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The "Pluralist" Model

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From the late 1960s, however, some commentators began to question the applicability of this concept to Brezhnev’s USSR. They pointed to new developments in Soviet politics, which signaled a departure from the “classical” totalitarian model, including the end to mass terror, the replacement of one-man rule by the emphasis on “collectivist” leadership, and a certain liberalization of the regime. But the chief argument on which their critique of the totalitarian concept was based concerned the qualitatively new level of interest groups’ activity in the post-Stalin era. 

The rise of interest groups in Soviet society allowed this school of analysts to speak of a special type of “Soviet pluralism.” One of the founders of the “pluralist model” of Soviet politics, the Canadian-American scholar Gordon Skilling, maintained, in particular, that Communist politics was based on an interplay of interests.

The American analyst Jerry Hough further developed the pluralist group approach in relation to the Soviet system. He believed that Brzezinski’s claim that the Soviet political system was unique and had nothing in common with Western political systems was too sweeping and not suitable to describe the post-Stalin stage of Soviet development. Hough described the political process in the USSR as “bureaucratic conflict” that involved specific interest groups, such as ministries and economic departments in charge of the more important branches of the economy, the military-industrial complex, the Central Committee departments, which often defended the interests of economic sectors under their tutelage, and the regional party-state elites. As for Western-style autonomous interest groups, such as trade unions and other public organizations, they either did not exist or had a negligible influence on Soviet politics.

In Hough’s model the top party-state leadership played the part of “final arbiter,” reconciling these bureaucratic interests rather than imposing dictatorially its will on the lower power structures and society. Describing his model as “institutional pluralism,” Hough claimed that it restricted the power of the general secretary and the Politburo, forcing them to follow the advice of specific bureaucratic groups and mediating conflicts between them. In practice, the elaboration of policies was often delegated to interested bureaucracies.

In other words, the principles of policy formulation and decision making in the Soviet Union were not that different from pluralist politics in Western countries. The main distinction was in the type of interest groups: in the West they were mostly voluntary public associations, whereas in the USSR they were represented by institutional structures formed within the system.

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