Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Paul Costello

Glasnost must seek origins of present crisis in Soviet history

First Published: Guardian January 13, 1988.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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Initially it appeared that the struggle over glasnost and perestroika in the Soviet Union was between supporters and opponents of these campaigns. More recently, it seems that the struggle has shifted to those who want to sharply limit these reforms and those who want to see them go to the root of the current crisis in Soviet society and within the world revolutionary movement. This is true not only of the Soviet debate, but of the one going on in the U.S. left as well.

To take only one example of U.S. groups who fear that glasnost will go too far, there is Line of March (LOM). From its inception, LOM has been characterized by uncritical deference to Stalinian theory and practice and vigorous opposition to those forces who “prematurely” demanded the kind of theoretical and structural changes upon which Gorbachev now insists. Yet now that these reforms have become official Soviet policy, LOM cannot help but go along, if only to limit the damage to its ideological heritage. Irwin Silber (Guardian, Dec. 16) wants to characterize perestroika as the result of the maturing of socialism, a transition from the “inevitable” tendencies of its youth: voluntarism and arbitrariness. (Notice how the terrible crimes of the Stalin period are whitewashed by the words “voluntarism” and “arbitrariness.”)

The import of Silber’s phrases should be clear. The line and practice of the Stalin period were necessary and inevitable “for laying the foundations of a socialist economy and holding the Soviet Union together through its most trying hours of the Nazi invasion.” It is just that conditions have changed and a new theory and practice is now in order. So we are told. In reality, LOM’s approach would fundamentally limit if not nullify the entire radical thrust of glasnost and perestroika. Not only because Silber’s formulations are simply untrue, as is now generally recognized, Stalinian practice and mass repression gravely ruptured the worker-peasant alliance, enormously strengthened the state at the expense of popular initiative and destroyed the best elements in the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU). This can hardly be called laying the foundation of socialist construction. At the same time, Stalin’s decimation of the Soviet general staff in 1937 and his refusal to accept his own intelligence reports on the imminence of a German invasion created the disastrous military defeats of 1941-42. More important than these factual inaccuracies is the intent behind them. LOM seeks to limit glasnost and perestroika to a critique of current conditions without going to the historical sources of socialism’s present difficulties.

Fortunately, Soviet activists are refusing to limit themselves in this manner. In an exclusive interview with Marxism Today (Nov. 1987) Yuri Afanasyev, rector of the Moscow State Historical-Archive Institute, insists that the fatalism which has characterized much of Soviet historical studies must be abandoned. What happened under Stalin was not inevitable; there were alternative possible routes to socialism. And the “revolutionary” importance of glasnost stems from the fact that it does not merely critique the present situation, leaving the past unquestioned, but seeks the origins of the present crisis in Soviet history. As Afanasyev notes, glasnost involves the struggle to eliminate the “distortions of socialism which occurred during Stalin and after Stalin.” Not only that. It also involves abandoning the cult of Lenin in favor of an honest presentation which admits that Lenin “didn’t have all the answers.”

But if the origins of the present crisis must be found in the past, so too can paths out of current dilemmas. This is why the struggle for perestroika and glasnost is inextricably connected with the struggle for the rehabilitation of Nikolai Bukharin and the other “Old Bolsheviks.” The fundamental struggles within the CPSU and the Communist International in 1927-29, which resulted in the victory of the Stalin group over the forces associated with Bukharin and others, marked a decisive turning point in history: the consolidation of a fundamental departure from the previous path of socialist construction in the USSR and the international revolutionary strategy. The results of this victory of the Stalin group were felt in all fields—economic, political, ideological and theoretical. While Khrushchev in 1956 began to dismantle this system, as Gorbachev notes, the task was not completed. Indeed, the whole attempt to explain and rectify the Stalinian departure from socialism by means of the “cult of personality” concept doomed the effort from the beginning. Glasnost and perestroika must confront and overcome both the Stalinian system and the inadequacy of this previous critique if they are to be successful.


In the economy the struggle against the Stalinian system confronts productive forces which have been nationalized but not socialized, a state bureaucracy that is top-heavy, wasteful and inefficient, a trade-union system that fails to defend the interests of the workers, and an unworkable agrarian sector. Politically, the struggle involves genuine democratization of all levels of social life, the dismantling of repressive state apparatuses, and an end of the subordination of the party and political practice to the state system. Ideologically it involves an end to the party/state monopoly on intellectual discourse and literary, cultural and artistic practice. Theoretically the struggle against the Stalinian system means a rigorous rethinking of the fundamental concepts and methodology of Marxism-Leninism in the light of historical experience and the advances in contemporary social theory.


In all these areas the debates in the 1920s within the CPSU as well as within the international communist movement provide a valuable historical point of reference for today’s struggles. The positions fought for, however imperfectly, by the Bukharin forces and other groups foreshadow much of what must now be done to rectify the structural crisis of Soviet society and to lay the groundwork for the construction of socialism on new foundations. As such these debates are of more than mere historical significance. They are immediately politically relevant. Thus the struggle over the rehabilitation of Bukharin and the other “Old Bolsheviks” and the truthful presentation of Soviet history are essential to the process of glasnost and perestroika.

And not just in the USSR. It is no secret that Marxism and socialism are in grave crisis, internationally and in the U.S. The failure to rethink the basic categories and allegiances upon which we have attempted to build our movement, the comfortable refuge in old slogans and heroic myths, and the blind fear of the difficult and painful process of theoretical renovation and political reconstruction are most serious obstacles to our making a new start.

The Soviet initiatives in this direction are certainly most welcome, but they are no substitute for the similar job we have to do here. Nor can the task be left to forces like the Communist Party and LOM which all along have fought these necessary renovations tooth and nail, only to embrace glasnost and perestroika halfheartedly once announced by Gorbachev, and then in a manner calculated to limit their reach and depth.

As the Theoretical Review noted in March 1982 in discussing the rehabilitation of Bukharin, this goal is just the beginning of a struggle which must be carried through to the end:

Much more is needed than the rehabilitation of this one man. The world revolutionary movement demands a fundamental and all-sided rehabilitation of a vision of socialism itself, a vision which was nearly extinguished in the USSR in the long night of the Stalin period. Such a rehabilitation must be more than cosmetic—more than a superficial critique of ’errors’ in the application of the ’correct line,’ or the ’cult of personality.’ What is at stake here is the ability of the left to pose and solve the fundamental questions which confront it as a political force: how to facilitate setting into motion a process of revolutionary transformation of society, and once having done so, how to successfully participate in a leading way alongside the masses in the long and complex transition to a new social order.

This is the true revolutionary agenda of glasnost and perestroika. As such, it deserves our wholehearted support.