Was Reform Communism Bound to Fail? – Government Essay
In order to answer this question, I will in this essay explore the circumstances surrounding the policies of reform in the USSR during Gorbachev’s time as General Secretary of the Communist party. This investigation, I
hope, will enable us to understand the motives of reform, which in turn will allow for a analysis of the inevitability of failure. It is important not to fall into a ‘what if’ view of history, and so for the purposes of this essay I shall undertake a detailed study of the policies of perestroika and glasnost, in order to determine their advantages as well as their failings.
Let us first turn our attention to the economic situation in the Soviet Union during the 1980’s. It is often argued that the USSR was on the brink of economic breakdown prior to Gorbachev taking power, which made reform not just necessary but crucial. In his book Perestroika Gorbachev outlines the problems which were facing the USSR, being mainly slowing economic growth. The national income growth rate had declined by more than half between 1972 and 1987 and had reduced the country to a period of economic stagnation. The cause of this, he writes, is that the
“gap in the efficiency of production, quality of products, scientific and technological
development, the production of advanced technology and the use of advanced
techniques (had) began to widen “ .
Past attempts to reform the economy were, he argues, ineffective in achieving their goals. Goods were produced using more manpower and materials in order to sell the products at a higher rate, whilst at the same time workers were being paid unearned bonuses and higher wages due to the artificial labour shortage this practice created. “So the inertia of extensive economic development was leading to an economic deadlock and stagnation” , therefore making perestroika an urgent necessity.
It has also been argued that reform was not born out of internal problems, but international ones. In the early 1980’s inflation was low, living standards had not fallen, the USSR’s credit rating was good and the fall in output could be classed as modest. Compared to the crisis of 1931-34, when 7 million people had died at the hands of famines, this was no crisis at all. Yet as Ellman and Kontorovich point out, during the1930’s the Soviet Union was not alone in depression, whilst the 1980’s economic position was dire in comparison to the west, and in particular to the United States.
Stagnation was not unique; it had been a feature of both Kruschchev and Brezhnev’s governments, yet during this time the two superpowers of the USA and the USSR were in the period popularly known as ‘détente’. When this era of so-called friendly relations broke down with the election of Ronald Reagan as President of the United States in 1981, economic and military competition again loomed. Some commentators argue that the nature of this rekindled competition was different, and as such the USSR had to change to meet the challenge. With the advent of the USA’s Strategic Defence Inactive, the competition was taken to a technological, rather than military or industrial level. With so much time and money dedicated to the industrialisation of a country which less than 100 years ago had been a feudal society, the area of advanced technology had been neglected. The logic in this argument can be seen in the nature of Gorbachev’s 11th Five Year Plan, aimed at machine building and the modernisation of industry. In 1986 62-63% of Soviet machine building was for military purposes. A quote from Gorbachev himself shows the importance of international standing in the new, reformed Soviet Union:
“Only an intensive economy, developing on the basis of the latest
scientific-technical achievements can ensure the strengthening
of the country’s position on the international stage and allow her to
enter a new millennium with dignity as a great and flourishing power.”
Both of these arguments give us the same motive for reform in the USSR in the 1980’s, and that motive was to reverse the trend of stagnation, modernise industry and to for the Union as a whole to become more productive. We can now go on to explore how effective the reforms enacted were in achieving these goals.
‘Perestroika,’ meaning ‘reform,’ was the campaign Gorbachev and his government embarked on to achieve the above stated aims. It was, however, unsuccessful. National income, which had grown by 5.7% in the period 1971-1975, continued to fall. In the period 1986-1990 it stood at only 4.2%. Labour productivity, the increase of which was a stated aim of pereistroika, in the same periods fell from 4.5% to 4.2%. Six years after the implementation of the reforms the quality and quantity of production, including agricultural production, had fallen, the monetary system was disintegrating, inflation had risen and the Union had fallen apart. Although the reforms were needed, they needed to have been better planned in their content and their enactment.
The Soviet economy had as its foundation three ‘bricks’, each of which were eroded or weakened by the polices of perestroika. The first of these was the party apparatus. Once this was removed and no adequate replacement formed, the constant reorganisation of bodies controlling any given sector of production led to the loss of experienced leaders which were needed to drive the priorities of any given sector. This was especially true in the field of agriculture, where production fell dramatically following three re-organisations and re-naming of the bodies in control. The next of these ‘bricks’ was ideology. Once Marxism-Leninism became to be discredited, this allowed for the re-emergence of religion and nationalism. This posed problems in a country as large as the USSR, containing many different faiths and nationalities, as it removed the binding force of society and replaced it with divided loyalties. Finally, we must look at the removal of the Party’s active role in the economy. Once economic control became less centralised, local priorities in production could take over from national priorities, such as the 11th Five Year plan. In a more specific sense, certain polices contradicted themselves by nature, the 1987 law on state enterprise, for example, lead to a huge drain on the economy. As local producers placed more emphasis on profit, goods which were more saleable replaced the centrally ordered goods actually needed. At the same time more local power led to massive wage increases which dented the national economy.
It can also be said that the attempted reformation was contradictory to the nature of Soviet society. Brezhnev addressed the problem of under-production by increasing pressure from above onto the workers. From 1979-1982 the beginnings of economic growth showed that the Soviet economic system was viable if policies appropriate to it were used (i.e. discipline). By giving power back to the Soviets, Gorbachev had removed the incentive to work, that of threat of force, and made workers less, not more, productive.
The main problem facing the Gorbachav and the reformers was the opposition to reform among other high level members of the Communist party. Harman and Zebraski compare the restructuring of the Soviet Union to the restructuring of a capitalist company, which involves the loss of jobs, or in the case of the Soviet Union, the loss of privileged positions. In order to cut down on the waste involved in the party bureaucracy, there was the intention to “make heavy cuts in the management apparatus.” When the state and industry are as one, as was the case, managerial battles merge with political battles, and there appeared a split in the highest ranks of leadership. Those around him who believed the economy must reform brought Gorbachev to his position without a fight. There were, though, two positions on how to proceed. Many corrupt leaders were still in powerful positions from the Brezhnev era, and whilst there was agreement that these officials needed to be ousted, the split emerged over what was to happen next. Some believed that once the corrupt had gone, only a re-centralisation and a return to authoritarian power would be needed to stimulate the economy. Others, including Gorbachev, believed that a complete reformation of the power structure was the only way forward. “Indeed such was the resistance to any change that 340 meetings had to be reheld after it was discovered that they were ‘show events’ without any discussion at all.” This spilt is what initiated the second part of the reforms, glasnost.
The objective of glasnost was to enable the reforms to be pushed through, by allowing journalists, economists and writers to criticise the Brezhnev era, forcing the unwilling to allow the reforms due to this pressure. It was never intended to be a ‘bottom up’ procedure, and the fact that it became this is arguably the biggest cause of the downfall of the USSR. Limits were intended to be placed on what could be said by whom. Writing in 1987 Gorbachev outlined what glasnost in reality meant:
“Those who spoke in favour of the Party, government and economic bodies,
and public organisations conducting their activities openly were allowed to have
their say and unwarranted restrictions and bans were removed.”
The limits to be placed on free speech though were to be decided by a divided Communist party, and so large-scale debate opened up on the television and in the press, with different publications taking different positions.
This glasnost from above soon erupted, as mentioned above, into glasnost from below. By December 1987 30,000 groups and organisations, independent of the state, had formed across the country. This huge collection embodied a wide range of politics, from ‘real’ socialism to nationalism, but the important aspect of this development was that they were forums for discussion, and that they created a bridge from the intelligentsia to the masses. Sixty years of frustration at dictatorial rule began to flood out, at the very same time as the split in the government had loosened the Party’s grip on the people. The end of the USSR was imminent.
In order to compete with the United States, economic reform was necessary, yet it was the attempt at complete transformation which signalled the end of the USSR. “The economic collapse has been an unintended by-product of the political changes Gorbachev has introduced.” By removing the existing power structure, and neglecting to legitimise the replacement in a manner consistent with Soviet society, Gorbachev’s reforms soon developed a “dynamic of their own, as reforms revealed.. cracks which had been papered over, which necessitated further reforms and so on.”
“The role of pressure in a command economy is analogous to that of competition in a market economy: it provides the chief source of dynamism in the economy.” Once the pressure of force was removed, and replaced with monetary incentives at a local level, the state lost control of both the punishment and the reward, and created individual speculation in a command economy. The national economy, therefore, lost in production and wages.
The policy of glasnost, we can see in hindsight, was also bound to fail. Limitations on free speech are impossible to impose, especially on a population silent for so long. It may be possible to say that without th0e split in the leadership of the Party, perestroika may have been successful, as it would not need to be accompanied by glasnost. Yet the reforms pursued led to the downfall of the USSR as they undermined the very system they were trying to save.
Ellman, M. & Kontorovich, V.(ed.s), The Disintegration of the Soviet Economic System (1992, Routledge:London)
Gorbachev, M., Perestroika: New Thinking for Our Country and the World, (1988, William Collins Sons and Co. Ltd: London) pp19
Harman, C. and Zebrowski, A., ‘Glasnost: Before the Storm’, International Socialist Journal, Issue 39, 1988.
Hohmann, H. ‘Between Crisis and Reform: The Soviet Economy on a Perilous Course’, in Federal Institute for Soviet and International Studies (ed) The Soviet Union 1987-1989: Perestroika in Crisis? (1990, Longman Group Ltd: Essex)
Medvedov, M., Interview ‘Politics After the Coup’, New Left Review, issue 189, 1990.
Palmowski, J, Dictionary of Contemporary World History, (Oxford University Press, Oxford: 2004) pp604.