Book Review: ‘Revolution From Above’
‘Revolution From Above’ by Tariq Ali, Hutchinson, £3.95
Trotsky argued that Russia was basically socialist because industry was nationalised but that political power had been usurped by a privileged bureaucratic caste led by Stalin; all that was required to put it back on the road to socialism again was a political revolution to remove this caste from power. The argument was flawed in two main respects. First, nationalisation is not socialism but state capitalism and, second, the ruling group in Russia is not a mere privileged caste but a class monopolising the means of production. So what Trotsky really wanted was a less authoritarian regime for state capitalist Russia.
As Gorbachev and the reform group which currently has the upper hand in the single party that rules Russia want to move in the same direction, it was inevitable that sooner or later someone on the Trotskyist movement should argue that Gorbachev was carrying out “the political revolution” Trotsky called for. Former sixties student leader and editor of a series of Trotskyist papers (Red Mole, Socialist Challenge, etc), Tariq Ali has emerged as that someone. According to him, Gorbachev’s “revolution from above” is in the process of putting Russia back on the road to “socialism”. His only regret is that the Russian reformers see themselves as being inspired by Bukharin rather than Trotsky.
Ali is particularly impressed by some of the more radical supporters of Perestroika within the Russian Party, in particular Boris Yeltsin (to whom the book is dedicated), former Moscow Party chief sacked in November 1987 for going too far in trying to stamp out corruption in the local Party and city administration but elected triumphally to the Supreme Soviet in the elections last March, and Professor Yuri Afanasiev, Rector of the Moscow State Institute of Historical Archives, who wrote in a letter published in Pravda on 25 June 1988 (the full text is reproduced in an appendix):
“I don’t consider the society created in our country socialist, however ‘deformed’. ‘Deformation’ touches its vital foundations, political system, relations of production and decidedly everything else.”
This is indeed an amazing statement to have appeared in Pravda (which, for once, lived up to its name), even if it was spoilt by an earlier passage where he wrote “we haven’t achieved socialism in the form envisaged by Lenin and the Leninist guard in the twenties”. Still, it must have set some people thinking and is more radical than the orthodox Trotskyist position which sees Russia, precisely, as a “deformed Workers State”.
Yeltsin has indeed attacked some of the privileges of the nomenklatura (of which he is a member of course) and this is no doubt the cause of his popularity amongst ordinary people in Russia who clearly have no illusions about Russia having established a society without classes, but what he has called for is not the abolition of the nomenklatura but merely that some, or maybe all, of its privileges in kind (special shops, hospitals, etc) should be ended. He has no objection to them being paid high salaries. As he told the 19th Party Conference in June 1988 (also reproduced as an appendix):
“My opinion is that this is what should happen: if something is in insufficient supply here, in a socialist society, then the shortage should be felt evenly by all without exception. But different contributions of work to society should be regulated by different wages. we should, at last, abolish the food ‘rations’ for the, so to say, ‘starving nomenklatura’, eradicate elitism in society . . . (our emphasis).”
In other words, what Yeltsin wants is the Russian ruling class to be in the same position as the ruling class in the West: to be privileged by having more money to spend rather than by having special shops, etc. reserved for them exclusively. This is confirmed by his declarations during his election campaign: “The rouble must be the same for everyone” (Independent, 20 March) and “Everyone, from the ordinary worker to the head of state, must have equal access to food, goods and services” (Independent, 22 March).
In any event, even if the members of the nomenklatura, as the corporate group that collectively owns and controls the main means of production in Russia, were to lead ascetic lives (as Lenin wanted) they would still remain a capitalist class as they would still be the group, in a society based on a capital and wage-labour, that carried out the function of pumping surplus value from the working class to be accumulated as profit-seeking capital.
If Gorbachev’s reforms really do lead to more political democracy and less blatant privileges for the nomenklatura, welcome as this would be as giving the working class more elbow room to prosecute the class struggle it would not make Russia socialist, but a form of capitalism more similar to what we have to put up with in the West.