From the March 1991 issue of the Socialist Standard
Western politicians and pundits have been puzzled by Golden Boy Gorbachev. The man Mrs Thatcher thought she could “do business with" turns out to be slaughtering unarmed civilians in Latvia and Lithuania. How should we read Gorbachev—a great reformer or a reactionary? Or is he a Jekyll and Hydc character, who veers from reform to repression whenever the wind changes?
The change in Gorbachev's policies can be understood if you remember that he is a loyal Leninist, an opportunist, with a firm belief in the CPSU’s "vanguard” role. And like Lenin, he faces acute economic problems.
A serious balance of payments gap has been developing since about 1985, particularly where trade with “developed capitalist” countries is concerned. Also since then, state spending has exceeded revenue each year, and this budget deficit has been rising steeply.
From 1989 Gorbachev was on the defensive. Opposition to perestroika—his vague, incomplete, ever-shifting reform package which threatened the interests of planners and managers—became increasingly vocal. Again and again he protested that he really was a true orthodox, an heir of Lenin:
Lenin is our guide to action . . . (in) the task of restoring the authority of Marxist thought . . . the theory of Marxism- Leninism . . . (The Party’s) role is to serve as Soviet society’s vanguard.
(Pravda, 26 November 1989).
Then, as the Soviet Union threatened to split, with mass rallies, strikes, army discontent. civil strife, the growth of separatist ethnic and nationalist movements, and worsening economic chaos. Gorbachov followed the Leninist logic: he became a dictator in all but name.
The idea of "presidential power” was promoted by his friend Shevadnardze at the Central Committee meeting in February 1990. The following month Gorbachev became President of the Soviet Union, unelected except by apparatchiks. Almost at once, he issued a decree enabling him to declare a state of emergency. This meant that as President of the Soviet Union he could introduce temporary presidential rule, suspending state administrative and elected bodies, replacing their personnel with his own nominees.
Then in April he got the Supreme Soviet to pass a law to protect his “honour and dignity” and a law about the “maintenance, services and protection” which the bankrupt state was to provide for its sensitive president. Upon retirement, he is guaranteed a large pension, plus a state dacha "and necessary services" (Is this a euphemism for servants or does it mean simply hot and cold running water, mains drainage and electricity?) The state would also provide transport—and protection. This last point is not surprising. Like Mrs Thatcher, Gorbachev’s popularity was for export only. Those carefully staged walkabouts in Siberia were a long-time ago: his limousine now has bullet-proof windows.
To the Western media Gorbachev seems to be a man in tune with his people. Yet an opinion poll last year showed that only 6 percent of people had confidence in "Marxism-Leninism", and only 4 percent felt confidence in the CPSU, the vanguard party, while 50 percent declared they were opposed to concentrating power in one person (Argumenty i Fakty).
Yet. in September last year, Gorbachev took on "special powers” for 18 months to establish economic reform, and law and order. It was Lenin who said "no essential contradiction can exist between the Soviet, that is, the socialist democracy and the exercise of dictatorial power by a single person". And Lenin was Gorbachev’s mentor. You have been warned.
The Gorbachev years of economic chaos, political indecision and stalemate in his power struggle with the Party-state bureaucracy have seen a growth in chauvinism, nationalism, anti-semitism. and savage ethnic conflicts, to the point where there is even a fear of civil war. On the political scene, there are literally hundreds of groups, factions, parties and fronts, some of them with over-lapping membership, most with ill-defined platforms, few with a mass following, and none of them, we suspect, having any concern about abolishing the wages system. Meanwhile, for ordinary folk, the struggle just to feed the family has become worse than anyone can remember—except those in Leningrad in World War Two.
As for glasnost, or openness, well, censorship is still at work. After Chernobyl censorship and state secrecy combined to suppress information about radiation hotspots and sickness. In 1989 Glavlit gave approval for the publication of Solzhenitsyn’s story Matryona's House but, after it was typeset, the censor pulled it. The editor of Argumenty i Fakty has complained of pressures, from Gorbachev, urging him to play down embarrassing issues. More recently, a serious TV current affairs programme (Vzglyad) was taken off the air, to suppress a filmed discussion about Shevadnardze’s reasons for resignation: his fears that the country was heading for dictatorship.
Socialists are not concerned about the fate of Gorbachev but we do welcome the opening-up of political debate as offering workers the opportunity to develop a socialist organisation, even if this is not going to be easy in the welter of monarchist, nationalist and liberal groups, in a land where Marx’s name is invariably coupled with that of Lenin and where “socialism” is thought of as inefficient, corrupt, totalitarian state capitalism.