1980s >> 1987 >> no-993-may-1987

Maggie and Mikhail: A Meeting of Minds?

Most political commentators, because they have for decades obstinately refused to see Russia as anything but “communist”, now don’t quite know what to make of what they themselves have dubbed the “Gorbachev revolution”. Russia is still “communist” and intends to stay that way — we have Gorbachev’s own word for that. So what are we to make of glasnost and perestroika — the Russian words for “openness” and “restructuring” that now trip off the tongues of TV news readers as easily as “communist threat” once did?

That there are reforms — both in the economic and political spheres — taking place in Russia at the moment is beyond question. In political terms, we are told that there is going to be “democratisation”. This does not mean that Gorbachev and other members of the Politburo are going to stand for election or that rival political parties are going to be able to put forward candidates for election to political office. What it does mean, if Gorbachev gets his way, is that Party officials will have to compete for certain key posts and submit themselves for election to the next lowest tier. There may also be a requirement that industrial managers will have to be elected by their workforce (an introduction of an element of democracy to an area that has mostly been immune from it in the so-called democracies of the west).

There does appear to be some increase in the civil liberties enjoyed by Russian citizens. The more liberal political climate has meant that there is greater openness in the Russian media: criticism of certain aspects of Russian life is now not only permitted but officially encouraged. However it is important to notice that criticism is only tolerated when it is directed towards those areas which Gorbachev himself has indicated are legitimate targets — bureaucratic ineptitude, economic inefficiency, low productivity and corruption in particular. It is highly unlikely that political criticism of the system itself will be permitted. In the arts and cultural life there has been some liberalisation: literature, music, films and plays that were previously banned or at least heavily censored are to be made available, although “freedom of expression” still does not exist. Things are still under the watchful eye of the state censors; it is just that now they have widened the parameters of what is permissible.

Some political prisoners have been released, especially those like Sakharov, who have been the focus of western media attention. And while it is unlikely that there will be a general amnesty for political prisoners, there is an official commitment to release more. Similarly we are told that Jews wanting to leave Russia for Israel will have their cases reviewed but we are not likely to see much “freedom of movement” for Russian people in general.

In economic terms the reforms have mostly focused on two major problems the Russian leadership have been grappling with for decades: low productivity and the poor quality of the goods produced. In an attempt to revitalise the economy, Gorbachev has introduced greater private ownership and various incentive schemes. In an effort to overcome the problems of delay and inefficiency caused by the cumbersome, centralised, bureaucratic machine, managers of some factories are being given greater responsibility for decision-making so that all decisions are not automatically referred upwards to officials. In the service sector some small businesses are being reorganised as cooperatives. Managers are encouraged to run their businesses more cost-effectively by the state granting them a fixed wage fund. If they can then reduce their workforce and also maintain productivity then all will earn more money. There have been changes in rural areas too. Farmworkers have been organised into teams who are given responsibility for specific fields which they work in return for a guaranteed basic wage. When the crop is harvested they will then get a bonus which will be determined by the quantity and quality of their produce. In other words some Russian workers are being paid by results in an attempt to both increase quality and productivity. They will have to work harder in order to maintain or improve their living standards.

The media soap opera that was created around Thatcher’s recent visit to Russia focussed on whether there had been a “meeting of minds” between the two leaders; whether Gorbachev really was a man who Thatcher could “do business with”; whether they could bridge the “ideological gulf” that separated them. Such questions were only possible because of the myth that the media has itself so long fostered. That myth is that the system in Russia is in some fundamental way different from that in the west; that Russia is “communist” and the west is “capitalist” — as different as chalk and cheese.

But the truth is that Russia and the west are not. and never have been “worlds apart” and so a “meeting of minds” between Gorbachev and Thatcher was not the quantum leap that it was made out to be. For Russia is a capitalist country: just like any other capitalist nation it produces for profit and not need; goods and services are exchanged on the market for a price; a minority control the wealth that is produced, while the majority sell their labour power in return for a wage or salary. The only significant difference between Russia and the west is that the state owns rather more of the wealth and means of production, distribution and exchange than do private entrepreneurs. And even this is not as significant a difference as it might first appear: many countries which would not be described as “communist” vest considerable ownership in the state and in Britain too there have been periods when there has been considerably more state ownership than is the case today.

So Gorbachev’s limited economic reforms — more private ownership and payment by results — do not mean that Russia is becoming “more capitalist”. The current reforms represent no more of a fundamental change than does Thatcher’s policy of privatisation of what were once state-owned industries.

In political terms the Gorbachev reforms are potentially more significant. But again they should not be misinterpreted as meaning that Russia is becoming less communist — it has never been communist. Capitalism — as an economic system — can contain a wide variety of very different political systems: the “liberal democracies” of western Europe, America, Australia and New Zealand; undemocratic and authoritarian systems such as that in South Africa; the fascist governments of Italy and Germany during the 1930s and 1940s; the one-party states common in parts of Africa; military dictatorships like those in some South American states; and the one-party states of Russia and eastern Europe.

In the political sphere as was the case in the economic, it is a question of degree. Just as there can be disagreements about the best proportions in the mix of state and private ownership without the fundamental nature of capitalism being affected, so too, exactly how coercive and repressive the state is, will vary. But in all capitalist countries the main function of the state machine is the same — to protect the interests of the owning class. How it goes about doing that is likely to depend on the economic and political conditions that exist in a particular country at a particular time — how secure the owning class feels its control to be and how divided it is. To maintain a highly coercive and repressive state machine, with all that entails for civil and political liberties, may be thought to be politically necessary but it can also have negative effects economically and politically.

In economic terms coercion is expensive: to maintain a large police force, internal security services, prisons and so on, is very costly. If the owning class can maintain its power by other, subtler and less expensive means then they may well decide to take the risk and loosen the reins a little. The risk, of course, is that workers may make use of their new-found political freedoms to press for more fundamental changes. On the other hand to maintain rigid, repressive state control is also risky: workers who are stamped on too hard are likely to feel disaffected, resentful and uncooperative. And. as Gorbachev has recognised, if workers feel that they have no stake in the system then they may well choose not to work very hard.

So what we are seeing in Russia at the moment is a regime that feels sufficiently secure politically to loosen the reins of state control and is aware of the economic benefits that can be won by conning workers that they are “free” and have a stake in the system. It’s no wonder that Mikhail and Maggie got on so well — after all they have so much in common.

Janie Percy-Smith

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