Historically, the errors committed by a truly revolutionary movement are infinitely more fruitful than the infallibility of the cleverest central committee.   -Rosa Luxemburg

Four days that fascinated the Soviet people. But did those four days shake them out of apathy and skepticism; did they convince them, after so many disappointed hopes, to try once again to take their destiny into their own hands? And is it possible to transfer “all power to the soviets” from above, under full party supervision? Is it conceivable that the party apparatus will preside over the limitation of its own prerogatives? Or, to put it differently, can socialist democracy be combined with a one-party state? These are some of the questions and contradictions that sprang to mind as the 4,991 delegates were leaving the glass hall in the Kremlin on July 1, at the close of the really extraordinary Nineteenth All-Union Conference of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, which ended symbolically with the decision to erect in Moscow a monument to the victims of Stalinism. (The third time, incidentally, that this decision has been taken, but it looks like third time lucky .)

The Russians, and the world at large, were astonished. Most speakers stressed the fact that their country had not known anything of the kind for some sixty years. In Stalin’s time heretics were sent to Siberia, and discussion, therefore, was stifled by fear. (“I gave him a quotation, he replied with a reference,” one bitter joke claimed–bitter because ssylka in Russian means both “reference” and “deportation.”) Relative freedom under Nikita Khrushchev did not last long enough to consolidate the habit and, although repression could not be compared with that of Stalin’s time, the reign of Leonid Brezhnev was one of conformity. Hence the contrast. No wonder Soviet citizens rushed for their newspapers and were glued to their TV screens. For them the performance was unprecedented.

They could see, on one hand, say, Mikhail Ulyanov, a famous actor, pleading eloquently for a world in which people would not be “mute cogs,” where “talent and labor are more prized than a position on the nomenklatura,” attacking bureaucrats preoccupied merely with “clinging to posts from which they can issue commands” and then explaining why people should lose “faith in anything, seeing the universal lies and thievery.” And they could watch, on the other hand, the Slavophile Yuri Bondarev vituperating against a press that “destroys, denigrates” and seizes this opportunity “for the revision of faith and morality”; a Bondarev complaining that words like “fatherland” or “patriotism” provoke “serpentine hissing” and defining the motto of the critics as “let all weeds bloom and let all evil forces contend.”

The viewers could see a Moscow party boss, reciting self-praise as in the good old days, driven from the platform with mock applause. They could watch the now-famous scene when the delegate from the cold climate of the Kormi S.S.R., arguing that those responsible for stagnation should be kicked out of their jobs, was asked by Gorbachev to name names and replied without hesitation, “I would include comrade M.S. Solomentsev, above all, and comrades A.A. Gromyko, V.G. Afanasiev, G.A. Arbatov and others” (that is to say, a member of the Politburo and the current President, sitting on the platform with Gorbachev, and the editor of Pravda and the head of the Institute of American and Canadian Studies, both delegates sitting in the hall). One could add to these highlights the confrontation between the downgraded Boris Yeltsin, who appeared rather ill at ease, and Yegor Ligachev, who was in fine form.

Not everything, however, was so new and so original. The conference itself had been improvised. The Central Committee’s theses, or suggestions for revision, were published late, leaving barely a month for study and discussion. Though there was choice this time and elections were freer than before, the organized apparatchiks knew in many cases how to manipulate the result. The conference against bureaucracy was packed with bureaucrats. Naturally, nobody spoke against perestroika as such. Yet you could easily distinguish those whose enthusiasm for reform was restrained. They loudly applauded all references to the dangerously irresponsible press, to “loudmouths who are parading through the streets with dubious slogans” or to the exaggerated emphasis on the seamy side of the Soviet past. They also applauded a delegate’s tribute to Andrei Gromyko in reply to the above-mentioned attack. But more worrisome still was a point to which we shall return: the awareness that the movement from below is still too inarticulate, that people only open up when they are prompted from above.

The proof of the perestroika pudding is in the eating, and most criticism centered on shortages of food, of consumer goods and more generally on the insufficient results of the economic reform. Gorbachev, referring wittily to the very many who are still “faithful servants of his majesty gross output,” did not conceal the fact that his economic reform program is still in its infancy and that progress so far has been very disappointing. But he argued that further advance depends on political transformation, that nothing will be achieved until the party relinquishes its stranglehold on society, allowing the latter to manage its own affairs through its own institutions, the soviets. These elected councils, supposedly the main organs of state power from the local to the national level, have really been rubber-stamp institutions. This is plain fact, not slander. (A contributor to Pravda making this point on June 12 quoted two members of the Supreme Soviet: “We arrive in Moscow, get to the Kremlin, examine matters that have been prepared by the apparatus and have essentially been decided in advance,” says one. “And our vote is invariably unanimous,” adds the second.)

Gorbachev proposes that these bodies should have genuine elections and real powers to run the state at all levels, including the very highest. Some 1,500 deputies are to be elected, as now, on a national and territorial basis. To these will be added 450 deputies elected by trade unions, women’s organizations, youth groups, cooperatives and other associations. Together the 2,250 deputies will form “the supreme body of state power–the Congress of U.S.S.R. People’s Deputies,” meeting once a year to.decide key issues. They, in turn, will elect a smaller permanent parliament, or Supreme Soviet, of some 400 to 450 deputies, divided into a Soviet of the Union and a Soviet of Nationalities. The congress will also elect a chair of the Supreme Soviet – that is to say the country’s president, no longer a figurehead but someone who would have vast prerogatives over foreign policy and defense, a leader heading the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet, appointing the prime minister and so on.

It is taken for granted that, by the autumn of next year, Gorbachev himself will be the first to occupy this crucial office. The combined leadership of party and state is not in itself surprising, since it would protect him against the risk of his Politburo colleagues ditching him, as their predecessors did Khrushchev. But this is not a decision affecting an individual. Quite the contrary. The selection of party secretaries as chairs of the soviets is to be the rule at all levels, from top to bottom. Thus, the long-awaited separation of powers between state and party is coupled with the reassertion of the dominant role of the latter, without a clear explanation of the reason. In his important second intervention at the conference, Gorbachev cleverly criticized Leonid Abalkin, head of the Economics Institute of the Academy of Sciences, for underestimating the supremacy of politics. He probably resented most Abalkin’s plain question– “Are we capable of insuring the democratic organization of public life while preserving the Soviet organization of society and the one-party system?”– and Abalkin’s doubts on the wisdom of uniting the leadership of the party and the soviets in the same hands. Gorbachev justified the measure on the essential ground that the presence of the first secretary at its head would give the soviets necessary power. At the same time, his re-election would give the party secretary additional prestige. All this does not seem to be sufficient reason for letting the party back in through the window, having just removed it through the door.

The party must preside over this transformation, it could be Argued, because the movement from below is still too weak. This conference was preceded by a traumatic experience. On March 13, Sovetskaya Rossiya published the letter of one Nina Andreyeva, which was seen as the manifesto of the conservatives. On April 5 Pravda published an editorial that was hailed as the reply of the reformers [see Dev Murarka, “The Foes of Perestroika Sound Off,” The Nation, May 211. But in the intervening three weeks only one provincial paper had dared to protest. The eloquent silence of the rest is haunting the reformers and, at the conference, the actor Ulyanov expressed their anguish: “The fact that we were scared by her letter, this is what is terrifying…. Even though their hearts might have been aching, the overwhelming majority were rooted to the spot and awaited directives. They realized that this was wrong, but they waited, they trembled but waited patiently, obediently and with a sense of foreboding.”

The other possible explanation is that a deal had been struck. The economic reform, combined with the new prerogative for the soviets, will deprive the party apparatus of its direct control over the economy and, therefore, of a great deal of its power. To convince the apparatchiks that the term “vanguard” has not become an empty one, it may have been necessary to bestow on the party the leadership of the soviets, preserving at the same time its control over key appointments of cadres (though the size of this nomenklatura will inevitably be cut by the reforms). The idea of a compromise was strengthened by the performance at the conference of Yegor Ligachev, generally viewed as expressing the interests and apprehensions of the party apparatus.

Ligachev’s speech, on the last day of the conference, was full of surprises. The enemy of Yeltsin claimed that it was in fact he who had recommended Yeltsin’s nomination to both Politburo and Secretariat. With a reputation for being none too keen on the exploration of Stalin’s crimes, Ligachev presented himself as coming from a family whose members had been shot or expelled from the party. There was more to come. At this conference, where punishment was being demanded for guilty leaders, he reminded the audience of the crucial meeting of the Central Committee in March 1985, when Gorbachev was chosen as General Secretary. It had been touch and go. Ligschev knows what he is talking about, noting that “destiny put me at the center of these events.” The result might have gone the other way but, notably, for the stand taken by “Politburo members comrade [Viktor] Cherbikov [head of the K.G.B.], comrades Solomentsev and Gromyko.” Ligachev’s cryptic remark about the “dialectical unity of renewal and continuity” sounded in this context like a reminder to Gorbachev about who had made him king.

Some highly placed people in Moscow had described Ligachev as really being Gorbachev’s associate. The rest of his speech better fitted his usually accepted role as leader of the conservatives. We may leave it to the Sovietologists, and time, to show whether the two men are allies by choice or merely provisional partners. What is, unfortunately, more obvious, on the other hand, is that Boris Yeltsin does not seem to have the stature of a leader for the radical wing. His speech contained some interesting suggestions (for example, a referendum on whether party secretaries should head soviets), some pointed attacks (against the party control commission’s leniency toward the mafia of big bribe-takers) and a passionate plea against privilege (“We must abolish food ‘rations’ for the so-called ‘starving nomenklatura,’ eradicate elitism”). But it did not have the coherence, or the sweep, needed for a potential political platform.

Let there be no mistake. This was not a show of equal performers. There was one undisputed star dominating the proceedings and also one unquestioned winner. Mikhail Gorbachev managed to push through all the resolutions he had favored, the general one on restructuring and the more specific ones on democratic reform of the political system, the struggle against bureaucracy, the spread of glasnost as a “developing process” and “the shaping of a socialist state based on the rule of law.” He also succeeded in imposing a tight timetable, starting with a special session of the Central Committee in July and ending with final elections to the reshaped institutions in the autumn of 1989. Awakened from its Brezhnevian slumber, the Soviet Union is in for quite a bout of political activity.

Hitherto, at the risk of oversimplification, the struggle could be described as basically between the conservatives and the reformers. Now that the economic reform can be expected to start biting, and with issues such as property, privilege or inequality being forced onto the agenda, interests are likely to crystallize and shifting alliances to appear in their full capacity. This is the subject I will try to tackle in my next letter, together with the attitude of the Western left toward these historical changes–a judgment complicated by our ambiguous confusion between the socialist dream and Soviet reality. A confusion perpetrated by the conference’s revival of the revolutionary slogan: All power to the soviets.