Carter, the US rejected MAD (mutually assured destruction) and returned to strategies seeking outright victory. The go-ahead was given for a whole range of first strike silo-busting weapons systems.

Reagan carried on where Carter left off, and has done more besides. Looking at his all-time high military budgets, the spine chilling Star Wars plans, who can deny that the US is laying the basis for a World War III winning first strike capability?

The natural reaction among the Soviet top brass was to demand the high tech hardware to match the Americans. The Gorbachev leadership insisted that the sagging Soviet economy was in no position to supply such equipment and a number of dissenting generals have been unceremoniously sacked to reinforce the point.

In relative terms, militarily but above all economically, the Soviet Union has certainly been declining since the mid-1970s. Indeed, as a result, according to Gorbachev himself, the Soviet Union was by the 1980s in a pre-crisis situation.

Of course, the sycophants of the Soviet Union say Gorbachev’s reforms are the result of socialism’s growing maturity and the shift of the world balance of forces against imperialism. This has nothing to do with the scientific Marxist-Leninist method. It is wishful thinking. Facts are facts. No matter how demanding, we must base our practice on the truth.

Against the US orchestrated imperialist war drive the leadership in the Soviet Union has felt compelled to retreat abroad and reform at home. At the CPSU 27th Congress Gorbachev offered the US cooperation in cooling the temperature in so-called hot spots – presumably countries like Nicaragua, South Africa and Afghanistan. We who take the world revolution as our starting point must openly and frankly say this is not just an example of retreat, it is appeasing imperialism. This is full of dangers.

Gorbachev’s appeasement of imperialism has been greeted by a cross class chorus of approval and so have his domestic reforms. The ruling circles in the main NATO countries (e.g. the Institute of East-West Security Studies) have been joined by the opportunists ranging from the centrist New Communist Party to the right Euro Marxism Today in supporting glasnost and perestroika.

Genuine communists must stand against this stream and tell the truth. Gorbachev’s appeasement of imperialism only encourages its aggression; glasnost and perestroika are not a political revolution.

This is not to say there cannot be a political revolution under socialism or that there should be one. The socialist revolution in a particular country is a step towards world communism. Communism which is stateless and classless will not result spontaneously. Only the conscious class struggle of the proletariat under socialism can liberate society’s productive forces, merge all other classes into itself and overcome all vestiges of bourgeois/capitalist society like the state, the law of value and commodity production. Socialism is not and end in itself. It is not a distinct mode of production. It is a transitory form of society containing elements of capitalism and communism.

Immediately after the revolution the working class exercises its dictatorship over a capitalist economy and because of a lack of culture, experience, expertise, etc. it cannot rule directly. This is inevitable but it is greatly reinforced by the fact that socialism emerges at first not in the most advanced capitalist countries but in the weak links which tend to be very backward in socioeconomic terms. The society which operates on the principle from each according to one’s ability, to each according to one’s needs, will not be realised until the working class runs all aspects of society. This itself involves a drawn out struggle against bureaucracy and in turn raises the question of political revolution.

Even in a Britain or Japan, working class power will have to be exercised indirectly through a bureaucracy. Socialism will start off by being to a large extent formal. This had to be the case in Russia. Its working class operated in a peasant sea, it had a miserably low level of culture even compared to the Tsarists. Moreover, Russia was left isolated as a bastion of working class power because of the treachery of social democracy and the failure of the communist parties in the west.

Socialism, which in essence is a higher form than capitalism, found itself confronted with the necessity of catching up with capitalism. This economic paradox had to have political costs.

There was never a pre-Stalin golden age. Even under Lenin socialist democracy was more an aim than a reality. This was by and large unavoidable. The CPSU’s adaption to backwardness and its centrist doctoring of scientific tenets of Marxism-Leninism was not. The Soviet Union did not degenerate, its Communist Party did.

Centrism has opened the door to a craven adaption to bourgeois society by our world communist movement and now its disintegration; it has acted as a brake on the world revolution.

The inevitable problem of bureaucracy has therefore been compounded in the USSR. When we have socialism starting from the base of the most advanced capitalism we will have to fight to control the bureaucracy. The working class bureaucracy born but combated under Lenin’s leadership has not only spawned centrism, become institutionalised and self-perpetuating, it has also become a fetter on the development of productive forces in the Soviet Union today (and, for that matter, in the socialist countries which have copied the Soviet model). In order to remove the growing contradiction between productive forces and bureaucratic productive relations there will have to be a hard struggle.

The bureaucracy must be brought under control through far reaching measures of socialist democracy. If the Soviet working class decides that this requires a political revolution we will whole-heartedly support it. Certainly the political monopoly and privileges of the bureaucracy must be ended. Soviets must become the real institutions of power in the land. This means that opposition parties must be allowed and working class initiative made the determining feature of society. This will unfetter production. Unfortunately, Gorbachev is not even offering this, let alone delivering it.

What then are we seeing today? Obviously a struggle within the existing leadership, not a political revolution which would mean its overthrow. Against what R Yürükoğlu calls the rising technocracy, the conservative elements in the bureaucracy, those whom Gorbachev says sit in offices built and furnished like ‘palaces’ are fighting a stubborn rear-guard action, a campaign of sabotage through inertia. There is nothing communistic about this campaign, but what of Gorbachev’s measures?

Glasnost has been used by Gorbachev as a weapon to expose the corruption and slothfulness of the old bureaucracy. But as a by-product, glasnost has also seen the emergence of large numbers of political and cultural clubs. True, most of these wholeheartedly support Gorbachev. Some, such as Pamyat (Memory), are downright Great Russian chauvinists and anti-Semitic to boot. Yet the Pandora ’s box of political activity independent of the bureaucracy has been opened. It will not easily be closed. Already a Federation of Socialist Clubs has been formed. In spite of its eclecticism this is a good thing.

But, while there can be positive spin offs from glasnost, what of perestroika? Gorbachev’s New Economic Mechanism is equated with Lenin’s New Economic Policy. But this is not 1920. The USSR does not need a strategic retreat. It does not need less socialism; it needs more. NEM can only bring short term advances and long term dangers.

In our view, there is nothing progressive about downgrading the role of planning. It needs democratising, not abandoning. Market socialism will not solve the Soviet Union’s problems. Socialism must march along the road to communism, not beat a retreat back to the mechanisms of capitalism.

Moreover, the more the capitalist elements are strengthened, the greater the danger of capitalist restoration, not so much from some counterrevolution by a new peasant kulak class and NEMmen but from sections of the bureaucracy transforming their control of the forces of production into either individual or state capitalist ownership, using the NEM elements as a social base.

In spite of these dangers and the bureaucratic dead weight on socialism the mighty Soviet working class has remained passive. This is only a temporary state of affairs. This class, which in October 1917 opened a new chapter in world history, will not remain quiet for long.

Even as a class in itself it has no enthusiasm for Gorbachev’s reforms. Rightly so. The NEM orientation towards so-called market socialism will produce higher prices and lower real wages for workers. The practice of market socialism in Hungary, China and Yugoslavia do not bode well for the living standards of workers in the USSR.

Market socialism might mean that the NEM peasant and petty capitalist grow rich because of higher prices but this goes hand in hand with unemployment and a fall in real wages.

When this is carried out in the name of advancing socialism it is tragic, but hardly surprising, that workers become alienated from socialism. No one should forget what happened in Poland in 1981. According to The Times Gorbachev says he is determined to push his measures through even if there is social unrest in the Soviet Union.

So there are real dangers with the road Gorbachev is taking. The pre-crisis situation he spoke of when taking over the reins of leadership could become a full blown crisis. This need not result in a Solidarnosc scenario.

The working class in the Soviet Union is far more advanced and has far greater experience, not least the collective memory of October 1917. Soviet workers have no love of bureaucratic privilege but socialism is theirs; they made it, it was not handed down from above. They will fight tooth and nail to defend and advance it. We will support whatever measures the Soviet working class uses in the fight for communism, including political revolution.

Jack Conrad

Return to the ‘Reforging the CPGB (1981-present)’ series