Gorbachev's New Path for Soviet Socialism: A return to Leninist principles?

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A new path for socialism? Revolutionary renewal in the Soviet Union and Cuba (from FRFI 80 August 1988)

19th all union conference

'Nothing of this kind has occurred in this country for nearly six decades,' said Mikhail Gorbachev in his closing speech to the 19th All-Union Conference of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU). For four days between 28 June and 1 July 1988, 5,000 delegates participated in an historic event, the most open, political debate held in the Soviet Union in their lifetimes.

Significant parts of the conference were televised. Edited versions of all the speeches (delegates had the right to edit their own speeches before they were released), including those of speakers with their names down to speak but unable to do so because of shortage of time, were published in the press. Journalists from all over the world, through press briefings, television and official news agency reports, were able to obtain a remarkably full picture of the conference proceedings.

This was the first party conference held for 47 years; the last one took place in 1941. It had been called to discuss the progress of perestroika. The basic question facing the party, said Gorbachev in his opening speech, 'is how to further the revolutionary restructuring launched in our country . . . and to make it irreversible' (p3).*


It was at the April 1985 plenary meeting of the central committee of the CPSU, one month after Gorbachev had become general secretary, that the party laid the basis for perestroika, the economic and political reforms for restructuring Soviet society. The programme was instituted by the 27th Party Congress of the CPSU (25 February-6 March 1986). perestroika was the CPSU's response to the dangerous social and economic crisis facing the country and, in particular, the urgent need to renew and revitalise the stagnating Soviet economy.

The party conference had been called because the results so far from perestroika had been very limited, and a significant section of the party were, in practice, blocking the reforms. Gorbachev in his opening speech said that a large number of party organisations were 'no match' for the tasks of perestroika. The party had underestimated the extent and gravity of the deformations and the stagnation of the preceding period (p3). A steelworker from the Urals brought home the reality of this during the discussion when he said: 'The workers are asking outright: where is perestroika? In the shops, everything is the same. There was no meat, and there still isn't any. Consumer goods have dropped out of sight.' An opinion survey of 11,000 industrial workers carried out by the Institute of Sociology of the Soviet Academy of Sciences showed deep cynicism about the possibility of reform. More than 73 per cent felt that so far 'there are no conditions which would really ensure changes. Instead of real perestroika we are just having a lot of talk'. In his closing speech Gorbachev stated that representatives of nearly all delegations had argued that ‘bureaucratism still resists, shows its teeth ... and puts spokes in the wheels' (p19).

'The changeover of factories to self-financing and such forms of labour as the team contract had hit the most unprotected part of the worker collective  women with children - hardest. They were becoming "undesirable" labour power', Zoya Pukhova chair of the Soviet Women's Committee told delegates.

The economic reforms involve a reduction in the role of state planning, the introduction of complete operational autonomy (khozraschot) and self-financing in many economic units and the creation of a new private sector through the co-operative movement. In reality the process is being deliberately blocked by a bureaucratic managerial apparatus. Ministries and central planners are still setting each factory obligatory orders using the familiar command methods of economic management. Under the new Law on State Enterprises this should have ceased with around half of all Soviet manufacturing industry producing for the wholesale market and a diminishing share going to the state. In fact still almost all industrial production is accounted for by state orders. 'What is most intolerable,' said Gorbachev, 'is that enterprises are being compelled by means of state orders to manufacture goods that are not in demand, compelled for the simple reason they want to attain the notorious "gross output" targets' (p4). This distortion was spotted much later than it should have been and shows that 'the progress of the economic reform calls for continuous attention by the CPSU central committee and the government'.

The co-operative movement, essentially a new legalised private sector, is seen as a crucial component of the economic reforms. It 'will open up extensive opportunities for resolving many of society's vitally important problems' (p5). In reality this sector is so far insignificant, only employing around 200,000 people and mainly providing high cost services.

Finally a by-product of the political and economic reforms introduced under Gorbachev's leadership has been the upsurge of demands by national minorities. Years of neglect and instances of Great Russian chauvinism towards national minorities have created in some cases a deep resentment, and the more open political climate has led to increasing demands by national groups, some in no way progressive, for political, economic and cultural autonomy. In Nagorno-Karabakh, an Armenian-populated enclave in Azerbaijan where 126,000 Armenians and 37,000 Azerbaijanis live, a general strike in the period before the conference had left the civil authorities without effective control. The demonstrators were demanding that Nagorno-Karabakh come under Armenian control. One delegate to the conference pointed out that the socially dangerous character of the situation was rooted in years of stagnation. These developments quite clearly have forced on the party an urgent reassessment of the implementation of the Soviet Union's nationalities policy as an essential part of the process of furthering perestroika.

One must learn to distinguish between true national interests and their nationalist perversion. Any claims to national exclusiveness are Intolerable and insulting, and this also for the nation in whose name they are voiced. In the spirit of the Leninist tradition one should first of all combat one's 'own' nationalism and chauvinism, and this primarily by members of the nationality concerned. (Extract from Resolution passed by conference)

Making Perestroika Irreversible

According to Gorbachev, earlier efforts at economic reform, in particular those of Khrushchev in the late 1950s, had failed because they were not linked with political change, with a fundamental democratisation of the political system. Gorbachev argues that at a certain point the political system resulting from the October Revolution 'underwent serious deformations'. This made possible the despotic rule of Stalin and his circle, the repression, crimes and lawlessness. The command methods of administration resulted from those years. The difficulties experienced today are rooted, therefore, in the system created by Stalin (p7).

The decisions of the 20th Congress of the CPSU (February 1956), the denunciation of Stalin and the exposure of his crimes by Khrushchev, opened the way to overcoming 'the violations of Leninist principles in the life of the party and state'. However, these possibilities were not utilised because 'the importance of socialist democracy was underestimated and belittled'.

Because the deformations in the political system remained, the economic reforms undertaken at the time were bound to fail. The stagnation in economic and social life continued. Economic management became increasingly concentrated in the hands of the party-political leadership and the bureaucratic apparatus increased out of all proportion.

During the Brezhnev years 'the machinery of management, which had grown to almost 100 national ministries and government agencies, and 800 in the republics, began practically to dictate its will in both the economic and political field'. The Soviets, and in many respects the party bodies as well, were powerless in the face of this process. Gorbachev concludes that: 'It is this ossified system of government, with its command and pressure mechanism, that the fundamental problems of perestroika are up against today' (p7).

Gorbachev and his supporters had called the All-Party Conference precisely to tackle that 'ossified system of government' and the bureaucratic party apparatus which were blocking perestroika. Their attack was necessarily two-pronged. First to call for a more consistent and more radical implementation of the economic reforms and, therefore the extent to which the Soviet economy is influenced by market mechanisms. Second to demand a thoroughgoing reform and democratisation of the Soviet political system. It is in this context that glasnost (openness), truth and criticism are seen as vital aspects of perestroika.

Economic Reforms

The conversion of enterprises to khozraschot, self-financing and self-management and the introduction of private enterprise in the form of cooperatives are the fundamental features of the economic reforms. At the beginning of next year all enterprises engaged in material production will operate on the basis of khozraschot. Gorbachev believes it is now vitally necessary to accelerate the conversion to wholesale trading in the means of production, and to complete it within the current five year plan (p5).

Underlying Gorbachev's whole approach is that the reforms cannot work unless there is a material incentive for each and every person to become involved. 'To put it plainly, the reform will not work, will not yield the results we expect, if it does not affect the personal interests of literally every person, if it fails to become every person's vital affair.'

In this context the setting of economic norms by work collectives and managerial bodies have to directly relate incomes with the end result. Any improvements in the collectives' work should be encouraged by higher incomes. 'We cannot tolerate any form of scrounging, be it overt or covert, and any opportunity to lead an untroubled life while doing poor work.' Wage levelling has to go. Wage differentials are crucial incentives. Enterprises should pay their more efficient workers more and 'cut down the incomes of those who are lazy, wasteful and idle' (p5).

In agriculture in an attempt to overcome what are chronic food shortages, Gorbachev argued for a nationwide programme which would allow farmers to lease land from collective and state farms and would promote diverse contractual arrangements for organising and stimulating labour. 'We must make the farmer sovereign master, protect him against command methods and cardinally change the conditions of life in the villages' (p4).

To encourage the house building programme practically every family is to have a separate flat by the year 2000 all bans and restrictions have been lifted as to the size and height of buildings. Gorbachev also regards as reasonable the many proposals on letting people buy their own flats off the state 'so as to be able to leave them to their heirs' (p4).

Connected with the economic reform is a pricing reform. The prices of raw materials and fuel are too low. Cost-efficient methods of production are not possible under these conditions. The retail price of many food products, in particular meat and milk, is considerably lower than the actual cost of producing them, lower than the state's procurement price. The state covers the difference as a subsidy to the consumer. This 'undermines the incentives for producing these products and gives rise to a wasteful attitude' (p5). It also has led to a growing deficit in the state budget which is now so serious that it is 'undermining the stability of the rouble and of monetary circulation as a whole, and giving rise to inflationary processes' (p3).

The withdrawal of state subsidies from products such as basic foodstuffs is not without political consequences as the experience of other socialist countries has shown. Gorbachev has made it clear that 'any change in retail prices must on no account cause a drop in people's standard of living'. The full amount of state subsidies removed from foodstuffs would be returned to the population in full as compensation (p5). Whether the economy will be strong enough to achieve this remains to be seen.

Finally perestroika has implications for the Soviet Union's foreign economic policy. In order to make use of the advantages of the international division of labour, enterprises are allowed extensive access to foreign markets, to establish direct foreign economic ties and start joint ventures. While relations with the socialist countries are given priority the long-term objective is to go over to a freely convertible rouble, building broader economic ties with capitalist and developing countries. To do this successfully, however, the Soviet economy will need to achieve the levels of cost-effectiveness and productivity of the major imperialist countries.

Democratisation of the System

Unless a throroughgoing democratisation of the Soviet political system, of both the state/government bureaucracies and the party apparatus, took place, the crucial economic reforms would be blocked and the 'ossified system of government' would remain. If the system was to be reformed a number of basic steps had to be taken which would fundamentally change the relationship between the Soviet state and the Communist Party, and between both of these and the Soviet people.

What is vital, Gorbachev argued, is that millions upon millions of people had to be involved in administering the country in practice, and not merely in word. Further, the maximum scope has to be given to the processes of self-regulation and self-government of society. Conditions needed to be created to allow the full development of the initiative of citizens, representative bodies of government, party and civic organisations and work collectives. In addition steps had to be taken to further the free development of every nation and nationality in the Soviet Union on the basis of internationalism. Next came two further tasks which were crucial to Gorbachev's reform programme. Socialist legality has to be strengthened and there must be a strict demarcation between the functions of the party and state.

Socialist legality has to be radically strengthened in order ‘to rule out any possibility of power being usurped or abused, so as effectively to counter bureaucracy and formalism' (p7). The constitutional rights and freedoms of citizens has to be guaranteed and protected against any abuse by the authorities. The central principle is 'everything not prohibited by law is allowed'. There is to be absolutely no departure from the principles of 'innocent until proven guilty' (p10).

There has to be a 'strict demarcation of the functions of party and state bodies in conformity with Lenin's conception of the communist party as a political vanguard of society and the role of the state as an instrument of government by the people' (p7). The most pressing task was to restore the full authority of the soviets of People's Deputies, 'and half measures just won't do' (p8). In electing soviet and other representative bodies there will be a right to nominate an unlimited number of candidates, including non-party candidates, and discuss them 'broadly and freely'. There has to be strict compliance with democratic procedures of elections, including secret ballots, and the right to recall deputies.

Gorbachev made it clear that the Communist Party will not relinquish its role as ruling party (p15). He argued that 'it is very important to back the role of the soviets as the people's representative bodies with the prestige of the party. To do this it would be most practicable, as a rule, to nominate the first secretaries of party committees to serve as chair of the respective soviets. The election would be by secret ballot and if the deputies rejected the nomination then, says Gorbachev, 'the party committee and the communists will obviously have to draw the necessary conclusion' (p8). Presumably, they would elect a new first secretary of the party committee who was acceptable.

A five-year term of office would be established for all soviets of people's deputies and those serving in elected offices would, subject to nomination and approval by soviets, only be allowed to serve for two consecutive terms (10 years). The supreme body of government would also be restructured and extended. The USSR Congress of People's Deputies would consist of 1,500 deputies, as now, from the territorial and national-territorial constituencies plus approximately 750 deputies elected at the congresses or at plenary sessions of the governing bodies of party, trade union, cooperative, youth, women's, veterans', academic and artistic organisations. The whole body would elect from among its members a relatively small (400-450 strong) bicameral USSR Supreme Soviet a standing legislative, administrative and monitoring body and also elect by secret ballot the President of the Supreme Soviet. The government structure at the top level would comprise a Presidium of the USSR Supreme Soviet guided in its work by the President of the Supreme Soviet.

Together with the democratisation of state and government bodies goes the democratisation of the party. ‘Democratic centralism was at a certain stage replaced by bureaucratic centralism.' This happened because 'rank-and-file communists lost real opportunities to influence the party's activities' (p11). The prime task is to fully restore the Leninist vision of democratic centralism, which requires free and open discussion when this or that question is considered and concerted action after the majority decides it (Resolutions, Section 2.8). Finally the CPSU is to conduct its policies through communists working on government bodies and in all spheres of the social fabric (p12).

Soviet Foreign Policy and Perestroika

A reshaping of foreign policy took place at the April 1985 central committee and 27th Party Congress in line with perestroika (p6). In particular it is a concern of Gorbachev and his supporters that 'foreign policy activity should contribute ever more to releasing the country's resources for peaceful construction, for perestroika' (Resolutions, Section 1.6). The decision to withdraw Soviet troops from Afghanistan, the attempt to resolve the Angolan/South African issue, the withdrawal of Vietnamese troops from Kampuchea and the agreement with the USA to reduce nuclear weapons have all to be viewed in this political context.

Gorbachev and his supporters argue that while the military threat from imperialism 'has not been removed to this day' the war danger has been pushed back. International relations, 'without losing their class character, are increasingly coming to be precisely relations between nations' (p6). The axis of international affairs is moving away from confrontation towards cooperation and mutual understanding and negotiations that hold out the promise of specific results. 'Freedom of choice' is a key factor in the 'new thinking' in a world where 'Sovereignty and independence, equal rights and non-interference, are becoming universally recognised rules of international relations.

A return to Leninist principles?

Throughout Gorbachev's speech there is a continual reference to a return to Leninist principles. However, Lenin's political practice followed from a thoroughgoing theoretical analysis of the economic, social and political conditions at the time and changed with a change of these conditions. While it might still be expedient to use Lenin's authority to argue against your conservative opponents within the party, it is disingenuous to pick and choose some of Lenin's views and then take them out of their context.

There is little point in Gorbachev recalling Lenin's definition of the socialist state as one 'which is not a state in the proper sense of the word' (April 1917) if it ceased to have any relevance for Lenin's political practice soon after the October Revolution. By June 1918 Lenin was clear that the dictatorship of the proletariat (a class state in the 'full' sense of the term something Gorbachev seems to suggest was a non-Leninist deformation (p7), a regime in transition from capitalism to socialism, would last for a long time and that a whole historical epoch would be necessary for the elimination of the state. Is Gorbachev really suggesting that the Soviet state has nearly reached that point in time?

Lenin also only briefly put forward the idea of the separation of party and state, but never elaborated it further at the time because it was impractical given the fact that communists constituted a miniscule number of people in a vast population. Lenin's position, in fact, soon after the revolution was that as long as imperialism existed, a centralised state, led by the Communist Party, would be necessary to defend the gains of the October Revolution from a predatory imperialism. Does this then explain why Gorbachev's foreign policy (not Leninist in any respect) is built around a world where apparently a non-militaristic, non-predatory imperialism is coming into existence? It is not a view many oppressed peoples would share.

Yes, Lenin did quite correctly attack the growing state and party bureaucracy, precisely because, in the very difficult conditions at the time, it was succumbing to the prevailing backward cultural values and was taking on all the modes of behaviour of the old tsarist regime. But it is not permissible to turn Lenin into a liberal in order to make that point. Gorbachev and his supporters represent a section of the ruling group, an educated elite, whose elevation in the Soviet party is closely connected with the growth in importance of science and technology for the Soviet economy in the post-war years. 'Without high standards of education, scientific research, general culture and proficiency on the job, the objectives of perestroika cannot be achieved' (p5).

The revitalisation of the stagnant Soviet economy utilising the most modern technology and scientific techniques is also crucial if the Soviet Union is to withstand the economic and military threat of imperialism. Further, as well as advancing the interests of the educated layers Gorbachev represents, it is also vitally important for raising the living standards of the Soviet people. That is the key to understanding Gorbachev's strategy.

Gorbachev and his supporters in the party are not strong enough alone to defeat the old conservative bureaucracy. They have to appeal to the millions of rank-and-file communists in the party and if necessary through the party to the Soviet people. Hence glasnost (openness) is an essential component of perestroika. It is this fact which explains why this remarkable party conference has taken place. However perestroika is not without its dangers. The economic reforms will certainly lead to a revitalisation of the stagnant Soviet economy. But if the Soviet economy does not grow fast enough the economic reforms can lead to unemployment and a fall in living standards for the working class. And, as has been demonstrated in other socialist countries, they will also open the door to a new wealthy elite of profiteers, middlemen and other get-rich-quick merchants, introducing a new corrupting influence, that of capitalist market values, into the Soviet regime. The danger is that such developments will acquire a political expression in the form of new political currents/parties seized on and promoted by imperialist interests. Glasnost, however, can open the way of a return to Leninist values, if the Soviet working class re-enters political life and becomes a decisive influence on the direction of the party, and therefore, the Soviet regime. This is the great hope for the future. It is why the 19th All-Union Party Conference of the CPSU is such an important historic event that must be welcomed, analysed and discussed by socialists and communists everywhere.

* Page numbers after references/quotes refer to Gorbachev's speech as published in Soviet Weekly 9 July 1988