issue 190 - December 1988
Photo: Tass / CAMERA PRESS
Battle of the minds
The struggle to change Soviet society moves from the factory floor to the columns of
Pravda. KS Karol experienced first-hand the heat of this battle for hearts and minds.
He believes that its outcome will decide the fate of the current reform movement.
Brezhnev looked ridiculous, the embodiment of greed, perched on bags of money. Stalin was slightly more sinister - a demented tyrant done up in sombre colours. These once sacrosanct leaders really came in for it this summer at the Leningrad Ethnographic Museum's exhibition of modern posters. With the advent of glasnost, the protection afforded to historical characters has broken down completely. One is no longer surprised to read in Pravda that Stalin is accused of 'having perpetrated monstrous crimes'. Today accusations of corruption on a massive scale are being levelled against Brezhnev's son-in-law, the former minister Yuri Churbanov. The protection of the 'cult of personality' is melting away. We are assured that the aroused conscience of the Soviet people will protect the country against future abuses of power.
The exhibition opened just after the 19th national conference of the Soviet Communist Party. The conference confirmed the reform path by conferring greater powers on elected soviets (local councils) and calling for government based on socialist law rather than political convenience. In combination with a programme of extensive economic reform, these democratic changes are liable to make any kind of return to the past impossible. All this seems logical and at times even inspiring. One French observer, who usually has few kind words for the USSR, said to me during the June conference that he'd waited 60 years for this.
But Mikhail Gorbachev's determination to press on with perestroika must not stop with dislodging the old idols from their pedestals. The two debunked leaders, Stalin and Brezhnev, presided over the destiny of the USSR for more than 50 of its 70 years. The society which has come about carries their stamp and must face up to the weight of that heritage. As one historian declares, 'We must know all about the origins of the structures which we now want to change, and which we must change'.
But 'we' is a bit tricky. The Soviet people only spoke with one voice when the expression of clashing opinion was forbidden. Now the controversies, only recently suffocated, are breaking out into the light of day. In an attempt to systematize the emerging trends, the academic Tatyana Zaslavskaya, president of Soviet sociologists, has designated on the one hand the partisans of perestroika - subdivided into three categories - and on the other the conservatives and reactionaries. The presence of conservatives is not surprising - they are to be found in any society divided into classes or social strata. They want to preserve their acquired positions and other interests. On the other hand, who can the reactionaries be, 60 years after the October revolution? For Zaslavskaya, it is the enduring nationalism of the dominant Russian nation as expressed by the newly-militant slavophiles that earns them the title of 'reactionaries'.
This aggressive upsurge of Russian panslavism (for the unity of Russian and other Slavic peoples against all others), complete with an extremist wing - the openly anti-Semitic and xenophobic 'pamyat' association, - comes as no surprise to Soviet socialists. 'In the past', so I've been told, 'publishing heretics (like Bukharin, Trotsky or Western Marxists) was unthinkable over here, while those of an avowedly different faith (slavophile classics) often failed to attract the attention of the censors.' According to the new Russian nationalists of pamyat 'socialist idealism' has never taken into account the eternal character of the Russian nation and its attachment to orthodox Christian religion. These views have a strong echo in the towns of deepest Russia where life is more difficult than in the sunny Caucasian republics or the relatively prosperous Baltic states.
It is hard to measure the influence of these reactionaries, as it is of the conservatives, who never declare themselves as such. Few in Moscow or Leningrad think they can block perestroika or topple Mikhail Gorbachev. The Gorbachev camp is banking on the positive results of economic reform. They judge that when the market is better supplied people will pay less attention to demagogues. But the historians and philosophers with whom I spoke are inclined to think that the battle of ideas is no less urgent a priority than the battle of the economy. They assert that the latter cannot be won without assuring the ascendancy of true socialist values. This debate over the nature of Soviet society is not in the least academic but has immediate political implications for the Left as a whole. And I experienced some of the heat of this battle on my recent trip to Moscow.
The 5,000 delegates to the 19th party convention were no sooner settled in their rooms in the immense Rossiya hotel, within spitting distance of the Kremlin, than Pravda launched a full centre page assault on the views of the reformist historian Yuri Afanassiev. This article 'Questions to an Historian' by a certain Pobik Kuznetsov was seen as an attack on all radical supporters of perestroika, indeed against Mikhail Gorbachev himself. Afanassiev is far from being Gorbachev's mouthpiece, but he is part of a new generation of intellectuals who are really hated by the conservatives. 'There are 15 or so talkative people who monopolize the conversation on all subjects, from philosophy and history to football,' according to one leading conservative. In his critique of Afanassiev, Kuznetsov used the time-honored technique of formulating questions that allow the subject enough rope to hang themselves. In fact all the Pravda questions could be boiled down to a single enquiry: 'Professor Manissiev, do you consider that our society is socialist or not?' God help him if he says 'no'.
Part of the answer to Pravda's question came in fact from the conference itself. Eighty-five per cent of the delegates were people with medals for their productive or creative contributions to Soviet society. This made them, beyond doubt, a part of the power élite - since well before Gorbachev's reformers came to power. Yet when they came to the rostrum to speak they heaped up criticism after criticism of the present state of affairs. What is more, this totally unexpected spectacle was broadcast each evening on television to an unprecedentedly wide audience.
Afanassiev and the other 'talkative ones', so hated by the Establishment did not need to join the decorated delegates in their chorus of grievances. The conference made crystal clear the economic and moral crisis that divides those who rule the USSR and is forcing a change to the system. But right after Gorbachev's closing speech Afanassiev sent off his 'Replies of the Historian' to answer Pravda's charges. He didn't mince his words. 'I do not consider ours to be a socialist society, not even a deformed socialist society. For the deformations which are talked about concern its vital foundations, the political system, the relations of production and so on.
Afanassiev went on to attack another official Soviet myth which still figures in the textbooks despite last minute modifications. It holds the Party is and always has been armed with the teachings of Lenin but these could not be applied effectively because of Stalin. The party's line has been not only right but also the only possible one. It has allowed the USSR, in spite of the cult of personality, to raise itself to the level of the world's most developed countries. This is all too much for Afanassiev. He asks his own question: 'Where in this account do you place the millions condemned by Yagoda, Yezhov and Beria (heads of the Soviet secret police under Stalin), the unfortunate peasants stripped of their belongings and destroyed as a class by Stalin and his cohorts, the people as a whole who after having brought about a great revolution were deprived of all power and were subjected to a regime which ended up taking from them all their faith and hopes?' In his mind this is all completely at odds with a 'Leninist orientation' and Afanassiev is convinced that if Lenin were to come alive in 1988, he would be appalled to see the ration books in his country and the poor Russian people fighting for a pound of mouldy sausage.
A growing number of Soviet writers are now saying what only five years ago was unthinkable: the methods used in the USSR to force industrialization in the 1930s were incompatible with the principles of socialism and could not give birth to a society worthy of the name. Afanassiev draws on the views of the radical historian L Karpinsky who holds that the private property abolished by the revolution was simply recreated as bureaucratic privilege. 'Stalin's counter-revolutionary path,' Afanassiev writes, 'and his vast apparatus were not historically necessary and were unjustified.' He feels that the Party could have chosen leaders like Bukharin who were opposed to Stalin's terror. Afanassiev believes that these missed opportunities should stimulate research into the creation of a new theory of socialism using the works of Lenin but also going beyond his writings.
Yuri Afanassiev finds it hard to come to terms with the slow pace of reform where far too many of the Brezhnev big shots pose a muted resistance to a complete break with the Stalinist inheritance. For him successful perestroika demands a revolutionary theory based on an undogmatic Marxism and not just a series of piecemeal reforms. He and his radical friends believe that the Soviet people must see themselves as apart of the collective struggle for change and identify with its long term goals.' History does not give us the time for comforting casuistry about the great achievements of socialism without liberty and without bread; in five or ten years, either we will be a completely different society, or..Here Afanassiev lets each of his readers fill in their own nightmare.
It took Pravda 25 days of consulting with the powers that be to decide to publish Afanassiev's well-argued article. His views were unprecedented in the history of the paper. To soften the blow, it was accompanied by an editorial commentary, as conventional as it was defensive, which only served to relaunch the debate. Four days later, two other personalities - strongly suspected of belonging to the '15 talkative ones' - the assistant director of the CPSU theoretical review The Communist, Otto Latsis, and a leading writer of the same review, Igor Diadkov, took their turn. They criticized Yuri Afanassiev for his impatience, but mostly refuted Pravda's view that nationalization of industry guaranteed once and for all the socialist character of the USSR and put an end to exploitation.
The necessity of reform is accepted by almost everyone (at least publicly) in the Soviet Union although they may disagree profoundly on its pace and direction. The Western press has a tendency to exaggerate news coming from the USSR and to see change through Western eyes. When Gorbachev speaks of autonomous companies we suppose that it is a question of privatization; when he proposes individual or family contracts to peasant farmers we think he must be dismantling collective agriculture. And as soon as we hear the words 'productivity' or 'competition', we catch sight of the welfare lines so familiar to us. But at this stage of the reform none of that is the order of the day. The primary objective of the Soviet government is to regain control of the splintered economy. According to the economist Tatyana Koryagin, the turnover of the underground economy outside of all control, is of the order of $145 billion.
Otto Latsis thinks a section of the ruling class is deliberately maintaining poverty and making big profits out of it. The podpolnye millionery (underground millionaires), have proliferated in or around that poverty. The Soviet 'submerged economy' unlike that of Italy produces nothing but prospers on the resale of goods that are in short supply. Anything in the USSR can be given a monetary value. It is possible to buy the gold star of a hero of socialist labour for one million roubles. Corruption became so widespread that in Uzbekistan, according to official sources, one powerful person had an imposing mausoleum erected while he was still alive, and to defray the costs made it into a very profitable bar. 'But that doesn't mean all the leaders and executives are thieves or bribe-takers', adds Latsis. He sees political reform as a way to separate the wheat from the chaff and finally exert some control over the leadership.
Meanwhile economic reform is designed to introduce competition to break the monopolies which ignore the needs of the consumer. Those with money will have to invest it in productive activities that can be taxed. To earn more roubles you will have to work harder. The currency will be stable and the USSR will avoid the quicksands which are threatening to suck it down. Meanwhile competition in the countryside will encourage young people to return to the land and end the poverty associated with food production.
Is it all realistic? Many Soviet people hope so, because they are tired of their current way of life. But this reform strategy appeals mainly to the lure of individual gain - a gain calculated in depreciated roubles. It is not certain that this will be enough to mobilize people's energies. It seems to me that Professor Afanassiev and his friends are right in thinking that perestroika will never succeed without a new theory of socialism capable of inspiring a vast social movement. But this won't happen overnight.
KS Karol lives in Paris where he writes for Le Nouvel Observateur.
This first appeared in our award-winning magazine - to read more, subscribe from just £7