An Optimistic Tragedy?

An Optimistic Tragedy?

For years, if they wished to be honest, observers of the Soviet Union had to work like archeologists, digging below the political surface to discover real social changes taking place in the co


Perestroika is not manna from heaven.
   –Mikhail Gorbachev, at the Nineteenth Soviet Communist Party Conference

For years, if they wished to be honest, observers of the Soviet Union had to work like archeologists, digging below the political surface to discover real social changes taking place in the country. Today, as the frontiers of freedom are extended every day, as Soviet memory stretches into the past, as genuine debate picks up and institutions begin to be reshaped, one has the excitement of. watching history in the making. But the exhilaration brings its own problems–and I don’t mean for the conservative preachers who had sworn that the Evil Empire was frozen forever. They have by now conveniently forgotten their predictions and retreated to a new line of propaganda, some saying that Gorbachev is bound to break his political neck, others arguing that his only salvation lies in a conversion to capitalism. No, judging by some stern condemnations or uncritical endorsements on the left, it is Western socialists who face problems. They must revise their assessment of the nature of the rapidly changing Soviet society and brush up their concepts of revolution “from above” or “from below,” as well as of the relationship between the two.

They must also hurry because, however important, the transformations of the past three years are merely the first stage of a vast upheaval, and the changes so far have been far easier to assess than those that are still to come. It is natural to be for glasnost, for the publication of banned books or of manuscripts lying hopelessly in a drawer, for the showing of films and the staging of plays hitherto forbidden by the censor. Who but the diehard defending a privileged position can be against freedom of the press, of television, against the extraordinary breath of fresh air that is sweeping through the Soviet Union?

The same is true of the reconquest of the recent past. The historical assessment of Stalin’s rule and its aftermath is not just a question of rehabilitation and justice for the victims. The Russians need history, as a speaker at the Nineteenth All-Union Party Conference put it, to know “how we got into that swamp.” Furthermore, as I have argued before in these pages, access to the past implies the right of access to the present [see Singer, “On Recapturing the Soviet Past,” The Nation, December 12, 19871. If Soviet citizens are allowed to have all the elements of the debate on, say, the industrialization of the 1920s, they are entitled to have a similar debate on perestroika.

It is in this context that there are some worrisome signs of new distortion. The way in which several writers have presented Trotsky not as the victim of Stalinism but as its inspirer is, to put it mildly, indecent. The problem, again, is not whether Trotsky was wrong or right in this or that dispute. It is my guess that in its present mood the bulk of the Soviet intelligentsia, given an honest choice, would probably opt for Nikolai Bukharin (not the early “left Communist” but the moderate Bukharin, advocate of industrialization at “a snail’s pace”) over Trotsky, the “prophet” of permanent revolution. The essential thing, however, is to give an honest choice. By now, the only decent attitude is the one advocated by people like the historian Yuri Afanasiev: Let all the writings, including those of Stalin, be published, and consider Soviet citizens adult enough to make up their own minds. This, after all, is the basis of elementary–let alone socialist–democracy.

Incidentally, the issue of the one-party state, at least as it is currently being presented, is probably not at this stage the main obstacle on the road toward democracy in the Soviet Union. Let us suppose that the principles of socialist pluralism, as advocated at the last party conference, were applied; that “democratic centralism” ceased to mean that all power flowed from above; that several candidates confronted one another on differing platforms in elections to all party organs and all state councils (i.e., the soviets) and were allowed to put forward minority views afterward. If these things happened, the party would be single in name only, and even that not for long. What is at stake is practice rather than theory, how interests crystallize and are freely expressed. Indeed, all Soviet commentators, from Gorbachev on down, have found it quite awkward to justify the persistence of one-party rule in ‘other than purely pragmatic terms (“under a one-party system which has been historically created and consolidated in our country,” Gorbachev told the conference). This principle made sense while the C.P. was supposed to be carrying out its task in the context of a “dictatorship of the proletariat”; it makes none if the Soviet Union is, as all its leaders since Stalin have said, “a state of all people.” The alleged absence of class contradictions confuses still further an already complex debate.

Tatyana Zaslavskaya, the influential president of the Soviet Sociological Association, is one of the few to define what is happening today as a “hard sociopolitical struggle” involving “a radical redistribution of power.” But having thus clarified matters, she promptly muddies them again by describing perestroika, in the June 4 Izvestia, as “the transfer of a large part of incomes, rights and social privileges from the top stories of the social pyramid to the lower ones.” That is just not so–or, to put it more optimistically, not yet so. If it were, the Soviet leadership would not be faced with such a dilemma in trying to win over the working class to its managerial revolution. Indeed, what we have witnessed so far is essentially a struggle between two sections of the establishment: the rising managerial modernizers, backed by the bulk of the professional intelligentsia, versus the party apparatchiks and their allies in the ruling bureaucracy.

Admittedly, not all the-followers of Mikhail Gorbachev have the crude candor of a Nikolai Shmelev, for whom efficiency is the virtue and the market its eternal instrument, or of S.N. Fyodorov, the successful head of an enterprise in ophthalmological surgery, who proclaimed at the last party conference that “leaders are the foundation of society,” and added that since fixed salaries have been abandoned at his clinic some doctors are able to earn a decent living that allows them, “so to speak, to feed their children properly, develop culturally” and so on. (Since the earnings he mentioned were three to four times the national average, one must assume that the majority of the population should live indecently, feed its children improperly, etc.) Even so, in order to extricate the Soviet economy from its profound crisis, Gorbachev addresses his countrymen with the famous slogan of the nineteenth-century French politician François Guizot: Enrichissez-vous. His supporters are extolling the market, preaching wage differentiation, casting anathema against “equalizing socialism.”

The deep distaste for equality amid the reformers does not imply any fondness for it among their opponents. Quite the contrary: The conservatives are in favor of the existing system, of the pecking order, of prestige and privilege for the mighty and their faithful servants. (Incidentally, although the nomenklatura is now coming under attack, that is for being a mafia rather than as a method of government.) The second point to keep in mind is that the alliances are still fragile and provisional, especially among Gorbachev’s followers. Here one can distinguish those who wish to preserve full employment and those who do not care, those who want to keep salary differences with bounds and those for whom the sky is the limit, foreshadowing potential future cleavages between those who will try to maintain control over the commanding heights of the economy and those who may be carried away by the logic of the market.

Last but not least, there is MikhaiI Gorbachev himself, who is striving, successfully so far, to keep the transition in check. Unlike Nikita Khrushchev, his reform predecessor, Gorbachev is obviously aware of the fact that bureaucratic resistance, fed by vested interests, will not yield without serious pressure from below. Hence his promise last year to give workers more power in the factories, including the right to elect their managers (a pledge that so far has remained purely verbal). Hence his current project to grant power to the soviets, though under party supervision. Hence, however carefully the process is stage-managed, the possibility that the movement from below will at some point rewrite the script altogether. Zaslavskaya’s description, inaccurate for now, could thus turn out to be a farsighted forecast.

How should a Western left-winger react to these momentous prospects, beyond a natural joy that the Bolshevik birthplace is once again stirring? To set the problem in context, I shall first sum up the attitude of two friends who have written at length on the subject. One of them sees Gorbachevism in a historical perspective, as the result of deep social transformations that kept up their subterranean work even during the Leonid Brezhnev years. He thinks leftist critics, myself included, are too harsh on the Eastern European leaders because we tend to judge them by socialist standards. The Soviet Union, he sometimes says privately, exaggerating for effect, has to be looked at independently of the question of socialism–though he is well aware that to take Marx, the Revolution’s early aspirations and even today’s vocabulary out of the story is to deprive it of its major dramatic dimension. My other friend, on the contrary, thrilled by the new regime’s references to the power of the people or the strength of the soviets, tends to view Gorbachev as the Lenin of our day, and his companions as the latter-day Bolsheviks. He can do so only by exaggerating the socialist convictions of Gorbachev’s entourage and by turning a blind eye to the controversy over egalitarianism.

Fortunately, the charge that Gorbachev is a “traitor to the cause,” which in the past would have dominated the debate, can now be dismissed quite lightly. Thirty-five years after Stalin’s death, and thirty-two after Khrushchev’s indictment of his crimes, the Soviet “model” lies shattered in pieces. Even the Communist Parties no longer hold it up as an example. Naturally, if one still saw Leonid Brezhnev as the champion of the rights and powers of the Soviet worker, or Konstantin Chernenko as the herald of world revolution, then the current reformers (who often talk, Thatcher-like, of “”idlers and loafers” and clearly do not give a damn about the spread of socialism) could easily be branded in traditional fashion betrayers and gravediggers. But they are nothing of the sort. Let us not invent ne$fictions. Egalitarianism was condemned in Russia by Stalin over half a century ago, and the interests of world revolution were subordinated to those of the Soviet state even earlier than that.

The reformers represent a break not with socialist planning but with a command economy at the end of its tether. They have a growing awareness that available resources leave little room for extensive methods of expansion and that science cannot develop in a political straitjacket. They are carried along by popular discontent with the fact that, seventy years after the Revolution, people still have to waste several hours a day standing in line and estranged couples have to stick together because housing waiting lists are so long. The reformers express the aspirations of a new generation, less frightened and more educated, one resenting hypocrisy and the revolting gap between slogans and reality, a generation that demands both a better life and greater freedom. But they also express the aspirations of the “haves” who would like to have more, of all the Fyodorovs who are convinced that they deserve to be much more equal than others.

In a way, two centuries after 1789, the Russians are following in French footsteps. Freedom of thought, of speech, of assembly, the rule of law–perestroika, in a sense, is also Russia’s unaccomplished bourgeois revolution. And we are right to hail this development. Bourgeois freedoms are not negligible, particularly in a country where heroic exploits were coupled with inhuman arbitrariness. Socialism, in fact, never intended to abolish bourgeois freedoms. It called them “formal” freedoms because, after the revolution, they were to be filled with economic and social content, without which they remain both precious and, at the same time, somewhat phony.

Current events in the Soviet Union remind us of this analysis. I certainly would not call the country socialist or claim that under Brezhnev (or Stalin for that matter) the Soviet workers were masters of their factories (a view that reached the columns of Pravda on July 26 in a striking letter from Yuri Afanasiev). But in a country where the means of production have been nationalized, managerial reform raises at once the problem of property and power, both in the factory and the nation at large, while bourgeois freedoms linked with a doctrine of inequality–as espoused by the Fyodorovs of the world–raise doubts about the very foundations on which this society rests. Beyond the issues of efficiency and productivity that the reformers have put on the agenda looms the unanswered question of socialist democracy.

Rereading this already long letter, I am struck by its impersonal tone. The Western left is too heterogeneous to hide behind. One cannot honestly comment on Soviet perspectives without revealing one’s own premises. So let me do so, if only in shorthand. I belong to the school, family or tradition for which 1917, like 1789, is a key landmark, a date marking the beginning of a new era in the struggle of humankind for mastery over its fate. But mine is also a school for which the Bolshevik Revolution, or rather its unsplendid isolation, is part of the great Marxist tragedy, the failure of a project to spread to those areas for which it was designed–the most advanced capitalist countries. In Russia, dixit Lenin, barbarism had to be uprooted by barbarian means. The result, too, was partly barbarian and still casts a shadow over socialism, which has come to be artificially identified with the Soviet experiment. Yet whom are we to blame? If seventy years ago the Bolsheviks stood tragically alone, it was the historical fault of the Western left, unable to carry out its pledge to turn war into revolution. And if budding socialists in Eastern Europe can perceive no alternative vision, it is entirely our own failing.

The humility that ought to result from recognizing this, however, should not once again be translated into submission. Gone, one may hope, are the days when anything Russian was sanctified and even the unnecessary vice was turned into supreme virtue. The Soviet Union should be treated as what it is: a postcapitalist society sui generis, a product of peculiar circumstances. But if we have no model at our disposal (and that is no bad thing, since models are there to be imitated), we cannot deny a heritage, some of it written in blood. Our duty, therefore, if any, is to warn the peoples of Eastern Europe that the capitalist market is not as pretty as it looks through their new rose-tinted spectacles. It is to remind them that socialism is not just about the development of productive forces (even if their desire for a more comfortable life is perfectly natural). Pace Gorbachev, equality–which is not to be confused with uniformity–figures prominently in the socialist vision. It is to be achieved by the progressive elimination of social inequalities and differences between town and country, physical and mental work, men and women, the rulers and the ruled–this gradual attack on the social division of labor that will–lead to the withering away of the state. Above all, socialism is a conscious conquest, a collective attempt by the “associate producers” to rationally master their destiny. As such, it must be a movement from below.

Personally, I doubt whether “market socialism” is any more likely to answer Russia’s fundamental questions than the goulash socialism of thirty years ago. The road probably leads through some inventive reconciliation between planning and democracy. But this is no reason to quarrel with history. Now that the command economy has reached a dead end, the odds are that the countries of Eastern Europe will shift for some time to a greater reliance on private enterprise and the market. This period should allow forces hitherto hidden beneath the surface to take shape and seek to express their interests. What this ferment will produce cannot be foretold. Once the lid is lifted, not all the smells are appetizing: In the Soviet Union today, one can clearly distinguish the stench of jingoism, reaction and racism. But it is not absurd to expect the rise of a new socialist generation. Seeking at once freedom and equality, it may resume the original task, tackling in succession the old nomenklatura and the new managerial masters. The greatest tribute I can pay to Mikhail Gorbachev is that speculation about some power to the soviets in the not-too-distant future is no longer abstract. There, here and everywhere, the tragedy may have a happy ending after all.

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