Revolution From Above: The Demise of the Soviet System

David Kotz with Fred Weir; Routledge: London & New York; 1997, 302pp
Reviewed by Roger Perkins

This valuable book does not give all the right answers; nor does it even ask all the right questions. But it does convincingly refute claims by capitalist ideologies that the Soviet economic system was not viable and had to eventually collapse due to fatal economic contradictions. Nor were the party and state inundated by an upsurge of the populace demanding “freedom and free markets.” The vast majority of Soviet citizens remained loyal to socialism. However, according to Kotz and Weir the top leaders of the CPSU and the top holders of governmental power (The “party-state elite,” but not Gorbachev personally) consciously decided to transfer their allegiance from one socio-economic formation to another, in other words the Soviet Union was betrayed at the very top by leaders who preferred capitalism to socialism. Astounding as this conclusion may seem to Western anti-communists and many socialists, the authors persuasively document this process. The book provides a chronology of events – who did what, where, when and why. It also supplies extensive tables, charts and graphs which indicate a slowing (but not collapsing) Soviet economy. Such data is absolutely necessary when analyzing socio-political events.

The authors are not Marxist-Leninists. Kotz is a university professor of economics with sympathies for “democratic market socialism.” Weir is an ex-member of our party, an admirer of Gorbachev, and former Moscow correspondent for the Tribune. Weir writes well, is a perceptive observer of social and political detail and has extensive connections to many of the ex-Soviet Komsomol (YCL) leadership from which many of the new capitalists emerged. In the introduction it is observed that:

The sudden demise of such an economically and militarily powerful entity as the Soviet Union, in the absence of external invasion or violent internal upheaval, is unprecedented in modern history.

The appearance of this qualitatively new social phenomenon is not further developed by the authors but present and future revolutionaries should take note that a relatively “peaceful” transition from socialism to capitalism is possible under certain conditions if revolutionary vigilance and class struggle against the internal enemy is not maintained. But why Kotz and Weir characterize this phenomenon as a “revolution” instead of a counter-revolution is puzzling. Perhaps their ideological spectacles have been misted over by a gloomy “post-modernist” fog and they no longer view history as having directional qualities.

But revolutions do not happen without the fruition of a revolutionary situation. The same rule should apply to counter-revolutions. To the authors’ credit they do set the Soviet demise within such a framework and write:

...The particular form of economic administration adopted in the Soviet Union ... did have severe flaws, which grew more serious over time. The soviet people’s yearning for freedom and democracy did play an important role in the demise of the system. So did Western pressure. And if not Gorbachev himself, some of his top aids did abandon any belief in socialism while occupying influential positions. However none of these factors individually or together can adequately explain the course of events. (p.4)

In the authors’ view the counter-revolutionary situation was created when

...A new leadership under Mikhail Gorbachev set off on the path of major structural reform, the aim being to democratize and renew Soviet socialism. However, unforseen by Gorbachev and his fellow reformers, the economic, political, and cultural reforms they carried out unleashed processes that created a coalition of groups and classes that favored replacing socialism with capitalism” (pp.4-5)

In other words, Gorbachev’s perestroika and glasnost created the counter–revolutionary situation!

Once the future course of the Soviet Union was opened to serious internal debate by the policy of glasnost (openness) support for capitalism grew with astonishing speed within this elite, because that path appeared to offer the only way to maintain, and even increase, its power and privileges. (pp 5-6)

The authors conclude that:

The ultimate explanation for the surprisingly sudden and peaceful demise of the Soviet system was that it was abandoned by most of its own elite whose material and ideological ties to any form of socialism had grown weaker and weaker as the Soviet Union evolved. (p. 6)

But what exactly was the “party-state elite”? Was it a Soviet “bourgeoisie”? Although owning no capital, did it nevertheless exist somewhat like a national minority living within another nation – the source of its identity and culture being external? Or was it an entirely new class similar that long ago postulated by many anti–communists including the Yugoslav revisionist Milovan Djilas or the Trotskyite/conservative James Burnham? Or was it not a class at all but a bureaucratic stratum, a caste or an estate? Was the Soviet “party-state elite” made up of “deformed workers” and the Soviet Union a “deformed workers’ state”, as most Trotskyites maintain? Or was the Soviet “party-state elite” a nomenklatura/intelligentsia conglomerate containing various chunks of the above, but cemented together by an anti-working-class world outlook? Kotz and Weir don’t elaborate, confining their analysis to the concept “elite”, but do estimate its size at about 100,000 people. The closest we get to an answer is the statement that the Soviet Union was overthrown by a pro-capitalist “coalition of groups and classes”. But which were groups and which were classes? Because the authors never did an adequate analysis of the class structure of the USSR under Gorbachev, we are left with the knowledge that at least two classes participated in the overthrow of Soviet socialism without having those classes named or identified as a class.

Whatever the nature of the Soviet “party-state elite” (much more theoretical work is necessary), it seems to have had determinative power. When the elite switched sides capitalism replaced socialism. The conclusion inferred is that the working class did not have state power (when did it lose it?). Nor were the “people as a whole” sovereign, as Khrushchev once claimed. In the authors’ view not only was the “party-state elite” sovereign, but it also ruled in an authoritarian, undemocratic manner. This undemocratic trend, they claim, is traceable to Lenin and the Bolshevik Party with its democratic centralism. While parties of this type

...were able to mobilize masses of workers... to fight for power, they were not conducive to constructing a democratic state after the old regime had been vanquished.

and

....the democratic centralist party, with its military–like structure, had a tendency to produce a top–down structure of power in the new state. The principle of setting policies by the top leadership, with the rank and file expected to carry them out without question, was extended from the party to the entire society. (p. 19)

Perhaps Kotz, but certainly Weir who was once a Communist, should know better than to approach the democracy question in the abstract. There is no such thing as “democracy” taken out of class context. Either through ignorance or design they further cloud the issue by referring to the practice of “setting policies by the top leadership, with the rank and file expected to carry them out without question” as “democratic centralism”. Anyone who reads Lenin knows that this is not a description of democratic centralism but of bureaucratic centralism. Democratic centralism requires the widest and most free discussion possible followed by a majority decision, followed by a unity of action in carrying out the majority decision, followed by re-evaluation, questioning and criticism of results obtained through practice. Whatever the errors of Soviet socialism regarding proletarian democracy, and there were many, including bureaucratic centralist deviations, the USSR for most of its existence was a million times more “democratic” than the most “democratic” bourgeois republic. The authors fail to grasp this concept.

As to the declining Soviet economy, Kotz and Weir point out that the rate of growth was slowing down but at no time did it become negative, at least until the very end when the policies of perestroika and glasnost took full effect. They believe that some decline in the rate of growth in newly industrializing countries (socialist or capitalist) is inevitable. In their opinion this natural trend was exacerbated by over-centralization, bureaucratism and lack of motivation. Their solution to this problem was more material incentives, decentralization and “market reforms” – i.e., a bigger, better perestroika! Kotz and Weir’s affection for Gorbachev and his reforms seem to override the presentation of evidence that such a policy could work.

Politics is concentrated economics; but economics is also concentrated politics. Would not a revitalized workers’ movement with a meaningful form of workers’ control go a long way to invigorate the Soviet economy? Would not a re-affirmed socialism with improved central planning have worked better than perestroika? After all, advances in digital information technology now make it possible to determine at 08:00 each morning the exact number, size, type, colour, style, price, material composition and regional sales trends of all shoes sold in the USSR the previous day. The authors do not seriously explore this option.

On the question of external pressure, Kotz and Weir convincingly disprove the widely held view that the “arms race” bankrupted the USSR. In fact Soviet military expenditures had declined slightly from 17% of Soviet GNP in 1950 to 16% three decades later. The authors reject any and all conspiracy theories. Even though it is widely believed by many in the former USSR that the CIA was heavily involved in the unfolding of events, Kotz and Weir give little weight to such possibilities. Apparently neither did Gorbachev. When Alexander Yakovlev, Gorbachev’s closest adviser and Politburo member, was accused of having been on the CIA payroll since his days as an exchange student at Columbia University in 1958­-59, Gorbachev is said to have ignored the evidence presented and done nothing. In any case, the importance of ideological subversion has been underestimated by this book.

The authors are correct about some sort of “party-state elite” changing sides. They are also right that perestroika and glasnost unleashed “unforseen processes.” But the dichotomy of the “good” Gorbachev who wanted renewed socialism versus the “bad” capitalist-roader Yeltsin is a much more dubious contention. Differences did indeed exist within the “party–state elite,” particularly regarding the pace of perestroika. Some even remained loyal to socialism. Gorbachev, however, was not among them if the word “socialism” has any Marxist­-Leninist content at all. Gorbachev’s “socialism” was the capitalism of right-wing social democracy. He believed (or at least stated publicly) that the concepts “socialism” and “capitalism” no longer had relevance in the modern world, a merging of the two systems was taking place. As commodity relations in the USSR increased, treachery itself became a commodity. Its level in the market place did not stop at Gorbachev’s social-democratic Sweden, but plunged to Yeltsin’s Russia with Third World qualities. Whether Gorbachev was objectively or subjectively a counter-revolutionary is of secondary importance to those ex-Soviet citizens now living under the horrors of capitalism restored.

Gorbachev as counter-revolutionary is, of course, not explored by Kotz and Weir. The now multi-millionaire Gorbachev has been rewarded with six figure fees for delivering one–hour speeches to assembled conservatives in the West. In the U.S. he flew from one speaking engagement to the next aboard Fortune 500 Steve Forbes’ private plane, appropriately named “The Capitalist Tool.” In an interview on PBS (96-10-23) Gorbachev revealed that the two historical figures he identified with and admired the most were Margaret Thatcher and Tsar Alexander II (no Marx, no Lenin?). Whether Kotz and Weir are habitu├ęs of Pizza Hut now that Gorbachev has signed a lucrative advertising contract with that firm is not known. But their characterization of Gorbachev as a sincere, honest socialist, at least during the Soviet period, has come under increasing attack by many knowledgeable observers, including the Soviet economist Stanislav Menshikov, who once worked in the International Department of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Menshikov, reviewing Revolution From Above in the October 1997 issue of Monthly Review, claims to have personally heard that post-Soviet Gorbachev admit that he deliberately plotted to obtain the post of General Secretary by stealth, keeping his real views and intentions secret, with the goal of destroying the Soviet system. While such braggadocio could reflect the embellishment of reality by a late convert to capitalist counter-revolution, Menshikov believes Gorbachev was telling the truth.

Whatever the facts about Gorbachev, he could theoretically have been ousted, as was Khrushchev a quarter-century earlier. The bourgeois results of perestroika and glasnost could have been reversed if there had been a Marxist-Leninist core at the highest levels of the party supported by a rank-and-file proletarian democracy infused with Marxism-Leninism. Unfortunately this was not the case. Yeltsin, Shevardnadze, Yakovlev et al wanted a quicker pace to capitalism. The disorganized bunglers of the inept “Gorbachev-friendly” pseudo–coup wanted the pace of perestroika to slow but succeeded only in speeding things up by creating the conditions for the Yeltsin forces to stage a real coup. The opposition of “left” Politburo critic Yegor Ligachev proved more verbal than concrete. Kotz and Weir describe all this, but because they don’t believe in Marxism-Leninism they therefore are unable to classify what they observe as revisionism (or worse). It is the lack of this theoretical framework that is the major weakness of the book. The index lists “working class” seven times and not once past page 26, “Marxism-Leninism” four times and “revisionism” not at all. Class dynamics were forgotten; nor was the failure of the Soviet working class to alter the course of events focussed on. At least half of the forty-five volumes of Lenin’s Collected Works are polemics against revisionism of various sorts. The CPSU during the last period of its existence and the authors’ description of events are almost devoid of such concepts. The old Russian saying, “A fish first starts to rot at its head”, applies both to the CPSU as well as Kotz and Weir.

So what could have saved the Soviet Union? The last chapter of Revolution From Above entitled “Lessons for the Future of Socialism” is addressed to this question. Unfortunately the authors devote most of their exposition to the merits of “market socialism” in its several variations. The fact that the Soviet Union collapsed and disappeared immediately after the introduction of market reforms is not favourable to their position. Would not an earlier and more intensive “market socialism” in the USSR have created even more advantageous conditions for the “party-state elite” to restore capitalism? The authors seem to view the collapse as due to mistakes, uneven application and incorrect timing or pace which resulted in “unforseen events” that “unleashed processes.” In other words, the failure of perestroika was due mostly to happenstance. Perhaps under more propitious conditions it could have worked, they ponder.

The fact that the CPSU had been hollowed out by the cancer of revisionism and was no longer a Marxist-Leninist party did not strike Kotz and Weir as particularly important. But any revolutionary not in an ideological coma knows instinctively that the only way out of the terminal Soviet dilemma would have been the re-establishment of Marxism-Leninism with the working class asserting its power, if it still theoretically had it, or taking power if this power had been lost. Whether this was possible as late as 1989 can be debated by future socialist historians. Perhaps the Soviet Union had already gone past the qualitative point of no return – like a jet liner in irreversible stall. Fortunately, the rebuilding worldwide Communist movement still has time to study and learn the lessons of the Soviet demise. Revolution From Above provides data and chronology but must be judged defective due to faulty methodology and conclusions.

Spark! #10, pg. 34-39