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

The Myth of “Pure” Democracy

The depth of political opposition within the Soviet working class to the program of perestroika was reflected in a speech delivered by Mikhail Gorbachev at a meeting of the Moscow Organization of the CPSU on January 21, 1989. He admitted that the government was facing growing public skepticism about the long-term consequences of its policies. “Are we standing by our socialist values or are we abandoning them? Some worried people are asking outright: Can that be where we’re headed.” While indignantly denying that the Soviet Union is repudiating socialism, Gorbachev conceded somewhat defensively, “We have work to do on the philosophical and political principles of our society’s renewal, and we’re hard at work on those questions today” {Current Digest of Soviet Press, 22 February 1989).

Gorbachev’s discomfiture expresses the crisis of a parasitic bureaucracy which is no longer able to rely upon the stale and jargon-laden nostrums, palmed off as “Marxism-Leninism,” which it has used for decades to defend its parasitic existence. The pro-capitalist character of Gorbachev’s policies within the USSR, combined with his frantic drive to integrate the Soviet Union into the structure of world imperialism, has fatally undermined the basic political justification for the existence of the bureaucratic regime, i.e., that it defends, despite all its crimes and outrages against the working class, the social conquests of the 1917 October Revolution against the domestic and international capitalist enemies of the USSR.

In recent months, Gorbachev and his associates have sought to mount an ideological counteroffensive in behalf of perestroika. It aims to justify theoretically the bureaucracy’s creation of new, capitalist, property relations. However, a counterrevolutionary operation of this magnitude, which entails the repudiation of even formal allegiance to the traditions of October, requires more than the expert use of falsified quotations. As the bureaucracy strives to create a firmer base for its own existence in new forms of property and attempts to rally petty-bourgeois strata to its side in opposition to the Soviet proletariat, it is compelled to proclaim its ideological independence from Marxism. This is the essential significance of the bureaucracy’s search for a “new concept of socialism.”

Chief party ideologist Vadim Medvedev was pointedly asked by the Soviet journal Kommunist: “Is what we are doing now a transition to a new stage of socialism or a new model of socialism?... Are we prepared to make a reassessment of the concept of socialism as it was formulated by Marx and Lenin?” (Reprints from the Soviet Press, 15 February 1989).

Medvedev replied, “It is no longer enough just to reintroduce Lenin’s concept of socialism,” and boasted, “Critical reappraisal of the obsolete concepts of socialism and the development of new ones began in the Party with the policy of perestroika.”

The “obsolete concepts” which are being attacked by the Soviet bureaucracy are those which comprise the foundation of scientific socialism. Imagine, if you please, a “Marxism” in which the class struggle of the proletariat against the bourgeoisie is considered out of date and the reestablishment within the Soviet Union of capitalist relations is proclaimed the supreme goal of socialism, and you will have the “Marxism” of Gorbachev, Medvedev and perestroika. All the theoretical innovations of the bureaucracy are directed at the practical justification of a “socialism” which legalizes the private ownership of the means of production, sanctions the exploitation of the Soviet working class, and facilitates the integration of the USSR into the economic structure of world capitalism.

A crucial ideological component of the bureaucracy’s restoration of private property, including the right of inheritance, is its glorification of bourgeois democracy, especially the capitalist democracy of the United States. The Soviet press is now full of speeches by party leaders and articles by prominent commentators on the blessings of democracy. Let us consider a typical example of this new genre, a piece entitled “Afterthoughts: On Ronald Reagan and Other Matters,” by Stanislav Kondrashov, a leading political commentator for Izvestia.

“Let’s return to Reagan—and to the theme of unexpected similarity and undesirable differences. This conservative entered the White House ... with the key promise of getting the Washington bureaucracy off the people’s backs, and although even overseas bureaucracy multiplies as fast as rabbits and Reagan certainly did not manage to accomplish everything, he never tired of proclaiming his devotion to this creed. In his farewell television address to the American people, recalling the first words of the US Constitution, he said: ‘We the people. We the people tell the government what to do, it doesn’t tell us. We the people are the driver—the government is the car. And we decide where it should go, and by what route, and how fast.’

“Earlier, we would have called this demagoguery. But now another word comes to mind: paradox. It’s paradoxical, but isn’t there really a similarity, isn’t there really something deeply in common with this credo of an American conservative and the strategic principles of the political reform that Soviet Communists are now conducting?! We recognize that this common nature is grounded in the eternal idea of democracy, which, under a great variety of systems, ways and means, has meant rule by the people since the time of the ancient Greeks” (Current Digest, 15 February 1989).

This hyperbolic tribute to Reagan sheds far more light on the political and social outlook of the Kremlin bureaucracy than it does on the Marxist analysis of bourgeois democracy and the nature of the state. Kondrashov said more than he intended when he acknowledged that there is “really something deeply in common between this credo of an American conservative and the strategic principles of the political reform that Soviet Communists are now conducting.” After all, as every American worker has come to understand, Reagan’s “getting the Washington bureaucracy off the people’s back” has served as a code word for the elimination of even the limited restrictions placed upon the voracious exploitative appetites of the ruling class and for the destruction of social reforms fought for by the labor movement for more than a generation.

Kondrashov, whose commentaries are dictated by the Kremlin, presents a conception of democracy that is entirely in accord with the mythology of the bourgeoisie, which strives to present its political domination of modern capitalist society as the supreme expression of the will of all mankind. But it is an ABC of Marxism that there exists no such thing as a non-class “pure” democracy manifesting some sort of abstract “eternal idea.”

Kondrashov’s unfortunate and ignorant reference to ancient Greece exposes the absurdity of his ahistorical and idealist presentation. In his massive study of ancient Greek society, the noted historian G.E.M. de Ste. Croix wrote, “We must never forget, of course, that Greek democracy must always have depended to a considerable extent on the exploitation of slave labor, which, in the conditions obtaining in the ancient world, was if anything even more essential for the maintenance of a democracy than of any more restricted form of constitution” (G.E.M. de Ste. Croix, The Class Struggle in Ancient Greece [Ithaca, 1981], p. 284).

The remarks of the ignorant Kondrashov merely reproduce, if only in a more vulgar form, the arguments advanced by the German opportunist and opponent of the October Revolution, Karl Kautsky, whose “democratic” sophistries were so soundly thrashed by Lenin some 70 years ago:

“‘Pure democracy’ is the mendacious phrase of a liberal who wants to fool the workers. History knows of bourgeois democracy which takes the place of feudalism, and of proletarian democracy which takes the place of bourgeois democracy.

“When Kautsky devotes dozens of pages to ‘proving’ the truth that bourgeois democracy is progressive compared with medievalism, and that the proletariat must unfailingly utilize it in its struggle against the bourgeoisie, that in fact is just liberal twaddle intended to fool the workers....

“Bourgeois democracy, although a great historical advance in comparison with medievalism, always remains, and under capitalism is bound to remain, restricted, truncated, false and hypocritical, a paradise for the rich and a snare and deception for the exploited and the poor” (V.I. Lenin, Collected Works, vol. 28 [Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1965], pp. 242-43).

While Kondrashov is enchanted by Reagan’s cynical invocation of the phrase, “We the people,” Lenin understood very well the reality underlying the democratic hypocrisy of the bourgeoisie. “There is not a single state,” Lenin wrote, “however democratic, which has no loopholes or reservations in its constitution guaranteeing the bourgeoisie the possibility of dispatching troops against the workers, of proclaiming martial law, and so forth, in the case of ‘a violation of public order,’ and actually in case the exploited class ‘violates’ its position of slavery and tries to behave in a non-slavish manner. Kautsky shamelessly embellishes bourgeois democracy and omits to mention, for instance, how the most democratic and republican bourgeoisie in America or Switzerland deal with workers on strike....

“[T]he ruling party in a bourgeois democracy extends the protection of the minority only to another bourgeois party, while the proletariat, on all serious, profound and fundamental issues, gets martial law or pogroms, instead of the ‘protection of the minority.’ The more highly developed a democracy is, the more imminent are pogroms or civil war in connection with any profound divergence which is dangerous to the bourgeoisie” (Ibid., pp. 244-45).

The bourgeois democracy of Ronald Reagan, which Kondrashov finds so attractive, has provided particularly striking illustrations of the reactionary tendencies noted by Lenin. Acting in the name of the “people,” Reagan fired 12,000 air traffic controllers in August 1981 and destroyed their union. This provided the signal for the launching of a vicious, but entirely legal, ruling class campaign of union-busting that enjoyed the bipartisan support of all the democratic institutions of the capitalist state.

It seems that Izvestia’s political commentator failed to follow the recent Senate hearings on the Iran-Contra scandal, which revealed the existence of a secret branch of government operating out of the basement of the White House and organizing the international terrorist operations of the American ruling class. Nor does it appear that he paid attention to the revelation that one of the key assignments of Oliver North—which the democratically-minded senators agreed not to discuss in public—involved the preparation of martial law and the detention of thousands of American political dissidents in the event of a national emergency.

The concepts of bourgeois democracy were originally articulated by the revolutionary theoreticians of the eighteenth century who prepared the way for the destruction of feudal absolutism. Under the banner of “Liberty, Equality and Fraternity,” the rising bourgeoisie rallied all progressive forces within society against the reactionary feudal order. But the universalist claims of bourgeois democracy, grounded in the anti-aristocratic principle of the equality of all men before the law, were soon eroded and disproved by the development of the specific social conflict endemic to the bourgeois order, that is, the class struggle between the capitalist owners of the productive forces and the proletariat.

Even in the heyday of capitalist development, the class nature of bourgeois democracy always revealed itself with brutal clarity the moment the movement of the proletariat collided with the class interests of the bourgeoisie. Within a decade of the American Civil War, undoubtedly one of the greatest democratic revolutions in history, the state power of the triumphant bourgeoisie was mobilized against the emerging labor movement. In the interest of consolidating its power against the working class, the northern bourgeoisie arranged a political compromise with the remnants of the old Southern slavocracy and sanctioned the violent deprivation of the democratic rights of the recently liberated slaves. American bourgeois democracy easily accommodated itself to the Ku Klux Klan and lynch law; and even found a “democratic” formula to sanction mass discrimination in the Supreme Court’s doctrine of “separate but equal,” (which remained in force until 1954).

The internal prostitution of bourgeois democracy is completed in the epoch of imperialism. The practical content of formal legal equality becomes insignificant in the face of the power of the oligopolistic corporations whose tentacles extend across the globe. Perched in their Manhattan skyscrapers, a few hundred corporate “masters of the universe”—who, to be sure, have only one vote on election day—exercise control over tens of millions. The corrupted “democratic” institutions of the bourgeoisie serve primarily as a mechanism to ensure both the physical exploitation and the spiritual enslavement of the working class. Precisely because the imperialist epoch is characterized by the most extreme sharpening of class antagonisms, the bourgeoisie loses its interest in all but the most superficial and formal aspects of democracy. Indeed, it is ready to dispense with even these should the need arise. Thus, the only reliable foundation for the defense of democratic rights in modern capitalist society proves to be not the institutions of bourgeois democracy, but the independent struggle of the working class. As Rosa Luxemburg explained so well at the turn of this blood-soaked century, it is not the socialist movement that is bound to bourgeois democracy; but rather the fate of democracy that is bound to the socialist movement.

We doubt that these historical and theoretical considerations are of importance to a Stalinist hack like Kondrashov, who, at any rate, practices “democracy” by writing what he is told. Nevertheless, a careful reading of his article reveals the social and political aims that motivate the bureaucracy’s rehabilitation of bourgeois democracy. In a key passage, Kondrashov wrote:

“One of the most profound ideological and practical divergences between us and Western-type democracies, divergences that Reagan ‘personally’ emphasized, was our different view of the relations between the state and the individual. They assigned first place to the individual, while we assigned it to the state—the same command- administrative system appearing, as it were, in collectivist garb. Even the well-known slogan ‘Everything for man, everything in the name of man’ contained, if you stop to think about it, a certain paternalistic accent on tutelage and patronage on the part of the state, which, as an omnipotent and omniscient force, promises to do great good to the human being and citizen while standing above him and acting apart from him, as it were. In recent years, while gradually breaking down the Stalinist and Brezhnevian stereotypes, we have been gaining an understanding of the sovereignty of the human individual and have thereby found a common language with the West on a question that we used to regard as an infringement on our internal affairs—human rights.”

The arguments of Kondrashov faithfully reproduce the basic views of the anticommunist ideologists of American capitalism. He accepts without a trace of embarrassment the reactionary individualism which is an essential component of the antisocial ideology of American capitalism. The foundation of this individualism is, of course, the defense of private capitalist property. To the American capitalists, for whom Reagan’s speeches were nothing less than poetry, all forms of struggle by the working class represent an encroachment on their property and, therefore, upon their rights as individuals. The very organization of workers in trade unions is viewed by the capitalists as a unwarranted restriction on their use and disposal of the labor force for which they have paid. To the extent that the bourgeois state, under the pressure of the labor movement, has been compelled to legislate various paltry reforms in the area of wage levels, working conditions, and social benefits, these are, as far as the capitalist class is concerned, merely forms of extortion which have undermined the freedom of the individual capitalist.

Transplanted to the social conditions of the USSR, these reactionary anti-collectivist ravings are simply a cover for the dismantling of the nationalized industry and the restoration of private ownership of the means of production. When Kondrashov speaks of doing away with the “command- administrative system,” he does not have in mind the removal of the bureaucratic cancer from the proletarian state. His arguments are directed against the very existence of nationalized property and state planning. For Kondrashov, or, more correctly, for his patrons in the Kremlin, the evil of the “command-administrative system” does not consist of the bureaucratic suppression of proletarian democracy, the undermining of the nationalized property, and the sabotage of the entire mechanism of state planning. These real crimes committed by the bureaucracy against the working class are of no interest to Kondrashov. Rather, the term “command- administrative system” has become, in the new lexicon of the bureaucracy, a political synonym which denotes all the institutions of nationalized property and state economic planning which stand in the way of the development of capitalist forms of property.

The official denunciations of the “command-administrative system” are the means by which the bureaucracy calls into question the progressive character of the property relations established on the basis of the proletarian revolution of 1917. “We recognize,” wrote Kondrashov, “that the command- administrative system stemming from Stalin, who borrowed it from the autocracy, certainly comes no closer—no matter what verbal claims are made—to rule by the people than bourgeois democracy, and that it does not alienate the working man from the fruits of his labor any less than capitalist ownership does.”

Kondrashov’s method is that of bourgeois sociology, which on the basis of certain formal similarities between political structures asserts the identity of regimes which have entirely different historical origins and social foundations. This procedure has been often used by anticommunist academicians to assert that there exists no essential difference between the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany and fascist Italy; for they all represent forms of totalitarianism. Thus, they dismiss as unimportant the fact that the property relations and class structure of the USSR, which issued from a proletarian socialist revolution, is entirely different from that of fascist regimes, where the property relations and class structure remained entirely capitalist.

Kondrashov’s commentary asserts that the “command- administrative system” of Stalin merely revived the industrial relations that had existed under the tsarist autocracy and makes no mention at all of the revolutionary transformation of property relations. This is a cynical subterfuge which serves the bureaucracy’s attempt to downgrade the significance of property relations in determining the nature of a society. There is no difference, he tells us, between a “command-administrative system” and “capitalist ownership.” The former “alienates” man no less than the latter. Thus, it is implied, more important to mankind than the prevailing forms of property is the existence of democracy. On the basis of this insight, he summarized his ideal:

“To elevate society and social forces, to create channels for the effective expression and protection of the interests of social groups, and to put the state and the government ‘in their place,’ within the framework of the law, which in equal measure defines not only the duties but also the rights of citizens—it is completely possible to express these highly important, urgent tasks of ours in Reagan’s image of the people who, taking the wheel, drive the car of government.”

This is nothing other than the idealized image of bourgeois democracy as it appears in the mind of a petty-bourgeois toady of the bureaucracy. The “state” and “government” exist above classes. The “law” emerges out of nowhere to define “duties” and “rights.” He wrote with studied vagueness about “social groups” in need of protection. And yet, stripped of its rhetoric and studied in the context of the material interests it articulates, the essence of Kondrashov’s democracy proves to be the defense of private property and the right to accumulate personal wealth. It is not by accident that Kondrashov discovers in the words of Ronald Reagan the best description of the objectives of perestroika.

For all the self-serving rhetoric about democracy, the bureaucracy jealously preserves its monopoly of political power. The tinsel of glasnost notwithstanding, the powers of the police-state apparatus remain undiminished. It need only be pointed out that since the accession of Gorbachev, despite the official rehabilitation of the Old Bolsheviks and the countless thousands murdered under Stalin, not one veteran official of the KGB has been brought to book for these monstrous crimes.

Wherever the issue of democracy relates to fundamental questions of revolutionary principle, the reactionary insincerity of the bureaucracy’s democratic pretensions is immediately exposed. The recently drafted constitution of the USSR was, as we have already noted, drawn up in secret. Among its most noteworthy accomplishments was the imposition of new restrictions on the democratic right of Soviet national minorities to self-determination. The brutal consequences of the Kremlin’s arrogant disregard for the rights of Soviet nationalities has already been realized in the wanton murder of scores of unarmed citizens in Georgia. Soviet troops, not the people, drive the armored personnel carriers of the Stalinist bureaucracy. And as they rumbled through the blood-stained streets of Tbilisi, Pravda carried a front-page editorial which insolently declared that the protests in Georgia were incompatible with the interests of perestroika.

In relation to the Soviet nationalities, the bureaucracy denies the democratic right of self-determination, thunders that it will uphold “the constitutional basis of the state” and warns the Georgian protesters that it will make use of the new decree on crimes against the state to punish unauthorized nationalist agitation. However, when dealing with the permissible activities of privately-owned cooperatives, Gorbachev replaces the mailed fist with a velvet glove. Arguing against interference in the business exploits of the cooperatives, he has written that the official determination of what constitutes acceptable activity should be based on the “principle” that “everything which is not prohibited by law is allowed.” (M. Gorbachev, Perestroika: New Thinking for Our Country and the World [New York: Harper and Row, 1987], p. 108). In other words, the bureaucracy encourages the petty capitalists to exploit whatever loopholes they may devise in order to get around restrictions on private capitalist enterprise.

Another important indication of the bureaucracy’s attitude toward democratic rights is its steadfast opposition to the formation of new political parties. Medvedev recently reiterated that there is no place for an opposition political party in perestroika’s “new concept of socialism.” This ban on opposition political activity, it must be stressed, is directed almost exclusively against the potential development of revolutionary socialist organizations within the working class. Countless right-wing, anticommunist tendencies, and even fascist tendencies, find it possible to operate with impunity within the CPSU itself. Moreover, the development of cooperatives will provide an officially-sanctioned forum for the articulation of anti-socialist political positions. Nor should we fail to note the political implications of the more prominent role granted to the Orthodox Church since the accession of Gorbachev. The main concern of the bureaucracy is to prevent the development of a revolutionary socialist opposition within the working class to the CPSU. That is the real meaning of the bureaucracy’s continuing resistance to the official political rehabilitation of Trotsky.

Thus, the “democracy” of the bureaucracy is essentially concerned with the promotion of the reactionary economic program of perestroika. The fundamental political connection between the glorification of bourgeois democracy and the development of capitalist property in the USSR was recently spelled out in a column which appeared on February 23, 1989 in Pravda, entitled, somewhat pretentiously, “In the Name of Man—Reflections on the Shore of Lake Geneva.” In this article, special correspondent V. Bolshokov wrote:

“Now we are also looking anew at the ‘right to own property,’ provided for by Art. 17 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Now that cooperatives, the lease system and so forth are developing in our country, hardly anyone will try to assess the defense of this right solely as a desire on the part of the West to foist the principle of the protection of private property on the socialist countries. Moreover, without respect for the right of ‘every person to own property, both individually and jointly with others,’ joint enterprises with capitalist firms won’t be able to function normally.

“We are learning democracy. I believe that it is only politically infantile people who interpret this process as one of the Soviet Union’s taking lessons from the West. We are using the experience of the West, especially in matters concerning the protection of personal rights and freedoms, and the West is borrowing from our experience in social accomplishments, of which we are rightly proud. Otherwise, no accords would be possible in the world community, where the principle of equality is unshakeable and agreement, or, as diplomats say, consensus, is vitally necessary. After all, what is involved here is the affirmation of human dignity as the highest value on earth. And that means the affirmation of human life and the future of humanity as well” (Current Digest, 22 March 1989).

It is hardly necessary to comment on these words, which on their own expose the extent to which a fully-formed bourgeois outlook has established itself within the Stalinist bureaucracy. This is a political factor of decisive significance. In evaluating the policies of Gorbachev, it is not a matter of determining, in the abstract, to what extent market methods and forms of private ownership may be tolerated in the long-term interests of socialist development. There may well be circumstances, even in what had been an advanced capitalist country, where, in the aftermath of the socialist revolution and the seizure of power, the proletariat will tolerate the survival of private ownership in various sectors of the economy—though not in banking, transport, communications, and basic industry—for even an extended period of time. The basis of such decisions by the proletarian dictatorship will be the overall strengthening of the socialist tendencies within society. No such principled considerations, however, animate the policies of the Stalinist regime. More than 50 years ago, in The Revolution Betrayed, Trotsky warned that the bureaucracy “has ceased to offer any subjective guarantee whatever of the socialist direction of its policy. It continues to preserve state property only to the extent that it fears the proletariat.”

Now, under conditions of a worsening social crisis that is the product of its own decades-long disruption of the planned economy, the fear of the working class drives ever-broader sections of the bureaucracy into the camp of capitalist restoration. The issue in the USSR is not to what extent the bureaucracy will tolerate the use of market methods in the construction of socialism, but whether the anti-bureaucratic political revolution will develop quickly enough to restore genuine proletarian democracy and prevent the destruction of what remain of the social conquests of the October Revolution.

The program of the Fourth International is theoretically grounded in Trotsky’s scientific analysis of the nature of Soviet society. More than a half-century ago, when hordes of petty-bourgeois democrats were lauding the policies of Stalin, Trotsky was mercilessly exposing the bureaucracy’s pretentious claims that socialism had been achieved. No man denounced more passionately than Trotsky the betrayal and degradation of the October Revolution by the Stalinist regime. And yet he insisted, and this remains the position of the Fourth International, that the property relations established by the October Revolution signify a historic conquest by mankind and herald the opening of a new epoch in the development of civilization. The way forward for the Soviet working class is to be found only on the basis of defending what was achieved in October 1917. It is not the nationalized property that needs to be dismantled; rather, its vast creative potential must be liberated from the reactionary fetters of the privileged bureaucracy. That is the task of the political revolution.