“Comrade democrats–in the widest meaning of this word–you have scattered. The reformers have gone to ground. Dictatorship is coming…. No one knows what kind of dictatorship this will be, and who will come-what kind of dictator, and what the regime will be like.” Thus Eduard Shevardnadze in his December 20, 1990, resignation speech.
The sixth year of Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika is drawing to an end with all the signs of a drama reaching its climax. The Soviet economy is on the brink of disaster. Production is falling, the distribution system is collapsing, lines are lengthening and prices are ready to take off. In a context of political relaxation and glasnost, nationalism–exacerbated by economic discontent–has brought the Soviet Union to the point where it may break up altogether. Faced with the combined threat of economic debacle and dissolution of the union, Gorbachev decided toward the end of last year to streamline the government and strengthen his own position, preparing to take special powers in case of emergency. But his first attempt to assert central authority led to bloodshed in Vilnius and Riga and brought about a nationwide outcry. In the January 20 Moscow News, whose pages were edged in black, the list of protesters, from filmmaker Tengiz Abuladze to sociologist Tatyana Zaslavskaya, read like a roll-call of Gorbachev’s former associates. More worrying still was the support of several of his former advisers for the hundreds of thousands of demonstrators who took to the streets in Moscow to express their indignation.
No wonder that some Western pundits are already advising their masters, with cynical candor, that once the Persian Gulf crisis is over Gorbachev will become dispensable, with Boris Yeltsin perhaps being a better bet for capitalist restoration in Russia. This is not the first time the experts have buried Gorbachev, and the obituaries may again prove premature. In any case, the main preoccupation of Nation readers is not to find out what is best for capital. I shall try instead to suggest what is at stake in the Soviet Union, what interests are involved and why the present struggle is so bitter and passionate.
It is hard to assess and predict the course of events in Europe, since what is taking place there is unprecedented. In Budapest, Prague and Warsaw–and now, with a time lag, in Moscow and Leningrad–we are seeing what might best be described, to paraphrase E.P. Thompson, as the remaking of a capitalist class. This is a lengthy process, and its final outcome is uncertain. But already it has altered the terms of the debate, gradually replacing talk of a socialist market economy with market tout court and now to the necessary change in property relations. This change will involve not just minor enterprises such as peasant farms, handicrafts or small family firms but also the huge plants and trusts that are now in the hands of the state. It is far from clear when and how these will be privatized, yet the issue is already on the agenda because what is at stake is a fundamental transformation of the regime, a shift from mainly political to more economic means for extracting the surplus from the working population. The huge economic and social reform will not only affect the lives of ordinary people. It will also reshape the power and privileges of those at the top.