1980s >> 1987 >> no-995-july-1987

Limits of Glasnost

Russia is just as much a class society with a capitalist economy as America or any other country in the West, only its ruling class monopolises the means of production in a different way.

Instead of doing so through legal property titles vested in individuals and enforced by the state, the ruling class in countries like Russia does so through a direct exclusive control of the state. So in an economy where most industry is state-owned, this gives them at the same time an exclusive, monopoly control over the means of production too. They control the state through their organisation into a vanguard party, the upper echelons of which decide all appointments to posts of any importance in the various organs of the state — the government, the bureaucracy, the armed forces, and the managements of the state industries.

This means that recruitment to the Russian ruling class too is different to that in the West; it takes place not by inheriting legal property titles but by joining and rising up the Party hierarchy. Similarly, the proceeds of the exploitation of wage labour are shared out differently; not by a legal property income in the form of interest, dividends, profit and rent but through bloated ‘salaries”, monetary prizes and various important privileges in kind (exclusive access to high quality shops, hospitals, holidays and so on).

Who is better off? Who is in the more stable position? The Western ruling classes or the Russian-type ruling classes? From the point of view of the exploited majority in both types of capitalism this question is of little practical importance. In both cases they are excluded from the means of production and so are forced to sell their ability to work to an employer or an employing institution which pays them in wages and salaries less than the value of what they produce. The difference goes towards the accumulation of further capital to exploit wage labour and towards maintaining the ruling class — however they monopolise the means of production and however they are recruited and renewed — in the style to which they are accustomed.

This question does, however, have some relevance when it comes to understanding the political institutions of the two different forms of capitalism. In the West governments act, just as much as they do in Russia, China and other such countries, in the interest of the capitalist ruling class but they do so without the members of this class having to themselves occupy posts in the government. Because the law, and in some cases the constitution, protects their legal right to monopolise the means of production and to draw an unearned income from this, they can delegate the function of running the government to professional politicians. Since the vast majority of wage and salary workers still see no alternative to the capitalist prices-wages-profits system, the capitalist class in the West can also allow which particular clique of politicians should form the government to be decided by popular vote. In fact, this arrangement suits them very well because this game of “ins” and “outs” ensures that no one group of politicians controls the political machine long enough to allocate itself privileges at the expense of the legal property-holding capitalists.

In any event a modern capitalist economy requires a fairly educated wage and salary working class to operate it. Which demands that the capitalist ruling class employ methods other than coercion and the threat of starvation to win our cooperation. The illusion of participation arising from having a say as to which gang of politicians should form the government is precisely one such other method.

Even though this arrangement, known somewhat facetiously as “democracy”, suits the private capitalist class of the West, it was nevertheless still something that had to be imposed on them by mass popular movements such as the Chartists and the Reform League in Britain. The ruling class was originally against giving the vote to the wage and salary earning majority because they were afraid that we might use it against them, though right from the start the more far-seeing among them realised that this, besides being a way of undermining the political influence of their landed rivals within the ruling class, was also a way of integrating the working class into capitalist political life.

Universal suffrage and the relative freedom of speech and organisation that goes with it has one drawback for the ruling class however: it means that they cannot always expect to get their way. at least not without a struggle. In other words — and this is the advantage of these arrangements for the wage and salary working class — it allows us some elbow-room in which to better prosecute the class struggle. It also allows socialists some room to spread socialist ideas in a less encumbered fashion than otherwise and it provides the means, when a majority of workers have become socialists, for them to impose their political will for socialism on the ruling class in an essentially peaceful way.

The Russian ruling class is in a rather different position in this respect. They do not suffer the drawback of having to allow their workers the chance of organising to better wage the class struggle against them, nor of having to allow socialists and other opponents to openly criticise them. All the same, as Khrushchev realised thirty years ago. no more than the ruling class in the West can they run their now relatively modern capitalist economy by employing brute force, as in Stalin’s time. The working class in Russia too have become more skilled and educated and so require a different treatment to get them to cooperate in production. Gorbachev’s reforms are designed to take account of this.

But how far will he go? How far can he go? In the late 1950s and early ’60s in the Khrushchev era. observers of the Russian scene looked forward optimistically towards an eventual evolution in Russia of the same sort of trade union and political freedoms as exist in the West. But this was not what happened. Economic development and economic liberalisation were not followed by a move towards political democracy. On the contrary under Khrushchevs successor. Brezhnev — who deposed him in 1964 — there was a regression, not to the brute force tactics of the Stalin era but to a strengthening of the Party’s control over political, economic and ideological life.

An analysis of the way in which the ruling class in Russia-type societies monopolises the means of production shows why this was only to be expected and why in fact it is quite unrealistic to expect a straight-line progression from the present one-party political dictatorship in such countries to Western-type political forms. For the ruling class in these countries monopolise the means of production through their monopoly control of political power; which means that to give this up would be to give up also their monopoly over the means of production. In other words, the ruling class in countries like Russia can permit, in the interests of economic efficiency, a certain degree of liberalisation but this can never go so far as to threaten what they themselves call “the leading role of the Party”.

This liberalisation can go so far as to permit the official trade union movement to criticise certain governmental actions (as in Poland), to allow more than one Party or Party-endorsed candidate in political elections (as in Hungary) and to allow private enterprise and investment to flourish (as in China). Since none of these exist in Russia itself this allows Gorbachev the possibility of introducing a certain number of innovations into the Russian political system but however far in this direction he and the group he represents within the Russian ruling class decide to go, they will stop short of allowing any real challenge to the Party’s political monopoly. The Party will remain in the saddle since it is the organisation by which the ruling class there actually rules.

Since the fall of Khrushchev this has been confirmed on a number of occasions. Although strategic considerations were also involved, the Russian ruling class sent its tanks into Czechoslovakia in 1968 when the Party there under Dubchek appeared to be moving away from the principle of the leading role of the vanguard Party. In Poland in 1981 the government was compelled to declare martial law in order to try to suppress the Solidarity trade union movement which had refused to accept the leading role of the Party, some of its members having clearly identified exactly who the ruling class in Poland were and precisely how they ruled and monopolised the means of production. And in China the political liberalisation process was brought to an abrupt halt earlier this year when, following student demonstrations, there seemed to be a possibility of the leading role of the Chinese Communist Party (so-called) being undermined.

This is all quite understandable when it is realised that it is through the Party that these ruling classes control the state and through the state the means of production. To expect them to give up the leading role of their Party is like expecting the ruling class in the West to give up the state’s protection and enforcement of their legal property rights. Neither of them can be expected to do that except under the pressure of a political revolution.

In other words, the Russian political system could only change into something along the lines of the political system that exists in the West after a political upheaval in which the present ruling class would be deposed. This is not impossible to imagine but highly improbable since the only group (apart from the working class of course) that could do this would be a class of legally-owning private capitalists. Such a class does indeed exist in embryo form in Russia and in China and Hungary in a much more developed form but they hardly have either the economic or the political clout to overthrow the incumbent state capitalist class in any of these countries. Another possibility would be for the existing state capitalist class to convert itself into a class of legally-owning private capitalists. Some of the members of the Russian nomenklatura have accumulated considerable fortunes in their own right and as this process continues there could be pressure from these and their inheritors to move in this direction, but once again this would seem to be highly unlikely.

This means that the only class capable of challenging the ruling class in countries like Russia is the wage and salary working class. As the case of Poland shows, if they are resolute and determined enough they can win a certain room to manoeuvre within the existing political system: a limited freedom to negotiate over wages and working conditions equivalent to that won by workers in the West. This could be conceded, under pressure, by the ruling class in Russia without their political control of the state being undermined any more than its existence in the West undermines the legal private ownership of the means of production there. So there is room for progress here and in the future the working class in Russia might be able to win the same sort of elbow room within the system as workers have been able to in the West. In fact this can be regarded as being a fairly likely development.

The ruling class in Russia-type societies may offer a choice of two or more Party candidates in elections since this would not represent any threat to the leading role of the Party which is the basis of their rule and the class monopoly they exercise over the means of production. If this comes, and experiments in this direction have already been carried out in Hungary, then workers there would be offered the same false choice as in the West between candidates who stand for the same basic thing: the maintenance of the existing form of capitalism.

Real change will only come in Russia and such countries in the same way that it will come in the West: through the growth of socialist understanding and organisation. This will transform the political scene in both types of capitalist country. In the West the political representatives of capitalism will be increasingly challenged at the polls by mandated delegates from the growing socialist movement. In the East this will be a little more difficult but. under pressure from the socialist movement, the authorities would be forced to permit socialist candidates to stand against those defending the Leninist principle of “the leading role of the Party”. If at first they refused, the situation would become impossible for them until they gave in — after all, if they could hardly manage the emergence of an independent trade union movement as in Poland, imagine the difficulties they would have in managing the emergence of a growing socialist movement.

Adam Buick