Monty Johnstone


People Power

(May 1989)

Source: Marxism Today, May 1989
Transcription/Markup: Brian Reid
Public Domain: Marxists Internet Archive (2009). You may freely copy, distribute, display and perform this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit “Marxists Internet Archive” as your source.

With this spring’s elections in the USSR perestroika has entered a new stage. For the first time since Gorbachev in 1985 launched the drive to restructure Soviet society, the people have made an independent entry into the political arena. They have sought to speed up the sluggish pace of promised changes by voting against Communist Party and state officials identified with conservative policies and bureaucratic practices. The unexpected defeat of 34 out of 157 regional party secretaries represents a vote of no confidence in important sections of the party apparat.

It would be wrong to see this as essentially a vote against the party itself, since most of those who beat them are themselves members of the party, which comprises 87.6% of those elected (as against 71.5% in 1984). However, it is a warning to the party that its leadership of Soviet society can no longer be taken for granted. Increasingly it will be subject to the people’s support or rejection, depending on whether or not it succeeds in bringing about the improvements in their lives to which it is committed. An increasingly active public opinion is concerned to ensure that the power of the people, long proclaimed in the constitution, becomes a reality.

All this makes a reversal of perestroika by conservative forces much more difficult. At the same time it introduces new and unpredictable elements into a situation where the traditional hegemony of the Communist Party, whose ranks are now deeply divided is badly dented, although no counter-hegemonic force has emerged seriously to challenge it.

Over the past three years or so an independent civil society has been developing in the Soviet Union. Its main expression has been through the creative intelligentsia, in the media and the arts, and through a mushrooming of ‘informal associations’, particularly among young people. A major worry has been the inadequate degree to which it has extended to the bulk of the traditional working class, among whom the contrast between promise and performance over decades has fostered alienation and political apathy.

The elections mark an important change in this respect. Attending election meetings in working-class districts of Moscow, I was struck by the many hundreds who would pack into their local community centre (‘Palace of Culture’) from seven till sometimes past 11 p.m. for no-holds-barred discussions with their candidates on all aspects of Soviet society. Indeed the level of questions and debate, not to speak of the attendance, was considerably higher than most election meetings that I have attended in this country. Nonetheless, the fact that only 18.6% of those elected are workers shows that much more needs to be done to make the official description of the working class as the leading force in Soviet society a reality.

Working-class support for and involvement in Boris Yeltsin’s election campaign was particularly strong. In a two-cornered fight for the seat covering the whole of Moscow, the party’s former secretary in the capital received over 5m votes – nearly 90% of the total. Although lacking a worked-out economic programme, Yeltsin rallied enthusiastic support as ‘the candidate of the people’, taking a stand against a privileged apparatus. Meetings and demonstrations supporting him culminated in an eve-of-poll open-air rally, permitted by the authorities, bringing together crowds variously estimated at between 10,000 and 35,000. I found it a highly-impressive demonstration of working people independently and spontaneously voicing their grievances against bureaucratic ‘mafias’, as their posters described them.

They were demanding social justice and an improvement in their often-miserable material conditions, to which they felt they were entitled more than 70 years after the October Revolution. Moves against Yeltsin for allegedly overstepping the bounds as a member of the Communist Party’s central committee only galvanised support for him against what was seen to be a witch hunt, and served to contribute to his landslide victory. ‘Why’, asked Pravda on April 1, but without essaying a reply, ‘did a party committee’s reluctance to see elected a candidate who enjoyed no sympathy from the party apparat provoke powerful popular support (as in the case of Boris Yeltsin)?’

In Moscow, as in other parts ofthe country, many candidates deemed to represent a hidebound and conservative apparatus were defeated by others seen to represent a more sincere, energetic and radical approach to perestroika. In Leningrad the defeat of five of its top leaders was described by a special meeting of the party there on April 4, as ‘a serious political lesson’. Among the casualties was the city secretary, Anatoly Gerasimov, who received only 15% of the votes against 74% for a 28-year old Communist engineer. Widespread satisfaction has been expressed at the defeat in Volgograd of the well-known representative of the conservative trend in the Russian literary establishment, Yuri Bondarev, by the second secretary of the local Young Communist League.

Among the all-too-few women elected – only 17.1% of the total – pride of place should probably go to journalist Alia Yaroshinskaya, elected with 90% of the votes in the Ukrainian city of Zhitomir, where the officials she had criticised had tried to stop her standing. In the Baltic republics (Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania) representatives of the national fronts championing autonomy for their republics within the USSR won most of the seats. Although a number of prominent party and government leaders were defeated, the Communist first secretaries in all three republics were elected because they had played a part in working for these national demands. The Latvian party leader defeated a candidate from an organisation campaigning for the republic’s secession from the USSR.

Run-offs held in 64 territorial constituencies on April 9 led to the return of other progressive and independent-minded candidates. Notable among them is the marxist historian and political theorist Roy Medvedev, whose writings are at last being allowed to appear in his own country; Vilem Tolpezhnikov, elected in Riga, who was arrested in 1968 when he opposed the Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia; and Wello Pakhlo, the leader of the Estonian Greens.

The dramatic development of an independent public opinion is also reflected in the need to hold new elections on May 14 in 199 territorial constituencies – 12% of the total. In these only one or two candidates stood on March 26 and none received more than 50% of the votes as required for election. Many of these electoral districts were among the 25% where only one candidate was standing. Most prominent among quite a number of party leaders whose attempts to secure election by excluding other candidates backfired was Leningrad regional secretary Yuri Solovyov, a candidate member of the party’s top politburo. A majority of voters prevented their election by crossing their names off the ballot paper.

Time is now pressing. New candidates need to be found quickly to mount some sort of campaign leading up to the May 14 polling day in the 199 constituencies. The new mood of independence among the people is likely to grow stronger and extend to parts of the country which it has so far barely reached. In the autumn new elections are due for the republican and local Soviets. On Gorbachev’s proposal, last summer’s party conference decided that the first secretaries of party organisations should stand for their local Soviets in order that they could go on to be chosen as their chairpersons. Now there must be some doubt as to whether electors will actually elect many of these first secretaries to these Soviets. Such a prospect must already be leading quite a few party organisations to consider changing their secretaries and finding ways of radically improving their public work.

All eyes will be on the 2,210 members of the Congress of People’s Deputies when they gather in Moscow later this month. It will, I believe, very soon become apparent how differently things are going to shape up there compared with the days of the former Supreme Soviets, which met only four or five days a year and served as rubber stamps. The newly-elected Congress will first have the job of choosing a president with considerable executive powers. All the indications are that Gorbachev will be elected unopposed, although some of the new deputies have expressed disagreement with one man combining the posts of Communist Party general secretary and head of state. Before leaving Moscow I was told that Yeltsin was under pressure from some of his supporters to stand against Gorbachev. While he clearly has the right to do so, it is most probable that he will recognise the inadvisability of such a step. The success of perestroika will demand cooperation on major issues between Gorbachev and the popular forces that Yeltsin represents against the main danger which comes from still well-entrenched bureaucratic forces.

The Congress itself is due to hold only one regular session a year. It will have the task of electing 542 of its members to a much smaller Supreme Soviet, which will serve as a parliamentary body sitting for six to eight months every year. Gorbachev is in favour of rotation, whereby every member of the Congress will spend a period in the Supreme Soviet – but this is not specified in the constitution. The question of who the Congress will elect at its first meeting will be very important. Controversy will no doubt centre around whether representatives of particular trends, such as Yeltsin, will be among them. Yeltsin intends to form a parliamentary group of like-minded deputies to campaign for radical perestroika demands. The 80-90 deputies supporting the national fronts of the Baltic republics may also form their own group. It is on the cards that such groups will make their own nominations to the Supreme Soviet.

As the body responsible for constitutional changes, the Congress of People’s Deputies will have to consider proposals for changes in the system of election adopted last December and implemented in this spring’s election. At one election meeting after another I heard criticisms of the arrangement whereby one-third of the deputies are elected from public organisations, including 100 seats each reserved for the Communist Party, trade unions and co-operative organisations, and 75 each for the Young Communist League and women’s councils. Firstly, people object to the plural voting which enables some people to have one, two, three or more additional votes through the various organisations to which they belong. (Plural voting, in the form of separate university MPs was ended in Britain after the election of the 1945 Labour government.) Secondly, it is seen as undemocratic that some leaders should become deputies in this way without having to face the ordinary electors in the basic territorial constituencies and submit to their verdict. Yeltsin and others included in their election programmes the demand that all delegates should in future be elected by universal, equal, direct and competitive voting, and may call for a referendum to be held to decide the issue.

The new Supreme Soviet will comprise two chambers: a Soviet of the Union and a Soviet of Nationalities. The latter will have a special responsibility for working on the complicated and often-tense ethnic problems, which have so long existed under the surface but are now coming increasingly and sometimes (as in the recent case of Georgia) violently into the open.

Although this spring’s elections have taken place within the framework of a one-party system, the hitherto-existing Stalinist practice of allowing only one candidate (‘elections without choice’) was abandoned in three-quarters of the constituencies. Candidates issued and argued for their particular platforms. In the Baltic republics they campaigned as representatives of particular trends with their own programmes. Elsewhere it was often possible to identify a number of common demands in candidates’ election platforms which were seen as distinguishing progressive perestroika candidates from conservative ones. On this basis ‘informal associations’ like the Moscow People’s Front and Leningrad’s Elections ’89 campaigned for particular groups of candidates and against others in their cities. In Moscow 15 candidates, at least 11 of whom were subsequently elected, signed a telegram of support for Yeltsin and identified themselves with his campaign. The period ahead will show whether these groups, some of which might be regarded as embryonic parties, will develop in such a way as to bring about some sort of de facto multiparty system.

At present in the Soviet Union the only recognised party, the CPSU, is in a curious position. Members of the party stand against each other on programmes which, in the case of the Baltic republics, are diametrically opposed to each other on crucial national issues. This contradicts traditional concepts of democratic centralism and party unity. On the other hand, if a multi-party system is not admitted, there is no alternative to this if the electorate is to be offered a genuine choice of political options. Hence the resentment felt when the party’s central committee set up a commission at its last meeting to investigate the political positions taken by Yeltsin in the campaign. Such resentment would also be strongly voiced against any attempt to control what he and other party members said or how they voted in the representative assemblies to which they have been elected.

Clearly, as Gorbachev stated on polling day, ‘Alternative parties are by themselves not a panacea for solving problems’ (my emphasis). But this does not mean that they may not come, in contemporary Soviet conditions, to play an important role in helping to crystalise political choices, including the possibility of changing governments advocated by Lenin in 1918 under the multi-party system then existing in Soviet Russia.

Yeltsin has received wide support, as well as sharp opposition, for his call for a public discussion on the question of a multi-party system, for which some candidates were arguing in the election. It is an issue which is likely to assume growing relevance and importance with the rapid changes now taking place in the Soviet political system.

Last updated on 27 July 2010