Russia, Trotsky and the collapse of Stalinism

Chapter Thirty-Four


MEANWHILE, INTERNATIONALLY big events in the USSR were shaking the Stalinist regime of Gorbachev. Events in Armenia indicated that “never before, at least in its own backyard, has the bureaucratic elite which dominates Russian society faced a challenge on such a scale.” (1)

The mass movement in the Armenian capital of Yerevan compelled a ‘liberal’ Gorbachev immediately to put Glasnost (openness) into cold storage. Foreign correspondents were prevented from visiting the area, in a desperate attempt to suppress all reports. 

Gorbachev represented that wing of the bureaucracy which saw the need to liberalise and carry through reforms from above in order to prevent revolution from below. 

But Militant had predicted that such methods invariably produce the results they were designed to avoid. In a totalitarian system, the slightest concessions can open the floodgates to revolution.

In his book Perestroika, published only six months before the Armenian events, Gorbachev had boldly claimed:

The revolution and socialism have done away with national oppression and inequality and ensured economic, intellectual and cultural progress for all nations and nationalities. (2)

However, the bloody conflict between Armenians and Azerbaijanis over the issue of Nogorno-Karabakh (the Armenian enclave in Azerbaijan) had given the lie to this claim. Indeed the bureaucratic elite which dominated Russia and the Soviet Union had failed not only to solve the national question but had actually guaranteed through their totalitarian grip its re-emergence in an aggravated form.

The bureaucracy’s approach to the national question flew in the face of Lenin’s bold and sensitive position on this issue. This was demonstrated by the events in Armenia in early 1988. Militant stated that “The events in Armenia show that national protests will fuse with and be fuelled by the resistance to the bureaucracy’s rule.” (3)

The upheavals in 1988 were prepared by demonstrations and meetings in October of the previous year. They were initially over the issue of Nagorno-Karabakh but coalesced with a movement demanding the shutting down of dangerous chemical plants and a nuclear power station.

The Armenian revolt was the first indications since the upheavals in Poland of a process which eventually led to the complete overthrow of Stalinism. As the movement developed the Russian bureaucracy was riven with divisions. This was personified by Gorbachev himself who actually stood for greater but “legal” privileges for the elite that dominated Russian society. We commented:

seventy years after the Russian revolution, and moreover with capitalism on the eve of a new recession, one wing of the bureaucracy now looks towards the ‘market’ as a solution. One of Gorbachev’s political advisors had condemned “the concept of state socialism” as a “Stalinist error”. (4)

Gorbachev himself, at the beginning, was a representative of the bureaucracy looking to widen its popular base. However, events in the next year were to see the situation spin out of control ending up with the shattering of Stalinism in 1989-90.

Ally Pally Rally

In 1988 the beginning of change in the Stalinist states formed the centre-piece of the Militant National Rally, which this time was held at Alexandra Palace. Reflecting the huge growth in support for Militant, this was the biggest rally, with almost 8,000, participating. Militant supporters had exceeded 10,000 in number, with thousands more counted as sympathisers:

“A deafening counterblast to rumours that Labour’s Marxists are in retreat. Here was an army on the march for socialism”. (5)

For nearly two hours the crowd poured into the vast hall. The speakers appeared on the platform to music, pyrotechnics, the waving of red flags and a huge portrait of Leon Trotsky which was unfurled behind the stage. An important theme was the struggle to defend the socialist cause to which Trotsky devoted his life. The size of the rally was shown in the 506 children in the créche, bigger than many schools. The confidence and enthusiasm of those present was again shown in the gigantic collection of £51,725.

Speaking at the rally alongside myself, Ted Grant, John Macreadie, left MP Ron Brown, Janice Glennon (for the youth), was Veronika Volkov, the great grand-daughter of Leon Trotsky. She had arrived at the rally in place of her father Esteban Volkov, Trotsky’s grandson, who was not able to be present because of his wife’s illness.

Esteban speaks

However, in a satellite phone link-up from Mexico, Esteban Volkov spoke to the rally:

Leon Trotsky was a man of inexhaustible generosity, always well-disposed to share sparse resources with comrades with economic problems. He maintained a close interest in them and in all his close friends… 

Even in his last moments of consciousness (following the assasin’s blow)… he was able to make a joke about his hair that was being cut, trying to mitigate the deep suffering of his courageous inseparable wife, Natalya, who stood beside him until the last moment. 

A great Marxist theoretician and dauntless revolutionary, his dedication to working-class interests and his faith in the communist future of mankind made him one of the most indomitable heroic revolutionaries in history… 

In the ebb of the revolutionary tide, he kept the beacon of Marxism-Leninism brightly lit. Trotsky left an invaluable contribution to the arsenal of Marxist theory and methodology to the working class.

Esteban Volkov quoted his grandfather’s testament: “Life is beautiful, let the future generations cleanse it of all evil, oppression and violence and enjoy it to the full.” (6)

The impact of the rally was, once more, recorded widely in the capitalist press.

1989 was a decisive year in world developments. It will be associated with the collapse of Stalinism, which Militant, as the biggest Trotskyist tendency in Britain and one of the largest on a world scale, had confidently predicted.


After the Second World War two super-powers bestrode the world arena, Stalinist Russia and US imperialism. The Soviet bureaucracy and Western capitalism rested on mutually antagonistic social systems but also leaned on each other against the threat of revolution from the working class. 

The military encirclement of the Soviet Union (imperialism’s nuclear arsenals were undoubtedly used by the Russian bureaucracy to stay the hand of the working class), was a factor in preventing a movement of working people to overthrow the bureaucracy; the workers feared opening the floodgates to imperialist intervention.

In this period the prospect of capitalist counter-revolution was “virtually ruled out”. The development of the planned economies, even during the boom of 1950 to 1975, exceeded the growth of world capitalism. The bureaucracy played a certain role in borrowing technique from the capitalist west and developing the infrastructure of a modern economy, but with enormous overheads.

Stalinism in this period did play a relatively progressive role, fulfilling the tasks which historically capitalism proved it was incapable of carrying through in Russia; developing industry science and technique, but at two or three times the cost of capitalism. 

Capitalism does have the check of the market, of competition, on a national and international scale. But the uncontrolled caste which dominated the planned economies swallowed up an enormous amount of the surplus and thereby undermined the advantages of the plan even when it was developing at a much faster rate than under capitalism. 

But once society in the USSR developed a certain level of production and technique, i.e. became a modern economy, the old bureaucratic method of rule from the centre was incapable of working. From becoming a relative fetter the bureaucracy became more and more of an absolute fetter on any further progress of these societies. The tendency of Stalinism to resort to zigzags, veering from left to right, from one expedient to another, did not free it from its historical impasse.

Periodic eruptions of mass discontent were an expression of its inherent instability. As we have seen, all the movements prior to the 1980s in the Stalinist states showed some of the features of what Trotsky perceived would be the political revolution – Hungary 1956 being the classical form. 

The masses demanded democracy, the elimination of the privileges of the bureaucracy, an end to one-party totalitarian regimes and a defence of the planned economy. Even in the movement in Poland 1980-81, while there were pronounced pro-capitalist features, this movement in general still saw itself as one pitted against the bureaucracy, but preserving the gains of the planned economy.


The crushing of the Solidarity movement in December 1981 by Jaruzelski had a decisive effect on the consciousness of the Polish working class. 

So discredited was the “Communist” Party, the party of the privileged elite, that the Stalinist counter-revolution took place through the military elite, personified by Jaruzelski. Together with the 1980s boom this completely undermined the idea that the ills of Polish society could be cured on the basis of a movement against the bureaucracy alone. 

Pro-capitalist ideas, occupied a minority position in the Polish movement of 1980-81. But on the basis of the crushing of the movement, the imprisonment of Solidarity workers, a further period of stagnation and regression of the Polish economy, led to pro-capitalist ideas becoming the predominant trend both within the ranks of the intelligentsia and also within the working class. 

There seemed to be no way forward on the basis of Stalinism, even the “reformed” version. The upswing of the 1980s, particularly the period of 1985-1990, contrasted favourably in the minds of the masses with the dire situation in the Stalinist states.

The processes at work in Poland existed, to a lesser or greater extent, in all the Stalinist states of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. However, illusions in the “market” were more pronounced in Poland and at an earlier stage this became clearer to us, after some comrades had visited the country. 

The most visible expression of this was approval given to Thatcher on her visit to Poland in 1988. Open support for the ideological fountain-head of capitalist reaction, particularly by the Gdansk workers, came somewhat as a shock to those, such as Militant, who looked towards a political revolution as the most likely outcome of any movement against the regime.

One of the difficulties for Marxists in correctly assessing the mood in the Stalinist states was the totalitarian character of these regimes. The assembling of a sizeable force, able to gauge the mood of the masses, was difficult, if not impossible, because of the pervasive grip of the police and severe repression. 

This was the case even in those regimes, like Poland and to some extent Hungary, where the hold of the Stalinists had been considerably loosened. Even then it would not have been possible to have easily corrected what subsequently proved to be an inaccurate assessment of the mood of the masses in these states as it was developing in the 1980s. Indeed, the consciousness was very confused, particularly in countries such as East Germany and the Soviet Union.

The movement against the regime in these countries initially contained elements of political revolution. In the first instance, the mood of the masses was to look for democratic change but on the basis of the planned economy. However, once the grip of Stalinism had been lifted and the masses were able to gauge the situation fully, the extent of the obscene privileges of the elite were revealed.

 This had a decisive effect on consciousness. These societies were not just standing still but going backwards. The “fireworks” of the world capitalist boom and with it the living standards of the 1980s contrasted favourably in the minds of the masses with the stagnation and decay of Stalinism. These regimes had stood still or even gone backwards for a large part of the 1970s and the 1980s.

Facing up to a new situation

Following the events in Poland Militant, at least the majority of its leadership, attempted belatedly, but honestly, to face up to this situation. Rather tentatively the “theoretical possibility of a bourgeois counter-revolution” unfolding in the Stalinist states was posed.

At an international gathering in Belgium in December 1988 of the co-thinkers of Militant, myself, in agreement with what subsequently became the majority of the Militant leadership, Lynn Walsh, Tony Saunois, Bob Labi, Clare Doyle and Peter Hadden, from Northern Ireland, raised the possibility of bourgeois counter-revolution. Neither Ted Grant nor Alan Woods spoke in that discussion but Ted Grant privately complained that he disagreed with my analysis.

We were the only Trotskyist tendency internationally that had begun in the late 1980s to pose the theoretical possibility of a bourgeois counter-revolution. Following the collapse of Stalinism and the moves towards the “market”, Militant is also the only tendency to have fully and correctly analysed and foreshadowed how events developed and to show the limited possibilities for capitalism in these countries.

What we said

A perusal of the columns of Militant in the crucial year of 1989 attests to this. Hungary was further down the road to capitalist restoration and developments there were fully analysed. The statement of Pozgay, representing the Hungarian bureaucracy, showed the way in which it was moving: “The socialist model chosen or enforced in 1948-49… has proved to be false in its entirety.” (7)

Despite this, the conclusion which we drew at this stage was that capitalist restoration was the most unlikely scenario either in Hungary or in the rest of the Stalinist states. Events in Russia had shown that the elements of the political counter-revolution were maturing. This was shown in particular in the elections to the “Soviets”. These elections revealed the hatred of the bureaucracy:

Posters made clear the general mood: “Not the people for socialism but socialism for the people”; “Do away with the special privileges for politicians and bureaucrats”; “Servants of the people should have to stand in queues”.

At this stage, one opinion poll we quoted showed that “only three per cent would vote for a capitalist party in multi-party elections”.8 This is an answer to those who argued at the time and since that a return to capitalism, certainly in the Soviet Union, was pre-ordained. In the mid-1980s not just the working class but the mass of the intelligentsia looked towards reforms, the removal of the privileges of the bureaucracy, but the retention of the planned economy. On the outcome of the elections, We argued that they demonstrated a

yearning to return to a system of workers’ democracy as it existed after the 1917 revolution under Lenin and Trotsky, before it was brutally suppressed by the bureaucratic counter-revolution. (9)

Gorbachev had originally come to power as a representative of the “reforming” wing of the bureaucracy, not as a conscious agent of imperialism. Yeltsin, as subsequent events demonstrated, was a more open and conscious representative of that layer of the bureaucracy which believed that its privileged positions could only be maintained on the basis of the dismantling of the already weakened planned economy and a movement towards capitalism, disguised as “democracy”.

Such was the rapid development of events in the Stalinist states that throughout 1989 Militant was compelled to constantly re-examine and re-evaluate its analysis. In July the paper posed the question: “Can capitalism be restored in Poland?”10 Following Thatcher’s visit, US President Bush also staged what in effect became a triumphal procession through the streets of Gdansk. The crowd had chanted “Stay with us, Stay with us!” 

Solidarity leader Lech Walesa declared: “We will build America here in Eastern Europe.” Jaruzelski, utterly demoralised at the ineffectiveness of his military Stalinist counter-revolution, actually admitted in a book the failure of “socialism”: Capitalism, according to him, was the only road for Poland. He spoke in glowing terms about Thatcher’s defeat of the British miners. In view of these developments Militant, the majority of the leadership, frankly stated that:

Stalinism in Poland, Eastern Europe and the USSR has exhausted all possibilities for real development of the productive forces. 

Complete stagnation and even regression in some fields (even in comparison with the palsied capitalism in the West) is evident. Under capitalism the limits to the development of the productive forces are private ownership on the one side and the limitations of the nation-state on the other. 

Industry, through the big monopolies, has outstripped the narrow limits of the ‘home market’ and looks to the world market as its base of operations. In the Stalinist states private ownership has been abolished. But the vast scale of waste, mismanagement and squandermania, which is inevitable under a totalitarian regime within the confines of the nation-state, limits the utilisation of the full capacity of a planned economy. Both capitalism and Stalinism face the greatest crisis in their history. 

But compared to the decay and stagnation in Eastern Europe the economies of Western Europe, Japan and America through the present eight-and-a-half-year boomlet appear to be far more successful. In all the Stalinist states a wing of the bureaucracy is blinded by the seeming “economic fireworks”, as Trotsky put it, of capitalism. 

Undoubtedly if world capitalism experienced another boom on the level of 1950-1975 the theoretical possibility of a return to capitalism in Eastern Europe and the USSR could not be ruled out. Even then capitalist restoration would come up against the resistance of the working class… A savage austerity programme would also be the starting point of a triumphant capitalist counter-revolution. But the workers resistance would be even greater. (11)

The only thing wrong with this analysis is its excessive caution as to the processes developing in the Stalinist states. Such was the decay of Stalinism that it took not a structural world economic boom but the “hollow” boom of the 1980s to act as a magnet to the workers of these states. However, even in late 1989 the signals from the former Soviet Union were mixed.

Terry Fields had made a very successful visit to the USSR particularly to the mining areas. The leaders of the miners in Siberia had written in August to Terry Fields, Pat Wall and Dave Nellist explaining that they “share the principles which Lenin proposed for a creation of the democratic workers’ state”. This was in reply to a letter sent by the MPs to the workers when they were on strike in July. (12)

China – centre stage

The imminence of a political revolution, or the perception of this, in the Stalinist states had been reinforced by the earth-shaking events in China in April, May and June. Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping justified the Chinese elite’s reforms – decentralisation and a greater reliance on market mechanisms – by proclaiming: “To get rich is glorious.” (13)

Initially, the reforms had produced spectacular results in agriculture and industry. But the success was short lived as the growth in agriculture slowed down and a certain overheating began to develop in the economy in the late 1980s. Workers had been hit by the negative effect of the reforms. Living standards improved for a while but rapid growth, mainly in the rural and private sectors, brought with it a big rise in inflation, shortages and unemployment. Over 50 million “wandering people” desperately searched for work. We showed that

Even in their most dynamic periods the bureaucratically planned economies have always suffered from the problem of imbalances… 

According to Deng, “there are no fundamental contradictions between a socialist system and a market economy”. But markets are essentially unplanned, attracting resources to the most profitable fields regardless of the overall needs of the economy and undermining the effectiveness of central planning. (14)

Faced with setbacks to his reform programme Deng began to falter. The hard-line defenders of bureaucratic centralism, such as Li Peng, went on to the offensive against leaders like Zhao Ziyang, the Communist Party’s general secretary. 

The inevitable corruption and nepotism associated with the partial restoration of the market aroused the discontent of the masses. This was initially reflected in the movement amongst the students. The middle layers in society, particularly the students, are always a weather vane of deeper processes at work in society. The discontent of the students had resulted in demonstrations in January 1988, which led to the resignation of general secretary Zhao Ziyang, in June of the same year. 

The students denounced corruption, demanded human rights, and called for the release of jailed dissidents. The hardliners, fearing that the student movement would spill over into workers’ protests, denounced Zhao and the reformist wing. This factional struggle within the ranks of the Chinese leadership opened the door to a movement of the students, to the beginnings of a political revolution and the subsequent massacre in Tiananmen Square.

The students gathered behind the Zhao wing of the bureaucracy as a means of democratising the regime. In April and early May, Beijing was convulsed with three mighty demonstrations of over 100,000, the last one in time for the anniversary of the historic student demonstrations of 4 May 1919. The students demonstrated great initiative

in building their own campus co-ordinating committee, embracing 30 colleges and universities in Beijing. They turned their back on the tame, officially recognised student unions, which branded the new committees ‘illegal’. (15)

Their target was the nepotism, particularly of the “gilded youth”, the children of the top bureaucracy. For instance Deng’s son headed a “charity” that was surrounded by the stench of corruption. His sons-in-law occupied important positions in the profitable state arms procurement agency. The sons of premier Li Peng and the party secretary Zhao had prominent positions in one of the special economic zones. This contrasted with the squalor of the students’ living conditions, mainly living on campus, four or six bunks cramped into small rooms.

When they marched in their thousands they sang the Internationale. It is true that alongside of this was an imitation “Statue of Liberty” in Tiananmen Square. This undoubtedly showed the confused consciousness, which was inevitable in the first period after the emergence from the dark night of totalitarianism. But their slogans showed that the students were searching in the direction of a political revolution: “Long live freedom, long live democracy… Down with tyranny and dictatorship.” (16)

Moreover, they indicated a sure instinct in seeking to link up with the workers who in turn greeted them as they marched past factories, offices and building sites: “Long live the workers!” shouted the students “Long live the students!” came back the workers’ reply.

Faced with this mass movement the hard-line wing of the bureaucracy, which Deng had now in terror joined, sought to gain time in order to prepare the forces to crush the movement. However, each movement of the students was bigger than the last and undoubtedly provoked a revolutionary wave throughout China. By the time Gorbachev visited China on 15 May a million, perhaps two million, workers were out on the streets of Beijing. The movement swept from one end of China to the other, Guangzhou, Shanghai and many other areas being caught up. Workers and even the army openly fraternised with the students.

After Gorbachev had departed large detachments of troops, with tanks began to move on Beijing. Millions of students and workers swarmed out to meet them, halting their advance. On 20 May one squad of riot police attacked a barricade but were repulsed. Other policemen went over to the side of the demonstrators:

Despite Li Peng’s declaration of martial law, key army units turned back after coming face to face with the masses. The commander of the 38th Army, who had a student daughter with the protesters in the square, announced that he would not implement orders to intervene. (17)

The army chief declared that the army would not move against the students and the workers in Tiananmen Square. All the conditions were there for the overthrow of the bureaucracy. The leadership was suspended in mid-air, with the bureaucracy itself and the army split from top to bottom. It was even reported that six of the seven military regional commanders had refused on 20 April to attend a meeting called in Beijing to plan a strategy of attack against the protesters. 

But what was missing in the situation was a leadership with clear aims and demands which could link up the movement of the students with that of the workers. Timing in a revolution is of the essence. Failure to seize an opportunity when the time is ripe can mean that a revolutionary opportunity can slip easily through the fingers. Engels summed up the essence of the situation when he said that there are periods of years, sometimes 20 or more, which appear just like one day in the life of society. 

On the other hand, there are days in which the events of 20 years can be compressed. Woe betide the revolutionary party that fails to seize the opporturnity which is presented in such a period.

The Russian working class probably had the opportunity in 1917 in September, October and November to take power. With the democratic vote of the soviets (workers’ councils) behind them the Bolsheviks took power on 25 October. An inordinate delay on their part could have meant that the opportunity would have been missed and may not have occured again without the counter-revolution first raising its head and crushing the revolution. 

A similar situation, with the same opportunities, existed in China, in April, May and June 1989. What was involved was not a social revolution to alter the character of the economy or change the ownership of the means of production, but a political revolution to change the “superstructure”, to replace a one-party totalitarian regime with workers’ democracy.

Gradually the hard-line wing of the bureaucracy represented by Li, and then Deng, assembled the forces to crush the movement of the students. The lengths to which the elite were prepared to go was shown by Deng who brutally hinted at future casualties: “In China a million people is still only a small number.”18

The first moves against the students and workers in Tiananmen Square came on Saturday, 3 June. At dawn, 10,000 young, unarmed soldiers marched down Changan Boulevard toward the Square. They were rapidly blocked and surrounded by the crowd of over 20,000 people, who began to form barricades. “Go home! The people’s army should love the people!” shouted the crowds. Many of the soldiers turned and fled, while students and workers fraternised with others. But Li and Deng began to build up a force of 100,000 troops around Beijing. On Sunday, 4 June they were deployed to carry through the infamous Tiananmen Square massacre.

Steve Jolly, based in Australia, had been asked by Militant and our co-thinkers internationally to go to Beijing to cover these historic events and to convey the solidarity of Militant supporters. He spoke to a mass meeting in Tiananmen Square where he put forward a programme for workers’ democracy which received enthusiastic support from the mass of the students gathered there. He was a witness to the Tiananmen Square massacre; his account was more vivid than anything which appeared in the bourgeois press:

The day after the massacre on Tiananmen Square the call for a general strike was written in blood on the walls and windows around the city. Before the bloodletting everyone knew that the army was about to attack. Students and workers stopped buses and trucks. Lorry drivers set up barricades.

On the south side of the city I saw a convoy of about 40 army trucks which had stopped. Workers and youth pleaded with the soldiers inside. Others were brought in for the attack. Students I was with told me to go, as the troops were likely to attack. I marched forward with them. 

One worker I spoke to told me he was wearing a lucky coat. He kept it on. After the attack the four friends he was with were all dead. I saw one tank crush 20 people on the ground… 

I spoke to groups of workers and youth, explaining Lenin’s four demands for a workers’ democracy, elections of all officials subject to recall, no official to receive more than the average wage of a skilled worker, an armed people and not a standing army… After the attack they enthusiastically backed them. Some shouted: “The people must be armed for insurrection.” (19)

As the Chinese students were gunned down by the “socialist” Peoples Liberation Army they sang the Internationale. Six students, one after another, advanced toward the army, each picking up and raising the red flag that had fallen from the murdered comrades hand. Throughout the world there was a massive wave of solidarity for the heroic students and workers of Beijing.


In Britain a demonstration of thousands assembled in London’s Chinatown. The only speakers from the British labour movement were MPs Tony Benn and Dave Nellist who were enthusiastically received. Dave Nellist hailed the magnificent movement of Chinese workers, students and peasants as “a beacon to workers across the world… Deng and Li Peng will not succeed in repressing the demands for socialist democracy.”20

He also called for the implementation of Lenin’s four demands for workers’ democracy. The demonstration, which reached 5,000 at its height sang the Internationale as it marched to the Chinese Embassy.

The world capitalists, their press and media, had given extensive coverage to the Tiananmen events. However their real feelings were expressed on the television programme Newsnight by Ted Heath, former Tory prime minister and Henry Kissinger, Nixon’s right-hand man in Vietnam.

Heath stated:

The Chinese students and workers aren’t after the sort of democracy we advocate… They were singing the Internationale. (21)

Kissinger complained that it was unfortunate that the mass movement had sullied the end of Deng’s career. For the record, both opposed the spilling of blood. But more important for them was the maintenance of the trade and other relations with the Chinese bureaucracy. Perhaps the most sickening contribution came from Gerald Kaufman, Labour’s foreign affairs spokesperson, who declared that “one could understand the Chinese government wanting to get control of the square, although they had gone immeasurably too far in retrieving control.” (22)

The crushing of the Tiananmen movement had a profound affect internationally and within China itself. The Stalinist counter-revolution did not lead to a lengthy period of consolidation of the regime. Given the social overturn that was imminent in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, China also was destined to move towards the market.

The Chinese privileged elite had been careful to avoid the “mistakes” of Gorbachev. They had fully accepted the need to move towards the restoration of capitalism but had also set their faces against democratisation. They correctly feared that democratic concessions would open up the floodgates to a new Tiananmen which would sweep them away. 

Despite the big growth of the economy and the existence of pure capitalist sectors, such as Guandong province, new “Tiananmens” are being prepared. In the first instance it will probably not take the form of the 1989 movement with demands for a political revolution prominent from the outset. The crushing of the movement in 1989 and other events have temporarily dimmed the attraction of socialism for a broad layer of the Chinese working class and peasantry. 

The masses in areas such as Guandong, have already experienced the barbarism, inevitable when capitalism is restored. Moves have already been made towards the establishment of “Solidarity” type unions.

Eastern Europe

But the events in China also had a profound affect in shaping the consciousness of the masses in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union in 1989-90.

The restoration of capitalism, Militant now conceded, was not just a “theoretical possibility” but a possibility – if not a probability. Commenting on events in Hungary and Poland we stated in October 1989:

An important section of the Hungarian bureaucracy has drawn the conclusion that a halfway house will never succeed and is prepared to see capitalism restored. They support a counter-revolution.

Some of the Polish bureaucrats had also accepted that it was necessary to restore capitalism:

Even now, 90 per cent of the new businesses set up in Poland are in the hands of the nomenklatura – the bureaucrats. If capitalism is to come back they are determined to get their grubby hands on the profits.

But East Germany saw a mass movement – “peoples power” – which not only toppled the Stalinist oligarchy, but ultimately led to the restoration of capitalism. This in turn gave a mighty push to the pro-capitalist forces in the rest of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. However, the convulsive movement in the last three months of 1989 in East Germany were unmistakably in the direction of seeking to overthrow the privileged elite, but also for the maintenance of the planned economy. As in China, the singing of the Internationale was heard on practically every demonstration.

Militant commented in October: 

“The workers and youth want to end bureaucratic rule. They are straining toward a programme for workers’ democracy on the basis of the planned economy.”

On Monday 16 October, 120,000 took over the centre of Leipzig, the biggest single demonstration in the history of the state. An eye-witness report published in Militant, of a demonstration of youth in East Berlin stated:

The youth marched right up to them (the police), and started chanting: “You are the people’s police. We are the people. Who are you protecting?” 

They sang the Internationale then they started a song from the struggles against the fascists, called “The Workers’ United Front”. Its words had a particular effect on the police: “You belong in the workers’ united front also, because you’re workers as well!” 

The police simply stood and were brushed aside as the youth surged forward. In the pubs conscript soldiers openly discussed with the workers and the youth. One group was discussing the prospect of their regiment being ordered to fire on demonstrators. A conscript injected: “They may order it but we will never fire on the people. If they do that we may turn on the officers instead.”

Honecker, the Stalinist leader, was toppled and replaced by Egon Krenz. This completely failed to satisfy the workers and youth. As one worker put it: “We want all, all, all of them removed.” In Leipzig there were weekly marches which doubled in size to reach 300,000. Again these demonstrations echoed to the sound of the singing of the Internationale. Pushed temporarily to the head of the movement was a group of intelligentsia, grouped around the organisation “New Forum”. Militant declared:

The instincts of the masses should now be concretised through agitating for soldiers’ committees linked to the workers’ committees – the conscripts will be more than receptive.

At one stage the East German bureaucracy, in the figure of Krenz, even contemplated emulating their Chinese Stalinist cousins, by drowning the movement in blood.

However, it was revealed later that Gorbachev and the Russian bureaucracy had countered the orders of Krenz, fearing that a massacre would result in a movement like that in Hungary in 1956, which in the situation then prevailing would have spilled over into the rest of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union itself.

In the latter months of 1989 the movement against the Stalinist regimes of Eastern Europe moved with lightning speed. In East Germany it developed over months, in Czechoslovakia over weeks and in Romania over days. Following the opening of the Berlin Wall a big section of the East German population, particularly the youth, voted with their feet against the Stalinist regime. They poured over the borders to stare in shop windows and compare their drab existence to the higher living standards in the West.

The attractions of capitalism appeared to be overwhelming. This mood was reinforced by the stench of Stalinist corruption. Revealed to all were the secret lodges and mansions of the elite in the countryside, their palaces and lush living. All of this emerged openly at the end of 1989. 

However, the rush of the Eastern population to the West threatened to completely destabilise the position of West German capitalism. Thus instead of the East German population coming to the “Mark” (the West German currency), the strategists of West German capitalism decided they would have to take the “Mark” to them. 

In the East there had been doubts, hesitations and opposition to the idea of capitalist reunification with the West but once West German capitalist politicians promised that this would open the door to “Western living standards” for the East German population, this opposition evaporated. 

However, the reports in Militant clearly demonstrated that the elements of the political revolution, rather than a move back to capitalism, predominated in the movement in East Germany in the first period. The slogans carried in Leipzig on 14 November were “Free elections ! Down with all privileges for the SED!” On other demonstrations the slogans were “Form workers councils” and “All power to the councils”. Moreover, a poll had shown that 74 per cent in East Germany opposed reunification with West Germany.

Velvet counter-revolution

On the heels of the revolutionary upheavals in East Germany the movement in Czechoslovakia developed in November and December at breathtaking speed. On 17 November 10,000 people, mainly students, marched through the streets of Prague to be met by the batons of the police. 

Yet within a week the whole of Prague was resounding to the sound of half a million pairs of feet on the march. It was no longer just the students, intellectuals and professional workers – the industrial working class, subdued for 20 years, were there. Even more than in East Germany the working class began to put its stamp on the situation with a general strike, albeit for two hours. Militant commented:

While the masses know what they don’t want, they are less clear what they do want.


There were two sides to the movement which swept Eastern Europe in 1989. On the one side, the planned economy began to be liquidated. This strengthened capitalism above all in the ideological sphere. It allowed the possessing classes internationally to conduct a campaign extolling the virtues of their system. But on the other side it also provided a living example of mass movements of “the people” which could reduce to dust regimes that appearded to be impregnable.

1989 also saw the disintegration of Stalinism not just in its “home base” but in its outposts as well. One expression of this were developments in Afghanistan.

Internationally, the Russian bureaucracy had moved from a position of supporting the establishment of Stalinist (that is, deformed workers’ states) in Cuba, Ethiopia etc, right up to the mid-1970s, to an opposite standpoint when it came to the issue of Nicaragua. The Sandinista regime could have undoubtedly pushed in the direction of a workers’ state, following the overthrow of Somoza in 1980. 

But it was actively discouraged from doing so both by the Russian bureaucracy and also by Castro on behalf of the Cuban elite. The latter had himself established a deformed workers’ state in 1960 without first receiving the blessing and prior ratification of the Russian bureaucracy. However, the existence of a Cuban deformed workers’ state, on the doorstep of American imperialism, strengthened the Russian bureaucracy under Khrushchev. They were quite happy to financially underwrite the Cuban regime.

But the increased economic difficulties of Russian Stalinism, together with other factors, had produced a change in approach by the time of the Nicaraguan revolution: “One Cuba is enough”, was their watch word.

They had originally intervened in Afghanistan for strategic and other reasons. They wished to establish a friendly “buffer” state on their borders, one that would rest on the same social foundations as their own. But the outlook of the bureaucracy had undergone a change in the course of the 1980s, particularly with the coming to power of Gorbachev. 

American imperialism had poured in arms and resources to back up the rag-tag and bobtail “Mujaheddin”. Given the preparedness of the Russian bureaucracy to defend the gains of the Afghanistan “revolution” Militant originally discounted the possibility that the Mujaheddin could win. However, it was clear that given the rapprochement of the Russian bureaucracy with US imperialism plus the rising cost of underwriting the Kabul regime, Gorbachev reassessed the position. The collapse of the Kabul regime and an ensuing period of chaos became a distinct possibility.

Afghanistan – disagreements in Militant

An estimation of what was likely to happen was a further source of friction between the majority of the Editorial Board, led by myself and Lynn Walsh and the minority of Ted Grant and Alan Woods. 

The perception of Woods and Grant that the Najibullah regime was firmly ensconced in power and would not be dislodged, flew in the face of the evidence on TV screens and in the press every day. While the Mujaheddin could not “win” in the sense of taking over and ruling Afghanistan in a stable fashion, nevertheless the withdrawal of the Russian bureaucracy and a period of ensuing chaos was on the cards. Lynn Walsh and myself insisted that Militant deal with this in their analysis of the situation in Afghanistan.

This was resisted by Ted Grant. The majority’s views prevailed and was reflected in the material that appeared in the Militant. In February 1989 Militant commented: “Much to the surprise of Western capitalist governments, all Russian forces will be withdrawn from Afghanistan before 15 February.”

It went on:

Exaggerated propaganda stories have always been a feature of reporting from Afghanistan, and this undoubtedly continues. Nevertheless, the picture of chaos and deepening collapse which emerges from television reports and from serious capitalist journals is too consistent to ignore.

Najibullah, in a desperate attempt to conciliate imperialism, now that the Russian bureaucracy was pulling the rug from underneath him, was forced to abandon the “Marxist” label. Commenting on this Militant stated:

The Russian withdrawal, under these circumstances, is a defeat for the bureaucracy. This has been admitted, implicitly, in recent statements by Gorbachev and foreign minister Shevardnadze. Rank-and-file Russian soldiers are leaving without any sense of ‘revolutionary achievement’. (23)

Gorbachev had clearly decided that given the wider global political objectives of the Russian elite, it was not worthwhile holding onto Afghanistan. However, Militant did not draw from this the conclusion that the ragbag of religious and tribal groups which made up the “Afghan resistance” were capable of unifying themselves into a coherent national movement with common objectives. We warned that a period of chaos and civil war between the different Moslem groups would ensure that the country would sink back into the traditional feuding between different religious and national groupings.

The conclusion drawn was that

Whatever happens, it now seems unavoidable that the revolutionary changes inaugurated in 1978-79 will be rolled back in a large area of Afghanistan. Responsibility for this setback lies with Stalinism which has nothing in common with genuine Marxism or internationalism. (24)

This analysis was vehemently objected to by the Grant/Woods trend. They demonstrated once more an atrophy of thought in refusing to face up to the new problems which had been posed by the rotting of Stalinism and its effects both within the Stalinist states and on a world scale.

Consequences in Southern Africa

Their incapacity was also revealed in another conflict which broke out in Militant’s ranks of the issue of events in Southern Africa. Ted Grant refused to admit that the apartheid regime could withdraw from Namibia. 

Unfortunately he had persuaded the leaders of Congress Militant (our South African counterparts) to adopt a similar standpoint. He was opposed on this once more by myself, Lynn Walsh, Dave Cotterill and others. 

At the December 1988 world conference in Belgium mentioned earlier, Dave Cotterill argued that the apartheid regime would withdraw from Namibia because of a number of important changes that had taken place. 

Above all, the changes which had taken place within the Russian bureaucracy presented the de Klerk regime with “a window of opportunity” to execute a strategic retreat without endangering the position of the South African ruling class or the interest of imperialism.

In the past, the South African regime had used ruthless military repression in Namibia. As with their intervention in Angola and Mozambique this arose from a fear that a series of deformed workers’ states were being established on its doorstep. If they were allowed to succeed and stabilise themselves this would have inevitably reinforced the oppositional movements of the South African working class. 

Even when they were forced to withdraw from Angola, South Africa, with the connivance and financial support of imperialism, bolstered the counter-revolutionary Unita forces. They also pursued a ruthless policy of destabilisation in Mozambique, with disastrous economic and social consequences for that country, felt right up to the present. Faced with a similar threat in Namibia, the de Klerk regime would have continued its policy of repression.

But the crucial new factor in the situation was the change in the position of the Russian bureaucratic elite. They were more concerned with their own power, prestige and income than the interests of the oppressed masses of the third world. Given its economic weakness, the Gorbachev bureaucracy was cutting its losses internationally and was pressurising former “allies” into accepting the continuation of capitalism. This was the pre-requisite for the Namibian agreement.

The “socialist” policies of SWAPO, the guerrilla movement, were dispensed with in favour of a “mixed economy”, that is capitalism. Since coming to power in November 1989 SWAPO has entirely justified the hopes placed in it by imperialism and de Klerk. Rather than carrying through a radical programme of nationalisation and reforms, to benefit the masses, they have pursued the opposite policy of maintaining “private property”. The investment of imperialism has been guaranteed and repression has been used against movements of the working class (such as the miners), to defend and improve their situation.

The failure to recognise the new element in the situation led Ted Grant and Alan Woods to make mistakes on perspectives both in relation to Namibia and more seriously on South Africa. If their views had persisted it would have seriously disorientated Militant members and supporters both in Britain and on an international scale.

All the factors which made for the Namibian settlement were present in South Africa, only more so. Repression was not working in the changed situation of South Africa. By the end of the century or shortly afterwards it was estimated that there would be 50 million blacks in South Africa and five million whites. 

All the policies of apartheid were breaking down as blacks moved into the major cities completely ignoring and cancelling out the “pass laws” and the vicious “Group Areas Act”. At the same time, the changes in the Soviet Union had a similar, if not greater effect, on the ANC leadership as it had on the SWAPO leadership. 

Fearing a revolution from below, in time-honoured fashion the de Klerk regime was looking for reforms from above. In secret negotiations with Mandela, even before he left prison, De Klerk had arrived at an agreement to initiate negotiations leading to elections on the basis of “one person, one vote”, but not genuine “majority rule”.

Irrespective of the changes that were taking place, Ted Grant completely discounted such a possibility. He stubbornly argued Militant’s previous position. He maintained that there was no possibility of elections, of universal suffrage, of a dismantling of apartheid within the confines of capitalism. The march of events, particularly following the release of Mandela, completely bore out the position of those who opposed him. The majority had theoretically and ideologically rearmed Militant on these issues. Failure to do so would have undermined the forces of Marxism in the complicated situation which developed in the late 1980s and early 1990s.