S. Cooper. Sydney Libertarianism 1987

Roberto Michels and Glasnost

Source: Heraclitus 12, August 1987;
Transcribed: by Curtis Price.

People working in the relatively exact field of natural sciences are cautious in raising the status of theory to hypothesis and even more in raising hypothesis to law. Once there, there is no need to buttress “law” with “iron.”

How much more difficult to develop hypothesis in the complex social world, and how cautious in proceeding to the “law” level. Maybe it would be better to call Michels’ “Iron law of Oligarchy” Michels’ “Theory of Oligarchy.”

In 1914. he was able to predict the behavior of German and similar Social Democratic parties (in terms of their leaders’ behavior). As they were then – so they are now. However, the theory did not predict the maverick behavior of the RSDLP (Bolsheviks) and their interaction from 191-4 to 1917 with the class they championed. The record from 1918 (including uncensored observations by Lenin and, now, by those who support the Gorbachev tendency) points to seepage and waves of ‘bureaucratic build up – within a very complex process which also produced positive results – the last wave reaching a peak in 1982, the year of Brezhnev’s death.

Oligarchy theory is now being developed by social scientists in the Soviet Union. When describing the bureaucratic apparatus and the people who sustain -it in the top and middle levels, they may well be speaking, as J. Baker observed, “pure Michels.” But this observation by such scientists is not a passive one, in the “Oblomovist-I- am-a-camera” sense, used as a cop-out to go drinking beer and talking in ironic terms about almost everything.

It is part of a process described within the Soviet Union as “a second revolution,” involving many thousands of separate assaults from below (encouraged by support from some “on top”) on the bureaucracy of the middle layers, and also on the qualities conditioned in themselves (the rank and file) over the years, of putting up with the many mistakes and frustrating behavior of that bureaucracy. The latter is not unimportant, as factory workers, entertainment workers, academics and others are discovering that there is no legal impediment any longer against industrial action against bureaucratic managers, including getting them sacked and electing new managers.

It might serve the libertarian movement to track the progress of this revolution by reading translations of uncensored articles in the Soviet press and forming their own opinions. There is quite a stream of such articles at present in Moscow News. The quality of articles in Le Monde and its counterparts is relatively low on this subject, so that it is better to lay them side by side with the raw material corning from the Soviet Union.

No oligarchy without material and power perks and bureaucracy. Part of the antidote is a constant flow of reliable information among the people – bureaucracy’s weakness is related to its inability to keep secrets and control the information flows. It is weakened as it loses the power to distribute incomes and investments.

The widening struggle in the Soviet Union reveals this locking of horns in a protracted struggle by the bureaucracy to hang on. They would like to win. If they lose, the anticlimax for them is retirement on a modest pension, a new job as a clerk, process worker or shop assistant. Some will go to gaol for such ordinary crimes as embezzlements.

This upsurge is something new for the youth in the West, in post war era, going far beyond Khruschev1s attempts in 1956 and ‘62, or Kosygin’s last attempt in 1965.

At present, many are dead to implications of what could happen if “glasnost” achieves its goals over the next few years.

S. Cooper