The decline of Gorbachev

Issue 

BORIS KAGARLITSKY, ALEXANDER POPOV AND VLADIMIR KONDRATOV are members of the Socialist Party of the Soviet Union, an organisation of about 300 members, formed in July 1990. The group has 11 elected members in the 475-member Moscow Soviet.
Interviewed in Rome on December 28 by STEVE PAINTER and JIM PERCY, they argue that Mikhail Gorbachev is already well advanced on a course of political self-destruction, and in fact that the Gorbachev project was doomed from the beginning because it was never anything more than a process of bureaucratic self-reform 25 years too late.

Steve Painter: Recently, according to the International Herald Tribune, Vitaly Goldansky, who is a member of the USSR parliament, said: "We are watching the end of the Gorbachev thaw and it is even more dramatic and terrible than the end of the reforms under Khrushchev." Is this an accurate assessment?

Boris Kagarlitsky: I think this just reflects the mentality typical of the establishment liberals. They never believed that the people could do anything positive, and they were always sure that any kind of popular activity would be destructive or even catastrophic. Naturally, they don't believe in any popular pressure on the regime. In fact, they fear that even more than they fear repression by the regime.

The liberals are gloomy because the regime is no longer willing to go on carrying out their policies as it has done for the last two years.

I also think there are quite a lot of reasons to be pessimistic, but my reasons are the opposite of the liberals' reasons. I think that the process of Gorbachev's political self-destruction has already begun, and it's only a matter of time until he falls.

He could fall either because of pressure from the military, who are very discontented with Gorbachev, or he could fall as a result of popular protests. Today, Gorbachev is the most hated person in the Soviet Union. Ironically, I could even say that he is the most hated leader in Soviet history because, unfortunately, Stalin who was many times worse was not hated but admired by many of the people.

Gorbachev, who is of course much better than Stalin, is hated by everybody. That's why I think his future is extremely gloomy.

At the present time, however, there is another problem. Whether he falls as a result of popular pressure or as a result of some sort of military coup or ultimatum from the military, in either case there is no democratic alternative. The alternative provided by the liberals is completely anti-democratic.

The liberals want a right-wing dictatorship. The people who are likely to inherit from Gorbachev, including Mr Goldansky and others, are probably much more dangerous to the country than Gorbachev himself.

At the moment the liberals are frightened of repression because they fear that they could be among the repressed. But in fact they want repression for everybody else.

They want much more repression than anybody in the Communist camp does at the present time. This is because their liberal project, which would mean mass unemployment, a dramatic cut in living standards and complete destruction of the system of social guarantees and social security, cannot be carried out without mass repression, which could even reach the levels of the Stalinist repression.

In that sense I think that the regime that could emerge after Gorbachev might be much worse than Gorbachev.

Of course, the liberals' problem then is how stable their regime would be. I think it could not last for long.

Steve Painter: You say Gorbachev is committed to a course of political self-destruction. What do you think were Gorbachev's alternatives to this course?

Boris Kagarlitsky: He's probably in the middle of the process of self-destruction. Every step he has taken, and every step he now takes, leaves him with less alternatives. He is now at odds with all his former friends, and he has alienated himself from all the forces that supported him at any period of his political career. He is politically isolated.

Technically, though not politically, he is supported by the army. But while bayonets are good for many things, they are not very good for sitting on.

In fact, the army is very much against Gorbachev. It is a structure in which you have to obey the orders of your superiors, but that doesn't mean you have to approve of the orders. If the ones who give the orders are in some way going too far, they start to have problems.

The army doesn't like Gorbachev because he stopped the arms race and cut their expenditure, which created some social problems for the military.

Also, the officers hate Gorbachev because he uses the army as a police force, which they don't want to be. There have been lots of protests against using the military as a police force.

Besides all this, the army is not united. It is split between

different political tendencies. So, if Gorbachev uses the army too often (and he has to do this because now there is nobody but the army to carry out his orders), he will eventually lose the only technical support he has.

Steve Painter: When did the Gorbachev project begin to go wrong?

Boris Kagarlitsky: For him, personally, I think it went wrong many years ago, when he joined the Communist Party.

I think that the West, including some sections of the Western left, had an idea that perestroika was an attempt to establish a democratic and prosperous state in Russia. This was never true. Not for a single day.

From the very beginning, perestroika had only two aims (which were not achievable, but that's another story). The officials and their experts spoke quite openly about the fact that there were two aims.

The first aim was to increase the manageability of the system, which under Brezhnev became almost ungovernable, or unmanageable.

The second aim was to win some respectability in the West by transforming the bureaucracy into a ruling class like any other ruling class and being accepted into the world club of rulers.

Neither aim was achieved. The first aim was not achieved because the reforms were badly prepared even from the point of view of the reformers and their own tasks.

Aside from anything else, the reforms were 25 years late. Such steps might have been quite correct from the bureaucratic point of view 25 years before, but 25 years later these were wrong steps.

Within the bureaucratic system it took 25 years just technically to prepare the reforms. That's one of the things people really don't understand. The preparation of the reforms began at the beginning of the Brezhnev era. The whole of the Brezhnev era and the years of power struggle after Brezhnev were years of intensive work on the preparation of the reforms. There was very intense discussion of the reforms within the bureaucracy, but for many years they moved nowhere.

That was a product of the system. It was not because Brezhnev was bad and Gorbachev was good. In fact, it was Brezhnev who made the first steps in the direction in which Gorbachev moved later.

Of course, Brezhnev was more cautious and he was at the beginning of the process, while Gorbachev was at the end.

Today, it is clear that the first aim, manageability, has not been achieved. The second aim, international respectability, was

achieved. But without manageability, the respectability also becomes unstable and is undermined.

Jim Percy: Are you saying we could have expected no other outcome of the Stalinist experience than a neo-liberal, repressive regime similar to those that seem to be emerging now in Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia?

Many people in the Western left were hoping for some development in the direction of socialist democracy. Are you saying that the destruction of politics, culture, traditions of struggle, has been so deep that there is, and was, no hope of a better or shorter road?

Boris Kagarlitsky: I think this is the shortest road to socialism. Going through this experience is now the shortest road to socialism.

Of course, if the bureaucracy had been more efficient 25 or 30 years ago, if there had been a process of reforms such as the one that began in Czechoslovakia in 1968, if that had become a general process for the East, there might have been another road.

In that case, there might have been a chance for some sort of reformist transition to socialist democracy. But even that could not have taken place simply from above. It could not have occurred without struggle. The reforms from above, even of the most radical type such as those of the Prague Spring, necessarily produced some new dynamics including the emergence of a right and the emergence of pressures from below.

If the Czechoslovak Spring were not to be destroyed by the Soviet tanks, there should I think necessarily have been more struggles in Czechoslovakia.

But all that didn't happen. So now we have a process not of self-reform but of collapse. What the Gorbachev team is doing, and what the new elites in Eastern Europe are doing, is managing the collapse, the catastrophe.

I think that the road through a neo-liberal stage is not completely disastrous. By this I mean that socialism did not develop as an alternative to Stalinism. It is an alternative to capitalism. The natural raison d'etre for socialist ideas is that they are the alternative to capitalism. Socialist consciousness in the working class is the result of the capitalist and market experience, and nothing else.

To get a proper socialist alternative and socialist consciousness in the masses, you need to go through at least some bits of capitalist experience. I think it will be best for us if this experience is as short as possible and the development of a

socialist alternative is as rapid as possible, but that's another story.

Jim Percy: One view widely accepted on the Western left was Trotsky's theory that Stalinism would fall to a political revolution.

Boris Kagarlitsky: I think the theory was basically wrong, though it is always easy to make statements like that afterwards. Now we can come to the conclusion that it was basically wrong, but we shouldn't be too hard on Trotsky for several reasons.

Trotsky could not know what was going to happen after World War II. During the 1920s, when he first began to develop his ideas about political revolution, the impulse of the Russian Revolution was not yet completely exhausted. He was able to think of the political revolution as a sort of direct continuation of the initial social revolution.

But 60 years later it is absurd to speak about the continuation of the original revolution. We could speak about a new revolutionary process emerging with new dynamics. Of course, there is some element of continuity, but it's very limited, and we must understand that the social potential of the revolutionary impulse of 1917 is completely exhausted. It was exhausted a long time ago, which doesn't mean that we have to drop the revolutionary ideas. That's another matter. These ideas could serve us for the next period of revolutionary change.

Steve Painter: You criticise the liberals for their fear of the masses. Could you say a little about the state of mass political consciousness? Of course, everyone has heard of the Donbass miners' strike, but how generalised is such mass activity?

Boris Kagarlitsky: We mustn't overestimate the level of mass activity. It's extremely low now.

Unfortunately, another piece of mythology emerged on the Western left after the collapse of the Gorbachev myth: the miners myth.

I have to confess that this was also part of the mythology of the socialist groups in the Soviet Union, and partly the mythology of the miners themselves.

Now everybody, including some of the miners, is deeply frustrated about that. At the time of the strike, the miners were quite isolated from all the other groups of the working class, and I mean the traditional industrial working class, not just the new, modern sectors such as computer operators.

The miners, at least some of them, now understand that their own movement in some ways developed too fast and the organised

structures they created were premature. The miners' strike committees were regional structures without any social or political project, without any basic structures at the enterprise level.

They badly lacked, and still lack, some kind of normal trade union organisation. As a result, miners' leaders often became corrupted or demoralised. They were forced to assume high levels of responsibility, and the possibilities of control from below were zero.

You can imagine where the illusions came from: imagine that you're on strike, there are thousands of people in the square, and there is direct democracy. Of course that worked, just as the ancient Roman democracy worked.

But then the workers went back to their pits and this direct democracy collapsed and was not replaced by any sort of participatory democracy, any regular structure, any trade union or political structure. So the result was the total collapse of democratic processes and the disappearance of the movement.

Because there were no organised forms of the movement, when the people went back to work, the movement itself disappeared. This left some leaders who still continued to speak as if there were thousands of people behind them even though they no longer represented anybody because they just didn't know the mood of the people behind them.

The leaders were just not capable physically of going to ask every miner what they thought. There were no mechanisms for learning what the miners wanted, so the miners became completely frustrated. So now there is an attempt to create a miners' union, but it has less than 1000 members. People are completely demoralised.

On the other hand, the reason I am optimistic is that there are objective tendencies that force people to defend their interests, and they are learning more and more about their interests and understanding them better.

One of the examples of this better understanding is the establishment of a new organisation called the Union of Labor Collectives. These collectives are mostly elected bodies, or bodies that were created under the old Gorbachev law on labor collectives.

Now Gorbachev wants to dismantle the councils. They are to be abolished under new legislation, but they don't want to be abolished. In a certain way, the councils are resisting for rather bureaucratic reasons: they don't want to be abolished. They have to defend themselves, but they can't defend themselves without proving to their collectives that the collectives need them.

This is a beginning of real politics connected to real interests. I have no illusions about this, I say that if Gorbachev were not

trying to dissolve the labor councils, there could be no such movement, but now it is there and that's rational.

People are becoming more and more conscious of their interests, there are new forms of organisation emerging. I think the industrial workers are becoming more and more capable of acting. The next wave of labor struggle will probably come not from the miners but from the industrial workers, and that's also very important.

Steve Painter: Would you agree that the Gorbachev reforms, glasnost, perestroika, have opened the door to the rise of the mass movement? Before Gorbachev, such a development did not seem possible.

Boris Kagarlitsky: Yes, of course, but that was not what Gorbachev wanted. It was a sort of unwanted by-product. And, of course, Gorbachev is a very capable tactician in the sense that, whatever happened, he was always capable of using it in his favour.

When something very unwanted happened, Gorbachev always played the role of someone who wanted and created it. He even managed to use the Chernobyl disaster in his favour. He managed to use all the bureaucratic struggles in the apparatus in his favour, and he was always trying to limit the influence of any forces that might become strong enough to challenge his personal power.

That produced the very strange result that he is now the enemy of everybody. At certain points, various groups, forces or tendencies would begin growing because of his policy of attacking their enemies. Then, as they grew, he would rely on their enemies to hold them down.

The miners also, at certain point, were used by Gorbachev. In that sense, Gorbachev really helped the development of the mass movement.

Steve Painter: But surely he was conscious of this? He must have understood that the mass movement would grow as a result of glasnost in particular?

Boris Kagarlitsky: No. I'm sure he thought exactly the opposite. He thought that he could control everything from above and avoid any mass movements emerging, and that's why he was very shocked by their emergence.

He didn't want them to emerge, but once they emerged, he immediately began to use them. Gorbachev is very capable of using any development. He always uses everything, whether it is negative or positive, but the end result is quite destructive for the society.
[Next week: the left, the right and the struggle for democracy.]