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Economic democracy: socialism, warts and all

By Norman Goldberg, People's Weekly World, 8 June 1996

In a May 18 People's Weekly World article, David Laibman claims that the fall of the Soviet Union was caused by the failure to apply economic democracy (perestroika) earlier than it was tried. But he also writes that perestroika originated in 1979, referring to a piece by Mike Davidow in his Moscow Diary.

Laibman's point needs clarification. If perestroika, or a form of it was in operation by 1980, what was the nature of it that made it, as he states, "come to an end in 1989 or 1990, when this practice came into conflict with the demands of private property!" Where did private property come from? Was the perestroika of 1979 directed toward the same goal as the second perestroika 10 years later?

The question, of course, is not perestroika or reforms as such, but what kind of reform? The facts are that another form of perestroika was introduced in the Soviet Union during the Khruschev years of the 1950s-1960s.

A series of haphazard and pragmatic changes in industry, agriculture and science were introduced, as well as a departure from sound Marxist-Leninist theoretical standards in philosophy and social science. In a key sentence, Laibman writes that, "We also failed to realize the full extent of the role of capitalism in laying both technical and political-cultural foundations for successful and irreversible transition to socialism."

True, the future is built on the foundations of the present, as the present is built on the foundations of the past, but according to the dialectical contradictions of reality, not preconceived idealist notions. Capitalism develops unevenly (Lenin), and transition is often disruptive, based on time, place and circumstance.

We can go back even earlier. In the mid-1920s, Bukharin, Rykov and Tomsky were arguing for a capitalist-based transition to socialism. These disputes took place in leading Party and government circles and in the Communist International. This view was clearly expressed in Bukharin's book, "The Path to Socialism," and it argued for a continuation and strengthening of the partly-capitalist New Economic Policy (NEP) which was introduced years earlier by Lenin in different conditions, and was seen as a temporary measure.

NEP was becoming an obstacle to the Five-Year Plan for necessary rapid growth, and Bukharin's beliefs in a slower transition meant appeasing the capitalists in the city and the rich peasantry (Kulaks) in the countryside. It would have also forced the government into massive debt by borrowing money from foreign banks at usurious interest rates, putting the country in bondage.

A forced march for planned economic development at high speed was the only way to go and with no strings attached. Necessity dictated that the lone island of socialism be secured in a hostile sea of capitalism. The entire history of the Soviet Union was one of living under siege from the capitalist West and East who tried everything, from subversion to war, to do it in.

From the crash programs of the five-year plans for industrialization and collectivization of agriculture, mass education and housing, unprecedented health and social benefits, to the war and victory over fascism, the tremendous effort to rebuild the country from wartime destruction, unstinting aid to the new socialist nations and emerging liberation movements, to the heavy burdens of military and other defense measures imposed upon the Soviet Union by imperialism during the Cold War - from all this, how could there not be warts?

The defense and the furthering of socialism were the urgent tasks, warts and all. When Doctor Gorbachev pontificated about his plan to remove the warts, his scalpel proved to be a dagger plunged into the heart of the Soviet Union. Laibman asserts that Gorbachev, Yakovlev and the others lost their socialist bearings, which assumes that they once had such principles.

This is probably untrue, but it makes little difference when looking at the stakes. They were all social democrats, not communists, and they all shared a common hatred of the Soviet past.

Weaknesses in the Party (warts) allowed them to rise to the top where they did their work, and when the smoke cleared, socialism came to an end. They helped accomplish by peaceful means what Hitler could not accomplish by war.

Given all the hard realities, it was impossible for the socialist countries to go much further than they did - and they went far! If the capitalist path to creating socialism had been adopted in the 1920s, the Soviet Union would have failed in the 1930s. When this path was taken in the 1980s, the Soviet Union went down even faster.

Socialism was betrayed, done in by Mensheviks wearing Bolshevik masks. All the errors, insufficiencies, incompetence and excesses combined could not have by themselves destroyed what was fundamentally a healthy and humane social system. Corrections, yes, where possible, but with real Communist direction.

Norman Goldberg is on the editorial board of Political Affairs, the theoretical journal of the Communist Party

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