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From The Socialist newspaper, 18 November 2009

USSR 1989 - the collapse of Stalinism

How the movements to end bureaucratic rule eventually resulted in capitalist restoration

Clare Doyle - of the Committee for a Workers' International - was an eyewitness to the tumultuous events in 1989, and for five years (1990-95) lived in Russia as the USSR collapsed. Below, she explains how various movements of workers in the USSR and eastern bloc countries against bureaucratic and dictatorial rule became subsumed in a disastrous rush into authoritarian capitalism.
Leon Trotsky reading The Militant newspaper in 1931

Leon Trotsky reading The Militant newspaper in 1931   (Click to enlarge)

THE CAPITALIST media milked the celebrations of the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall to remind their audiences of the evils of "communism" ie Stalinism. With their own capitalist system in crisis they welcomed the opportunity to repeat the lie that 'there is no alternative'.

They have spoken glowingly of the "revolution", or series of "revolutions" of 1989 which turned world history in their favour. At the same time they condemn as a mere 'coup' the genuine revolution of October 1917 in Russia - that liberated tens of millions of people from war and capitalist exploitation after the February overthrow of the Tsarist dictatorship.

The events of 1989, including the mass revolt in China, showed the potential for mass struggle to overthrow entrenched bureaucracies. Counter-revolution in terms of the restoration of capitalism was by no means a foregone conclusion.

Long before the Wall actually came down, there had been ferment in society across Eastern Europe, and inside Russia itself. Strikes by Poland's workers, which had given birth to Solidarnosc as a defiant independent trade union, had terrified the ruling bureaucracy of the Soviet Union.

At its 1981 congress Solidarnosc had adopted something very close to the programme of the political revolution - for wresting control of the state and industry out of the hands of the ruling parasitic caste of bureaucrats and establishing democratic workers' control and management.


MikhaIl Gorbachev rose to the position of General Secretary of the ruling Communist Party of the Soviet Union in 1985, acutely aware of the need to get the economy out of the doldrums caused by top-down management on a stultifying scale.

Genuine workers' democracy - the vital oxygen needed to keep the state-owned, planned economy functioning - would make the bureaucrats redundant. Hence Gorbachev's search for an alternative - resurrecting certain 'market' ideas like 'self-accounting' in every enterprise. He needed to bring in reforms in order to revive the economy and prevent revolution.

The opening of the Berlin Wall came to symbolise the beginning of the collapse of the state-owned planned economies - with restoration of market capitalism in countries covering more than one-sixth of the world's surface, in many of which it had not existed for decades.

After the Wall fell, a social counter-revolution spread across Eastern Europe and the now ex-Soviet Union. The USSR, made up of 15 major republics, soon crumbled into separate states, the Russian Federation being the largest. Almost without exception, the local ruling 'communist' cliques converted rapidly to capitalism and pursued their separate struggles for narrow, nationalist interests.

Elements of revolution

Leon Trotsky

Leon Trotsky

So how close did it come in the late 1980s inside the Soviet Union to a political revolution from below? Could workers have regained control of the state established by the Bolshevik revolution in 1917 - the workers' state usurped a decade later by the murderous regime of Stalin?

In 1989 there was still a potentially revolutionary situation in the making. The upper layers in society were divided as to how to deal with the rapidly developing economic and social crisis. There were the reformers and the privatisers and then there were the-out-and-out hardliners like Nina Andreyeva, Ligachev and co who vehemently demanded a return to Stalin's methods!

Some of them would have favoured the 'Tiananmen Square solution' to stop the revolt that was developing under their feet. Troops had been sent in to quell revolt both within and beyond the borders of the Soviet Union, even since the death of Stalin, including in Germany, Hungary and Czechoslovakia. They had also been used to put down workers' strikes and demonstrations most notably in Novocherkassk in 1962. Even Gorbachev was not averse to the use of troops - as in Tbilisi and Vilnius.

But in the ferment of 1989 it is unlikely that soldiers and police could have been deployed in the major Russian cities, on the streets and in the workplaces, against people who now knew no fear. Conscripts returning from Afghanistan were also disaffected. They had organised an opposition movement called 'Zashita' (Shield).

As the economy had slowed in the 1970s and 1980s, discontent had grown within certain layers of the intelligentsia. Samizdat (self-edited) publications appeared in their hundreds, defying the authorities.

By the time of Gorbachev's accession to power in 1985, there was more widespread discontent in the middle layers of society. They shared some of the privations of the working class in an economy grinding to a halt - the empty shops, the rationing and the queues.

Some looked towards Social Democracy as a way out, imagining to themselves that it was not really capitalist. Some reverted to reactionary ideas of the pre-revolutionary period and maintained that an illusory democratic capitalist development had been criminally interrupted by Bolshevism!

Workers' discontent

Within the working class in 1989 there was a simmering resentment - a slow-burning fuse, much as there is in the oligarch-dominated Russia of today. There were outbreaks of strike action, usually brief, but sometimes bitter and long.

Deeply-felt discontent was being expressed in newspapers, in letters to Gorbachev, in unofficial workers' publications. The STKs - factory committees initiated by Gorbachev - allowed workers to vent their anger with complaints and suggestions for improvements without actually exercising control.

This had all come to a dangerous head in the miners' strikes of 1989. This flared up again in 1990 (in spite of Gorbachev's u-turn on workers' rights in the passing of anti-strike laws). Miners had occupied the central squares of their towns and controlled everything that came and went. They had, to some extent, taken things out of the hands of their overseers in the workplace and in society. Like workers elsewhere across the Soviet Union, in what were only partially free elections in March 1989, they had voted out a whole range of party hacks from the administrative bodies (mis-named Soviets) and replaced them with new people.

Workers across the country took a whole two weeks off work to watch live coverage of the new delegates debating in the Congress of People's Deputies. In a few places the black Zil cars of the bureaucrats had been 'arrested'. Their car boots had been opened to reveal hordes of sausages, vodka and other (for those times) 'luxury' items.

By this time, workers as well as elements in the middle layers were losing patience with the dithering of Gorbachev. His support was down to little more than a third in opinion polls.

If there had been a force with at least some roots in the working class, calling for workers to throw off the bureaucracy and take control into their own hands, directly electing their own representatives to genuine soviets at a local, regional and all USSR level, it could have made a difference.

The anger of the working class could have been channelled into a coordinated struggle for the re-establishment of workers' democracy and against the elite. A revolutionary party could have grown rapidly in the turmoil of that period.

But the odds were heavily stacked against such a development. The long years of Stalinist repression weighed heavily on the scales of history. By 1989 anything associated with the old regime, including "Marxism", was being rejected outright; the attractions of life in the west were winning.

"Let's build socialism"

ON THE 72nd anniversary of the October revolution in Russia, just two days before the fall of the Berlin Wall, an 'unofficial' mass demonstration made its way into Winter Palace Square, Leningrad.

It was one of the biggest since the days of the Trotskyist Left Opposition in the late 1920s. The bureaucrats on the rostrum were booed and shouted at and yet no tanks appeared.

The political outlook of the demonstrators was very mixed. Most were supporting the demand for multi-party elections - the abolition of Article 6 in the constitution that gave the 'Communist' Party the 'leading' if not exclusive, role in the state. Many carried slogans demanding free speech, freedom of assembly, freedom of organisation and freedom of the press.

Under glasnost ('openness', one of Gorbachev's reforms), hundreds of small publications and organ-isations had begun to blossom unofficially.

On the opposition demonstration in Leningrad on 7 November 1989, there was a palpable enthusiasm for Solidarnosc in Poland, especially amongst those endeavouring to build new, independent trade unions.

There was admiration and solidarity for the miners of Vorkuta, the Kuzbas and the Donbas who had challenged the ruling bureaucracy with a mass general strike earlier in the year. Others supported the growing independence movement in the Baltic states.

Some on the demonstration had such hatred towards those who ruled over them in the name of Lenin and the Bolsheviks that they wanted nothing to do with them. Some supported the cooperatives that were developing and the idea of introducing market incentives as a way of getting round the shortages and blockages in the economy.

Shares "might not be a bad idea", some said, so alienated did workers feel from the state-owned enterprises in which they worked. But one of the biggest home-made banners on the 7 November demonstration in Winter Palace Square read: "Power to the soviets, not the party!" and "Let's build socialism!"

Few, if any, at that stage favoured opening the door to full-blown privatisation. That was being discussed by those who supported the ideas of the Chicago School. Economists like Chubais and Gaidar were later keen advocates of 'shock therapy', bringing the economy out of state hands in one blow - along the lines of Yavlinsky's '500 Days' programme of a year later.

For the moment, Gorbachev himself was keen to stick to what he called "revolutionary reforms" aimed at safeguarding the livelihoods of the bureaucracy.

At this time, Boris Yeltsin, the recently deposed Moscow Party boss, the 'man of the people', riding on buses, standing in queues at food shops, was evincing ecstatic support. He denounced the privileges of the nomenclatura.

The 'inter-regional' group of People's Deputies that he was in was battling to break the grip of the multi-million 'Communist' Party of the Soviet Union. Yeltsin was becoming far more convinced than Gorbachev about the need for the 'transition to the market'.

After his dramatic victory later, in August 1991, over the generals' coup, he would not only clear them and the old guard out of the way. He would push Gorbachev aside and illegalise the Communist Party, opening the road to brutal and rapid privatisation of the economy.

A warning to the workers

WHEN MILITANT supporter, Terry Fields MP (in Britain), was invited to a congress of Siberian miners in Novokuznetsk in May 1990, his audience was delighted. He brought greetings "from the workers of Europe" and wholehearted support for the miners' struggle against the bureaucrat-bosses.

But he began to warn them against taking the road to the market as the only way to get a better deal for their labour. It would not lead to capitalism of the Swedish, North American or British type, but of the Latin American kind ie mass unemployment, hyper-inflation and dictatorship. The miners got restless and began to tap their watches, telling him that his time was up! They preferred not to hear his prophesy!

As Gorbachev's star waned, miners gave their support to Yeltsin in his battle with the 'communists'. Some miners' representatives travelled to western Europe to find direct buyers for their coal. One of them, a certain Yakovlev, actually arrived in Britain asking to meet representatives of the CBI and visit the Tory Party conference!

Within three years of Terry Fields going to Russia, workers were experiencing one of the biggest collapses of any economy in history. Industry declined by 50%, inflation in 1992 reached 2,520% per annum, mass unemployment and non-payment of wages rocketed. Whereas in the late 'Soviet' era 1.5% of the population was living in poverty (defined as income below the equivalent of $25 per month), by mid-1993 between 39% and 49% of the population was living in poverty.

By that time, too, the dictatorship that Terry had warned of had well and truly arrived in Russia, under the presidency of 'democrat', Boris Yeltsin.

Privatisation - how the Russian masses were swindled

THE 'GREAT money trick' of capitalist restoration in Russia was 'voucherisation' - privatisation through issuing vouchers to every citizen. Poverty-stricken as most of the population was, would-be oligarchs moved in with agents to pay cash for them and concentrate them into their hands.

For a whole period, different wings of the old bureaucracy fought each other for control over the spoils of the privatisation process. They set up rival private banks with public money; they put out contracts for gunmen who would literally kill off competition.

The biggest 'shoot out' was when Yeltsin sent the tanks against his own parliament in October 1993.

The 'shock therapy' inflicted on the population of the ex-Soviet Union did nothing to assist the working class to live better. It has actually been blamed by medical researchers for no less than one million premature deaths of adults (The Lancet, January 2009). Most pensioners, students, workers have felt the baleful effects of the transition to the market 'on their skins', as the Russians express it.

Millions lost their life's savings when pyramid scams collapsed. All have lost the security of a home, a job, a free health service, and free education to university level and beyond.

The quality of services, of products, of food was never great under the old regime. As Trotsky explained in his brilliant book Revolution Betrayed, written in the late 1930s, it slipped through the fingers of the bureaucracy "like a shadow".

But the privations of life under Stalinism have begun to look bearable compared with what faces workers, pensioners and young people today. (This may lie behind Stalin's 'popularity' in recent polls - nostalgia for the certainties of the planned economy rather than support for his record as a brutal mass murderer.)

Today's bureaucrats-turned-oligarchs have accumulated unimaginable wealth. They have almost literally bought themselves a 'strong state' with Vladimir Putin. 'New Russians' flaunt their ill-gotten wealth at home and abroad and stoke up the anger of a new generation of workers, as capitalism shows itself to be a failing system.

Just as the Russian economy had got back up to the level of 1990, mainly through rising prices for its energy supplies, it has fallen again this year by around 8%.

There is a new storm brewing under the surface of Russian society. 40% of Russians live in absolute poverty. Unemployed workers have gone to the countryside to eke out a living. Carworkers facing huge redundancies have organised mass protests and demanded total renationalisation of their industry.

Big clashes between the classes will engender a renewed interest in the genuine ideas of socialism. The lessons of the past must all be examined and forces built which can bring lasting victory over capitalism in Russia and internationally.

Capitalists and bureaucrats were huddled together in fear of revolt from below

IN THE 1980s, not only Stalinist bureaucrats feared revolt from below. Recent revelations show that Thatcher, Bush (senior), Mitterrand and others, as well as dreading a united Germany, also supported the rule of General Jaruselski in Poland rather than the coming to power of Solidarnosc.

Along with Gorbachev, Honecker, Deng Xiao Ping, the Ceausescus and the rest, there is no doubt that the capitalist leaders feared just as much an aroused working class. If it succeeded in throwing off the incubus of Stalinist dictatorship, in the East, could it not move in the West to dispense with capitalist rule?

Gorbachev's 'Perestroika' ('restructuring') reform was to make factories and mines "self accounting", responsible for their own income and expenditure, although still responsible for fulfilling the state plan. As the cost of coal production was significantly higher than the price for coal paid by the state, this left many mines without enough money to cover wages. In March 1989 this led to the first Soviet miners' strikes in Vorkuta.

The Soviet Union, established by the greatest event in history, the October 1917 revolution, led by Lenin and Trotsky, was based on state ownership and a planned economy. The young Soviet state achieved tremendous economic growth whilst the capitalist world suffered the torture of the great depression.

But in denial of the internationalism and democratic principles of the Bolsheviks, a parasitic Stalinist bureaucracy completed a political counter-revolution, which not only deprived the workers of political power in their own state, but eventually destroyed the planned economy itself.

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In The Socialist 18 November 2009:

Fighting for a future

Youth march for jobs

Global Warming

More evidence of climate change: Socialist planning needed

Socialist Party news and analysis

British Airways merger plan poses new threat to workers

Tamil refugees in desperate situation

Labour pushes nuclear plants

Fast news

Socialist Party workplace news

Third week of Superdrug strike

Brighton bin workers score quick victory

Leeds council delays talks to end bin dispute

Sheffield First bus drivers beat back bullying management

Socialist Party feature

Interview with Mark Serwotka, PCS general secretary

Marxist analysis: history

USSR 1989 - the collapse of Stalinism

Socialist Party election analysis

Glasgow North East by-election: Mass abstentions in Labour's 'surprise win'

Far right SDL driven out of Glasgow city centre

Socialist Party Marxist analysis

Service with a snarl: Robert Service refuses to answer questions

Workplace news and analysis

Working life in a car factory

Ericsson closure condemned by Coventry socialist councillor

Save Ashford further education

London trade unionists meet to build workers' solidarity


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