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  • The Suicide of Soviet Communism
  • Charles H. Fairbanks Jr. (bio)

Modem democracies are based on the principle that political power is properly contested among various parties and awarded to the party that gets the most votes in free elections with universal suffrage. The major contemporary alternative to this principle of legitimacy has been the Leninist doctrine of the dictatorship of the proletariat. It holds that the communist party, as the vanguard of the proletariat, is entitled to exercise political power; although it may temporarily ally itself with other political forces, it must never share real power or allow itself to be removed from its position of rule. In 1989, however, communist parties throughout Eastern Europe found themselves compelled to disavow the concept of a constitutionally enshrined "leading role" for the party. This past February, a still more dramatic reversal occurred—the voluntary renunciation of this principle in the very citadel of Marxism Leninism.

The Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU), at its February 5-7 plenum, voted to endorse the following propositions:

A law-based state of all the people excludes the dictatorship of any class. We are for elections being a field of honest competition among representatives of all strata of society, personalities, and ideas . . . . The development of society does not exclude the creation of [other] parties as well . . . . The CPSU does not lay claim to a monopoly . . . . The party [End Page 18] does not take for itself powers of state authority... [and it does not] lay claim to an advantage [over other parties] and to the guarantee of a special position in the constitution.1

At this same historic meeting, the Central Committee members also voted to accept the legitimacy of private property (contra Marx), and they moved up from October to June the date of the Party Congress that will reelect them to—or remove them from—the Central Committee and then choose a new Politburo.

The importance of the renunciation of the party's monopoly was immediately questioned by a number of Western commentators. They pointed out that the CPSU had admitted multiparty competition only as an abstract possibility to be realized, if at all, at some unspecified time in the future. Even then, it was said, the CPSU would retain the advantages of its vast resources and organization, as well as its domination—through Gorbachev—of the very reform movement that is confronting it. Some commentators noted that the Central Committee had also made decisions that would greatly strengthen Gorbachev's own hand as party leader. This last point is indeed important, but it in no way mitigates the defeat that the CPSU inflicted upon itself.

At their February meeting, the members of the Central Committee did in fact vote to give Gorbachev vastly increased powers at their own expense. They voted to create for the first time in Soviet history the office of chairman of the party and to provide that he be elected directly by the Party Congress. This change raises Gorbachev, who had been just the senior secretary of the Central Committee, even further above the other Politburo members (who will continue to be elected by the Central Committee). Moreover, the plenum endorsed a series of changes that will drastically reduce the Politburo's real power2 While this vast elevation of Gorbachev's position in the party hierarchy was being pushed through, plans were also being laid to propose to the Supreme Soviet an immense augmentation of his position in the state hierarchy.3

Gorbachev's growing accumulation of authority has ample precedent in Soviet history. The typical pattern in Soviet successions is, first, the dispersion of the old party leader's power to a "collective leadership," and then the gradual recovery of power by the new leader. It is also not unprecedented for the leader to turn against the party he heads. Stalin destroyed the existing party apparatus and then rebuilt it as his own tool. What is new in Gorbachev's strategy, however, is that he is not rebuilding the party as his instrument of rule.4

The Party in Jeopardy

After Gorbachev became party leader in 1985, he began mobilizing elements outside of...


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