La Perestroika

Harold Perkin

  • The Second Socialist Revolution: An Alternative Soviet Strategy by Tatyana Zaslavskaya, translated by Susan Davies
    Tauris, 241 pp, £19.95, February 1990, ISBN 1 85043 151 5

Although she is too modest to say so directly, Tatyana Zaslavskaya is the woman who invented perestroika. ‘By an irony of fate,’ she writes, ‘I became a “supporter of restructuring” several years before the word “perestroika” was uttered for the first time, and I shared Gorbachev’s views long before he became General Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party and made his political programme public.’ She was one of the small group of intellectuals whose critique of the Soviet economy convinced Gorbachev that there was no alternative to restructuring it.

The daughter of a physics professor of peasant stock and a mother – killed in the first air-raid on Moscow in 1941, when Tatyana was only 14 – from an eminent academic family in Kiev, she gave up physics for economics at Moscow University. She later transferred to sociology, a ‘subversive’ discipline under Stalin, because she believed that social problems held the key to the failures of the economy. Despite her reputation as a troublemaker, her undoubted ability got her accepted for a PhD, studying at the Moscow Institute of Economics under the independent-minded veteran of the Revolution, Professor Venzher. Her research on the income structure of collective farms opened her eyes to the poverty and inefficiency of Russian agriculture. It attracted the attention of another critical academic, Abel Aganbegyan, now famous as one of the leaders of the radicals on Gorbachev’s flank, who in 1963 recruited her to his Institute of Economics in Novosibirsk, soon to be known as a hotbed of loyal dissent.

There, in addition to raising two daughters, she headed the sociology division and chaired a national Committee on Development of Soviet Villages, which produced a statistical model of rural society with 300 variables. In 1977 this reported that Soviet agriculture was heading for a crisis that would devour more and more resources until it dragged down the whole national economy. She then headed a large team research project to test this model against the rural economy in the nearby fertile Altai region of western Siberia. The ‘Novosibirsk Manifesto’, as its 1982 report came to be known, concluded that agricultural production needed to double its rate of growth to 8 per cent per annum merely to keep up with the demands of the urban population, which increased from a third to two-thirds of the growing national total between the Thirties and the Eighties. Yet there was no way of expanding food production without radically restructuring rural society.

Her speech on the Manifesto to a national conference of experts the following year was leaked to the West ‘by means unknown to me’, and appeared without attribution in the Washington Post. In those fading days of the Brezhnev regime, when it was acceptable to criticise constructively the problems of the system ‘within the family’ but not in front of outsiders, she and her boss, Aganbegyan, got into deep trouble. As the eminent Manchester Sovietologist Teodor Shanin relates in his illuminating introduction, they were charged with deviation and irresponsibility, dragged through endless investigating committees, subjected to a barrage of abuse, and given a formal Party reprimand. The effect was counter-productive as far as the Party was concerned. Zaslavskaya’s name became well-known in Western academic circles and, via Western broadcasts, in the USSR itself, where the incompetence and mismanagement of the Brezhnev regime were becoming too flagrant to be ignored. The Soviet top brass were forced to read the offending document and digest its message.

The death of Brezhnev saved her and her colleagues from further harassment. The new Secretary for Agriculture, brought into the Politburo by Andropov, was Mikhail Gorbachev, whom she had met in 1982 as a member of the Academy of Sciences. One of the few top politicians educated in the social sciences rather than as a technocratic engineer, he consulted Zaslavskaya and other social scientists and arrived at much the same conclusions. Zaslavskaya, who had met Gorbachev only about six times in the company of others, denies that she was ever his ‘personal advisor’, but he had undoubtedly read her reports. The difference between them was that, amongst the dangerous publicity and rumour-mongering of Moscow, he could not openly express his views until Brezhnev was safely dead, while in the academic fastness of Novosibirsk she could not only think the unthinkable but discuss it in comparative security – save for the unintended leak.

The current book goes further than the Manifesto in widening her critique to the whole of the Soviet economy and society. Zaslavskaya’s analysis of the failures of the system is by now familiar, but this should not blind us to her courage and originality. It is one thing to speculate about the old regime with hindsight and from the outside, quite another to dissect its living and dangerous flesh as a member of the Soviet élite. She catalogues the economy’s failures with clarity and force: the unreality of central planning by Moscow bureaucrats who set targets related only to last year’s plan, not to actual achievement, who act in total ignorance of local conditions, availability of supplies, or consumer demand, fixing prices and wages without regard to incentives and motivation, subsidising food, housing and consumer goods to keep the urban workers from complaining too much, and winking at the corruption of officials and their collaborators – the ‘mafia’ operators of the shadow economy, without whom the system would collapse.

Her condemnation of Soviet society as it evolved under the savage repression of Stalin, the abortive reforms of Khrushchev, the ‘re-Stalinisation’ under Brezhnev, is still more devastating. The nomenklatura, she says, are not just a privileged élite, with their special shops, special housing, chauffeur-driven cars, special schools and clinics, country dachas and exclusive hunting preserves. They have abused their position to pillage the rest of society. ‘People have been presented with a picture of shameless theft of public property by the ruling stratum, colossal swindles, systematic use of office for personal enrichment and the accumulation of multi-million-rouble family fortunes, the unjustifiable and illegal acquisition of privileges and advantages.’ They have transformed themselves from a professional group into a hereditary governing élite: ‘All this leads to the conclusion that the socially degenerate stratum of officials nominated by the Party apparatus has a definite tendency to turn people into a ruling class, exploiting the rest of the people.’ For one of their own to round on them in these terms was unheard of in the seventy years of Communist Party rule, and would have led to her death under Stalin, or to internal exile under his successors.

Zaslavskaya’s book is not simply a repudiation of Communism and an acceptance of Western-style free-market capitalism. ‘The Second Socialist Revolution’ implies not only that the first Revolution failed, but that the replacement will be a socialist one. Like Gorbachev, Zaslavskaya is still a socialist and believes in a form of market socialism, based on a combination of indicative planning – reminiscent of the French and Japanese ‘economic miracles’ – and decentralised co-operative enterprises run by managers elected by their workers. She believes that the first Socialist Revolution worked well under Lenin’s New Economic Policy, which rewarded the individual peasant and worker for his or her enterprise. (Richard Pipes’s new hook on the Russian Revolution disagrees, and paints Lenin as the inaugurator of the oppression of the peasants and workers.) The Revolution was betrayed by Stalin, who established the very unsocialist central command economy, with its forced industrialisation, brutal collectivisation of agriculture and murderous repression, costing millions of lives. The Revolution needs to be made all over again, with democracy and freedom built into a system to secure and preserve human rights, the rule of law and the fundamental equalities of true socialism.

This alternative Soviet strategy puts Zaslavskaya in the camp of Tawney, Tony Crosland and Shirley Williams and the kindlier tradition of democratic socialism: ‘The task of a socialist society is to retain the advantages of centralised economic planning, while at the same time finding ways of combining it with a greater stimulation of market mechanisms.’ For her, perestroika does not mean capitulation to free-market capitalism, as Western right-wing triumphalists are trumpeting, but a genuine third way which balances the freedom of the individual against the responsibilities of the community.

Perhaps the process of change unleashed by Gorbachev has already gone too far for Zaslavskaya’s gentle vision to succeed. The reaction against the Communist Party which she and her allies have helped to provoke has given every kind of socialism a bad name, and if Eastern Europe is a role model, the Russian people and the fragmenting republics may reject it altogether. On the other hand, I found, on my last visit in June, that many Russians were already fed up with perestroika and wanted only to find food in the shops. Many more said that things were better under Brezhnev. A radical deputy of the Russian Republic, far ahead of Gorbachev and Yeltsin in his passion for reform, admitted that most Russians were not interested in freedom or democracy but preferred a low level of subsistence as long as it was guaranteed and no other Russian had much more. He believed that Russians never had any faith in their rulers and hoped only to get by with as little work and aggravation as possible. To paraphrase the old Russian joke quoted by Zaslavskaya: ‘we’ll pretend to work and they’ll pretend to pay us.’ As for noneconomic problems, she mentions as ‘very damaging’ the nationalities problem and the centrifugal forces threatening disintegration of the Soviet Union, but she has no answer. Like Gorbachev, she seems to have been taken completely by surprise. Its fundamental irrationalism does not fit the materialist model which even an open-minded, reforming Marxist applies to the explanation of the world.

Since 1988, Zaslavskaya has been Director of the Centre for National Public Opinion in Moscow – a revolutionary innovation for Russia, Tsarist or Soviet, where an opinion poll has been a subversive idea. She now has the task of discovering what the people want as a basis for government policy, a function which has been overtaken by the more direct evidence of mass demonstrations and riots in the streets, of civil war and inter-ethnic violence. When I interviewed her in June, I pressed her on the question of whether it was possible, given the recalcitrance of the entrenched bureaucracy, to reform the system through the very people who had most to lose from perestroika. She replied that the people at the top recognised that change was essential and inevitable, that the USSR was still a centralised polity that could be reformed from the top down, and that the middle-rank bureaucrats who dragged their feet were disciplined enough to do as they were told. I asked whether she thought Gorbachev could survive in the face of the mounting problems. She answered that he was a survivor: he was still there, despite all the forecasts when he announced perestroika that he could not last more than two or three years. He was a supremely intelligent and skilful politician; besides, there was as yet no alternative. He had succeeded in transferring power from the Party to the Presidency and the people, and had therefore made perestroika irreversible.

Asked what she thought of the future of Soviet women under the new regime, and whether women like her would play a larger role in a freer and more democratic society, Zaslavskaya replied that Western feminists were wrong about Russian women wanting to ‘have it all’ – a family, a career and political clout. They had had a double burden of work and domestic chores for too long, and it was time for a change. Russian women looked forward to less work, not more: they wanted the freedom to stay at home if they wished, instead of being forced to work not only by the state but by economic necessity. That, of course, would require a rise in living standards to enable a single breadwinner to support a family.

Since June, despite a record harvest, the shortages of food and cigarettes have become more intense – proving that the problems are man-made and due to poorly organised distribution and transport. I am told that they are worse in Moscow than in the provinces, which suggests that reactionary bureaucrats are sabotaging the system and making difficulties felt where it counts. The national republics, including the Great Russian, are demanding independence, and fighting among themselves for territory and political predominance. Rational reformers like Zaslavskaya are valiantly trying to keep perestroika afloat, glancing sideways at the Army and the KGB for signs of impatience, the prelude to intervention. Catherine the Great was easily Russia’s most successful Tsar. If they would like a new matriarch to lead them to the promised land of the ‘Second Socialist Revolution’, they could do far worse than elect Tatyana.