Marxist Dissent – Medvedev

Roy A. Medvedev, On Socialist Democracy. 1975


How can we act to bring about democratization in the USSR? …

… In our conditions, the struggle for democratization must be a political one. It is unrealistic to suppose that neo-Stalinism, bureaucracy, and dogmatism can be overcome without a political fight. This is the only way that democracy can be achieved. However, we must make sure all our activities are strictly within the framework of the Constitution. In fact, the struggle has already begun at every level of society, taking different forms according to circumstances. And what is more-, one can predict that with each extension of democratic rights, the political struggle will gain momentum, often reaching acute proportions. The transition from any authoritarian regime to a democratic one is always accompanied by an intensification of political passions and pressures.

There is no doubt about the fact that democratization is an objective necessity for our society. Its inevitability is related to economic and technical progress, the scientific and technological revolution and changes that have taken place in the social structure. The country cannot be governed in the old way, and this is beginning to be felt not only by many young government officials but also by certain seemingly dyed-in-the-wool bureaucrats. Yet the fact remains that democratization will not come about automatically nor will it be handed down “from above.” It will occur only as a response to objective demands and determined efforts.

It is also unrealistic to suppose that a limited amount of democracy can be introduced which would apply to only one or two “approved” political trends or movements. Certainly all political groups, including all the conservative and reactionary ones, will try to use democratic freedoms to increase their own influence. The more circumstances seem to be turning against them, the harder they will struggle to maintain their political position. Therefore the presence of political conflict contains an element of risk, but risk is inevitable if there is to be a transition to a new and higher stage. Only the experience of struggle can foster the political activism and initiative of the masses and encourage democratic habits throughout the social fabric.

In democratic conditions, political struggle presupposes a comparatively free confrontation between different points of view, which obviously would provide a much better education in civic responsibility than does the present show of ostensible unity. We must only see to it that the political struggle is waged responsibly in forms that reasonable people can accept. Mutual destructiveness should be avoided; there must be a basic tolerance for those with whom one disagrees. Only this kind of open political contest can offer our people a proper political education, teaching them not only to express their own opinions but also to heed the views of others. This is the only way to establish a convention of ethical behavior in politics, to eliminate uncompromising sectarianism, intolerance, and elitist complacency. Only in conditions of overt political struggle will it be possible for genuine political figures to emerge, men who are capable of guiding the construction of a developed socialist and communist society in an efficient way. Thoughtful foreign observers who are sympathetic toward our country understand this very well. “Soviet society,” wrote G. Boffa, the Italian Communist, “stands in need of the establishment of democratic methods. The experience of the post-Stalin decades has shown that this cannot come about without political struggle, a struggle against those individuals and groups who openly or in secret have resisted and obstructed the policies initiated at the Twentieth Congress, a struggle against their theories and attitudes. But at all times there must be scrupulous regard for democratic principles. The words ‘political struggle’ evoke uneasiness in the Soviet Union, an out-of-date reaction, as if there were some real threat to the unity of society. But surely periods of political struggle are the greatest source of progress in both thought and action.” This is an entirely reasonable view. If socialist democracy is to be firmly established, it must be defended by the whole people, possibly only after all have passed through the school of political struggle by actually participating in the fight to extend and strengthen socialist democracy.

I speak of struggle and pressure coming from the people and particularly from the intelligentsia; however, this does not exclude the possibility of initiative appearing at the top. If moves toward democratization were taken at the higher levels of party and state it would be an important guarantee that subsequent controversy involving so many difficult Political problems would take place in the least painful manner and would be kept within bounds. But for the time being we do not have such a leadership; fine words about socialist democracy are not supported by actions. Yet the experience of Hungary, where over a period of years there has been a process of real democratization directed from “above,” does show that cooperation between those “above” and those “below” is a perfectly viable possibility. Something similar happened in Poland in 1971-72 but only after a very bitter and dangerous political crisis, which could have been avoided by a more rational leadership. The Czechoslovak experience of 1968-69, its achievements and failures, must also be carefully studied …

Of course I know that democratization cannot come about automatically and have no illusions about the difficulty of the struggle. But all the same, it is wrong to exclude the possibility of an alliance between the best of the intelligentsia supported by the people and the most forward-looking individuals in the governing apparat …

The realization of a serious program of democratic change must be a comparatively slow and gradual process. The actual time period will be determined by many factors, but it should take not less than ten or fifteen years. First of all, the democratic movement in our country is still too weak and would be unable to achieve rapid political changes. Secondly, we are still very much in the process of formulating political programs. Therefore as the democratic movement evolves, there must also be a development of socialist political thought, the creation of new political doctrines on the basis of Marxism-Leninism which Will analyze our changed political and economic circumstances. Without this kind of theoretical preparation, without a serious program–even if it is discussed only in a relatively narrow circle any kind of rapid political change would inevitably create overwhelming contradictions and disarray. Overhasty reform can also cause problems within the socialist bloc (as the experience of Czechoslovakia has shown). Improvisation in politics can easily result in anarchy. But although diametrically opposed to authoritarian abuse of power, anarchy offers little prospect for elementary human rights and freedoms.

Reform must also be gradual because of the peculiar nature of bureaucracy. As, Lenin often pointed out, there is no way to “lance the bureaucratic boll, to wipe bureaucracy from the face of the earth”-the only possibility is cure. “Surgery in this case,” wrote Lenin, “is absurd, it cannot work. There can only be a slow healing process-other alternatives are fraudulent or naive.” This advice should not be forgotten. It is essential for us to work out a democratic platform. But at the same time we must make an effort to accumulate information, educate people and win them over, step by step. And it all will take time.

There is now a very widespread feeling that the way we live and work has become untenable, and this applies not just to the intelligentsia but also to much of the working class, white collar workers, and perhaps some of the peasantry. But there is still no mass movement demanding change or democratic reform, and without this it is difficult to count on, any rapid transformation of our political system or on a change of attitude at the top. governments that have signed the Final Act. It Is the intention of the “group” to request that, in special cases, these countries form an international commission to investigate these matters. In addition, the “group” will rely oil the pressure of Western public opinion Oil the Soviet government and does not-in the words of Orlov–“seek support among the people.”

Antisocial elements arc calling oil the heads of states participating in the Helsinki Conference to create in their countries unofficial monitoring groups, which could subsequently be unified into an international committee …

The Committee for State Security is taking measures to compromise and put an end to the “group’s” hostile activities.

Source: Roy A. Medvedev, On Socialist Democracy (New York: Knopf, 1975), pp. 310-15, 331-32.

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