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An Exchange on Perestroika

In response to:

Resisting Gorbachev from the August 18, 1988 issue

To the Editors:

As a student of the Soviet Union coming from the East, I consider Peter Reddaway’s articles published in your review one of the most perceptive and illuminating comments on the Gorbachev reform. Having spent most of my life in a communist party, including participation in other parties’ congresses, I would like to bring to the discussion an insider’s view. It might help to clarify some of Mr. Reddaway’s conclusions in his essay, “Resisting Gorbachev” [NYR, August 18].

(1) The “remarkable parallels with Khrushchev’s strategy” lead the author to conclude that “the most notable difference [from Gorbachev’s N.A.]…lies not in the content of these programs but in the greater intensity of the processes at work today, and in their higher visibility.” The assumption is that “both Khrushchev and Gorbachev came to power when the stagnation of Soviet society had reached dangerous proportions.” I consider both the assumption and the conclusion highly debatable.

To begin with, Khrushchev came to power at a time when the average Soviet industrial growth of the 1950–54 five-year-plan was very high (13.2 percent). In fact, it was this relative success in industrial and agricultural production compared with a much lower growth rate in the US that went to Khrushchev’s head and made him present to the 1961 Congress the fantastic program of building communism and overtaking the US by 1980—a program so groundless that it soon became subversive in the USSR.

Conversely, Gorbachev is the one who came to power “when the stagnation of Soviet society had reached dangerous proportions.” Something fundamental in the world economy occurred in the meantime and that is the scientific-technological revolution. This is what makes all the difference between the two strategies—Khrushchev’s and Gorbachev’s. It was precisely at this point that the USSR and subsequently all East European countries experienced a sharp decline in their rates of economic growth—from 10 percent in 1960 to 3 percent in the early 1980s. The logical conclusion is both striking and blunt: the command-type planning system does not and cannot assimilate the scientific-technological revolution. That is the question Mikhail Gorbachev has to face.

(2) The resistance to a radical reform is not so serious at the top as it is at the bottom. The evidence clearly shows that Gorbachev could present and did present all major changes, whether economic or political, on behalf of the Politburo. The difficulties he has been confronted with started in the Central Committee and went down to the local party organs, the raikoms and obkoms. And the reason is simple: While in the Politburo there is a solid majority in favor of reform, there is no such thing either in the Central Committee or in the local party organs.

Here, two remarks are in order: the Politburo, the Central Committee and the whole party bureaucracy must not be viewed as blocs, they are all split. As I pointed out in my book,* in order to understand the mechanism of change in such a petrified and entrenched political structure, one must distinguish between leadership and apparatus. While the latter constitutes the ruling social group and as such, is conservative oriented and stubbornly clinging to power and privileges, the leadership enjoys a degree of autonomy that allows for a variety of choices and behaviors. It is precisely autonomy of leadership that has made it possible for significant shifts in policies—from Stalin to Khrushchev, from Mao to Deng Xiao Ping, from Rakocsi to Kadar, etc. However, when a strong leader tries to initiate structural changes that may affect the prerogative of the party apparatus, he will be able to carry them out successfully only when a dislocation in the power structure has occurred (e.g., a change of guard or generation in the Kremlin) that results in a split in the apparatus of such magnitude that those in favor of change will get the upper hand. Gorbachev has continuously acted in that direction, and I assume he decided to skip the issue of C.C. membership at the June Party Conference and will try to solve it from below through the election of party officials to take place next month on the basis of new rules—secret ballot and a list of many candidates. Since most members of the Central Committee owe that position to their status as local party leaders, these elections may solve the problem.

(3) Finally, the June Party Conference and Reddaway’s assessment that Gorbachev and his supporters have a “limited and uncertain hold” on power. In general, that conference has been unsatisfactorily reported in the West and even less analyzed. Actually, that conference revealed the first contradictory political development since Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in 1985. On one hand: there was an openness in criticism and a pluralism of opinion that was amply reported. So was the dramatic clash between Yeltsin and Ligachev that everybody could see on television, a vivid display of party democracy. And a big step forward: two major decisions that strike at the very heart of the ruling bureaucracy (election of party leaders by secret ballot from a list of candidates and the decision to limit the term of office for party leaders to ten years). For an insider like myself, this amounts to a real revolution. Bureaucrats thrive on tenure and stability; over the years they have built into the party a virtual tradition of life peerage for leaders, no matter their performance and even their physical or mental ability. When former Prime Minister Kosygin, after two successive strokes, presented his resignation, Politburo elders rejected it and kept him in office until he died. Moreover, the only profession of apparatchiki is their party job; once they lose it, they have nowhere to go, which explains more than anything else their perfect conformity and total subservience and sycophancy toward superiors.

However, this is a long-term process. In the meantime, the kind of radical transformations initiated in the USSR require a strong type of power, actually another “revolution from above.” Truly, Gorbachev has tried hard to combine this one with initiatives and movements from below. But this again is a slow process and his revolution cannot wait.

So, all of a sudden, the idea appeared that the party leader should also be president with extraordinary executive powers: to exercise overall guidance in the drafting of legislation and of major socio-economic programs, decide on key issues of foreign policy, defense and national security, chair the defense council, nominate the prime minister, etc.

The trouble is that this seems not to be viewed as an exception at the top where special circumstances may be invoked. The conference decided that the party leader at each level should be automatically nominated to head the local Soviet. I have no doubt that the party activists at the conference warmly applauded the decision. But what about the 100 million people out there who are called on to vote for the local Soviet, except for the man who will head it automatically? This seems to go back to the old argument that the party knows best what is good for the people.

The fact is that we are presented with a merger of party and state leadership from top to bottom to be institutionalized as never before in Soviet history. Romania is the only socialist country to have experienced such a merger for the last 15 years with local party secretaries accumulating the functions of prefects and mayors down to the smallest village. As a Romanian Marxist, I am quite amazed that reformers in Moscow should want to emulate that model.

After all, how does one reconcile this merger with the “strict demarcation of the functions of party and state bodies” so firmly proclaimed in the party documents for the conference? Every political scientist knows that the only effective method to check potential abuse inherent in political power was, is, and remains the separation of powers. But there was no discussion at all of this issue in the Soviet media.

In October, a nationwide discussion is announced on the draft Law on the Election of People’s Deputies. I am wondering whether this time Soviet political scientists will speak up on that major political issue.

Silviu Brucan

University of Bucharest, Romania

Visting Professor, SUNY at

Binghamton, New York

Peter Reddaway replies:

With most of Professor Brucan’s perceptive letter I am fully in accord. In a clear, incisive way, he takes further some of the themes of my article. However, may I make two rejoinders?

First, Brucan contests my assertion that the Soviet system was stagnating in the early 1950s (as well as in the mid-1980s), pointing to the high industrial growth rates of the time. While granting his point about these rates, let me enter the reservation that some of the growth was of the wrong kind. Khrushchev repeatedly emphasized this fact, for example, in his tirades against the “metal-eaters.” These were officials who insisted on continuing mechanically to increase steel production, while future-oriented sectors such as the chemical industry were little developed.

But other parts of the economy—notably housing, agriculture, and consumer goods—were indeed stagnating in the early 1950s, as were social development, cultural life, and the entire polity.

I agree with Brucan’s important conclusion that “the command-type planning system does not and cannot assimilate the scientific-technological revolution.” But I would add that Soviet worries on this score began under Khrushchev, who constantly assailed Soviet economic conservatism, and called for a scientific-technological revolution in the USSR and for conducting it, in part, with input from the West.

Second, I would be less categorical than Brucan in holding that Gorbachev has presented “all major changes…on behalf of the Politburo.” In most cases this is true. But sometimes ambiguity has been evident, for example as regards Gorbachev’s main speech at this June’s Party conference. Interestingly, his ally Yakovlev shed some light on this speech by explaining at a press conference how it was prepared. Gorbachev’s draft, he said, was given to the other Politburo members, who then made suggested amendments, which Gorbachev then considered. He did not say that the Politburo then approved the final product.

In any case, I agree with Brucan that “the Politburo, the Central Committee and the whole party bureaucracy must not be viewed as blocs, they are all split.” As regards the Politburo, this has been clear from the speeches of Ligachev and others for more than a year. All members favor reform, but important divisions exist concerning its desirable nature, pace, and extent. In his conspiratorially prepared power play of September 30/October 1 Gorbachev has—as I recently argued in The Washington Post (“Outlook” section, October 2)—tried to reduce these divisions by undermining Ligachev’s power and increasing his own. His wider purpose is, I believe, the one Mr. Brucan describes. In my view, even partial success in this bold enterprise of, predominantly, reform from above will be hard to achieve. And by using authoritarian methods in his mini-Putsch he has raised the stakes still higher in the power struggle that currently grips the whole Soviet elite.

  1. *

    World Socialism at the Crossroads (Praeger, 1987).

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