MARXIST INTERNET ARCHIVE | Martin Nicolaus

8  Old Soil

    The gradual emergence and maturing of a potential new bourgeoisie within the fold of Soviet socialist society was a silent and largely secret process that can be sketched today only in the barest outlines.

    There is some sketchy data available to indicate the common economic situation, the material foundation, by which the bourgeoisie that later took power was engendered. But the process by which it gradually organized itself as a class, shaped its own associations and acquired collective self-consciousness prior to its bid for power are almost entirely unknown.

    And necessarily so. For the potential bourgeoisie had to emerge under the conditions of the dictatorship of the proletariat. Any open association for or intentional advocacy of capitalist aims was impossible. A highly efficient secret police made even conspiracy -- historically a favorite mode of bourgeois organization -- dangerous in the extreme. It is unlikely that future historians will unearth any reliable documentary record of what passed through the minds of the nascent Soviet bourgeoisie while it was a suppressed class. The content of its secret ideas and of its whispered conversations can only be deduced ex post facto: from the content, for example, of Khrushchev's 1956

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"secret" speech and above all from the character of the measures taken after the accession to power.

    What the record does show fairly clearly is that the "remnants" of the old society -- the pre-1917 bourgeoisie and the NEPmen and kulaks pushed out in the late 1920s and early 1930s -- played no leading role in the transformations that took place after the death of Stalin in 1953. Biologically many of these individuals, insofar as they remained in the country, were still young and vigorous enough in the mid-1950s to have played a political role. But conditions under the dictatorship of the proletariat were heavily stacked against this possibility. A bourgeois origin was a handicap in gaining party membership and a virtually absolute disqualifier for party leadership.

    The U.S. financial oligarch and diplomat W. Averell Harriman makes this point ironically in a book recounting his journey to the USSR in 1959 ("Peace With Russia?" New York, 1959, p.17), where he met with the party and government leadership. Harriman quotes Khrushchev:

    "'I was a humble worker myself,' he said. 'I started life as a shepherd, was promoted to a cowherd and eventually got a job in the mines, where I stayed till the Revolution.'

    "As though not to be outdone," Harriman continues the anecdote, "Deputy Premier Anastas Mikoyan, who with Deputy Premier Frol Kozlov and Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko had joined the discussion, broke in: 'And I was the son of a shoemaker.' Kozlov said, 'And I was a homeless waif.' Even Gromyko, who had sat in glum silence throughout the conversation, spoke up: 'And I was the son of a pauper.' I told them they all sounded like American politicians on the stump boasting of the log-cabin origins. . . ."

    The seizure of power after Stalin, in short, was not the restoration of the old expropriated bourgeoisie. It was the rise of a new bourgeoisie engendered within socialism under the proletarian dictatorship. But where and how was this bourgeoisie engendered?

    The classically recognized breeding ground of capitalists under socialism is in agriculture, particularly in the collective farms. Though the Soviet collective farms were no longer characterized by that small-scale production

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which Lenin had noted "engenders capitalism and the bourgeoisie continuously, daily, hourly, spontaneously and on a mass scale," there was still enough of this ground to constitute a danger.

    It was not only the private household plots. More problematic was the form of collective-farm property itself. It was socialist property, in the sense that the proletarian state owned the entire land as well as the major agricultural machinery (tractors, combines and the like) used by the collective farmers. But apart from these primary and some secondary restrictions (such as price controls), each collective farm operated relative to the others and relative to the state much as a private profit-making enterprise. However many thousands of persons might be combined in a single collective farm, each such farm still constituted production of a relatively petty and anarchic kind compared to the scale and the planful integration of production in the state sector, particularly industry.

    In Stalin's last published writing, "Economic Problems of Socialism" (1952), there are clear warnings regarding the collective farms and about the commodity-exchange relations involved in this form. "It would be unpardonable blindness not to see at the same time," Stalin writes, "that these factors are already beginning to hamper the powerful development of our productive forces, since they create obstacles to the full extension of government planning to the whole of the national economy, especially agriculture. There is no doubt that these factors will hamper the continued growth of the productive forces of our country more and more as time goes on. The task, therefore, is to eliminate these contradictions by gradually converting collective-farm property into public property, and by introducing -- also gradually -- products-exchange in place of commodity circulation." (Peking, Foreign Languages Press ed., p. 70).

    We know from subsequent events that the bourgeois elements within the USSR and its communist party did not agree with this estimate of Stalin's. Nor did they agree with his strict injunction (in the same work) against the idea of selling off the machines and tractors to the

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collective farms, a proposal that was bound to lead, Stalin wrote, "to the regeneration of capitalism." (p. 96) (A few years afterward Khrushchev implemented precisely this proposal among others which Stalin had criticized in this work.) It is significant, however, that neither Khrushchev nor any other high party official came out at the time in favor of the proposal, which had been put forward in letters to Stalin by two obscure individuals named Sanina and Venzher. A public discussion of Stalin's book was organized and the entire party was directed to participate but if Khrushchev already in 1952 agreed with Sanina and Venzher and their like, he kept it secret. In public he and his allies agreed with Stalin's ideas enthusiastically -- and a short time later did the opposite. Such methods were characteristic of the ascendant Soviet bourgeoisie.

    Despite the tremendous importance of developments in agriculture during and after the Soviet socialist period however, the leading forces behind the events of the mid-1950s came not only from this sector, the most obvious and well-recognized seedbed of capitalism. Agriculture had been Khrushchev's main speciality. But others of the leading neobourgeois forces that took power after Stalin's death had party careers that involved them rather more heavily in the affairs of engineering and industry.

    The position of Soviet engineering and management personnel, particularly that of enterprise directors, was a sharply contradictory one during the socialist period. They had great responsibilities, greater even than those of managers in capitalist society, but vitally fewer powers than their capitalist counterparts.

    The Soviet enterprise director (or plant director) under socialism was held personally responsible and accountable for the organization of the production process in its human, technical and bookkeeping dimensions. Responsibility was concentrated in the individual, in accordance with the principle of "one-man management" advocated in the early 1920s by Lenin along with the other measures that made up the first stage of NEP. It was a principle designed to overcome the confusion, evasion of responsibility and production breakdowns that were all too

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frequent in the early period of spontaneous factory seizures and primitive workers' "self-management" and it was preserved and even to a certain extent reinforced in the period of planned economy. The director's responsibility under the system was in fact even heavier than that of a plant manager under capitalism, because the Soviet director was bound both technically and legally by the economic plan which prescribed in considerable detail what was to be produced and when. As Stalin emphasized in a speech at the 15th Party Congress in 1927, "Our plans are not forecast plans, not guesswork plans, but directive plans, which are binding upon our leading bodies. . . ." (Works, Vol. 10 p. 335). This meant that a director who failed to fulfill the plan was violating the law, could be brought before a court and if found guilty of conscious misdoing, sentenced to death as a saboteur.

    At the same time as they were charged with heavy and strict responsibilities, the Soviet managers as a rule had considerably less power than their capitalist counterparts over the workers. They did have strong authority, particularly during the great influx of peasants in the industrialization drive of the early 1930s, to assign workers to different roles in the internal division of labor, to punish lateness and absenteeism with fines and otherwise to "run the shop" -- though even this authority could be challenged successfully. But they did not have the most vital of the powers possessed by their capitalist counterparts, namely the power to fire a worker at will. They could not threaten a worker with unemployment and hunger.

    This was a concrete meaning of the phrase that labor power in the USSR was no longer a commodity bought and sold like any other: its price (wages) was no longer depressed by the existence of a relative surplus army of unemployed and the inalienable right of commodity buyers to refuse to buy -- the right to not hire and to lay off -- was no longer recognized. Except during wartime, workers were free to quit; but managers could not fire them except by proving some criminal offense against them. Thus, lacking the whip hand, the managers were weak.

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    Moreover, the workers had more than one channel by which to get at directors who abused such authority as they had. As the British bourgeois scholar Mary McAuley writes (in "Labour Disputes in the Soviet Union," Oxford 1969), there were special courts to hear industrial disputes to which only workers had access; managerial personnel could appear there only as defendants and were barred from initiating cases (pp. 54-55). Even before matters came to court, there were ways that the workers on the shop floor could let a troublesome director know who was boss. One of these avenues, the production meeting, is described by the bourgeois scholar David Granick in his book, "The Red Executive":

    "Management is operating under severe ideological and practical handicaps in its efforts to keep down worker criticism. One factory director . . . implied that production meetings were a real ordeal for him. But at a question as to whether workers dared to criticize openly, he said, 'Any director who suppressed criticism would be severely punished. He would not only be removed, he would be tried.'" (New York, 1960, p. 230)

    The combination of enormous responsibility but relatively little power in the hands of the enterprise directors was not in the long run a healthy one. The way forward would have been progressively to transfer more and more of the directors' responsibilities to the workers themselves, to match their power. But as the party's policy on the question remained basically static, the directors seized the initiative themselves. On the one hand they arrogated to themselves more of the powers held by the workers, and at the same time chipped away at the responsibilities imposed on them by the plan. Both these tendencies on the directors' part, stemming from an identical capitalist impulse, were kept in check and suppressed during Stalin's lifetime. But their source was not eradicated. After his death, once the new leadership had consolidated its grip on the party, the directors' suppressed complaints at their powerlessness and at the onerous burden of the plan were given free play in the press and the demands implicit in these complaints were given full satisfaction.