Yeltsin and the Soviet elections

By Sam Marcy (April 6, 1989)

In analyzing the Soviet elections at this early date, only some tentative conclusions are possible. We reserve for later a more comprehensive analysis when the detailed tabulations are made available.

Suffice it to say that the results thus far are a blow to Gorbachev's policy of restructuring. This is notwithstanding that many from the opposition who got elected have claimed restructuring as their program, but they want it to go much further and faster.

The issue really is what do the masses expect from restructuring, what is the meaning of reforming the Soviet economy?

It is now four long years into the restructuring process inaugurated by the Gorbachev administration, and the situation insofar as living conditions go, particularly in the food and consumer areas, has gotten worse according to Gorbachev's own estimate. He has overhauled what he said was a top-heavy agricultural bureaucracy, not once but twice, yet no alleviation of the situation is in sight.

Perhaps it is best to begin an analysis of the election results with the critically important October 1987 Politburo meeting.

Democratic centralism and the Politburo

Notwithstanding Gorbachev's bold words against bureaucracy and undemocratic procedures, the conduct of the Politburo itself is not anything like the Leninist conception of the practice of democratic centralism.

It was traditional during the Leninist period that when serious issues of principle were at stake, discussions at the Politburo level were publicized. As a matter of democratic centralist procedure, disagreements were clearly defined in written documents, without fear of punishment or reprisal.

The history of the Bolshevik Party during Lenin's lifetime is replete with polemics among the different tendencies within the Party, right, left and center. It is true that not everything can be solved merely by following democratic procedure, but it does help the mass of the Party and the people to assess the differences if written positions are formulated by each of the groupings or the individuals involved.

Of course, there has always been a certain amount of evasion in presenting these positions, but nevertheless they afford some guide for the Party membership as well as for the mass of workers and peasants.

This procedure was totally abolished in the post-Leninist era. One would have hoped that when Gorbachev began his administration with such loud denunciations of anti-democratic procedures and command and administrative practices, he would have reintroduced it where it counts so heavily, in the Politburo itself. This would not only raise the prestige of the Politburo but would also focus attention on the critical issues the Party and the government have to deal with.

Circumstances of Yeltsin's expulsion from Politburo

Hence the importance of the October 1987 Politburo meeting. It was there that the differences between right, left and center broke out, as we learned later. (The terms right, left and center are used here advisedly, in the sense that Boris Yeltsin is considered to represent the right wing, Gorbachev the center, and Ligachev and some of his supporters the left within the communist movement.)

But none of them have presented their positions in documentary form or given any exhaustive exposition of their views. All of them put themselves under the old monolithic facade of unanimity, so that Politburo meetings are conducted in secret and only the results are published in vague form without any hint of differences--at a time when there are such grave political problems.

The public learned subsequently that differences between Yeltsin and Gorbachev over restructuring broke out unexpectedly. Instead of making public a definitive or even tentative exposition of their views, it ended in an organizational brawl with name-calling and rudeness. Yeltsin was dropped from the Politburo for what was later explained as overweening ambition, egoism, etc.--a purely subjective approach.

Even if all this were true, it only masks deeper political differences over the course of restructuring. The Politburo did not explain why this formerly strong ally of Gorbachev had suddenly become insolent and overbearing.

Dropping a Politburo member where there are obvious political differences is anti-Leninist and anti-democratic in character. During the Lenin period, there were times the majority was against him--most notably during the Brest-Litovsk negotiations. It is a gross distortion of democratic centralism to drop an elected member of the Politburo without referring it back to the Central Committee.

Most of all, it is politically harmful, especially to the cause of communist political and theoretical practice in the building and strengthening of the Party. Since Yeltsin was the spokesperson for the right wing, his purge from the Politburo deprived that body of a spokesman for the right, which, from the point of view of the Politburo itself, it needed in order to assess the continuing debate over the fate of restructuring.

Dropping him from the Politburo didn't solve the problem of a right-wing opposition; it merely weakened the bureau. Moreover, Gorbachev demonstrated his arrogance and lack of sensitivity to the repercussions this would have in Yeltsin's constituency.

Effect on Moscow Party

Yeltsin, it need hardly be remembered, was the head of the Moscow Party, possibly the strongest and most politically articulate section of the country. Moscow, Leningrad and several other cities are the most cosmopolitan in the Soviet Union.

Removing a Politburo member who represents the Moscow constituency is a very serious matter. Gorbachev, who endlessly talks about learning from history, shows how little he really understands about all this.

When Stalin was faced with the opposition of Moscow and Leningrad, represented by Zinoviev and Kamenev, respectively, he knew enough on the basis of his factional instincts not to remove them abruptly. On the contrary, he moved slowly. Of course, the political positions were aired fairly clearly under those circumstances, notwithstanding Stalin's arbitrary and bureaucratic behavior.

What he did do, of course, which was much worse, was to slowly destroy the basis for their representation, by lies and by slander. But he knew one thing: that one cannot summarily remove the leaders of each of these cities without taking into calculation all of the consequences and planning for it over a period of time.

Thus, hastily removing Yeltsin laid the basis for strengthening and widening his popular support. Here it is necessary to take note of the deft hand of the imperialist press and how they explain such an event.

In earlier times, they would have castigated Gorbachev as being in the Stalin mold, putting Yeltsin in the role of a purged victim of Stalinist practices. But the capitalist press worldwide, it must be remembered, prefers Gorbachev as against, for instance, Ligachev or an earlier version of the traditional, pro-Stalin leader. So while they deplored Yeltsin's ouster, they nevertheless regarded it as merely an episodic event. They only mildly criticized Gorbachev, since it's on him that the bourgeoisie stakes their so-called new era of peaceful coexistence.

It is to be remembered that Gorbachev showed this same impulsiveness and overconfidence when he summarily dismissed D.A. Kunayev, the Communist Party leader in Kazakhstan, and replaced him with an ethnic Russian. This caused a massive rebellion and opened up the era of nationalist revival, after so many years in which the Soviet Union had cultivated the Leninist policy on internationalism among the republics.

By removing Yeltsin, Gorbachev not only weakened the Politburo by depriving it of someone who could articulate the views of the right, but he also strengthened Yeltsin's constituency in this most cosmopolitan and politically alert city.

During the Leninist period, relations between the political centers, such as Moscow and Petersburg (now Leningrad), and the outlying provinces were of particular concern to the success of Bolshevism with respect to the national question and the relations between the peasantry and the proletariat. The Moscow and Leningrad Bolsheviks went out of their way to demonstrate solicitude for the outlying provinces and republics, with their aspirations of equality, as a means of solidifying the class solidarity of the proletariat and peasantry.

Gorbachev's handling of these problems shows that he neither remembers nor knows how to evaluate in Leninist terms the relationship between the central political cities and the republics. In the Yeltsin affair, he also forgot about the role of the central cities, where political tendencies emerge first.

In removing Yeltsin from the Politburo, he humiliated not only the Moscow Party organization but the city as such, where Yeltsin had become a sort of favorite son. None of this was given a great deal of attention at the 19th Party Conference held last summer.

At that time, Yeltsin asked to be rehabilitated, and apologized for any remarks or conduct that might have caused the Politburo to relieve him of his post. This of course was not in the spirit of communist debate, theory or practice, which calls above all for frankness in stating one's own position boldly and clearly.

Everything in Marxism and Leninism speaks against these abject confessions, 99% of which are false and in the spirit of cringing before authority, failing to boldly state one's position, come what may. The Politburo members sitting at the podium then commenced an attack on him, all based on purely organizational and personal matters which do not bear any relationship to the issues.

Intoxicated by their success in getting approval for the projected reforms, Gorbachev and his colleagues rejected Yeltsin's plea to be readmitted to the Politburo. This too was a mistake, and follows the logic of their previous positions: not disclosing what the real problems and positions are, retaining the authority of the Politburo members to arbitrarily drop members without stated political differences and in disregard of the district communists, that is, Yeltsin's base and constituency.

Both a supporter and opponent

Thus, if one is to examine the basis for Yeltsin's 89% vote in Moscow (5.1 million votes), one has to attribute a great deal of his success to the policy pursued by the centrist Gorbachev grouping which controls the Politburo. Yeltsin was able to conduct his agitation with an election campaign in which he posed first of all as a strong supporter of Gorbachev and at the same time as an opponent.

Many communists were outraged at his being ousted from the Politburo without any sufficiently stated political basis, and at his shabby treatment at the conference. One would have anticipated that after he pleaded recognition of his organizational mistakes, there would be unity and he would be returned to the fold.

So as matters stood when the election campaign began, Yeltsin was able on the basis of his own vague position to pull votes from both sides. Gorbachev's supporters were apparently at a loss on how to proceed in his case. The bourgeois elements who understood Yeltsin's program best of all campaigned most arduously for him.

The considerable grouping in Moscow which is disenchanted with the Party and is actually for the bourgeois character of the reforms constituted the main detachment of his supporters. But despite the interpretation of the Western press, the vote was not for the most part anti-communist. He also appealed to the conservative element, that is, the traditional communists, and to many workers who listened to his demagogy about better housing, against privileges for the Party leadership, and so on. Above all, he threw the onus for the failure of the restructuring efforts on the old Party apparatus, at the same time covertly attacking the Gorbachev administration, of which he was no longer a part.

It's a classic case of a centrist administration, which needs right-wing support against the left, being unable to deal vigorously or affirmatively with an opponent from the right.

Finally, Yeltsin himself could not have selected a candidate to oppose him who could be an easier target for his demagogy. Let us look at the contest between Yeltsin and Yevgeny Brakov, considered the official Party candidate. Who is Brakov?

Director of limousine factory

He is the director of the Zil limousine factory, the symbol of the highest privileges in the USSR, a country where the overwhelming majority do not yet have a modest automobile.

Yeltsin as a member of the bureaucracy has one, yet nevertheless utilized this for demagogic purposes. The limousines are very visible in Moscow, as are long queues for necessary items. The contrast could not be greater.

But that is only one aspect of it. The other aspect is that he is a director of a plant. The directors during the Leninist regime were mere employees of the government and their authority was limited to their technical ability and managerial skills. Later, a so-called troika was formed for decision-making, composed of the manager or a sub-managerial staff, the Party representative in the plant, and either the union or a representative from the workers' council. The manager had no authority for hiring or firing.

All this has been changed. The managers now have vastly increased their authority, including that of hiring and firing, and the unions serve more in an advisory capacity, functioning more in the field of social insurance than in the day-to-day life of the workers.

While today the manager is often a member of the Party committee, he stands in opposition to the workers rather than as a representative of them in any way. In most cases, managers are hated by the workers. Whereas in the old days managers used to sit and observe Party proceedings, at the last Party Conference 570 of the delegates were managers.

A Leninist of the old school would find it unbelievable that at a Party Conference, directors instead of workers were representing the Party.

Centrist tendency loses out

Although the results nationwide are still very tentative, it nevertheless is very clear that Gorbachev's centrist tendency has lost out in the cities of Moscow, Leningrad, Kiev, Lvov, Minsk and Kishinev. The vote against the secretary of the Party in Leningrad, Yuri Solovyov, is particularly significant. He is not a holdover from the Brezhnev period but was brought in by Gorbachev himself in 1986. True, he is not a full Politburo member but only a non-voting alternate. Nevertheless, what was at stake here was Gorbachev's prestige.

What the election results show, even if tentatively, is massive dissatisfaction by the popular masses as a result of the hardships caused by the bourgeois character of the reforms, which the right-wing communists and the bourgeois elements have hitherto been blaming on the old conservative Party leadership. This might have gone over very well in 1985, 1986 or even 1987, but it is now four years into the bourgeois reforms and there is no end in sight to the hardships caused by them.

Those bourgeois elements who understand this very well are blaming it on the meager character of the reforms. They want to go the whole hog with bourgeois restorationist schemes.

The Gorbachev administration, which cannot and will not stop after having set them in motion, is being dragged further along the road. The leftist elements, those who may be represented by the Ligachev tendency, are neither articulate in expounding their view nor are they in the forefront as supporters of the Gorbachev administration.

What is the situation right now? The USSR is like a vast ocean liner somewhat adrift, destination unknown. The gravitational pull of its economic system, its basic class structure, the foundation of public ownership of the basic means of production, is toward the further development of socialism, toward moving into a higher stage.

Two opposite pulls

The other pull is back towards bourgeois norms, deriving from the unfinished socialist character of agriculture and other fields of consumer production where a bourgeois economy still prevails. The ideal of the bourgeois restorationist trend is the small enterprise, the family farm, the private cooperative.

This is a weak sector that cannot gain the confidence of the proletariat. The petty entrepreneurs are the object of derision and hatred from the large mass of the people.

The source of inequality is in the field of distribution, which is still based on bourgeois norms. This would not be an overriding obstacle if the superstructure of the USSR were not based upon privilege and inequality, which pulls away from socialism. At the same time, the superstructure and the political rule of the bureaucracy rests precisely on the socialized sector and government ownership of the means of production, which has broad support from the workers.

Should a crisis develop, it will be the bureaucracy that will go and not the economic foundations of socialist construction.

The reforms the bourgeois elements are trying to foist upon the USSR are like attempts to put a saddle on a cow. It simply will not work. On the other hand, the imperialist bourgeoisie and some of the bourgeois economists in the USSR like Shmelyov, Abalkin, and others see public ownership of the means of production as the basic insurmountable obstacle which must first be dismantled.

They want to break up an ocean liner into a myriad of small rowboats. That's also the free enterprise view of the imperialist bourgeoisie for the USSR.

It won't happen. A reaction against the innovators is bound to reemerge, not in the form of the old Party hierarchy but as a new, thoroughly working class-oriented tendency that sees the historic mission of the USSR as towards further socialization, not back to the old discredited bourgeois norms.

Main menu Yearly menu