The Spark

the Voice of
The Communist League of Revolutionary Workers–Internationalist

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

December 1991:
The End of the USSR Was a Setback for All Humanity

Jan 17, 2022

Excerpts from Lutte Ouvrière (Workers’ Struggle), the newspaper of the revolutionary workers’ group active in France.

In December 1991, the leaders of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) announced its dissolution. Western commentators portrayed the event as the failure of communism. But even though the USSR was a workers’ state resulting from the 1917 October Revolution, the Stalinist bureaucracy which seized power in the 1920s no longer defended the interests of the world revolution….

The end of the USSR was the culmination of a long process. The proletariat’s attempt to take control over society failed to spread to the rest of the world and was made sterile by the bureaucracy which took power.

The USSR came into being at the end of 1922, after the young workers’ state won the civil war imposed by the bourgeoisie and imperialism. Most of the parts of the former empire of the Russian Tsars formed a federation of independent republics sharing equal rights. Some did not join, as the Bolsheviks had proclaimed the right of peoples to self-determination. But the USSR included more than 100 nationalities…. For a long time in the eyes of the world working class, it would embody the hope of an alternative to the capitalist system, despite the Stalinist dictatorship.

Because of the abolition of private ownership of the means of production, the planned economy which developed throughout the USSR opened up immense possibilities, despite its being cut off from the world market. In 1936, in The Revolution Betrayed, Leon Trotsky hailed the successes of the Soviet economy in pulling the USSR partially out of economic and social backwardness. He did not hide the limits to its development or the fact that it had nothing to do with socialism yet, contrary to what Joseph Stalin claimed.

Parasitism and the Dictatorship of the Stalinist Bureaucracy

However, the bureaucracy’s dominance grew stronger in the 1920s and 1930s as revolutions abroad were defeated. Stalinism established a regime oppressing workers and perpetuating inequalities between the Soviet republics. During World War II, Stalinism also forcibly integrated several territories in Eastern Europe and the Baltic States.

Until Leonid Brezhnev’s death in 1982, the different layers of the ruling caste remained cemented together by necessity, confronted with contenders for power domestically and a new war against imperialism externally. The bureaucracy thrived like a parasite on society as a whole, but it had to hide its privileges. The terror regime aimed at stifling any criticism from workers. At the same time it tried to prevent the conflicting interests and ambitions of the leading clans and major state bodies … from weakening the government’s power.

During the Collapse: Rivalries at the Summits of Power

In the 1980s, this screen of unity finally shattered…. Each group of bureaucrats sought to use every shred of power for their own sake, slaking their own thirst for enrichment. This looting ended up leading to a practical stoppage of the economy. This led Communist Party General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev to want to restart the economy in 1985, with a strategy called perestroika. But the discussion around which reforms to promote weakened his authority and opened the floodgates for an avalanche of demagoguery. Finally, it led to the USSR’s implosion.

Gorbachev sought support in public opinion to counter his opponents in the upper echelons of the bureaucracy. But he quickly found himself overwhelmed by the demagoguery of those contesting his control over the central state. The authorities of the various republics demanded their independence. A petty bourgeoisie favorable to capitalism also found spokespeople among very senior bureaucrats. These included Boris Yeltsin, who was elected president of the Republic of Russia in May 1990. To weaken the central power, he encouraged other local powers to “take as much sovereignty as they could swallow.” The working class also showed its force, particularly miners, who led big strikes. Unfortunately, the only political leadership addressing them was Yeltsin and the other demagogues.

The Baltic and Georgian republics declared themselves independent in 1990. Months of political clashes led to a failed coup attempt by those who supported maintaining the USSR. Then Gorbachev resigned, and Yeltsin won. On December 8, 1991, flanked by his Ukrainian and Belarusian counterparts, he signed the act dissolving the USSR.

Dismemberment of the Former USSR: Disaster for Its Peoples

The bureaucrats’ haste to grab wealth knew no bounds. They seized factories, mines, and means of transport, sometimes contenting themselves with breaking them up and selling off the pieces. Workers encountered unemployment, unpaid wages and pensions for months, inflation reaching 2,000%, with health care and education unfunded. The 1990s were years of economic, social, and cultural collapse. Mafias developed along with armed clashes between ruling clans. Populations were suddenly torn apart in wars in the Caucasus and Central Asia. The newly rich—the oligarchs and their ruling patrons—could finally openly show off the fortunes they accumulated on the spoils of the Soviet economy.

As for re-integrating the former USSR into the capitalist system, that was a more complex problem. The republics had developed economically as parts of a whole, organized nearly on the scale of an entire continent. The allocation of production provided the populations with housing, electricity, heating, public transportation, and education, despite the limits imposed by bureaucratic management.

Since then the countries of the former USSR have become mostly suppliers of raw materials to the world market. The economic development promised when these new states were born never materialized. Thirty years later, the former USSR has seen the rise of Vladimir Putin’s authoritarian regime and Ukrainian oligarchs and the dictatorships of Ramzan Kadyrov in Chechnya and Alexander Lukashenko in Belarus, among others. We witness growing poverty in Russia, extreme poverty in Tajikistan, and wars which go from latent to open between Armenia and Azerbaijan or between Russia and Ukraine, and so on.

The USSR’s end brought about an appalling social, political and human setback. It runs parallel to the damage caused by the current crisis of the capitalist system. Faced with this impasse, the communist perspective which guided revolutionaries in 1917 and led to the creation of the USSR remains the only valid approach for the future of the working class and all humanity.