David North
Perestroika versus Socialism: Stalinism and the Restoration of Capitalism in the USSR

The Soviet State and the Proletariat

The outcome of the elections in the Soviet Union has laid bare the almost universal disdain and contempt in which the Stalinist bureaucracy is held. The Stalinists suffered humiliating defeats in major cities throughout the country. In Leningrad, Yuri F. Solovyev, a member of the Politburo, was rejected. Anatoly Gerasimov, head of the Leningrad city party, received only 15% of the vote. Every other leading member of the Communist Party bureaucracy in the city was defeated. Yuri Prokoviev, second secretary of the Moscow city party, received only 13% of the vote. The mayor of Moscow, Valery Saikin, also received a drubbing. Party leaders suffered defeats in Perm, Tomsk, Archangelsk, Ivanovo and Frunze.

Other high-ranking Stalinists who were rebuffed included the commander of the Northern Fleet, the chief of the Estonian KGB and the commander of Soviet troops in East Germany. Although Vladimir V. Shcherbitsky, Ukrainian party chief and a Politburo member, won in an uncontested race in the rural area near Dnepropetrovsk, 63,000 of the 240,000 voters expressed their discontent by crossing out his name on the ballot. In Armenia, the nationalists managed to organize a successful poll boycott.

There is no question that millions of Soviet workers have taken advantage of these elections to express their hatred of the Stalinist bureaucrats, whom they hold responsible for the mismanagement of the economy and the increasingly acute social crisis. However, it is one thing to recognize in these elections the elementary expression of mass discontent. It is quite another to accept the unfounded and cynical claims of Mikhail Gorbachev that they represent a decisive break with the Stalinist past and a major step toward the revival of Soviet democracy.

First, it must be noted that even from a formal democratic standpoint, this was far from a “free” election. The only recognized political party is the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU). In many areas, the candidates chosen by the Stalinists went unchallenged. Furthermore, these elections were organized on the basis of constitutional reforms worked out last year in secret by Gorbachev and his supporters within the highest echelons of the bureaucracy. Gorbachev initially presented an outline of his plan for constitutional and electoral reforms to the 19th Conference of the Communist Party in June 1988. While tens of thousands of letters on the issue of constitutional reform were sent to the Supreme Soviet and newspapers, the government debates took place entirely behind closed doors.

Dozens of amendments to the election laws and constitution were decided upon in total secrecy. According to a report in the Financial Times of London, leading members of the Supreme Soviet were not informed of the amendments until the day they were voted upon. Most amendments were not reported in the Soviet press until weeks after they had been accepted.

In accordance with the new electoral system, a Congress of the USSR People’s Deputies, consisting of 2,250 delegates, has been created. Fifteen hundred of these deputies have been elected. The other 750 deputies consist of individuals chosen by various party and official state-sanctioned organizations. One hundred of these special unelected deputies, including Gorbachev himself, have been selected by the central committee of the CPSU.

The delegates of the Congress of the USSR People’s Deputies will elect from their own ranks a bicameral Supreme Soviet, consisting of about 450 members. It will supposedly exercise some authority in legislative and administrative matters.

At a still higher level will be a Presidium of the Supreme Soviet which, according to a speech in which Gorbachev outlined this multitiered state structure, “would be guided in its work by the President of the Supreme Soviet.”

This president will be none other than Gorbachev himself, who, as he modestly proposed last June, “should be granted sufficiently broad state authority powers. Specifically, the President could exercise overall guidance in the drafting of legislation and of major socio-economic programs, decide on the key issues of foreign policy, defense and national security, chair the Defense Council, submit proposals on nominating the chairman of the USSR Council of Ministers, and discharge several other duties traditionally connected with the Presidency.”

One would imagine that even Stalin would have been more than satisfied with a post whose powers are so broadly and vaguely defined! At any rate, it is obvious that Gorbachev’s “reforms” provide the bureaucracy ample opportunity to determine the composition of the government and the content of its policies.

For bourgeois commentators, progress in the USSR is measured by the degree to which an election satisfies the criteria of formal democracy—and, even in this regard, their standards are none too rigorous. To the extent that Gorbachev’s policies encourage the growth of capitalist tendencies in the USSR and serve the strategic interests of imperialism, the world bourgeoisie is more than willing to overlook his totalitarian “lapses.” For Marxists, however, progress is synonymous with the strengthening of the Soviet proletariat and its independent revolutionary mobilization against the parasitic bureaucracy. From this standpoint, which expresses the interests of the international working class, the most significant aspect of the electoral system—and, therefore, what exposes its essentially reactionary character—is the manner in which the Gorbachev regime has contrived to further weaken the political and social position of the Soviet proletariat.

The political significance of Gorbachev’s policies can only be understood within the context of the history of the state which came into being in October 1917, when the working class, organized in soviets (workers’ councils) and under the leadership of the Bolshevik Party, overthrew the bourgeois Provisional Government. The conquest of power by the workers’ soviets and the establishment of the dictatorship of the proletariat represented the greatest expansion of genuine democracy in world history.

Marx and Engels established that the state, the historical product of class society, is not a neutral social arbiter, but the violent, coercive and repressive instrument through which the ruling class enforces its social and political will over the lower and exploited classes. Every state that has existed in history has represented the dictatorship of the dominant class. The states of the ancient world represented the dictatorship of the slaveowners over the slaves; those of the feudal Middle Ages, that of the landowning nobility over the serfs; and, the modem capitalist state, however “democratic” in appearance, the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie over the working class.

In October 1917, the tables were decisively turned, and for the first time in history, the proletariat seized power and created its own state, based on the soviets, to crush the resistance of the old exploiting classes, whose property was expropriated. This proletarian dictatorship differed from all previously existing states in two decisive respects. First, basing itself on the conscious political awakening and struggle of the hitherto exploited masses, it represented a vast and historically unprecedented extension of democracy, which, in the past, had only existed for the rich. Second, inasmuch as it was striving to put an end to class society, and, therefore, to the objective social basis of the state itself, the proletarian dictatorship was the first state engaged in its own liquidation.

The Bolsheviks never believed that this historical goal—the “withering away of the state”—could be achieved without the extension of the socialist revolution beyond the borders of the Soviet Union. Socialism, as far as genuine Marxism (and not its Stalinist falsification) is concerned, presupposes such a high development of the productive forces that the abundant satisfaction of all human material needs is economically plausible. That was by no means the situation in Russia at the time of the October Revolution. Upon taking power, the Bolsheviks had first to confront the task of liberating the Soviet Union from the vestiges of semi-feudal backwardness. For the full-scale economic transformation of the USSR and the development of truly socialist forms of distribution, the Bolsheviks counted upon the victory of the proletariat in the major imperialist centers of Western Europe and North America.

However, these international revolutionary victories were not realized. Instead, the defeat of the revolutionary wave which followed the October Revolution meant a period of protracted isolation for the USSR. Moreover, the three-year civil war (1918-21) produced by imperialism’s attempt to overthrow the Bolsheviks had left the Soviet Union devastated, economically and socially. The proletariat was decimated by the bloody fighting forced upon the Soviet Union.

These were the material conditions which underlay the decay of the soviets and the growth of an immense bureaucratic state apparatus. The pressure of the state bureaucracy upon the Bolshevik Party found its political expression in the conservative faction led by Stalin. The Left Opposition initiated in 1923, under the leadership of Leon Trotsky, a political struggle against the growing influence of the bureaucracy within the Bolshevik Party. The defeat of the Left Opposition, culminating with the expulsion of Trotsky from the CPSU in November 1927, was inseparably connected with the destruction of Soviet democracy. By the mid-1980s, the Bolshevik Party had been crushed by the bureaucracy. Stalin’s Bonapartist dictatorship represented the usurpation of political power by a ruthless bureaucratic caste determined to defend its privileges.

In defining the bureaucracy as a privileged caste, rather than a new ruling class, Trotsky called attention to the fact that the bureaucracy had not created new property forms and lacked an independent relation to the means of production. The privileges of the bureaucracy were based on the property forms created by the October Revolution. To the extent that the Soviet state still defended the nationalized property relations created in 1917, it remained a proletarian dictatorship, albeit in an extremely degenerated form. Trotsky warned repeatedly, however, that unless the proletariat regained real power through a political revolution that overthrew the bureaucracy and revived the soviets as mass organs of workers’ power, the continued degeneration of the Soviet state would lead eventually to the restoration of capitalism. A powerful impulse in this direction would come from the bureaucracy itself, which, as Trotsky explained, would strive to create more stable props for its rule through the establishment of special forms of property.

In 1936, Stalin introduced a new constitution, which he claimed was the “most democratic in the world.” Exposing this fraud, Trotsky wrote: “In the political sphere, the distinction of the new constitution from the old is its return from the Soviet system of election according to class and industrial groups, to the system of bourgeois democracy based upon the so-called ‘universal, equal and direct’ vote of an atomized population. This is a matter, to put it briefly, of juridically liquidating the dictatorship of the proletariat. Where there are no capitalists, there is also no proletariat—say the creators of the new constitution—and consequently the state itself from being proletarian becomes national. This argument, with all its superficial lure, is either nineteen years late or many years in advance of its time. In expropriating the capitalists, the proletariat did actually enter upon its own liquidation as a class. But the liquidation in principle to actual dissolution in society is a road more prolonged, the longer the new state is compelled to carry out the rudimentary work of capitalism. The Soviet proletariat still exists as a class deeply distinct from the peasantry, the technical intelligentsia and the bureaucracy—and moreover as the sole class interested right up to the end in the victory of socialism. The new constitution wants to dissolve this class in ‘the nation’ politically, long before it is economically dissolved in society” (Leon Trotsky, The Revolution Betrayed [London: New Park Publications, 1973], p. 261).

This analysis of the Stalin constitution is especially relevant in judging the character of the recent elections and Gorbachev’s overall plan for the “reform” of the state structure. The political, economic and ideological origins of perestroika lie not in the conquest of power by the Bolsheviks in 1917, but in the destruction of Soviet democracy and the monopolization of political power by the bureaucracy under Stalin’s leadership. Considered from the standpoint of its effect on the relation of the Soviet working class to the state, the new electoral system represents a further degeneration of the proletarian dictatorship. And, as a review of Gorbachev’s speech to the 19th Conference shows very clearly, the electoral reforms were consciously intended to weaken the political influence of the Soviet proletariat on the direction of state policy.

“Comrades, we all know that our state was born as a tool of a working class dictatorship; at the turn of the 1960s the conclusion was made that it was gradually evolving into a state of the whole people, but the deeper we delve into the content of the political process, the more obvious it becomes that our state must be a people’s state in the full sense of the term.

“We should not be afraid of non-proportional representation of different social strata. We have militant, politically competent and vigorous people in every section of the population—among the working class, the peasants and the intelligentsia” (Reprints from the Soviet Press, 15 July 1988).

It would be a waste of time to point out to Gorbachev, who is ignorant of even the rudiments of Marxism, that his talk of a “people’s state” is petty-bourgeois reactionary nonsense. Marx unceremoniously disposed of the Lasallean “free people’s state” as far back as 1875. A state is and can never be anything else except an instrument of class rule. Its very existence objectively signifies the division of “the people” into hostile classes. To the extent that the dissolution of classes into a unified humanity is realized, the state must die down, decompose and disappear.

But Gorbachev, who happens to be an anti-Marxist “in the full sense of the term,” deduces his “people’s state” from the very existence of “different social strata” within Soviet society. In this, he proceeds in accordance with traditional bourgeois conceptions. The bourgeoisie abhors the class definition of its state by the Marxists. Even as the massive transnational conglomerates exercise an almost unimaginable control over political, social and economic life, the bourgeoisie strives to portray its decadent and internally corrupted democratic state as the representative of the “people.”

It must be stressed that Gorbachev’s call for a “people’s state” is rooted in definite political considerations. The designation of the state as a proletarian dictatorship is felt by the bureaucracy to be too obviously incompatible with a policy which is ever more consciously directed toward the legalization of private ownership of the productive forces and the public encouragement of a new “Soviet” bourgeoisie.

The electoral system has been designed to reduce the direct representatives of the industrial proletariat in the Congress of People’s Deputies. When Gorbachev outlined the electoral system last June, he listed the trade unions only as one of many social, professional and artistic organizations that would be allowed to select the 750 special deputies that are to serve in the congress. In the USSR, where there are more than 35 million workers employed in basic industry, “nonproportional” representation can only mean the downgrading of the official status of the proletariat.

There are indications that the Soviet working class is well aware that the election system has been rigged in favor of petty-bourgeois strata. For example, on February 16, Pravda carried an account of a meeting between the CPSU Central Committee and individuals identified in the report as workers’ representatives. The contribution of S.F. Matyushchenko, a lens grinder at the Amur Machine-Building Plant, was among those cited:

“Commenting on the new electoral system, the speaker pointed out certain shortcomings, especially in regard to guaranteed participation by representatives of the working people, blue-collar workers and peasants. He said that, in practice, preference is given to the intelligentsia and to white-collar and technical personnel. Some people have even been saying that the upcoming First Congress of USSR People’s Deputies is no congress of leading production workers. The workers should stay at their benches, they say, since only intellectuals are capable of solving the state’s problems” (Current Digest, 15 March 1989).[1]

When Lenin spoke of the Soviet system, he invariably stressed its exceptional and historically unprecedented democratic character. “The Soviet government,” he wrote, “is the first in the world (or strictly speaking, the second, because the Paris Commune began to do the same thing) to enlist the people, specifically the exploited people, in the work of administration.... The Soviets are the direct organization of the working and exploited people themselves, which helps them to organize and administer their state in every possible way” (V.I. Lenin, Collected Works, vol. 28 [Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1965], p. 247).

Gorbachev’s conception has nothing in common with that of Lenin. “We must work,” he told the 19th Conference, “to shape an apparatus of a new type, based on highly professional standards, competently using the latest communication technology, democratically controlled by the people and capable of promoting economic and social progress. This apparatus should comprise people well-versed in the fundamentals of the science of management. Therefore, we need new, updated arrangements for the training and retraining of the necessary personnel.”

This “apparatus of a new type” is nothing other than the old bourgeois type of state apparatus, in which decisions are left in the hand of the professional representatives of the special coercive force, i.e., the specialists in the dirty business of ruling. To underscore this point, Gorbachev warned the central committee in July 1988: “A clear-cut stand was formulated at the Conference—we will not be able to do without a modem competent and highly professional management apparatus.”

The emphasis placed by Gorbachev on the creation of an “apparatus of a new type” provides an insight into the conflict within the bureaucracy. The faction led by Gorbachev represents those layers in the state and party apparatus who are most hostile to the state property forms created in 1917. Expressing with the greatest consistency the strivings of the bureaucratic and managerial elite to place its rule on more enduring foundations—i.e., that provided by direct personal ownership of the productive forces—the Gorbachev faction provides a political center of gravity, not to mention an unprecedented degree of legitimacy, for all the antisocialist tendencies within the USSR.

Its “restructuring” of the state apparatus seeks to create a reliable political foundation for the defense of the new bourgeois property forms promoted by the regime. Gorbachev explicitly acknowledged this link between the changes in the state structure and the economic program of perestroika in his July speech to the central committee: “This apparatus should resolutely restructure its work, taking account of the demands of the radical economic reform and the new role of work collectives” (Reprints from the Soviet Press, 15 August 1988).

When Gorbachev “fights” the bureaucracy, or, more precisely, a section of it, he directs his blows against those strata within the state and party apparatus whose positions and privileges are bound up with the administration of the nationalized industry and agricultural collectives. This type of anti-bureaucratic “struggle” provides a political cover for an open attack on the property relations created by the October Revolution. In pursuit of “radical perestroika”—that is, the implementation of free market policies, the liquidation of the monopoly of foreign trade, and the legalization of private ownership of the means of production—the Gorbachev faction has been seeking to forge an alliance of the most privileged and politically articulate strata of Soviet society: from the managerial elite within the most prosperous sections of state industry and the farm collectives, to the technocrats, the intelligentsia, and the avaricious petty bourgeoisie, whose numerical growth and enrichment is among the principal goals of the Stalinist regime.


Compared to its numerical and economic weight in Soviet society, the representation of the working class, and especially the industrial proletariat, in the Congress of People’s Soviets is insignificant. Izvestia reported in May that only 288 industrial workers were to be found among the more than 2,000 delegates. Even when the definition of worker was stretched to its broadest limit and lumped together with collective farmers, the working class delegation at the congress was reported by Pravda to be only 23.7% of the total. In contrast, Pravda reported that 27.4% of the delegates were representatives of “the scientific and creative intelligentsia.” The results of the elections to the congress prompted V.I. Melnikov, the first secretary of the Komi Province party committee, to remark that “the working class has been disappearing from the sphere of political activity....” [Current Digest, 31 May 1989].