Turning Power into Money, the End of the Soviet Union – RAI with A. Buzgalin (4/12)
On Reality Asserts Itself, Prof. Alexander Buzgalin says that many Communist Party leaders supported Gorbachev’s perestroika reforms, but what they really wanted, was to drop restrictions on accumulating great wealth – with host Paul Jay
PAUL JAY: Welcome back to Reality Asserts Itself on The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay and we’re continuing our discussion with Professor Buzgalin. Thanks for joining us again. Alexander Buzgalin is Professor of Political Economy and Director of the Center for Modern Marxist Studies at Moscow State University. So, in the last segment you said you did join the Communist Party in 1988. Gorbachev becomes leader in ‘85, so what was it about Gorbachev and perestroika, what did that period represent, and why is it a time to join the Party?
ALEXANDER BUZGALIN: Well, it was a very contradictory and very interesting period. We had transformation. And the slogan of the 1980s, late 1980s, was very beautiful. More democracy, more socialism. More humanism, more transformation towards a new society. Acceleration of development. Key slogans. 1987, special law- we must, in the Soviet Union, we must create self-management in all spheres, regions and production. This was and almost unique experiment when state enterprises, by law, was necessary to create a council of workers, of specialists, with main power to make decisions inside frameworks of plan. And to elect direct. It was a very contradictory experience, because bureaucracy was creating self-management. It’s very funny. From above, by bureaucratic methods, through terrible party and state bureaucrats, create self- management from below, and it’s like a stupid contradiction. It’s a new category of dialectic, I think, stupid contradiction. But, what can I say? And in this period, we participated as consultants, as intellectuals-
PAUL JAY: As you’re teaching at the university.
ALEXANDER BUZGALIN: Yes, but we created a special team, and we were working with relatively small, one thousand workers, and big ones, one hundred thousand workers enterprise.
PAUL JAY: So, give a specific example of what you did, how they were trying to accomplish this.
ALEXANDER BUZGALIN: So, one of the examples, it was an enterprise producing electronic equipment in Lithuania. It was enterprise producing trucks, huge trucks, Kamaz, Volger Region. In Belarus, it was enterprise producing watches, only two thousand workers. In Moscow, we didn’t participate active, but it was great enterprise producing robots, first robots in 1980s. And the idea was that self-management is impossible to build like a building, to construct. It is necessary to help to grow up from below.
PAUL JAY: What does it mean, self-management?
ALEXANDER BUZGALIN: It means enterprise has plan. But then you can decide how to minimize-
PAUL JAY: So, state says, produce so many of whatever you’re producing.
ALEXANDER BUZGALIN: Yes. For example, you must produce five thousand robots per year, and you have such and such resources. But then, it is not all your agenda. Fifty percent of your production you can cooperate directly with another enterprises. It got into state rules. But then you can decide how to produce, how to minimize costs, how to organize labor process, how to organize management how to distribute- wage was fixed, but it was surplus, plus thirty, forty percent, and this can be distributed to the collective. So, how to control bureaucrats? All this were in the hands of the worker’s collective. It was assembly, assembly-elect council, and council was a key organ, like a council of directors in a stock company.
PAUL JAY: Can you elect the manager of the company?
ALEXANDER BUZGALIN: Yes, and even the director of the company.
PAUL JAY: But who had the power, the council, the manager of the company, or the Party representative?
ALEXANDER BUZGALIN: Well, it was an experiment, and it was different forms, and the law was not completed. But there were different variants. When assembly of workers elect a director, when council had agreement with director and director was like an employee of the worker’s collective- different forms. In, let’s say, eighty percent of the cases, it was formal self- management, but in some cases, it was really working.
PAUL JAY: Well- that was my question. Did it work?
ALEXANDER BUZGALIN: In some cases, and it was only the beginning. It was two years of experiments, but the second year was in a period of the total destruction of the country. That’s why it is difficult to say, was it working or not?
PAUL JAY: So, Gorbachev brings in perestroika, it’s another Spring, the bureaucratic system was getting paralyzed, the economy wasn’t very productive. You get excited by it, you joined the Party. And then, not too many years, you’re actually on the Central Committee of the Party. How does that happen, that you just join and you’re on the Central Committee?
ALEXANDER BUZGALIN: More or less. It was a fantastic story, and still a majority doesn’t believe me, but it’s true. Central Committee is- for people who don’t know what does it mean, in Soviet Union, Central Committee of the Communist Party was more powerful than Parliament. So, to be a member of Central Committee, it was three hundred people, it was to be among the bosses of the country. And the story was falling. We had opposition inside Communist Party, and it was Bourgeois opposition who then led to the collapse of the Soviet Union inside the Communist Party. It was pro-Stalinist opposition, it’s necessary to have again, dictatorship, and stop all Gorbachev experiments.
PAUL JAY: Well, they argued that the Gorbachev experiment was naïve and would lead to the collapse of the Soviet Union.
ALEXANDER BUZGALIN: So, Stalinist opposition did not say that it will lead to the collapse of the Soviet Union, they said it is the wrong direction because it’s not the Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin writings. Strange logic of thinking, but it was the case. And we created so-called “Marxist Platform,” Marxist fraction in Communist Party, and the idea was, we do need more democracy, protection of human rights, but the road must be not to liberal model of economy, liberal model of political system, not road to the capitalism. It should be road to new model of socialism. It’s nearly revolution from below with assistance of maybe some bureaucrats, but a few.
PAUL JAY: Well, Gorbachev must have liked this line of argument, to put you on the Central Committee.
ALEXANDER BUZGALIN: Well, not- he and Central Committee doesn’t like this. Why? Because they had these slogans, but real intentions were not this. Really, these intentions- who started this process? Gorbachev was maybe naïve, maybe not smart enough, I don’t know. But a real motor of all these changes was a young generation of nomenklatura, of Party bureaucrats and State bureaucrats. Thirty, forty years old, sons and grandsons of the Party bureaucrats from the past. And they had very simple and a very, I can say, very terrible idea, to change power into property and money. We have power, but we have a lot of restrictions. Bureaucrats, even on the top level, had a lot of restrictions. They didn’t have a lot of privileges.
PAUL JAY: They couldn’t accumulate a lot of private wealth.
ALEXANDER BUZGALIN: No opportunities to accumulate. A lot of formal ideological restrictions, and so on. They want to be rich and to have real power without any formal restrictions. And it was real intention. And they were behind all these Gorbachev slogans, and they used these slogans partly for propaganda, partly to tell lies to realize their ideas. And partly because they had very strange consciousness, it’s- I will give you, maybe an American example. If you ask any billionaire, what is the main goal of his life, he will tell you, “To satisfy needs of the Americans. Without me, these ten, twelve, twenty thousand workers will not have opportunity to work. Without me, people will not have jackets. Without me, people will not have cars. So, I satisfy the needs of people, this is the goal of my life.” Is it true?
PAUL JAY: Yeah-
ALEXANDER BUZGALIN: Yeah, it’s true?
PAUL JAY: They’re called the “job creators.”
ALEXANDER BUZGALIN: And he is honest for himself. What is the paradox? His real aim is money, money and money and more money, but he believes that he is creating something for people. He believes in this, or she believes in this. The same with this cynical generation of nomenklatura.
PAUL JAY: But then, who gets you onto the Central Committee?
ALEXANDER BUZGALIN: Well, this is a funny story, I’ll tell you very briefly. We created this platform, and it was period of very rapid growth of social creativity from below. We published document with name, Marxist Platform, Program, and this program received, extremely quickly, big popularity- without internet, by the way. It was published-
PAUL JAY: It went viral before “viral.”
ALEXANDER BUZGALIN: Yeah, it was made in the Xerox, but it appeared everywhere in Party organizations, then it was published in one of the regional newspapers, another regional newspaper, then we made conferences. During three months, all this was done, even less. And after this conference, T.V. came, because it was freedom of speech, real freedom of speech, not like now. And then it was published in Pravda, in post we received fifteen, twenty percent of support of the Communist Party, that was nineteen million.
PAUL JAY: And what was the main point of the platform?
ALEXANDER BUZGALIN: Main point was real grassroots democracy, socialism, market as a form which can be used but under the supervision of a democratic social state, and the movement towards self-management, socialism and so on.
PAUL JAY: So, what does Gorbachev think of this?
ALEXANDER BUZGALIN: I don’t know, really, but we were not, I’ll say, supported from the top.
PAUL JAY: Okay, so how’d you get on the Central Committee?
ALEXANDER BUZGALIN: We were invited, three persons, we were invited to be guests of the Congress, 28th Congress of the Communist Party, not even delegates, we were sitting on the balcony with five thousand people, but it was microphones everywhere, it was a lot of press, and we were talking openly. And finally, we received the right to speak from the tribune, to present our platform. And it’s a funny story, I was thirty-five years old, then. At the last minute, we understood that we will speak. And then, when I was running through the long corridor from the balcony stairs, and long corridor to the presidium, I had terrible feelings in my stomach. And when I came, whole five thousand people, in stations from all over the world, not simply from the Soviet Union, it was open translation-
PAUL JAY: Doesn’t Gorbachev have to sign off to allow you to speak?
ALEXANDER BUZGALIN: Yes, because it was a requirement of the delegates. Not to me, but also to Stalinist opposition and Bourgeois opposition. And I don’t want to advertise myself, but it was four times the applause of the whole hall. After that was to interview for Central Committee, and the portrait of Buzgalin in the main square of Russia, it’s true. Not main, but on the Information Agency. And delegates proposed to elect three members of, three representatives of the Marxist Platform to the Central Committee. One lady, my friend, who was an elder, and me. So, I became one of the youngest members of the Central Committee, and it was really funny to, after two years of membership in the Party, to be a member of the Central Committee.
PAUL JAY: So, what year are we in?
ALEXANDER BUZGALIN: Oh, it was 1990.
PAUL JAY: So, 1990, you walk into your first meeting of the Central Committee, you are there with the most powerful people in the country-
ALEXANDER BUZGALIN: Yeah, but really, Central Committee didn’t have- Central Committee had power, but real power was in the hands of the political bureau and leaders. So, we received access to the media, and so on. It was very useful, but finally, it was too late. And one of the plannings of the Central Committee, where everybody was together, we had the opportunity to tell if we will not change, radically, the situation, the Communist Party, Soviet Union, will collapse. And after that, when the Soviet Union was collapsed, many people from Central Committee came and said, “Buzgalin, you’re responsible. You said that we will be collapsed.”
PAUL JAY: But if I understand it correctly, a lot of the other Stalinists and others blamed the Gorbachev reforms for the collapse.
ALEXANDER BUZGALIN: It’s true, yeah. You know, collapse was not inevitable from objective point of view. It was not so deep crisis of economy. We had zero growth, stagnation, at the end. In Russia, we had now minus two and minus ten and no collapse. In the United States you had, in 2008, minus five, and no collapse. So, it’s not an economic reason.
PAUL JAY: Yeah, the whole political system doesn’t have to fall.
ALEXANDER BUZGALIN: Yeah, I gave the image- you know, bureaucratic construction is like a steel bridge. A steel bridge is strong, it can work ten years, fifty years, one hundred years, but then construction will be tired. No bumps, and then construction, boom. Destroyed. Why? Because of tired bureaucratic construction, the same with the Soviet system. It was necessary to change radically, the system. Our system could not work more in a modern situation. But this is a long story.
PAUL JAY: But it sounds like, it wasn’t inevitable, but the choice is, either this democratization and socialism you were talking about, or privatization and actually capitalism.
ALEXANDER BUZGALIN: It was two roads towards capitalism, roads back in this direction. One of which we had, the name is shock therapy. We received the shock, but we didn’t receive therapy. So, radical Bourgeois transformation which led to the primitive accumulation of capital, criminalization, feudalization, and so one. Terrible consequences. And the decline of production, incomes, a real catastrophe. Or, it was a choice to move in the direction of Chinese, let’s say, model, with bureaucratic power, but bureaucratic power was self-destroyed. And the interest of the top officials was not to have Chinese model, where top officials, again, has restrictions, control, and can even be arrested, killed in the stadium. The idea was to receive a change for primitive accumulation of capital. PAUL JAY: Get rich.
ALEXANDER BUZGALIN: Yeah, get rich and get powerful in another form.
PAUL JAY: What role did the Americans play in determining the outcome?
ALEXANDER BUZGALIN: Very big, but not decisive. And not Americans, but- I like Americans, by the way, I have a lot of friends among Americans. The problem is global capital and political institutions of global capital. Washington, Brussels, NATO, WTO, all these organizations had big intentions to destroy Soviet Union, of course.
PAUL JAY: Okay, we’re going to stop here, and we’ll pick up in the next section, this very decisive period. Please join us for a continuation of our discussion with Professor Alexander Buzgalin on Reality Asserts Itself on The Real News Network.