Why Perestroika failed


Jim Percy

The failed coup attempt in the Soviet Union and the counter-coup led by Boris Yeltsin were the subject of a Democratic Socialist Party forum in Sydney on August 27. This is an abridged version of a talk by JIM PERCY to the forum.

The counter-revolutionary process in train now can't be judged in isolation. We have to go back before the Gorbachev leadership, to the period of Chernenko and Brezhnev, or even Stalin.

Then the image of socialism was that purveyed by the leadership of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, by the Brezhnevs and Chernenkos. We have to factor that into the balance sheet.

The world has paid a terrible price for the fact that, since the '20s, the struggles of the oppressed have largely been represented and led by people who agreed with the policies of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union after the victory of Stalin in the '20s. They lead them ineffectively, they sell them out, they betray them, they set no example, they can't go forward to victory, and they ultimately lead to disasters, as we are seeing now.

Gorbachev's election as general secretary opened up the possibility of reform of the revolutionary process, of a revival of the revolution. But it also offered the possibility of a completion of the counter-revolutionary process begun by Stalin. It is that that has now come to the fore.

The debris of this old Stalinist leadership is being cleared out of the way. That will open up a better period in the future.

But perestroika has failed. The possibility of the Soviet Union moving rather quickly to a form of democratic socialism is a gamble we have lost.

In retrospect, perestroika came too late. Perhaps the last chance was in the '60s, in the Prague Spring reforms initiated by Dubcek and the others in Czechoslovakia. Because of the defeat of that period, it was too late for the Gorbachev process to lead to a revitalisation of the revolution.

The economic crisis was far deeper than we understood in the mid-'80s, and deeper than they themselves understood — especially because they were adept at lying to themselves.

Secondly, the consciousness of the masses in the Soviet Union had changed from the heroic period, when the revolution was made and the masses defeated counter-revolutionary intervention, or the period of the second world war, when the Soviet people played the

major role in defeating fascism.


The '50s and '60s were a period when the Soviet people were told that they were on the road to overhauling capitalism and that the way they could judge this would be a higher level of consumption than the capitalist countries enjoyed. People got used to the idea that the way to judge whether socialism was succeeding was whether they could overhaul the most advanced capitalist countries in terms of consumer goods. They weren't able to do that.

In this period the Soviet Union registered a lot of successes in education. A large intelligentsia emerged, but one that felt bitter and was quite distorted by the repression of Stalinism — an intelligentsia without a right to read, think and be independent, to play a real role in society. The intelligentsia felt devalued. Why weren't teachers and doctors paid more than workers? They were in the West. As the intelligentsia began to know this, the petty bourgeois aspirations began to grow.

All of society could see the terrible hypocrisy of the bureaucracy, which would prattle on about socialism, say it defended Marx and Lenin and so on, but which stole from the people.

Finally, there was the legacy of repression, which led to a real lack of political life and experience. Boris Kagarlitsky calls it the "lumpenisation" of the people. This is a society with very little initiative. If you want to join a stamp club, you join the state-run stamp club under the control of the Communist Party. If there is something wrong with your apartment block, you don't fix it yourself, the state will come around and do it — or won't come around and do it, and then that would be a source of grievance.

Why this dramatic shift in the last period? I want to look at four factors over the last couple of years.

Four causes

First is the economy. It is clear now that the positions taken by Gorbachev in the early days of perestroika actually accelerated the breakdown. He did not have an adequate plan to solve any of the problems there.

Even if these decisions would have been helpful, they were sabotaged by the old guard in the bureaucracy, who didn't want any devolution of their centralised control of the economy. The result was to accelerate the development of the black market and the breakdown of industry.

The irresponsibility of the economists in the Gorbachev team

mirrors the sheer irresponsibility of the plans being proposed by the Yeltsinites today.

A second series of errors took place in regard to the national question. While Gorbachev talked about resurrecting Leninism, on the national question he was not committed to Lenin's positions.

Gorbachev dawdled, with the result that the focus for many people in the republics, instead of being what sort of social regime they wished to live under, became one of for or against the Union — for or against being dominated by Great Russian chauvinism.

The third factor was Eastern Europe. Of course the coming to power of Gorbachev allowed the changes there to take place. But the way those regimes fell was a shock to the Gorbachev people and to all the forces in the Soviet Union.

No-one expected that massive shift in consciousness in the course of a few months. It seemed, for instance, that the workers in East Germany felt that they had something special to defend. While they wanted changes, they had some independent views on what they wanted to maintain from the past. But within a few months they voted overwhelmingly for the CDU or for Social Democracy.

The fourth factor was the limiting or reversal of the reform process. The organs of democracy set up in the Soviet Union were based on a parliamentarist system. The parliamentary bodies were limited in real democratic functioning, leading to the emergence of demagogues such as Pavlov and Yeltsin. Overwhelmingly it was the middle class intelligentsia who were elected; very few workers found their way onto these bodies. These are very different organs from the old soviets, which were elected from the workplace, or by soldiers' committee or peasants.

No real law was developed on press freedom, on sharing the media outlets among all those who want access to them. There were two forms of monopoly: the party monopoly and press organs dominated by neo-liberal forces. Now there will be a much more concentrated monopoly of the neo-liberals.

Then there was a key change to the law on the election of factory managers. This was one of the most exciting things about the early days of perestroika: the right of workers to elect management committees for their factories. That law was brought in in 1987 and reversed in mid-1990.

Gorbachev himself created a very authoritarian presidency, with rule by decree. The attack on the privileges of the bureaucracy was limited; all of the ground was conceded to Yeltsin at an early stage.

The "democrats" moved away from democracy and certainly

away from socialism. All of these people come out of the Communist Party, but they proclaim themselves democrats. Now they start talking of Chile-type solutions.

Property scramble

The party, as a result of all of these events, moved away from the idea of market socialism and started talking about a full-scale marketisation. This was symbolised by the agreement between Gorbachev and Yeltsin, before the recent events, to carry out full privatisation.

The most systematic development of capitalism in the Soviet Union was coming through the Communist Party. It began to use its wealth and ability to make deals to become a key player in the development of an entrepreneurial class.

What did the coup leaders represent? Above all, they represented people who thought that they would lose out in the scramble for property opening up. They wanted to hold the power longer so that they could determine what would happen to the state enterprises as the privatisation process got into full swing.

In the next stage, there will be an attempt to impose austerity on the working class, but now the workers can start to think. Is the real leadership they want the Yeltsinites? Is the leadership they want this new emerging capitalist class? Or must they now set about the construction of a leadership that represents their own interests? The struggle begins on a different plane now, without the confusion of a fight against the old bureaucracy.

This will be easier the more democracy there is — the more access there is to the media, the more there are real elections, freedom of speech, freedom to organise. At some point, Yeltsin's credibility will run out. There will be more convulsions in the Soviet Union. The social content of those convulsions will reflect much more the struggle between capital and labour than the recent events have done.