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The Collapse of Stalinism debate


Revolution And Counter-Revolution In The Soviet Union

CWI document, September 1991

A turning point in world events

1. The recent upheavals in the Soviet Union represent a turning point in world events. While this process began some years ago, the crushing blow suffered by the "old guard" signifies the collapse of Stalinism in the USSR. It will have enormous repercussions internationally, even greater than those which followed the collapse of the proletarian Bonapartist regimes in Eastern Europe. Marxists must assess what the prospects are now for the restoration of capitalism in the Soviet Union and in Eastern Europe where this process was already underway. We must assess what this means for the world balance of forces, the position of Imperialism, and the prospects for the remaining proletarian Bonapartist regimes. It is also necessary to gauge the effect of these events on the consciousness of the working class internationally.

2. A coup which attempted to prevent the break up of the Soviet Union and re-establish the power of the central authorities, the federal bureaucracy and the military high command, has achieved the opposite. There has been a decisive shift in the balance of power against the centre and in favour of the republics, especially the mighty Russian republic under Yeltsin. In the post-coup division of spoils, Yeltsin has enormously extended his powers, consolidating his control over the economy and state apparatus in the Russian federation.

3. Gorbachev survives but presides over a much-weakened centre. The Russian federation initially took control of the central bank, the economics ministry and most of the functions of the central apparatus, as well as the KGB and interior ministry. The horrified reaction of the other republics and world capitalism however, have forced Yeltsin to retreat from this position, at least for the time being.

4. The coup and its defeat enormously accelerated the tendencies towards break up of the Union. Ten republics formally declared independence with the Baltic states actually seceding from the Union. But the horrific consequences - economic collapse and possible civil war - have forced the majority of the governments in the republics to draw back from this.

5. As we have explained before, the bureaucracy's criminal mismanagement of the planned economy has plunged Soviet society into an unprecedented economic and political crisis. Economic stagnation and actual decline throughout the 1980s, at a time of weak economic recovery for world capitalism, has generated enormous illusions in capitalism - as the "only alternative" to Stalinist dictatorship - even among the working class.

6. Dictatorship inevitably throws back the consciousness of the mass of the working class. In the past, because of the proletariat's overwhelming attachment to the economic foundations of the workers' state, Stalinism defended the planned economy though with its own bureaucratic methods. Despite this relatively progressive historical role of the Soviet bureaucracy, its rule represented one of the most vile dictatorships seen in history. Workers' hatred of Stalinism was reinforced by the crushing of the movements in Hungary 1956, Czechoslovakia 1968 and Poland in 1956, 1971 and 1981. These factors and the absence, over several decades, of a revolutionary alternative in any of the countries of Eastern Europe has enormously complicated the processes of revolution and counter-revolution in the region.

7. We have seen important features of a revolutionary struggle by the working class in Romania, East Germany and Czechoslovakia. In the Soviet Union we have seen major strikes for the first time in seven decades, such as the miners' strike and the general strike movement in Byelorussia which in its initial stages was directed against the privileges of the bureaucracy. But because of the lack of a revolutionary alternative the hatred of Stalinism has, for the time being, shifted in the direction of counter-revolution and the victory of the pro-capitalist elements of the old bureaucracy.

8. We see these contradictions in a particularly sharp form in the recent events in the Soviet Union. In assessing the outcome of the coup, Marxists recognise both the positive aspects - the beginnings of a mass movement of the working class against an attempt to restore authoritarian rule - and also the negative aspects. In the absence of independent workers' organisations with a revolutionary programme and leadership and because of the illusions in the market, the victory of the workers and youth over the coup has resulted in an enormous strengthening of the openly pro-capitalist wing of the bureaucracy. In the short term, the moves towards capitalism will inevitably gather speed. We must recognise this as an important defeat.

9. Pro-bourgeois governments, similar in character to those in Eastern Europe, now exist in Russia and most of the republics. Since the coup Gorbachev has shifted even further into the capitalist camp and his new central administration will undoubtedly take the same form. As we have explained, this does not represent the final triumph of capitalist counter-revolution. These are extremely unstable, transitional regimes -bourgeois regimes in the process of formation. Whether this process is completed depends upon the living struggle over the next period.

10. Yeltsin's victory represents a bourgeois political counter-revolution in the Soviet Union. However, the counter-revolution has yet to consolidate itself by securing a decisive change in the economic foundations of the Soviet Union. To accomplish the social counter-revolution, it must overcome the enormous resistance of the Soviet workers. While among big sections Yeltsin is regarded as a hero, he is also distrusted and feared by a big layer of workers. For them, relief at the defeat of the coup has given way to enormous foreboding about the consequences of the pro-market policies of Yeltsin and Gorbachev.

11. "Decommunisation" is proceeding rapidly. The Communist Party is now officially suspended in the land of the October Revolution, something that did not happen even in Romania after the fall of Ceaucescu. This move may be seen by many workers as a blow against the bureaucracy. But everywhere the bureaucracy is fragmenting and abandoning the party for openly bourgeois or nationalist groupings in order to maintain its position. The dissolution of the CP met with hardly any protests from within the ruling layers of the bureaucracy. This is an indication of the decisive shift which has taken place within the bureaucracy, which the coup's defeat has accelerated.

12. Trotsky raised the call to "drive the bureaucracy and the new aristocracy out of the Soviets". But today's attack on the party begs the question: who is doing it and why? Despite the thoroughly bureaucratised nature of the CPSU which was not a workers' party, the main aim of the ban is to eliminate a possible future outlet for opposition to restoration. While Yeltsin and the pro-capitalists also aim to curb the influence of the old-guard Stalinists, they are mainly concerned that the party could be an obstacle to their attempts to dismantle state ownership.

13. Likewise, there are two sides to the decree banning factory cells. These organisations were an agency of the bureaucracy and the factory management in the past. Many workers will welcome the ban. But we must warn workers that the ban can be used against their own efforts to organise in the workplaces. The restorationists have imposed the ban to facilitate the transition to private ownership by breaking any pockets of resistance among the old bureaucracy in industry. But they also fear that under certain conditions these organisations could become a rallying point for workers' opposition to redundancies, privatisation etc., just as in Poland the old official trade union OPZZ has partly developed in this way. Marxists demand the right of workers to organise in the workplaces, which includes the right of genuine workers' parties to form cells.

14. Again we are opposed to the methods and aims involved in the seizure of party property, publications and assets. Workers stand to gain nothing if these assets are swallowed up by the "democratic" i.e. pro-capitalist groupings or sold to the aspiring bourgeois. The party accumulated its enormous resources by syphoning off a share of the wealth created by workers. Marxists demand that these assets are distributed among genuine trade unions and genuine workers' organisations. We call for workers' control and management, and democratic access to the old party media currently being turned into mouthpieces for the bourgeois.

15. The victorious pro-capitalist camp have unleashed a ferocious ideological offensive against the ideas of the October Revolution and the planned economy. The demolition of statues of revolutionary leaders like Lenin, Sverdlov and Dzerzinsky is not an attempt to bury the crude icons of Stalinism to which Lenin was always opposed, but an attempt to bury the ideas on which the Soviet state was founded. Among an important layer of workers the destruction of the statues is viewed with disgust. While such measures can gain an echo among broad layers opposed to Stalinism, the attempts to tear down state ownership and liquidate whole sections of industry will produce an entirely different response.

16. The bourgeois in the West have seized on these events to intensify their ideological offensive against the ideas of socialism. Echoed by the labour movement leadership, they are lauding the final death of 'communism' and the planned economy. The British Independent (24.8.91.) carried the headline: "Communist rule began in 1917 -Gorbachev ended it yesterday!" Internationally our tendency now stands alone, implacable in defence of the planned economy and against this tidal wave of bourgeois propaganda.

17. Without blinding ourselves to the complexities and even difficulties in the situation, we must also recognise the positive features of the coup's downfall. Above all, the coup attempt was smashed by the beginnings of a movement of the working class and the youth - the biggest movement since 1917. Faced with a determined movement on the streets, the army and the KGB - already riven with internal divisions -were paralysed. This was a victory over the biggest military machine and the biggest state security organisation (the KGB alone has over 1 million operatives) in the world. This has had an enormous effect on the consciousness and confidence of the working class, especially those sections who participated.

18. While the general strike movement only developed partially, this is mainly because the coup collapsed within three days. The struggle at the giant Kirov factory in Leningrad and other factories shows how the movement would have developed. The workers threatened to replace the management unless they refused to support the coup. The longer the struggle continued, the greater likelihood that workers' own demands would push to the fore. Had the Emergency committee attempted to hold on for longer, and especially if it had succeeded in getting a section of the state apparatus to open fire on the demonstrators, they would have undoubtedly faced a growing general strike and a possible armed uprising as in Romania.

19. A similar process, we pointed out, would have occurred had the demonstrations in Leipzig been fired upon at the beginning of the movement in East Germany. It has been revealed that, as in Leipzig, plans were made to fire on the crowds. Helicopter gunships were to be deployed in Moscow until the airforce warned the coup leaders that they would use aircraft against the helicopters. The determination to stand and fight was shown by the presence of groups of armed Afghan veterans in the demonstrations. Had the coup lasted longer, the strike movement would have developed and could have assumed massive proportions. It did not fully develop precisely because in the workers' eyes this was unnecessary, given the collapse of the coup.

20. As it was, several major industrial centres supported the strike. The Vorkuta and Kuzbass miners came out. In the Kuzbass the strike spread to other industries. In Leningrad 20 factories, including the massive Kirovsky (40,000 workers), struck on Tuesday 20 August. There were partial strikes in many Leningrad factories, with spontaneous walkouts as workers went to the squares where meetings were taking place and returned to their workplaces to inform others of the latest developments. Strikes were reported in Sverdlovsk and other industrial centres in the Urals.

21. At first workers were stunned and surprised by the news. A section even initially accepted the coup. But as they realised its full significance - that it signalled the return of the old guard - their resistance stiffened. At least half a million demonstrated in Leningrad on the place square. In Moscow 150,000 defended the Russian parliament building on the decisive night of August 20th, forcing the tanks to retreat. Barricades were erected and stocks of petrol bombs were built up in anticipation of the attack. The participation of the youth, for the first time in the events of recent years, was a critical factor. Their determination to confront the military had a decisive effect on the mood of other layers of the working class.

22. The beginnings of the organisation of armed workers' defence is extremely significant for the future. Armed youths were present in the Moscow demonstration that confronted the tanks. Workers' defence squads were set up in some Leningrad factories. Armed workers guarded the Marin-sky Palace (Leningrad) alongside police. Both Yeltsin and Sobchak were compelled, out of fear of the personal consequences of defeat, to call for "a peoples' defence force". However, this was no more than a verbal summons to arms which they took no steps to organise. Yeltsin restricted the distribution of arms at the Russian Parliament building to the deputies gathered inside. This showed his fear of arming the workers.

23. Therefore as in Eastern Europe we had important elements of a revolutionary struggle by the working class while the general direction of events, given the absence of a revolutionary leadership, is clearly counter-revolutionary. These processes were telescoped into a much shorter time span in the Soviet Union. However, workers' awareness that a mass movement defeated the coup has ominous implications for the pro-capitalist camp in their push towards the market. At a certain stage, they will inevitably meet fierce resistance from the working class as they attempt to implement their programme of mass sackings, privatization and price rises.

Why the coup failed

24. These dramatic events are a confirmation of our perspectives. Earlier this year, the British paper argued:

"Gorbachev has himself initiated a kind of creeping coup in order to prevent an open coup by some military Bonaparte. This may not save Gorbachev, however, who could be toppled by an open military coup in the next period."

The same article continued:

"Despite a widespread disillusionment throughout the Soviet Union in the present chaotic situation, any attempt to re-establish centralised Stalinist control will meet with resistance. This could come, not just from the nationalities who face repression, but from the mighty Soviet working class". (18.1.91.)

25. Back in July 1989 we warned:

"A big section would like to remove him (Gorbachev) now. They blame him for opening the floodgates, typified by the movement that has begun in Siberia. It is even possible that a section have now considered his removal. After all, he is not as popular as he was before among sections of the population at large. However, if the conservative wing of the bureaucracy prematurely moves to remove Gorbachev this would ignite an explosion." (WIN No. 4, p 8-9)

26. The failure of the coup within just 56 hours showed that the conditions did not exist at that stage for the imposition of a new open military dictatorship. The working class of Russia and the republics are not sufficiently disillusioned with "democracy" to tolerate a return to the iron heel.

27. Events quickly confirmed that the old guard behind the coup lacked any social reserves of support. They were unable to mobilise any demonstrations behind the coup. Even the CP leadership was bypassed during the coup preparations because a majority was expected to oppose it. When their isolation became clear, they could not even find loyal troops to implement their orders. The coup leaders literally turned out to be "generals without an army".

28. The coup leaders understood the deep hostility of the population towards Gorbachev whose approval rating slumped to 14 per cent before the coup. But they didn't appreciate the even greater hostility that exists towards the "old guard". They miscalculated that this disillusionment with Gorbachev and the chaotic economic situation, along with promises of wage rises and a price freeze, would provide a base of support for the coup.

29. Despite its pro-capitalist economic programme, the coup was perceived as a Stalinist coup by the mass of the population. Workers opposed the coup because they understood that the limited democratic rights of the last five years - to organise, to strike, to demonstrate, publish journals etc. - were threatened. For the majority of workers it raised the prospect of a return to the repression of the Brezhnev era. It was to defend the fragile shoots of democratic rights, and not at all to defend Gorbachev, that the workers fought.

30. In fact it is almost ruled out that the coup, had it consolidated itself, could have taken society back to the repression of the Brezhnev era. There has been a transformation in the outlook of the working class since the 1960s and 70s when fear of the regime, at a time when the economy was still advancing, held the workers in a state of inertia. Even with brutal repression the bureaucracy would not be able to instill the same fear in the minds of the masses. Because of this, and their inability to overcome the catastrophic economic crisis, this would have been a weak and unstable regime.

31. Given the opportunity, the junta were prepared to use force to crush the opposition. Their first proclamation banned strikes, demonstrations and political parties. A quarter of a million sets of handcuffs were ordered in preparation. Sweeping arrests were planned. It was not an oversight that Yeltsin remained at liberty. His arrest had been ordered, but the special KGB squad which was sent to capture him refused to carry out their orders. In fact, such were the splits at the very top, Yeltsin and Popov were actually warned of the coup by leading figures in the Moscow KGB. Similar difficulties confronted the coup leaders at every step.

32. These splits within the state apparatus show that Stalinism in the USSR has rotted to its very foundations. In the past, under the authoritarian boot of Stalin, the ruling layers of the bureaucracy were bound together by a monolithic discipline. This situation has gone forever. The bureaucracy today is scattering into rival factions on a national, regional and even municipal basis, as well as on political lines.

33. Behind this process is their catastrophic undermining of the planned economy. Recent years have witnessed a disintegration of planning. Rival sections of the managerial bureaucracy are locked in struggle, industry against industry, republic against republic, and even city against city, for scarce resources. Barter agreements between different sections of the economy, bypassing and rendering central planning impossible, have become commonplace. While planning has broken down, no alternative mechanism has been created to replace it.

34. The splits within the army and the KGB in the face of growing mass opposition eventually paralysed the coup. The army, navy and airforce in Leningrad backed Mayor Sobchak and Yeltsin against the coup. There was opposition to the coup from other sections of the armed forces. Others adopted a wait-and-see attitude, with no enthusiasm for either side in the conflict.

35. Above all, the generals were haunted by the prospect of a Romanian situation developing. This was a real possibility, as the appearance of groups of armed workers indicates. The open defiance of the workers and youth, especially in the struggle for Moscow, had a decisive effect on the rank and file soldiers and compelled the majority of the generals to back off.





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