The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

Twenty Years after the End of the USSR (Part 1)

Jan 5, 2012

This article was translated from an article appearing in the journal of the comrades of Lutte Ouvrière (in Lutte de Classe, issue 141, February 2012).

On December 4, 20 years after the Soviet Union disappeared, there were massive demonstrations denouncing the rigging of the legislative elections by Vladimir Putin. In protesting the way the Russian regime governs the country, these demonstrations also called into question all the old lies and hymns of praise about the virtues of democracy that accompanied the dismantling of the USSR 20 years ago.

At that time, those who sang the praises of bourgeois society, both inside the USSR and in the rest of the world, extolled a bright future of liberty, democracy, prosperity and economic development for the peoples of the ex-Soviet Union. It was a deception, a shameful lie – as if capitalism, a system that was leading the world to catastrophe, could bring about such things. Twenty years ago, this was obvious, and it should have been said. Instead, these lies and deceptions were pushed by the right, as well as by those on the social democratic left and, unfortunately, even by some circles of the extreme left.

Inside the USSR, a crushing majority of political leaders from the bureaucracy itself joined in the chorus praising capitalism. They enthusiastically discovered the supposed virtues of capitalism – some even claiming they would implement a “500 day program of transition to a market economy.” On the eve of the break-up of the USSR, almost all of them still belonged to the regime’s hierarchy and its only party, which called itself communist. The leaders of the bureaucracy, not the people of the Soviet Union, pushed that break-up, seeing in it their own self- interest.

To understand how that happened; why the events unleashed such jubilation in the small world of ideologues, journalists, politicians of the bourgeoisie; why, 20 years later, the same or similar people are so distressed over what they call “Soviet nostalgia” by the people of the ex-USSR; and also to measure the impact of the disappearance of the USSR on the society, we must return to the formal foundation of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), at the end of December 1922 and to the installation of Soviet power by the Russian Revolution of October 1917.

From Revolutionary Soviets to the Bureaucratic Degeneration

By 1991, the USSR bore little resemblance to the power of the soviets (councils) made up of worker, soldier and peasant deputies in 1917 that had overthrown first the czar and then the bourgeoisie. The USSR of Gorbachev, Yeltsin and the other successors of Stalin was in almost all respects the opposite pole of the USSR of Lenin and Trotsky. But Stalin and all his successors nonetheless owed their existence to the revolutionary and socialist origins of that distant past.

In October 1917, Lenin, Trotsky and the Bolshevik Party led the exploited masses of Russia to take power and began to lay the foundation of a society without exploitation of human beings by human beings, a society that would pave the way to a socialist future. But the Bolsheviks never conceived that this future could be built in one country alone, even a country as vast as Russia. On the contrary, they understood that their revolution would be short-lived if other victorious socialist revolutions did not join them, especially in the economically developed countries. This is why, after the Second International sank into its sacred union with the bourgeoisie during World War I, the Bolsheviks quickly founded a communist international, aimed at forming a world party of the revolution.

After four years of daily horrors on the battlefields, the people and the proletariat of Europe turned against those responsible for the slaughter of World War I: the possessors and their system. In Finland, Hungary and, above all, many times in Germany the proletariat tried to overthrow the power of the capitalist class and replace this power with their own. But they did not succeed anywhere other than in Russia. Everywhere, the social democratic parties came to the rescue of the possessing classes. Where the capitalist class was not able to strangle the revolution, drowning it in the blood of the workers, the great powers stepped in with military force.

In Russia, the partisans of the old order, who launched the civil war after October 1917, were supported militarily by imperialism. They did not succeed in destroying the young workers state, but they almost completely destroyed the country, which was already among the most underdeveloped in Europe. A great number of militants and revolutionary workers perished at the front, or from destitution. After years of world war and civil war, to survive from day to day became the major problem for the workers, who were physically, morally and politically exhausted. During the 1920s, the working class exercised only nominal political power. In reality, with the workers no longer having the means to control their own state apparatus, nor even the desire to do it, the growing bureaucracy found power falling into its hands. The state apparatus, as Trotsky said, was transformed in a few years, “from an instrument of the working class into an instrument of bureaucratic violence against the working class.

This social layer, which usurped the power, had no other ambition than to profit from their positions and their privileges – privileges that were miserable in an absolute sense, but enormous within the context of the nearly general state of famine. Aspiring to everything that could reinforce their position, parasitically living off the gains of October, the bureaucrats identified with the reactionary formula of “socialism in one country,” launched by Stalin. For Stalin and his partisans, it was a way to announce to the worldwide bourgeoisie that they did not seek to spread socialism.

The companions of Lenin, who remained faithful to the ideals of October and thus to proletarian internationalism, could only fight against this negation of Bolshevism. Lenin had died in January 1924. It was left to Trotsky to lead the struggle of the Left Opposition against the Stalinist current inside the Communist Party, the Communist International and at the head of the state. For several years, the communist oppositionists fought toe to toe to save the workers state from bureaucratic degeneration. But in a situation of retreat in the revolutionary movement, inside and outside the country, they were finally defeated. The Left Opposition was eliminated politically, before being eliminated physically in the camps and prisons of the GPU (the political police) and during the Moscow trials from 1936 to 1938.

Consequences of Stalinism on the Workers Movement inside the USSR

In order to reinforce the bureaucratic regime that was to lead the USSR, Stalin had several generations of militants assassinated. Those militants had accumulated a political and organizational experience during three revolutions and the first years of the Communist International that was unparalleled during the history of the workers movement.

There were terrible consequences from this annihilation. Inside the USSR, when the working class regained its strength and energy, especially when it gained great social weight with the industrialization of the 1930s, it found itself disarmed, without either militants or organizations to transmit a political, militant and organizational heritage. This breach ruptured the transmission of traditions and the gains in consciousness from one generation to the next, a rupture on a scale that was unprecedented and which weighed on the working class until the disappearance of the USSR. And it still weighs on the ex-USSR, above all when the workers had or could have had a chance to intervene in the course of political events.

In 1962, for example, when worker riots broke out in Novocherkassk after the government raised food prices by 30%, the regime of Nikita Khrushchev drowned the riot in blood. This revolt seemed to have no impact, although there were similar reactions in several other industrial cities.

A quarter of a century later, we see the weight of this rupture at a completely different level with very different consequences. During the political torment of the Gorbachev epoch, the proletariat – the social class which was both the largest and most concentrated in the urban centers of the USSR – remained essentially a spectator. And in 1990-91, when the great miner strikes broke out in Russia and Ukraine, they were led by the so-called “democratic” fraction of the bureaucracy in its fight against the central power. In the period immediately after the dissolution of the USSR, when there were workers’ struggles, they developed in isolated fashion, often with the workers’ backs forced against the wall by one of the many privatizations. These struggles developed without any organization that could have addressed the workers on the field of their own class interests. With the workers engaged in fights, a political program was indispensable, a program of struggle against the attempts to restore capitalism, as well as against the monopolization of the state-run economy by the bureaucracy and the capitalist apprentices. This revolutionary and communist program would have opened up another perspective for the workers and for society as a whole. It would have sought to provide the working class with a way to take advantage of the hate felt by the immense majority of the population towards the pillagers, the friends of Yeltsin, who were grabbing up state-owned enterprises and were responsible for the brutal impoverishment of the population. The goal of this program would have been for the workers to contest for the leadership of society and to seek to rebuild an economy rid of bureaucratic parasites and rid of the new owners of the factories, largely considered illegitimate in the workers’ milieu – and even well beyond this milieu.

Today, such a program is still just as vital. And, today, when tens of thousands of oil workers in Kazakhstan can defy those in power for months, militants are needed to defend this program. It’s just as necessary in Russia, where a fraction of the population takes to the streets to reject the regime, even if, as 20 years ago, it is predominantly members of the “middle class” who are mobilized.

... And in the World

The assassination of the revolutionaries who had made the October victory possible also had dramatic consequences on the international level. When the social democratic and Stalinist leaderships betrayed the rise of workers’ struggles of the 1930s, there was no longer an international of the working class movement worthy of the name – at least none which had weight and authority and reached into all the countries, as did the international represented by Lenin, Trotsky and their comrades at the beginning of the Communist International.

Stalinism gave invaluable aid to the worldwide bourgeoisie, helping it to wipe out the better part of the revolutionary movement of its epoch. This tragedy continues to weigh on the workers movement long after Stalinism, as such, disappeared.

Nonetheless, despite everything that Stalinism did for the bourgeois order (from the tragedy of the Chinese Revolution of 1927 to the capitulation to Hitler without a fight in 1933, to the smothering of the Spanish Revolution in 1936, to the restoration of the imperialist order after 1945, to the crushing of the workers movement in Eastern Europe and notably the Hungarian Revolution in 1956, etc.), the USSR remained a body that was foreign to the world of the bourgeoisie. Even in the 1970s, when the USSR was under Brezhnev and his elderly team who carried out a policy that was entirely reactionary and conservative, it remained an inspiration and a point of support for emancipation or opposition movements in many places around the globe – despite the bureaucracy and above all despite its leaders. Above all, its very existence, an anomaly in a world dominated by imperialism, constituted a sizeable proof that another social and economic organization was possible. State ownership of the means of production, economic planning and the monopoly of foreign trade allowed the USSR to sustain a high rate of development, despite Stalinism and despite the fact that the USSR was cut off from the international division of labor. The country was able to construct a powerful industry, despite the 1929 crisis and all during the collapse of the capitalist economy in the years that followed. The USSR, even of the bureaucrats, showed that society could develop on different bases than those of capitalism, thanks to the impulsion from a revolution that overthrew the power of the bourgeoisie and expropriated the capitalists.

According to the partisans of the bourgeois order, December 1991 marked the end of what was supposed to be a social nightmare that had lasted 70 years. A regime that recognized neither the market, nor private property could not last – so these apologists had been saying for all that time. So, finally, when the USSR collapsed under the blows of its own leaders, the partisans of capitalism celebrated. It was the end of the “Soviet century,” as the historian Moshe Lewin called the last century. It was a century when the October Revolution and its aftermath “shook the world,” as the revolutionary John Reed said, and shook it in long-lasting fashion.

Journalists, politicians, academics, ideologists of the bourgeoisie exulted to see “the greatest utopia of the 20th century overcome,” according to a special edition of the French newspaper, Liberation (September, 1991). Academics like Francis Fukuyama proclaimed “the end of history” – nothing less! Since October 1917 had aimed to blaze a pathway to a future freed from capitalism, the disappearance of the USSR signified there was no other future except bourgeois society – so all these people said. But whether they like it or not, the reality of this bourgeois society today puts on the agenda the fight against the capitalist system, which leads humanity into the abyss.

Social Dictatorship of the Bureaucracy, Personal Dictatorship of Stalin

The victory of Stalinism over the Trotskyist Opposition at the end of the 1920s was not enough to ensure stability for the regime. The newcomers to power had reason to fear that sooner or later their dominant position would be called into question by the working class. Even deprived of its party, the working class still had hundreds of thousands of workers who embodied a long experience participating in revolutionary struggles.

Another danger also threatened the regime. The old possessing classes had not given up taking their revenge. And they were encouraged and reinforced by the fact that Stalin had eliminated the revolutionary vanguard. The empirical policy of a regime that broke with Bolshevism, having no other objective than to maintain its grip on power, contributed to the growth of such dangers. Even worse, none of the individual bureaucrats gave a damn about these dangers. Their only concern was to be allowed to profit as much as possible from their position.

The bureaucrats’ privileges, unlike those of the capitalists, were not based on private ownership of the means of production, which is the justification in bourgeois society for the private appropriation of the fruits taken from the exploitation of the workers. The bureaucrats’ privileges were derived from their parasitic hold over a society transformed by the revolution after the bourgeoisie was expropriated. What the bureaucrats took from the economy, and their anti-democratic way of governing over the society, tended to empty the gains of the revolution of their meaning and to compromise them. But the bureaucrats did not seek to call into question collectivization of the means of production and of exchange, or economic planning. It was precisely on this base that they lived as parasites and from which they drew their privileges.

The power struggles inside the leading circles, just as the ever-present risk of a successful counter-revolution, created real dangers for the regime, leading it sometimes to take radical measures to assure its own survival.

To protect the social dictatorship of their caste, the regime imposed over the entire society an iron discipline, which rapidly became the dictatorship of one leader, elevated as the supreme arbiter, Stalin. The regime imposed a ferocious military discipline on the working class and on the peasants, who were either in the collective farms (known as kolkhozes) or sent to build new industrial centers. Workers could be sent to a concentration camp for being more than 10 minutes late to work. The intelligentsia was forced to applaud the personality cult around Stalin and his whims, along with the reactionary ideas imposed on the arts, culture and sciences – or else, they risked ending in a prison camp.

The repressive logic of the dictatorship led it to protect itself from its own privileged caste’s irresponsibility. The bureaucrats rapidly found themselves under the permanent threat of execution, ordered by the tyrant.

Internal crises followed growing tensions on the international scene, including the rise of Nazism, the Spanish Revolution, the rush to war and the invasion by Hitler. The victory over Nazism was made possible by the sacrifices and courage of the Soviet people, while the Stalinist leadership disorganized the Red Army. Reconstruction from the devastation of the war took place at a time when the Cold War was beginning. All these crises helped Stalin to impose his personal dictatorship over the society for more than two decades.

Things changed radically with the death of the tyrant in 1953. The bureaucrats forced those who succeeded Stalin to stop threatening their lives, and even their positions. But these changes were not for the working class or the rest of the population.

Under Brezhnev, who headed the bureaucracy after the fall of Nikita Khrushchev in 1964 until Brezhnev’s death in 1982, a consensus evolved between the Kremlin and the entire layer of the privileged that anyone could go about their business as long as it didn’t compromise the established positions of any one else, or the stability of the system.

Pillage by the Bureaucracy Accelerates

Under the cover of what Gorbachev called “Brezhnev’s stagnation,” the bureaucracy was able to increase significantly and with almost complete impunity what it took from the social body. The bureaucracy reinforced its organization into powerful clans around leaders who became almost permanent fixtures at the head of republics, ministries, customs, KGB (political police), enterprises with foreign business and banks dealing with other countries. Becoming permanent heads of veritable fiefdoms, these top bureaucrats established solid business ties with the “milieu” that proliferated in the “shadow economy,” and more generally everywhere that a team with one hand on a bit of power could gain greater and greater advantages.

As the circles of power gave carte blanche to this parasitism, which became organized on a grand scale, it exhausted what remained of the economic dynamism inherited from the revolutionary conquests of October. Under Brezhnev, unbridled pillage caused the economy’s growth to run out of steam.

In the years after Brezhnev’s death in 1982, the last of those left over from his politburo, sometimes called “the dinosaurs,” disappeared. In 1985, Gorbachev was elected Secretary General of the Soviet Communist Party, and then declared that he wanted to restore order to the economy, and do the same thing in the society. He called this perestroika, that is, rebuilding from the ground up. The simple announcement of such a plan led a number of bureaucrats to feel that their income was directly threatened.

At the highest spheres of power, there was a kind of silent opposition. To get around them, Gorbachev and his team made allies in the middle layers of the leading apparatus, promising them more autonomy from the “center.” For similar reasons, Khrushchev had done the same thing during the post-Stalinist “thaw.” But for Gorbachev, these measures were not sufficient. So, he turned to the intelligentsia, holding out the prospect of a little more freedom of expression – or glasnost, Gorbachev’s other key slogan. Then, the petty bourgeoisie, even the intellectuals not content to live off of spirituality, were promised “free enterprise.”

In the Soviet Union, private ownership of the means of production had been abolished. But it still legally existed with cooperative ownership (in agriculture with kolkhozes, and in some forms in housing). Suddenly a huge number of so-called cooperatives came into being. Behind this legal term were hidden the many small private enterprises.

Power Struggles and Opposition Turmoil

This raised a lot of enthusiasm and whetted the appetites of many petty bourgeois who dreamed of living “like in the West,” which meant to profit freely from their money, even to be able to invest capital in the means of production like in West Europe and America. They called that “aspiring for democracy.” That also provided a wide opening for demagogic one-upmanship from some of the “younger” generation of leaders in the ruling party who had supported Gorbachev. Chief among them was Boris Yeltsin, a deputy member of the politburo and a rival of Gorbachev, who took the head of the camp that styled itself “democratic.”

While Gorbachev believed that he had won over millions of petty bourgeois with his policy of glasnost, “open debate,” “freedom of speech,” and then the creation of cooperatives, Yeltsin and his friends posed as self-proclaimed democrats and spoke of the new rule of “democracy” and “liberty,” which they boasted about installing.

The number of publications mushroomed to a level that the dissidents who had put out the underground samizdat would never have dared to dream of. Even censorship was abolished. Elections were organized with numerous candidates, a practice that had not been seen since before Stalin. Other parties than the CPSU, the party which had pretended to be communist in the days of the Soviet Union, gained the right to exist, even before the monopoly status of the CPSU could be taken out of the Constitution.

Millions of Soviet citizens passionately watched the debates in the Supreme Soviet, which were broadcast for the first time on television. People were eager to learn, from newspapers and books, things that had not been known by most of the public. They were eager to follow the “return of the names” of militants, writers and scientists, whom Stalinism had made disappear doubly: they were assassinated, and then all trace of their existence was erased from the official history, libraries etc. And demonstrations protesting against the authorities, which had once been unthinkable, drew very large crowds and multiplied to the point that they became nothing out of the ordinary.

Confronted by this upsurge increasingly directed at it, the central power no longer knew what kind of attitude to take. By letting the upsurge continue, the authorities encouraged their opponents more. But by bringing in the army to carry out a bloodbath, as in Georgia and the Baltic Republics, they reinforced nationalist sentiment in the local population and the local politicians who advocated independence. And the bureaucrats leading each of the Soviet Union’s 15 republics did everything they could to make sure that the massive pressure of the population in demonstrations reinforced their hold over their own fiefdom at the expense of the central power. The local bureaucrats were strengthened by the fact that Yeltsin, the head of Russia, the biggest republic, called on the other republics to “gain as much autonomy as possible” in order to reduce power in the hands of Gorbachev, the leader of the central bureaucracy.

Green Light for the Bureaucrats to Satisfy their Appetites

The major issue, even if much of it was hidden from the eyes of the population, was the power struggle which had been going on inside the bureaucracy for decades. Ever since this parasitic social layer had usurped power along with Stalin, it sought to free itself from all control, even from its own political rulers.

When Yeltsin and his supporters at the top of the apparatus talked endlessly about “democracy,” the bureaucrats understood that they would no longer have to bow to any constraint or control over their own activities, even coming from the authority issuing from their own ranks. The promises of “liberty” from the “reformers” may have encouraged millions of petty bourgeois to dream, but those illusions would soon be severely dampened. The bureaucrats, however, didn’t dream; they acted. While the central power weakened and then became paralyzed, the bureaucrats put their hands on anything that could give them a rapid, large return.

The bureaucrats – those in charge of enterprises, government ministries, the KGB, the CP, and the administration of republics or regions – established cooperatives and then joint ventures (companies owned by Soviet and foreign capital) even before the privatization laws of 1992 and 1993 legalized this hold-up of the century. Their goal: empty the public enterprises of their assets and take the revenues of the most profitable sectors. They had no difficulty doing this, since they had the upper hand on everything they pillaged. Thus, Gazprom, the giant in the worldwide natural gas industry, was constituted into a private company by those in charge of the Soviet Ministry of Gas. Less known, but just as scandalous, was the secret smuggling of huge amounts of money into Western countries as early as 1987-1988 by high officials in foreign trade, the heads of the military-industrial complex, allied with the heads of the KGB and the departments in the central committee of the CP.

Shortly afterwards, many little banks popped up under the direction of this or that clan from a sector of the bureaucracy. Each of these cliques were eager to have its own machine for transferring wealth outside the country, without having to submit to any control.

While top officials boasted that they were “democrats,” “reformers,” or “liberals,” they increasingly appeared to be advocating a return to capitalism, that is, the foxes of the bureaucracy were in the Soviet henhouse. The USSR did not survive.

The Central Power in Decline

Starting in 1990, the bureaucrats who headed the republics took control over their own republics’ “exports” to the rest of the USSR in order to keep their own fiefdom’s wealth for themselves, as well as to show their opponents at the top level of the bureaucracy who was boss. As a result, trade between the different regions contracted, and production by enterprises throughout the USSR quickly slowed down. Store shelves were emptied and rationing for the population was introduced. This provoked a crisis that developed into generalized economic chaos, while the leadership of the Soviet state descended into political paralysis. More and more leaders, be they those calling themselves “democrats,” or “conservatives,” as well as Gorbachev and those around him, all declared that it was necessary to end state ownership and economic planning. In reality, these had already been ended by the bureaucracy’s plundering of the enterprises. Gorbachev came to speak of “market socialism,” in order to avoid bluntly saying: restoration of capitalism. The Soviet Union was on the verge of imploding.

At the same time there was an explosion of nationalisms and often nationalist rivalries. Throughout the country officials made proclamations about their republic’s “sovereignty” in a kind of competition between different nationalist movements.

In August 1991, some sectors of the regime’s hierarchies tried to prevent the crumbling of the state from continuing to the point of no return. They decreed a state of emergency. But this only exacerbated the political anarchy. Even in the army, the police and the KGB, there was no one to apply the orders. Three days later, those who had decreed the state of emergency either gave up or committed suicide. Yeltsin, who had been demanding for months that Gorbachev resign, finally had definitively overtaken Gorbachev. But once the country had broken up into legally independent units, Yeltsin and those around him at the head of Russia didn’t have much more control over the course of events than did Gorbachev.

Everywhere, including even where they hadn’t thought about it before, the heads of the bureaucracy hurriedly proclaimed not just sovereignty, but the independence of “their” republic... and its wealth. In the republics and regions, the heads of the bureaucracy went to work to reinforce their hold over their own fiefdoms by basing themselves on the largest ethnic group of the population, at the expense of local minorities. This led to more and more confrontations between sections of the population living side by side. In the Caucasus, Central Asia and Moldavia, trying to impose themselves on the population, the bureaucrats stirred up ethnic conflicts, playing on the resentments of the poor to turn them against other poor people.

In this climate, on the 8th of December, 1991, Yeltsin, Leonid Kravchuk and Stanislau Shushkevich, the respective leaders of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus, decreed the dissolution of the USSR. They did it surreptitiously, without any mandate, in a hunting lodge near Minsk. The Baltic Republics had not waited for this to declare their own independence. The Republic of Georgia celebrated this decision. But others were confronted with a decision that was taken behind their backs. Kazakhstan, the Soviet republic encompassing the second largest land area, protested.

The highest spheres of the bureaucracy had dismantled the USSR in order to get rid of the central authority. They then divided up the spoils.

Two decades later, the conflicts emanating from this dismembering have not been resolved. There has been no resolution between Armenia and Azerbaijan, where a first war broke out in 1987 over the control of the small enclave of NagornoKarabakh. Nor has the conflict ended between Georgia and its own republics, Ossetia and Abkhazia, which became protectorates of Russia. Neither has the conflict ended between the Romanian-speaking Moldavia and the Russian-speaking secessionists in Transnistria where Russian troops are stationed. Neither has the conflict been settled in the Fergana Valley and the region around it that is made up of peoples pulled much earlier from three independent Soviet republics in central Asia which are now ruled by despots. Not to be forgotten is the mosaic of peoples who make up the Caucasian republics of the Russian Federation and live daily with the fear of attacks and other acts of violence by armed gangs, some of whom have ties to the state. The president of Chechnya, for example, is a religious fundamentalist gangster. The Kremlin gave him a free hand to use gangs of killers to impose order on Chechnya, which has already suffered through two devastating wars in 15 years.

There has been a regular threat of open war (between Russia and Georgia during the summer of 2008) or of gigantic pogroms against ethnic minorities (in Azerbaijan in 1990 or in Kyrgyzstan in 2010), making these last two decades a living hell for the people of these regions.

Continue to Part 2