Revolutions in the East
Wednesday, November 19, 2008
As a Czech poster put it, “the Poles took ten years, the Hungarians ten months, the East Germans ten weeks, and the Czechoslovaks only ten days” to topple regimes once viewed as unassailable. Here is an attempt to distinguish the good news from the bad, taking note of what is most surprising as well as what is not.
Evil Empires: One Down, One to Go
The best news is that imperialism and political authoritarianism have once again succumbed to human aspirations. Shortly after World War II, the Soviet Union imposed its priorities on the sovereign nations of
Eastern Europe. From the perspective of over 100 million East Europeans, what has mattered most since then is that for 40 years their governments have ruled only at sufferance of the Kremlin.
There is no justification for one people dictating the social affairs of another, even if the institutions “exported” are benign compared with indigenous arrangements. But in this case there is no need to consider the subtleties of the adage “revolution cannot be exported” because in post-war
Eastern Europe the system imposed by force was not progressive. (1) Political life in any positive sense ceased to exist for two generations. Instead, “politics” became resisting police states in apparent competition to see which could first hire as many informers as informed upon. (2) The effect of “socialist realism” on East European culture was little different from the effect the Vandals had on . In Rome , for example, in the aftermath of the Soviet invasion of 1968, a flourish of activity in cinema, drama, and literature was stamped out completely and replaced with “socialist realist” propaganda, mislabeled “culture.” And, in the end, (3) the question of whether Soviet-East European trade was a rip-off or a subsidy hardly mattered since the system imposed created “zombie” economies in East Europe, just like their Soviet prototype. Czechoslovakia
We should not be deceived by the seeming ease with which one regime after another has been toppled in the past 12 months. For the past 40 years, the overwhelming unpopularity of Soviet imperialism has been demonstrated in daily passive resistance as well as periodic, heroic rebellions. The Czechoslovak, East German, and Bulgarian people benefited greatly in 1989 from the domino effect of events in
Poland and . But events in Hungary reflected over 10 years of self-disciplined, painstaking changes that whittled away Soviet dominance while expanding the borders of tolerated dissent. In the case of Hungary , the changes were largely orchestrated by factions within the Communist Party, something like puppets toying with their puppet masters. The people of Poland won their freedom with a ten-year slowdown strike after one of the most impressive organizations ever to challenge an authoritarian regime, Solidarity, was physically crushed by the Polish military using the excuse, “better Polish than Russian bayonets.” Hungary
Moreover, the gradualist Hungarian struggle from 1968 to 1989 was largely a reaction to the Soviet invasion of 1956. And the rise of Solidarity in 1980 had been preceded by important challenges from intellectuals and workers in 1976 and 1970. And while the Czechs benefited from the domino effect in 1989, they paid their anti-imperialist dues during the Prague Spring of 1968.
In any case, we have just witnessed an anti-imperialist victory of immense proportions. More than 100 million people who have had little or no say over their internal and external affairs for 40 years are beginning to exercise their sovereign rights. What requires explaining is why the revolutions could succeed in 1989, and why so many anti-imperialist militants in the West are having trouble rejoicing.
Of course the most self-serving and easily disprovable interpretations are offered by the gloating Western establishment and mainstream media. They see: (1) the West finally winning the Cold War due to “our” steadfast defense of freedom and liberty, and (2) the triumph of capitalism over socialism.
First, NATO intransigence and the Reagan arms buildup acted only to delay the end of the Cold War by giving Breshnev and company an excuse for continued belligerence. If there was any Western contribution to ending the arms race, it was by the Western peace movement who apparently taught Mikhail Gorbachev and masses of West and East Europeans, if not their own leaders, that since in nuclear war everyone loses, anyone who can start a nuclear war is as powerful as the side with the largest arsenal.
Moreover, the Western Alliance did not send troops into
Hungary in 1956, Czechoslovakia in 1968, or in 1981, or break relations until the Havels of Eastern Europe were freed from jails. Official Western support for the Eastern European opposition was always calibrated to deflect scrutiny of injustice in the West by focusing attention on injustice in the East. While Gorbachev is no “born again” anti-imperialist, it was his decision not to send tanks into Poland Eastern Europe that facilitated the East European revolutions of 1989. Western escalation of the arms race did not force this concession. It was the cumulative moral, political, and economic costs of holding onto an empire, and the incompatibility of the Breshnev Doctrine with the internal reforms Gorbachev seeks, that brought an end to the doctrine.
Second, the claim that the 1989 revolutions vindicate capitalism over socialism is even more absurd. The argument is a non-sequitur now, as it would have been 60 years ago if someone had claimed then that the Great Depression in the West vindicated Stalin. And the claim that the failures of the Eastern European and Soviet economies are the failure of socialism is also false. Regardless of what their rulers and detractors conspired to call them, as we will explain below, none of these economies was ever socialist.
Once it was clear that
Moscow was unwilling to send tanks, the days for Communist governments in East Europe were numbered. Whether Gorbachev foresaw that this would lead not only to the demise of hard-line regimes, but of reform Communist regimes, Comecon, and the Warsaw Pact is hard to know. But the alternative of ordering military intervention to support regimes committed to perpetuating precisely what he was intent on dismantling in the Soviet Union was, apparently, even more problematic.
In any case, what is now obvious, and should have been all along, is that the Soviet puppet governments in
Eastern Europe were completely dependent on external military support. When politics finally was reduced to a matter of internal forces, one side had nobody on it. The puppet Soviet regimes in Eastern Europe melted away just as fast and bloodlessly as the government in El Salvador would disappear if politics in Central America was reduced to a question of internal forces, say by our electing Jesse Jackson president of the on a Rainbow Coalition ticket. U.S.
Ethnic Revolt in the
But if anti-imperialists can unabashedly celebrate the death of Soviet rule over Eastern Europe, what should we make of challenges to Soviet government authority coming from
Tallinn, Riga, Vilnius, Kishinyov, Baku, Alma-Ata, Dushanbe, Ashkhabad, Tashkent, Yerevan, Tbilisi, and ? Kiev
Soviet Union, according to a 1990 National Geographic map, is “the largest country on earth, an unwieldy federation containing a hundred ethnolinguistic groups” and almost as many movements seeking national liberation.
Baltic Republics of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia were independent between the world wars but were ceded to the Soviet sphere of influence in 1939 as part of the Hitler-Stalin pact, and annexed by Stalin in 1940 along with Moldavia, which Stalin pressured into ceding at the same time. Not surprisingly, nationalist and separatist sentiment is strongest here. Romania
Most of the other republics were inherited from the old Czarist empire as a result of the February and October revolutions of 1917 and the civil war of 1918-1921, in which internal opponents, actively aided by all the Western powers including the
, failed in their efforts to dislodge the new Bolshevik government. When the United States Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was created in 1922, it consisted of the Russian, Byelorussian, and Ukrainian Republics, and the Republic of Transcaucasia, which included all of what are now the Republics of Georgia, Armenia, and . Azerbaijan
On the other hand, various Central Asian nationalities fought a guerrilla war with the new Soviet regime during the 1920s. And while the Republics of Uzbekistan and
Turkmenistan were added relatively quickly in 1924, the Tajiks, who speak an Iranian language and were once part of the Persian empire, were not integrated into the Soviet Union until 1929. But with the exception of the Baltic Republics, , and Tagikistan, non-voluntary integration of minority nationalities predated the Bolsheviks. And in the important case of Moldavia Azerbaijan, splitting the Azeri “community” between what is now Iran, Turkey, and the Soviet Union predates the Russian Revolution.
But this is not to say “nationality” has not always been a serious issues in the political life of the Soviet Union, nor that the legitimacy, much less the wisdom, of central government policies in this regard are unimpeachable. Quite the contrary: In large part, today’s ethnic problems in the
Soviet Union result from “community” policies every bit as mistaken as the “political” policy of creating a single-party state, or the “economic” policies of authoritarian management within enterprises and bureaucratic, central planning.
From the very beginning, Lenin and the Bolsheviks promised a different relation between the central government and the historically distinct communities that had been forcibly integrated into the Czarist empire. The
was described as a voluntary union of republics with legitimate, autonomous rights, including rights of secession, guaranteed in the Constitution. But, from the beginning, the relation between Soviet rhetoric and reality in this regard was a case study in “doublespeak.” The gap between rhetoric and reality widened steadily during Lenin’s years and assumed Orwellian dimensions during Stalin’s long reign. While rhetoric highlighted “voluntary association, autonomy, and respect for indigenous cultures,” reality featured a policy more aptly labeled “cultural homogenization.” Union of Soviet Socialist Republics
Proponents of cultural homogenization defend it as the only means of preventing genocide, racism, jingoism, ethnocentrism, pogroms, and religious persecution. The idea is that integrating historically distinct communities into a single, shared culture characterized by “scientific” rather than “primitive” modes of thought and by socialist norms and values can resolve antagonisms between the likes of Armenians and Azerbaijanis while creating communist men (and women?). Clearly the Azeri pogroms against Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh, the retaliatory expulsions of Azeris living in Armenia, the arming of the Popular Front of Azerbaijan and the Armenian National Movement, the well-planned pogrom against Armenian residents in Baku that precipitated the Soviet Army intervention, and the recent events in Ashkhabad and Dushanbe where Moslem majorities reacted to rumors of preferential resettlement of Christian Armenian refugees in their republics, indicate that the policy has failed. When dictatorial repression disappeared, the old antagonisms proved to be sharpened, not softened, by years of cultural homogenization.
While some people argue that the failure of cultural homogenization to resolve these and other “intercommunity” hostilities was due to faulty implementation of a sound policy, and while others attribute it to the fundamental intractability of the human condition, a more plausible explanation is that the policy of cultural homogenization is inherently flawed and self-defeating. Moreover, it was not for lack of numerous “revisions,” “corrections,” and attempts to “perfect” the policy that it failed. For 70 years the central government alternated a “hard sell” and “soft sell” version of cultural homogenization—sometimes executing, arresting, or deporting nationalists and religious leaders, burning books written in non-Russian languages and non-Cyrillic alphabets, and banning symbols of cultural identification; and sometimes relaxing restrictions to the point of celebrating “quaint” local customs and “native” dances and music. But the shifts have always been tactical. The ultimate goal has always been relegating community differences to a harmless past while forging a new, common cultural identity.
The case of Sultan-Galiev is illustrative. Sultan-Galiev became a Communist in 1917 and organized the Musulman Communist Party. He fought against the White general, Kolchak, in the civil war, and received promises from central Bolshevik authorities—over opposition by local Russian leaders—that he would be permitted to establish a
at the war’s conclusion. Stalin, who was in charge of national matters for the Party even in Lenin’s time, later withdrew the promise and ordered the merging of the Musulman Communist Party with the local Russian Communist branch in Musulman State Central Asia.
Stalin opposed what he termed “indigenous nationalism” as counterrevolutionary. Sultan-Galiev urged that policies be adopted that would preserve the progressive features of Islam. When Sultan-Galiev’s protests were ignored he came to the conclusion that the Eastern proletariat (Russians) were not interested in liberating the Eastern peasants (Moslems) but in exploiting them, and he subsequently led uprisings against the Russians. Sultan-Galiev feared continuation of Russian imperialism under Bolshevik auspices and became what we, today, would call a “revolutionary nationalist.” He was finally captured, tried, and expelled from the Party by Stalin in 1923.
The point is this example of the history of Soviet ethnic and cultural policy is unusual only in the leniency of the sentence. It sheds considerable light on hundreds of incidents that do not receive the attention afforded separatist movements in the
and the intercommunal strife between Azeris and Armenians in the Western media. One recent example, which happened to occur in one of Sultan-Galiev’s old strongholds, illustrates glasnost in practice as well as the difficulties of reconciling community autonomy with protection of fundamental personal rights: Baltic Republics
For 70 years incidents such as this went unreported. Leaders were executed or exiled to the Gulag, and whole villages were “collectively” punished much as the Israeli Army collectively punishes whole villages active in the Intifada today. For 70 years every effort was made by Party branches, Komosol, and the “League of the Militantly Godless” to extirpate local customs, traditions, and literature, and force-feed school children dogmatic Marxism-Leninism-atheism. Nor was Stalin the only leader who meted out the hard-line version of cultural homogeneity. After Stalin died, Beria argued for relaxing the drive for cultural homogenization while Khrushchev, a political and economic would-be reformer, opposed any liberalization. In 1956 Khrushchev stressed that a period of “cultural rapprochement”—presumably what had taken place under Stalin!—should be followed by a period of “cultural amalgamation.” Khrushchev hailed the
Soviet Union as “a new type of ethnic community higher than the nation” and pushed polices aimed at “complete unity,” “a future single worldwide culture of communist society” into which all “indigenous cultures” would be assimilated.
Is it naive to imagine that if a policy of respecting and facilitating Moslem traditions rather than denigrating and repressing them, while protecting the rights of young women who chose not to participate, had been practiced judiciously for the past 70 years, the situation would be different today?
The nub of the problem is that in either hard-sell or soft-sell form, cultural homogenization threatens historically distinct communities’ self identity, predictably eliciting defensive responses to legitimate anxieties. Therefore, from the perspective of the victims, though some who pursued the policy may have had praiseworthy motivations, Marxist cultural homogenization was essentially no different than Czarist cultural imperialism. The content of the external culture that the “outsiders” attempted to impose was different under the Czar and the Bolsheviks. But the new threat to cultural identities was, if anything, greater during Soviet than Czarist rule because of the more thorough system of intrusion on personal life and the greater messianism of the new rulers.
So while Soviet government policies did not create the antagonisms between Azeris and Armenians, nor the lamentable patriarchal aspects of Central Asian Moslem communities, Soviet policy has continued to aggravate intercommunity antagonisms and undermine the legitimacy of insiders battling oppressive aspects of their community practices by threatening the very existence of minority communities. Instead, what was called for was a policy we call “intercommunalism,” that is recognizing the legitimacy of historic communities, guaranteeing every community within the
Soviet Union the necessary means to carry out the activities that define and perpetuate their historic identities, and limiting intervention to the protection of an individual’s rights to leave a community without harassment or physical harm.
Which is not to say that the community issues that have dominated the grassroots response to Gorbachev’s opening from the top, much to his dismay, will be easy to resolve. But recognizing not only the Czarist imperial legacy but also the counterproductive effects of the Soviet policy of cultural homogenization does put today’s “nationalist” movements in a different light. Not only Gorbachev but most Western observers who wish glasnost and perestroika well see the nationalist movements as distractive at best, and reactionary at worst. The only sympathy afforded nationalist movements from outside seems to come from Western right-wing circles who desire dismemberment of the
Soviet Union. But our interpretation implies not only that community movements for self-determination have legitimate grievances, just as political movements of relatives and friends of the victims of Stalin’s political terror have legitimate grievances, but that demands for community self-determination are as much part of a new, progressive Soviet society as demands for more political democracy.
While there is no point in thinking outside critics can prescribe Soviet policy, neither should critics avoid difficult issues. So what would promoting autonomy within solidarity imply for the
Soviet Union today?
should be free to secede, even though it would be foolish for them to do so. During his recent whirlwind visit to the Baltics, Gorbachev told the secession movements he did not care to dispute their rendition of the past, but that in the future the community policy he stood for and needed their help to implement would be dramatically different. He implicitly renounced past policy and promised autonomy. And he told the Baltic separatists that while independence would preserve their cultural autonomy, it would also require a degree of economic self-sufficiency that, as Gorbachev suggested, would prove inefficient, and therefore a high (and in his view unnecessary) price to pay. We are in no position to judge Gorbachev’s sincerity or the likelihood that his views will prevail. Surely his arguments that the Baltic independence movements might upset reform for the rest of the Baltic Republics Soviet Union and that pursuing independence might force him (or his replacement) to crush them have practical but no moral weight. In any case, there is more than ample historic cause—illegal annexation, mass executions and deportations of Baltic patriots, calculated Russification, not to speak of suppression of indigenous culture—to justify secession. And it may turn out that it is too late to build sufficient trust to attain autonomy within a federation. Either the past may be too bitter, or the promise of changes may lack sufficient credibility. If this proves true, as it appears it will, the Baltics should be free to secede without penalty, and extended an open hand of economic and international cooperation as well as an open invitation to re-associate later.
The Azerbaijan-Armenia problem is more complicated. In addition to demands for greater autonomy vis à vis
, the two nationalities lay competing claims to particular territories, most importantly Nagorno-Karabakh. Unlike the Baltic republics, separatist sentiment was not the initial problem. Both Moscow Armenia and enjoyed a very brief independence in 1918-1920, but this was only because central authority temporarily disappeared during the Russian Civil War. Azerbaijan Independence is neither a strong nor recent experience for either nationality, and for the most part growing independence sentiment in both republics is a reaction to frustration and alleged betrayals by in adjudicating the current dispute between them. Moscow
At this point Armenians are furious at
Moscow’s ruling that Nagorno-Karabakh would remain part of the Azerbaijani Republic and at Moscow’s failure to protect the Armenian minority in from vicious pogroms. Azeris, in turn, are furious at the Soviet army occupation that was precipitated by pogroms that the Azeri’s claim were largely caused by the Russian-dominated Communist Party of the Republic’s alternation between procrastination and stirring up hostilities out of its political illegitimacy. Azeris are also suspicious that continued military rule under the excuse of preventing pogroms is a subterfuge for suppressing legitimate rights of self-determination. Azerbaijan
But while there are complications and uncertainties, one of the clearest principles of intercommunalism is that majority populations cannot be permitted to brutalize captive minorities. Central government is responsible for preventing pogroms by whatever means necessary. In this case military intervention was necessary, and would have been better had it come earlier and even more decisively. But what an intercommunalist policy would do now is to separate Armenians and Azeris; place a sufficient army deterrence between them, rather than occupying the territory of either; give each the green light and necessary means to “celebrate” their cultural identities and run their own affairs; and remove the military buffer and permit geographic mingling only when both sides feel secure in doing so.
There has to be a judgment as to whether too much water has passed under the bridge. In the case of the Balkan Republics, the decision is theirs to make. In the case of the conflict between Armenian and Azeri, the decision is up to the central government. Physical separation implies hardships for the populations involved and economic costs for the rest of the country, but escalating pogroms by increasingly well-armed populaces would be far more destructive and costly. It should be pointed out that continuation of military rule in
is not the same as a military buffer between the provinces. And failure to carry out full, mutual repatriation of minorities that are endangered on both sides means the tinderbox simply awaits a new spark. Azerbaijan
In sum, if the cultural policy we call “intercommunalism” had been practiced since 1917, rather than deceit and cultural homogenization, prospects for avoiding secession and the need to physically separate rival communities as well as hopes for building a geographically heterogeneous federation of autonomous cultures with solidaristic relations would be far better. But intercommunalism would be no policy guide at all if it required a perfect history, since it is needed precisely because the historic relations between communities have been far from ideal. Intercommunalist principles are more or less clear: (1) protecting of minority communities and minorities within communities by whatever means necessary, (2) encouraging cultural diversity, (3) alleviating anxieties of extinction by guaranteeing all communities material means to reproduce and develop their cultural identities, (4) freeing non-members to criticize practices they deem oppressive, but (5) prohibiting external intervention in the internal affairs of communities except to guarantee that members of any community are free to leave without intimidation. How to apply the principles in actual circumstances, and the facts surrounding particular situations, will often be far less clear, particularly for outsiders.
Glasnost began as simply the cessation of repeating lies that nobody believed anyway and the lifting of various taboos. Then it became Soviet citizens discovering their real history and the publication of non-authors and rehabilitation of non-persons. This led to increasing freedom of thought and expression, followed by party and Soviet elections that were not necessarily “fair” but were at least contested with the possibility of embarrassing surprises for establishment candidates. Recently the Central Committee voted to rewrite Article 6 of the constitution that guarantees the Communist Party a leading role in Soviet society, and Gorbachev has reversed his position against other parties being legalized. In local elections this winter, candidates from a host of parties and groups from the entire political spectrum are competing. And it is likely that formal as well as de facto legalization will be extended to parties that espouse non-Bolshevik solutions in the near future. What all this amounts to is that under the label of glasnost, the
Soviet Union is joining what Marxists have traditionally referred to as the “bourgeois democratic revolution.” In less condescending terms, the Soviet Union is poised to step out of the political dark ages into the relative sunlight of representative democracy—70 years and tens of millions of lives too late.
All this is a significant improvement over the authoritarian, bureaucratic suppression of political life that began in the first year after the October Revolution, became firmly entrenched in the aftermath of the civil war during Lenin’s time, was carried to insane extremes by Stalin’s quarter-century of barbarous rule, and was institutionalized by Breshnev for another 20 years after Khrushchev’s sneak preview of glasnost was canceled at the insistence of his “corporate” sponsors.
The February revolution that toppled the Czar was carried out by a broad coalition of political parties including “bourgeois republican” parties like the Cadets, peasant-based parties demanding land reform like the Social Revolutionaries, urban and rural anarchists, and Marxists of both Menshevik and Bolshevik persuasion. The legal political spectrum shrank to Left Social Revolutionaries, anarchists, and Bolsheviks as a result of the October Revolution. By the outbreak of the civil war the only legal party was the Bolsheviks. Whether or not this was avoidable, and whom, if anyone, should be blamed, is irrelevant to the fact that political life had shriveled greatly even before the civil war. Except in the remarkable case of
, where the Sandinista ruling party permitted its sworn enemies unprecedented political rights, civil wars are notorious for shrinking political liberties, and the Russian civil war was no exception. But after the civil war ended and the Bolsheviks had established political authority over virtually all of what had been the Czarist empire, Lenin’s response to popular demands for legalizing non-Bolshevik, socialist parties, and demands for new elections to the Soviets so they could again become real governments, rather than the rubber stamp governments of the civil-war period, was to send a military expedition to Krondstat to silence the outcries. At the same time internal factions within the Bolshevik Party were banned and Lenin’s theory of political vanguardism and democratic centralism was expanded into a comprehensive theory of a single-party state. Political debate within the Bolshevik Party continued after Lenin’s death and through the mid-1920s, but by 1929 all factions had been eliminated except for Joseph Stalin’s. Nicaragua
In the next quarter-century, political centralism reached a level of insanity difficult to comprehend. According to Andrei Sakharov, not only did 10 to 15 million people perish from torture, execution, hunger, or disease in the notorious Gulag, but between 1936 and 1939 more than 1.2 million Party members, half of the total membership, were arrested—of which more than 600,000 were executed or died in camps. And this occurred even though by 1936 all non-Stalinist factions in the party had long since disappeared! According to Nikita Khrushchev’s famous secret speech to the Party Central Committee in 1956, “Of the 139 members and candidates of the Party’s Central Committee who were elected at the 17th Congress, 98 persons, i.e. 70 percent, were arrested and shot, mostly in 1937-38, and of 1,966 delegates to the Congress with either voting or advisory rights, 1,108 were arrested on charges of anti-revolutionary crimes.”
Enough facts such as these had reached the outside world so that at least the outlines of this history was known even before Khrushchev’s revelations. But then Khrushchev backed off, and Breshnev continued to obscure the truth for another 20 years. Only with glasnost have Soviet citizens been permitted to uncover their own history. But the refusal to live up to, much less surpass, the political freedoms of the “bourgeois democratic” revolutions before and after the civil war, and the stark terror of a police state that required a penal system averaging 5 million inhabitants a year for a quarter century—10 percent of whom died each year from malnutrition, disease, executions, and suicide—is only part of the story. Washington Post correspondent David Remnick was on the mark when he observed:
Election day in the
Soviet Union for the past seven decades was perhaps the most pathetic ritual of a totalitarian system. Local Communist Party leaders drew up a slate of candidates, and party `agitators’ got out the vote hoping they could fulfill their duty to guide, cajole, or march the entire adult population of the city to the ballot box for a rousing show of ideological unanimity.
According to Valentina Sotnikova, the ideological secretary of
’s Communist Party committee, “No one ever took the elections seriously. People were completely alienated. It was a ritual, like going to a May Day parade. It was a holiday, just something you did, an excuse for a day off.” Tula
All this has changed with the elections of 1990. Covering local election campaigns, in what he terms “a kind of Slavic Super Sunday,” in March in the Russian, Byelorussian, and Ukrainian Republics, David Remnick reports the ratio of candidates to open positions in the Ukraine is more than 7 to 1, in Russia more than 6 to 1, and in Byelorussia about 3.5 to 1. And while 85 percent of the candidates for legislatures are Communist Party members, that includes members of Democratic Platform, the internal opposition faction whose program was published in Pravda the day before the election. And many of the other Party candidates also belong to independent opposition groups. In any case, the candidates range “from KGB officers to dissident priests, and from Russian nationalists to social democrats.” The high level of interest cannot be attributed to independence sentiment since this is the Russian “heartland.” Instead voters ask: “Why are our hospitals so filthy and why must we pay bribes to the nurses for things like anesthesia or an extra blanket? Why do we find more and more homeless people and addicts sleeping in the parks and the railway stations? Why is there no meat? No gasoline? Why can we see the air and not breathe it?” In fact, the biggest issue in parts of the
Ukraine and Byelorussia is the accident and its aftermath. Sentiment ran so high in the campaign that incumbents in the Ukrainian Soviet voted to phase out the four reactors still in operation. Now debate centers on adequate cleanup programs and reparations for victims. Chernobyl
In any event, while there is no denying that glasnost began as a revolution from above, it has since become the heady stuff that popular revolutions are made of. Which is not to say glasnost has achieved participatory democracy, or was ever meant to. Nor does it mean the limited gains of glasnost are secure. But the notion that single-party states and “vanguard” parties governed by “democratic centralism” are politically progressive is dead. More than anything else, the East European revolutions of 1989 were a gigantic referendum rejecting what we call “political Marxism Leninism.” By this we mean the view of political life, shared by all Marxist Leninists, that heralds the “dictatorship of the proletariat,” political vanguardism, the single-party state, and internal democratic centralism as an advance over “bourgeois democracy.” Instead, the Marxist-Leninist vision of political life is and always has been a recipe for disaster, whether it is espoused by members of “ruling parties” in the East or by opposition parties and sects in the West, by Stalinists or Trotskyists, by Maoists or even Guevarists.
Outlawing all but a single “vanguard” party ruled by “democratic” centralism has nothing to do with democracy except its subversion. These political institutions systematically impede participatory impulses, promote popular passivity, and breed authoritarianism, bureaucratism, and corruption. The word “democratic” in “democratic centralism” is like the word “freedom” in “freedom of enterprise.” Just as “freedom of enterprise” means the absence of freedom for the majority who must work for others, “democratic centralism” means the absence of democracy for all but the Party leadership. More than anything else, and in particular more than any economic failures, it is the failure of “political Marxism-Leninism” that is the essence of the revolutions of 1989.
But before moving on from politics to economics, a note of caution. Gorbachev did not unleash glasnost to have it flower into participatory democracy. And we in the West know all too well that representative democracy can be crafted into a system that reproduces oppressive social relations, maintains unjust privileges, and subverts rather than facilitates possibilities for participatory democracy. As we watch glasnost in the Soviet Union and the evolution of political life in
Eastern Europe, the critical issue is whether ordinary people are increasingly able to formulate and express their political wills, or whether information, means of expression, and choice of candidates increasingly become the exclusive province of social elites. In the Soviet Union, Gorbachev’s predilection for a U.S.-style “strong” presidential system rather than a European-style parliamentary system is worrisome. The degree to which the indigenous political groups that carried out the revolutions in Eastern Europe are being replaced by imitations of traditional Western European parties as elections approach is discouraging. But perhaps most important to watch will be the transformation of the media.
The Orwellian ministry of propaganda is dead or dying, but what will replace it? Unless ordinary citizens have access to media, unless grassroots political organizations can frame issues and options, unless the ability to project opinions is organized democratically and fairly, the revolution toward democracy cannot succeed. If new elites learn from their Western counterparts how to weave an infinitely more subtle lie—if Pravda is replaced by the New York Times—the victory of “mature” and “responsible” democracy will be proclaimed and echoed between self-congratulatory media empires in the East and West—but participatory democracy will recede, and the battle for democracy will wait to be fought another day. Defining the thinkable rather than forcibly substituting lies for truth is a change in form, not substance.
Now for the worst news. Not only have the new Polish and Hungarian governments already embraced the most self-destructive kind of capitalism dependent on foreign capital, virulently laissez-faire, and accompanied by a nonsensical consensus that they are too “poor” to afford a welfare safety net; and not only are the other new governments in East Europe moving rapidly in the same direction; and not only are ideas for workers’ self-management, environmental planning, protecting workers’ health and safety, and consumer protection vanishing from debate throughout Eastern Europe; but perestroika, the movement for economic reform in the Soviet Union, began as an explicit rejection of socialist economic principles and—if present trends continue—will end in either a rationalized coordinatorism or in capitalism.
In particular, the economic program implemented on January 1 by the new Polish government could not be more disappointing, and if anything it is even worse than the draft program approved by the Council of Ministers on October 9, which states:
Parallel with efforts to counteract inflation the Government shall take steps leading to complete change in the economic system. This will consist of introducing the market economy institutions which have proven themselves in developed Western countries. Instrumental to that will be: (1) ownership changes, making the ownership structure similar to that in the industrially developed countries; (2) application of a full market mechanism, particularly the freedom of price-setting and elimination of rationing; (3) opening the economy to the world by introduction of convertibility of the zloty, which will allow for increasing domestic competition and permit rational specialization; (4) reform of the banking system and the rules of money-credit policy to correspond with strict banking criteria; (5) launching a capital market; and (6) establishment of a labor market.
The anti-inflation program referred to consists of:
Reducing the subsidy to coal, reducing the number of subsidized foodstuffs and inputs for farm production, suspending the central budget payments to local budgets, and modification of the wage indexation rules to counteract the inflationary climb of wages; [all while] eliminating the price ceilings.
Presumably, since the Council of Ministers predicted in the same document “initially, following introduction of these measures, there cannot but follow a rapid jump in prices and drop in the statistical index of real wages,” they were not disappointed by the 70 percent inflation and the 40 percent reduction in real wages in the first 30 days of the program!
The privatization program is no less thorough.
Material components of state assets will be sold including housing, land and building lots, small plants, service and trade outlets, shares of the State Treasury in existing companies, productive assets from liquidated enterprises and suspended central investment projects, along with privatization of enterprises.
But in case anyone should fear a “fire sale,” the Council of Ministers assured “there will be absolute observance of the rule of public-auction form of sale.” Continuing, “The Government shall apply for lifting the applicable constraints on the size of a private farm and shall review the other acts pertaining to trade in land, with a view to eliminating all the unnecessary barriers.” And “the Government will apply for elimination of constraints on the freedom of: disposition of buildings and residential premises, building housing for sale, setting rents and charges according to market rules.” So it was not only would-be Polish capitalists but would-be Polish landowners and landlords as well who had reason to jockey for position at the January 1 starting line. And they damn well better position themselves well, because there was no rule limiting entrees in the great Polish January 1 sweepstakes to amateurs. Professionals were declared eligible in these Polish Olympic games: “Foreign investors will be able to purchase stock in Polish enterprises and also set up wholly foreign-owned enterprises.”
We quote at length to emphasize the magnitude of the rout, and also because this account provides an all too accurate indication of what is happening in Hungary as well. Moreover, this is clearly the direction Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, and Romania are headed, and what may lie ahead for the Soviet economy if perestroika fails. Perestroika is a strategy for moving from one form of non-capitalist and non-socialist economy to another. The strategy is remarkably farsighted, but quite risky. It could fail if: (1) essential features of the reform are blocked, and the traditional economic model is reimposed; (2) the forces unleashed by perestroika, and by the far more disruptive policy of glasnost lead to a restoration of capitalism; or (3) the popular forces unleashed lead instead to real socialism (the least likely but only desirable possibility).
Gorbachev initially presented perestroika as a revitalization of the existing Soviet economy. This posture was dictated by the major obstacle at the time: the party aparachiks and central planning bureaucrats, as well as the managers of less profitable enterprises. In combination, glasnost and perestroika directly threatened the material privileges of what Gorbachev deemed the unproductive elite who not only dominated the power structures of the old political and economic system, but had long legitimated their rule by cloaking themselves in the mantel of socialist rhetoric and concessions to workers’ security. So Gorbachev’s first task was to reassure his conservative opposition and make it difficult for them to rally working-class sentiment against perestroika. Now that the conservative opposition is in disarray, he talks of “revitalizing socialism” much less often. But far from “revitalizing socialism” perestroika explicitly rejects the fundamental precepts and goals of a socialist economy.
True socialism will be based on a system in which democratically organized workers and consumers participate in planning their joint economic endeavors in light of full knowledge of the social effects of their decisions. While the old Soviet system of bureaucratic, centralized planning was neither democratic, participatory, nor efficient, perestroika explicitly rejects the goal of socialist planning. In his book, Perestroika, published in 1987, Gorbachev wrote:
The reform is based on dramatically increased independence of enterprises and associations, their transition to full self-accounting and self-financing.... They will now be fully responsible for efficient management and the end results.... In this connection, a radical reorganization of centralized economic management is envisaged in the interests of enterprises. We will free the central management of operational functions in the running of enterprises.
Perestroika is a program of replacing bureaucratic planning with markets and competition, not with socialist planning and cooperation.
True socialism will be based on the principle, “From each according to ability, to each according to effort.” A socialist economy will not view differences of luck, job placement, talent, and preparation and training undergone at social rather than personal expense as legitimate bases for differential reward. Under socialism personal sacrifice for the social interest, or effort, will be rewarded for efficiency and equity reasons until mutual trust and solidarity proves sufficient to permit distribution entirely according to need.
It is important to be clear that while sentiments for socialist distributive principles existed in the early years after the Russian Revolution, (1) socialist distributive principles were never practiced by any Bolshevik government; (2) Stalin moved exactly in the opposite direction during forced industrialization, when skilled labor was in shortest supply; and (3) it was Stalin who first coined the phrase “levelers” as an epithet aimed at his opponents, that is, at his contemporaries who dared support socialist distributive principles. So, Gorbachev, rather than correcting the “leveling mistakes of Stalin” as he puts it, is instead fully in the anti-socialist tradition of rationalizing unjust inequalities. Gorbachev writes:
Equalizing attitudes crop up from time to time even today. Some citizens understood the call for social justice as ‘equalizing everyone.’ But what we value most is a citizen’s contribution to the affairs of the country—the talent of a writer, scientist, or any other citizen. On this point we want to be perfectly clear: socialism has nothing to do with equalizing.... Much is said about benefits and privileges for individuals and groups of individuals. We have benefits and privileges that have been established by the state, and they are granted on the basis of the quantity and quality of work.
Real socialism will also stand for every citizen’s right to a socially useful job. But Gorbachev warns us “the high degree of social protection in our society...makes some people spongers,” and complains that “the state has assumed concern for ensuring employment [so] even a person dismissed for laziness or a breach of labor discipline must be given another job.”
But our point is not that Gorbachev is yet another Soviet leader who has betrayed socialist principles. Gorbachev says all these things because perestroika requires it. Perestroika is a process of moving from the old non-socialist system to a new nonsocialist system. Since the new system is to be based on markets rather than planning and cannot function coherently if wages are determined politically rather than competitively, perestroika means eschewing the remnants of socialist ideology that helped hold the social contract behind the old system together, but which is counterproductive in the new system and an obstacle to its birth.
The traditional form of a coordinator economy combines hierarchical relations of production with bureaucratic, central planning. The social contract that held this system together in the Soviet Union for over 60 years included job security and an ambiguous wage system that paid lip service to socialist values in exchange for workers’ acquiescence in their economic disenfranchisement and toleration of official and unofficial corruption. This was the traditional coordinator economy: an economy without capitalists, but with a ruling class of planners, administrators, and other conceptual workers (or coordinators), who controlled economic decision-making with their own interests first and foremost. We can call this economy “Coordinatorism 1,” a public-enterprise, state-managed, centrally planned economy.
Perestroika is a strategy for moving from Coordinatorism 1 to a slicker, more competitive “Coordinatorism 2.” The new version of coordinatorism would maintain hierarchical relations of production, but would feature allocation determined by free markets rather than planning. It would be a public-enterprise, state-managed, market economy. But Coordinatorism 2 would require a new social contract as well. And in particular, part of the ideological underpinnings of the old social contract would be dysfunctional in Coordinatorism 2. Coordinatorism 1 could operate coherently with a system of wages and prices that were political compromises designed to both reward elites and to pacify “the masses,” since production decisions under central planning need not be based on wages and prices. That is, resource allocation and production decisions in Coordinatorism 1 could be carried out independently of wages and prices, which could therefore play a purely distributive role.
But in Coordinatorism 2 wages and prices necessarily play an allocative as well as distributive role. And if wages and resource prices and costs based on them do not reflect relative productivities, the resulting economic decisions will be inefficient. Hence arises the need to forge a new social contract that abrogates employment-security and eschews economic rewards based on effort or need in favor of rewarding performance solely according to profitability.
Incidently, this explains a nonsensical argument common in the mainstream press. It is frequently mentioned that if “full cost accounting” were implemented, 40 to 50 percent of economic enterprises would go bankrupt in the Soviet Union, Poland, Hungary, etc. The implication is that these economies are total basket cases and the efficient approach is to shut down roughly half the economy. But nothing of the kind is called for. If full cost accounting at Soviet, Polish, or Hungarian prices were implemented in West Germany, France, or the U.S., 30 to 40 percent of our enterprises would go bankrupt as well. The key is the prices, which in the Eastern economies are still the old political compromise, distributive prices of Coordinatorism 1. Not only are the Eastern economies not anything like the basket cases that the Western media and Western businesses that are bidding on those enterprises would like us and the East Europeans to believe; but to shut down those enterprises would be the most foolhardy act to date. Just because a Polish coal mine or steel mill is not as productive as a Western counterpart does not mean it is not making a positive net social contribution. Usually, having people work, however poorly, is more efficient than not having them work at all!
If “price reform” is a prerequisite for a coherent Coordinator 2 economy, why does Gorbachev delay? The answer should be clear. The clean, technical phrase “price reform” means breaking the old social contract and establishing a new one. These are difficult political tasks requiring troublesome negotiations, especially when a significant portion of the society’s elites along with a majority of the working class will lose in the exchange, at least in the short run.
The difficulty and danger have apparently been so great that even at the tremendous economic cost of having a non-economic system in the Soviet Union since 1986, Gorbachev has postponed the crucial price reform for almost five years. People don’t expect the old system to stay in place but are unsure if the new system will come in. Parts of the old system remain, but only parts of the new system have been implemented. The actual economy is chaotic because there is no coherent system of incentives. When nobody knows what to expect or what they will be rewarded or punished for, people do nothing. And when people do nothing, there is economic crisis.
Contrary to popular and professional opinion, the Coordinator 1 economies were not in anything like a system-threatening economic crisis before the advent of perestroika. There was a political crisis of universally acknowledged hypocrisy in the Soviet Union. And a long overdue crisis of imperialism in Eastern Europe to which politically bankrupt puppet regimes responded in the 1970s and 1980s by trying to pacify their subjects via massive credits from the West, thereby generating a debt crisis. But the traditional coordinator economies did not generate a tailspin by normal operations. The Polish economy was in full crisis by 1989 because the Poles had been on a slowdown strike against the military government since 1981. And the Soviet economy is in crisis now because nobody has known what to do for over four years. But other than Poland, and up to 1985 in the Soviet Union, the traditional coordinator economies were plugging along more or less like they always had. What was alarming was that after decades of outperforming their Western counterparts, by the beginning of the 1980s their growth rates had dipped below those in the West. And in a more qualitative vein, the most significant technological revolution since the industrial revolution appeared to be taking off in the West, but not in the East.
All this was sufficient to inject Gorbachev and his farsighted allies with a sense of desperation and urgency, leading them to initiate a preemptive strike to change from Coordinatorism 1 to Coordinatorism 2 before the relative economic decline worsened. But to interpret lower positive growth rates as if they were negative and evidence of economic crisis is deceptive. The Soviet economy was behind the U.S. economy in 1920, but less so in 1980. That explains the “luxury gap” and unflattering comparisons of any number of economic indices. Since 1985 the Soviet economy has been in crisis because it is in an in-between, Never-Never Land, and it won’t come out of crisis until a coherent system takes hold.
In any case, while Coordinatorism 1 may have superficially resembled socialism in a few particular respects—some people confused bureaucratic, central planning with democratic, participatory planning—Coordinatorism 2 bears no resemblance to socialism other than in its having public ownership. Of course, the distinction between capitalism and coordinatorism is essentially the difference between a ruling class based on a monopoly of ownership of the means of production and a ruling class based on a monopoly of economic information and administrative control over the means of production. Therefore the most superficial resemblance between coordinatorism and socialism, the absence of capitalists, is unavoidable. But Coordinatorism 2 is no more an economy in which workers and consumers participate in democratically planning their joint endeavors and in which economic rewards are based on effort, or on sacrifice for the common good, than was Coordinatorism 1.
Facing the Dust Bin
Recent events in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe have not only routed Communist aparachiks there, but a portion of the “Left” in the West as well. And this helps explain why some anti-imperialists are having a hard time celebrating the great anti-imperialist victories of 1989. Whether or not those in the West who have championed “political Marxism Leninism” choose to face the facts, the verdict is in. A billion and a half people, from the Berlin Wall to the Bering Sea, from Budapest to Beijing, after experiencing various versions of this political agenda for 40 to 70 years, have voted “nyet.” The voice vote was so deafening there was no call for a show of hands.
Political parties in the West that continue to espouse these policies only guarantee their continued irrelevance. This is hardly new, since no party espousing political Marxism-Leninism has any following among what they conceive as “the masses” in any country whose citizens enjoy the limited fruits of “bourgeois democracy.” While this was not always so, it was already the case before the revolutions of 1989. On the other hand, up to now Marxist-Leninist sects have been generally considered part of the “Left” in the West. That is, the “vote” within the “Left” was considerably more ambiguous than the vote of the citizenry at large in societies enjoying the limited fruits of representative democracy. Within the Western Left, Marxist Leninists’ opposition to capitalist exploitation has been deemed sufficient to warrant their inclusion in broad progressive alliances. Indeed, Marxist Leninists have long portrayed themselves not only as members of the Left, but as its vanguard. To add to the confusion, the repressive apparatus of the state and the mainstream media frequently confer that status on Marxist Leninist sects by singling them out for special treatment. But this is not done because Marxist-Leninist sects are the most dangerous threats to bourgeois rule. It is done because focusing attention on them makes the best “media theater,” furthering the cause of bourgeois ideological hegemony by casting sects in the roles of fifth columns for their ruling party prototypes and sponsors, which together threaten our democratic freedoms.
This is not an essay on strategy, coalition building, and alliances. And we are proposing no simple formulas. However, we do believe the most obvious lessons of the revolutions of 1989 are that political Marxism Leninism is a step backward from representative democracy and that coordinatorism and socialism are two very different things. The Western Left needs to digest and act on these lessons. Rather than a transition from bourgeois to participatory democracy, political Marxism Leninism is a rollback of the limited gains of the American and French revolutions—a step back toward the political dark ages. Rather than a transition from capitalism to socialism—meaning collective participatory rule by workers—economic Marxism Leninism is a transition from capitalism to coordinatorism, meaning rule by planners, managers, intellectual elites, and technocrats in general. Perhaps recent events can help the Left in “bourgeois democratic” societies see these matters as clearly as the populace they wish to lead.
Along with “political Marxism Leninism” the traditional version of a centrally planned coordinator economy has been routed. Whether perestroika will succeed in replacing Coordinatorism 1 in the Soviet Union with Coordinatorism 2 by constructing a market system with considerably more competitive pressures on managers, and a bigger stick of unemployment as well as larger carrots in the form of greater wage differentials for workers, is still in doubt. Much of Eastern Europe has already leapfrogged over Coordinatorism 2 into full-blown capitalist restoration. Moreover, should the next attempt at coordinator reform in the Soviet Union prove as anemic as the previous ones, it may be the last. While Coordinatorism 2 is not intrinsically inferior to capitalism on efficiency grounds and may well be better on equity grounds, it has nothing to do with socialism and is even harder to confuse with the kind of economy socialists find desirable than was Coordinatorism 1. Rather than an attempt to “revitalize socialism,” perestroika was, and is, an attempt to forswear socialist objectives entirely in order to revitalize coordinatorism.
While we rejoice that more than 100 million East Europeans and more than 250 million Soviet citizens are finally beginning to be free to choose, we regret that they are surely going to make some bad choices, at least in the short run. Eastern Europe has again achieved political independence and is rapidly rejoining the capitalist world economy in its customary subordinate position. The Soviet Union, having replaced a dependent capitalist economy with a coordinator economy, failed to carry out even a “bourgeois democratic revolution” after overthrowing Czarism. Hopefully the Soviet Union is now joining the ranks of nations enjoying the limited fruits of representative democracy, and can do so without fragmenting into a dozen impoverished warring nations. But whether the Soviet Union is headed toward a slicker coordinator system of class rule, or toward capitalism, the leadership has dropped all pretense of pursuing real socialist economic goals.
Finally it is important to understand why there is also so little popular sentiment in the East for socialism. The worst of Marx’s writings—known as “orthodox Marxism” to those of us who have taken the time to understand it before rejecting it, and simply as “Marxism” to more than 99 percent of the human race—have been deployed to justify and rationalize political authoritarianism and coordinator exploitation in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. All liberatory, non-Marxist, socialist currents in the Left were repressed entirely. How could one possibly expect the victims of this indoctrination to turn to something called “socialism,” and look beyond representative democracy for the answers to their problems even if there were a clearly articulated and viable alternative to capitalism for them to consider?
Much of the Western Left has failed them by refusing to recognize the depravity of their condition and the reasons for it. All of the Western Left has failed them by proving incapable of conceptualizing, articulating, and projecting a viable socialist economic model and viable humanist cultural, political, and sexual models under conditions where the freedom to do so was far greater than for our brothers and sisters in the East. But much is changing, including the fact that those in search of humanist goals in the East will have more room to do so than ever before.