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The Regency of the Proletariat in Crisis: A Job for Perestroika < DIALECTICAL MARXISM: The Writings of Bertell Ollman
The Regency of the Proletariat in Crisis:
A Job for Perestroika

By Bertell Ollman


The discussion of Perestroika has suffered on the whole from inadequate attention paid to the nature of Soviet society. Yet, it is only upon knowing the kind of society we have before us that we can grasp the specificity of its problems and the possibilities within the system for resolving them. Hence any serious inquiry into Perestroika and Glasnost must begin by determining the best way to characterize the Soviet Union.

There has probably never been a society anywhere that has been burdened with so many different names: "socialism," "communism," "actually existing socialism," "state socialism," "bureaucratically deformed socialism," "dictatorship of the proletariat," "workers' state," "people's democracy," "state capitalism," "totalitarianism," "red fascism," and there are others. The problem of finding the right label, of course, is a reflection of the difficulty people have had in deciding which one or few of its attributes have been decisive in giving the Soviet Union its distinctive character, including too its real history and potential for future change.

Most of the debate has revolved around whether to treat the working class, or the Communist Party, or some combination of bureaucrats and managers as the leading actor in the Soviet drama. Those who opt for the workers, and there are still some who do, have to explain why such groups as the Communist Party, bureaucrats, and managers exercise so much real power. Those who single out the Party have to account for where the Party gets its goals and why there are any social and political limits to its power. Why, for example, should it ever change its policies? The totalitarian model, which this is, assumed that the Soviet Union would remain forever the same. People who give priority to bureaucrats and managers, whether taken as a new class or not, have to explain how the Communist Party could exist before the rise of this group, whose political instrument, according to this view, the Party is. These are the main reasons I reject these three interpretations of Soviet society and the various labels with which they come. What then to emphasize to get at the distinctive character and dynamics of Soviet society, and what name best captures it?

I choose to emphasize not one group but a relation—until recently an essential, organic relation—between two groups: the workers and the Communist Party. Within this relation, the third group mentioned above, bureaucrats and managers, function as mediators invariably serving the interests of the Communist Party which appoints them and sets their agendas. Those who have caught a glimpse of the importance of this relation have generally cast it as one of "vanguardism," with the Communist Party viewed as the dominant class in society. But this assumes that the Soviet Union is a dictatorship of the proletariat, which Marx understood as a society in which the workers hold real power. The Soviet Union is not and has never been a dictatorship of the proletariat, because the workers have never held power. Its self-proclaimed vanguard did, and still does. But this vanguard derives its legitimacy from its presumed connection to the working class, whose right to rule is taken as given, and more often than not it was the interests of the workers (as interpreted by the Party, of course) that determined government policy. Given the prevailing ideology, the Party had no other acceptable rationale for acting as it did; nor did the rest of society for going along.

On this interpretation, the Soviet Union is neither socialist nor capitalist, neither a dictatorship, nor a democracy, neither a workers' state nor a bureaucratic state as these characterizations are ordinarily understood, but contains elements of all of these. In my view, the unusual combination suggested by these apparently incompatible qualities is best grasped as a kind of regency. The Soviet Union is a Regency of the Proletariat. The model here is the regency of an earlier time when an established politician, often the uncle of a still-too-young monarch, wielded power in his name, and claimed to act in his interest. Though all effective power was in the hands of the Regent, his legitimacy rested on his relation to the king, whom everyone, including the Regent, considered to be the rightful ruler. As the young king grew up and became capable of governing on his own, the Regent had two choices: either hand over power to the king or eliminate him and assume power in his own name.

As a model of the relation between the Communist Party and the working class, the idea of regency has several advantages. It makes clear that the only rightful possessor of power, according to the prevailing ideology, is the proletariat; that this power has been exercised for them, and presumably in their interests, by the Communist Party; that the entire basis of the Party's legitimacy lies in its special relationship to the workers; that this relationship has evolved into something quite different than it was at the start; and that with these changes, the Soviet Regent, the Communist Party, had to decide whether to hand over power to the workers or to eliminate them, not physically, of course, but politically and ideologically.

These changes are to be understood not only in terms of a growth in the size, education, and political sophistication of the working class but also in the number of ways their lack of cooperation and generally indifferent work could interfere with the efficient functioning of the Party's economic plan. While the growing complexity of the plan and of the productive tasks it entailed required more care, more commitment, and more cooperation on the part of the workers, the latter delivered less and less. With the exception of the war years and the period of recovery immediately afterward, when survival and patriotic sentiments supplemented the Party's traditional appeals, most workers were never able to identify with the planners of accept the plan as their own. Moreover, none of the Party's attempts to entice or force cooperation seemed to make a difference.

There are many factors that play a role in the economic slowdown in the Soviet Union that began as early as 1960. Cold War competition with the West, of course, must not be neglected, but I give primacy of place to this contradictory relation between the evolving requirements of the plan and the decrease in worker effort and cooperation that it elicited. Particularly instructive is the precipitous decline that took place in capital productivity. It is estimated that between 1960 and 1985 the ratio of capital to industrial output in the Soviet Union went down almost 40 percent (Sweeney, 1990, 7). With work quality and intensity dropping, the increase in the number of factories and machines of all sorts did not have the expected impact of the quantity of goods produced.

Poor planning? Probably. Inefficient, self-interested management? Without a doubt. But the key to this unraveling of an economic arrangement that had worked moderately well until then lay in the refusal of most of its participants, deprived of other means of showing their discontent, to accommodate themselves to the changing nature of their tasks. This is not to be viewed as a matter of the workers failing the system, but of the system itself, based on the evolving relation of Party to class, reaching the limits of its adaptability. While the main effect of such resistance was economic, it can also be seen as a kind of half-conscious political protest, guerilla warfare conducted chiefly by working to rule, by workers against a Regency whose raison d'être had run its course.

Whatever the initial justification, it would appear that Soviet workers no longer needed, or, in the case of a growing number, wanted, some other group to act on their behalf. What was the response of the Soviet Regent to be? It is this situation that I've described as "The Regency of the Proletariat in Crisis."

This crisis can also be cast within the Marxist framework of the relations between the forces and relations of production. In line with what was said about the Regency, the groups whose interactions earn them pride of place in the relations of production in Soviet society are the workers and the Communist Party. It is through their interaction that Soviet forces of production have developed as far as they have, making the Soviet Union until recently the second largest industrial power on earth. But these same relations in their evolved state have come to impede the further progress of the forces of production. Now something must give.


In light of this characteristic of the Soviet Union as a Regency of the Proletariat, what sense can we make out of Perestroika and Glasnost? Within this perspective, the policies collectively referred to by these names represent a revolt by the Regents, a counterrevolution, a preemptive strike to forestall the coming to power of the working class. Viewing the Soviet Union as a Regency of the Proletariat, the main aims of Perestroika and Glasnost appear to be as follows: (1) discipline the workers through the introduction of market mechanisms with their ever-present threat of unemployment; (2) hide the hand, that is, the Party's hand, that disciplines them by giving economic powers that once belonged to central planners, a group easily identified with the Party, to managers and owners on the enterprise level; (3) have the workers participate in their own mystification; and (4) shift the basis of the Party's legitimacy from the working class, and the Party's supposed position of vanguard to this class, to the public at large by setting up Western-style democratic elections to the government.

  1. Discipline the workers through the introduction of market mechanisms. Here is a stick with which to coerce cooperation that was not available before. To the Regents, it must have seemed that everything had been tried to make Soviet workers work more efficiently except the discipline of the capitalist marketplace. Repeated attempts to inspire, entice, and cajole greater cooperation had brought meager results. The Guarantee of full employment, persistent labor shortages, and the ideology that this was a workers' state rendered whatever coercion that did occur short-term and generally ineffective. Now, the workers were being asked to work harder, longer, with less job security, and if not for less wages at least for wages that buy less, and all for a promise of more consumer goods at some later time, a promise the majority of workers no longer believe. As always in market economies, the talk from on top is about satisfying pent-up demand and liberating people's desire to get rich, but where the carrot will not or cannot work, the system has at its disposal the biggest stick of all, which is the threat of unemployment with its accompanying social misery.

  2. Hide the hand, that is, the Party's hand, that disciplines them by giving economic powers that once belonged to central planners, a group easily identified with the Party, to managers and owners on the enterprise level. The latter, in turn, can blame the impersonal forces of the market for whatever hardships they inflict upon the workers. From the vantage point of the Regents, a major problem of the old system was that it was too transparent. For all the complexity of Soviet bureaucracy, no one ever had any doubts about who made major economic decisions and, consequently, about who to blame when things went wrong. In a market economy, fundamental truths are never so plain. What stands out in the market are the prices of things and the apparent freedom of people to buy and sell whatever they wish without any outside interference. What is carefully hidden from view are the underlying social relations among the workers that get expressed in the prices of their products, as well as the role of monopoly and monetary power in determining both what is available to buy and what people may have to sell. This applies equally to labor power, capital, and finished commodities. In this way, the responsibility of the particular social system and those who rule over it for employment levels and conditions, as well as for what gets made and who benefits most and least from how it is distributed, is transferred to the decisions of individual buyers and sellers in the market. The market as such, abstracted from its historically specific context and functions, acquires the aura of a natural phenomenon, and who but a madman would set out to correct nature?

  3. Have the workers participate in their own mystification. This is where Glasnost comes in: having altered appearances through the above-mentioned reforms, workers can now be allowed to speak freely about what they see, since what they see only confirms their new powerlessness. If people are to believe that they have no one to blame for their worsened economic situation but themselves, because they didn't work hard enough or they suffer from bad luck, they must come to this conclusion on their own. They can't simply be informed, without a chance to question and criticize. The Soviet people had become so skeptical about official pronouncements that they have ceased to believe even the most elemental truths. Witness the widespread disbelief in the inequalities and other injustices in the United States, just because their own government was the messenger. Hence the need for Glasnost, for openness.

    Rousseau (1969, 277) had pointed out long ago that "there is no subjugation so perfect as that which keeps the appearance of freedom, for in that way one captures volition itself." This lesson has been confirmed time and again throughout the capitalist West, and now Gorbachev has sought to apply it to the Soviet Union. The essential first step was to organize the structure of everyday life so that what emerges on the surface of events, what people see and experience, directs their attention to the economic decisions of individuals as consumers and workers. It is in this manner that Perestroika and Glasnost are each necessary to the success of the other.

  4. Shift the basis of the Party's legitimacy as ruler from the working class to the public at large by setting up Western-style democratic elections to the government. The Communist Party hopes, of course, to retain political power but as the representative of a new coalition, the majority of voters, in which the workers will be one faction among others. In the process, the organic tie which bound the Party, even as Regent, to the working class has been sundered once and for all. There is no longer any reason for the Party to take special account of the interests of workers and government decisions no longer have to be rationalized in these terms. Deprived of their privileged status, the workers have lost whatever basis they once possessed for demanding special consideration or for complaining when they didn't receive it. There is no longer any reason for them to be treated better than any other group in society, which also means other groups may be treated better than the workers, or rather, since theory lagged behind practice on this matter, for this to occur more openly than before. The political as well as the economic structures for a more thoroughgoing exploitation of the working class are now in place.

Given that the workers never really had much influence over the decisions of the Party, this shift in what the effective rulers of society take to be the basis of their legitimacy may seem to be of little importance. On the contrary, it is of crucial importance, because it occurs at a time when the workers are finally in a position to decide on their interests for themselves, and at a point in Soviet society when these interests have become increasingly opposed to those of managers, bureaucrats, members of the repressive apparat, and so-called entrepreneurs, all of whom have significant representation in the Party. Viewing their class as the only ideology could have proved of inestimable value in any major confrontation between the workers and the Party. The rise of Solidarity in Poland provided the leaders of the CPSU with a frightening example of how this advantage might play itself out. The Regency, as we saw, had reached its limit, and before the workers could take control of the state power that had been functioning in its name, the Party took the initiative and, in effect, changed the rules of the political game.

While most of the discussion of Soviet reforms have centered on the dismantling of an authoritarian state, on expanded freedoms and the development of democratic institutions, it is essential to see that workers have no more control over key economic decisions than before, that profit maximization is replacing serving social needs as the main criterion for determining production choices, and that the workers no longer enjoy a privileged status in society. And for the Party, under its current leadership, it is the latter set of achievements and not the former that are the main objectives of Perestroika and Glasnost.

Some will object that the interpretation offered here serious underplays the divisions within the Communist Party as well as the divisions between the Party leadership and its non-Party liberal opposition. However, I consider it more revealing that all the speeches at the 28th Party Congress (July 1990) were in favor of Perestroika and Glasnost than that some criticisms were raised over what to emphasize and how fast to proceed. It was also at this Congress that Gorbachev, a lifelong apparatchik chosen by other lifelong apparatchiks, declaimed that Perestroika was the only way that the Communist Party could stay at the center of Soviet life. "Otherwise, other forces," he warned, "will push us onto the sidelines and we will lose our positions" (Herald Tribunes, July 1990, 6). I see no reason not to take this remarkably candid admission at face value. The "forces" that have Gorbachev so worried are not, as most foreign observers believe, economic liberals who stand to the right of the Party ("left" for the New York Times), but a conscious and aroused working class.

As for the non-Party (chiefly ex-Party and equally non-working class) opposition, who would move even faster toward a full market economy, here too the similarities with Gorbachev's program far outweigh the differences. In virtually all these disputes between different factions of what Daniel Singer has called the Soviet "privilegensia," the main albeit unspoken point at issue is how best to save their collective skins from the threat of a real dictatorship of the proletariat. Whether the parties involved are fully conscious of this or are partly victims of their own rhetoric is, of course, another question. No doubt some are conscious and some are not. It is even possible that Gorbachev and his advisers did not lay out their initial plans in the crude and unqualified manner in which they are formulated above. No matter, for this is what their plans come down to. This is what they really mean. And if the Communist Party leaders once thought that introducing some market mechanisms and retaining a significant degree of central planning would be enough to achieve their goals, the logic of events both in the Soviet Union and in the world capitalist system soon taught them otherwise. Gorbachev had to learn, as he says, that when it comes to the market one cannot be partly pregnant (Herald Tribune, June 1990, 1).


Well, will it work? This is really two questions. First, will it work for the Communist Party? Will they, or at least their leaders, retain power? And, second, will it work for society? Will it resolve the Soviet Union's economic problems? As for when the Regent will retain power, my answer is "no." Given democratic elections, why should people vote for Communists, even ex-Communists, to put "liberal" economic policies into effect when there are real liberals available to do it? Recent elections in Eastern Europe are a clear sign of what is in store for the CPSU in the very near future. Here the leaders of the Communist Party badly miscalculated.

What about the country? Will Perestroika and Glasnost resolve the economic crisis? Here, too, unfortunately, my answer has to be "no." If Marxist materialism has one basic lesson, it is this: "You can't make something out of nothing." Seventy years ago, the CPSU ignored this lesson and tried to build socialism with "nothing," that is, with none of the necessary material conditions of industry, wealth, skill levels, and democratic traditions. It should be no surprise, therefore, that they failed. Today, they are making the same kind of idealist mistake in trying to construct a version of capitalism without any of the main building blocks of capitalism present. And I am talking not only about Gorbachev's plan but also about all the variations on it offered by his liberal opposition.

Let me just mention three preconditions for capitalism that are missing: first, there is no capitalist class with sufficient accumulated wealth to buy up existing industries, let alone invest in their much-needed modernization. Mafia and managers with some savings, even with the addition of a few foreign companies, don't amount to a capitalist class. Second, there is no working class of the kind an emerging capitalist society requires, that is a desperately poor, beaten down, malleable people ready to do anything to survive. The embers of pride, self-confidence and egalitarianism still found among today's workers will not be put out so quickly. Third, there are no foreign markets for most of what a Soviet capitalism would produce since these are already glutted with better quality and probably cheaper goods from Japan, Korea, Brazil, etc. As if this weren't enough, the timing for acquiring foreign investments and loans, and new markets for anything but raw materials, could not be worse as a result of the economic decline now occurring throughout the capitalist world. There is an old Chinese proverb that says, "Don't tie your boat to tail of capitalist dog just as it is about to go over the waterfalls." But, then, lately even the Chinese haven't been paying much attention to this one.

To conclude: how best to characterize the Soviet Union? It is a Regency of the Proletariat. What then is Perestroika and Glasnost? It is a counterrevolution, a preemptive strike against the working class. Will it work for the Communist Party? No. For Soviet society as a whole? No. It is unlikely to take seventy years for this idealist attempt to build capitalism in the Soviet union to fail, but fail it will, and fail decisively.

Paradoxically enough, the objective conditions for socialism in the USSR are now largely present, but because of the unhappy experience with a regime that called itself "socialist" the subjective conditions are absent. It will probably take an experience with a poorly functioning market economy operating in harness with political dictatorship—the most likely next stage—for these subjective conditions to reappear and for a socialist revolution to become a possibility. (This assumes, of course, that in the process the objective conditions embodied in the highly developed economy are not destroyed.) On the other hand, somewhere in the midst of all this, the Soviet Union might be saved by a socialist revolution in the West as our capitalist economy goes into a tailspin. But as an American might say, "Don't count on it." Finally, there is a slight possibility, a very slight one, that Soviet workers, sensing what is about to happen, will make the long deferred socialist revolution and abort the market dictatorship before it becomes fully operative. Socialism, real, democratic, Marxist socialism is a possible outcome of the current crisis in the Regency of the Proletariat. It is a small possibility, but given the stakes and the horrendous alternative, for the working class at least there is really no other game in town.


International Herald Tribune. June 23, 1990.

International Herald Tribune. July 11, 1990.

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. 1969. Emile, Oeuvres Complètes IV. Paris: Gallimard.

Sweezy, P., and H. Magdoff, 1990. "Perestroika and the Future of Socialism, Part 2." Monthly Review, April.