The Soviet Union 1985-1990: After Communist Rule the Deluge?

Rita Di Leo. Soviet Studies. Volume 43, Issue 3. 1991.

The most common interpretation for the current transformations in the world of communism is the one inspired by the European tradition of the Enlightenment which reads: ‘after darkness comes light, force is replaced by law, dictatorship by democracy’.

So far, in the Soviet case, speculation has been concerned with the end of the absolute monarchy exercised by the Communist Party and with the birth of a political and economic pluralism. The predictable steps were the constitution of a parliament, a government for the executive, and measures to ensure the independence of the courts—in short, the elements generally considered to be the foundations of a law-governed state.

In his Report to the 19th Conference of the CPSU, in June 1988, Gorbachev referred explicitly to these steps: his words became the basis for the forecasts of a political development of the system which would bring the USSR into the Western context.

Now, three years after the conference and two years after the constitution of the People’s Congress and the Supreme Soviet, these forecasts appear to have been hasty. Other avenues are emerging which differ from the assumed model. In the meantime the transformation of the Communist Party from ‘nucleus of the system of administrative rule’ to a Western-type party is encountering the country’s rejection of Communist rule.

Side by side with the reforms from above, society too is moving and, after the first struggles for autonomy from the communist system, it is now waging the war against the party-king.

The Communist Party and Its Role in the System

In May 1953, barely three months after Stalin’s death, Kommunist published an essay on the role of the Communist Party which was translated into a number of languages and widely distributed in the countries within the orbit of Soviet influence and in those with strong communist parties. In this essay the collective leadership, ‘the blind kittens? who had remained without a leader, defined the duties of the party.

Its first duty was the political direction of the country: the party directed the activity of all state and social organisations. The party’s policy was based ‘on the exact calculation of the need for development of society, of its material existence’.

The fulfilment of this policy was entrusted to the party organisations which, precisely because of this, had the right to control the functioning of the state administration, without, however, having to take its place. The success of the policy depended on the work of the party organisations and this in turn depended on the party’s ability to choose the officials for state and social organisations. The essay also explained the party’s commitment to the effort to achieve political and technical-scientific literacy in the country.

Today, 40 years after that declaration of intentions, the ability of the ‘blind kittens’ who succeeded Stalin is finally coming under examination. First we have to decide the terms of reference according to which the Soviet leadership must be evaluated. Are these terms the ruling party and communism, or the country and Soviet society?

The answer we attempt to give outlines the ‘middle way’ adopted: the avenue which lies between the values of communism, the reality of the country the Soviet Union is, and the strategy connected with ‘the good of the party’. In the communist tradition the identification between ideological choices, national interests and ‘the good of the party’ has always been at the root of the political behaviour of the leaders, independently from the contradictions and paradoxes of daily life.

‘The good of the party’ was pursued by keeping its strength intact so that it could play the leading role in the system it had itself created. The strength of the party was measured by its capacity to govern the men who governed the country. Consequently ‘the good of the party’ lay in the relationship between the party and its men: those within the administrative institutions and those who worked in the party apparatus. This was, in fact, the core of Lenin’s party. This specific trait had enabled it to win the fundamental battles against the Mensheviks, which had been an early apprenticeship for all those which were to follow, inside and outside the country.

What makes the Bolshevik party different and pre-modern compared with the other Western parties is the primacy of the ‘cadres policy’ and the idea of politics as the mere exercise of power. It is with this specific premise in mind that we must reconsider the ‘statist’ choices of the Stalin of the 1930s, the ‘party’ choices of the Khrushchev of the 1960s, and Brezhnev’s return to ‘statist’ ones. The first duty of every general secretary of the party has always been to find some target, ‘a mission’, for his men, to make them indispensable to the big deal. In addition, there were always only two possible options.

The first was to create state institutions for the daily administration of power entrusted to employees and technicians, controlled by party men. The second was to administer power directly through party men and party structures without the mediation of state institutions, using the soviets instrumentally.

The first option ran the risk of the employees and technicians growing within their functions to the point of demanding autonomy from the party for the state institutions. The second ran the risk of the party not being able to act as a state and provide alone for the administration of the country to run smoothly and build socialism with its men—men who, when the Bolshevik leadership had to choose for the first time, were not professionally up to the administrative and technical roles.

Historically the reality which emerged shows only one leading elite for both the party and the state. This elite referred to one or the other institution according to each official’s position, without his professional or political line of conduct undergoing specific variations. In fact, the maximum authority for everyone was the secretary of the party.

Consequently the formation of this elite did not solve either the questions connected with Stalin’s ‘statist’ approach or those experienced with Khrushchev. It has not strengthened the Soviet state and it has not legitimised the Communist Party. Every attempt at change has to face this consequence.

Chto Delat’ with the State?

Under Brezhnev, partly within the official framework of the academic discussions over the new Constitution of 1977 and partly because of the more permissive cultural climate, it was precisely the legitimacy of the role of the party which underwent public reconsideration.

Prominent ideologists and intellectuals carried this out in the course of public debates. According to their analysis the key step which still had to be taken was the step ‘from party dictatorship in the name of the proletariat’ to that ‘of the state of all the people’. Both ‘dictatorship’ and ‘state’ presupposed specific institutional forms for the exercise of power which were not to be found in the Soviet traditional environment, administered by officials of the entrepreneur-party. These officials, who performed the task of governing men by making them produce the wealth of the nation, were interchangeable in their ruling functions. They consequently had no interest in acting ‘as a state body’ since they were not formally defined and distinct on the basis of their functions.

In this framework, the scientific debate which accompanied the 1977 Constitution underlined the beginning of a new relationship between the party men and the reality of the Soviet state. The legitimation of the state because it administered the production of wealth and handled the relationship with society occurred at this point and as a consequence Art. 6 was invented.

The party’s leading role was recognised but at the same time the party was declared subject to the laws of the state. The spirit of the article was therefore restrictive and not augmentative of the party’s role. This role became dependent on the state’s role, and if the latter increased the former would be consequently redimensioned.

We cannot know for sure whether the constitutionalists foresaw the events of 1990 in 1977: the party’s step backwards, the state’s step forward. However, the same people (Burlatsky, Piskotin, Barabashev, etc.) who were involved then are openly supporting the state’s authority in today’s political struggles. They certainly considered the 1977 Constitution simply a first attempt to give legal form to the relationship between power and society.

On the other hand the party itself, through its leaders, had decided on the improverishment of its functions and the enrichment of those of the state, rather like what occurred at the time of the previous 1936 Constitution. The 1936 Constitution, which gave everyone the right to vote, coincided with the formal destruction of the Bolshevik party and what was left of the old society. The 1977 Constitution was promulgated while the terms of the compromise between the Moscow oligarchies and the regional institutions of communist rule were becoming increasingly clear. In 1989-1990 the creation of the People’s Congress and the new Supreme Soviet, as well as the election of the local soviets, made the crisis of the party evident.

The party cyclically discovers the limits of its power system and seeks remedies in the statist approach. Burlatsky made the issue explicit in a well known essay in which he explained that, where the role of the party was concerned:

the efforts of left-wing opportunists to see to it that the party with its apparatus should direct all sectors of economic and cultural development, using administrative methods and setting aside state organisation, had proved totally insubstantial. In exactly the same way life itself had belied the requests of right-wing opportunists who felt that the party should fulfil only the role of ideological guide.

Owing to historical reasons and political contingencies the CPSU was at the centre of the system, i.e. it ‘naturally’ was in charge of political direction, but at the same time more and more questions arose on how it should exercise this direction. The state’s autonomy from the party, its legitimate existence notwithstanding its creator, was not a clear hypothesis for two reasons: the first was historical reality, which recognised the day-by-day dependence of state institutions on party institutions; the second was ideological and was connected with the intrinsic devaluation, peculiar to the official doctrine of Marxism-Leninism, of the state as such. The ideological outcome of the traditional course was that after the state came communism and, with the perfectly completed construction of communism, the end of the party and of politics would follow.

Chto Delat’ with the Party?

In the meantime however, when considering the distant future, every chance was hypothesised for the party both in the more traditional sense and in a clumsy effort to bear the intrusive Western problems in mind. And so only six years ago, in 1984, the same Burlatsky could declare:

The one-party system, as it was formed in the Soviet Union where the leading Communist Party has the support of the best representatives of all the classes and social groups and of all the national groups, gives us the security of taking into consideration all the interests and opinions of every social group and ensures that different proposals and ideas will be weighed in the balance.

But what actually was the party’s nature within the political system which by now existed according to the constitution too? The reading of Art. 6 on the leading role of the party was ambiguous, as the decision to abolish it in February 1990 was to show: one could imagine doing without this role without irreparable consequences to the system. In fact this role did not become embodied in an actual function but rather anticipated an activity of political guidance and ideological influence which might turn out to be marginal where the fundamental economic and social relationships were concerned.

It is true that Art. 6 underlay the daily reality of the country in which the presence of the party was dominant. But this dominion was beginning to be considered and to appear politically unfounded. In the first place it was no longer based on the practice of state violence: the army and the police force were no longer seen as party instruments but as state bodies whose duties were established by the law, not so much because their dependence on the party had really changed, but rather because the use of state force in domestic politics had been eliminated at the request of the party leadership itself. Second, no act of sovereignty of the people had sanctioned the exercise of the political leadership of the country by the party. Regularly held elections concerned other political institutions: state institutions, the Supreme Soviet, local soviets. Where the party was concerned, a complex mechanism of co-optation of the country’s elite was applied, which did not take democracy into account.

On the basis of the institutionalisation of political life of the Brezhnev years, the paradox of the party’s presence, inside and outside the political system, became evident. In this sense, Art. 6 was at the same time too strong and too weak a tool to defend the situation. It was too weak because where the systemic division of roles and functions was concerned, the political leadership was simply a form without substance. It was too strong because since the Soviet political environment totally lacked any horizontal correlation between the institutions, this obviously was replaced by the simple fact of vertical rule over them by the party. Thus, the party appeared to have no other reason for existence except that of watching over the state bodies. In addition, since these consisted of offices and the men who occupied them, the same problems arose again, as in the past.

What did the party’s role, the political guidance it exercised, consist in if not in ruling over the men who governed the country? This element, which was so specific to the Soviet form of power, re-emerged. However, now the early historical legitimation of that rule had worn itself out and nothing had replaced it: no people’s vote, no constitutive law to give the party state functions. Unless it was precisely Art. 6.

A few decades after Stalin and Vyshinsky had made their ‘statist’ choice, the party was paying for the forms and terms of this choice: they had conceived the state so much a creature of the party, the arm of its power, that they had not taken the trouble to give the party an institutional setting with a definition of its role. On the other hand, the juridical-political culture of the period, which was influenced by German constitutionalism and was still pre-party-system and predemocracy, did not allow for innovative fantasies. Thus, the Soviet state, as it was prefigured, was immensely powerful, but at the same time it was unreal in view of the actual situation of its subordination to the party.

In this context the recourse to the conceptual category of ‘the political system’ which had just been introduced into the new 1977 Constitution was a real innovation: it appeared to be the most likely framework within which to overcome old controversies over the role of the party and the functions of the state.

This concept had only recently been reached within the ambit of the debates which matured in the 1970s between jurists and political scientists as a result of evident Western ‘systemic’ influences. In fact, in the country’s academies, even though no authority had formally permitted it, non-marxist, contemporary cultural currents and consequently anglo-saxon ones primarily, circulated freely (though informally, rather like the second economy). In the specific area of the political culture of the 1970s the cathedral of Marxism-Leninism, with its ‘earthly realisations’—the Communist Party and the economic plan—was provided with a wide gate: the concept of political system which would contain everything better.

Very soon, however, the traditional institutions of power lost their original privileges within that gate: there was no longer ‘the before’ of the party and ‘the after’ of the state, there were functions, roles and structures which kept the system united and active. And the various institutions—political, social, cultural, economic—contributed to the functioning of the system in as far as it was in each one’s specific nature. Both the state and the party were placed in perspective according to what each gave to the system rather than for what they were or had been. And the delegitimation of the party, in the sense of its progressive fall from primacy, began with the 1977 Constitution almost as an effect of its formal recognition on the basis of the insidious Art. 6.

In the next few years the Soviet political system gained substance and form in the reality of the USSR as a country with its weak political institutions, its increasingly independent mass media, its first informal groups, the different social strata which the second economy is causing to become antagonistic, its more explosive ethnic tensions, its different and openly opposed cultures. And while each old and new element of the system moved in search of its own space, the party considered each of these movements hostile act, but at the same time was aware that it did not know how to prevent it.

Thus, the party was discovering that it was not enough to have power, it also had to go into politics.

The Party between the Old Power and the New Politics

Although it is common knowledge that the general secretary of the party is the ‘chief actor’ on the scene of the great communist transformation, who are the other actors and institutions involved in the change? First, we have to define the material loci, the political milieux of the change. The singularity of the present Soviet situation lies precisely in the rapid moves of the political action from one institution to another, old or new.

Against one-party rule

The first thing to be changed was undoubtedly the administrative system of command, with its undifferentiated ministries, obkomy, enterprises and the apparatus of the Central Committee. During his first years of power, from December 1984 to January 1987, it was to it that Gorbachev addressed himself. The measures of economic policy, the slogans on ‘acceleration and technical progress’ show very clearly which were his most important interlocutors.

In his 16 June 1986 Report on the plan, Gorbachev had indicated point by point how this power mechanism, ‘in which the apparatus was trusted blindly, and any initiative was caged in with bizarre circulars’, worked. This was precisely where things had to change—but how?

In fact the first reforms remained within the context of the communist tradition and Soviet experience and concerned the administration of the economy and the relationship with the leading personnel. During the first period, in the name of ‘acceleration and technical progress’, some attention was given to reforming the institutions of administrative command, the ministries and the state committees for the administration of resources. Gosagroprom, a super-ministry for the administration of the agricultural sector, was created in 1986, but it proved a disaster and was dissolved. A public discussion between economists and consumers on the social advantages and disadvantages of state-controlled prices for primary goods was authoritatively supported.

At the same time the general secretary used the mechanism of the nomenklatura to carry out the most widespread reshuffling of personnel since Khrushchev’s time. Once again the belief that ‘a good line entrusted to good cadres’ could resolve every difficulty seemed to prevail. Besides, Ligachev made this clear during the XXVIII Congress: ‘During the first three years the Secretariat worked to full capacity’.

The Secretariat was in fact the directing organ of the administrative system of command. It was from its offices that instructions were traditionally sent out to the local organs of power. During the XXVIII Congress too, V. Vorotnikov, an influential member of the Politburo, explained what in practice happened:

The Secretariat often overstepped the government, controlling the work of the republican ministers and the departments and listening to reports on the progress of industries, on the execution of plans for the agro-industrial complex, municipal services and the building industry, consumer services and others. The heads of the local soviets and the economic directors were quite often summoned to report to the Central Committee. It is true that this practice has recently stopped.

Actually the system of administrative command and its ‘leading nucleus, the Communist Party’ were openly questioned while at the same time they continued to be looked to for the exercise of power. The break with the old setting produced semantic signals too by the beginning of 1988, when the expressions ‘socialist pluralism’ and ‘learning democracy’ became part of the political jargon, signifying that to govern the country other milieux, other experiences, other methods must be recognised.

In the meantime the Communist Party was being redimensioned in its role of political avant garde while the party committees were being denounced because they continued to rule over everything. This is precisely how the change in the communist system started: with the party secretary deciding to bring his party back to the condition of a party.

Over a short period of time, the head of the party had definitively focused on the fact that the party existed only in relation to the structures of the system of administrative command and as such it was not concerned with what was taking place in the meantime both inside Soviet society and outside, in the rich and progressive world of other industrial countries. Referring to that world and to those political experiences, the general secretary was increasingly convinced that the party, seen simply as a political party, had to be theoretically redefined.

And here we must clarify two points. The first is the continuity between the present secretary’s action and communist tradition: acting as ‘God the Father’, he alone decides to do and undo. Even though things have changed since 1917 and 1921 under Lenin, or 1929 and 1938 under Stalin, or, finally, 1956 and 1962 under Khrushchev, the aim of this Latest ‘general line’ is to dismantle the old party-state. Consequently differences exist with respect to the past, but these are not differences of method, for this has remained the communist method of rule from above. While deciding to destroy the party, the secretary is acting as a communist, i.e. invested as he is with his office, he chooses, decides, orders and expects his directions to be implemented.

The second point which needs clarifying is the discontinuity with tradition the communist secretary decided to strike the party and its system because the reference point for his activity has not been the political stability and strength of the Communist system but the conditions of the country in which that system operates. The break between the party secretary and the party occurred because of the situation of economic crisis and general malaise reigning in the USSR. In addition, in the party secretary’s opinion the old system is responsible for the state of affairs and therefore must be set aside. In short, the reference to the fate of the country has grown stronger than partiinost’, the party spirit which so far has always guided its leaders’ choices.

In his public denunciation of the responsibilities of the administrative command system for the crisis of the USSR, the head of the party indicates the possibility of its being unable to deal with it and looks for a way out for the country, not for the party. He looks for it as a communist, of course, i.e. as an enlightened intellectual on the one hand and as a ‘God the Father’ on the other, but the mere fact of his looking for it leads him to break the narrow circle of the party milieu.

Party power suffered its first real earthquake in September 1988 with the abolition, requested by Gorbachev, of the departments of the Secretariat of the Central Committee, which traditionally carried out, anonymously and bureaucratically, the effective governing function of the country. This was a crucial step for Gorbachev, compared to which the abolition, in March 1990, of Art. 6 of the Constitution on the leading role of the party was almost a notarial deed. This step implied the de facto resignation of the Leninist and Stalinist party from its historical role and its claim to govern the fate of the country alone, from above. and in the privacy of its offices.

On the basis of the decisions of the 19th Conference, the dethroning of the party was presented as an almost natural consequence, just like a change of government carried out by the leader of a victorious party. The paradox lies precisely in the fact that it was the secretary of the vanquished party who was bringing this about.

In the two years which followed the first partial introduction of ‘socialist pluralism’, from 1988 to 1990, many new things have occurred on the political scene: the press has assumed the role of ‘loyal opposition’; the first free elections have been held; the new Supreme Soviet has started functioning; the Moscow and Leningrad local soviets are no longer in the hands of the old cadres; many new opinion parties and informal organisations have been formed; the trade union has a populist leadership; the Komsomol has started rebelling; there have been the first workers’ struggles; pioneer enterprises in country areas have tended to give new life to the figure of the agricultural worker, ethnic clashes have degenerated into civil wars. There is ample literature on all this already to which we refer the reader.

However, the new fact is that in the course of a few months from the 19th Conference to the XXVIII Congress the party was formally evicted from power. Practically speaking, the party committee officials could no longer replace the presidents of the local soviets and the administrators of enterprises, since they no longer had privileged access to the use and distribution of resources and consequently lacked the basis for commanding. Thus, Gorbachev’s ‘statist’ choice had materialised in its most essential element; the exclusion of the local party apparatus from economic power, from the use of state property and resources.

In this way podmena, the old Soviet phenomenon of replacement of the functions of the state by party organs, which had been officially deplored for at least half a century, no longer had any reason to exist. With it the pecularity of the party committee disappeared too, as well as the political milieu of the system itself. The identification between politics and party power, the reduction of politics to the decision of the party committee, from the smallest raikom to the Politburo, was thus negated.

However, had it been overcome also in the sense of recognising the existence and need for other political institutions? This crucial question must be considered when formulating a judgment on the political institutions which were born or reborn and on the phenomenon of the explosion of society.

Back to the state

The new institutions which have to control the impending crisis are as follows:

  1. The People’s Congress, as a great ‘gymnasium’ for the game of democracy; the Supreme Soviet, first as a (television) platform, to publicise government policies within the country, and second as the legislative organ, disengaged from the traditional places of the party;
  2. The local soviets;
  3. The institution of President (and of the Presidential Council).

First we have to understand whether these institutions have worked according to expectations.

The Supreme Soviet and the People’s Congress

The Supreme Soviet was to be a kind of Upper House in which the official representatives of the people, ‘the sages and the experts’, made their contribution to the highest authority responsible for public affairs, so that it would be in a position to decide the best course for the country. The Supreme Soviet was not in fact a parliament, the expression of a pluralistic political system and in its turn producer of a party government, but rather the advisory organ of the top leader of the country.

Unlike what occurred in other times, other senates, high chambers and dumas, the functions of consultation, orientation and technical assistance had to take place in full view of the country: it had in fact been constituted to meet two needs. The first was the need to help the head of the country make the right political decisions; the second was the need to make the whole country participate in the political process of developing these decisions. The peoples’ deputies as well as the President had thus to speak and vote in front of a public which included all the adult inhabitants of the country which was judging them politically.

Therefore, the new Supreme Soviet’s most urgent function appeared to be precisely the politicisation of society through the exemplification on television of the issues of government. The newly created political milieu was, ideally, to spread until it included the entire territory of the USSR.

The minutes of the first sessions of the Supreme Soviet give an impression of the secretary-president considering himself ‘God the Father’ on the seventh day of creation and feeling even surer of the audience of millions and millions of people who saw him on the screen in their homes than of the deputies he had in front of him. This feeling of security stemmed from his communist political nature, according to which having the masses participate in politics implied acting on them pedagogically in order to update them on how the country should be governed for the common good.

Compared with the past—the social democrat workers, circles, for example, or the leninist soviet—the political communication, based on modern mass media, widened the confines of this ‘school’ to the entire country. However, at the same time the universe of ‘the teachers’—the people’s deputies, the ministers, the powerful men of the economic nomenklatura and even the God the Father secretary-president-became subject to the judgment of the audience of the pupils, the ordinary men and women of the great country.

Also, in fact, after the first sessions, Gorbachev resigned from the office of President of the Supreme Soviet, which tied him down to the role of ‘starosta’ or community leader, in the style of the old tsarist villages. The role of the Supreme Soviet too was redimensioned by this experience. As an instrument of socialisation of politics it was by then backed by the new parties, the movements and the popular fronts. Besides in its legislative function the new parliament turned out to be possibly even less authoritative than the old one: it produced a great number of innovative laws which nobody is sure were ever implemented.

The local soviet

The area where the contrast between intentions and instruments has been most strident has been that of the local soviets which, according to the strategy of change, ought to have come after the Supreme Soviet as the other ‘new’ political milieu. A considerable amount has already been published on the new local soviets and the 1989-1990 elections. In this article we wish to reflect on the effective dimensions of local politics.

If the Supreme Soviet was called on essentially to be the following: (1) the link between the highest office of power and government activities; (2) the legislative organ which formally sealed the presidential initiatives of reform of the communist system; (3) the tribune of mass politicisation, local soviets had the task of putting into practice the laws which concerned them.

These laws and resolutions followed from the supposedly augmented financial resources of the soviets, which should have increased because the enterprises operating on their territories were theoretically bound to pay higher taxes Besides, always in theory, there were the new measures on the leasing of land, and the activities of the cooperative organisations, which would change the role of the local soviet. Finally the local soviet could become the manager of its own territory. Even so, the pre-existing reality, the system of administrative command, turned out to be stronger than the laws which gave ‘all power’ to the soviets.

The communist structure of power—conceived to make the plan work through the party or to make the party rule through the plan—still exists, like a huge factory which no longer receives work orders or has engineers, but still has the machinery, employees and adminstrative rules for every moment of the life of the factory. The local soviets, on the other hand, lack the executive power to enforce tax obligations, workers’ protection, social services and supplies on the enterprises, which are the real bosses in the soviets’ territories.

In the past the relationship between the enterprises, which depended on Moscow and the soviets, was mediated by the party through the hierarchy of the nomenklatura, in the corridors of the Moscow ministries and the offices of the regional obkomy. More recently corporative and patron-and-client practices have become usual so that informal agreements on common advantages for the local soviet and party authorities and the economic administrators stationed in the territory have been worked out in between the folds of the provisions of the law.

However, during the past two years a new political class has emerged: the deputies and presidents of soviets elected in the last elections-radicals, nationalists, reformists, and even out-and-out conservatives-who are outside the orbit of the Communist Party. This is the situation in the words of the mayor of Moscow Gavriil Popov:

We are continuing to operate in a structure set up for the model of a one-party system. The rise to power of the democrats does not mean that they have any power. I must honestly tell the electors that I have no real power and that I do not command in any way. I am not in a position to assign a building or to ensure the safety of private shops, besides many other things too.

This is what A. Lukyanov, the new President of the Supreme Soviet, said at the Congress about what happened over the question of party-soviet relationships:

Half of our misfortunes of the past two years depend principally, in my opinion, on the fact that the party committees have virtually ceased governing and the soviets have been simply incapable of assuming governing functions. In their words, in the heat of discussions, they seem to show their authority but then, in real life, a power vaccum is emerging. Comrades, there is a power vacuum.

In addition, in the old-style rhetoric of Gidaspov, the Leningrad party secretary, the ‘new kind of communist cadre’ has to stand up to ‘the new kind of non-Communist politician’ (the mayor, Sobchak):

In our opinion the principal task of the party is to devote itself to the development of the soviets, as bodies of full and real power of the people. This is a historical duty for the party which bears the responsibility of having transformed the old soviets into decorative elements of the system of administrative command.

The facts reveal a bitter clash between those who wanted to make use of the new laws and new political opportunities and turn the local soviets into an alternative political setting to the old power, and those who continued to consider politics as a mere ‘Marxist’ superstructure. These are, effectively, two views of the world between which it is hard to imagine mediation. In the meantime a stalemate has occurred: the electors have chosen as their representatives in government independent politicians who have become alien to the communist system, while the system prevents any government activity which is not its own old exercise of power.

From this point of view, the local soviet as political setting does not seem to be working out as had been expected. Possibly the expectations were not realistic, possibly the new politicians proved not to be up to the difficulties. The truth is that the transition from communist rule to the politics of a government based on representation according to European and American models is running into many more difficulties than might have been imagined.

The ambiguity of the transition shows up in two facts. The first is the unitary nature of communist power, which cannot be split into the three traditional branches, legislative, executive and judiciary, needed to bring about government which puts society into communication with power. The unitary tradition is so deeply rooted that in the course of the last two years there has been a switch from the hypothesis of ‘a law-governed state’ to that of ‘a multi-party system’, ending in ‘a presidential regime’ which appears more ‘unitary’ than ever.

The second fact is the type of political representation chosen to bring about the new political mechanism. On the one hand the differences of opinion, culture, territorial area, ethnic group and religion have been legitimated through the electors’ votes. On the other hand there has as vet been no legitimation of economic and social interests. So far no actual representation of economic interests has been provided for, either in the Supreme Soviet, or in the local or republican soviets.

When the new radical mayors and the president of the Russian Federation took office, they resigned from their own political formations because by then they considered themselves above partisan politics. By doing this they followed a concept of politics and government as ethics of the common good, rejecting both the reality of the power of the nomenklatura and the prospect of contemporary politics.

These choices—the presidential regime, the economic interests organised outside the legal and political circuit, the ethnic-territorial issues growing more and more—may even jeopardise the imagined transition.

A President between the Old Power and the New Politics

Although it is true that the presidential office had already been provided for, the institution of the President dates from March 1990, at the height of a bitter struggle with the old Politburo.

In the course of almost two years many things became clearer. The first was that ‘socialist pluralism’ did not mean a system of parties which shared the electorate on the basis of different kinds of offers in defence of the different social and economic interests present in the population. Many new parties were formed, but they did not offer political representation of organised interests or interests still to be organised, but rather merely a centre for the agglomeration of ideas and prospects alternative to those of Marxism-Leninism and communist power. The new parties, and even more the movements and fronts, remained outside enterprises, ministries and state committees, i.e. the places where wealth was produced and administered and where real power was managed. In fact their programmes consisted more in declarations of intent than concrete proposals.

The responsibility for the ‘boundaries’ of the new parties lay on the one hand in the pioneering spirit of their founders and supporters, and on the other in the political strategy of those who wanted them set in this way. In that framework the function of new parties was not to compete with the ruling party and express alternative issues, but to support the reformist action of the secretary of the ruling party.

Mass communications—in the first place television, followed by newspapers and periodicals, where leading intellectuals who supported the secretary had been placed—carried out the function of real opposition to bureaucratism and every form of the old power.

This approach was already much closer to an American than a European framework. A very thin social stratum acted politically, in the sense that within the ambit of the institutions of power it took the decisions on the use and distribution of the country’s wealth. An equally thin social stratum contributed to the making of these decisions, in the sense that it prepared them technically or influenced them culturally. In addition, there was the rest of society which was not influenced by the game of political communication, in the sense that this game was divided into those who were involved in the messages (of a multidimensional kind: issues to change the state of things or issues to preserve it, etc.) and those who could not be reached with any message. The latter lived on the margin, without political citizenship.

Through a political and cultural choice, of which he—the secretary-president—was possibly unaware and which was inspired by charismatic and plebiscitary democracy, Gorbachev had turned his energies to the direct, widest possible, involvement of the people through the modern approach of political communication. A campaign for the political literacy of the country was boldly carried out through TV, newspapers, films and direct dialogues with the people in the course of many journals—almost like electoral tours—in search of consensus.

Political literacy was in line with the first Bolshevik tradition, when Lenin and Trotsky sent records of their voices and films of their images to the farthest corners of Soviet territory, to make themselves known and to let everyone know what was happening in Moscow. At the time it had been an avant-garde political venture which was then buried by the Stalinist ideological propaganda machine. The first venture was very similar to the political communication sought by Gorbachev, with the idea of involving the people directly in the leader’s political action without the mediation of the institutions and rules already existing in the political setting.

In 1917 the question was to persuade the villages to place themselves in the hands of the Bolsheviks instead of the Tsar; today the aim of live broadcasts of the Supreme Soviet sessions is to tear people away from the fiction of Soviet-type politics. However, the situation today is far more sophisticated than it was in the tsarist period. Under the communist system ordinary people were asked more than merely ritual and formal participation; it was prescribed in detail and extended to the entire organisation of the country’s social relationships. From the first elections to the 1938 Supreme Soviet to the 1979 Law on People’s Control, the sophistication of communist power grew continuously. Each member of the community was weighed down by a great number of rites conceived to make him follow the precise political behaviour the system expected of him. These rites remained unchallenged, even with the advance of compromises and of Brezhnev’s permissivism. On the contrary, this was just when they were institutionalised, i.e. precise formal rules were laid down for the people.

A dual political behaviour had become the norm: on the one hand there was the formal integration of people into the rules of the Soviet type of political participation; on the other hand there was growing informal practice of individualism, without any rules of obedience to state power.

It is against this background that the novelty of political communication must be placed. The direct involvement of people through communications which Gorbachev attempted to bring about was a manifest alternative to the rites of Soviet-type political participation. First, the new approach asked nothing of the individual as member of the community. It did not require each person to prove his political fidelity to the system.

Moreover, the locus of political integration was no longer the institution (place of work, school, soviet, party committee, trade union, people’s control committee, militia), where it had to be ‘acted out’ on every different occasion, but instead its horizons had widened to the point of identification with the extra-party and extra-state society which had grown in the USSR of the 1970s and 1980s. And, in view of its consequences for the USSR, Gorbachev’s political approach must be defined precisely on the basis of this widening of horizons. First, we must understand whether the phenomenon of the political explosion of society was part of a strategy, and also reformulate the same question to some degree over what happened in Eastern Europe: had it been reckoned on or not?

Within the framework of the political reforms presented at the 19th Conference, the recourse to charismatic democracy, to the direct relationship between the leader and the masses, had not been contemplated: for it was a political approach which differed greatly from Soviet political habits and at all events was untenable in the presence of a party still firmly in power.

On the other hand ‘the people’s judgment’ is an implicit challenge of the approach to charismatic and plebiscitary democracy. The leader who chooses this approach must be convinced that he will win the challenge and consequently that he has great charisma, or else a strong mechanism for securing consensus. Otherwise the leader risks having either a direct and continuous confrontation with the masses, or their passive resistance. The secretary-president has sent out a challenge a number of times in present-day USSR, i.e. he has asked the inhabitants of the country he is ruling to pronounce on his rule, setting up free elections and encouraging opinion polls and all kinds of expressions of view.

For the moment the most realistic hypothesis is that the president’s charisma is insufficient and that the mechanism of consensus is not working, while the struggle against the old power is growing. Two or three years have passed since the Soviet masses first took part in politics and the situation is such that it seems as though the country USSR no longer exists and its place has been taken by a complex of territories whose ethnic groups oppose one another. The communist pedagogical approach to politics, combined with plebiscitary democracy, appears therefore to have led—in the present situation of the country—to the destabilisation of the Soviet state.

At the opening of the new Supreme Soviet, neither the president-secretary nor the deputies nor the ministers enjoyed the expected confidence of the masses, while they presented a public image of the weakness of state power. The credit given to the institutions of power, which at one time had been run on secrecy and fear, has been swept away not only by the end of both these components but also by a kind of open awareness that the government institutions, as they presented themselves then, did not attain their aims.

If these aims were ‘good government’, i.e. well-being and order inside the country and defence of its borders, then the deputies and ministries were not in a position to guarantee it. Therefore, two years later, one can hypothesise that the live broadcast of the Supreme Soviet sessions was what triggered off the loss of authority of communist power.

Contemporaneously with this, mass politics were moving in another direction. The expansion of the political milieux from the offices of the party committees to the streets and homes caused a politicisation of society which is exploding in an unexpected direction. Belying the expectations of new politicians and old intellectuals the people mobilised over nationalism, racism, religion and cultures and aimed at recovering the pre-communist past instead of fighting for concrete policies in defence of their present private interests.

The roots of this return to themes and problems belonging to 19th century pre politics do not lie in the anomalous behaviour of the Soviet people, who have finally discovered that it was not true they had become one people through socialism. National politics and religious movements are very possibly their reaction to the opportunity to act politically, but only in a ‘half way’ manner. Very probably they have taken to the streets over the issue of nationalism also because the other spheres of politics were either shifting or had not in effect changed, while society had truly changed and had been freed from the fear of the old power, to the point of becoming an independent variable in the secretary-president’s political strategy.

The inhabitants of the territory of the USSR have placed themselves outside the strategy which expected their political behaviour to take the form of ‘people’s judgment’ or ‘consent of the masses’ and therefore assume the part of supporting chorus to the leader’s reformist action. On the contrary, according to general opinion, the extension of politics from the platform of the Supreme Soviet to the whole of society did not produce the end of the old politics based on the political representation of different opinions, interests and cultures; it produced, instead, ‘the third course’, which was a communist form of presidential power.

Theoretically—in the paper plans of the 19th Conference—the presidential regime should have served for the ‘monarchical’ phase, for the aim of governability of the system as a nation-state. But the vote of the Supreme Soviet, which instituted the office of the President and caused the defeat of the communist opposition to the Plenum, turned out to carry little weight in seizing power from the powerful communist barons entrenched in their possessions—the warehouses where products are distributed, the factories which produce them, the research institutes where the plans are made, the hospitals, the schools and the trade unions.

In the course of a few months—from the spring 1989 elections for the local soviets to the XXVIII Congress of the CPSU in July 1990—the ‘presidential’ solution caused the political situation of the country to collapse. The institution of the new political organ—the President, who set up for himself a council of ‘sages’—did not bring with it a real and functioning chain of command which competed with that of the old system. In contrast, it was as if the new institution—the Presidency—exposed the weakness of the political reform, revealing its superficialities. In the meantime the politics of the parties and opinion movements has worn itself out as an alernative to communist power, while at the same time their electoral legitimation was growing.

The paradox was that on the one hand the politicisation of society on issues of race, nationalism and independence was growing continuously, and on the other hand it was becoming clear that the political representation of these conflicts, on a parliamentary level, could not affect the system of administrative command.

The Secretary without a party, the president without command

In fact the fights between Armenians and Azerbaijanis were exploding in the ‘company towns’ without consequence to the corporations, and the independence of the Baltic countries or the sovereignty of Georgia were important on a political and cultural level but did not affect the level of real power. In the old Marxist-Leninist jargon, the communist economic structures were proving to be stronger than the pluralistic superstructure which was, however, taking shape. For if we had set out to discover what the real communist power and structure consisted in, we would have found the grey, Stalinist pinnacled buildings of ministries and state committees with their officials—the only ones in the system whose function it was to take charge of the productive resources and control their use through rules and directives, thus enjoying exchange relationships with the local corporations which were the true protagonists of the economic process.

If on the other hand we had set out to discover what the pluralistic superstructure consisted in, we would have found nationalist and independence movements whose leaders were struggling to wrench the function of ‘nucleus’—of the political mechanism of administrative command—away from the communist party. We find the clearest example of this in the Russian Federation, engaged as it is in trying to convince the corporations operating on its territory to refer to the Russian Soviet Supreme rather than to the federal ministries. As a result, a bitter struggle is taking place for hegemony over the system of administrative command in place of the struggle aimed at changing or abandoning the system itself.

The new nationalist and pro-independence forces are sending messages to the corporations and nachal’niki of the company towns to induce them to recognise their authority, which has been legitimised by popular vote. In fact, within this framework, plants and corporations with their company towns—the basic structure of the system of administrative command—could find it very much to their advantage to recognise presidential regimes, in nationalist or pro-independence contexts, rather than a single political centre which intends controlling them by means of juridicial levers and economic instruments.

In conclusion, the old communist elite has been forced to resign but it is being replaced, in the forms of the presidential regime, by men and political forces which refer mainly to worlds of the past in which the values of race, religion and nation, as well as social differences, were and are again becoming the cause of discrimination and wars. If this is the case, the general secretary’s expulsion of the Communist Party from the leading role in the system of administrative command risks turning out to be a political failure for its promoter.

The strategic advantage of stripping the party of power lay in the fact that this was thought to be preliminary and essential to escaping from the old system. The prospect of reform of the communist system included not only the political abdication of the political nomenklatura but also the closing of the seats of administrative power. Instead these seats have remained open, in the situation which has arisen in the course of the last two or three years, and the men of the economic oligarchies have started negotiating the old management of power with the new political forces and in the first place with the new presidents of the republican soviets.

The president of a unitary state who is also the secretary of the country’s only consistent political party does not suit either of these groups: he could be an absolute sovereign who has arrived at the wrong moment—possibly too late, possibly too early. They would prefer him to become an ordinary president having to deal with powerful corporations, weak political parties, strong opinion movements, the ‘fifth power’ of mass media, racial problems, etc.

In the meantime it is increasingly evident that the system of administrative command has re-emerged, stronger and free from the tutelage of the party. The laws on renting and owning land and the federal and republican plans for the introduction of the market have clearly proved the capacity of the economic oligarchies to frustrate political reforms as they have done in the past. From this point of view nothing seems to have changed since 1953-54 or 1965-68.

The reality does not consist in moderate and radical economists who carry no weight, but in high officials of the economic nomenklatura and managers of enterprises and sovkhozy who—for example in the fields of private property and the market—have nullifying powers over the life or death of reforms. In the past their positions earned weight directly through the Secretariat of the Central Committee and the Politbureau; in the new situation of autonomous state power the old obligarchies are even more important where change is concerned They have a majority in the federal Supreme Soviet which, in fact, enacts laws; consequently they happen to be the only interest group with a strong political representation in parliament.

Because it is, materially, the system of administrative command, the economic nomenklatura of the country’s large and small corporations is the secretary-president’s adversary—more so than the new political men who have grown up during the years of transition and, like him, are convinced of the need to free the country from ‘private empires’.

The fall of communist rule over the men who govern the country has left the communist barons alone with their power. Without state, without parties, in a society in revolt.