In the late 1980s, the Soviet ruling elite watched in despair as the Warsaw Pact, the cold-war military bloc set up in opposition to American imperialism began to crumble.
The growth of the Solidarnosc trade union in Poland, the velvet revolution in Czechoslovakia, the overthrow of the hated Ceausescus in Romania and the unification of Germany hastened the process. The Soviet Army was forced to pull out of Afghanistan.
These events increased the economic and social crises in the Soviet Union itself. For 60 years, the ruling elite had excluded the masses from politics. On their return, they stepped tenderly, but gained confidence as protests mushroomed.
The first protests, in the Caucasus and the Baltic States, were over the environment. The air in many cities was so polluted life expectancy was dropping. Lake Baikal and the Caspian Sea were filled with industrial waste.
A few years after the Chernobyl disaster, the ruling elite stupidly planned a nuclear station in Armenia - in an unstable zone, rocked by a horrendous earthquake in 1988.
The right of self-determination
THE PROTESTS exposed massive discontent in Soviet society, particularly over the national question, the right of self-determination. When the Bolsheviks took power in 1917, they had an extremely advanced, sensitive approach, granting the right of self-determination to Finland and Estonia.
If the Civil War launched by the imperialist powers had not cut across the process, this right would have been extended to other nations.
But under Stalin and his successors, everything was decided in the centralised state bureaucracy's interests. Stalin, for instance, forcibly enshrined the Baltic states in the Soviet Union as part of his 1939 pact with Hitler.
Pent-up resentments were released as the nationalities fought to escape repressive, centralised control. While the masses fought for national liberation, many of the ruling elite, sensing the imminent break-up of the Soviet Union, donned nationalist garb to exploit these sentiments in their own interests.
1988 gave a bloody warning of later events. To dispel a mass movement demanding the transfer of Nagorno-Karabakh in Azerbaijan to Armenia, the Communist Party organised a bloody pogrom - hundreds of Armenians were beaten to death. The resulting ethnic war lasted several years.
Bloody inter-ethnic wars broke out In Moldova and Georgia. A brutal civil war involving Afghan mujahadins still rages in Tadjikstan.
THE SOVIET regime's death knell sounded in July 1989 when a mass miners' strike affected the Kuzbass coalfield in Siberia, Donbass in Ukraine, Vorkuta in the polar circle and Karaganda in the Kazakhstan steppe.
The ruling elite claimed the Soviet Union was a 'developed socialist society' run in the working class's interests. The reality was starkly different. In 1917, the workers, supported by the peasantry, overthrew capitalism and the feudal Tsarist regime.
Workers' control of the factories was established, poor peasants were given land, banks and large factories were nationalised. A planned economy was established. Despite Russian society's backwardness, by the mid-1920s the planned economy had gone far to restore the damage done by World War One and the civil war launched by the imperialist powers to crush the revolution.
But the revolution's leaders Lenin and Trotsky never believed socialism could be built in isolation in Russia. Revolution in Europe was needed. So the German revolution's defeat was a body blow to the new Soviet republic and weakened the position of the workers and their leaders, the Bolshevik party.
A backward, bureaucratic layer began to develop in the state apparatus. A Stalinist state was established, depriving workers of their control of society.
The bureaucracy seized political power. Repression of political opponents became the rule; its first victims were those Bolsheviks who led the October revolution.
Thousands of left oppositionists, around whom opposition to the bureaucracy had developed, were murdered in Stalin's prison camps.
STATE OWNERSHIP of Industry and the planned economy survived however. In the 1930s depression In the West, In the post-war years, even un to the early 1970s the economy forged ahead, raising living standards almost to European levels.
In the 1960s, when Khrushchev boasted that the Soviet economy would soon overtake the USA, the CIA considered his claim, credible.
But the bureaucracy was now an all-consuming monster. When Stalin came to power, it numbered a few hundred thousand. Under Gorbachev's rule in the 1980s it was 20 million strong.
Their horribly affluent lifestyle was exemplified by Brezhnev's huge collection of luxury cars. You couldn't get buried without a bribe. Society's wealth was creamed off - bureaucratic incompetence wasted up to 30% of industrial and agricultural production.
Many workers faced Victorian living and working conditions. Miners in Siberia and the polar circle with relatively high wages had nothing to spend their money on. Often, several families lived together in pre-revolution wooden barracks.
Things came to a head after the soap ran out in the pithead showers. Hundreds of thousands of miners struck demanding improved living conditions and a slashing of the state and industrial bureaucracy.
Labour MP Terry Fields, a supporter of Militant, the Socialist Party's precursor, sent telegrams backing the strikers. Three strike committees replied, yes we too want to live in a democratic socialist society without state repression and bureaucracy.
Reform from above
THE MINERS faced a choice. If they had had their own political party, they could have overthrown the bureaucracy and established a genuine socialist society. There would have been workers' control and management at every level, from the planned economy to the shop floor.
There would have been freedom for trade unions and political parties, freedom to travel, freedom to protest. Nations would have had the right to self determination and a genuine union of free, equal socialist states set up.
The resources released by ending the bureaucracy's waste and excess consumption would have dramatically improved workers living conditions.
The workers however were politically unprepared. But a growing layer of the bureaucracy had their own plans.
Party bosses, who travelled abroad on official delegations were attracted by Western lifestyles, especially the privileged Young Communists who wore Western fashions at home and listened to imported music. Many of these parasitic bureaucrats saw their system was floundering and looked to capitalism to save their skins.
Increasingly, they argued for market reforms. To restore "a civilised society", industry should be turned over to private hands, i.e. to them. The working-class put forward no alternative, so these ideas gained ground throughout society.
Gorbachev came to power in 1985. His "perestroika" (rebuilding) intended to reduce the bureaucracy’s waste and mismanagement without taking power from them - reform from above to prevent revolution from below.
But the more the bureaucracy relaxed centralised control, the more society’s centrifugal forces gained strength, pulling soviet society apart. They could no longer stop the process, though they tried.
In August 1991, tanks rolled down the streets of Moscow. A gang of seven grey-faced bureaucrats said Gorbachev was "ill" and they had taken emergency control. Market reforms would continue, but order would be restored.
Gorbachev’s plans to sign a new treaty granting the republics more power would be stopped. Workers were told there would be no more strikes.
The army no longer had the heart, however. Tanks stopped when traffic lights turned red. Trolleybus drivers blockaded roads to stop the tanks getting further. Muscovites braved the Soviet army’s might and demonstrated.
Within two days they forced the coup leaders to back down.
What started as a potentially revolutionary movement against Stalinism ended up handing power to open counter-revolutionaries when Yeltsin came to power. Workers need to have their own political alternative, a party armed with a socialist programme, if they do not wish hostile class forces to win.
Former communist Yeltsin restored capitalism. He disbanded the Soviet Union, making it easier to break up the old state apparatus. Discussions began with the World Bank and IMF to help "restructuring" i.e. mass privatisation and the slashing of workers' living standards and the welfare state.
Society's resources were concentrated into the hands of 'new Russians', arrogantly rich crooks and whiz kids, mostly former communists. To defend their ill-gotten gains, they hired assassins to kill union leaders or competitors.
Yeltsin overcame parliamentary resistance in 1993 by bombing Parliament. A bitter war was launched against the small mountain republic of Chechnya, costing 40,000 lives.
THE NEW ruling elite has robbed over $120 billion from the economy since 1991. This has been accompanied by a drop in industrial production of over 50%, slashed living standards and a wrecked welfare state.
Miners digging coal under the polar ice receive less than $100 a month. Hospitals and schools have no money.
The working class, who wanted to escape Stalinism's repression, is contemptuous of the new so-called democracy. They have been stunned by the economic consequences of introducing capitalism. A large 'lumpen' (de-classed or criminalized) layer are even attracted by racist and fascist ideas.
The working class still do not have their own political alternative. But they are beginning to see the need for one.
Even though the government boasts an increase in production and other economic improvements, workers know this is at their expense.
Wages continue to fall. But a recent increase in arms orders has led to an increase in jobs. This has built workers’ confidence and may lead to growing support for socialist ideas.
Russia’s working class can be very militant. When its militancy is combined with a clear political strategy, they will again be an unstoppable force.
Article from The Socialist 29 October, 1999 by Rob Jones, under the original title "The downfall of the Soviet Bureaucracy." p6.