by Pete Brown
(From Communist Voice, vol. 8, #2, issue #29, June 20, 2002)
Revisionist dogma blocks scientific analysis
The wonders of inequality
"Payment for work performed"?
Is socialism built by fighting against egalitarianism?
Piecework and bonuses
Planned -- for what?
The "victory of socialism" (with a few problems)
Khrushchev and consumptionism
Andropov and Gorbachev
Perestroika and glasnost, or perestroika vs. glasnost?
Why no rush to the barricades?
The Union Referendum
Three stages of Gorbachev's rule
Telling the workers what's good for them
. A review of the book Heroic Struggle, Bitter Defeat: Factors Contributing to the Dismantling of the Socialist State in the Soviet Union by Bahman Azad. International Publishers, New York, 2000. 185 pages.
. International Publishers, the book publishing firm associated with the Communist Party USA, has come out with a book by Bahman Azad analyzing what happened to cause the breakup of the USSR and the establishment of market capitalism in the former Soviet republics. This book was favorably reviewed in the People's Weekly World, newspaper of the CPUSA (issue of Saturday, April 28, 2001). And the book is dedicated in part to "Comrade Gus Hall for his revolutionary leadership" -- Gus Hall was the longtime leader of the CPUSA. It seems we can take this book as representing what the CPUSA has to say about what happened to the USSR.
. Bear in mind that the CPUSA was the official pro-Soviet party in this country. It had, so to
speak, the Soviet franchise. Gus Hall and his "revolutionary comrades" were die-hard defenders
of the Soviet Union to the bitter end. They were on friendly personal terms with the leaders of the
Soviet Union and other Soviet-bloc countries (East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Bulgaria,
Revisionist dogma blocks scientific analysis
. Azad's book admits that the Soviet economy was slowing down in the 1970s and 80s and connects that to the growth of the technocratic bureaucracy, which more and more stifled growth of production. But the revisionist pablum peddled by the CP for decades still drips from the pages of Azad's book and prevents him from making a sharp critique of the Soviet Union's state-capitalist system. Azad throws out some fainthearted complaints about "the bureaucracy" but still maintains that the Soviet Union had achieved socialist society. Thus he covers over the profound class differences that existed in Soviet society. The stagnation and decline of the Soviet economy were manifestations of a society locked in class contradictions. But Azad refuses to see any of this. He maintains that, despite some "problems", the mass of working people loved and supported the Soviet "socialist" system up to the very end.
. So why did the working masses allow the Soviet system to collapse in 1990-91? Only because (according to Azad) Mikhail Gorbachev and some fellow pro-capitalist plotters were able to sneak into positions of responsibility in the 1980s. These conspirators carried out a coup from above. According to Azad these plotters were able to fool the mass of Soviet workers and even the mass of Party cadres who elected them to positions of leadership. Azad denies any mass disaffection from the Soviet system and insists that the ruling CP of the Soviet Union -- even under Gorbachev's leadership(!) -- was correctly and enthusiastically "building socialism. " The main problem, according to Azad, is that the CP had been too egalitarian in its economic policies(!). This created an opening which Gorbachev was able to exploit for his sinister plans.
. This fairy tale continues the line promoted by the CPUSA for decades during which it urged its
followers to support the "socialist" policies of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Up until
the time the Soviet Union fell apart the CPUSA never had a single criticism of anything the
Soviet leaders did or said. Even today Azad continues to support the Soviet Union's former ruling
party, the CPSU. Today the party's name is KPRF (Communist Party of the Russian Federation).
It's led by Gennadi Zyuganov, a rabid nationalist who has forged a "left-right alliance" with
right-wing nationalists and anti-semites. Zyuganov even regards Russian president Putin, a
former KGB chief and experienced murderer of Chechens, as not nationalist enough. Recently he
criticized Putin for agreeing to reduce Russia's force of nuclear missiles; still today Zyuganov
wants Russia to pursue the nuclear arms race. This is the party that Azad hopes will regain
popularity and government power in Russia.
. Part One of Azad's book makes a big show of pretending to be scientific in its approach to history by carrying on an extended discussion of "methodological and theoretical considerations. " Here Azad is laying down the dogmas he will later pretend to extract as "lessons of history" from the later chapters as they go over the history of the Soviet Union. Most importantly, Azad stresses that socialist society must not only accept the inequality of distribution of consumer goods, but must promote this inequality:
. ". . . The Socialist State, acting on behalf of society as a whole, constantly tries to increase the level of production and maximize the sum total of surplus value generated throughout society by creating material incentives for more work and superior performance.
. "This planned inequality through wage differentiation is the most important and effective means for a socialist society to increase labor productivity and guarantee continuous growth of the forces of production during its early phases of development. " (p. 52)
. Later in the book Azad will argue that the crippling blow delivered to Stalin's "socialist" system by the Soviet leaders of the 1950s and 60s was that they decreased wage differentials, thereby doing away with work incentives and causing production to stagnate.
. By focusing on the narrow issue of wage differentials Azad has actually strayed far from his
announced goal: "theoretical foundations of a scientific critique of existing socialism. " The first
issue in assessing any society is to determine its class makeup and to determine which class is in
power. Azad simply accepts the Soviet leaders at their word that they had established a socialist
society with the working class in control. But later observations in the historical chapters of his
book show this is wrong. Azad himself gives instances where privileged sections of Soviet
society dictated the ruling party's policy. How could this be, if the working class was in control?
Azad never investigates how the working class was organized (or not) to exercise control. Did
the workers actually control their trade unions, soviets, and Communist Party? Or did the Party,
on the contrary, exercise control in the interests of a new state-capitalist bureaucracy? The issue
of wage differentials is certainly one issue that helps one understand the nature of Soviet society.
But it is not the entire issue or even the key issue; the main thing is the class differences that
existed. Azad speaks of the "socialist state, acting on behalf of society as a whole," pursuing such
and such a policy. But this is exactly the point at issue. The Soviet state did not act on behalf of
all classes in society, but primarily on behalf of the new state-capitalist bourgeoisie. The issue for
workers was to get organized to break up this ruling class.
The wonders of inequality
. Part Two of Azad's book is a sketch of Soviet history from the October revolution up to Stalin's death, with emphasis on the rapid industrialization of the 1930s. The central moral Azad draws from this history is the importance of material incentives. Azad is brimming with enthusiasm for Soviet industrialization, and he connects the "victories" of this period to Stalin's policy of wide wage differentials. It never occurs to him to question Stalin's claim to have achieved the "victory of socialism". It never occurs to him that the first five-year plan actually meant the victorious consolidation of a state-capitalist bourgeoisie with a new, powerful industrial base.
. New phenomena appeared in Soviet society during the 1930s -- a state-supported universal health system, the vast expansion of state-supported education, paid vacations and rest homes for workers, etc. As part of the industrialization program Stalin's government provided a certain amount of state-funded support for the industrial working class, funding programs that dealt with the workers' health, education and welfare. This allowed the government to maintain a certain base of support among the working class. Peasants who were able to leave their impoverished, backward villages and obtain jobs in industry (and there were many) were brought into the modern world of large-scale production and literacy. Work was hard, and wages were low, but for many it was preferable to vegetating in the countryside. Young workers had the opportunity for upward mobility in a rapidly expanding industrial economy. But this doesn't mean that the workers were in control. Decisions about priorities in investments, pace of production, wage levels, etc. were not made by the workers. Stalin used his policy of wage differentials, along with other policies, to break up working class solidarity, to separate out a new stratum of labor aristocrats more loyal to his regime than to their class brothers and sisters.
. Azad quotes with approval from Stalin's speech of June 23, 1931, in which Stalin launched a new campaign against egalitarianism:
. "The cause [of heavy turnover of labor power] is the wrong structure of wages, the 'Leftist' practice of wage equalization. . . . In order to put an end to this evil we must abolish wage equalization and discard the old wage scales. . . . Marx and Lenin said that the difference between skilled labor and unskilled labor would exist even under socialism, even after classes had been abolished; that only under communism would this difference disappear and that, therefore, even under socialism 'wages' must be paid according to work performed and not according to needs. " (Azad, pp. 90-91)
. Azad proudly points out: "In line with these premises, the Party leadership introduced a planned
system of wage differentiation as a fundamental principle of socialist construction. " (p. 91) And
he asserts: "By 1934, the average wage difference between skilled and unskilled workers had
reached the ratio of 4 to 1, and by 1956, before the opposite trend started, it reached the ratio of 8
to 1. " (pp. 91-92) Azad thinks this was just great. He doesn't try to explain how the Soviet Union
could have been moving towards the elimination of classes when it was creating income
differentials of this magnitude among the working class. And this is not even to mention the
"socialist intelligentsia", as Stalin called them, which were provided even greater money
incomes, benefits and creature comforts. In the 1930s Stalin erected a system of bonuses for
managerial personnel that went way beyond what skilled workers could make. This included
access to special shops selling imported luxuries and dealing in foreign currencies. And Party
leaders were allowed to receive incomes way beyond that of ordinary workers.
"Payment for work performed"?
. Azad's argument for these obscene wage differentials is the crux of his book. Stalin makes the point (endorsed by Azad) that payment should be for work performed, and therefore skilled workers should be paid more than unskilled workers. Apparently skilled workers "perform" more than unskilled, i. e. they produce more, and that's the reason they should be paid more. Now, there may be various reasons for arguing (in a society moving toward socialism) that skilled workers should be paid higher than unskilled, but here Stalin is trying to give a theoretical justification, derived supposedly from Marx, to the effect that skilled workers produce more than unskilled workers.
. But this reasoning is absurd. Skilled workers do not produce more than unskilled. They do different, non-comparable jobs. For example, in the post office, an unskilled worker may be running a machine that sorts mail, while a skilled worker may be maintaining that machine. The unskilled workers may sort 15,000-30,000 letters an hour on their machine. The skilled maintenance workers do not sort more letters than that; in fact, they don't sort any letters at all. Their job is to keep the machines running -- to clear out pieces of mail that get jammed into the machinery, to vacuum dust out of the machines, to check their electronics and software, etc. Different teams of unskilled workers might be compared in terms of production, in terms of how many letters they sort per hour on a machine. But it's impossible to compare the unskilled workers to the skilled workers in terms of production -- they are doing different things.
. Under capitalism the skilled and unskilled workers may be compared in terms of the value of their labor power, and in that respect the skilled workers' labor is more valuable. It's more valuable because it takes more time and effort to produce a skilled worker than an unskilled worker. Beyond the training required to become a machine operator sorting mail -- a high school education, say -- a skilled maintenance worker may need an additional few months or years of specialized training in electronics and maintenance procedures.
. In his article Stalin avoids mentioning capitalist categories such as value. Supposedly his
economic policies are dedicated towards building socialism or helping to effect the transition to
socialism. He doesn't mention the value of skilled vs. unskilled labor. Instead he tries to
demagogically portray skilled workers as somehow more productive than unskilled, that they
somehow contribute more to society than the unskilled, and therefore deserve to get higher pay.
This is utter nonsense theoretically. But Stalin helped create a lot of confusion that has continued
to fester in revisionist circles down to our own day. Still today Azad and others promote this
mixed-up idea that skilled workers somehow produce more than unskilled workers.
Is socialism built by fighting against egalitarianism?
. Stalin argues that the fight against egalitarianism is an important part of building socialism and tries to justify this with the authority of Marx and Lenin, that they recognized the continued existence of the division between skilled and unskilled labor. But recognizing this division can take one of two roads. You can recognize it, try to limit and overcome it; or you can recognize it, regard it as eternally inevitable, promote it and institutionalize it. Stalin's campaign against egalitarianism was part of the institutionalizing of class divisions in the Soviet Union. This was the opposite of Marx and Lenin's recognition of continuing differences in early socialist society.
. Consider Lenin's article of April 28, 1918, "The Immediate Tasks of the Soviet Government. " In this article, written half a year after the Bolshevik revolution, Lenin argues that the working class will for now have to accommodate itself to paying high salaries to bourgeois experts -- engineers, managers, etc. Despite the workers' seizure of power and the nationalization of industries, the working class has not yet been able to establish accounting and control of the economy. Workers are still largely uneducated and inexperienced when it comes to managing economic enterprises. So the working class will have to give the bourgeois experts material incentives for them to work for Soviet industry. Lenin regards this as unfortunate but necessary:
. "Now we have to resort to the old bourgeois method and to agree to pay a very high price for the 'services' of the top bourgeois experts. All those who are familiar with the subject appreciate this, but not all ponder over the significance of this measure being adopted by the proletarian state. Clearly, this measure is a compromise, a departure from the principles of the Paris Commune and of every proletarian power, which call for the reduction of all salaries to the level of the wages of the average worker, which urge that careerism be fought not merely in words, but in deeds.
. "Moreover, it is clear that this measure not only implies the cessation -- in a certain field and to a certain degree -- of the offensive against capital (for capital is not a sum of money, but a definite social relation); it is also a step backward on the part of our socialist Soviet state power, which from the very outset proclaimed and pursued the policy of reducing high salaries to the level of the wages of the average worker. " (Lenin, Collected Works, Vol. 27, pp. 248-9. )
. It is clear from this that Lenin regards egalitarianism as a goal of the transition to socialism. It is not something to be fought against, as Stalin contends in his 1931 speech. In this Lenin cites the experience of the Commune (and Marx's writings on the Commune). On the practical side, Lenin is arguing for an accommodation to market forces. But his attitude is: this is a setback, something to be overcome; we must learn how to replace the market forces with workers' control of production, and then we can do away with the higher salaries for experts.
. Following Stalin's speech, egalitarian production communes were broken up, with resistant
workers being fired or transferred. "Shock" workers were now given higher wages than other
production workers. And the pay for technical experts, managers and engineers began to zoom
out of sight. There was a big push to expand the privileged stratum of experts, called by Stalin
the "socialist intelligentsia. " As I indicated above, it made sense for the Soviets to push for a
more educated workforce. To modernize and expand their economy, they needed to educate vast
numbers of workers. But the Soviet leaders' policies were directed to not just expanding the
"socialist intelligentsia", but to creating within them an attitude and lifestyle that separated them
off from the average worker. Material incentives were put in command of this process, just as in
Western bourgeois society, with similar negative results.
Piecework and bonuses
. When Azad speaks of "wage differentials", he is sometimes referring to the issue of incentive pay among the production workers. He glops together this issue with the issue of higher pay for skilled workers and for the "socialist intelligentsia. "
. Suppose the average two-person team running a bar-code sorting machine in the post office can sort 20,000 letters per hour. Now suppose a particular two-person team (Mike and Wanda, say) consistently sort 25,000 letters per hour. Should they be paid more than the other workers? They are producing 25% more than the average; should they be paid 25% more? Note that in this case it is possible to make a direct numerical comparison of output per team -- in fact, the machine automatically counts the letters as they go through the sorting mechanism. Different teams are doing comparable jobs on similar -- indeed, identical -- machines. So the fact is, Mike and Wanda are producing more than other teams.
. Stalin and Azad confuse this issue with the issue of higher pay for skilled workers and for strata of the intelligentsia. They create the impression that the intelligentsia produce more than the average worker, and so should be paid more. But this is nothing but a red herring with "socialist" flavoring.
. In the case of the production workers themselves, where we can get a direct comparison of output, Stalin and Azad again would argue for giving higher pay to Mike and Wanda. And depending on circumstances there might be reasons for doing so. But there could also be reasons against this, and these should be borne in mind. A most important factor in making the transition to socialism is the unity and solidarity of the working class itself, and if a system of pay differentials based on performance is undermining that unity, it should be modified or discarded.
. In Lenin's "Immediate Tasks of the Soviet Government" he also calls for adopting piecework systems of wage payment. This was a time when Soviet industry was in disarray, and Lenin was forcefully pointing out that the working class had so far failed to establish accounting and control over the economy. The piecework system was seen as a step in this direction, to help establish discipline and order in industry. Piecework continued to be the norm in Soviet industry throughout NEP and then into the 1930s. An advantage of piecework is that it establishes responsibility for production on the worker himself; if he doesn't produce, he doesn't get paid. It also reduces the need for extensive supervision; the workers supervise themselves to some extent. In the days of economic disarray, it probably made sense to have some such systems in place.
. These systems were greatly widened and expanded through the 30s. With the advent of Stalin's campaign against egalitarianism, shock workers were given much higher pay than others. Then in the late 30s the Stakhanovite movement brought ridiculously higher bonus pay for production workers who could out-produce their comrades. The Stakhanovites were offered the carrot of being able to share in some of the perks of the "socialist intelligentsia" if they worked themselves to death. This brings up the subject of negative phenomena associated with piecework.
. These are phenomena familiar to workers in Western capitalist societies. First of all, piecework can put workers under intense stress and undermine their health. With extremely wide differences in payments, workers will tend to ruin their health in order to reach the goal of higher wages. At the same time this will encourage all kinds of negative moral phenomena -- workers cheating, lying about their production, paying graft or granting other favors to foremen who help them cheat, etc. This is bound up with an atmosphere of intense competition among the workers. In his speech mentioned above Lenin promotes "socialist competition" but thinks an important part of this will be sharing technical breakthroughs, teaching one another how to produce better and faster. But in an atmosphere where material incentives are put completely in command, where workers' livelihood depends on out-producing the workers next to them, they will avoid sharing any new ideas on production techniques. Distrust becomes the norm at the workplace, and productivity actually declines as a result. Stalin saw expansion of piecework and bonus systems as the key to boosting productivity, but the negative moral phenomena associated with these systems can actually have the opposite effect.
. Even a mild bonus system can break down solidarity and lead to demoralization. In the case mentioned above, with Mike and Wanda, it was emphasized that different teams of mail-sorting workers work on identical machines. Yes, but some workers will object, they get different kinds of mail. "Good" mail such as standardized utility bills can be easily loaded on the machine, and it runs easily through the machine without jamming. Are Mike and Wanda consistently being given "good" mail? If their livelihoods depend on it, other workers will spy on Mike and Wanda and their relations with the foremen, will complain loudly, steal "good" mail from other machines, etc.
. In Western bourgeois society such phenomena are accepted and even encouraged. Capitalist employers are always happy to see workers mistrusting one another. Even if dissension among workers means some decline in overall production figures, it's important for the capitalists to break up solidarity. But for a society trying to make the transition to socialism, these negative phenomena have to be constantly in mind, and guarded against.
. For Stalin the "victory of socialism", supposedly achieved in the 1930s, meant the consolidation and expansion of bonus systems with wide pay differentials. But as a society moves towards socialism the pay differentials should probably shrink. It may seem fair to pay Mike and Wanda more than the other workers, but this "fairness" can turn into its opposite. If Mike and Wanda are younger and more energetic than others, is it fair for them to get paid more, just because they happen to have healthier bodies? If Mike and Wanda are large and relatively athletic, they may actually be working less intensely than other workers who don't produce as much. Is this fair? And as the society moves towards socialism, the issue of needs should become more and more important. Is it fair for Mike and Wanda to be paid more than other workers who have large families and more responsibilities?
. But the main issue that has to be kept in mind is, which class is in control? Under working class control a society in transition to socialism would have to develop a wages policy that was fair and that maintained production. It is hard to say exactly what wage differentials this would contain, and they might change over time. But the main thing is, their wages policy would emanate from the workers themselves. Azad proudly quotes Stalin's policy statements which were imposed on the working class. But he never asks what the workers wanted, what was their initiative? Instead he maintains the revisionist mentality that socialism equals an "intelligentsia" regulating and controlling the workers, telling them what's good for them.
. Stalin was able to mobilize a good deal of working class support for the industrialization
campaign at various times. Early on, younger workers were enthusiastic about breaking old
production norms (while older workers were not). And some workers were enthusiastic for
widened pay differentials. By separating off different strata of the working class and winning
them over, Stalin was able to consolidate his regime and establish a fairly stable state-capitalist
system. But these were not policies that emanated from the workers themselves. They were not
policies developed to effect the transition to socialism.
Planned -- for what?
. Azad lavishes praise on the results of Stalinist industrialization, calling them "impressive", "historically unprecedented", and "amazing. " (p. 92) He proudly lists the increases in industrial production, the increase in capital stock, etc. But then he notes:
"Naturally, achieving these tremendous objectives within such a short period of time could not have come about without some sacrifices. Some of these were consciously planned and built into the 'rapid industrialization' model itself. For example, the average annual growth in agricultural production between 1928 and 1940 was only one percent. . . [The figure for industrial production given by Azad is 11 percent. ] Moreover, in order to limit social consumption, the state sharply raised the prices of consumer goods with the exception of basic necessities. Between 1928 and 1937, the consumer and agricultural goods prices were increased by 700 percent and 539 percent respectively. As a result, the share of household consumption in the gross national product dropped from 80 percent in 1928 to 53 percent in 1937, and then to 49 percent in 1940. " (pp. 94-95)
. These figures are pretty amazing. But not for the reasons cited by Azad. They show that Soviet industrialization followed a path similar to other capitalist countries, the workers impelled to overwork while a privileged stratum reaps the benefits. While the Soviet economy did incorporate a higher degree of planning than free-market economies, this planning was not for the benefit of the workers, to provide them with a steadily rising standard of living. On the contrary, the average worker's standard of living was reduced even while industrial production soared.
. Admittedly, "share of household consumption in the gross national product" is not a definitive statement of the average workers' standard of living. With industrial production growing rapidly in the 1930s, even a declining percentage share of it for household consumption might mean that standards of living stayed about the same. But there are other, more definitive statistics given by other authors. For example, Kuromiya's book on Soviet industrialization asserts, ". . . per capita consumption did not rise but declined from 1928 to 1932 [during the first Five Year Plan]. "(1) And in a footnote Kuromiya cites another authority: "The real wages of Moscow industrial workers in 1932, for example, were 53% of their 1928 level and in 1937 63. 5%. " (See Kuromiya, pp. xii-xiii. )
. Azad also overestimates the degree of rational economic planning achieved in the Soviet Union. It's true that Stalin planned a big push for industrialization in the 1930s. But some of the figures cited by Azad were not planned for at all; actually they were "collateral damage" caused by the disorganized nature of the push. Azad makes it sound as if the 1% annual growth rate in agriculture was "consciously planned", but actually Stalin and his planners hoped for a much more rapid growth in agricultural production. What was "consciously planned" in their minds was to hold down the price of agricultural goods paid to peasants, to restrict the income of peasants in order to help finance industrialization. But at the same time they hoped that by gathering the peasants into co-ops functioning under state control they could stimulate production to dizzy new heights. The fact that agricultural production exhibited modest, if any, increases during this period was actually a gigantic failure, not a "consciously planned" sacrifice.
. The decline in real wages paid to workers was also not planned. Stalin's planners actually projected a 70% raise in real wages for industrial workers during the first Five Year Plan (Kuromiya, p. 22). They thought that breakthroughs in productivity would allow for big cuts in the price of consumer goods. But the breakthroughs in productivity did not materialize. New factories were built, equipped with the latest machinery from Germany and other countries, but Soviet managers still had trouble duplicating Western capitalist levels of productivity.
. When faced with productivity problems, Stalin and his planners refused to back off from production goals for industrial goods. When achieved, the targets were reached by hiring more and more workers and by the workers working very intensely at long hours. Meanwhile the shortfall in meeting production goals for consumer goods was regarded with indifference. On agricultural goods, when the crisis became apparent, the planners still insisted on keeping the prices paid to peasants low.
. Even if working people agreed on the need for some sacrifices, it's unlikely they would have
agreed to year-after-year declines in their real incomes. This wasn't a case of the working people
making their own decisions about economic affairs but of Stalin and his planners trying to
rapidly force the economy into a military-industrial mold. When reality didn't fit the mold,
working people suffered.
The "victory of socialism" (with a few problems)
. While noting the "sacrifices", Azad does not criticize the policy. He thinks the means were justified by the ends, that the Soviet Union did become an industrial power, did build itself up militarily, did withstand the Nazi onslaught and in fact contributed mightily to the defeat of Hitler. But he loses track of the main question, why did Soviet socialism fall apart? Were the Soviet leaders' policies helping to build socialism, or were they consolidating a state-capitalist system? Azad meekly accepts Stalin's and Preobrazhensky's definition of state-owned industry and collectivized agriculture as "the socialist sector" and continues the Soviet myth that the 1930s represented the "victory of socialism", despite some "minor" problems he notes.
. Azad thinks the 1930s were a triumphant period of economic success. But he admits there were a few "non-economic" problems. For one, the "excesses" involved in the forced collectivization of agriculture. But he dismisses this issue with a few words about "further investigation" being necessary. Another problem, he says, was that any opposition to Stalin's policies within the CPSU was stamped out in a brutal way. But here again Azad underestimates and dismisses the problem. Azad doesn't even mention some of Stalin's major crimes such as his treatment of national minorities, for example the Chechens, his invasion of the Baltic states and Poland, etc.
. The main "non-economic" problem mentioned by Azad was the conflation of Party and state in the Soviet Union. He says it was an historical necessity that had tragic consequences; Party leaders were required to take on positions of responsibility in the state and in economic enterprises. This eventually led to the Party becoming an integral part of the managerial status quo. Azad is correct that Party and state leaders in the Soviet Union became one unified ruling elite. But Azad treats this as an issue that could have been solved by the Party formulating somewhat different declarations at its congresses. The growth and consolidation of classes in the Soviet Union was a deeper issue than that.
. It wasn't the Party taking on positions of responsibility that got the Soviet Union off the rails of socialism. It was that those positions were used to feather their own nests, to build a new privileged stratum. Azad accepts that this is exactly what skilled workers, professionals, technocrats and managers should be doing -- receiving high pay as "incentive. " Yet he wishes that the political leadership of this society concentrated in the CP would somehow stand aside from all this. But things don't work out that way in reality. The party guiding society to build a state-capitalist system necessarily evolves into a state-capitalist party.
. Azad continues all the revisionist myths about the Soviet Union. For example, that any
problems that existed were due to "imperialist encirclement. " He says that central planning
required massive computation and that eventually, in the 1950s, this led to problems. He doesn't
admit that disproportions in the economy arose due to conflicts of interest -- oh no, it was simply
difficulty in computing. And the Soviets could not develop their own computing technology
because -- well, because of "imperialist encirclement. " (p. 96)
Khrushchev and consumptionism
. Part Three of Azad's book goes over the changes wrought by Khrushchev and Brezhnev in the 1950s-60s-70s. Azad praises the Soviet Party for trying to address problems that had accumulated under Stalin, but says the response to them was wrong. The overall lesson is that Stalin was a successful leader who built socialism, Khrushchev was a harebrained bungler and Brezhnev not much better. The only post-Stalin leader Azad likes was Andropov, who took command for a short period after the death of Brezhnev.
. One of the glaring problems in the Soviet Union after the death of Stalin was the great disparity between urban and rural living standards. Azad asserts that the income of peasants on cooperative farms was only 5 percent of that of urban industrial workers. (p. 106) And there was a general shortage of consumer goods. So even if rural working people got an increase in money income they still wouldn't have goods to buy.
. Khrushchev made a point of improving the standard of living of the cooperative peasantry, raising their incomes up to about half of what workers on state farms made and improving the distribution of consumer goods to rural areas. Azad rants against this "mechanical leveling" of incomes because he says it worsened the problem of productivity. But he himself previously cited the harsh oppression of the peasantry as one of the worst features of the Stalin years and said that the breakup of unity between the urban workers and rural peasantry created an ongoing problem for the Soviet Union.
. Discussing other problems that accumulated under Stalin, Azad says:
. ". . . administrative methods used for planning production had given rise to bureaucracy and had facilitated the emergence of a growing technocratic layer within the state itself. Even more critical, this process had engulfed the Communist Party in the bureaucratic processes of the state. Socialist democracy had become limited to a great extent, and the level of mass participation in the decision making processes was thereby reduced. " (p. 107) Well, that's putting it mildly. He goes on to say, ". . . signs of bureaucratic corruption and abuse of power and position among Communists in charge of the state apparatus had become ever more noticeable. "
. But what had been built in the Soviet Union was not simply a system with "signs of corruption and abuse. " It was a consolidated state-capitalist system. For the leading technocrats, managers and CP honchos -- even those who ran their affairs in a perfectly legal manner -- the system was designed to grant and extend their privileges while at the same time to grind down the workers and peasantry. The system of material incentives that Azad is so enthused about was part of this system of exploitation. Khrushchev maintained and extended this system despite some policy differences from Stalin over wage differentials. For Soviet workers, the elimination of their oppression required a revolutionary movement against the Stalin-Khrushchev state-capitalist system. As part of building up this movement there had to be economic struggle, a struggle over living standards. But however important it was for the workers to struggle over wage rates, they needed a revolution against the state-capitalist parasites to clear the ground for real socialism.
. To try and prop up the system's popularity among the masses Khrushchev adopted a plan of consumption growth. Azad says the plan failed because productivity did not increase to keep up with rising money wages. Khrushchev's plan allowed higher pay for workers and peasants, but there were still shortages of goods. This led to various financial and economic problems. Azad notes that the excess cash floating around led to "the formation and growth of certain parasitic layers" (p. 114). It doesn't occur to him that the state-capitalist system already had its parasitic layers; he blames their formation on Khrushchev and criticizes Khrushchev for not focusing on the underlying problem of productivity.
. Azad thinks Khrushchev actually worsened the problem of productivity by allowing some narrowing of wage differentials to take place. He says, "By 1960, the difference between the maximum and the minimum wages based on skill, which was more than 4 to 1 in the 1930s, was reduced to less than 2 to 1, reflecting a return to the wage scales of 1928. " (pp. 114-115) Azad then describes the higher pay for collective farmers and the consequent "leveling" of incomes between urban and rural working people. And he sums up: "Such mechanical leveling of wages in such a short period of time . . . played the decisive role in reducing the rate of growth of production in the Soviet Union. " (p. 116)
. Azad charges that Khrushchev's leveling of wages "eliminated all the material incentives for increased production" (p. 117) and thus caused the falling rate of growth in the Soviet economy. But he overlooks the new material incentives implemented by Khrushchev and Kosygin. This included the Liberman Reforms of the 1960s. These were incentive systems designed to make enterprises pay more attention to sales and profits. The primary beneficiary of these incentives was the stratum of enterprise managers and technocrats, those responsible for running the enterprises and bringing in new technology. But as part of the reforms enterprise managers were given more freedom to hand out material incentives to workers in the form of profit-sharing pay raises and bonuses. So in fact, far from fighting against material incentives, Khrushchev and Kosygin innovated new systems of material incentives. As for the pay differentials among production workers themselves, and between workers and peasants, Azad is correct that these differentials were reduced under Khrushchev. This was a slight shift in policy for the Soviet leadership, but it did not change the basic class relations.
. Despite Azad's admission of some defects in the Soviet Union, he can't bring himself to see it as
an exploiting social system. Khrushchev and Brezhnev get the blame for not correcting the
"defects" they inherited. Azad says "the interests of the working class and of other toiling classes
were increasingly overshadowed by those of the state bureaucracy" in the 1950s-60s. (p. 127) But
the workers' interests had been "overshadowed" at least since the beginning of Stalin's
industrialization drive. Similarly Azad blames the post-60s militarization of the Soviet Union,
which diverted massive amounts of social wealth away from the production of consumer goods,
on "the interests of the growing layers of state bureaucracy. " (p. 139) But ever since the first
Five Year Plan consumers' interests had been sacrificed for the sake of the USSR's military
buildup. Azad's "more and more" formulations are meant to damn Khrushchev and Brezhnev
while justifying the old "socialist" policies of Stalin. "More and more" things got worse than they
were in the good old days of Stalin. These formulations are meant to convey that the CPSU
maintained its basically socialist character despite its "more and more" bourgeois defects. If only
a strong leader, a man of steel, could have come along to save the day. . .
Andropov and Gorbachev
. This brings us to the 1980s and Part Four of Azad's book, where the myth-making kicks into high gear. "If only" is the main idea. The CPSU could have saved socialism in the Soviet Union "if only" Gorbachev had not sneaked into office. The economic crisis could have been overcome "if only" the Party's correct policies had not been derailed by Gorbachev-inspired anarchy. And Gorbachev would never have come to power, presumably, "if only" our savior Yuri Andropov had lived.
. Azad paints Andropov (who came to power in 1982, after the death of Brezhnev) as the man who charted out the path to restoring vigor to the "socialist" Soviet Union. Azad credits Andropov with the policies which later came to be known as "perestroika" (restructuring, economic acceleration). These policies are generally associated with Gorbachev, but Azad says no, they should be credited to Andropov. And they were correct. What should be credited to Gorbachev, he says, is "glasnost" (openness, transparency, "humane socialism"), which was all wrong.
. This gives us a clearer idea of what Azad regards as "socialism. " Perestroika was a series of bourgeois economic reforms designed in the wake of the 1960s Liberman reforms. Brezhnev avoided implementing them because he didn't see the need, relying instead on cronyism to maintain support for his administration. The new leader Andropov felt the need to reinvigorate the system. But the direction Soviet reformers typically took for "invigoration" was to rebuild a market-capitalist system. Perestroika was a whole package of such reforms.
. Azad's support for perestroika combined with his denunciation of glasnost seems to indicate he would support a Chinese-style solution to the problems of state-capitalism: an authoritarian transition towards market capitalism, making a transition to "market socialism" while maintaining ironhanded control by the Communist Party. When Gorbachev visited China with his message of glasnost, the Chinese leaders kept him isolated from the masses. And they harshly suppressed the glasnost-type movement in Tienanmen Square in 1989. But meanwhile the Chinese leaders were busy rebuilding a market-capitalist system complete with stock and bond markets, etc.
. Azad favorably quotes Andropov's list of economic proposals made at the time he was elected leader of the CPSU in 1982. (pp. 148-149). The proposals are mostly just calls for higher production and higher rates of productivity. So what's new? -- Soviet leaders had been giving such calls for generations. But, Azad says, Andropov was different because he "correctly identified the root cause of social problems that were gripping and weakening the socialist system as the problem of income 'leveling' that had eroded material incentives for work. " (p. 149) Ah, yes, the dreaded 'leveling'. Azad credits Andropov with reversing this trend. "Under Andropov's brief leadership, a serious campaign got underway to combat bureaucracy, corruption and economic parasitism . . . The re-establishment of labor discipline and efficiency took the highest priority. Likewise, concerted efforts were made to combat loafing and idleness, while material incentives were strengthened and income equalization strategies were all but abandoned. " (pp. 152-153)
. It's true that Andropov launched campaigns against loafing and idleness. But why this is supposed to be the key to reinvigorating "socialism" is beyond me. Haven't we heard similar calls from capitalist politicians in the U. S. ? Didn't we hear similar calls from Reagan and Clinton? "Work hard. . . nose to the grindstone . . . etc. , etc. " Is this the workers' key to socialism?
. Further, Azad is dishonest in giving all the credit for such campaigns to Andropov and none to Gorbachev. Gorbachev took over and expanded Andropov's perstroika ideas, and this included the campaigns against loafing and idleness. Azad paints Gorbachev as a liberal slug who led the Soviet Union into bourgeois anarchy. But while promoting bourgeois reforms Gorbachev at the same time preached "nose to the grindstone" philosophy to the workers just like Andropov (and Reagan).
. The fact is, Gorbachev first came into national prominence as one of Andropov's disciples, part of his group of "young reformers. " This group also included Yegor Ligachev, a prominent member of Gorbachev's administration. Following their mentor Andropov, Gorbachev and Ligachev intended to implement the "perestroika" ideas sketched out but not implemented during Andropov's brief rule. In an important speech on December 10, 1984, Gorbachev presented the program he intended to put into practice if he were elected leader of the Party. There he called for perestroika and included under that rubric bourgeois reforms such as self-management of enterprises and increased competition. In this speech Gorbachev also called for "glasnost", which he interpreted as self-government and democratization. The overwhelming majority of Party leaders supported Gorbachev's program, and he was elected General Secretary of the CPSU in March 1985.
. So Azad is wrong to say that Gorbachev somehow snuck into power. The basic program he
stood for had been promoted by Andropov beforehand, and was supported by Ligachev and other
Party leaders. The CPSU as a whole was bent on implementing "market socialist" reforms such
as had previously been implemented in Czechoslovakia and Hungary.
Perestroika and glasnost, or
perestroika vs. glasnost?
. Azad is correct in calling attention to Gorbachev's emphasis on glasnost, that it made his program somewhat different than Andropov's. This does not mean that Gorbachev had a secret agenda hidden from Ligachev and others -- he discussed it openly in his speech of December 1984. But as time went on Gorbachev came to stress glasnost more and more, and this eventually led to a breach between him and Ligachev. Gorbachev's initial perestroika efforts had little or no effect on the economy. During the first two-three years of his administration, Gorbachev pursued limited economic reforms. These included, it should be mentioned, widened pay differentials. At this time Gorbachev was following Azad's prescription for curing economic ills. But these did not succeed in stimulating economic growth. Gorbachev then turned to more radical pro-market reforms and at the same time sharply increased his calls for glasnost, to open the system up. Gorbachev came to think that a big problem in invigorating the Soviet economy was the system of politically entrenched interest groups. There was no way the economy could be stimulated without a shakeup to the political structure. This was the point at which he and Ligachev diverged. Of course Ligachev, like all Soviet bureaucrats, had tons of nice words to say about "working class democracy", but in practice Ligachev did not want any political shakeup. He preferred perestroika the Chinese way.
. This is not to say that Gorbachev advocated working class democracy either. He didn't want the working masses to take control, but just a liberalization that would leave the state-capitalist bureaucrats in power. He wanted to weaken some of the creaky political institutions, such as the Communist Party, which were slowing down his pro-market reforms. He thought this would give more room for economic innovators, the new breed of technocrats and so forth. But his ideas of democracy were still limited to the ruling elite, not to bringing about workers' control.
. However, Ligachev and other CP diehards could not tolerate any weakening of basic political institutions. Thus a split developed within the camp of Andropov disciples in the critical years 1988-90. The more conservative types supported perestroika but wanted a slower pace of market reforms and wanted to maintain the iron rule of the Communist Party, as in China. They feared that Gorbachev's push for democratization could mean the collapse of the Soviet state-capitalist system altogether. As it turned out, they were correct about that.
. In the last year of the Soviet Union, from the fall of 1990, Gorbachev himself realized that things were spinning out of control. At this point he pragmatically jettisoned glasnost, became an anti-democrat and tried to seize emergency powers as a strong-arm president of the Soviet Union. Like Ligachev, Gorbachev in the final analysis believed only in the efficacy of his own class juggling things from above "on behalf of" the workers. But the breakup of the Soviet Union had already begun, and soon there was a situation of dual power, with Russia's president Boris Yeltsin competing against the USSR's president Gorbachev for dominance. In the final crisis power shifted completely to Yeltsin, and Russia, away from Gorbachev and the USSR.
. Gorbachev saw glasnost as a necessity to successfully implement perestroika, while Ligachev
saw glasnost as a danger to perestroika's success. Ligachev could not argue with the basic thrust
of Gorbachev's economic reforms, because he supported them also. And it was hard for him to
argue against Gorbachev's democratic reforms, which were popular. So Ligachev was reduced to
scheming against Gorbachev and attributing his own political demise to matters of tactics, bad
timing and so forth. Azad is a diehard Ligachevite. He tries to atttribute to Gorbachev personally
the collapse of the USSR and state-capitalism. He doesn't see that the system was in an objective
crisis which no leader could have easily wormed his way out of.
Why no rush to the barricades?
. Azad's basic problem, which he himself admits (p. 174), is explaining why the workers did not rush to the defense of socialism in the Soviet Union and rid themselves of Gorbachev and his fellow plotters. Here you have a socialist country, according to Azad; which is to say the political/economic system is in the hands of the working class, and the workers use this system in their own interests. As part of this system they have their own political party, the CPSU, which is oriented toward the further perfection of socialism. Now somehow a group of bad eggs headed by Gorbachev gets itself elected to leadership positions. This is just a few bad guys; the mass of the CPSU is still dedicated to socialism, according to Azad. And so are many of its leaders, such as Ligachev. Basing himself on these myths, Azad cannot explain "why did the Party and the majority of Communists fail to expose this [Gorbachev's] plot in time and put up an effective resistance against it?" (p. 174) It's a mystery. Azad himself notes a few "factors" that may have played a role, but he completely misses the point that Gorbachev's policies for the most part actually reflected the thinking of all Party leaders including Ligachev. The Party dinosaurs disapproved of the pace of bourgeois reforms, but they agreed on the basic direction.
. Azad misrepresents Soviet society when he asks, "Why did the Soviet working class, whose
objective class interests were directly threatened by these developments [Gorbachev's takeover],
fail to take an active role in defense of socialism?" (p. 174) Posing the question this way, Azad
can't answer it. According to Azad, the Soviet workers were wildly enthusiastic about their
"socialist" system. And if they were really the ruling class, why didn't they simply boot out
Gorbachev? Based on his own premises, that the Soviet Union was socialist, Azad poses
questions that he cannot answer.
The Union Referendum
. Azad's premises are wrong. It's not true that the workers were enthusiastic about the Soviet system. Azad's meager evidence for the workers' support of the old system is the Union Referendum carried out in March 1991. In this referendum the majority of voters elected to maintain direct political ties between Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, etc. But this wasn't a referendum on the Soviet social system. In fact it wasn't even a vote for going on with the old USSR. The actual wording was: "Do you support the preservation of the union as a renewed federation of sovereign republics in which the rights of a person of any nationality are fully guaranteed?" This question was put to the voters after a number of Soviet republics, including Russia, had already declared themselves sovereign. The question was formulated in such a way as to try and obtain a "yes" vote. Voters are told that the old union will be "renewed", that it will now be a voluntary union of fully sovereign republics, and that no one will be discriminated against because of their nationality. Formulated this way, the question contains quite a bit of demagogy. But it's also a backhanded admission that the old Soviet Union was not really a voluntary union of republics and did not fully protect individuals of different nationalities. Voters are asked, assuming that problems in the old Union can be overcome, don't you think it's a good idea for the peoples in this region to maintain ties?
. Given the way it's formulated, it's not a surprise that the referendum received a lot of "yes" votes. There was massive discontent with the denial of the right to self-determination in the old Soviet Union. The referendum tried to address that discontent and make promises about the future. So it did receive many "yes" votes. But many people refused to participate. The Baltic republics -- Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia -- refused to allow the referendum at all. This was also true in Armenia, Georgia, and Moldavia. Thus many residents of the old Soviet Union were not even eligible to vote in the referendum. And among those eligible, in participating republics such as Russia and Ukraine, many people abstained. So the "yes" majority among those voting is not a big victory for the old Soviet Union. At best (from Azad's point of view) it registered a sizeable sentiment for maintaining ties among the former Soviet republics. But it wasn't a vote to maintain the old USSR, and it certainly wasn't a "yes" vote for maintaining the old Soviet state-capitalist political/economic system. In the big metropolitan areas of Moscow and Leningrad, where there was an active political life, half of the voters actually said "no" to the referendum.
. It's a bit ironic that Azad would appeal to this referendum as his sole sign of support from the
masses for the old Soviet system, since this was a referendum rigged up and orchestrated by
Gorbachev. Azad spends a lot of time denouncing Gorbachev and bad-mouthing "the
bureaucrats" who went along with him. But when Gorbachev and the bureaucrats organize a big
national election and work to turn out the voters for it, Azad supports them. Why? Because by
this time (March 1991), Gorbachev had turned conservative.
Three stages of Gorbachev's rule
. Gorbachev's administration actually went through three different phases, as analyzed by the bourgeois economist Anders Aslund. (2) In the first phase, 1985-87, Gorbachev initiated some limited reforms. In this period Gorbachev pursued perestroika a la Andropov -- the campaign against alcoholism, railing against lazy workers, demanding more stringent work discipline, opening up wage differentials, etc.
. In the second phase, 1988-90, Gorbachev launched more radical attempts at reform. Gorbachev was worried about economic stagnation, and he grew impatient. He felt that the old economic bureuacracy and the Communist Party apparatichki were blocking his reform attempts, preventing them from taking hold, so he took steps to undermine and go around these forces. Gorbachev launched new market-reform initiatives to try and get around the central-planning administration, and he initiated political reforms that destroyed the Communist Party's monopoly of politics. A new crop of market-reform economists were promoted to positions of prominence, as was Boris Yeltsin. It was during this period that Ligachev and his fellow dinosaurs became alienated from Gorbachev. But it should be noted that during this same period, Gorbachev also tried to implement Ligachev's favorite reforms, taking the East German path of consolidating control of the economy under large "syndicates. " Yeltsin and Ligachev were pulling Gorbachev in two different directions, and Gorbachev often took both roads at once, regardless of their contradictory directions. By late summer-early fall 1990 Gorbachev saw that things were moving too far, too fast for his liking. He was particularly upset by movements for independence among the Soviet republics.
. In his third phase, from October 1990 to summer 1991, Gorbachev went conservative, tried to
suppress Yeltsin and his supporters, and tried to consolidate a strong-man type of rule. But it was
too late. Gorbachev no longer had a solid base of support. The conservatives around Ligachev
and the Communist Party no longer trusted him, and the liberal market reformers and Yeltsin
now regarded him as an enemy. Through the spring and summer of 1991 the Ligachevites and
Yeltsinites headed for a clash which Gorbachev could do nothing to prevent. The dinosaurs'
attempted coup in August 1991 tore the country apart and signaled the end of the USSR.
. Azad's support for Gorbachev's Union Referendum shows a political point of unity he shares with Gorbachev: underestimation of the nationalities question in the USSR. It's notable that when discussing problems that festered under Stalin's rule, Azad avoids any mention of the nationalities question. But if nothing else, Gorbachev's period of rule demonstrated the importance of this question, that denying nations their right of self-determination creates festering wounds. Soviet chauvinists like Gorbachev and Azad may have believed the Soviet empire had a solid base of political support among its many different nationalities, but history proved different. The instant Gorbachev eased up on political suppression with his "glasnost" initiatives, strong pro-independence movements broke out in all of the USSR's republics. Gorbachev was, apparently, dumbfounded by this. According to his own words, Gorbachev believed that the Soviet system had actually "done away with national oppression and inequality." With the benefit of hindsight, there's no reason for Azad to be surprised by the pro-independence movements. So the way he deals with it is to simply sweep the whole issue under the rug.
. In his history of Stalin's rule Azad doesn't mention Stalin's 1939 nonaggression pact with Germany, in which Hitler gave Stalin the green light to invade the Baltic nations and eastern Poland in return for Stalin giving him the right to take over western Poland. This was a gross example of big-power imperialist diplomacy dividing up smaller and weaker nations. At that time supporters of the Soviet Union defended its takeover of the Baltic nations on the basis that this was needed as a "buffer" against Germany. But this doesn't explain why the Soviet Union continued to occupy the Baltic nations after World War II, after Germany had been defeated.
. The Soviets' takeover of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia is one gross example of denying the right of self-determination, but there were many others. For example, transporting the entire Chechen nationality out of its historic homeland during World War II and relocating them in Siberia. Not until the 1950s were the Chechens allowed to return to Chechnya.
. While suppressing nationalities within its borders, the Soviet Union also maintained an imperialist attitude towards nations outside its borders. Two examples: the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 and the invasion of Afghanistan in 1979.
. Gorbachev knew that the Afghan war was very unpopular both at home and internationally. While never apologizing for the war or criticizing the original intent of Brezhnev's invasion, Gorbachev saw that it was isolating the Soviet Union. And he was worried about its cost -- in rubles, human casualties, and the loss of morale among the Soviet military and citizenry. He decided to cut his losses and withdraw. Azad ignores this whole chapter of recent Soviet history and its significance for exposing myths about Soviet "internationalism. "
. Instead Azad tries to maintain the old myths. Like Gorbachev he's simply dumbfounded by the breakup of the USSR. Since the USSR was supposedly a force for doing away with national oppression and inequality, how could there be a mass movement for independence in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Chechnya, Armenia, etc. ? Gorbachev was at first stunned by this phenomenon, but as the movements gathered steam Gorbachev turned back to the old methods of suppression, using force against Azerbaijan in 1990 and Lithuania in 1991. Azad ignores this too. Gorbachev is the devil to Azad, but when it comes to suppressing non-Russian nationalities he's immune from criticism, just like Stalin. To Azad the problem with Gorbachev was not the suppression of nationalities, but his glasnost policies which allowed the nationalities to complain about their oppression.
. Incidentally, Azad's myth-making about Soviet foreign policy also makes it impossible for him
to explain an important feature of the Soviet economy: its constantly rising military expenditures.
All commentators on the demise of the Soviet Union agree that this was a drag on the Soviet
economy. The diversion of social wealth into nonproductive military spending helped drag the
Soviet economy into stagnation in the 1970s and 80s. It undermined domestic support for the
regime, since it required sacrificing production of popular consumer goods. Azad himself notes
that the amount and percent of social wealth spent by the military constantly increased. He tries
to justify some of this by saying it was defensive up until the 1960s, when the Soviet Union
achieved nuclear parity with the U. S. But then why did the Soviets continue to increase military
spending beyond this point? Would it have something to do with -- imperialism? Azad can't
explain it. He guesses that certain sectors of the bureaucracy, corresponding to a
military-industrial complex, had their own self-interests at stake, and they continued to push for
more militarization beyond what was necessary. But he has no explanation for how such
institutionalized self-interests could exist in a socialist, non-imperialist country.
Telling the workers what's good for them
. Unfortunately, much of the history of Gorbachev's rule is a story of bourgeois factions squabbling among themselves. The working class never came onstage as the decisive force. Azad tries to conclude from this that the workers were happy with their system. He says, ". . . one is hard pressed to find an instance of mass demonstration or organized social movement by the people aimed against the socialist order, against the Socialist state, or against the Communist Party itself. " Azad concludes from this: "No pressure from below can be said to have been responsible for the dismantling of socialist rule in the USSR. " (p. 171)
. Here again Azad is wrong. In fact there were strong demonstrations of opposition to the "socialist state" and the Communist Party. For example, the pro-independence movements in the various republics, which urged withdrawal from the Soviet state. The fact that Gorbachev got laws passed taking away the political monopoly of the Communist Party shows there was dissatisfaction with that monopoly. That Yeltsin and his fellow bourgeois reformers got elected to positions of power in Russia campaigning directly against the Communist Party and its candidates shows how unpopular the CP was by this time.
. Aside from overt political demonstrations, the workers had been quietly showing their dissatisfaction with the Soviet system for a long time. For example with massive alcoholism. This was a response to the alienation suffered by workers. Over the decades, living under a state-capitalist system with enforced passivity, the workers learned to adapt and numb themselves. Andropov and Gorbachev campaigned strenuously against alcoholism, but they made limited headway on this problem.
. And at times, during the Soviet Union's last years, some sections of the working class did come out in strong demonstrations against the system of rule that they regarded as exploiting them. This was particularly true of the coal miners, who staged major strikes in the late 1980s. The miners' strike wave was a major challenge to Gorbachev, who could not contain it with sweet words about "socialism". Yeltsin, unfortunately, was able to bring the mine workers under his political sway, and to hold their demands in check after he came to power in Russia. So the miners may have been wrong about the direction things should go, they may have misjudged who could be trusted to bring about reform, or they may have simply been hijacked, as bourgeois market-reformers managed to steer things in a neo-liberal direction against the workers' interests. But in any case, none of this can be used to say that the workers were happy with their "socialist" Soviet Union. The workers were angry about the whole drift of things under the leadership of the CPSU, and they were demanding radical reform. The miners quite consciously were protesting against the parasites and exploiters.
. Azad is also wrong in his premise that the Soviet state-capitalist system was "good for them" (even if they were too stupid to understand it). Azad quotes Ligachev to the effect that things were "better than ever" for workers in the 1980s. But other sources tell a different tale, that while the military expanded more rapidly than ever, basic food production was falling behind at an ever-increasing rate. By the 1980s the USSR had become the world's largest grain importer. Economic growth rates constantly declined; this had been going on since the 1950s. The Soviets themselves stopped publishing statistics that would embarrass them, but it also seems that longevity rates (length of individuals' lifetimes) actually declined after the 1960s, while infant mortality rates increased.
. The fact is -- and this Azad refuses to admit -- the Soviet economy was in crisis, and the Soviet workers were extremely dissatisfied with their lot. Unfortunately the workers were not able to use the ensuing political crisis to get organized and come out as masters of society. For many of them things have only gotten worse -- much worse -- in the last decade. But that's no reason to be singing the praises of state-capitalism as Azad does. For the workers to emerge from this time of disorganization and destruction, the most important thing they need is the truth. <>
(1) See Hiroaki Kuromiya's book, Stalin's Industrial Revolution; Politics and Workers, 1928-1932, Cambridge University Press, 1988. (To to text)
(2) See Aslund's book, How Russia Became a Market Economy, the Brookings Institution,
Washington, D. C. , 1995. (Text)
Last modified: June 26, 2002.