International Challenges and an historical setback

Chapter Forty-One


IN BRITAIN 1990 will forever be associated with the poll tax and how it determined Thatcher’s fate. But on an international scale it will also go down in history as the year of decisive changes in South Africa, further convulsions in the Stalinist world, and the Gulf War.

The revolution in South Africa, for that is what it was, entered a new phase with the announcement that Nelson Mandela was to be freed. F W de Klerk announced this to the white parliament on 2 February. The African National Congress (ANC) and other banned organisations were to be legalised, a moratorium on hangings was introduced, and talks and negotiations were about to begin. We declared that this was

a victory above all for the black working class and youth whose tireless organisation and struggle over many years have forced the retreat of the regime. (1)

His release resulted in an outpouring of joy and relief that swept from one end of South Africa to the other and reverberated around the world. The slogans of the masses were “Dissolve parliament now!”, “Let the people govern now!” This was a popular way of expressing the demand for majority rule as a means of abolishing poverty wages, inferior schooling, segregated ghettoes and all the panoply of apartheid repression. 

In Cape Town, the celebrating crowds were confronted with police and dogs, whereas in Johannesburg, crowds of joyful demonstrators poured onto the streets as the news broke. The Cape Town police, as one black student put it, behaved “like a pack of wolves.”

Despite these scenes of wild euphoria, we and Congress Militant, warned: 

“The ruling class in South Africa and internationally… view negotiations with the ANC leadership as a device for curbing the movement of the masses.” (2)

Some discussions took place in Militant’s ranks over the appropriate slogans to put forward in the changed situation confronting South Africa. Given the attitude of South African capitalism, backed up by imperialism, there was naturally a suspicion on the part of many workers that negotiations were a device for derailing the mass movement for majority rule. 

There was a tendency from the outset to reject the idea of negotiations. But it is not possible, particularly after a prolonged struggle with countless sacrifices by the masses, for a serious Marxist tendency to ignore calls for negotiations.

Negotiated settlement?

Sometimes negotiations can be seen as an “easier” and less bloody means of achieving the objects of the mass movement. In Algeria, for instance, in 1960 the FLN (Front National Liberation, the Algerian liberation movement) entered negotiations with the representative of French capitalism, de Gaulle. 

The latter had originally come to power on the basis “Algerie Francais”. But it became clear to de Gaulle – a consummate and brutal representative of French capitalism – that it was impossible to hold down a whole nation in chains. 

Determined to extricate French imperialism from the impasse he soon entered negotiations with the FLN. In this situation it would have been false to have opposed negotiations given that a million Algerian people had already been killed in the war. There was a craving for peace, both of the French people but particularly on the part of the Algerian masses. Drawing on this experience the leaders of Militant and Congress Militant put forward the slogan of “negotiations for majority rule”.

Explaining its position in the pages of Militant, the leadership of Congress Militant stated:

Socialists do not oppose negotiations in principle. It is a question of negotiations over what, and on which terms. But, as the military theorist Clausewitz explained, you cannot get more at the negotiating table than you have won on the battlefield. 

The first demand of the black masses is for one person one vote in an undivided South Africa. How can de Klerk – or any capitalist leader – concede this? The independent, revolutionary movement of the working class and youth has forced the regime into making the present concessions. But the regime has not yet been defeated. That is why majority rule is not on offer. (3)

De Klerk’s concessions arose from a combination of factors; the partial lull in the mass movement following the state of emergency imposed in 1986, the Namibian settlement, but above all the disorientation of the ANC and “Communist” Party leadership in exile, increasingly thrown off balance by Gorbachev’s policy changes.

 Gorbachev’s detente with imperialism and the emergence of pro-capitalist forces in the Soviet Union was bound to have a huge effect on an ANC leadership which had for decades in any case based themselves on the programme of “two stages” – the idea that ‘democracy’ can first of all be established within the framework of capitalism, in co-operation with the ‘democratic capitalists’. 

Walter Sisulu, a top leader of the ANC, had recently stated:

 “Socialism is merely an ideal, and the ANC is not promoting it at present.” 

Our analysis has stood the test of time. Events between 1990 and 1994 have evolved in their broad outline in the way that was anticipated by these two journals. The South African ruling class gave concessions, the right to vote, “universal suffrage”, but because of the various blocking mechanisms agreed to by Mandela and the ANC leadership, this did not result in ‘majority rule’.

However, even in the teeth of all the evidence to the contrary Ted Grant stubbornly adhered to the idea that the apartheid regime would make no concessions which would fundamentally alter the basis of that regime. It was just one of many examples of a failure on his part to recognise the profound changes which had been wrought in the world situation. This undermined all the “certainties” of the past. Ted Grant occupied a minority position, which was not reflected in the public position put forward by Militant. (See chapter 34)

Mandela’s release

The actual release of Mandela saw a quarter of a million rally in Cape Town for his first speech after 27 years of imprisonment. In Soweto, AK47s were fired in the air and thousands flocked to Mandela’s home in Orlando West. 

Workers in Durban “toyi-toyied” throughtout the night and thousands marched in Inanda, which had been the centre of fighting between Inkatha and the ANC in the previous months. Among black youth in Inanda Mandela’s release triggered massive euphoria, with many thinking that ‘liberation’ was close at hand. 

There was even a feeling in the town that the release of Mandela would allow the youth to finish off Inkatha. These hopes were to be cruely dashed with the savage counter-revolution unleashed by Inkatha vigilantes, which over a few days following the release of Mandela left 50 people dead. Among industrial workers there was a more cautious response, with great mistrust of de Klerk, the bosses and even of some of the ANC leaders.

One metalworker shop steward told us that workers thought: “Nelson Mandela has been released by de Klerk to disarm us”, while a hospital worker said, “The capitalists are not interested in how we live. That is why we need socialism.” (4)

Nevertheless, Mandela’s release was celebrated worldwide with traffic around Trafalgar Square brought to a halt by a jubilant crowd. In London schools children and teachers celebrated. A million had toyi-toyied in Soweto and were emulated by others, particularly the youth, on an international scale. 

The trust in Mandela in general seemed limitless as he declared to the thousands in Soweto and Cape Town that he stood by the principles that he had been imprisoned for. He supported the guerilla wing of the ANC and “armed struggle”. He also called for the nationalisation of the mines and monopolies. He called for “decisive mass action to end apartheid.” 

He called for sanctions to continue. But on the basis of the next three years of negotiations, and the backdrop of savage civil war against the best of the youth and the working class, Mandela was to moderate his demands. Nevertheless, his release and the unbanning of the ANC ushered in a completely changed situation which would inevitably result in a complete dismantling of apartheid and a new era for South Africa.

East Germany

At the beginning of the year, following the collapse of the Berlin Wall, the most critical issue was to appraise events in East Germany and likely perspectives. The flood gates had been opened by the collapse of the Wall. 

The headquarters of the secret police (Stasi) was stormed on Monday, 15 January, in East Berlin. The “Peoples’ Police” (VoPo) actually allowed demonstrators into the building, in fact three buildings formerly housing the Stasi. Those who entered were stunned by the sheer size of the complex and the fact that the Stasi had their own shops, stocked with western goods unavailable to ordinary people.

Some looting began to take place, but, as in Russia in 1917, committees were formed spontaneously on the stairs to stop them. Searches took place to ensure that nothing was taken out of the building.

The new prime minister, Modrow, arrived to speak to the crowd. The mood was very hostile to the SED (“Communist” Party). However, the general line of the SPD in the East was to allow the government to rule until elections on 6 May. Supporters of Was Tun!, the new Marxist paper of Militant’s sister organisation in East Germany, were handing out leaflets, calling for “council democracy”. 

It also called for a campaign for the immediate removal of the government, the breaking off of roundtable talks between the opposition and the government and the formation of councils of action as a basis for workers’ democracy. One worker asked our German correspondent:

“Are you in favour of a market economy?” I replied no. He said he was in favour of a market economy – but one controlled by a strong state! This shows the confusion of ideas in the movement. (5)

This confusion provided the basis for the complete transformation of the situation in East Germany. An opinion poll in December 1989 showed 71% of easterners wanting East Germany to remain a “sovereign state” and only 27% in favour of East and West Germany building a “common state”. 

But the lack of an alternative way forward, the growing feeling that the East German economy could not develop without outside help and hostility to the bureaucratic elite’s attempts to remain in power, all came together to fuel the desire for rapid unification with West Germany.

At first the West German capitalists were reluctant to take over the East. But fearing the increasing unrest would start to destabilise West Germany and seeing an opportunity to rid themselves of some of the remaining effects of losing the Second World War, they changed their position.

By February events had moved so quickly that the question of unification of East and West Germany was now posed. Even a few weeks before, we commented, “unification seemed a remote possibility. Now it appears quite possible within a few months.” (6)

The SPD played a key role in pushing this process along. In mid-January they were the first to raise the idea of monetary union, something which Kohl only supported in early February. But once the West German government decided to take over the East they moved ruthlessly. Kohl played a leading role in the March East German election, securing 48.1% of the vote for the CDU led alliance when only three months before the CDU was getting only 4% in opinion polls.

It had become quite clear that without the “Wall” the East German Stalinist regime could not sustain itself. The SED had lost over half its members, the economy was in chaos and droves of young people and specialists were threatening to leave for the West. Industrial production had already begun to suffer with a drop of five per cent in the previous year. While recognising the direction in which the movement was going, we still argued:

Had there been a real Marxist party in the East capable of arming the workers with a programme for the overthrow of the bureaucracy and the establishment of workers’ democracy, the political revolution could have easily been carried through. The establishment of a healthy workers’ state in East Germany would have had a magnetic effect on the workers of both Eastern Europe and Western Europe, including West Germany (FRG).

The article concluded:

Unification is now taking the form of a counter-revolution, welcomed by many East German workers at the moment – but which they will come to regret as the full consequences of capitalist rule are brought home to them. The nationalised, planned economy will be rapidly dismantled by the West German capitalists, and the East German workers will experience ruthless exploitation by the big monopolies – who will arrogantly take their revenge for the loss of the eastern zone after the defeat of the Nazis in 1945. (7)

The attempt of Modrow to bargain with the West German Chancellor, Kohl, had come to nothing. Because they wanted to take over the East, the West German government had steadfastly refused to come up with the DM15 billion (£5.3 billion) “solidarity aid”. The situation had reached the stage where workers in East Germany now saw the West as an almost automatic source of higher living standards. We commented:

They [the working class] will soon find out that everything in the capitalist garden is not so lovely. They will experience intense exploitation – unemployment for many – and cuts in the social wage. Today’s illusions will give way to bitter disappointment, and they will move into struggle against their new capitalist bosses. (8)


However, unlike others, some claiming to be Marxists, we faced up squarely to the likely development of events in East Germany and the rest of the Stalinist world:

The collapse of a nationalised planned economy, even though misdirected by a bureaucracy, is an historic setback for the working class. The bureaucracy has also opened the door to counter-revolution in Poland, Hungary, and possibly other states in Eastern Europe. (9)

We predicted that these countries would face social revolution, “new Octobers”, particularly if the planned economies were liquidated, and in some countries where the process was stuck half-way, a mixture of a social revolution and a political revolution would be posed in the future.

In the case of East Germany, we warned about the consequences of a capitalist counter-revolution for the East German workers. In June it became clear that

employment will fall dramatically. For instance, Opel is planning to employ 3,500 workers producing 150,000 cars a year – in a plant which at present employs 9,200 producing 75,000 cars a year… at the beginning of May the East German Unemployed Association reported that 600,000 workers had been sent ‘blue letters’ (warnings of redundancy) to take effect on 2 July. With two million unemployed in West Germany already, a capitalist united Germany could rapidly find itself with four million unemployed. (10)

At the same time, West German capitalism, with a trade surplus of DM140 billion in 1989 and overseas assets worth DM500 billion, had significant reserves with which to finance investment in the East. But this was at the cost of enormously burdening West German capitalism. The takeover of the East would have big consequences in Europe in the following years. We said:

While this state-financed spending could prolong German capitalism’s current boom, it will not give East Germans the same living standards as West Germans. A united capitalist Germany could resemble Italy but with a west-east rather than a north-south divide. (11)

East German workers were looking towards unification in the expectation of a rapid improvement in their conditions but the prize that they would reap would be unemployment, rising rents, social cuts and increased prices which in turn would provoke movements of opposition which will have an effect in the whole of a united Germany.

West German capitalism was using the “fast route” of Article 23 of the West German constitution to absorb East Germany as soon as possible. In effect “unification” was equivalent to one big monopoly taking over a smaller, dilapidated firm; West German capitalism taking over another “country”. 

Moreover, the West German capitalists had only been able to pursue this policy with the open acquiescence, even assistance, of the East and West German Social Democratic leaders. In the East, the SPD were co-operating in a CDU-led coalition government, an essential step for ensuring a smooth development of capitalist restoration. 

Because of the consequences for the East German workers and also because it meant the liquidation of the planned economy, the German Marxists, now present in both the East and West German workers’ organisations, called for a break with the policy of supporting capitalist unification. They stood for the defence of the nationalised economy in the East and for the unification of Germany on the basis of workers’ democracy and socialism.


At this stage the social counter-revolution in East Germany had gone much further than elsewhere. In the Soviet Union, however, Gorbachev had also been compelled in February to abolish Article Six of the constitution which guaranteed the political monopoly of the Communist Party. 

But the events in Romania, with the overthrow of Ceausescu, the collapse of ruling “Communist” Parties in several Eastern European states, and above all the growing discontent in the Soviet Union, pushed Gorbachev to take this step. At the plenum of the “Communist” Party where this had been proposed, Gorbachev was confronted by a crowd of 100,000, the first time a mass demonstration for democracy had taken place in the USSR. They demanded the abolition of Article Six. Gorbachev admitted:

We hoped to mount the peak of the crisis in 1989, but recent events have shown that there has been no change for the better… yes, there are shortages of resources and technology. (12)

Official figures for 1989 claimed that there had been a drop of three per cent in gross national product, but the reality for the masses was that shortages were growing. Significantly, the number of working days lost through strikes and disputes had grown dramatically since the movement of the miners in 1989. Strikes and demonstrations in fact had taken place in many cities throughout the USSR.

National revolt

Alongside of this, was the growing nationalist revolt in the Baltic states and the civil war in Armenia and Azerbaijan. Faced with this mass turmoil, the “reformists”, the pro-capitalist wing of the bureaucracy, posed the need for an “intermediary authoritarian period”. One of them admitted:

It would have been much better if Gorbachev had strengthened his power in an administrative way, as took place in Hungary under Janos Kadar, or as in China under Deng Xiaoping.

In answer to the question whether the market could be introduced, this individual replied in the negative:

Obviously not, since 80 per cent of the population would not accept it. The market, after all, denotes stratification, differentiation according to income. One has to work very hard in order to live well. (13)

Echoing this, Professor Norman Stone, the High Priest of Toryism, when asked in a television interview whether he thought a market economy could be introduced in the Soviet Union, replied:

We haven’t managed it yet in Liverpool, and what we have in the USSR is Liverpool to a power of 100. (14)

However, Militant did not discount the possibility of capitalist counter-revolution in the Soviet Union, particularly in the light of the events in East Germany and the growing revulsion of the masses at the shortages and corruption of the bureaucracy:

The pro-capitalist reform wing, on the other hand, favour policies which would impose appalling conditions on the working class, threaten the underlying gains of the planned economy, and plunge the economy into chaos. (15)

Press praise for Gorby

The abolition of Article 6 was a confession of bankruptcy on the part of the bureaucracy. The ignorant scribes in Fleet Street interpreted this as a blow against “Marxism”.

We commented:

The CPSU Central Committee has just agreed to amend the notorious Article 6, which wrote the “leading role of the party” into the constitution. This was written by Brezhnev in 1977. In 1917, the only party to be banned was the Black Hundreds, the fascist party responisble for organising vicious pogroms against the Jewish population. The party of ‘liberal’ capitalism, the Cadets, was untouched until at the end of that year, it colluded in a violent uprising. (16)

It was an abomination to compare the actions of the Russian elite with the workers’ democracy of the Bolsheviks in the immediate aftermath of the Russian revolution.

Terry in Siberia

At this stage, there were many voices in the Soviet Union seeking to invoke the example of Lenin and Trotsky as an alternative to the market. This was shown at the gathering of 600 delegates and visitors at the independent workers’ organisations from all over the Soviet Union, meeting in the Siberian city of Novokuznetsk which proposed to set up a “Confederation of Labour of the USSR”.

Terry Fields, MP, was invited to the conference as the only international speaker. It soon became clear to Terry and other British visitors that in the town the workers had begun to develop their control over society:

Only the most hardened cynic could doubt that the workers can run society after experiencing the efficiency with which the congress was organised – and which contrasted so greatly with the incompetence of the ruling bureaucracy… 

Members of the workers’ committee, which represents all sections of the workforce, are held fully to account. One of them, a miner, explained that he was part of a brigade of five miners. The other four covered his work and released him to do ‘their work’ on the workers’ committee. In return for getting his wages, he had to see them regularly and account for what he had done. (17)

One worker explained to Terry Fields how the bureaucracy in the Soviet Union had been rooted in

“the backward conditions of society at that time, the low cultural level of the Russian workers, the predominance of the peasantry.” Terry Fields addressed the conference, expressing the solidarity of the international working class, but when he turned to the question of the market, with the aim of dispelling illusions, murmurings of discussion was interspersed with applause. A heckler who would simply not accept that there could be problems in a market economy shouted out: “We’ve had enough!” Other workers countered: “Let him carry on! We want to hear what he has to say!” (18)

Terry finished with an appeal for workers East and West to link up in common struggle for workers’ democracy and socialism. Following the official conference session 100 delegates and visitors attended a meeting where a video on the British miners’ strike was shown, followed by two hours in which workers eagerly fired questions at Terry Fields to answer. 

The conference showed the confusion which existed amongst the working class but also the possibilities for putting forward the ideas of workers’ democracy if a sufficient Marxist force would have existed at that stage. Commenting on his visit, in an interview with Militant, Terry Fields stated:

I’ve been very lucky in my life, representing trade unionists and working people in Liverpool. But I never thought, when we viewed from afar the workers’ struggles developing in Eastern Europe, that I’d have the privilege of addressing the first congress of the independent trade union movement of the USSR. (19)


In Romania, the movement had features somewhat different to the rest of Eastern Europe. The old regime had been overthrown by an uprising of the workers and the youth, arms in hand. This put its stamp on the movement. 

Workers in the factories were refusing to return to work until the old managers had been removed. At the same time, independent unions were being hastily improvised and all that remained to do to affect a relatively peaceful transfer of power would be to link up the democratically elected committees on a local, regional and national basis and then proceed to take over the functions of the state. 

But the absence of a far-sighted Marxist leadership with a mass base produced an extremely unstable equilibrium. On the one side were armed workers with the elements of independent organisation and alongside them the remnants of the old bureaucratic state apparatus. The contradiction between these was to result in sharp turns in the situation before the year was out.

In the first election in June, the pro-capitalist parties suffered a serious setback with a landslide victory for the National Salvation Front (NSF). This was also a body blow to those capitalist politicians in the West who salivated at the prospect of a seemingly unstoppable advance towards capitalism in Eastern Europe. However, an article that appeared in Militant in June, somewhat overstated the case,

The election result shows that the social base of pro-capitalist restorationist trends at this moment in time are extremely weak in Romania. Even the mass of the peasants voted for Iliescu – a fact which cannot be explained away by coercion alone. (20)

In truth, the National Salvation Front had a programme for a return to the “market”, albeit at a slower pace than the open pro-capitalist formations. Soon after its election, it was confronted by violent protests by anti-government student demonstrators in Bucharest which was followed by a counter attack of miners, which was widely commented upon in the capitalist press in the West. To a man, Tory politicians and their press condemned them as “rent-a-mob miners” (William Waldegrave) or “dirty-faced runts” (the Observer).

The stand that Militant took on these events provoked controversy even within its ranks, which was reflected in the pages of the paper. Militant declared:

In Romania at present the workers are clearly opposed to dismantling state ownership. Their revolution was a mass, armed insurrection. That left its mark in the working class’s outlook. The working class responded to Iliescu’s call because they saw the students’ demands for the immediate restoration of the market as a counter-revolution. This is one reason for the vast international propaganda campaign.

It became clear, as information filtered out of Romania, that the students who had gathered in University Square, proclaiming “Down with Iliescu, down with the fraudulent elections!” were completely out of tune with the mass of the working class and the peasantry. This demand was raised only weeks after Iliescu had won with over 85 per cent of the vote, in an election which even foreign observers considered reasonably fair. The arrogance of some of the leaders of the anti-government movement were shown by the poet Doina Cornea, a dissident under Ceausescu, who had linked herself to the right-wing Peasants’ Party. She stated:

I have come to the conclusion that universal sufferage – at least when you are moving from a dark night into daylight – is not fair. It’s not the majority who are right. There are a few people… who see we are threatened with another night, the rest don’t see it. (22)

This elitist arrogance repelled them from the mass of the working class. Militant gave critical support at that stage to the National Salvation Front’s defence of “state property”, but called for an independent mobilisation of workers to defend these gains. It came out for a workers’ militia, controlled by committees democratically elected from the factories and workplaces, linking up with the committees of rank and file soldiers in the army.

Debate on the miners

Such was the controversy around this issue that a page of the paper carried letters which both agreed and disagreed with the line of the editorial board. One from Stoke-on-Trent disputed the contention that the miners were defending “the gains of the December revolution”. (23) Another argued that the miners were “putting ordinary workers down”. (24) While conceding that there were many excesses in the miners’ movement, others, such as a letter from Fife, argued:

You are right to point out that the students are out of touch with the workers. Having been in Romania in March, when I spoke to the most radical students, I can testify to their confusion and contempt for the working class who they see as ignorant and ‘bought-off thugs’. (25)

Another from Blackpool entirely supported the line adopted by the paper:

The attitude of Marxists to the NSF should be critical support, but combined with a vigorous campaign for workers’ democracy and the building of genuine independent workers’ organisations. (26)

Another, disputing the earlier letter from Stoke argued

I believe only critical support can be given [to the miners]. But I must correct the person who wrote that they were a Praetorian guard putting down ordinary workers. This is not true. They didn’t attack workers. They targeted the students whose ideas were counter-revolutionary. (27)

The open debate on this issue in the paper, in which the pros and cons were forcfully argued, gave the lie to those critics of Militant who contend that its supporters “receive” worked-out positions which are then just blindly adhered to. Nothing could be further from the truth. On this and on other key questions the widest and most democratic discussion – much more open than under right-wing domination of the labour movement – took place within our ranks.

This was not just because “democracy” is a “good thing”. The oxygen of debate, discussion and democracy is vital in a Marxist organisation which is looking for clarification of ideas. So long as it is conducted in a comradely and open fashion nothing but good can come from discussion and debate within the workers’ organisations.

Debate on Eastern Europe

And in a world which was in political and ideological turmoil there were many issues to be debated. One issue was what did the events in Eastern Europe signify for workers, Militants and the labour movement. In April Militant received a letter from a Militant reader, Kathleen Jones, in Shropshire. She wrote asking if Militant, was “quite convinced that what is happening in Eastern Europe is revolution, not reaction”.

She went on:

In Romania, the crowds yelling for the banning of the Communist Party and the reintroduction of the death penalty do not sound very revolutionary… Visitors to Hungary have reported that too many people there think that Western democracy is ideal. Marxists know that the real choice facing the world is not between dictatorship and democracy but between capitalism and communism… Following the failure of two revolutions – the Russian and the Chinese – I am afraid we may be faced with world reaction. (28)

We fully replied to this important letter. In the revolutions in Eastern Europe, there had been moves towards a revolution – a political revolution to overthrow the bureaucratic Stalinist totalitarian elite – and alongside it a counter-revolution to eliminate the planned economy and restore capitalism. 

In Eastern Europe revolutions, had leapt, from one country to another as in 1848. Kathleen Jones was implying: “Yes, revolution has taken place, but look how they have ended up.” But the mass of the working class, let alone the peasantry, do not go into a revolution with a prepared plan of social reconstruction but mainly with a sharp feeling that they cannot endure the old regime. 

This is particularly the case in a movement against a totalitarian one-party regime, where the working class are denied full access to information and the media or the right to exchange ideas.

What was unmistakable in all the movements in Eastern Europe and even in the Soviet Union was that there were, at first, elements of a programme for a political revolution, this was shown in the demands for free elections, independent trade unions, a free press, and above all, the elimination of the bureaucracy’s bloated privileges. Militant did not dodge the implications of its analysis and pointed to the capitalist restoration in East Germany and the possibility of this being repeated elsewhere in the Stalinist states.

At the same time, because of the unbridled denunciation of all that was associated with the Russian revolution, above all the planned economy, we pointed to the advantages of a plan of production and what this had meant for the Soviet Union:

Between 1929-1935, industrial production in the USA fell by 25 per cent and in France by 30 per cent. In Britain, it rose by 3-4 per cent. But in the USSR, it rocketed by 250 per cent!

Pointing to the situation that was developing in Poland, we also declared that

the working class has already had to pay a terrible price for attempts at capitalist restoration. In January (1990) living standards plummeted by 30 per cent and unemployment has spiralled to 250,000 already. 1,500 companies have been marked out for privatisation but only 12 targeted for immediate sale.

As to the future we declared:

One thing is clear, a stable capitalist democracy is impossible for the countries of Eastern Europe. A fledgling capitalist class, if it manages to survive a very difficult birth, will be forced to take refuge from the anger of the masses by seeking to establish military police dictatorships. (29)

Historic setback

Militant presented a balanced picture of the very complex processes unfolding in the Soviet Union. Drawing on history, it showed that

the seeds of counter-revolution are always to be found in even the greatest revolutions. Whether or not these seeds grow and become full-blown, and thereby inevitably smother and crush the revolution, depends on a number of factors. 

Not least is the role of a mass party and clear leadership capable of guiding the working class in completing the revolution. If power is not transferred from the ruling class, or caste, either through the absence of this leadership, or because it is faulty, then the revolution stops half way and the masses become disappointed and indifferent. 

This creates the conditions for the growth of counter-revolutionary forces and with them the danger of the defeat or derailment of the revolution. (30)

This general theoretical analysis was vital in consolidating the forces of Marxism in the face of the historic setback, which the liquidation of the planned economies represented. 

In 1990 it was not at all clear how far this process would go. Militant carried many on the spot reports from special correspondents in Russia, which at each stage showed the difficulties facing the bureaucracy in moving along the road to the establishment of a “market”. 

In fact, the difficulties were so great that by mid-November some influential voices in Russia were calling for the establishment of a “Committee of National Salvation” which would replace the rule of Gorbachev and would find no room for Yeltsin either. 

One of the proponents of this idea was Colonel Alksnis, an advocate of a return to the market but without “democracy”. His reasons for advocating this, he expressed in the Congress of Peoples’ Deputies: “Most frightening is that the people will come out on the streets.” (31)


One of the consequences of the weakening of the rule of the bureaucracy was the unleashing of centrifugal national forces in the Soviet Union. In the course of the year the long-predicted resurgence of Russian nationalism had also materialised. 

It was expressed in the election of Boris Yeltsin as president of the Russian Federation by its newly created “parliament”. Yeltsin used this position as a counterweight to the “national” president Gorbachev. The Russian Federation constituted 148 million people, 52 per cent of the USSR’s 290 million. Its land mass covered eleven time zones and Moscow alone had ten million people, more than all the Baltic states combined. 

In the Russian parliament naked appeals to Russian nationalism were made: “Russia for the Russians”. Both the Yeltsin wing of the bureaucracy and the Stalinist “conservatives” complained about the sacrifices of “benevolent Mother Russia” which had been repaid with black ingratitude by the 14 other republics.

It is true that the Russian workers had made huge sacrifices, not only for future generations of Russians, but for the great idea of a democratic, socialist federation which would eventually encompass the globe. We pointed out that

“even in a healthy, democratic workers’ state, the national question would have to be approached with great care and sensitivity. In the transitional period from capitalism to socialism, the needs of the economy and an international division of labour would have to be balanced against the needs and wishes of each nation.” (32)

However, this would only be possible through a regime of workers’ democracy which could both fully exploit the potential of a planned economy and also satisfy the national and cultural demands of each nationality or ethnic grouping. The greatest condemnation of the Stalinist bureaucracy was that at that stage the nations which made up the USSR were at each other’s throats.

Gorbachev, it was predicted, would also be incapable of satisfying the demands of the aroused nationalities. Even if the USSR was to break up, we believed, this would not be the end of the matter.

Even if there were a capitalist counter-revolution, a new emerging capitalist class would have the same voracious appetite as under the Tsar. It would seek to dominate the peoples to the East and the West. It would have the same tendencies as American imperialism, the West European capitalist classes or Japan to defend, if necessary, arms in hand, its ‘spheres of influence’, markets or potential markets, power, prestige and income. (33)

Is this not what has developed since 1990 with Yeltsin’s doctrine of “the near abroad” and the re-establishment of a very loose “rouble zone”, whereby former “independent” nationalities have once more come under the benediction of “Mother Russia”?

Stalinism was not capable of solving the national problems of the Soviet Union. On the contrary, it has enormously aggravated them and invented ‘new’ national problems where they did not exist before. On a capitalist basis, the national problem cannot be solved.

A democratic workers’ state would immediately grant the right of self-determination, up to and including the right to secession, to all the peoples. 

But Marxism does not stand for the Balkanisation of the Soviet Union. The organisation of industry through a democratic plan of production and a division of labour on a continental scale can give immeasurable advantages for rapidly raising living conditions and satisfying the cultural aspirations of the mass of the people. 

Once peoples are freed from forcible retention within the state and see the advantages of co-operation, to paraphrase Lenin, they would not cut away but voluntarily co-operate in taking all the peoples of the Soviet Union forward. 

Workers’ democracy is the weapon with which the working people of the Soviet Union will carve out a future free from the bureaucratic nightmare of Stalinism on the one side and the horror of mass unemployment, poverty and national divisions of capitalism on the other. (34)