Skip to Content

The Significance of Sakharov

Russia today appears a very different country to the confident country of Cold War confrontation. Now we see a Russia which welcomes and invites USA investment and foreign exploitation of hitherto untapped resources.

Russia is not now negotiating from a position of economic strength. The whole world now knows how catastrophically inefficient is Russian agriculture. In spite of tremendous and sustained capital investment, in spite of ruthless elimination of smallholdings and development of giant-scale mechanized agricultural units, in spite of all this Russian agriculture has not been able to deliver the goods. Frequently famine is a feature and there are few years without cause for concern.

It is against this background of inefficient agriculture and inability to exploit the vast resources of Siberia that we examine recent political developments.

Since last winter the KGB have been making a large number of arrests. Their aim was to suppress the Chronicle of Current Events by rounding up all concerned with writing and distributing this underground journal. The Chronicle, first published in 1968 (Human Rights Year), provided information on arrests and persecution of Soviet dissidents. Its publishers also ensured its republication in the West.

We now know something of these courageous people. Most were concerned only with individual rights and freedom of speech. They were mostly patriotic and generally supporters of state capitalism. But now it is not a lone struggle of novelists and poets for personal freedom from the censor. Now the civil rights movement in Russia has acquired a new and powerful impetus from scientists and engineers who have joined forces with the artistic dissidents.

Sakharov, a distinguished nuclear physicist and the father of Russia's H-bomb, is symbolic of this new tendency. Index, in its list of people sacked from jobs, arrested or sentenced, cites in recent issues many Soviet scientists: cyberneticians, physicists, astronomers, engineers, psychologists, biologists and mathematicians.

Times have changed in Russia. While the struggle for freedom of expression is still fought by poets, novelists and artists generally, it is noteworthy that this struggle is now also being undertaken by those whose former practice it was to "carry their chains with decency": men who designed Russia's power stations and nuclear weaponry, for example.

Unfortunately for the Kremlin clique the demand for freedom by this indispensable section of Soviet society is likely to grow. The Russians, for all their determination, have lagged behind the West in technology ― cybernetics in particular. Scientists in Russia need to have access to Western specialist publications, they demand to attend international conferences in order to keep up with Western advances.

Rosa Luxemburg's comment has been proved correct:

"Lenin and Trotsky have replaced the representative bodies set up by general popular elections by the Soviets as the sole true representation of the whole toiling masses. But with the suppression of political life throughout the whole country, the vitality of the Soviets themselves is bound to be gradually paralysed. Without general elections, unlimited freedom of the Press and of association, and free struggle of opinions, life in every public institution slowly dies, it becomes a fiction of life, where only bureaucracy remains the active element. That is a law nobody can avoid.

"Public life gradually goes to sleep; a few dozen party leaders with inexhaustible energy and limitless idealism direct and rule; amongst them, in fact, a dozen remarkable brains are leading, and an elite of the working class is summoned from time to time to applaud the speeches of the leaders, to vote unanimously the resolutions submitted to them, in the last resort a clique government ― a dictatorship it is true, but not the dictatorship of the proletariat: the dictatorship of a handful of politicians, i.e., a dictatorship in the bourgeois meaning of the word, in the Jacobin sense." (Quoted by Daniel Norman in "Marx and Soviet Reality" from Luxemburg's pamphlet "The Russian Revolution".)

Not only does the Russian worker bear the burden of a top-heavy bureaucracy, but also he is terrorised by the KGB, direct descendant of the dreaded Tsarist Okhrana, of which Lenin wrote in 1903: "the shameful Russian inquisition . . . will not disappear until freedom of assembly, of speech and of the press is introduced" (quoted by Daniel Norman, op. cit.). History shows him to have been right: for just a few months in 1917 Russia lived without a secret police and had freedom of speech and assembly. The Bolsheviks soon put paid to all that. The Cheka was launched on its bloody career by Lenin and Trotsky in December of that year, a mere month after the Revolution. Bolshevism begat the Cheka, the Cheka begat GPU, the GPU begat NKVD, the NKVD begat KGB ― what a vile brood !

Most of the dissidents seek reforms within the system. We do not share their viewpoint but we welcome the prospect of the Russian working class seeking conditions of political democracy. We do not however delude ourselves into regarding this as an end in itself: rather, it is the necessary means, the soil in which the seed will germinate.

With every failed grain harvest, with every new Western computer advance, the glaring shortcomings of Russian state capitalism are becoming more obvious. The ruling clique even have become aware of its inefficiency. This situation is one which may well lead to Russians coming towards the world Socialist movement. Capitalism's grave is being marked out, in Russia as elsewhere.