Before discussing the upcoming 19th Conference of the Communist Party of the USSR, scheduled for June 1988, let us for the moment detach ourselves from some of the international issues which will surely impact on it.
Issues impacting on the Conference: Afghanistan, INF treaty, U.S. defense budget. Conference lacks legislative authority. Will national question be taken up? How many delegates will be workers? Gorbachev's remark on "quotas." Is democracy only for those who support perestroika? Need for open discussion. Soviets less representative than Party. Gorbachev speaks of opposition to reforms--where does it come from? The price of bread. Bourgeois norms vs. strengthening socialist perspective.
Let's put aside the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan, which began May 15, 1988. Let's also put aside the impending visit of President Reagan to Moscow in connection with the signing of the INF treaty, which has not yet been ratified by the U.S. Senate, although all indications point in that direction. A $300-billion defense appropriations bill, which has been well-nigh agreed to by both houses of Congress, will surely be passed, and this fact could not be lost on the Party Conference, where a report by the Central Committee on arms negotiations will surely be a matter of principal interest.
The struggle between the two social systems continues, notwithstanding a significant change in tone in the imperialist press, notwithstanding the resumption of U.S.-Soviet cultural, political and economic exchanges, and notwithstanding that a goodly number of ultra-rightwingers in the U.S. administration are gone (notably Donald Regan, Caspar Weinberger and William Casey). The huge U.S. military budget, of whose passage there is no doubt at all, symbolizes the ongoing struggle. The defense budget is the axis on which the struggle rotates.
In attempting to gauge the significance of the Conference, we ought also to disregard, but only for the moment, the cheering in the imperialist press for perestroika. It seems to get louder with each passing day and is more or less uniform in approach. In a word, the bourgeoisie are all for it, except they appear to be goading the Soviet government to move much faster. But on this, too, one must bear in mind that the imperialist ruling class has been wrong before. However desirable the changes in the Soviet Union may be from their point of view, their hopes may be frustrated, as they are more and more in almost all parts of the world.
Nevertheless, this Party Conference may have critical importance, not because of the many international issues at hand but because of the central domestic issue: the progress of the Soviet reforms. Where are they leading? What is their true overall direction? Is perestroika, as the imperialist bourgeoisie hopes, a move away from the socialist perspective, from socialist planning? Or is it only a temporary retreat meant to lay the basis for a swifter momentum in socialist construction at a later date? That is the issue.
From the point of view of procedure, a Party Conference is generally differentiated from a Party Congress in that it does not have what we here in the West would call legislative authority. A Congress, on the other hand, represents the power of the Party and its membership. At least in a formal sense, it can recommend that the Supreme Soviet adopt the necessary legislation which follows from the recommendations of the Congress.
There hasn't been a Party Conference since February 1941, shortly before the war.
A Conference may take up any number of issues of current significance, either to implement decisions already taken by the previous Congress, or because new critical issues have arisen which require immediate attention and cannot wait for the next Congress. It is generally looser and requires participation by those in leadership and from the ranks who are most intimately concerned with the issues to be taken up.
For instance, the rebellions that recently took place in Armenia and Azerbaijan, the first of their kind since the Revolution and the Civil War, should be a matter of great importance. Adequate representation by all sides would be especially necessary, with reports from the people concerned. There is scarcely an issue of more significance to socialist construction than the national question. True, the rebellions have been discussed widely in the Soviet press and media, but a discussion at this meeting by the representatives of both peoples, especially those who have been removed from their posts in-between the 27th Congress and this Conference, would be most important.
In this connection, a remark by Gorbachev about the procedure for selecting delegates to the Conference is altogether disturbing and may breach, certainly in the formal sense, the usual procedures by which Conferences and Party Congresses are organized. The Bolshevik Party was founded as the militant working class organizer of the vanguard. Its ideological standpoint as a proletarian party meant that the leadership had to ceaselessly strive to see to it that the social composition of the Party corresponded to its ideological position as the vanguard of the working class. From its very inception the Party leadership sought to enroll workers, peasants and the rural poor, women and all the disadvantaged as the bulwarks of the future socialist dictatorship of the working class and the peasantry. Even if this has been abandoned, even if only a formality or a shell remains of it, nevertheless, at the last Congress what was significant from the point of view of formality was the predominance of workers. There were also many from the collectives, many women, and many from the various nationalities in the USSR. Now we see a change with respect to the social composition of the Conference. Gorbachev recently said in a speech to editors and Party leaders, "There must be no more quotas, as we had in the past--so many workers and peasants, so many women and so forth." 1
This sounds really alarming. He then buttressed his remark by saying, "The principal political imperative is to elect active supporters of perestroika." Read literally, this means that only the supporters of perestroika ought to be elected. What about those who are not supporters? If it's only for supporters, why have the Conference at all?
What about democratization? Is it only for the supporters of perestroika, even the most extreme ones who can scarcely be differentiated from outright bourgeois types? Doesn't this make a mockery out of the whole democratization process? It is well known that there is a considerable amount of opposition in the Party to perestroika. It may be based on the pace of development. It may be based on a principled disagreement. Or it may be based simply on the inability of perestroika to bring about the desired results. Perestroika is now well into its third year. It has been clear that there are at least two political tendencies which have made their positions known in one way or another, both of them in very indirect and rather Aesopian ways.
If this is to be a landmark Conference that can achieve something, if it is to have some measure of democratization about it, then the most important part of the procedure for the Conference is the timely publication and wide dissemination, at least in the Party, of documents presenting the government's point of view, but also the views of those who, for lack of a better way to express it, could be called the Yeltsin tendency, which tends to carry the reforms to an extreme, and the Ligachev tendency, the so-called conservatives. In order to properly bring this out into the open, it is necessary to assure the Party and the public that there will be no administrative reprisals. Hasn't the Gorbachev regime supposedly dedicated its entire program to ending administrative procedures and the suppression of differing views in the Party?
To this day we can only guess what the divergent views are. It is true that documents and presentations at a Conference alone cannot adequately express the views of different groupings in the Party, or, more importantly in the final analysis, their objective orientation. However, up until the middle 1920s at least, the groupings presented their views through documents. There was scarcely a Party Conference or Congress without intensive and prolonged discussion. Nobody called it a democratization process. It was considered ordinary Party democracy.
If perestroika is to be the great turning point in Soviet society about which Gorbachev and his supporters are continually exhorting the population, does it not rate an open discussion in the Party? Perestroika has not in these almost three years been a spectacular success. Gorbachev himself does not claim it has. As a matter of fact, he has often spoken about lack of progress, but blames resistance within the Party, particularly in the lower echelons and the outlying regions of the country. Is it caused by lethargy and bureaucratic entrenchment alone? Why would that be so in the lower ranks more than at the very summits, which have almost all been replaced since Gorbachev was elected general secretary? Certainly there has been a turnover in the majority of the Politburo and the Presidium of the USSR.
In a speech last week, Georgi P. Razumovsky, an ally of Gorbachev who was promoted in February 1988 to a non-voting seat on the Politburo, proposed "fundamentally increasing the role and securing the full power of the Soviets of People's Deputies as the political basis of our socialist government." 2 Strengthening the Soviets is certainly very important. Who could possibly say no to that? But it begs the question. If there is no real democratic discussion in the Party, how is it possible for there to be any in the Soviets, most of whom are Party members? Was this an attempt to threaten the Party that unless it goes along with them, the Gorbachev supporters will turn to another arm of the government? This sounds altogether outlandish from the Gorbachev point of view.
The imperialist press has had a considerable number of reports to the effect that Gorbachev is seeking a greater grip on the Party apparatus and that, in his frustration, he is looking to another lever, the Soviets. But the Soviets are less representative today than the lower levels of the Party. They are all government officials, mostly appointed or recommended by the Party.
There is of course no knowing what the real strength of the opposition to perestroika is under these circumstances. What aspect of the opposition is progressive, oriented toward the socialist goal and against capitalist restorationist elements, and what is downright opposition to the government on a reactionary basis?
There are indications that the bourgeois elements may be worried about how things will go at the Conference. Ten members of the intelligentsia, led by physicist Andrei Sakharov who is wildly popular among the Western imperialists, wrote an open letter to the Central Committee urging postponement of the Party Conference. After the usual calls for democracy, they suggested that the delegates be chosen on the basis of their attitude toward perestroika.3
There is no way to adequately gauge the impact of those who are for the restoration of bourgeois market relations. Gorbachev himself says, "Sometimes people reason this way: Everyone has now been given three years for perestroika, and that is enough. If you failed to reform, get out. But we, all of us, have not yet reformed. . . . Some people have indeed lost their bearings amid all the processes taking place," he continues. "Some people have failed to keep their heads and panicked." Then he adds, "I wouldn't count those who have panicked to be irresponsible people or people opposed to perestroika out of hand." 4
All this clearly indicates that there is opposition to the reforms. What is the basis for it all? The basis is that in all previous five-year plans, great enthusiasm was evident, coming particularly from the masses. But now it seems that no matter how much exhortation there is, no matter how many times the masses are told and retold that they are now co-owners in plants and industries, it does not seem to take hold. It must be that a good many feel alienated from ownership and that the restructuring plans have caused apprehension and uncertainty among the mass of the workers, although there is no evidence of an opposition movement in the working class.
The problems are basically economic. The issue is how the changes will affect the workers, and most immediately how a price restructuring will affect them. A great eagerness was shown by the administration to restructure the prices of some 200,000 items, including food, household utensils, so forth and so on. This restructuring would supposedly put prices more in line with costs and ultimately benefit the workers, but it appears to be an upward movement, not a downward one.
Gorbachev has on several occasions mentioned that the price of bread in the USSR is so cheap that children use loaves as footballs in their games. The implication of this is that bread is too cheap, that it should be more costly because grain is more costly. But let us see. If we remember correctly, a change in the price of bread was last discussed and promulgated in 1946 during the Stalin period. The idea was that bread would become so cheap in the future that ultimately it would be given out free. In other words, there would be a development toward socialist distribution. This is consonant with Marxist concepts of economics.
Price is nothing but the monetary expression of value. Value is another name for the amount of socially necessary labor time spent in the production of an article. Has not the progress of socialist construction in the USSR shown that scientific-technological development ought to reduce the amount of socially necessary labor? This is universally true. The reduction of the amount of socially necessary labor time should mean the reduction of cost. But the projection of the perestroika economists is that prices have to be raised. Putting prices in line with costs and the adoption of new cost accounting methods all adds up to a redistribution of the national income in a way which spreads apprehension and fear among the workers. This is reflected in the lower bodies of the Party, which, while by no means as faithful a representation of the working class as they should be, are nevertheless more significant than the cheerleaders for the reforms from the bourgeois intelligentsia of the USSR.
It is this problem that has to be addressed. If the stagnation of Soviet industry is so great, can it be due merely to the existence of lethargy and the prevalence of bureaucratic methods? Or is it due to a slowly but surely developing momentum toward modifying the social system in the direction of bourgeois norms, toward encouraging individual acquisitiveness, favoring individual entrepreneurs, vastly extending managerial prerogatives, stimulating competitiveness among workers--instead of promoting cooperation and solidarity and reawakening genuine mass enthusiasm? Isn't this what has to be discussed? If many are asking why three years of perestroika aren't enough to demonstrate its value to the workers, should that not be discussed?
The scientific-technological revolution and the modernization of plant and equipment in the Soviet Union is not a new idea at all. It has been brought up at each successive Congress of the Party and has been a pivotal point of socialist construction. The Soviet socialist system has nevertheless produced genuine feats of socialist construction, evident in outer space achievements, in nuclear technology, in the military prowess of the USSR based on scientific-technological development.
A few years ago when the USSR decided to build a natural gas pipeline to Europe, the imperialists said they would not sell them certain types of technology necessary to develop the pipeline and that the USSR would be incapable of finishing the job. But, as in the case of all other technological obstacles put in the way by the imperialists, the USSR was able to accomplish it without their help and gas is now flowing into Europe.
The problem of perestroika doesn't lie in that direction. It lies in the fact that this is an attempt to change social conditions, to redistribute the national product in another, more unequal way. It lies in the attempt to foist bourgeois norms, bourgeois incentives and bourgeois economic doctrines upon a socialist economy. They bring in their train all of the evils of a capitalist market economy. You can't improve it by calling it market socialism.
The issue is whether perestroika is oriented in the direction of strengthening the socialist perspective or whether it is an attempt at a throwback to favor the upper crust of Soviet society. And finally the question is whether it can even be accomplished without provoking civil conflict. The lesson of Poland ought to be sobering to the Gorbachev supporters, and even more so the lesson of Yugoslavia with its galloping inflation, its subordination to the imperialist IMF, its chronic unemployment and the reemergence of national antagonisms.
2. New York Times, April 28, 1988.
3. Wall Street Journal, May 16, 1988.
4. New York Times, May 11, 1988.
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