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Will Soviets follow China, or return to Stalin-omics?

A major power struggle is taking place in the Soviet leadership. In the final analysis, it revolves around two alternatives for the social and political development of the Soviet Union. As individual participants in the power struggle no doubt realize, their own fate hinges directly on the position they embrace.

Both models derive from the two opposing conceptions that prevailed in the Soviet Union in the 1960s and early '70s -- liberalism and Stalinism. The former held that social and economic progress was possible only through a political democratization of the system. The latter proposed solving these problems by returning to a harsh antidemocratic regime like that of Joseph Stalin, whose undisputed rule of the Soviet Union extended from 1929 to 1953.

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Support for the liberal conception came from large segments of the Soviet intelligentsia. The Stalinist vision, by contrast, appealed to a significant number of functionaries in the Communist Party.

By the late 1970s, as the Soviet regime tightened its grip on society and as difficulties mounted in the economic order, the liberal conception suffered steady attrition in credibility and appeal. It was under these circumstances that party functionaries, and that segment of the intelligentsia most closely associated with them, intensified their search for a way to revive the Soviet economy -- but in a manner that would preserve the existing regime without significant change.

As a result, diverse conceptions of economic modernization within the confines of the existing political structure have emerged. The spectrum of opinion ranges from unadulterated Stalinism to the innovative programs recently adopted in the People's Republic of China.

Those who adamantly demand a return to the ``command economy'' of the Stalinist epoch do not wish to be associated with the excesses of the Stalin era -- the terror and gulag prison camps. Instead, these ``neo-Stalinists'' wish to show that their model is in fact no less flexible than the market-oriented system. They insist that it can arouse the maximum initiative among workers, that it will make optimal use of resources, and that it offers an ideal combination of economic centralization at the top and autonomous enterprise management at the bottom.

All this, they say, can be achieved without resorting either to the draconian methods of Stalin or to the admission of an uncontrolled market mechanism.

In November 1984 this neo-Stalinist faction, almost as if to counter recent changes in Chinese economic policy, published a virtual manifesto for their position in the party's ideological journal, Communist. As is always the case when risk and uncertainty are involved, it was done indirectly.

This particular article appeared as part of a campaign to commemorate the 40th anniversary in May of the defeat of Germany in World War II. It was written by I. Zaltsman, who served as minister of tank production during the war and who previously had distinguished himself as director of a gigantic tank factory that produced most of the Soviet tanks used in the war, and I. Edelgauz, his assistant in the tank factory.

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Within the context of contemporary Soviet journalism, the article is striking: It emphasizes the role of Jews in the successful production of tanks. It is significant, moreover, that both of the authors are Jewish. (The Soviet leadership, in this period of power struggle, is sending out conflicting signals in regard to ``the Jewish question,'' which has traditionally been an area of symbolic importance in Russian and Soviet politics.)

The very fact that Mr. Zaltsman and Mr. Edelgauz should publish a patriotic article in Communist is an extraordinary event, probably intended to arouse the interest of its readers. It emphasizes that this is no primitive outgrowth of Russian chauvinism, but, in our view, a broad-based neo-Stalinism which is seeking the support of all groups and nationalities.

Ostensibly, the article concerns just the wartime economy and the factory's operation under wartime conditions. But it is really a critique of the existing Soviet economic system from a neo-Stalinist perspective. And to remove any doubts among the readers about the contemporary relevance of the article, the authors flatly declare that ``the lessons of the war are of permanent significance and retain their relevance to the present day.''

Those who stand behind this article (and an article of this order could only have been published in a central party journal at the behest of a prominent figure in the Soviet leadership) cleverly chose the best possible case for presenting their model: the war. Wartime conditions, after all, naturally tended to justify the most extreme form of harsh, centralized command economy.

Nevertheless, and here is the whole thrust of the article, the Soviet wartime economy was much more flexible and efficient than today's ``peacetime'' economy. Drawing upon their practical experience in the tank factory, the authors sketch the ideal model for a more productive economic order.

Most striking of all, that model is totally devoid of references to democratization. Thus the authors do not indulge in the customary, pro forma allusions to some kind of ``participation'' of workers in management and decisionmaking. Implicitly, the authors are arguing that no democratization whatsoever is required for the achievement of economic goals. What is really needed, they argue, is intelligent decisonmaking at the top and ironclad discipline below.

The authors emphasize that their model combines the command structure with decentralization, the latter embodied in a certain autonomy for the leaders of local enterprises.

The plant director, in their view, must be the absolute boss of his enterprise and be able to make decisions without constantly looking over his shoulder at Moscow.

One of the key themes of the piece, in fact, is unstinting praise for technocrats and their proper role in the system. The former director of a tank factory wants the party to rely upon managers who are able to show ``independence,'' who are ready to take risks, who do not fear making mistakes, and who do not conceal their failures from Moscow.

In the last analysis, the solution proposed here is a combination of strict leadership at the upper echelon and operational autonomy for management at the local level -- with a significant simplification of the intermediate bureaucratic structure.

If read between the lines, the article represents a frontal attack on the middle-level organs now standing between the enterprise and central authorities. The authors note that during the war -- when, in their view, the economy performed extremely well -- the administrative structure was extremely simple and, precisely because of this simplicity, extremely effective.

The article also contains a number of significant, if less obvious, overtones. For one thing, they emphasize the extraordinary importance of the human factor. When the two authors argue vociferously that the sole criterion in appointment and promotion should be performance, that can only be interpreted as an implicit criticism of current personnel policies. And, in a blatant challenge to the gerontocracy now predominant at the top, the two authors emphasize that virtually all the leaders of this efficient war economy -- the vice-premier, ministers, and factory directors -- were under 40 years of age.

It is highly significant that this article devoted to the war does not contain a single reference to Stalin. It was surely a deliberate omission, indicating that these neo-Stalinists do not want to link their conception to Stalin's name and Stalin's crimes.

The article's romanticized and cosmetic image of the war economy is not just designed to evoke nostalgia among its readers.

Rather, its whole purpose is to suggest that at present -- when the peacetime Soviet economy faces such difficulty -- the only solution is to return to the command economy of the war.

Furthermore, the successes of the Chinese economy -- a direct result of the sharp reinforcement of the market and the attraction of foreign capital -- represent a significant challenge to the Soviet leadership.

These have catalyzed a growing division within the Soviet elite, on the one hand strengthening the position of the liberals, on the other provoking still more vigorous counterattacks from the neo-Stalinists.

Dr. Boris Rumer, now a fellow at the Russian Research Center at Harvard University, was chief of the economic department at the National Institute of Construction Industry in Moscow. Dr. Vladimir Shlapentokh, now a professor of sociology at Michigan State University, was a senior scholar at the Institute of Sociology in the Moscow Academy of Science.

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