Chris Harman, Simon Terry & Andy Zebrowski

Crisis in Eastern Europe

Where real power lies

From Socialist Worker Review, No.111, July/August 1988, pp.10-11.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

“PERESTROIKA is a revolution and the most powerful and democratic one at that.” The words are Gorbachev’s, from his book Perestroika. But the sentiment is very widely shared. It determines the tone of much mainstream media coverage of Russian events, and it flows over into the arguments of some would be Trotskyists, who see in Gorbachev’s attempt at reform a fulfillment of Trotsky’s 1936 call for “political”, as opposed to social, revolution.

But can the Russian regime revolutionise itself? Can the ruling Communist Party democratise society and return to the original socialist values of 1917? Is such change going to follow on from the party conference?

The answer to all of these questions has to be no.

The Russian regime may claim historical continuity with the revolution of 1917 and make rhetorical references to Marxism, socialism and Lenin. But its basis is, in reality, very different to that of the Bolshevik regime of the immediate post-revolutionary years.

That regime grew out of the workers’ councils – the genuine Soviets of 1917 – even if these withered as the economic effects of civil war led to the closure of most of the factories which were the basis of the councils. And the Bolshevik Party was a party overwhelmingly made up of industrial workers, with a leadership composed of those who had committed their whole lives to the workers’ struggle.

This was all changed completely through the cumulative effects of creeping bureaucratization in the early 1920s, the dominance of the Stalinist apparatus and the destruction of inner party democracy in the late 1920s and then the purging of 90 per cent of the party members from 1917 in the show trials of the 1930s.

The present leadership may denounce many of the horrors of the Stalinist purges, but the character of the party itself remains that established in those years.

The party is not, even in merely statistical terms, a workers’ party. In Moscow, where a clear majority of the population are workers, only 40 per cent of party members last year were officially described as “workers” – that figure includes foremen and full time officials in the state unions.

In the country as a whole, studies in the 1960s and early 1970s showed that only 3.7 per cent of unskilled workers were in the party, while 25 per cent of “administrative personnel, managers and specialists” were. And the higher someone’s position in the managerial hierarchy, the more likely they were to be in the party. Half of those in “the apparatus of the state and economic management” were in the party, and nearly all those in the highest economic positions.

So even if the party conference was elected on the basis of genuine, free ranging democracy among party members, it would be a conference dominated by the middle and upper ranks of management and the state bureaucracy, not by the mass of Russian workers.

In practice, the weight of the managerial elements in the party is much greater than the bare statistics for membership suggest. For it is the managerial layer who control most of the official positions in the party’s base units.

Of 1.3 million persons who sat in “leading organs’’ of primary party cells in 1969,70 percent were “employees” as against only 16.7 percent who were workers. And the educational backgrounds of these “employees” showed they were overwhelmingly from the middle and upper administrative groupings.

In such a situation, those who call for the mass of party members democratically to exercise control through secret votes in the party, a free choice of conference delegates and public debate within the party, are calling for democracy restricted to the country’s managerial layer – what Lenin would have called a “slave owners’ democracy”.

In practice, however, this demand is not going to be fulfilled. Power in the party has, in the past, been concentrated in quite a narrow grouping – the 300,000 full time apparatchiks. It is these who have managed the party hierarchy, determining who sits on party committees, who goes to party congresses and conferences. And these in turn obey instructions from an even narrower grouping at the very top of the party.

The pattern that has existed has been exposed very clearly in the run up to the party conference. Reformers have used the media to expose the way in which delegates have been chosen in different parts of the country, with regional and area committees telling party members at the base who they can vote for. And whatever talk there may have been about democracy at the party conference, that is how most of the delegates applauding it will have been chosen.

The Financial Times a week before the conference described how the delegates were chosen in the Ukrainian city of Sumy:

“Mr Ivan Grigorievich has been first secretary for 14 years. He is a party boss of the old school and he is to be one of 24 delegates to the party conference.

“In Sumy everyone pays lip-service to the whole perestroika process, but somehow there is none of the same expectation of change.

“For a start, there was none of the problems of mass democracy, mass protests or the like which occurred in some other soviet cities associated with the selection of delegates. The regional committee of the party chose 24 names from 50 put forward by the party branches. The 24 were put to a party plenum in a secret ballot and all but three won 100 percent support. The others were just one vote short of that.” (23 June 1988)

Seven of the 24 were full time party officials, two were government ministers, three were managers – and only seven were officially designated as “workers”. The delegate from the biggest plant in the city, the 25,000 strong Frunze pump plant, was ... the managing director!

The pattern will have been similar in city after city.

Four hundred Communists at Moscow state university voted with one abstention condemning as “undemocratic” the procedure for nominating candidates proposed by the rayon (area) committee.

Reports in Izvestia told of district party committees in Leningrad, Moscow and Kiev selecting candidates without reference to the membership.

A letter by one economist summed up the situation, “Apparatus personnel are preparing for a conference devoted to democratisation using methods which prevailed during the time of braking ...”

There is a reason for the domination of the mass of middle and higher level bureaucrats who make up most of the party membership by the apparatchik minority. Whatever the level of collective resentment against the apparatchiks by the mass of bureaucrats, each depends for his or her career prospects on kowtowing to those same apparatchiks.

Those in the middle of the managerial-administrative hierarchy can only rise if they please those above them – and, at the end of the day, that means pleasing the core of highly placed party and state officials.

What is more, any serious attempt to challenge the right of this core to dominate the bureaucracy as a whole, also raises the question of the right of the bureaucracy as a whole to dominate the rest of Russian society.

Demonstrations against the control of the apparatchiks over nominations to the conference may have been welcome by some other sections of the bureaucracy – but not if they turned into demonstrations for demands over day to day working and living conditions that challenged policies favoured by these sections.

These considerations mean that the most that can come out of a conference of the ruling party is a rearrangement of some faces in the existing hierarchy of power – not democratisation in any real sense, still less any replacement of bureaucratic control by workers controls.

If there is any doubt over the matter, it is only necessary to look at the experience of “reform communism” in Eastern Europe. In 1956 the Polish Communist Party was swept by a wave of reform like that in Russia today. Yet when Gomulka was borne to power in the party on that wave, he had little difficulty in establishing a new, rigid bureaucratic pecking order and ending talk of inner party democracy.

The ferment inside the party in the first half of 1968 was rapidly brought to an end between August 1968 and August 1969 – not just because of the presence of Russian troops, but because a very large section of the country’s managerial-administrative personnel were prepared to please those at the top of the bureaucratic hierarchy by publicly endorsing views which they disdained privately.

In this situation, a merely “political revolution” within the existing ruling party would very quickly run out of steam, achieving very little even in the way of reform.

Finally, those who talk of “political revolution” ignore, or forget, the reason why the present bureaucratic structure took hold in the first place. Military competition with the West necessitates a very high level of accumulation. It was such accumulation for competition that led the Stalinist bureaucracy to slash workers’ living standards, drive peasants from the land and establish a complete police state in the late 1920s and early 1930s.

Today the Russian economy is still relatively backward compared with its main international rival, the US, and the bureaucracy as a whole still wants a very high level of accumulation. In such circumstances, it cannot afford to meet many of the most elementary demands of the mass of Russian workers and so cannot afford even a limited democratic structure in case it provides workers with an opportunity to mobilise around these demands.

A real democratisation cannot take place without a total confrontation with the bureaucratic power structure – not just a confrontation at party conferences, but a confrontation with the forces of the state and with the mass of bureaucrats who run the enterprises.

Such a confrontation is not “political”, in the sense of being restricted to a limited change in government personnel, but “social”, involving a fight in every workplace and locality with die goal of destroying the existing hierarchies and the state machine that enforces their rule.

When Trotsky spoke of the need for “political” revolution in the mid 1930s he was expressing the need for a complete break with the Stalinist bureaucracy, without fully understanding that the depths of its roots in the process of exploitation meant this was not possible without massive social confrontation. He believed, as he put it, that the bureaucracy was “a ball balanced on top of a pyramid” that would fall in a few years, if not “a few months”.

The fact that the bureaucracy has survived for more than 50 years since then shows that it is not nearly as weak as Trotsky suggested and can only be overthrown by social revolution.

Those who claim otherwise end up not as opponents of the bureaucracy, as Trotsky was, but as apologists for its slightly more liberal wing.

Last updated on 15 April 2010