Is Mikhail Gorbachev, for all his vast presidential powers and commanding leadership of the Communist Party, merely to be a transitional ruler of the Soviet Union? If so, a transition to what? Has he unleashed social and national forces that he cannot control from above?

The election of Boris Yeltsin, his populist rival, to the presidency of the Russian Republic has focused attention on some of Gorbachev’s difficulties. Yeltsin was elected on a third ballot by only five votes, and might even have lost had the vote not come at such an awkward moment for Gorbachev, with a government austerity program raising fears of rocketing prices and driving Soviet consumers to a panicky buying spree. The program was a reflection of Gorbachev’s major problem, the deepening economic crisis. Upon his election, Yeltsin announced the Russian Republic’s bid for total sovereignty within a hundred days. That may prove an empty boast, but it is a reminder of Gorbachev’s second monumental task: the need to turn an empire based on repression into a commonwealth held together by democratic means. In an illustration of his third and final challenge, 80 percent of the deputies in the Russian Congress that elected Yeltsin were Communist Party members; the influence of that once monolithic institution has clearly waned.

On the eve of the 28th Party Congress, which opens on July 2, it can be argued that pluralism is now taking root not only in Soviet society but in the party itself. As class struggle intensifies throughout the country, it shatters the facade of unity. The revival of nationalism threatens the Soviet Union with fragmentation, while the economic crisis, as it grows, leads to further political polarization. All this weakens the position of Gorbachev, whose chosen ground is the center. Admittedly, he has in the past shown his capacity for recovery and his knack for turning setbacks into springboards. But today he is in a greater predicament than ever before.

The Crumbling Economy. The roots of the current crisis are economic, as were the origins of perestroika. Five years ago the Soviet establishment, quite happy with Brezhnevian immobility for as long as it lasted, resigned itself to radical reform because the engine of management was stalled, the economy was grinding to a halt and social discontent threatened a political explosion. Gorbachev’s great historical merit, particularly apparent one year after the Beijing massacre, is to have grasped that economic reform cannot be carried out without a deep political transformation. Hence the exhilarating sight in the early years of the new regime of a country recovering its voice and its memory, of a people rediscovering political action. But economic restructuring–perestroika— failed to keep pace with gIasnost.

Faced with the crucial question that has been left unanswered since Stalin’s death-how to make people work without the threat of the concentration camp- the new Soviet rulers, after some hesitation, opted for the mechanism of the market, apparently not fully aware that it functions most naturally within the framework of capitalist coercion. Thus Soviet economic performance in recent years has been tom by a logical contradiction, with enterprises given enough freedom to boost incomes but not quite enough to bully workers into higher productivity. The inevitable happened: In the past two years, incomes rose by 23 percent but output remained stagnant. Despite a switch from heavy to light industry and imports of consumer goods, anything that comes to market is snapped up at once. Too much money is chasing too few goods.

Undeterred, the Soviet doctors have been applying the same medicine in small doses, but the patient’s condition has only grown worse. According to official figures, in the first four months of 1990 the national income fell by 1.7 percent while individual incomes rose by 13.4 percent. And there is more: To keep up its crucial exports of oil Russia must modernize its extraction in Siberia; grain imports from 1971 to 1988 cost the Soviet Union $70 billion, making it, in the words of the Izvestia journalist who gives these figures, “dependent on imports as the drug addict is dependent on the needle.” (Last year alone the country imported 44 million tons of grain.) Of late, Gorbachev’s popularity has slumped even faster than production. Quite obviously, something had to be done.

After much consultation, Prime Minister Nikolai Ryzhkov revealed the new program to the Supreme Soviet on May 24. The switch to a market economy would be made much more rapidly over the next two years, he announced, with new wholesale and retail prices and a new framework of property relations–not only state and collective, but also lease, joint-stock and private property. Although Ryzhkov tried to reassure people that the market would be “regulated,” with compensation for price rises, all they heard was that the price of bread was to be trebled almost at once and other food prim more than doubled by next January. They rushed for the stores.

Party and Privilegentsia. To understand why the new regime did not invent better solutions one must look at its original makeup. Perestroika is the product of an alliance between the reformist sections of the party apparatus, headed by Gorbachev, and what one might call the privilegentsia–the ambitious managers, economists, top engineers, doctors and other professionals who are convinced that the time has come for them, the bright and the brave, to take over from the obedient and faithful apparatchiks. They saw themselves inheriting the privileges first, power and perhaps property later. Ideologically, they are the archenemies of egalitarianism. They favor large income differentials, a system of basic education, health and housing for all and a second tier of services for those who can afford them. With obviously no interest in any socialist revival or search for a third way, they are greatly attracted by the Western capitalist economy.

In the early days the alliance worked smoothly. With a professional stake in extending the frontiers of freedom, the intelligentsia as a whole was in the forefront of the battle for glasnost.. But strains appeared as soon as economic restructuring became the heart of the matter. Here the privilegentsia has its own special interests to defend, and accuses Gorbachev of taking half-measures halfheartedly. It is loosely represented by the so-called Democratic Platform, composed of the Interregional Group in the Soviet Congress of People’s Deputies and Democratic Russia in the Russian Congress. The Soviet Union may not yet have a class of property owners, a genuine bourgeoisie, but it seems to have one in embryo, and it speaks with all the impatience and self-confidence of a future “class-for-itself.”

Gorbachev has no dispute with his former allies over aims or fundamentals; his disagreement is over tactics. He knows that egalitarian feelings still prevail among the Soviet people, even if he disapproves of those feelings, and he is aware of the opportunities that conspicuous consumption may offer to his opponents. Gorbachev would Like to accomplish the transition to a market economy with as little opposition as possible. He would like to carry the bulk of the party apparatus with him, leaving the conservative die-hards isolated, and this may be one reason that staff salaries at party and soviet organizations have just been considerably boosted. (At the same time, his own presidential salary was set at 4,000 rubles a month, more than sixteen times the average Soviet wage–a move that hardly seems designed to revive his popularity.) Gorbachev also seems aware of the need to win over, or at least neutralize, part of the working class, whose interests are likely to be hurt by the reform. Yet his original schemes for wooing the workers, such as the proposal that they should elect their own factory managers, have not been carried very far. At this stage, self-management is clearly not in fashion.

The gap between Gorbachev and the Democratic Platform appears to be widening, and the quarrel is becoming more venomous. Yet the degree to which it remains a division within the establishment may be seen by looking at the two camps’ respective attitudes toward a market economy.

The Meaning of the Market. The establishment Soviet economists and politicians do not treat the market economy as a stage, a retreat for a given historical period. It is the ultimate goal. The two sides are at odds only over the speed with which their common goal can be reached. Many economists associated with the Democratic Platform now favor a headlong rush toward capitalism (à la polonaise). Gorbachev’s associates reply that this kind of shock therapy is unsuitable for the Soviet Union, where it might precipitate a revolution. They too are for deregulation, but at a slower pace. It is significant that in current Soviet debates, even on such subjects as state intervention in the economy, the argument is clinched by pointing to what is done in the United States, in Japan or in the West in general. The Russians now admit–and this is progress–that they have not forged a socialist alternative. But they give no impression of seeking one either.

This is not just a question of the words one chooses to use. Gorbachev does accuse Yeltsin’s nomination speech of “invit[ing] us to say farewell to our socialist choice made in 1917.” As Gorbachev told the Komsomol congress last April, he joined the Communist Party back in 1952 and remains true to its ideals. He proclaims himself a Marxist and gives Lenin as his example on every possible occasion. But his Marxism, by this point, is neither revolutionary nor even anticapitalist. It is limited essentially to a single principle, one that for Marx was a bourgeois right during the period of transition, summed up in the slogan, “To each according to his labor.” As his recent speech on Lenin’s 120th birthday makes clear, the man he admires is not the Lenin of State and Revolution, who is too utopian for Gorbachev’s liking, but the later Lenin of the New Economic Policy, the supposed pragmatist in search of foreign capital, reconciliation with social democracy and cohabitation with capitalism.

This is not necessarily hypocrisy. Gorbachev was brought up under Stalin and climbed the party ladder in the “years of stagnation.” He belongs to that bewildered generation that has lost its crude certitudes but found nothing to put in their place. He shares the contradiction that is everywhere today, even in new Soviet legislation. The new law on property, for example, proclaims that a citizen now has the right to the “ownership of means of production” while insisting that the “exploitation of man by man” is forbidden. The former is a novelty, the latter a conditioned concession to Holy Writ.

Divided They Fall. If Gorbachev is hindered by these contradictions, his rival and contemporary Yeltsin (the two men were born within a month of each other in 1931) seems to thrive on them [see Singer, “Too Good to Be True,” May 71. Yeltsin rose to fame as the censor of corruption and scourge of the privileged. Later, in his battle with Gorbachev, he joined forces with the privilegentsia. No matter. The trouble was no longer that Mikhail and Raisa had too many dachas, but that those were public dachas rather than private property.

Yeltsin is equally unflappable today. He and his allies had attacked official policy, the Ryzhkov program in particular, as too gentle, too mild, too moderate. But faced with the popular outcry against rising prices, Yeltsin has a new tune ready. Now he promises a switch to the market without tears, a radical transformation “without lowering the standard of living of the population.” How will he pay for this when at the same time he wants to lower taxes on profits? He suggests a series of measures, such as turning bad debts to the Soviet Union into consumer goods, but it is doubtful whether he believes in them himself.

Like any good populist, Yeltsin is all things to all people, and his program does contain quite a few laudable goals, such as a law on ecological safety and a proposed transfer of power “to the people and the soviets.” He is less specific about how he plans to achieve those aims, but as long as one is out of office it is more important to sound good than to be consistent. In fact, it is just as well that Yeltsin does not have to keep all his pledges; if he did, the Soviet Union would rapidly dissolve. If Russian sovereignty were to mean, as he suggests, that the other republics would have to pay world-market prices for Russian exports, notably oil, then the impoverished republics of Central Asia would be the first to collapse and others would soon follow. Nor is it clear what would happen, in such a mood of selfishness and splendid isolation, to the multitude of Russians spread throughout the Soviet Union, such as the 11 million in the Ukraine alone, or those in Kazakhstan, where the Kazakhs are now a minority.

But Yeltsin may yet prove to be a unifier as well as an empire breaker, and he may surprise everybody, including his allies in Democratic Russia, who can hardly have failed to notice that it was not only their votes but those of some Russian nationalists that elected him. In his nomination speech, Yeltsin had some very kind words for the soldiers of a future professional army. Whom will he woo next? The thing to keep in mind is that he sees the presidency of Russia as merely a stepping stone to the top job in the Kremlin.

Yeltsin’s threat, even if it is not carried out, has emphasized the distorted anatomy of the Soviet Union. Imagine the United States if New York or California not only covered the bulk of its territory but also included some 52 percent of the total population. What kind of constitutional devices would be required to keep such an unbalanced structure together? Under Stalin, it did not matter that Russia did not have all the attributes of sovereignty. The Soviet Union was ruled through the Communist Party and Russian interests prevailed in the Politburo. even if the absolute ruler was a Georgian. Now that the republics are to be put on an equal footing, all sorts of checks and balances must be invented to prevent Russia from dominating the Union.

The czarist empire was preserved after the revolution because all the republics were ruled by the Bolsheviks, who had their party and ideology in common. Then Stalin kept it together with his iron fist. He did not uproot nationalism, as was claimed at the time, but drove it underground, where it continued to fester. Now it has re-emerged, often more poisonous than ever. Gorbachev thus faces a tremendous task; convincing member countries that they have common economic interests, and making the necessary changes in the Constitution and the institutions, are probably not the hardest parts. He must still convert them to a new form of internationalism and persuade them that they are united by a common ideology. No wonder that, with the empire falling to pieces, Gorbachev is essentially playing for time.

The Road to Capitalism?

Because so many troubles are reaching a climax together, some critics are now accusing Gorbachev of having given the Soviet Union, unaccustomed to democracy, too big a dose. I would argue the opposite. History will credit Gorbachev, whether or not he grasped the consequences, with having unleashed the social and political forces that alone can cleanse the Stalinist heritage. If it blames him, it will be for too little democracy, not too much.

Let us return to the crucial question of incentives to make people work, other than the gulag and the dread of un- employment. A socialist answer requires a democratic revolution: at the bottom, so that people on the shop floor really feel they are masters of their factories; at all levels, including the very top, so that planning can be turned into the self-management of society. Until it forges this kind of socialist alternative, the Soviet Union will continue moving into the capitalist orbit, with all the consequences, particularly in foreign policy, of being a subordinate member of the club.

Gorbachev’s supporters and the spokespersons for the privilegentsia claim that the only alternative to their way leads backward. True, some members of the nomenklatura now parade themselves as defenders of public property and the downtrodden. And, since the market model is “Western,” they pander to the jingoistic instincts of the population. But alternatives to present policy need not look back toward Stalinism. And there is no need to condemn the Soviet people if they show little enthusiasm when invited to embark on the road to capitalism.

On the eve of the 28th Party Congress, Soviet society is in turmoil. Here somebody argues that the threat of another collectivization will not vanish until there is a strong peasant party. There the advocates of a managerial revolution set up a “union of science and industry.” The budding bourgeoisie, as we saw, has no property yet but does enjoy political representation. The working class is flexing its muscles; as was said of the Third Estate at the beginning of the French Revolution, it could be anything, it wants to be something but it doesn’t yet know exactly what that is. Various interests are gradually finding a voice, but their message is still far from clear. The chorus is confused and the socialist voices within it still rather faint.

Democracy is indivisible. Surrounded by a society in flux, the Communist Party cannot be an island of uniformity. Either it will tolerate organized divisions in its ranks or it will be torn asunder. The days of Stalin, in which party members marched in step and spoke with all the originality of a ventriloquist’s dummy, are gone forever. In that sense, the party’s over. But the battle for socialism in the Soviet Union.