Article 20
December 22, 1988



Comparison of Khrushchev and Gorbachev. Gorbachev consolidates agriculture ministries. Reorganization of personnel as a factional maneuver. "Revolution" from above. New economic mechanisms: the private cooperative. "There are rogues in the cooperatives." Breaking collectives into smaller units inconsistent with socialist development, hasn't solved food problem. Lenin on cooperation. Attempt in 1920s to win middle peasants to cooperatives failed. Left, right and center in the Party.

When Mikhail Gorbachev took over the post of General Secretary of the Communist Party in March 1985, he alone among the top leaders in the Politburo had accumulated significant experience in the food program of the USSR. As a result of his tenure in office as Party Secretary of Agriculture, he seemed to be the one person who could resolve the country's most crying problem: the food question and related problems arising from the chronic agricultural crisis.

Of all the leaders since the death of Stalin--Gorbachev, Chernenko, Andropov, Brezhnev, Khrushchev and Malenkov--only two, Khrushchev and Gorbachev, could claim extended experience in agriculture as a significant factor in their rise to head the Party and the government. Of course, Brezhnev also had experience, but it was not as critical a factor in his rise.

There can be no more important problem in any country than the food supply. In both ancient and modern times, governments have been swept away after natural catastrophes when they were unable to alleviate the situation. Marshall Goldman, a none too friendly critic of the Soviet Union, says in his Gorbachev's Challenge, "Agriculture has its own special problems. Beginning in 1979, the Soviet Union suffered seven bad grain harvests in a row." 1 He conveniently forgets President Carter's export embargo on selling grain to the Soviet Union, which unquestionably aggravated the food situation.

It is a staggering problem. Nevertheless, Gorbachev has not overestimated the significance of the objective factor in the agricultural problems of the USSR. Rather, what he has done over a period of time is establish himself as a critic of the management and techniques used in the agrarian sector.

Khrushchev had been a peasant, unlike Gorbachev, whose agricultural experience was mostly involved in administration as a career political leader. Even as early as Stalin's tenure, Khrushchev had accumulated some remarkable successes, first as secretary in charge of agriculture of the Ukrainian Party, and, second, as the person responsible for having pushed forward collectivization under Stalin. A highly progressive scheme to amalgamate the thousands of small collectives into larger units was his, and proved to be singularly successful. Gorbachev's experience, however, has been more in administration than in the direct management of agriculture. After a considerable period in office, there is no evidence to date that Gorbachev's achievements have been any more than lackluster.

Khrushchev had an altogether different personality; his demeanor may have occasionally been regarded as rude and crude, which was unfairly attributed to his peasant origins. All of the post-Khrushchev writers and considerable biographical material in both the East and West agree on this. His shoe-banging demonstration at the UN is regarded as evidence of his crudeness. Of course, never mentioned is the historical context: the tense and charged atmosphere of late 1960, when a U-2 spy plane had recently been shot down over the USSR and anti-Soviet, anti-Cuban propaganda reached its peak as Khrushchev and Fidel Castro, in New York to address the UN General Assembly, met at the Theresa Hotel in Harlem.

Gorbachev's style, on the other hand, to the extent that one can have observed him from the outside in his years as general secretary, is that of a Western CEO (the chief executive officer of a large multinational corporation) rather than of a communist leader of the older generation, especially the Bolsheviks. Hardly anything comes through in his speeches which would indicate a link to the older generation of communist leaders. When Mikhail Kalinin, for instance, became president of the Soviet state in 1925, he was almost universally viewed as a peasant, which he was. Gorbachev, on the other hand, is a lawyer, a university graduate who studied law and public administration. It is from all these points of view that he is a leader, as so many bourgeois commentators have said, of a new type, and his collaborators in the Party leadership have in one way or another fallen into substantially the same social category. But food and agriculture is the problem of problems before them. In the long run, if there is a severe crisis, they will be held accountable.

In Gorbachev's very first speech following the death of Chernenko, he said, "We should, we are bound to attain the most advanced scientific and technical positions, the highest world level in the productivity of social labor. In order to resolve the task with greater success and speed, it is necessary to continue to perfect persistently the economic mechanism and the entire management system. . . . This means invariably carrying out a planned development of the economy, strengthening socialist ownership, expanding the rights, enhancing the independence of enterprises, raising their interest in the end product of their work." (Our emphases--S.M.)

There soon followed exhortations and directives regarding the expansion of democratic rights "to the fullest extent possible" and the opening up of a campaign against "bureaucracy" on a scale that dwarfed anything either Khrushchev or others had embarked upon.

Naturally, the public eye was first and foremost on the food and agricultural sector; that's where Gorbachev's expertise was involved and much was expected from that area. Thus, on November 22, 1985, the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet announced the first of a number of sweeping overhauls of the government. Some 50 government ministries were earmarked for significant changes or outright abolition. But most important was the abolition of five key ministries that dealt with food and agriculture: 1) the Ministry of Agriculture, 2) the Ministry of the Fruit and Vegetable Industry, 3) the Ministry of Rural Construction, 4) the Ministry of the Meat and Dairy Industry, and 5) the Ministry of the Food Industry. Also dissolved was the State Committee for Production and Servicing of Agriculture.2

If the problem was bureaucratic practices, this should have done it. If bureaucratic inertia and lack of contact between the masses and the officialdom had been the major brake upon agriculture (as has so frequently been charged), and if what was needed to revive agricultural production and substantially increase the food supply was the renewal of personnel in all these ministries and departments, then this move should have been the answer, at least in part.

However, the reorganization of the agricultural and food administrations was not altogether a new idea. Reorganizations have been going on for years, practically since the establishment of the Soviet Union. There was considerable overhauling during and after collectivization and during the wartime years. Most dramatic was what appeared to be a liberalization and a dramatic blow at the agricultural bureaucracy during the Khrushchev era, meant to bring the administrators and organizers of agriculture closer to the masses. One of Khrushchev's reforms had been to move the Ministry of Agriculture from Moscow back to the rural areas so as to put it in direct contact with agricultural production. It was a bold move and a brave one at that, for he could not possibly have earned the gratitude of those forced to move from the capital to the provinces, with the hardships that would cause them and their families. But it wasn't just the ministries in Moscow that moved to rural areas, it was also the ministries of the various republics. From the point of view of an orthodox communist position, keeping in touch with the masses had always meant being where the masses themselves were. And that meant a minimum of representation in Moscow or in the capitals of the republics.

If anything should have enhanced the democratization process during the Khrushchev period, this was it. Closer contact with the masses was regarded as of cardinal significance in the struggle of the Party to be in the vanguard of the workers and the peasantry. For a Party member to be a peasant or be close to the farms was a badge of honor, since this usually entailed a great deal of hard work, tireless energy and removal from the center of political struggle. But this particular reorganization by Khrushchev did not accomplish what it was intended to, because it was also a factionally motivated maneuver to get rid of, as far as possible, the old holdovers, those who had been loyal supporters of the Stalin regime or were suspected of being opposed to the Khrushchev reforms. Sending out administrators from the center to the provinces was a tactic used during the Stalin regime and by governments the world over. But it did little to solve the overall problem confronting agriculture, notwithstanding the remarkable successes of Khrushchev with the virgin lands experiment and his earlier amalgamation of the small, scattered collectives into larger ones.

Gorbachev's move in November 1985 produced similar results. If what was needed was to overhaul the bureaucratic apparatus, to bring in fresh cadres from the ranks and from enthusiastic supporters of democratization, then Gorbachev's overhaul should have resulted in a spectacular success in the food and agricultural program. However, the wholesale abolition of these departments was in reality merely a consolidation. They were put under the jurisdiction of a new super-agency, the State Committee for the Agro-Industrial Complex.3 What is more, Gorbachev succeeded in getting Vsevolod S. Murakhovsky, Communist Party leader in the region of Stavropol, Gorbachev's home base, to head the new agency. Gorbachev had taken a leaf from Khrushchev in his reorganization; on balance it seemed to have been a way to get rid of the old office holders from the Brezhnev era and put in his own supporters.

Overhauling the agricultural apparatus looked on the surface like a democratic measure. In reality, it was merely a change of personnel. Nowhere was there any indication of the anticipated groundswell of support for the Gorbachev measures from the millions of workers and peasants on the collective farms or in the food-processing industry.

The changes at the top were not a reflection of social ferment in the collective farm population, among the workers from the service centers which supply them with technical assistance, or in other areas of the population involved in agriculture. Indeed, the mass of the workers and peasants all over the USSR were not at all moved by the new reorganization, although there was the usual praise and approval at selected meetings of agricultural functionaries. This measure, more than others, confirmed that the "Gorbachev revolution," as it is frequently called in the bourgeois press, is strictly a revolution from the top. And it is truer in the area of agriculture than anywhere else.

There's no evidence that the "democratization" had reached or involved the lowest echelons of the mass of the workers and peasants, especially in the poorer collectives. Revolutionary change at the top, if it is really revolutionary, ultimately evokes a response from the masses below. But that was not at all the case. It turned out to be merely a change of personnel--although there's no doubt that the new government administration had the authority and perhaps the obligation to change the personnel if indeed the old holdovers were obstructing the new program of "radical restructuring."

The many exhortations to democratize the organs, to instill a new stimulus to the masses, to bring out their creative initiative and so forth had little to do with enhancing and increasing agricultural and food production. It just didn't happen.

Gorbachev's speech in June 1988 to the 19th Party Conference is most eloquent testimony to the failure of his own policy. "Let me begin with the food problem," said Gorbachev, "which is probably the most painful and the most acute problem in the life of our society." 4 Thus, more than three years after he took over and two-and-a-half years after his reorganization of the administration of agriculture, the food problem had become the "most painful and most acute problem."

But the Gorbachev administration has not relied on political and administrative measures alone to solve the food and agricultural problem. It has a two-fold approach. It is singularly concerned with new economic mechanisms to replace the old ones. Indeed, the political measures are complementary to the new economic mechanisms. By the time of the 19th Party Conference, the greatest attention was being paid to a series of innovations and experiments in the farm and food sector which were supposed to revive agriculture and accelerate the production of food. All this was to be done in the "shortest time possible." But what are the new economic mechanisms?

They include first of all the development of private cooperatives. Private cooperatives have existed sporadically in Soviet farming and the service industry for a long time. Now and then they have been restricted or abolished, only to be revived again, although in a limited way. This latest attempt by Gorbachev is the most sweeping to date. According to his accounts, it is taking hold.

A private cooperative, it should be remembered, is altogether different from a collective. A private cooperative is a grouping of people who join together to cultivate farm land or set up some small business on the basis of profit. In the case of an agricultural cooperative, the land is leased to the cooperative, while the tools may be privately owned. Its objective is to give free vent to the entrepreneurial initiative in the hope that this will facilitate production, especially in agriculture, consumer goods and services. There are, of course, restrictions by the state, but they are not really significant. Moreover, the cooperatives, under a new law now in effect, may have the right to hire labor, provided the wages paid are the same as in the public sector. This is a real break with the past, which prohibited the hiring of labor as exploitation of the workers, regardless of what pay was involved.

There are no statistics available as yet to show how far this process has gone or what proportion of the profits are paid in the form of taxes to the Soviet government. It should be noted, however, that a resolution put before the Supreme Soviet in 1987 to tax the cooperatives 90% of their profits was rejected. It was the first time the Supreme Soviet had ever rejected a recommendation or proposal from the Party. Thereafter, it was reported that a lower tax had been passed. Of course, this is only in the service sector and in areas involving agriculture, food and related services. There is no way at the present time to accurately gauge the overall economic and social significance of this new departure.

Nevertheless, it is a break with the past. And while it is true that those permitted to engage in these private cooperatives have to do so after regular working hours, on their own time, the main interest of the members of the cooperative will ultimately shift away from their regular jobs to the cooperative, which can generate profits and actually make the regular job superfluous.

In his talk to a special Central Committee meeting on agriculture on October 12, 1988, Gorbachev went over the subject of his agricultural schemes and touched on the question of the cooperatives.

. . . the cooperative movement in the country . . . is also getting underway, gaining strength. Not everything is going smoothly. It turned out that some of our cooperators were not among our honest people who are indeed ready to display initiative, quick-wittedness, economic independence, and enterprise, to help society tackle many questions which the large enterprises are perhaps not up to. . . . And it turned out that there were rogues among the cooperators, you know!

A kind of public has turned up which, in point of fact, has obtained, in the form of the cooperative, an opportunity to legalize its illegal income and acquisitions in a dishonest way. And now it almost seems that they are going to flourish. All this is taking place, and do not think that we do not see it and do not know about it. We do. Everything is known, all the more so in the present-day glasnost.

But we are not panicking, we are studying all these things. I don't think we should drag out the study of these problems; rather, we must find economic levers, to influence this type of phenomena.5

But how, he did not say.

So it turns out that the cooperatives are havens for rogues, for all sorts of dishonest elements who, having some illegal income which they acquired, are setting up cooperatives to fleece the public! Gorbachev expected them to display "initiative" and "quick-wittedness" as well as "economic independence," but found instead that they were mostly concerned with getting an opportunity to legalize illegal income.

There are two separate elements involved in Gorbachev's admission regarding the cooperatives which are truly astonishing. The first is his disappointment with the character of the people who are swarming into them. Perhaps the most important thought one can gather from his talk is that he expected them to help society "tackle many questions which the large enterprises are perhaps not up to." What is Gorbachev expecting? That small enterprises can tackle the food and agricultural problems which large enterprises are incapable of handling? But this runs against the entire course of the historical evolution of agriculture, as well as industry, during the epoch of capitalism and in the early period of the Soviet Union itself.

What did Marx write Capital for? To demonstrate that smaller units in industry and agriculture can do better than the larger ones? Is one to forget the entire history of capitalism, forget the concentration of capital into larger and larger units and especially the growth of such vast industries as automotive and agribusiness? Is Gorbachev attributing the agricultural crisis and the crisis of food supply to the fact that the collective and state farms are too large to be handled, so that it is now necessary to break them up into smaller units?

One can make sense of this only if it is regarded as a purely administrative or organizational problem. One can easily see analogies with the giant corporations under capitalism, which often break up larger units into subdivisions. This happens time and again with IBM, General Motors, AT&T, etc. But they all remain within the framework of private property and monopoly ownership by an ever more omnipotent cadre of the imperialist bourgeoisie.

But the private cooperatives, under the Gorbachev scheme, are a move away from socialist ownership and toward private ownership. Gorbachev's assurances that it is all done within the larger framework of socialism do little to mitigate the significance of this detour, this remarkable step backward, which is utterly inconsistent with socialist development.

The cooperatives are a change in property forms. If this is what he wants to do, nothing is more important than to clarify the significance of the change. It is not merely a change of management, not just an "economic mechanism," as he puts it. It's a change in property forms, however minimal it may be at the present time. One form fosters bourgeois acquisitiveness and profiteering; the other is based on socialist solidarity. The fundamental advantage of the cooperatives would be if they facilitated and increased production. But if it turns out that they're just a haven for thieves, that negates the experiment altogether.

The Gorbachev promoters of private enterprise are very quick to bring up Lenin's famous article "On Cooperation" in which he proposed the development of a cooperative movement in the USSR in the very early 1920s.6 Lenin explained that cooperatives under capitalism were bourgeois mediums bereft of any kind of socialist perspective. They were justly denounced as instruments to divert the class struggle, he said again and again. While Lenin explained what cooperatives were in bourgeois society, he added that cooperatives in Soviet society, under the control of the workers' and peasants' government, under the control of the state, could play a highly progressive role in the construction of socialism.

However, the problem was that the peasantry in the 1920s, before collectivization, fell into three groups: the poor peasants, who supported the Soviet government; the middle peasants, who were better off and made up the majority; and the rich kulaks, who were distinguished by their ability to hire labor power on their farms. It was the hope of the Soviet government that the cooperatives would attract the middle peasants and involve them eventually in the development of socialism. It was a particularly trying period in the building up of the Soviet industrial and technological infrastructure, which was small at that time and moreover had been battered by the Civil War and the sabotage of the overthrown bourgeoisie.

The middle peasants did not respond. They wanted nothing more than to be completely free to buy and sell as they saw fit in their own group interests. They did not want supervision or control by the state, even a Soviet state, and moreover a good many succumbed to whispering campaigns of the rich kulaks that the cooperatives were a Bolshevik trick to take away their land. Some cooperatives survived and supplemented socialist construction. But by and large a crisis in the relations between the peasantry and the government arose in the 1920s, particularly after Lenin's death.

The three principal groupings in the Bolshevik Party, each with their own program, were: the right, headed by Bukharin, Rykov and Tomsky; the left headed by Trotsky and the Left Opposition; and the centrist grouping headed by Stalin and his supporters. All realized that the current situation was untenable and required fundamental solutions to the growing contradiction between the urgent need to develop socialist industry and the position of the middle peasantry, which was orienting in a bourgeois direction.

The cooperative movement did not take hold, precisely because the bulk of the middle peasantry, under the prompting of the kulaks, wanted to avoid any kind of restrictions. (This is in accordance with their historic role under capitalism, except that there they are ultimately subjected to the merchant, the usurer and the tax collector.) The so-called free peasantry wanted nothing more than a free capitalist market for their products. The poor peasants, however, especially at times of drought or other natural catastrophes, would get wiped out by the free market. The poor peasants were natural allies of the proletarian dictatorship in the agricultural sector.

Gorbachev, in his promotion of the private cooperatives, idealizes them and exaggerates their social significance, forgetting the true lessons of the 1920s. Yet he has to admit himself that the cooperatives are nothing but havens for illegal profiteers. Moreover, they are roundly detested by the general public.

If the main objective of the government is to stimulate what they call creative initiative by spurring on entrepreneurial instincts and even glorifying them, then this can only be to the detriment of socialist solidarity in the overall process of production in Soviet society.

In the next article we will take up other economic mechanisms, such as the family farm and the contract brigade.


1. Marshall Goldman, Gorbachev's Challenge (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1987), p. 32.

2. New York Times, "Soviet Overhauls Farm Bureaucracy," November 23, 1989.

3. Ibid.

4. Mikhail Gorbachev, "On Progress in Implementing the Decisions of the 27th CPSU Congress and the Tasks of Promoting Perestroika," Report to the 19th All-Union Conference, June 28, 1988, in Reprints from the Soviet Press (New York: Compass Point Publications, 1988), Vol. 47, No. 1, p. 10.

5. Mikhail Gorbachev, Speech to CPSU Central Committee Conference on Agriculture in Moscow, October 12, 1988; English translation in Foreign Broadcast Information Service, "Gorbachev Opens Conference," October 14, 1988, p. 78.

6. V.I. Lenin, "On Cooperation," Collected Works (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1966), Vol. 33, pp. 467-475.

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