“Is the Communist Party of the Soviet Union still the ruling party, the political vanguard of the people? . . . Should there be a multiparty system? Does the C.P.S.U. still adhere firmly to Communist ideals or is it leaning toward social democracy? Does it fully foresee the social and political consequences of establishing a market economy?” These are not the questions of a critic, a member of the opposition. They were posed on February 6 at the plenary meeting of the party’s Central Committee by the Soviet Prime Minister, Nikolai Ryzhkov, and they illustrate the gravity of the situation. Nineteen-ninety looks like a turning point for perestroika.
Citizens of the Soviet Union are now busy electing their local and republic parliamentary councils, or soviets. As soon as that is over, party members will pick the delegates for the 28th Party Congress, to be held at the end of June or in early July. This congress should endorse the platform that was produced by the plenary, defining party policy for the forthcoming period. Thus, exactly five years after the spectacular debut of the relatively young Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet Union has two major questions on its agenda: the problem of power, with the Communist Party apparently resigned to abandoning the principle of its monopoly as a birthright, and the problem of property, as economic reform starts to reduce the realm of state ownership.
While the two issues are fundamentally linked, the connection is not necessarily obvious at once. The platform, as Boris Yeltsin aptly put it, often reads as if it were “written by two hands, a right hand and a left hand.” This duality is the result partly of contradictions within the leadership and partly of indecision. On the one side, the reformers, who stood together while the battle was over glasnost and the recovery of the country’s historical memory, are falling apart as they differ over the future: How far and how fast should the country move in the direction of capitalism? On the other side, the apparatchiks, with their backs to the wall, are trying to recover by exploiting Great Russian jingoism as well as popular fears of unemployment and growing social differences. This complex battle is gaining in passion and violence as it approaches its climax.
Property and Power. In one sense, the changes in forms of property will not have an important immediate impact on the Soviet economy. Except for the small plots owned by collective farmers, private property plays a marginal role and will continue to do so for some time, at least in the towns. Yet potentially the economic interests involved are enormous and the political consequences vital. Leonid Abalkin, the Deputy Prime Minister in charge of economic reform, presented the draft law on ownership in mid-February. He and his colleagues have destroyed one myth–that Soviet workers are the masters of their factories and thus the first in the world to have moved beyond alienation. This debunking had the obvious purpose of placing all forms of ownership on the same level, whether state, collective or private.
This approach could simply mean that socialist property, when it is finally invented, will have to prove its superiority in competition with other forms of ownership. But it could also be an attempt to replace one mystification with an even bigger one: that socialism can be reconciled with the private ownership of the means of production. Indeed, the section of the party platform devoted to this subject reads like the product of a split mind. It says that individual (or private) property may “include ownership of the means of production” and, in the next sentence, rules out the exploitation of one person by another in the Soviet Union. This is not just a theoretical aberration. It looks like a loophole through which new property relations could be smuggled-and not just the right of the Soviet citizen to own and bequeath a house or start a small enterprise. It could be the framework for capital–foreign and then domestic- to take over big plants, along Eastern European lines.