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

Unveiling a New Concept of Socialism

In a remarkable interview published last December in Izvestia, sociologist and economist Tatyana Zaslavskaya, who is one of the principal advisers of Mikhail Gorbachev, offered this explanation of the situation which led to the launching of perestroika:

“Restructuring may be called a revolution by virtue of the radical nature of the goals it has set and of the means required to achieve them. The situation in which it began was essentially a prerevolutionary situation, in which the lower classes’ were unwilling or refused to do good-quality work, while the upper crust was no longer able to make them. Society entered a state of crisis, and the country fell behind the world scientific-technical, social and economic levels and slipped onto the sidelines of world progress. Naturally, this led to growing dissatisfaction among the masses, which was expressed in ever-sharper form.

“As a result, life itself posed a choice for us: either return to the openly repressive methods that have quite clearly demonstrated their ineffectiveness, or carry out a fundamental reform of all social relations—in other words, do precisely what we now call restructuring.... The very fact that the initiative for restructuring is coming ‘from above’ rules out the need for armed seizure of power by the revolutionary masses” (Current Digest of the Soviet Press, 18 January 1989).

The remarks of Tatyana Zaslavskaya, who is one of the delegates nominated by Gorbachev to serve in the Congress of People’s Deputies, reflect the fears that haunt the most perceptive sections of the bureaucracy. More than a half- century after the defeat of the Left Opposition, the destruction of Soviet democracy and the physical annihilation of the entire generation of Bolsheviks which had led the October Revolution, the Stalinist bureaucracy is more aware than ever of its precarious hold over Soviet society. Despite decades of repression, the bureaucracy has so far been unable to solve the historic problem that underlies the crisis of its regime. It is not a ruling class; that is, its social existence is not the necessary expression of definite forms of property nor is it rooted in an independent relation to the means of production. The bureaucracy, rather, is a caste, whose relation to the nationalized state property established by the proletariat in October 1917 is parasitic and whose privileges are ultimately dependent upon its monopolization of political power.

The repeated eruptions of the working class in Eastern Europe—beginning with the uprising of the East German workers in 1953, followed by the Hungarian Revolution in 1956, the Prague Spring of 1968, and finally the repeated strike movements of the Polish working class during the 1970s and 1980s—have exposed the extreme weakness of the bureaucracy. Anxious bureaucrats in the Soviet Union drew their own conclusions from the Polish events of 1980-81. The upsurge of Solidarity, which became a movement of millions almost overnight, revealed that the Polish Communist Party lacked any significant social base. In the end, the bureaucracy found its savior in the person of General Jaruzelski. The suppression of the working class required the surgical intervention of the military; and even that would have failed to save the Stalinist regime had it not been for the political bankruptcy of the Solidarity leadership, which opposed the revolutionary overthrow of the bureaucracy and thus deprived the Polish proletariat of a means of bringing its struggle to a successful conclusion.[1]

The sense of desperation within the upper echelons of the Soviet bureaucracy was intensified by the rapidly worsening economic situation, whose impact on the living conditions of the masses was seen to be leading toward an unparalleled social explosion. Moreover, the deep-rooted structural problems of the Soviet economy had completely discredited the programmatic foundation of Stalinism—the “theory” of socialism in one country. The crippling dislocations in every section of industry, the backwardness of agriculture, the low level of labor productivity, the stagnating rate of growth, the dearth of consumer goods and the shortages of food are all linked to the isolation of the Soviet Union from the world market and the international division of labor.

Since the selection of Gorbachev as general secretary in 1985, the bureaucracy has moved to strengthen its position against the working class. Gorbachev’s policy consists essentially of two interrelated components. Within the USSR, the bureaucracy has sought to expand its social base by encouraging the growth of a new bourgeois strata within the cities and countryside based on the restoration of private property. Internationally, Gorbachev has moved to integrate the Soviet economy into the capitalist world market. The bureaucracy is seeking to undermine the socialist tendencies within the Soviet economy, while politically weakening the position of the proletariat. Taken as a whole, the program of Gorbachev is directed toward the political, economic and social liquidation of all that remains of the conquests of the October Revolution.

For decades, the bureaucracy sought to legitimize its expropriation of political power by claiming, despite the “individual” crimes of Stalin and the lapses of the “personality cult,” that it represented the continuity of Bolshevism and defended the conquests of the October Revolution. These arguments are no longer of any use. Gorbachev is compelled to develop new ideological positions to justify policies that have already assumed an undeniably capitalist character. As Vadim Medvedev, the Politburo member in charge of ideology, recently told the journal Kommunist:

“Perestroika has now reached a point when practical actions require more and effective ideological support. This applies, above all, to the radical changes that have begun in production relations and the changes in the form of ownership, whose aim is to encourage people’s interest in work and return to them the social, economic and political status of being master in their country.

“Socialism is facing a historic challenge. It requires a radical qualitative overhaul and greater dynamism. A new concept of socialism must not only correspond to the realities of the end of the century, but also be projected to a more distant future. This is the key theoretical problem” (Reprints from the Soviet Press, 15 February 1989).

The bureaucracy is attempting to formulate a “new concept of socialism” that is fully compatible with the restoration of capitalist property. Later in the interview, Medvedev stated:

“The main task is that of restructuring property relations and ending the state of people’s alienation from public property. For many years public property developed in forms which made it impersonal. It did not belong to anyone, as it were.... We have begun to change the forms of public property of the means of production, which had not changed for decades, and we believe that this process has now become irreversible.

“I should say that our efforts have met with resistance and provoked suspicion and even confusion. We have discovered that we have no theory to substantiate our efforts and that all our previous views on public property are untenable” (Ibid.).

Pretending not to notice the absurdity of his assertions, Medvedev unveiled a “new concept of socialism” that makes no distinction between property that is nationalized and property that is privately owned:

“Socialist property has many different forms and this is its advantage. It makes socialist property flexible and capable of effectively responding to different economic conditions in different sectors and regions. Doctrinairism is inadmissible here. One should not make the old mistake and try to prove that this form of socialist property is more progressive and, consequently, preferable, whereas another, such as private farming, is no good. One should take a broad-minded attitude to this problem.

“A modern economy is highly diversified. There are many different methods of managing the economy and the choice of a particular method depends on the level of scientific and technological development and extent of economic socialization. We must accept this fact and encourage ‘economic pluralism’ if we want to manage our material and labor resources effectively and flexibly. Any method of management is good as long as it pays off economically and socially, helps meet to a fuller extent people’s needs and is not based on man’s exploitation by man” (Ibid.).

In other words, “socialist property” is anything the bureaucracy says it is!

The inspiration for these innovations in the sphere of theory has come from Gorbachev himself, who told the central committee in January, “We must continue elaborating the concept of a new face of socialism.” He has taken the lead in this field, explaining that the aim of perestroika is “to strike a blow against man’s alienation from the means of production, to recreate in the toiler a developed sense of proprietorship, and to bring out his personal potential” (Current Digest of the Soviet Press, 1 February 1989).

The theme of “alienation” is especially dear to Gorbachev, for there is barely a speech in which he fails to expound on this subject at length. He has utilized this philosophical term, upon which the young Marx reflected so profoundly in the 1840s, to arrive at conclusions that have nothing in common with the views of the genius who founded scientific socialism. According to Gorbachev—who is certainly not a genius, except, perhaps, in the sphere of bureaucratic infighting—alienation arises from the separation of man from his property. The worst form of alienation, Gorbachev insists, is the denial of private ownership of land and the transformation of the peasant into an agricultural laborer. This must be overcome through the conversion of collective farms into privately-owned “cooperatives” based on leases of at least 50 years duration.

“It so happens,” he told the central committee of the CPSU in October 1988, “that on collective and state farms people are alienated from the land and the means of production. In the village the alienation is more obvious than in other branches of the economy. People come to a farm as hired workers who have to do something during a certain time in order to make a living. It goes without saying that there was a sort of stimulus, but farm workers were not what the genuine peasants should be. Land, nature and the processes taking place in it, they all make up a living world. It is necessary to feel the land. If you work on a farm, you should understand living organisms.

“Those who grew up in the countryside remember living among nature, in flora and fauna. This influences people rearing them and forming their peasant psychology and way of life. Having alienated people from land and the means of production, we have turned the masters of land into a hired worker” (Reprints from the Soviet Press, 15-30 December 1988).

Gorbachev’s attempt to endow his right-wing program with a pseudo-philosophical gloss amounts to a gross falsification of Marxism. In the lexicon of Marxism, the development of alienation, i.e., estranged labor, is inextricably linked to that of private property. At a certain stage in the development of the forces of production and the division of labor, man is separated, that is, estranged and alienated, from the product of his labor. That estrangement, as Marx explained so poetically in his Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, is concretized in the emergence of private property, a historically necessary social relation which corresponds to a definite level of the productive forces. The historical development of private property is the supreme expression of man’s domination by the very productive forces which he himself created. These forces of production, operating independently of man’s will and determining the conditions of his life, appear to him as an alien power whose dictates he is obliged to obey. The evolution of property, culminating in capitalist property, reinforces this alienation and reproduces it in ever more tragic social forms, to the extent that the social history of man assumes the character of protracted dehumanization. And yet, with the development of capitalism and the emergence of the proletariat itself, the class which is entirely without property, the historical path is cleared for the practical transcendence of alienation through the communist revolution, the liquidation of private property, and the complete appropriation of the products of man’s labor by humanity as a whole.

We are by no means suggesting that the program of perestroika arises from an incorrect reading of Marx and a misunderstanding of the philosophical and historical significance of alienation. The policies of Gorbachev are, of course, deeply rooted in material interests, which are the real source of the Soviet leader’s theoretical constructions. But it is this relation between material interests and their derivative forms of thought that reveals the essential significance of Gorbachev’s ideological conceptions. In linking human alienation to the denial of private property, Gorbachev displays an ideological standpoint that is entirely bourgeois. Indeed, this standpoint is so deeply and traditionally rooted in the class outlook of the bourgeoisie that Marx and Engels argued against it as far back as 1845. In The German Ideology, the first systematic exposition of the materialist conception of history, Marx and Engels explained that the bourgeois truly believes that his property is the real foundation of his individuality, and that the abolition of private property is contrary to “human nature.”

“But,” as Marx and Engels explained, “when the theoreticians of the bourgeoisie come forward and give a general expression to this assertion, when they equate the bourgeois’s property with individuality in theory and want to give a logical justification for this equation, then this nonsense begins to become solemn and holy.”

All the public statements of Gorbachev and his cohorts consist of such solemn, holy and, we might add, reactionary nonsense. They show that the bureaucracy is deeply hostile to not only the ideological foundations of scientific socialism but also to the essential conquests of the October Revolution. Thus, the purpose of reinstituting private property in the land is not to reawaken in the agricultural worker a love of flora and fauna. Rather, it is to incite a lust for profit and to develop, in the form of a reconstituted peasantry, a social base of bourgeois and petty-bourgeois proprietors upon which the bureaucracy can rely in the coming battles against the working class.

This goal was bluntly articulated at a round table discussion of pro-Gorbachev academics. V. Bashmachnikov, a consultant in the CPSU Central Committee’s Social and Economic Department, stated: “Today more and more scholars and specialists are speaking out in favor of the need for a radical agrarian reform. Its essence is expressed by the slogan: ‘Give the land to those who till it!’ In other words, the farmer should become the shareholder.” And V. Uzun, head of a department of the All-Union Agricultural Economics Research Institute, exclaimed: “I am convinced that in the preamble to the Law on Leasing it is necessary to spell out in very precise language a provision on the political rehabilitation of the peasantry as a class” (Current Digest, 15 March 1989).

Underlying the regime’s endless calls for the return of land to the peasantry is the false, self-serving and reactionary assumption that the crisis of Soviet agriculture can be overcome only by restoring capitalist relations in the countryside. Accepting all the premises of bourgeois economists, Gorbachev and his associates assert that the personal profit motive provides the key to the rapid expansion of agricultural development.

There is no question that Soviet agriculture is in deep crisis; but this fact demonstrates the failure of Stalinism, not socialism. The historical source of the chronic backwardness of Soviet agriculture and, indeed, of the economy as a whole, lies in the Stalinist policy which asserted that socialism could be built in one country. This thoroughly reactionary theory, which has no foundation in Marxism, provided the bureaucracy, from the mid-1920s on, with the rationalization for its repudiation of the program of world socialist revolution. According to Stalin, the Soviet Union did not need to draw upon the resources of the world economy in order to overcome the legacy of social and economic backwardness inherited from prerevolutionary Russia.

Whereas Marxism had always maintained that the development of socialism presupposes an extremely high level of industrial development—indeed, socialism must take the highest levels attained by capitalism as its point of departure—the Stalinists asserted that the necessary resources for the building of socialism could be found within Russia. In agriculture, this theory had its most catastrophic consequences. The devastation which accompanied the collectivization campaigns of the early 1930s flowed from the attempt to “socialize” agricultural production without the necessary level of industrial development. Even after collectivization had been achieved at a terrible human cost, agricultural development remained hampered by the low level of industry, its associated infrastructure, and technique, which, to this day lags far behind that of the advanced imperialist countries.

Thus, the future of Soviet agriculture is inextricably linked to the fate of international socialism. The harmonious development of all sectors of the Soviet economy requires the unrestricted access of the USSR to the resources of the world economy and the international division of labor. This presupposes the alliance of the Soviet proletariat with the international working class in a global revolutionary struggle against imperialism.

But this perspective is anathema to the Soviet bureaucracy, whose entire historical existence is bound up with its ruthless struggle against the perspective of world socialist revolution, propounded in scientific form by Trotsky in his theory of permanent revolution. Instead, the Stalinist bureaucracy under Gorbachev seeks to resolve the contradictions of the Soviet economy on a counterrevolutionary basis, i.e., through the integration of the USSR into the structure of world imperialism and the revival of capitalist relations within both Soviet agriculture and Soviet industry.

The capitalist program of Gorbachev is centered on the destruction of the collective farms and the crippling of state industry through the development of “cooperatives”: the Soviet bureaucracy’s euphemism for what is known in a capitalist country as a corporation. During the past year, the number of cooperatives has leaped from 8,000 to 48,000, while the number of people working in them has increased by approximately 1,000%.

The growth of the cooperative movement has found enthusiastic support among a wide section of Soviet economists who no longer even pretend to be socialists. The Los Angeles Times recently reported a discussion with “a prominent academician,” who told the newspaper, “with a straight face, that even if the ultimate goal of Soviet society is some form of socialism, it was inevitable that the country will go through a capitalist stage first....”

According to G.L. Faktor, economist and research director of the Development Center formed under the All-Union Society of Economics’ central board, “By now it is obvious that an excessively nationalized economy is incapable of satisfying society’s demand for goods and services. It is estimated that in order to improve our national economy, it is necessary for the cooperative sector (together with the individual) to produce as much as 25% to 30% of all goods and services” (Current Digest, 25 January 1989).

As this statement makes abundantly clear, the private cooperatives are no longer seen as merely a minor auxiliary to state-owned industry. Rather, the bureaucracy’s policies are aimed at the elimination of the least productive sectors of state industry and the conversion of the most advanced and efficient industrial units into profit-making cooperatives.

In pursuit of this aim, the Gorbachev regime has moved to dismantle the monopoly of foreign trade by eliminating restrictions on direct transactions between imperialist concerns and Soviet industry, both state-owned and cooperative. In accordance with a resolution passed by the USSR Council of Ministers, and which went into effect on January 1, 1989, the right to engage in import and export operations has been granted to all Soviet enterprises that are competitive on the world market. The resolution stated, “Enterprises, associations, production cooperatives, and other organizations may carry out export-import operations directly by creating, when necessary, foreign trade firms operating on the basis of economic accountability, or they may work through other foreign economic organizations on a contractual basis; in doing so, they are to be guided by the objective of obtaining the best possible export-import conditions and operating on a cost-recovery and self-financing basis in terms of foreign exchange, and they are to proceed on the principle that the state is not responsible for their obligations” {Current Digest, 25 January 1989).

This resolution creates the legal foundation for the dismantling of Soviet state industry and the fracturing of the centralized economy into competing local units allied with foreign capital. Moreover, it is obvious that this resolution provides large sections of the Soviet bureaucracy with possibilities for enrichment that go far beyond the results previously achieved by petty corruption.

As the central plan loses its economic relevance, not to mention its statutory force, the most prosperous and highly developed sections of local industry will strike out on their own and seek financial connections with imperialist enterprises and institutions. The present-day bureaucrats in charge of various sectors of state industry will make the appropriate calculations and soon recognize that their own personal prospects will be best served by withdrawing from the central plan and converting the state enterprise under their control into a cooperative. In keeping with Gorbachev’s “struggle” against bureaucracy, they will gladly, under such conditions, convert themselves into entrepreneurs and potential bourgeois of the comprador type.

Even before the resolution on foreign economic activity took effect, the growth of cooperatives was beginning to wreak havoc on state industry, and this has not gone unnoticed by the working class. Pravda recently reported the remarks made by a group of workers who had been invited to attend a session of the CPSU Central Committee. Taking into account the probability that those invited were representatives of the most privileged strata of workers, their remarks can only be a pale reflection of the hostility of the broad mass of workers to the cooperative movement.

“A. Ye. Aliferenko, a drawbench operator at the Volgograd Steel Cable Plant, [said that] one thing disturbing many workers is the way that skilled young employees are leaving to work in cooperatives. The speaker expressed his opinion on the cooperative movement, emphasizing that its development, which is something society certainly needs, must be conditioned on strict observance of the principles of social justice and decency....

“By way of example, the speaker mentioned that some of the workers in his shop were offered jobs at cooperatives at a wage of 800-1,500 rubles. They’re now earning about 500 rubles at the plant.

“In the worker’s opinion, a stratum of people making undeservedly high wages could form, in conflict with the principles of social justice. This phenomenon makes honest workers indignant.

“Ye. K. Malkova, master dressmaker at the Moscow City Silhouette Production Association, [said:].... A lot has already been said here about cooperatives, but there is one aspect no one has touched upon. People are dissatisfied with them mainly because, from the very beginning, personnel at cooperatives and state enterprises were put in unequal conditions. There is an outflow of personnel from the state sector. As a result, our industry is losing its lifeblood—its best people. Another thing about cooperatives: We expected they would flood the market with goods, but what we sometimes get instead is a new wave of uncontrolled price changes and greater shortages. We’re not going to close our eyes to that. Workers are talking about it at election meetings. The fact that cooperatives aren’t guaranteed material and technical supplies has caused a lot of goods to disappear from the retail sales outlets” (Current Digest, 15 March 1989).

In recent months, the Soviet press has carried numerous reports of popular outrage against the practices of the cooperatives. They are held responsible for the deterioration of the Soviet economy and living conditions for the working class since the introduction of perestroika. A constant complaint is that cooperatives are buying at low prices goods produced by state-owned industry and reselling them at high prices. The code word for the antisocial practices of the cooperatives is “group selfishness,” a phenomena which even Pravda has felt obliged to denounce.

“A new type of group selfishness, linked with the cooperative movement, is now appearing. For example, cooperatives are offering to sell valuable medicinal plants, including at least one that is included in the list of rare and endangered species, to foreign pharmaceutical firms. Pharmacies’ stocks of such remedies, already meager, have shrunk even further as cooperative members travel to remote villages and buy up chamomile and other herbs at prices higher than those paid by the state. At best, they resell them in cities at extortionate prices. As for the most valuable plants, they try to sell them abroad for hard currency, thus robbing their own people. But an incident far more shocking than this was reported to the Ministry of the Medicinal and Microbiological Industry by a foreign firm: a cooperative had offered to sell this company donated blood for hard currency” (Current Digest, 8 March 1989).

The cooperative movement has also provided a fertile field for gangsters. According to a report which appeared in Izvestia, “Racketeers are looking for ways to get into cooperatives that are involved in foreign-currency activities, and they are trying to penetrate enterprises that conduct joint operations with foreign firms” (Ibid.).

The widespread social hostility that surrounds the activities of the cooperatives is a source of bitter frustration for Gorbachev and his associates. At every point, the Soviet bureaucracy confronts the deep-rooted hostility of the working class to all attempts to restore capitalism in the USSR. However politically confused by the decades of Stalinist lies and distortions, the October Revolution still lives in the consciousness of millions of Soviet workers. A recent exchange between L.I. Albalkin, Gorbachev’s chief economic adviser who was nominated by the Soviet leader for a seat in the Congress of People’s Deputies, and Aleksandr Afanasyev, commentator for Komsomolskaya Pravda, illustrates the frothing hatred of the working class in Gorbachev’s entourage.

In the course of this remarkable exchange, Afanasyev bemoaned that there seemed to be little social support for the revival of capitalist enterprise. Referring to the new laws permitting cooperative enterprises, he noted with despair that “we’ve broken down a closed door in the belief that masses of entrepreneurs and proprietors were knocking on the other side of the same door, but now it’s been pushed back just a tiny bit, a centimeter, and we can see that these people aren’t there!”

Commiserating with his unhappy colleague, Albalkin opined: “They exist. But there are few of them for such a huge country, extremely few.” He then suggested, “Together we need to calculate what means are necessary and how much time is needed, moving along our chosen course, to restore the life-giving stratum, the soil—the social humus, if you will—without which a new quality of life will not grow.... Primarily, I mean people ... I mean a cultural stratum—a production, technological, scientific, everyday-life stratum. It was scattered by the winds of ‘transformations.’ We fought too long against broad education and cultural (in all social spheres, from farmer to professors), against higher-than-average abilities and skills, against the ‘unhealthy’ instincts on which life rested from time immemorial.”

Inspired by this reactionary soliloquy, which could have been composed by Ayn Rand (who fled the Russian Revolution before making her name in the United States as an anticommunist guru of capitalist individualism), Afanasyev expressed his contempt for the achievements of the Soviet Union: “In 20 years or so we will realize, no doubt, that our reinforced-concrete victories are nothing more than the excrement of civilization.”

There is only one solution, Albalkin told Afanasyev. “Millions of completely different personnel are needed.... After all, it’s shameful: Russia was renowned for its master craftsmen and people with a sense of proprietorship, but there is no stratum of master craftsmen and people with a sense of proprietorship. There is no quality on a mass scale. And I mean managers, economists and financial experts, too.”

Afanasyev then poured out his bitterness: “These battles, Leonid Ivanovich, these systematic expropriations, reopen with calendrical precision the wounds that have barely had time to scar over during the year. How can one talk about building up social humus if the ‘machine’ that was turned on during the time of War Communism still continues just as punctually, with rare interruptions, to grind up the psychology of proprietorship as it is born?”

“Only a machine can counter a machine,” Albalkin replied. “But, alas, this system is not just the administrative apparatus. It is a tangle of relationships that have grown up among tens of millions of people: workers, collective farmers, agronomists, engineers, teachers, physicians, executives. I intentionally put executives last. That’s right. After all, without broad social support, without deep roots in a powerful, massive leveling psychology, conservatism would not stay on the surface for long.”

And then Afanasyev delivered the punch-line: “An ideology has grown into a psychology.” Deeply moved by this insight, Albalkin echoed these words: “An ideology has grown into a psychology.”

Two leading spokesmen of perestroika, like two intoxicated emigre aristocrats whining over empty bottles, bewail the fate of Old Mother Russia and its lost master craftsmen and people with a sense of proprietorship. The problem, they conclude, is the Russian masses themselves. The ideals of the October Revolution have penetrated their psychology. They will not permit the “social humus” of capitalism to rise again.

This morbid dialogue is a chilling articulation of the vitriolic anticommunism that animates the “Black Hundred” ideologues of perestroika. Reflected in this dialogue is the recognition within the bureaucracy that it is only a matter of time before the counterrevolutionary goals of perestroika will require the organization of violence on a massive scale against the working class. As the two interlocutors agreed: “Only a machine can counter a machine.”


See Wolfgang Weber, Solidarity in Poland 1980-1981: and the Perspective of Political Revolution (Detroit: Labor Publications, 1989).