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Gorbachev and the End of Communism

The Bolsheviks who seized power in Russia in November 1917 drew a distinction, at the insistence of Lenin but unlike Marx and Engels, between socialism and communism.

By "socialism" they meant a society where everybody would be an employee of the state which in turn would own all the means of production; what should more properly be called state capitalism. By "communism" they meant what up to then had more usually been called socialism - a classless, moneyless, wageless, stateless society based on common ownership and democratic control. Thus, in the ABC of Communism, a textbook written to explain the new programme the Bolshevik party had adopted in March 1919, Bukharin and Preobrazhensky stated:

“The communist method of production presupposes in addition that production is not for the market, but for use. Under communism, it is no longer the individual manufacturer or the individual peasant who produces; the work of production is effected by the gigantic cooperative as a whole. In consequence of this change, we no longer have commodities, but only products. These products are not exchanged one for another; they are neither bought nor sold. They are simply stored in the communal warehouses, and are subsequently delivered to those who need them. In such conditions, money will no longer be required. Communist society will know nothing of money. Every worker will produce goods for the general welfare. He will not receive any certificate to the effect that he has delivered the product to society, he will receive no money, that is to say. In like manner, he will pay no money to society when he receives whatever he requires from the common store.”

In Bolshevik theory communism could not be established immediately after the capture of political power but only after "socialism" - defined, as we saw, as 100 per cent state capitalism - had been achieved. A moneyless, wageless society was seen as evolving gradually out of the state capitalist society that was the Bolsheviks' real immediate aim.

This is still the official dogma of the Russian ruling class though their vision of communism, like everything else they inherited from their 1914 Marxist past, has suffered some significant distortions. It is seen as being able to exist on less than a world scale, either in one large country like Russia or the whole Russian bloc but above all the Party (if not the state as such) is seen as surviving into it.

Stalin proclaimed that "socialism" – more or less total state capitalism – had been achieved in 1936. So, ever since, the country has supposedly been heading for communism. Khrushchev, the last previous "liberal" ruler of Russia before Gorbachev, even tried to give this goal a concrete form as a way of enlisting popular support for his anti-Stalinist reform programme. The new Programme of the Russian Party, adopted in October 1961, declared in its introduction:

“Today the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) is adopting its third Programme, a programme for the building of communist society . . . . The supreme goal of the Party is to build a communist society on whose banner will be inscribed: ‘From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.”

and ended with the words:

“The Party solemnly proclaims: the present generation of Soviet people shall live in communism!”

A specific timetable was even laid down:

“The material and technical basis of communism will be built up by the end of the second decade (1971-80) . . . The construction of communist society will be fully completed in the subsequent period.”

The “communist principle of distribution according to need" was to be introduced gradually, even before 1980, before being extended generally in the 1980s:

“In the course of the second decade housing will gradually become rent-free for all citizens. Public transport facilities (trolleys, buses, trolley-buses and subways) will become free in the course of the second decade, and at the end of it such public amenities as water, gas and heating will also be free.
In addition to the existing free medical services, accommodation of sick persons at sanatoria and the dispensing of medicines will become gratuitous.
The transition to free public catering (midday meals) at enterprises and institutions, and for collective farmers at work, will begin in the second decade.”

Free housing, public transport, water, gas, heating, medical services and meals at work – this was the promise for the 1980s that the ruling party made to the Russian workers in 1961. Other promises included falling prices and the abolition of income tax. The fact that not one of these has been realised – Russian workers still have to pay for public transport, water, gas, heating and so on -shows that it is not just Western politicians who make promises that they don't – in fact can't – keep.

One of the first things Gorbachev had to do after he became Party leader in 1985 was to admit failure in this respect. As he told the 27th Party Congress held in February 1986:

“Much has changed in our life in the quarter of a century since the adoption of the Third Party Programme. New historical experience has been accumulated. Not all of the estimates and conclusions turned out to be correct. The idea of translating the tasks of the full-scale building of communism into direct practical action has proved to be premature. Certain miscalculations were made, too, in fixing deadlines for the solution of a number of concrete problems.”

He went on to denounce "simplistic ideas about the ways and period of time for carrying out the tasks of communist construction” and to declare that ''as for the chronological limits in which the Party's targets are to be attained, they do not seem to be needed"; all that could be said on this was that these targets would be achieved after the end of the present century.

Gorbachev was announcing, in other words, that the establishment of "communism" in Russia was being postponed indefinitely. More in fact, since his alternative to Khrushchev's "construction of communist society" as a mirage to hold before the Russian people – perestroika – amounts to a virtual abandoning of communism as a goal. The essence of perestroika, which is merely the Russian word for restructuring, is the gearing of production of individual state enterprises more to the profitable market demand than hitherto, involving in particular a price reform which, with the ending of state subsidies, is likely to mean a rise – rather than a fall towards zero, as promised by Khrushchev – in the price of many goods and services. Gorbachev said so explicitly at the special Party conference held at the end of June this year:

“The price reform cannot fail to affect retail prices. Today the retail price of many food products, notably that of meat and milk, is considerably lower than the actual cost of producing them, lower than the state's procurement price. The state is compelled to cover this difference in the form of a subsidy. That is not a normal situation. It undermines the incentive for producing these products and gives rise to a wasteful attitude, especially towards bread.
We know all this perfectly well, comrades. It is absolutely necessary to resolve this problem, no matter how difficult it may be and no matter what doubts and fears it may create at first glance.
Here is our approach: the funds which the state is paying out as subsidies today will be handed over in full to the population as compensation.”(Financial Times, 29 June 1988)

In other words, instead of free services and falling prices being subsidised as a supposed transition to "the communist principle of distribution according to need", both prices and wages are going to be allowed to rise, so forcing workers to buy what they need at a price corresponding to economic cost as determined by the operation of market forces. Money-commodity relations are to be strengthened rather than gradually abolished, as envisaged in the 1961 Party Programme. Perestroika, in fact, represents a complete repudiation of this perspective.

So where does this leave "communism”, or rather the free distribution by the Russian ruling class to its workers of goods and services? This goal now seems to have been shelved. The original version of the Party Programme adopted at the 22nd Party Congress in 1961 declared that "with the transition to the single form of people's property and the communist system of distribution, commodity-money relations will become economically outdated and will wither away". However the revised version adopted, under Gorbachev, at the 27th Party Congress in 1986 affirmed market relations to be inherent to the Russian social system (as indeed they are).

Propagandists for Gorbachev's reforms go out of their way to emphasise that the goal is now a society in which the market will still exist. Abel Aganbegyan, a top economic adviser to Gorbachev and one of the theorists of perestroika, speaks in his recent book The Challenge: Economics of Perestroika of achieving in the 21st century, not the free distribution promised by Khrushchev for the 1980s and 90s, but "the full supply to the market of all the sought-after goods in order to ensure the full satisfaction of demand". Another supporter of Gorbachev, Fedor Burlatsky, who in his time was also a  propagandist for Khrushchev, now criticises Khrushchev for having wanted to "leap" into communism. In an article this April in Literaturnaya Gazeta (translated into English and published in the June issue of Marxism Today) he contrasted "state socialism", of which he sees Khrushchev's "communism" as a variant, with what he calls "public, self-managing socialism" which he defines as "the planned commodity economy based on individual cost-accounting by enterprises".

Though they have not done so yet, the Russian Party may end up embracing the same position as their Chinese counterparts who have also made a U-turn on this issue and who now see the "socialist" (in reality, state capitalist} stage, with commodity-production and market relations, lasting for another hundred years.

“In the latest attack on Stalin, the Shanghai journal Shu Lin carried an article attacking him for pressing too rapidly the transition from socialism to communism . . . Nowadays, the article said, China was only at the beginning of a 100-year socialist stage which was laying the foundation for the final realisation of Communism - only hazily defined even by Deng Xiaoping, the senior leader.” (Independent, 27 July 1988)

By that time the workers of the world should long have overthrown both the Russian and Chinese ruling classes and themselves have established a socialist (or communist, for the two words mean exactly the same thing} society based on common ownership and democratic control in which wealth will be produced simply as useful products to satisfy needs and no longer as commodities to be bought and sold on a market.