Perestroika and the Future of Socialism

Monthly Review, March 1990 | Go to article overview

Perestroika and the Future of Socialism


PERESTROIKA AND THE FUTURE OF SOCIALISM--PART ONE

Readers have for some time now been asking us to write about developments in the Soviet Union. We have been hesitating to do so because of the lack of information needed for a proper analysis, especially if the reforms proposed and underway are to be examined in relation to the conflicting interests of different classes (or social strata), nationalities, and regions of that vast land. The upsurge of strikes and nationalist movements are clear signs of divisions among the people. But these have not yet congealed into clear-cut differences among class or other social group over the various aspects of the policies advanced under the rubric of perestroika.

On the other hand, divisions are clearly evident within the Soviet ruling elite itself over the kinds of reforms needed and/or the speed of their implementation. Despite vigorous opposition, the reforming faction of the ruling elite has thus far succeeded in achieving remarkable advances toward democracy and open debate. The debates we learn about, however, come from the articulate sectors of society--in other words, from the upper layers.

These free-wheeling debates made public considerable information about the nature of the social and economic crises in which the Soviet Union has become mired. But frankness has not yet extended to the politics of class and ideology. In fact, much of the discussion of economic policy resembles that of bourgeois economists insofar as the diagnoses and proposed remedies are presumed to be value-free. True, the language of socialism prevails, usually as a commitment to "social justice." What this implies appears to be advocacy of special measures for the poorest and least privileged sectors of the population, and recognition that price reforms and the removal of subsidies will cause unusual hardship for the masses. But the central thrust of the reforms is clearly the attainment of a rapid and continuous rise in the gross national product, assuming as do bourgeois ideologists that in the well-worn phrase a rising tide lifts all ships.

Therefore, even though the need to improve pensions, health and educational services, and the like is fully acknowledged, the perestroika debates are essentially technocratic in nature. The subjects dealt with--the optimal mix of plan and market, when and how to decontrol prices, ways to balance the budget, the banking system best suited to finance self-managed enterprises, etc.--are focused, first, on how to shake the economy out of stagnation, and, second, on how to raise the long-run growth rate.

In all of this, critical examination of such fundamental matters as the meaning and purpose of socialism seems to be off the agenda of the policy makers and their advisers. It is with this in mind that we propose to examine the changes taking place, with the emphasis on those aspects which we believe socialists in this country should be thinking about. But as a preliminary, we need to review the background of the restructuring planned and under way in the Soviet Union today.

Although Mikhail Gorbachev has put his personal stamp on glasnost and perestroika, the significance of these projects goes far beyond the man. Of course, individuals at the helm of power can and do make a difference. But it is well to recognize that Gorbachev himself is a product of the Soviet system and that the changes he is presiding over are rooted in social changes and movements that have been germinating for a long time.

The significance of these developments has for the most part been ignored by Western Sovietologists. Their vision has been limited to surface phenomena, resulting in their seeing only an immobile and inflexible society incapable of mounting major reforms. In contrast, a handful of Marxist students of the Soviet Union, having the advantage of looking at the present as history, have been able to see a society in flux. …

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