Roy Medvedev on future of Soviet left

Wednesday, October 30, 1991

Roy Medvedev was the leading dissident Soviet historian during the Brezhnev years. He was expelled from the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in 1969. In 1971, following the publication in the West of his monumental study on Stalin, Let History Judge, he was dismissed from his academic position and forced to work as a freelance historian and sociologist.
Medvedev was elected to the USSR Congress of People's Deputies in 1989, readmitted to the Communist Party and elected to its Central Committee in 1990. Since the dissolution of the CPSU, Medvedev has given his support to the formation of the Party of Left Forces.
On October 1 he was interviewed for New Left Review by Renfrey Clarke and Jonathan Steele. In the following extract from the interview, Medvedev discusses the prospects for a new party of the Soviet left.

Do you think there are real prospects for the Party of Left Forces? People here are extremely suspicious of any kind of socialist ideas.

If we're talking about the people as a whole, there's acute dissatisfaction, and this dissatisfaction has spread to the Communist Party and to socialism in general. But I wouldn't say that this dissatisfaction has a clear character, because in another year this dissatisfaction might well turn against Yeltsin and all of the "democratic" parties.

People are dissatisfied, but they don't have a clear political orientation. They're not dissatisfied so much with the fact that they're living badly — they also lived badly 20 years ago — but with the fact that they live worse than they did before. Nowadays when ordinary people get together, they'll often propose a toast "to the good old era of stagnation". Things weren't good then — there was corruption, there was the Communist regime, there was the authoritarian system — but there was sugar in the shops, there were sweets, there was milk. Now there's virtually nothing.

People rarely understand that the transition to capitalist forms is likely to bring them still greater difficulties, as happened in Poland. But now, with the "democrats" in power, the position in the economy is deteriorating even faster than before.

Who might, then, be able to provide the unifying idea that would help preserve the morale of the Russian people?

For the moment, there's no-one. For some time, this party that we intend to establish will be in opposition, both in the parliament and in the country as a whole. All the same, this party, based on the program that was adopted as a draft by the last plenum of the Central Committee, represents a significant step forward in the consciousness of Communists. This is not an old-style Communist program, but a program for democratic socialism.

This party is going to have a very high proportion of s ranks and its leadership. Isn't this going to present an obstacle to winning broad support?

Naturally, this is going to represent an obstacle. But we don't have the right to deprive former Communists of the right to participate in political activity, if they agree with the program we've adopted. On the other hand, it may be that many people who were unwilling to join the Communist Party, because they considered it a conservative force, will now want to join this new political formation, because it doesn't have a dogmatic character or authoritarian structure.

The old party was part of the state structure, and there was no way that it could be reconstructed into a political organisation. We want to establish a purely political organisation which will have nothing of the state structure about it, which will be a political party, a parliamentary party.

Can you summarise for us the program which, in your view, leftists in Russia should now be advancing?

The very first thing is to improve the management of the economy. Until we put an end to the economic crisis and increase output of consumer goods, so that there's a great deal more in the shops, everything the population needs in fact, we won't succeed in solving any of our political tasks.

We have to make the maximum possible effort to ensure that people everywhere start working better than before. For several years people almost everywhere have been working worse than before, except in the area of the press.

Among the Soviet population there's still a strong "Give me!" mentality. No-one thinks much about where these goods are to come from. We should recall the first demands of the Polish Solidarity movement: Give me more money! Give me more milk, meat, butter, television sets, refrigerators, furniture. And where's all this to come from? It all has to be produced. People say: "Buy it abroad!" But to do that we need hard currency.

No-one is going to give us anything for nothing.

There are people like [Soviet Prime Minister Ivan] Silayev who want to maintain a large state apparatus, and others who want sweeping privatisations of large factories and concerns. Which of these trends is likely to prevail?

I don't think either of them is going to prevail, because there's going to be some kind of compromise between them.

It's impossible to carry out a really comprehensive privatisation of our economy. You can't privatise the railway system, for example, or the telephone system.

It's not even possible to turn the giant vehicle producer Kamaz into a joint-stock firm, though attempts are being made to do this. Kamaz and operate as a large state enterprise, because it's connected by thousands of links to enterprises throughout the entire territory of the country.

Both privatisation and large state enterprises are needed. It's necessary to develop a system of small private enterprise, and once large-scale production exists it's necessary to retain it. We have to remember that some types of production can't be carried out on a small scale.

What's likely to be the character of the Union in coming years, if any Union structures persist?

Since the coup the centrifugal forces have increased, and all of the republics have now declared their independence. This independence is merely de jure; the republics remain an economic unit, and even a political and cultural one.

For the time being, the primary task before us is the establishment not of a Union agreement but of an economic agreement, because the economy has been coming to a halt. There was a report yesterday of mines shutting down because there's no timber for pit props. The Ukraine is not supplying grain. Moscow is short of fuel. Food supplies in Russia are less than they were last year, because the collective and state farms are unwilling to hand over grain to the state at the current prices. To a considerable extent anarchy reigns in the economy.

The top priority today is the concluding of an economic agreement between the republics, even including the Baltic republics that have now left the Soviet Union. They're also interested in an economic agreement, because they can't survive without the Soviet Union.

However, it's impossible to imagine an economic agreement working in the absence of a political agreement, a Union agreement. For example, what could an economic agreement with Georgia amount to? No-one can say, because in Georgia today there's a civil war. In Moldavia the railways sometimes work, and sometimes they're brought to a halt by blockades.

The Estonians need banknotes, and have asked the Soviet Union to print 2 billion roubles for them. Prices in Estonia are high now, production has declined and they need banknotes in order to maintain trade turnover. The State Bank of the USSR has refused to issue them with these 2 billion roubles.

If Estonia were part of the Soviet Union, such a request would be quickly fulfilled. But now the bank replies: "You're an independent state; establish your own monetary system. And why are you asking for roubles? There's no guarantee that tomorrow these roubles won't appear on the Soviet market and be used to buy up Soviet goods."

The Lithuanians have asked Denmark to print money for them, but printing money for a whole state is no easy task. The Danes want a guarantee of US$60 million for the job, and it won't be fast. So for the present to use roubles as its currency.

It's my view that the Soviet Union continues de facto to exist, because there's a unified system of communications, a unified monetary system, unified airlines and railways, unified military forces and a unified administration of scientific research. However, these unified systems are working less and less satisfactorily.

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