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Collection « Les sciences sociales contemporaines »

PERESTROIKA and the Soviet People, Rebirth of the Labour Movement. (1991)
Introduction


Une édition électronique réalisée à partir de l'article de Mark-David Mandel, PERESTROIKA and the Soviet People, Rebirth of the Labour Movement. Montréal/New York: Black Rose Books, 1991, 207 pp. Une édition numérique réalisée par Marcelle Bergeron, bénévole, professeure à la retraite de l'École polyvalente Dominique-Racine de Chicoutimi. [Autorisation accordée par l'auteur le 8 décembre 2010 de diffuser ce livre dans Les Classiques des sciences sociales.]

[1]

Introduction


The essays in this volume were written between January 1989 and June 1991. All but the final one have been published earlier. They have been edited minimally with a view to avoiding repetition, but the original analyses have not been modified. This introduction, written two weeks after the abortive coup of August 19-21 1991 that led Gorbachev to call for the dissolution of the Communist Party, presents an appropriate occasion to look back and to evaluate the point of view that has informed this book.

This point of view is socialist. By this I mean simply that my point of departure was a concern for democracy in the most basic sense of the term: government for and by the people. Among other things, this means that the basic decisions about the economy, certainly the most fundamental sphere of social life, cannot be left in the private hands of a privileged minority. In contrast, it is just such a "revolution from above", one that would transform the mode of domination without eliminating domination, that was, and remains, the aim of the bureaucratic reformers who initiated perestroika. This aim is shared by their radical liberal sometime critics and sometime allies.

This point of view may surprise readers who are accustomed to the linking by our media and politicians of "democracy" with "market reform" (or more accurately, "capitalism" – the term that seems to arouse shame.) We are told that Western aid to the Soviet Union must be premised upon the progress of "democratic and market reform," as if there could not possibly be any contradiction between the two. But if democracy were a genuine concern (Western leaders do not insist on it very much elsewhere in the world, for example, in China, Guatemala or Kuwait), surely the people themselves, and not the developed capitalist states should decide what sort of economic reform corresponds best to their interests.

For this to occur, the people of the former Soviet Union would have to cease being passive objects of the state and become the collective subject of their own history. My decision to focus on the workers in these essays rested upon the hypothesis, itself based upon my reading of modern world and Russian/Soviet history, that the workers are the only social force with both the interest and the political potential for carrying through the consistent democratic transformation of the Soviet state and society.

[p. 2] Has this hypothesis been borne out? Yes and no. As usual, history has proven itself more cunning than any theory. The labour movement is today the main organized social force in Soviet society. The only other significant forces are the national movements, principally in the Soviet periphery, and the liberal movement. But it is difficult to qualify these as organized social forces. They are better described as élites with a basis in atomized masses who are moved more by symbol and emotion than rational calculation of interest. The labour movement has also proven itself the most consistently and radically democratic force in Soviet society. To that degree, the hypothesis has been supported.

On the other hand, the process of "class formation" has proven much more tortuous and drawn-out than I had anticipated. The organized labour movement today still embraces only a relatively small part of the working class. In retrospect, this is perhaps not surprising. The Soviet workers have only recently emerged from over 60 years of harsh political repression which had made independent organization impossible. The "Stalin revolution" (more precisely, counterrevolution), collectivization, mass immigration from the countryside, and the terror broke any living ties between this class and its historically brief, but rich and heroic past.

Perhaps even more important was the bureaucratic regime's ideological monopoly. Even the minority of people citizens who through great personal efforts succeeded in freeing themselves from it often remained decisively under its influence. "Critical thought" in the Soviet Union tended – and unfortunately still tends – to be a blanket rejection of everything emanating from official (or until recently, official) sources. Especially among the liberal intelligentsia, the Stalinist mode of thought still thrives and manifests itself in the eagerness to impose "harsh and unpopular measures" upon a reluctant population, whose mentality is said to be too much influenced by the past for it to understand its "real" interests. For the workers, the consequence of this ideological monopoly had been the identification of socialism with the old régime and, consequently, increasingly a rejection of socialism itself. To this extent, too, the reality has contradicted the hypothesis.

Of course, the repudiation of socialism has been greatly aided by a steamroller-like, anti-socialist propaganda campaign conducted by both the Communist and liberal mass media over the past few years. Nevertheless, this campaign could not have had the same impact had it not found a fertile social soil. Looking back, this too should not have been unexpected.

[p. 3] Almost 25 years ago, the great Marxist historian of the Soviet Union, Isaac Deutscher, wrote: "... The Soviet Union...seems to be burdened with a mass of accumulated disillusionment and even despair that in other historical circumstances might have been the driving force of a restoration. At times the Soviet Union appears to be fraught with the moral-psychological potentiality of restoration that cannot become a political actuality." This was written just before the onset of the "period of stagnation," that, perhaps even more than Stalin's terror, did so much to utterly discredit the régime.

In the above passage, Deutscher formulated the essential contradiction of the period treated in the present volume and which runs through each of its essays: in practice, the concrete aspirations, demands and actions of the Soviet workers today are compatible only with a democratic, socialist transformation of the society, but this transformation is blocked to a significant degree by the ideological rejection of, or inability to formulate, a socialist alternative. However, the other side of this contradiction is that the working class remains the major obstacle preventing "the moral-psychological potentiality of restoration from becoming a political actuality."

To this extent, then, the original hypothesis has been borne out. The future shape of Soviet society hangs on how this contradiction is resolved: either the new-old élites will resolve it in their favour, neutralizing and/or crushing the labour movement, or inversely, the labour movement will develop its own programme of socio-political transformation corresponding to popular interests and will prevent the efforts to limit democratization to "Western-style" competition among political élites, whose basic concern is to "maintain the confidence of the business community."

This question is today still very much open. The effect of the abortive coup of August 19-21, contrary to its portrayal in the media as little less than a revolution, has been to accelerate processes already well advanced in the Soviet Union. The coup revealed in dramatic, definitive fashion, the weakness of the conservative forces, every one of whose previous non-violent counter-offensives had also resulted in strengthening the liberals. It also consolidated the Gorbachev-Yeltsin alliance, that is, the alliance between reform bureaucrats and liberals, that had been re-established on April 23 by the "accord of ten." This accord had also marked Gorbachev's acceptance of the complete destruction of the old Union and an accelerated transition to capitalism.

[p. 4] The role attributed to Yeltsin and his liberal supporters in defeating the coup appears to be greatly exaggerated. Rarely has the world witnessed so ineptly organized and indecisively executed an attempt to seize power by people already standing at the head of the state. The coup's authors did not even assure the loyalty of the repressive apparatuses, the army, Ministry of Internal Affairs and even the KGB. Most of these forces, even had the new leaders decided to use them, did not support the coup.

On the other hand, neither was the coup defeated by popular mobilization, which was quite minimal. A crucial question is why. The crowd in front of the Russian Supreme Soviet may have reached 130,000 at its peak but most often did not exceed 20,000 to 30,000. Even the Moscow crowds celebrating the coup's defeat hardly surpassed the same 100,000 figure that has been cited for virtually every major pro-Yeltsin demonstration of the past year. What are the other 8,900,000 Muscovites thinking? And the tens of millions outside of Moscow? Why did workers, except in some coalmines and in some factories in Sverdlovsk (Yeltsin's old stomping ground), not respond to Yeltsin's call for a general strike? Should this be attributed to political fatigue and apathy, to a sense of political impotence, or to ambivalence about the coup as well as about the opposing Yeltsin camp? According to one report, workers in many Leningrad enterprises declared their readiness to strike... if the need arose. But in Moscow's factories, nothing much at all seems to have happened. Perhaps this wait-and-see attitude reflected a sense of the coup's weakness. After all, virtually the whole government, except for Gorbachev, kept working, and "normal life" (a relative term in the Soviet Union today) went on as usual.

These questions are crucial because the next months will see an attempt to speed up the market reform. The fact that the coup was defeated without a mobilization on the part of the workers surely strengthens the autonomy of Yeltsin and the liberals in this area: they are, for moment at least, less dependent upon working class and popular support and will soon have their own loyal bureaucracies, propaganda machines, and repressive forces firmly in place. In fact, the liberals are now in the process of carrying out their own coup, with scarcely more respect for democratic procedure than the defeated conservatives.

On the other hand, it will not be possible much longer for liberals to blame the deteriorating economic situation on the Communists and on the absence of "real" reform. There will no longer be conservative provocations to bolster the liberals' flagging popularity. The market reform will [p. 5] cease to be an abstract symbolic issue for workers (the promise of Western wages and living standards), enabling them to define more clearly their attitudes toward it on the basis of concrete experience with its functioning and consequences. It is also possible that the coup's defeat, despite the limited popular mobilization, will leave the population with an increased sense of its own strength and political efficacy, something that the past five years of economic decline have been unable to do.

Will the population remain an essentially passive spectator to the coming transformations, as has been the case so far in Eastern Europe? Or will it organize in defence of its interests and become the author of its own destiny? These are the key questions that will be answered by the new chapter in Soviet history opened by the failed coup.

September, 1991

Montréal



Retour au texte de l'auteur: Jean-Marc Fontan, sociologue, UQAM Dernière mise à jour de cette page le mercredi 6 avril 2011 17:38
Par Jean-Marie Tremblay, sociologue
professeur de sociologie retraité du Cégep de Chicoutimi.
 
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