Saturday, March 10, 2012

Some Notes on the Soviet elite
Part I

Soviet Politburo

In 1917 when the Bolsheviks seized power practically nobody expected the emergence of a new type of society with a new type of class structure. Well that is what emerged. The few who saw in the Marxist-Leninist theory the emerging of a new elite and its ideological justification were a small minority.1

Now of course with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of “State Socialism” in Eastern Europe the rule of the Nomenklatura has ended. However Nomenklatura ruling classes still exist in places like China, North Korea, Vietnam and Cuba. However in all those places the rule of the Nomenklatura is under threat by the rise of a straight forward class of Capitalists who sooner or later are going to want to have a share of political power. The rise in economic power of the new Capitalist elites has led to attempts more or less successful by members of the Nomenklatura in various countries to merge / co-op the new Capitalist elites. Thus is Russia the collapse of Communism meant the end of Nomenklatura rule but large numbers of the former Nomenklatura elite were able to parlay their membership of the Nomenklatura into membership of the new Capitalist elite many with significant ties to a huge criminal underground.2

Now what was the Nomenklatura? Well it was for lack of a better word a class of managers, who managed the economy and society of the Soviet Union. They provided the managerial elite who managed society / economy for their benefit.

The term Nomenklatura means list of names and refers to those who are on a list for special consideration / power.3

Now one of the tropes of totalitarian rule is that it leaves little space for private activity and thus sucks out so to speak the life of society so that it can only breathe through controlled apparatus of the centralized state.4

Now it is important to realize that the “mature” Soviet state despite its undoubtedly Totalitarian features was not totalitarian at least in in the sense of “Totalitarian” as defined by Hannah Arendt. That is because unlike the Stalinist version the state withdrew its pressure enough so that elements in the society could be allowed to breath. Or just as importantly the new ruling elite, the Nomenklatura, could enjoy the fruits of its domination of society.5

As I mentioned the Nomenklatura dominated by means of its management of society through its command of administration. This it achieved through its control of the Communist party which dominated the state by means of a party apparatus that paralleled the formal state apparatus. Formally the state apparatus controlled the state in actuality it was the party apparatus that controlled the state through its parallel structures. It was through the appointment of party members from those parallel structures to the state apparatus that domination was assured of state, society and the economy.6

As mentioned before several perceptive individuals noted the germs of the new system of domination in the Marxist-Leninist theory of the Vanguard Party. For example Rosa Luxemburg. Even Leon Trotsky before he became a Bolshevik and worked hard to establish the Nomenklatura in power saw were this was leading.7

However it should be mentioned that these ideas provided a theoretical justification for the rule of the Nomenklatura it did not “cause” the emergence of the Nomenklatura. The causes of the emergence of the new ruling class were strictly material.

What happened was that a small number of insurgents by means of a coup d’├ętat seize power in a large state. They do have considerable popular backing but it is not the majority of the population. Their program is a maximalist one, for which they quite totally lack majority popular support and further the opposition is likely to be significant. So the necessity in order to keep power to develop means of administrative control and suppression of opposition. This is made much easier by the denial in the theoretical postulates of the Bolsheviks of the idea of legitimate opposition.8

And of course as part of the maximalist program the new government abolishes, or makes illegal all sorts of institutions. The resulting chaos forces the emergence of bureaucratic institutions to take the place of those abolished or withered.

Unlike most modern states where bureaucracy emerges from the rise in the complexity of the modern economy and society. In this case it emerged to replace institutions and social set ups abolished or absorbed by the state. Thus the abolition of petty trade forces the state to fill in the gap. In the same way that the lack of popular support by the middle of 1918 forces the Bolshevik regime in order to retain power to substitute coercion for popular support.9

Thus Nomenklatura emerges to replace complexity when complicated institutional organization and institutions are abolished or side stepped and not to co-ordinate rising complexity as in most modern bureaucratic states. Lenin rather foolishly claimed that bureaucracy emerged in revolutionary Russia because of the lack of culture in that society. Lenin was completely oblivious to the origin of bureaucratic apparatus as a response to increasing social and economic complexity.10

Contrary to Lenin's assertion the emergence of the Nomenklatura emerged not because of the low cultural level of Russian society / economy but largely because of the destruction of mediating institutions between society / economy and the state. When those institutions disappeared / were abolished, the state stepped in to replace them because some sort of institutional apparatus was necessary and if such institutions did not exist the state would have to provide them within itself.11

Thus, for example the abolition of large industrial corporations created a vacuum which the state stepped into to replace the abolished institution. Thus the Nomenklatura grew. Thus the abolition of the large scale market for the sale and distribution of grain required that the state again step in. And of course the destruction of private financial institutions like banks dictated the same sort of outcome.

Thus the elimination of mediating institutions set things up so that the state had to step in and do the things the previous mediating institutions did.

Added to this was the fact that as the Bolsheviks lost popular support in 1918 the Nomenklatura grew in order to create, staff and maintain the repressive institutions which were a substitute for popular support.12

Thus the foundations for Nomenklatura rule were laid not by the backwardness of Russia but by the elimination of mediating institutions between state and society with the emerging Nomenklatura forced to provide those mediating functions. Added to this was emergence of the Nomenklatura tied into the process by which support for the system was created by substituting repression for popular support.

Some other time I will discuss some other features of the Nomenklatura.

1. Rosa Luxemburg for one. See Organizational Questions of the Russian Social Democracy, (Leninism or Marxism?) (1904), Rosa Luxemburg Internet Archive Here, also published as The Russian Revolution and Leninism or Marxism?, University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor Michigan, 1961, pp. 81-108.

2. See Priestland, David, The Red Flag, Grove Press, New York, 2009, pp. 556-575, Jowitt, Ken, New World Disorder, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1992, pp. 284-331.

3. Nomenklatura, Wikipedia Here.

See also Smith, Hendrick, The Russians, Ballantine Books, New York, 1976, pp. 30-67, Mathews, Mervyn, Privilege in the Soviet Union, George Allen and Unwin, London,1978.

4. See Arendt, Hannah, The Origins of Totalitarianism, Harvest/HBJ Books, New York, 1973, pp. 389-459.

5. See Djilas, Milovan, The New Class, Praeger Pub., New York, 1957, pp. 70-102, Voslensky, Michael, Nomenklatura, The Bodley Head, London, 1984, pp. 14-67.

6. Voslensky, pp. 68- 111, 243-318, Kornai, Janos, The Socialist System, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1992, pp. 33-48, 62-130.

7. Footnote 1. See also Trotsky, Leon, Our Political Tasks, Part II Tactical Tasks, (1904) Trotsky Internet Archive Here. It is strange to note that Trotsky then paid a key role in establishing the system he so perceptively perceived as possibly justified by Lenin’s ideas.

8. See Polan, A. J, Lenin and the End of Politics, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1984, pp. 57-85, Brovkin, Vladimer N, The Mensheviks After October, Cornell University Press, Ithaca, New York, 1987, pp. 294-299. See also Farber, Samuel, Before Stalinism, Verso, London, 1990, Schapiro, Leonard, The Origin of the Communist Autocracy, Second Edition, Harvard University Press, Cambridge MASS, 1977. pp. 111-210. For a perceptive look at Bolshevik rule early on see Russell, Bertrand, The Practice and Theory of Bolshevism, (1920) Project Gutenberg Here also published The Practice and Theory of Bolshevism, Second Edition, Unwin Books, London, 1948.

9. Footnotes 5, 6, 8. See also Solidarity, The Bolsheviks and Worker’s Control, Black and Red, Detroit Michigan, 1975.

10. See Polan, pp. 89-130.

11. IBID, Kornai, pp. 91-109.

12. See Brovkin, pp. 126-160, Faber. pp. 19-31.


For books that look at late Soviet society in general and are not mentioned above see Millar, James R, Politics, Editor, Work, and Daily Life in the Soviet Union, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1987, Kerblay, Basile, Modern Soviet Society, Pantheon Books, New York, 1983. For an over view of the moribund and militaristic nature of Soviet society see Rowen, Henry S, and Wolf, Charles, Editors, The Impoverished Superpower, ICS Press, San Francisco CA, 1990.

For unintended comic relief see the thoroughly shoddy lament to the death of one party autocracies Parenti, Michael, Blackshirts and Reds, City Lights Books, San Francisco CA, 1997. Although for truly side splitting comic relief see the true believer absurdity of Szymanski, Albert, Is the Red Flag Flying?, Zed Press, London, 1979. In this monumental piece of special pleading and out and out groveling worship of a mythical omnipotent, virtuous state, all of whose public statements of good intent are taken at face value is not even a glimmer of any perception of the crisis that would sweep away the regimes in Eastern Europe and Russia in a little over a decade. Mr. Szymanski committed suicide in 1984 and thus avoided discovering what a tool he had been. See Goertzel, Ted, Albert Szymanski: A Personal and Political Memoir Here.

Pierre Cloutier

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