Invent the Future

"We must dare to invent the future" - Thomas Sankara


Why doesn’t the Soviet Union exist any more? Part 5: Perestroika and glasnost


Posted by Carlos Martinez on Saturday, January 20, 2018

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The basic cause of the dissolution of the Soviet Union may be identified as the long-term ideological chaos that prevailed in the USSR. Acting as a key driver of events were long-term mistakes in organisational policy, while the primary factor that dealt the direct, fatal blow was political betrayal, through the implementation of ‘perestroika and new thinking’.1

Gorbachev: the beginning of the end

After a decade of economic stagnation, declining popular confidence and escalating military confrontation with the West – and with three CPSU general secretaries in three years having died on the job (Brezhnev, Andropov and Chernenko) – there was an obvious need to breathe some new life into Soviet politics. Andropov understood this better than most; during the few months of his tenure, he encouraged younger members of the party’s Central Committee to step up and help modernise Soviet socialism. Mikhail Gorbachev, elected by the politburo as General Secretary after the death of Chernenko in March 1985, was part of this ‘new generation’. He was chosen “because he was young, energetic, imaginative, and – they believed – orthodox”.2

The early signs were promising: Gorbachev promoted a vision of enhancing socialist democracy and modernising the economy whilst maintaining social ownership of the means of production and preserving the political power of the working class. Keeran and Kenny write:

Gorbachev advocated the elimination of wage levelling. In a swipe at the illegal parts of the second economy and corruption, he called for a struggle against ‘unearned incomes’ and all ‘phenomena that are alien to the socialist way of life.’ In foreign policy, Gorbachev reaffirmed such traditional Soviet positions as the support of national liberation, peaceful coexistence, and cooperation with the West on ‘principles of equality.’ He gave special emphasis to ending the arms race and freezing nuclear arsenals.

In politics, Gorbachev proposed ‘strengthening’ and ‘heightening’ the leading role of the Party, a ‘strict observance of the Leninist style of work’ and the elimination of ‘false idealisation’ and formalism in Party meetings. Gorbachev spoke of the need for glasnost, or ‘greater openness and publicity’ about the work of the Party, state and other public organisations.3

Gorbachev talked of the need for perestroika – restructuring. This term, never very well defined, ultimately became a byword for the systematic destruction of Soviet socialism. However, this is presumably not how it was conceived of, and certainly not how it was presented to the Soviet people. Yegor Ligachev, Gorbachev’s second-in-command from 1985 to 1988, was a keen supporter of perestroika as it was presented in its early years (he later earned the epithet ‘leading hardliner’ from the western press after he fell out with Gorbachev). Describing what he had considered to be the principal aims of perestroika, he writes:

In the socio-economic sphere: modernise the machine-building complex and, on this basis, bring about the planned reconstruction of the nation’s economy and its social reorientation; link planning extensively with the development of money exchange relationships; create the necessary economic conditions for the financial self-sufficiency and self-financing of enterprises without state subsidies; and create major scientific and technical complexes.

In the political sphere: democratise the soviets, or councils, at all levels; and expand the rights and authorities of the regions, territories and republics.

In foreign policy: prevent nuclear war; make the transition from confrontation to real disarmament; and strengthen socialist concord.4

In short: make some limited use of market mechanisms to increase production and innovation, within the context of the planned economy; renew economic infrastructure; invest heavily in technology and science; increase popular participation in existing democratic systems; push hard for multilateral nuclear disarmament. These objectives sounded, and sound, sensible enough. Unfortunately they bear little relation to what actually took place in the name of perestroika. Gorbachev’s reforms didn’t strengthen socialism; rather, they laid the grounds for economic ruin and for the hollowing out of the Communist Party, which was transformed into little more than a training ground for budding manager-capitalists to gain control of assets that they would later get enormously rich from.

With the economy spiralling out of control and the party reduced to a shadow of its former self, alternative – explicitly nationalist and anti-communist – alternative centres of power arose to fill the political vacuum. With the support of a nascent capitalist class and the global mass media (not to mention western governments and intelligence agencies), these organisations gained sufficient strength that they were able to force through the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the banning of the Communist Party, the dismantling of socialism, and the introduction of the harshest possible neoliberal capitalist ‘shock therapy’. Such was the true harvest of perestroika.

Did Gorbachev inherit a crisis?

Although Gorbachev and his team would later claim they had inherited a society in crisis, this wasn’t actually the case. There was no serious public unrest in 1985. In spite of assorted economic problems and a degree of popular dissatisfaction (hardly unusual in any society), there wasn’t any serious trouble, and very few people would have imagined that within a few years Soviet socialism would no longer exist. For the most part, people were more-or-less content with the status quo. The economy was growing, albeit slowly. Everybody had their basic needs met in terms of food, shelter, heating, clothing and healthcare. Education and cultural facilities were world class. The social welfare system was unparalleled outside the socialist world. The streets were safe and people had the opportunity to live interesting, fulfilling, productive lives.

While some Soviet people complained about the quality and quantity of goods and about official privileges and corruption, most Soviets expressed satisfaction with their lives and contentment with the system. Polls showed that the level of satisfaction of Soviet citizens was comparable to the satisfaction of Americans with their system… Personal consumption of Soviet citizens had increased between 1975 and 1985. Even though the Soviet standard of living reached only one-third to one-fifth of the American level, a general appreciation existed that Soviet citizens enjoyed greater security, lower crime, and a higher cultural and moral level than citizens in the West did.5

As the western media became very fond of pointing out (and exaggerating), there were some shortages of consumer goods, leading to queues in shops. While this indicates inefficiencies in distribution (and wider economic problems, as discussed earlier in this series), it doesn’t testify to dire poverty or social collapse. As Samir Amin puts it: “It is obvious that if prices rise massively, there are no more queues, but the seemingly vanished poverty is still there for those who no longer have access to consumer goods. The shops in Mexico and Egypt are packed with goods, and there are no lines in front of the butchers’ shops, but meat consumption per head is a third of what it was in Eastern Europe”.6

The Soviet Union’s allies were facing difficult times in Afghanistan, Nicaragua and Ethiopia, but were in the ascendancy in southern Africa – particularly Angola. Vietnam’s economic situation started to improve rapidly after its adoption of Doi Moi7 reforms in 1986, and therefore its reliance on Soviet aid was reduced. Cuba and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea were doing well. After a very painful quarter of a century, there finally seemed to be a possibility of overcoming the Sino-Soviet split (ties were finally normalised in 1989 – by which time, sadly, the USSR was in its death throes). And although the Reagan administration had stepped up US economic, military and political operations against the Soviet Union, the latter was holding its own.

In short, the USSR in the mid-1980s was not a society on the verge of collapse. So what happened?

‘Restructuring’ the economy from bad to worse

In the field of economics, the major objective of perestroika was to “modernise and streamline the Soviet economy through the introduction of new management techniques and technology in use elsewhere in the world, particularly in the highly developed imperialist countries.”8 The vision was, within 15 years, “to create an economic potential approximately equal in scale to that accumulated throughout all the previous years of Soviet government and to almost double national income and industrial output. Productivity of labour is to go up by 130-150 percent… The implementation of the programme will … raise the Soviet people’s standard of living to a qualitatively new level”9.

The two major strategic themes put forward in order to reach these goals were: first, the extension of market relations within the overall context of public ownership, in order to boost innovation and productivity; second, an attempt to “democratise planning”, basically by pulling the plug on the entire central planning system. The former theme was not entirely without merit – it has worked rather well in China and Vietnam, for example. Dismantling the planning system, on the other hand, created unmitigated havoc, as a result of which the USSR, in 1990, experienced negative growth for the first time in its history.

Gorbachev’s initial steps in the economy were interesting but inept. The first big reform was an anti-alcohol campaign with partial prohibition, announced in May 1985. Intended to help alleviate the major problems the Soviet Union was experiencing in terms of public health and labour productivity (particularly absenteeism), the reform consisted of a price hike for all alcoholic drinks, reduced production of vodka and wine, an increase in the minimum drinking age (to 21), stiff penalties on drunken behaviour, the banning of alcohol consumption in the workplace, and various regulations in relation to the sale of alcohol.

Well-intentioned as the campaign may have been, it was a near-complete failure and had damaging side effects. Kotz and Wier point out that “while a slight increase in sobriety may have resulted, this campaign, like the American experiment with Prohibition after World War I, had unforeseen harmful consequences. Illegal private production arose to meet the unsatisfied demand. Private distillers stripped the retail stores of sugar, causing severe shortages. And an estimated 20 billion roubles in tax revenues were lost on alcohol sales during 1986-88”.10

The loss in income was a fairly serious blow to an already troubled economy that derived a substantial portion of its fiscal revenue from the state monopoly on alcohol. Furthermore, the sharp growth in production of illicit moonshine meant that there was no long-term improvement in labour productivity or public health. It also served to extend the underground economy, thereby contributing to the growth of a nascent bourgeoisie with an interest in expanding its market and legitimising its activities. Gorbachev himself would later acknowledge that “the anti-alcohol campaign and how it was implemented was a mistake in the long run”11.

The politburo went on to introduce a package of economic reforms that bore some resemblance to the Kosygin-Liberman reforms (discussed in the second article in this series12). The centrepiece was a proposal to allow state production enterprises to determine their own output levels, on the basis that the enterprises had more insight into their capacity, resources and circumstances than the central planners did. Gosplan, the central planning agency, was to withdraw from micromanaging enterprises and switch to long-term goal-setting. Kotz and Wier note: “The economic ministries were to end their day-to-day management of production. Republican, regional and local soviets were to be granted a larger role in overseeing the economy of their respective areas. Within enterprises, workers were to be given expanded power over decision-making. These reforms embodied the leadership’s idea of democratising and decentralising the economy, within the framework of public ownership and economic planning”.13

The reform was flawed in a number of respects, and had negative repercussions that would undermine the entire economic system. Worse, the leadership didn’t back out of the reform once it was clear that it wasn’t working; it was sudden and risky, imposed by the top level state machinery without suitable mechanisms for feedback and improvement. There was certainly no “crossing the river by feeling the stones”; it was more like taking a big leap into the middle of the river and hoping for the best. It’s perhaps useful to compare this approach with the methodology used in China’s economic reforms, for example the household responsibility system, a decentralised method of agricultural production that was tried out at the level of a single village (illegally, in fact) and which was sufficiently successful in boosting agricultural output that it was gradually rolled out at regional and national level over the course of a few years:

The household responsibility system was not designed by any leader – it was a product of villagers in Xiaogang village in Fengyang county, Anhui province. Driven by bad weather and low production in 1978, they took responsibility for their own gains and losses, with a proviso that if any of them were to go to jail for secretly embarking on this illegal system, the others would take care of their children. Seeing the incredible results, the Central Rural Work Conference at the end of 1979 decided that the poorest residents in rural areas would be allowed to engage in this system. At the end of 1980, 14% of the production teams around the country followed the system… All production teams under the household responsibility system had remarkable results that year. So in 1981 the government started to promote the system across the country. By the end of the year, 45% of production teams were in the system, in 1982, 80%, and in 1984, 99%.14

The most immediately visible result of Gorbachev’s reform package was to create shortages of certain goods. Enterprises were now able to determine their own product mix, but there was no corresponding change in the market for those products: prices remained fixed by the state, and therefore most enterprises simply focused on producing those items that had the highest mark-up. Allen Lynch writes: “Most Soviet factories simply stopped making low margin consumer items, and massive shortages of everyday items quickly set in (eg salt, sugar, matches, cooking oil, washing powder, baby clothes, etc). By mid-1989, coal miners in Donbass had no soap to wash with after a long day in the mines, a development that triggered massive strikes and a coalition of workers and intellectuals against the Soviet system and Gorbachev himself.”15

With more direct control over their spending, many of the enterprises chose to pay their workers more. Given endemic labour shortages, increasing wages would have felt like a sensible policy at the level of the individual enterprise, because it was a means of attracting and retaining workers. However, at a broader level, the combination of higher wages, ever-worsening shortages of consumer goods and state-fixed low prices served to create repressed inflation. This in turn led to increased black market activity and speculation, undermining the overall economy.

Furthermore, increased wages tended to mean less resources for investment; the future was sacrificed for the sake of the present. The result was a further decline in innovation and productivity growth. And although all of this was done in the name of “democratising” production, the new system allowed enterprise managers to exercise unchecked control over vast resources – a position that many of them leveraged to their advantage in the wild-west asset-stripping days of the early 1990s.

Late in 1987, Gorbachev pushed through a major decrease in state purchases of industrial output, thus forcing the enterprises to sink or swim in the open market, regardless of whether they were anything approximating ‘viable’ without their guaranteed monopoly. “Against the better judgement of Prime Minister Ryzhkov and Ligachev, Yakovlev [Gorbachev’s closest adviser] and Gorbachev pushed to shrink the state orders — the guaranteed government purchase of Soviet industrial output at fixed prices — from 100 percent to a mere 50 percent of the whole of industry. Reducing state orders to such a degree meant that, in one leap, half of Soviet industry would gain autonomy to buy and sell its output in a new wholesale market – trade between enterprises — with prices set by fluctuations in supply and demand… The Gorbachev plan proved utterly reckless. It plunged the economy into chaos. In 1988, consumer shortages proliferated and, for the first time since World War II, inflation appeared”.16

With the enterprises thrown into chaos and often struggling to sell their produce in a newly-competitive market, state revenues suffered a sharp reduction. Sitaram Yechury writes that this “led to a situation where the government had to increasingly resort to budgetary deficits. In 1985 the budget deficit was a modest 18 million roubles which rose to nearly 120 billion by 1989 or 14% of the Soviet Union’s GNP”.17 The fiscal deficit drove austerity: “during Gorbachev’s leadership, import of food grains and consumer items fell by the equivalent of 8.5 billion roubles.”

The next major step in Gorbachev’s economic reform was the 1988 law on cooperatives, which allowed people to set up their own businesses. British economist Philip Hanson describes this as “the most radical of all Gorbachev’s economic measures so far… Members of a cooperative could be few or many, and they could employ non-members. A cooperative was therefore capable of being a capitalist partnership, with the members exploiting, in Marxist terms, the labour of non-members”.18 Strictly speaking these cooperatives were not allowed to employ other people’s labour, but icn reality this regulation was observed almost exclusively in the breach.

Initially most of the cooperatives were cafés, restaurants, hairdressers and small construction firms – exactly the sort of business that tends to be quite effectively run on a small scale. However, the cooperative movement quickly came to be dominated by “pocket banks used by their founding enterprises to move funds around discreetly and cooperative banks that were able, when foreign-currency and government debt markets developed, to make large profits from playing very thin financial markets”.19 Many of the fabulously wealthy Russian gangster-capitalists of the 1990s made their start in ‘cooperative’ banks in the late 1980s.

In addition to paving the way for a new finance-capitalist class, the cooperatives also laid the ground for a lucrative non-productive underground economy: “Cooperatives providing consumer goods and services, which had to be readily visible to function, soon ran into difficulties from criminal gangs. Protection rackets developed, and the police were unable or unwilling to stop them”.20

The increasingly dire situation wasn’t helped by falling oil prices. In 1986, Saudi Arabia increased its oil production by two million barrels a day, causing the world market price to drop precipitously. This had a serious impact on the Soviet economy, which had since the early 1970s relied on high oil prices to cover for weaknesses elsewhere. As long as oil prices were high, there was enough hard currency to import goods and pay debts (a byproduct of this is that the Soviet leadership was able to procrastinate on economic reforms, unlike the Chinese leadership which by the late 1970s had very little choice but to fix the economy). Allen Lynch writes: “Gorbachev was thus forced to undertake the precarious (and as we have seen ill-thought out) programme of structural reform with a radically reduced resource base; the Soviet economy had lost its shock absorber”.21

Another obvious defect of Gorbachev’s economic reform package is that it lacked organisational infrastructure. Appropriate institutions might have been able to provide guidance and constrain the new freedom of the enterprises such that reduced investment, imbalanced product mix and repressed inflation were avoided. However, just when institutional supervision was most needed, Gorbachev and his coterie were busy delegitimising the Communist Party and hollowing out the economic ministries and planning bodies. As Vladislav Zubok points out, “instead of relying on the most pragmatic elements of the party and state officialdom in restructuring of the country, Gorbachev tried to build up new political forces and movements while gradually diminishing the power of the party and of centralised state structures”.22

The result was chaos. “The grave economic, financial, and state crisis began only between 1986 and 1988, and it kept growing worse because of Gorbachev’s choices and policies”.23 In place of cautious, measured experiments conducted within a stable political context, Gorbachev set in train a rapid dismantling of the existing system whilst at the same time creating political anarchy. Again, the comparison with China is apposite: “[In China] there was virtually no privatisation – state enterprises were kept under state ownership and control. There was no sudden price liberalisation – state enterprises continued to sell at controlled prices. Central planning was retained for the state sector of the economy. Rather than slashing state spending, various levels of government poured funds into improving China’s basic economic infrastructure of transportation, communication, and power. Rather than tight monetary policy, ample credit was provided for expansion and modernisation. The state has sought to gradually develop a market economy over a period of decades, and the state has actively guided the process.”24

Gennady Zyuganov, current leader of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation, is scathing in his assessment of the perestroika package of economic reforms:

As we know from historical experience, common sense, and scientific analysis, no reform can be implemented successfully without a well-developed programme and precisely defined goals; a team of vigorous and highly intellectual reformers; a strong and effective system for controlling political phenomena; thoroughly developed and carefully considered methods of instituting the reforms; the mobilisation of the mass media to explain the meaning, goals, and consequences of the reforms for the state as a whole and for the individual person in particular for the purpose of involving as much of the population as possible in the reform process; and the preservation and development of the structures, relations, functions, methods, and lifestyles that have earned the approval of the people. The reform process in China (PRC) developed along approximately similar lines. But nothing like this was done by Mikhail Gorbachev and his team. Labour collectives, party organisations, economic leaders, and much of the intelligentsia were excluded from participating in the renewal of society. The right to define directions and interpret the meaning of the reorganisation processes was appropriated by a small group of top leaders, who were given to superficial improvisation and were unable to organise and direct the reform properly… Instead of the hard work that was urgently needed, they unfolded a parade of political arrogance, demagoguery, and dilettantism, which gradually overwhelmed and paralysed the country.25

In 1990, the USSR went into recession for the first time. By 1991, its economy was in freefall.

Glasnost: the party’s over

What happened in our country is primarily the result of the debilitation and eventual elimination of the Communist Party’s leading role in society, the ejection of the party from major policymaking, its ideological and organisational unravellling, the formation in it of factions, careerists’ and national separatists’ penetration of the leadership of the party and state as well as the party and power structures of the republics, and the political conversion of the group headed by Gorbachev and their shift to the position of elimination of the Communist Party and the Soviet state.26

The purported meaning of glasnost

In 1986, Gorbachev and his advisers came up with the concept of glasnost (‘openness’) to encapsulate policies of greater government transparency, wider political discussion and increased popular participation. Corruption and inefficiency would be tackled, and more information would be made publicly available. At first, it sounded fairly innocuous – what reasonable person would object to a deepening of socialist democracy? However, it quickly became a battle cry for an all-out attack on the legitimacy of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and on the foundations of the Soviet identity. In short, it became a powerful weapon in the hands of social forces hostile to socialism.

It’s worth pointing out that Gorbachev never put much meat on the bones of ‘democratisation’. With hindsight, it’s obvious that his use of the term reflected an ideological concession to western capitalism; that he had come to believe that the Soviet Union should aspire to the political norms defined in Western Europe and the US. Such thinking neglects a number of factors that should be well understood by any Marxist:

  1. ‘Free speech’ in the advanced capitalist countries is essentially a piece of attractive icing beneath which lies a bitter cake of plutocratic repression. Via its monopolisation of the mass media, the ruling class dominates the field of ideas almost comprehensively. There is a level of debate and criticism, but only of a few individual policies and not of systemic features of capitalism. As Chomsky famously put it: “The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum”.27

  2. The political freedoms available in the west are much constrained owing to the correlation between wealth and power. Ordinary citizens have the right to vote, but their choice is nearly always restricted to two or three pro-capitalist, pro-imperialist parties, between which there is little substantive difference (so rare is the appearance of a meaningfully different option within mainstream politics, that when it happens it sends the ruling class into a frenzy of confusion, as is being witnessed at the moment with the rise of the Labour left under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn). Actual power is monopolised by the wealthy, and challenging it can be extremely dangerous, as is evidenced by the treatment of Irish Republicans that have served time in Britain’s colony in the north of Ireland, or the many longstanding black, Puerto Rican and indigenous political prisoners in the US who have spent decades behind bars on account of their struggle for equality and human rights.

  3. In a context of ongoing class struggle waged by the working class of a socialist country against its internal enemies (those that want to restore feudalism or capitalism) and its external enemies (the leading capitalist countries that will inevitably work to destabilise a socialist country), a level of political repression is an unhappy necessity; this is elaborated in the article on ideological deterioration28 in relation to Khrushchev’s denunciation of Stalin. The needs of the few – to get fantastically rich – can’t be allowed to compromise the needs of the many to enjoy a dignified, peaceful and fulfilling life.

The Soviet political system was undeniably rife with problems: the alienation and disaffection of young people, excessively centralised decision-making, corruption, arbitrariness by police and officials, insufficient levels of popular participation in the soviets, and more. But these weren’t problems that could be solved by imitating a western bourgeois-democratic model that had no cultural and social basis in the USSR. Rather, political reforms should have attempted to build on and improve the existing system, along the lines envisaged by Yuri Andropov.

Difficulties and contradictions notwithstanding, the Soviet Union had built a viable socialist democracy that, in terms of empowering ordinary people, was significantly more inclusive and meaningful than the capitalist democracy of, say, the US or Britain. For example, Al Szymanski (writing in 1979) describes the way that mass media was used to exchange ideas and inform policy: ”In the Soviet Union, unlike the Western capitalist countries, the major forums for public debate, criticism, and public opinion formation are the mass media, together with specialised journals and conferences. The media are the major forum for opposing views, with Pravda and Izvestia ranging more freely as social critics than the local weeklies. The Soviet press is full of public debates on a very wide range of issues: literary policy, economic and legal reform, military strategy, the relation between the Party and the military, city planning, crime, pollution, farm problems, the role of the press, art, women’s role in the economy, access to higher education, incompetent economic management, bungling bureaucrats, etc”.29

Szymanski describes “a few basic assumptions of Soviet society” that were not debated in the press: socialism as a system, communism as a goal, and the leading role of the Communist Party. “These issues are considered to have been settled once and for all and public discussion of them is considered by the regime to be potentially disruptive of popular rule.” This is consistent with Fidel Castro’s famous formula: “Within the revolution, everything; against the revolution, nothing.”30 These basic assumptions of socialism can be compared with the basic assumptions of capitalism: the supremacy of private property; profit as the major engine of economic activity; exploitation of labour as the source of profit.

The real meaning of glasnost

Gorbachev didn’t have widespread support for his economic reforms within the CPSU. This was partly due to a culture of caution and conservatism, but more importantly because Gorbachev’s schemes weren’t convincing and well thought out. The risk was too great in the eyes of many party veterans, particularly given the absence of a reasonable plan for gradual reform by carefully managed trial-and-error and with a clear rollback mechanism.

The initial enthusiasm of 1985-86 had, within a couple of years, given way to a sense of anxiety that the reforms weren’t solving any problems but were in fact contributing to the increasingly dire status of the economy. Rather than reflecting on whether a different approach was required, Gorbachev instead placed the blame on the party, which he claimed was opposed to his reforms and eager to see them fail. Writing in May 1988, Sam Marcy observes: “Perestroika has not in these almost three years been a spectacular success. Gorbachev himself does not claim it has. As a matter of fact, he has often spoken about lack of progress, but blames resistance within the Party, particularly in the lower echelons and the outlying regions of the country.”31 Keeran and Kenny make a similar observation: “From the early days Gorbachev saw the CPSU as the main obstacle, and the Party apparatus as his main enemy, not as an instrument to carry the struggle for reform forward. He had to outmanoeuvre the Party, not struggle within it. He always appealed to intellectuals and the public over the Party’s head. Everywhere, his memoirs contain such sentiments as ‘Party structures are applying the brakes’”.32

Glasnost, then, was an attempt to “unleash the public”, where the public was defined as people who unambiguously supported perestroika. Continuing support for perestroika was to be found primarily outside the party leadership, particularly among capitalist restorationists, anti-Soviet nationalists of assorted hue, sections of the intelligentsia, and the new generation of small capitalists and managers that couldn’t wait to get filthy rich.

Attack on the CPSU

The first major organisational step towards breaking the CPSU’s power was taken at the 19th party conference in June 1988, which Gorbachev presented with a last-minute surprise proposal that he had been careful not to distribute in advance. The crux of this proposal was to increase the separation of the party and the state, tilt power towards non-party structures, stuff these non-party structures with proponents of the ‘new thinking’, and create greater executive power for Gorbachev and his allies. “The old Supreme Soviet was to be replaced by a new two-chamber parliament. A 2,250-member Congress of People’s Deputies would be elected, whose members would in turn select a smaller Supreme Soviet from among the deputies, of about 500-550 members, to act as the standing legislature. While 750 members of the new Congress would be chosen by a list of ‘public organisations,’ including the Communist Party, the remaining 1,500 would be elected by the population in potentially contestable elections. The Congress would elect a chairman of the Supreme Soviet who would serve as head of state.”33

The elected chairman of the Supreme Soviet would essentially be an executive president – a post designed by Gorbachev, for Gorbachev. Keeran and Kenny assess that “the proposal, introduced in the final minutes in a surprise resolution by Gorbachev in the chair, amounted to the overthrow of the Central Committee.” Disoriented by the sudden appearance and radical nature of the proposals, a majority of delegates voted in favour.

The newly-created organs of power were chaotic, but they were much easier than the older structures for Gorbachev and his team to dominate, since they were largely composed of people that had been encouraged and promoted by Gorbachev and the increasingly anti-communist press. As a result, Gorbachev’s team suddenly had a mandate to accelerate the pace of reforms to a dangerous degree. Meanwhile, the new political space provided nutrient-rich soil for assorted right-wing nationalist movements around the country, leading to a bumper yield of insurrection and instability over the course of the ensuing three years.

Gorbachev also moved to change the class composition of the Communist Party. Before the 1988 Party Conference, he said very candidly that only people who supported his programme were eligible to be delegates: “There must be no more quotas, as we had in the past – so many workers and peasants, so many women, and so forth. The principal political imperative is to elect active supporters of perestroika.”34 Cheng Enfu and Liu Zixu observe that, “in the name of promoting young cadres and of reform, Gorbachev replaced large numbers of party, political and military leaders with anti-CPSU and anti-socialist cadres or cadres with ambivalent positions. This practice laid the foundations, in organisational and cadre selection terms, for the political ‘shift of direction.’”35

Later in 1988, Gorbachev moved against the more traditionalist (that is: communist) members of the party leadership. The most senior official, Andrei Gromyko – a key negotiator at Yalta and Potsdam in 1945, foreign minister from 1957 to 1985 and Chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet from 1985 until 1988 – was removed from the politburo. Nikolai Baibakov was fired as head of the central planning agency after two decades, in spite of his vast wealth of experience (which included overseeing Russian oil production during World War 236). Yegor Ligachev, who had become increasingly vocal in his critique of perestroika, was demoted from head of ideology to head of agriculture. As the communists were systematically removed from the party and state leadership, supporters of ‘radical reform’ were promoted, including a certain Boris Yeltsin.

Ligachev’s role as head of ideology fell to Alexander Yakovlev, Gorbachev’s closest political adviser and widely regarded as the “godfather of glasnost”, wielding what Keeran and Kenny describe as “the most powerful and pernicious influence of anyone on the entire reform process”. We now know that Yakovlev had long since given up on his commitment to Marxism and had his heart set on transforming the Soviet Union into a multiparty parliamentary democracy and market economy along the lines of Canada (where he had spent ten years as Soviet ambassador). Initially he hoped this could be achieved through reforms, but he reveals in his memoirs that, with the reins in his hands, he decided that nothing less than counter-revolution would do.

“In the first years of perestroika most reformers had the illusion that socialism could be improved. The argument was only about the depth of improvement. At some point in 1987, I personally realised that a society based on violence and fear could not be reformed and that we faced a momentous historical task of dismantling an entire social and economic system with all its ideological, economic and political roots. It had become imperative to make profound changes in ideology and overcome its myths and utopias”.37

Fomenting historical nihilism

Given almost complete autonomy in the areas of media and propaganda, Yakovlev went about “overcoming myths and utopias” by doing everything possible to attack the CPSU and Soviet history. He went so far as to claim that the October Revolution was simply part of Germany’s World War I strategy: “The October Revolution was the action of the German General Staff. Lenin received two million marks in March 1915 for sabotage”.38

Dissidents and anticommunists were appointed as editors of newspapers and magazines, and were given carte blanche to use their publications to openly attack the basic ideas of socialism and the whole nature of the Soviet system. “Liberal intellectuals were named to run Ogonyok, Sovetskaya Kultura, Moscow News, Znamya, and Novy Mir… The top political leadership had actually given editors, journalists, writers, and economists freedom to write as they wished, using the mass media as their vehicle”.39

It is unprecedented in any social system for the ruling class to hand over the state’s propaganda apparatus to its class enemy. What Gorbachev, Yakovlev and co did was akin to the British government handing management of the BBC over to the IRA, or Cuba’s Prensa Latina appointing Marco Rubio as its editor.

This was the putrid meat on the bones of Gorbachev’s “freedom of the press”. There was no freedom to criticise perestroika and glasnost, but there was freedom for a full-scale assault on the party’s history and ideology. No accusation went unmade. Zubok explains that “Gorbachev and his assistants allowed the process of glasnost to go on until it became a whirlwind of revelations that discredited the entire foundation of Soviet foreign policy and the regime itself… Some Moscow-based revisionists began to hold the Soviet Union solely and exclusively responsible for the Cold War. They began to consider the policies of the West to be purely reactive and dictated by the need to fight Stalin’s communist aggression and totalitarian threat”.40

Absurd exaggerations about Stalin’s crimes once again became the order of the day; these were in fact stalking horses for attacks on socialist construction and the defence of the Soviet Union against Nazism – the greatest achievements of the Soviet people. “It is a broad attack against communism, and Stalin is merely a convenient symbol”, wrote Sam Marcy in June 1988.41 This point was powerfully made in a famous letter to the newspaper Sovetskaya Rossiya in March 1988 by a Leningrad chemistry teacher by the name of Nina Andreyeva (the letter caused such a stir that Gorbachev used it as the justification for a new round of anticommunist purges). Andreyeva wrote:

Take the question of the place of JV Stalin in our country’s history. It is with his name that the entire obsession with critical attacks is associated, an obsession that, in my opinion, has to do not so much with the historical personality itself as with the whole extremely complex transitional era – an era linked with the unparalleled exploits of an entire generation of Soviet people who today are gradually retiring from active labour, political and public activity. Industrialisation, collectivisation and the cultural revolution, which brought our country into the ranks of the great world powers, are being forcibly squeezed into the ‘personality cult’ formula. All these things are being questioned. Things have reached a point at which insistent demands for ‘repentance’ are being made on ‘Stalinists’ (and one can assign to their number whoever one wishes). Praise is being lavished on novels and films that lynch the era of tempestuous changes, which is presented as a ‘tragedy of peoples’.42

Once the Congress of People’s Deputies was established in 1989, its proceedings were televised – another ad hoc decision by Gorbachev. “For thirteen days and nights, the proceedings transfixed two hundred million Soviet viewers”, who witnessed well-known personalities arguing persuasively against socialism. For example, on 2 June 1989, Kyrgyz author Chingiz Aitmatov – a close ally of Gorbachev – took the podium to laud the achievements of the “flourishing, law-abiding societies of Sweden, Austria, Finland, Norway, Holland, Spain and, finally, across the ocean, Canada”, adding that “we’ve done them a favour by showing them how not to build socialism”.43 Other speakers attacked the “KGB’s ‘history of crimes’, demanded Lenin’s body be removed from Red Square, denounced the one-party system, and disputed the validity of Marxism… The proceedings of the Congress shook the self-confidence of the CPSU to its foundations. For millions, the Congress undermined the legitimacy of the Party, Soviet history, and the whole social order. It also emboldened socialism’s opponents. It pushed back the boundaries of the politically thinkable. Managed reform was over. Gorbachev became ‘a surfboarder of events’”.44

Added to all this was the fact that Gorbachev and his allies decided to end restrictions on foreign propaganda, for example putting an end to the jamming of Radio Liberty45 – a generously-funded propaganda arm of the CIA, focused on spreading anticommunist lies around the socialist countries of Europe. So Gorbachev’s idea of “improving socialism” was in fact based on bulldozing its structures and legacy.

The attack on the party went so far that Fidel Castro, in December 1989, at an event commemorating the 2,000-plus Cubans who died in the course of their heroic internationalist duties in Angola, was moved to remark:

It’s impossible to carry out a revolution or conduct a rectification without a strong, disciplined and respected party. It’s not possible to carry out such a process by slandering socialism, destroying its values, discrediting the party, demoralising its vanguard, abandoning its leadership role, eliminating social discipline, and sowing chaos and anarchy everywhere. This may foster a counter-revolution – but not revolutionary change… It is disgusting to see how many people, even in the Soviet Union itself, are engaged in denying and destroying the history-making feats and extraordinary merits of that heroic people. That is not the way to rectify and overcome the undeniable errors made by a revolution that emerged from tsarist authoritarianism in an enormous, backward, poor country. We shouldn’t blame Lenin now for having chosen tsarist Russia as the place for the greatest revolution in history.46

By 1991, the job of destroying the CPSU was almost entirely complete. New York Times columnist Esther Fein was all too accurate when she opined in July 1991 that “the Communist Party’s decline in power and prestige is perhaps the most critical development in the reform of the political system.”47 This act of grand-scale political vandalism remains Mikhail Gorbachev’s principal endowment to the world.

The outright attack on the CPSU and the undermining of its authority is unique to Gorbachev. His predecessors can be accused of many mistakes, but actively weakening the power of the Communist Party isn’t one of them. Up until the glasnost period, the Soviet leadership always reiterated the importance of the party as the leading element in political life. For example Boris Ponomarev, a leading ideologist during the Brezhnev and Andropov periods, wrote just two years before Gorbachev’s appointment as General Secretary: “The leading vanguard position of the Communist Party has been the decisive subjective prerequisite for all the fundamental gains made by the proletariat in the course of the class struggle, for all the victorious socialist revolutions, for all the historic accomplishments by the peoples embarked on the path of socialism and building the new society. Conversely, where under the pressure of the class adversary, as a result of the internal struggle or of a departure from the correct class line the leading role of the party is weakened and is reduced to nought, the revolutionary force may well be threatened with defeat”.48

The genie wouldn’t go back in the bottle

Attacking the CPSU backfired badly for Gorbachev. He had made a dangerous assumption: that the liberals and nationalists he promoted would give him the political support denied him by the communists, thus allowing him to realise his dreams of a mixed economy with a welfare state and political pluralism. In fact, these elements wanted to go much further than Gorbachev. They didn’t want Nordic-style social democracy; they wanted full-scale neoliberal capitalism of the Milton Friedman variety. Soon enough they turned against Gorbachev and started looking for other means to promote their cause, stirring up nationalism and unrest, building openly pro-capitalist networks and attracting concrete support from the west.

To the extent that economic and political reform were necessary, they could only have been successfully carried out under the leadership of the CPSU, an organisation which, for all its faults, counted among its number the most dedicated and capable people in Soviet society. Contrasting Gorbachev’s approach with that of Deng Xiaoping, Allen Lynch writes: “Where Deng defended the Chinese Communist Party, the only organisation that integrated the country as a whole, Gorbachev undermined the Soviet Communist Party without having in place an alternative and legitimate system of authority… Deng would not risk experiments with the political monopoly of the Chinese Communist Party, although he proved much defter in establishing his leadership over it than did Gorbachev over the Soviet counterpart. And when Deng saw that discussion of Western democracy implied a challenge to Communist Party rule, he drew a bright red line; again, this was very much unlike Gorbachev, who ended his tenure torn between a Soviet Communist Party that he could not abandon and democratic forces that he would not embrace.”49

Having debilitated and alienated the Communist Party, and having failed to win enduring approval of the intelligentsia that he’d courted so assiduously, Gorbachev found himself increasingly isolated and unpopular. “Denied political recognition and support at home, he increasingly looked for it abroad, from Western leaders.”50 In the US, Britain and West Germany, he was feted as a great hero, and his response was to start adopting the language and politics that went down best in these countries: the language and politics of imperialism. Class struggle increasingly gave way to “universal values”. Defence of the socialist heartlands gave way to pacifism. The longstanding concept of nuclear parity was dropped. In the final insult to socialist morality and internationalism, Gorbachev responded to the US request that the Soviet Union participate in the 1991 Gulf War by saying: “I want to emphasise that we would like to be by your side in any situation. We want decisions to be made that will strengthen, not undermine, the authority of the United States”.51

The next article in this series will deal with the events of 1989-91; that is, the outright collapse and disintegration of the Soviet Union.


  1. Cheng Enfu and Liu Zixu: Analysis of the Soviet Economic Model and the Causes of Its Dramatic End, International Critical Thought, 2017 

  2. Rodric Braithwaite: Afgantsy, Profile Books, 2011 

  3. Roger Keeran, Thomas Kenny: Socialism Betrayed – Behind the collapse of the Soviet Union, International Publishers, 2004 

  4. Inside Gorbachev’s Kremlin: The Memoirs Of Yegor Ligachev, Westview Press, 1996 

  5. Keeran and Kenny, op cit 

  6. Samir Amin: Russia and the Long Transition from Capitalism to Socialism, Monthly Press, 2016 

  7. Return to the Source: Actually Existing Socialism in Vietnam 

  8. Sam Marcy: Perestroika: A Marxist Critique, WW Publishers, 1990 

  9. ibid 

  10. David Kotz, Fred Weir: Revolution From Above – The Demise of the Soviet System, Routledge, 1997 

  11. RT: Gorbachev admits USSR mid-80s anti-alcohol campaign ‘too hasty’ 

  12. Invent the Future: Why doesn’t the Soviet Union exist any more? Part 2: Economic stagnation 

  13. Kotz and Wier, op cit 

  14. Justin Yifu Lin: Demystifying the Chinese Economy, Cambridge University Press, 2011 

  15. Allen Lynch: Deng’s and Gorbachev’s Reform Strategies Compared 

  16. Keeran and Kenny, op cit 

  17. Vijay Prashad (ed): Red October: The Russian Revolution and the Communist Horizon, LeftWord Books, 2017 

  18. Philip Hanson: The Rise and Fall of the Soviet Economy: An Economic History of the USSR 1945-1991, Routledge, 2003 

  19. ibid 

  20. ibid 

  21. Allen Lynch, op cit 

  22. Vladislav Zubok: A Failed Empire: The Soviet Union in the Cold War from Stalin to Gorbachev, University of North Carolina Press, 2009 

  23. ibid 

  24. Kotz and Wier, op cit 

  25. My Russia: The Political Autobiography of Gennady Zyuganov, Routledge, 1997 

  26. Yegor Ligachev, op cit 

  27. Noam Chomsky: The Common Good, Pluto Press, 2002 

  28. Invent the Future: Why doesn’t the Soviet Union exist any more? Part 3: Ideological deterioration and decaying confidence 

  29. Albert Szymanski: Is the Red Flag Flying?, Zed Books, 1979 

  30. Granma: Culture in Revolution 

  31. Marcy, op cit 

  32. Keeran and Kenny, op cit 

  33. Kotz and Wier, op cit 

  34. New York Times: Gorbachev Asks Editors to End Perestroika Debate 

  35. Cheng Enfu and Liu Zixu: Analysis of the Soviet Economic Model and the Causes of Its Dramatic End, International Critical Thought, 2017 

  36. New York Times: Nikolai K. Baibakov, a Top Soviet Economic Official, Dies at 97 

  37. Alexander Yakovlev, The Fate of Marxism in Russia, Yale University Press, 1993 

  38. Cited in Li Shenming, The October Revolution: A New Epoch in the World History, International Critical Thought, 2017 

  39. Kotz and Wier, op cit 

  40. Zubok, op cit 

  41. Marcy, op cit 

  42. Cited in Marcy, op cit 

  43. Cited in Hanson, op cit 

  44. Keeran and Kenny, op cit 

  45. New York Times: Soviet Union ends years of jamming of Radio Liberty 

  46. Cuba and Angola: Fighting for Africa’s Freedom and Our Own, Pathfinder Press, 2013. 

  47. New York Times: Yeltsin Bans Communist Groups in Government 

  48. Boris Ponomarev, Marxism-Leninism in Today’s World, Pergamon Press, 1983 

  49. Allen Lynch, op cit 

  50. Zubok, op cit 

  51. Cited in Anatoly Chernyaev, My Six Years with Gorbachev, Pennsylvania State University Press, 2000 

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