The Party’s over

John Lloyd

At the time of writing, the main document I shall discuss has not been published and has had only minimal exposure in the media anywhere. It circulates among at most two to three thousand members of the Soviet Communist Party nomenklatura and policy intelligentsia. It was not particularly difficult to acquire: it will certainly be in the hands of several Soviet journalists. But nothing of its content has appeared so far in the Soviet press, in spite of its fundamental importance to Soviet society – a testimony to the nervous respect (or aversion) it invokes.

It is a draft of the new programme of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. If adopted, and for the first time in nearly a century there is real doubt about such an adoption, it will be only the fourth document of the kind since 1903, when the Bolsheviks agreed their first programme at their Second Party Congress. In 1919, as the sole party, the Bolsheviks reworked a programme of revolutionary opposition into one of revolutionary power. In 1961, the Communist Party of the Soviet Union declared itself ready to build Communism through a third programme; and in 1986, a year after the access to power of Mikhail Gorbachev, a ‘New Edition’ was adopted at the 28th Party Congress which incorporated some new elements, including a softer international line and the idea of ‘self-financing’ for business enterprises.

Otherwise, the ‘New Edition’ – still, as of now, the official Party programme – is as rigidly correct as the slow-motion goosestep of the KGB guards on their way to and from guard duty at Lenin’s tomb in Red Square. ‘The third programme of the CPSU in its present updated edition,’ it says, ‘is a programme for the planned and all-round perfection of socialism, for Soviet society’s further advance to Communism through the country’s accelerated socio-economic development. It is a programme of the struggle for peace and social progress.’

The Stalin period was glossed over more or less completely, with a tiny genuflection to ‘deviations from the norm of Leninist Party and state guidance’, errors ‘of a subjectivist, voluntaristic nature’ and the ‘cult of personality’ (which ‘personality’ was not stated). In that period, it was understood, ‘a socialist society ... was essentially built’ in which ‘the alliance of the working class and the peasantry was placed on a solid socio-economic footing,’ ‘ethnic conflicts became a thing of the past’ and ‘Marxist-Leninist ideology became dominant in the minds of the Soviet people.’ ‘History,’ the document said, ‘has not known such a community of countries in which no one country has or can have special rights and privileges.’

By contrast, ‘the general crisis of capitalism is deepening ... its historical doom is becoming ever more obvious ... mass unemployment and inflation have become a chronic disease, and budget deficits and state debts have reached a colossal scale.’ And so on, for a hundred-odd pages.

It is important to remember that the document was written by a commission under the leadership of Gorbachev, a man who, we now know, had based his own programme on an awareness that the doomed capitalist world was outstripping the world of which he was the leader in almost every sphere. He had read, and had already accepted intellectually, the reports of such economists as Abel Aganbegyan, whose studies were circulated only among academics and written in a kind of code: but that code said that the Soviet Union was failing.

The programme which the Party will put before the seventeen million-plus members of the CPSU in the next weeks or months is thus most revolutionary in not being revolutionary. In the five years which have passed since the ritual adoption of the ‘New Edition’, an intellectual and ideological world has collapsed. The Party’s Fourth Programme takes the Party to democracy and, probably, oblivion. On the model of those other Communist Parties which have renounced the leading role, the class struggle and the iron certainties of Marxism-Leninism, this is the end.

‘At this stage of history,’ the document says in its opening paragraphs, ‘the CPSU should not only radically renew the form and methods of its activities: it should also acquire new qualities and turn into a political organisation living up to the conditions of a law-based civil society.’ As a ‘system of views and as a political movement, Bolshevism successfully represented the radical side of Marxism’; at the same time, ‘it embodied all the contradictions, all the unrealised hopes of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.’ But ‘when capitalism began stabilising, all hopes for a world revolution vanished.’

Lenin had to attempt to create socialism in a backward country: early on, he adopted the New Economic Policy fitted to these conditions. ‘History did not give us the chance to know how the development of our country would have continued had this been fulfilled’: for the Stalin leadership (this time the ‘personality’ has a name) foreclosed on the Leninist path, and, using ‘methods unacceptable to socialism’ which ‘the Party failed effectively to stop’, it clamped the command system on the USSR, ‘with tragic consequences for the Party and the country’:

The Party does not shrug off responsibility for this ... but something else is clear. Speaking in the name of the Party, the Stalin leadership flagrantly broke all the norms of Party life and we should not forget that among the Communists true to democratic traditions, the Party lived, and was against repressive methods. That is why Stalin and his followers terrorised and persecuted the Party. In spite of this, the Party went on living and fighting.

No question that this is better than the layers of paint applied to the thirty-year war which Stalin unleashed against ‘his’ people. It partly confronts what previously was passed by with an averted face. It acknowledges, though only curtly, that the Party and its members cannot be absolved from responsibility. But the limits remain, and with them, another kind of lie.

First, there is nothing here that seriously questions Lenin: he remains on his pedestal, though a little lower than before because it has been delicately suggested that the period which was ‘his’, the turn of the century, had ‘contradictions’. Second, the NEP, elevated to pride of place early on in the Gorbachev period, now becomes ossified as the great Leninist model to which ‘history did not give a chance’. Third, those in the Party who were repressed by Stalin become, collectively, carriers of a ‘democratic’ Communism – by virtue of the repression.

All of this is more or less nonsense. Lenin was unquestionably effective and apparently nerveless: but the system whose logic Stalin followed through was, in most essentials, his. The NEP was always seen, by him and by the others, as a regrettable necessity, a concession to the petty traders, manufacturers and peasants for whom they had much greater contempt than they had for the big industrialists, whose methods they attempted to imitate and whom they revered for their centralised, disciplined approach. Further, these were not just his views but those of all the Bolsheviks: indeed, they were Bolsheviks precisely because they rejected democracy. Trotsky put down the Krondstadt revolt and called for the shooting of strikers; Bukharin (Lenin’s ‘party favourite’) said at the Seventh Party Congress that ‘in case of necessity we can and must sacrifice tens of thousands of workers’; and Genrikh Yagoda, as deputy head, then head, of the NKVD supervised the torture, enslavement and execution of thousands of people.

This is not to argue that there were no differences of character or outlook between these men: or, indeed, between Stalin and Lenin. Had Lenin lived, or had another man become General Secretary of the CPSU, the history of the Soviet Union might have been less bloody. But the fate to which Lenin consigned the party he made – that of the dictatorship of the few against the inchoate society of the many – could be resolved only by continuing violence, or by the resignation of power. It is this central issue which the draft programme does nothing to address: though, sooner or later, the Communists of the Soviet Union will be forced to do so.

Further, these revolutionaries shared a common mentality which was in part that of the revolutionary and in part that of the Russian. Alexander Tsipko, among the best of the Soviet commentators on the current scene, put it well: ‘perhaps the most dangerous element of our radical thinking did not consist so much in the cavalier attitude towards violence and destruction but rather in the conviction that the strength of the future edifice depended on the thoroughness of the initial destruction and that nothing of importance can he built without major sacrifices. Sometimes one gets the impression that many Soviets hold dear not that which has innate value as significant in itself but rather that which has cost them much suffering.’

The inhibited quality of analysis continues when the draft programme ‘examines’ the Khrushchev and Brezhnev periods and Andropov/Chernenko interludes. Hailing the 20th Congress – in which Khrushchev gave the anti-Stalinist secret speech – as a ‘historical turning-point’, it nevertheless blames Khrushchev for failing to eradicate the main features of the Stalinist system. These continued under the ‘stagnation’ years of Brezhnev: years in which the country began to fall further and further behind a West which was benefiting from the scientific-technical revolution. This gap ‘led the country to the necessity for a radical break’ – though that necessity ‘was not at first perceived’ by the Party.

It was finally perceived in 1985 when, in its first meeting after the accession of Gorbachev, the Central Committee plenum in April ‘started the process of radical renewal and the restructuring of our society’. Today, ‘the Party sees perestroika as a world-historical period in the course of which the administrative-command system is being replaced by new structures which bring to life the principles of a humane democratic socialism, able to use all the achievements of modern civilisation in the interests of man and his development.’ Included in these achievements is the ‘mixed market economy’ which ‘now creates the prerequisites for economic freedom for the labour of the people’.

In an extraordinary passage to find in a party programme, the text raises the possibility of a reactionary ‘rollback’ and proceeds to discuss the ‘dark inheritance which has gathered within the administrative-command system, and is now coming out into the open’. This has been compounded by ‘blunders and miscalculations in the course of perestroika itself’; by ‘compromises and hesitations caused by the desire to avoid harsh decisions’; by ‘manifestations of separatist and nationalist feeling which were not evaluated in time and gave rise to inter-ethnic conflict’. ‘In this atmosphere,’ the draft continues judiciously, ‘illusions were created concerning the possibility of achieving the desired changes in the shortest possible time.’ Here, at last, the draft’s authors may have permitted themselves to see into the life of things. For what has underlain the perestroika process until its present, fragmented stage is precisely that feeling – one of the most insidious and widespread legacies of Stalinism – that an effort of will and of organisation can change the world overnight. ‘The culprits in all this,’ Tsipko writes, ‘are the insane extremes of our intelligentsia who wanted to remove in one fell swoop all the contradictions of human existence.’ These insane extremists lived on into, indeed were in charge of, the age of perestroika; and it is only now that we are beginning to see that perestroika is itself being restructured because it had let too many genies out of the bottle.

The text says: ‘a serious threat is created by those who stubbornly adhere to the past and who cannot agree with perestroika, and with democratic changes, seeing in it all a threat to socialism.’ I can only imagine how hard they will fight when this document is finally submitted for debate, round about now, as this issue of LRB goes to press, at the special plenum of the Central Committee. What, then, does the Party now propose, in its more modest guise? Not, of course, back to capitalism, but forward to ... well, it seems, capitalism. ‘The Party sees the future development of the market system as an efficient means of production ... our society needs a modern market economy – a consumer market, a market in the means of production, a market in the means of investment, in the form of currencies and stocks, and a market for labour. The market will use the creative forces of man: it will create a democratic basis for change.’ If the country does not embrace the market, ‘we will not he able to include the Soviet economy in the world market, to make our goods competitive and the rouble convertible.’ (How many party programmes anywhere pledge to make their country’s currency freely tradeable on the world’s financial markets?)

Is this Communism à la Friedman? Not wholly. Later on in the programme there are references to ‘rapid but orderly’ moves to a market in which ‘a high social price is not extracted from the population’: the ‘market and private sectors should be subject to social control and planned regulation’. Clearly, one or more of the 132-strong commission which has chewed over this draft still had qualms about nearly a century of history disappearing down the free-market chute and got some bromides inserted.

It won’t help, however. In a suddenly satirical vein, the draft even holds up for scorn its Party slogans: the ‘socialism is largely built’ of the Thirties; the ‘socialism is completely won’ of the Fifties; the ‘in the process of socialism’s perfection’ of the Sixties and Seventies. ‘It is time to give up the old stereotype: that is, to see history as a continuous process of building socialism,’ we are now told, in what is perhaps the most arresting sentence in the draft. Here the raison d’être of Communism as it has been conceived and practised is removed, and there follows a section which asserts, in several different ways, the CPSU’s determination to ‘master all the multiplicity of parliamentary forms of activity’. The CPSU will co-operate with all parties, both those which broadly agree with it and those which do not; and in those republics where Communists no longer rule, it is prepared to be an opposition party – which is big of it, since it has little choice and in some places (the Baltics and Georgia, for example) it will quite soon be lucky to have even that status. After these announcements, the draft’s commitment to free intra-party debate, and its promise to deny its members any privileges, is an anticlimax.

Previous programmes were, or could have been, written by an idiot. This one clearly wasn’t: its main author is Ivan Frolov, the 62-year-old editor-in-chief of Pravda, previously the editor of philosophical-political journals (such as World Marxist Review, Questions of Philosophy and Kommunist) and, for a brief spell, ideology aide to Gorbachev. For the very reason that Frolov is on the reform wing of the Party, his work allows us to see the limits of Reform Communism. These are not immediately obvious: indeed, the various switches and lunges which Gorbachev has made, and still makes, have convinced many Westerners that the most died-in-the-wool Communist, like the bygone Gorbachev, can change his spots almost completely. But of course he can’t. To say this is not to call for a continuation of the Cold War, or to imply that no Communist can be ‘trusted’. On the contrary, it may well be that, in most important ways, Gorbachev has changed both his and his country’s spots – certainly most thoughtful East Europeans think so. He has engineered changes, or more often lifted the threat of punishing changes made by others, and in so doing has, as his party’s new programme proclaims, turned a large part of the world upside down. Yet in the deeper layers of their being, Gorbachev’s generation probably cannot change, even as they helplessly, or ruefully, or even cheerfully, watch what’s happening. They have rid themselves, at least in part, of the view that they can usher in revolutions overnight, but they have not been able to shake themselves of the habit of mind which sees the Party both as the hands which mould the clay and as the foot which turns the wheel. No other organisation has been quite so intimately and murderously intrusive in the lives of its people as the CPSU. Now, for the first time, it is beginning to realise that the social fabric is not putty or plastic in its hands. A new programme had to be written, but it has come too late, as such programmes always do.

The Party is falling apart. Eduard Shevardnadze has left it and founded a new Movement for Democratic Reform. The senior figures among the nomenklatura spend much of their time trying to convert influence to property before the first goes and the second comes on the market. As the end draws nearer, the most bitter fights will not be to do with revisionism v. revolutionary zeal, but with who gets control of the millions and millions of roubles which the Party has salted away.The Party reformers are no doubt sincere in wanting to make socialism humane and democratic: but they should have thought of that before.