Chris Harman

Thinking it through

Directors’ socialism means sacrifice

(April 1991)

From Socialist Worker Review, No.141, April 1991, p.8.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

WESTERN MEDIA commentators have been perplexed by Gorbachev’s shift in an increasingly authoritarian direction. The man they used to toast as the creator of glasnost is now viewed by much of the democratic opposition inside the USSR as little more than a resurrected and rejuventated Brezhnev.

But it is not too difficult to understand the change if you look at things through the eyes of a key sector of the USSR’s ruling class – the heads of the great enterprises.

An article by one such manager – albeit one who does not draw the same conclusions as most of his peers – in Moscow News provides a good insight into their thinking. He begins by noting:

‘A weird situation has arisen. The director corps, which has long cursed the diktat by district party committees and which has sought economic changes and a free hand, has now well nigh become the mainstay of those who have been trying to drive the USSR back into the era of stagnation.’

The writer says that the directors never took seriously the ideological ‘principles’ enunciated by speech-makers for the party apparatchiks:

‘The director of a serious enterprise, moreover one belonging to the military industrial complex, is bound to manufacture competitive products, has mastered managerial skills, is experienced in diplomacy and lacking ideological prejudice.’

This should mean that the directors would ‘have a stake in the liberalisation of the economy and hence the democratisation of life.’

But, in fact, things are turning out otherwise. There has been ‘a paradoxical swing to the right’ by ‘production managers.’

Why did this occur? They had started off by accepting Gorbachev’s perestroika. ‘But perestroika quickly started disappointing.’ The law on enterprises was full of contradictions, workers began to put pressure on managers, supplies became widely disrupted and wage controls led to the loss of skilled personnel.

The editorial introduction to the article spells out in further detail what these conditions meant for managers:

‘They had to brave not only the inevitable consequences of the old economic mechanism’s disintegration, but also mounting pressures from below: wildcat strikes, rallies, hunger strikes at factory gates, onslaughts by councils of works collectives.’

At this point numbers of managers began to move beyond simply observing the political debates between the party leadership and the opposition and to intervene in politics in their own right.

‘One after another our people started being elected deputies. And in talks over beer and sandwiches one could hear it be said that it was about time to nominate a tough guy from our own midst and help him to bring about order.’

Those who dream of this ‘directors’ socialism’ believe they can rule without the apparatus of the old ruling party. But the writer argues this is pure fantasy:

‘It will be impossible either to pay decent wages to workers or to build social and cultural facilities. Discontent will be unavoidable. And, in general, having inhaled the free air of perestroika’s initial years, having read Yeltsin’s Confessions [his autobiographical account of the Nomenklatura’s privileges] it’s doubtful if the hungry workers will calmly tolerate the directors’ luxurious privileges.’

The writer concludes that the party bureaucracy will be able to exploit this situation to reassert its own control over the directors, threatening to turn popular discontent against them if they step out of line.

More important than this conclusion, however, is the way the account helps us to understand what has been happening to both Gorbachev and the most prominent leaders of the liberal-democratic opposition.

The Gorbachevite section of the central bureaucracy turned to perestroika and glasnost in the late 1980s because they believed the only way to restore the international competitiveness of the USSR’s economy was to give greater freedom to the enterprise managers within a market framework.

It was precisely because he seemed able to provide a way forward for the ruling class as a whole, by relying on the ‘spirit of enterprise’ of the managers, that Gorbachev could defeat the old Brezhnevite right wing within the central bureaucracy. But, by the same token, now that the managers have swung to the right Gorbachev has little choice but to follow.

For the liberal-democratic opposition things are more complicated. Some of its leaders are former dissidents, with genuinely democratic credentials. Some are former Gorbachevite intellectuals, disenchanted by his swing to the right. Some, like Yeltsin, are former Nomenklaturists. But what they all have in common is their belief that the road to ‘democratisation’ lay in liberal market reforms which give a pride of place to the manager.

The essence of their Five Hundred Days economic programme was the belief that an economic miracle would take place within two years if only the managers were freed from central control by rapid privatisation.

Now that the managers are swinging to the right, they face a dilemma even greater than Gorbachev – who can at least hope to head that swing to the right. Unless they can find a new base of support they risk forcible removal from all their positions of influence. Many see such a base in the growing discontent of workers, as evidenced by Yeltsin’s praise for the miners’ strike, which was affecting about half the USSR’s pits at the time of going to press.

But for them to talk like that points to the central contradiction of their politics. They are seeing the working class as the seventh cavalry to save them from the authoritarian right while at the same time putting forward an economic programme based on increased power for managers and increased ‘sacrifices’ by the workers.

Last updated on 11 June 2010