The left's verdict on the USSR: was August 1991 a capitalist counter-revolution against a workers' state?
By Martin Thomas
In the new Workers' Liberty magazine [no.16], a wide range of socialists offer their responses to the collapse of the USSR. This article by Martin Thomas surveys the responses from a narrower spectrum of the left, the Trotskyists.
Leon Trotsky. right up to his death in 1940, reckoned that the USSR was a "degenerated workers' state". Some Trotskyists - the Alliance for Workers' Liberty and others - believe that events since 1940 have shown that the Stalinist states have been class systems of exploitation parallel, not superior, to capitalism. Most Trotskyists, however, continued to apply the description "degenerated workers' state" to the USSR, and extended it, calling China, Eastern Europe, and so on, "deformed workers' states".
After the attempted Moscow coup of 19-21 August, some of these Trotskyists frankly recognised that their theories must be reassessed. Others so twisted their description of events as to try to make it appear that there was an emerging mass socialist movement behind Yeltsin.
As the French socialist weekly Rouge put it (12 September), the attempted coup of 19-21 August 1991 in the USSR posed many questions for all those Marxists who still considered the USSR to be a "degenerated workers' state".
We used to believe that from a sharp crisis of these regimes would arise forces - significant, at least, if not commanding a majority - capable of opposing the road of a self-managed socialist democracy to that of capitalist restoration. In fact such currents are marginal today.
We used to think that in spite of the confiscation of power by a parasitic bureaucracy, the existence of non-capitalist social relations arising from the revolution of 1917 represented gains in the eyes of the workers, who would mobilise to defend them.
In fact, it appears not so at all. Primarily the workers see in their miserable living standards the expression of a productivity gap which has widened again between the rich Western countries and the Eastern bloc.
That does not exclude vigorous movements tomorrow of resistance to the consequences of privatisation, but as of now the facts are sufficient to render necessary a critical re-examination of the analysis and of their consequences for practical activity.
Rouge's first comment on the coup (5 September) had been:
...No nostalgia! No regrets! We will shed no tears for the monstrous edifice which combined the ferocious dictatorship of a party- state with the incompetent management of a rigmarole of officious bureaucrats. For too long we, as revolutionaries, opponents of Stalinism from the start, have hoped for this collapse...
In the coming turmoil a movement of workers' and people's self-organisation can begin to develop, trade unions and other groups can multiply, political pluralism can develop.
Incontestably, all that will take time. A lot of time... the Stalinist abomination... has destroyed the conquests of October, and the road is now open to the restoration of capitalism.
The strict logic of the "degenerated workers' state" formula should imply some support for the coup as the only visible attempt to check or halt the drive to capitalism. Yet - as far as I know - only one tiny splinter of the Trotskyist movement drew that conclusion clearly. The "Bolshevik Tendency" a splinter from the Spartacist League, assessed the coup as an attempt by "a section of the rapidly disintegrating Stalinist bureaucracy... to strike against the principal forces of capitalist restoration." (Quoted in Workers' Vanguard 27/09/91).
The Spartacist League itself - a small group, but representing the fraction of the "Trotskyist" spectrum most fervent about "defending the workers' states" - remonstrated that the coup programme "comes down to perestroika minus glasnost: the introduction of the market but not so fast, and shut up." (Workers' Vanguard 30.8.91).
That assessment - shared by most of the Trotskyist factions - would imply opposition to the coup. But in fact the Spartacist League was distressed at the defeat of the coup.
August 27 - The working people of the Soviet Union, and indeed the workers of the world, have suffered an unparalleled disaster... Soviet workers are facing a disaster of catastrophic proportions: every gain for which they, their parents and grandparents sacrificed is on the chopping block...
As the crowd of yuppies, students and assorted Russian nationalists, including fascists and priests, gathered at the start of the coup outside the Russian parliament, Yeltsin's "White House", a call on Moscow workers to clean out this counter-revolutionary rabble was in order. Yet the coup plotters did not mobilise the workers... " (Workers' Vanguard, 30/08/91.)
All other would-be Trotskyist groups - with two bizarre exceptions, as we shall see - opposed the coup. They then faced a dilemma: didn't support for the anti-coup movement mean support for a counter-revolution which was destroying the "workers' state" and replacing it by capitalism? And why did the "workers' state" have no defenders but a ragged crew of old Brezhnevite bureaucrats - or maybe not even them, since most agreed that the coup-makers did not differ fundamentally on economic policy from Gorbachev?
Some groups evaded this question by flatly asserting that the anti-coup movement represented the start of a "political revolution" that would lead not to capitalism but to socialist democracy. Thus the "Lambertist" French weekly Informations Ouvrieres (21/08/91):
The chaos of the present situation in the USSR marks the bankruptcy of all those, legatees of the Stalinist bureaucratic system, who have acted in recent years to dismantle social property and to deliver the country to the pillage and colonisation of the system of private property of the means of production. It, is the collapse of all the factions of the bureaucracy... Gorbachev... Yanayev and Pavlov... Yeltsin and Shevardnadze...
Through the bankruptcy of those who want to re-establish capitalism, the dramatic situation in the USSR expresses the bankruptcy of capitalism itself... (Editorial).
All the layers and factions of the bureaucracy have linked their fate to the restoration of capitalism. Between the economic programme of Yeltsin, that of Gorbachev, and that of Yanayev and Pavlov, there is not enough difference to slide a cigarette paper between them...
[And yet the coup...] The explanation of this apparent paradox lies in the impossibility in present conditions in the USSR of restoring anything like capitalism... because the capitalism of 1991 is to the capitalism of the early l9th century what the old man in agony is to the robust adolescent. The capitalism of 1830 was the carrier of industrialisation, that of 1991 only generates de-industrialisation.. [and because on the r
esistance of the workers. (Article by D. Gluckstein).
And after the defeat of the coup (28/08/91)
The conditions [for developing capitalism] are in fact more difficult today than before the
coup attempt. Through thine openings created by the collapse of the bureaucratic apparatus, the masses have begun to surge... A real workers' revolution is just. beginning... The defence of social property is merged with the workers' and peasants' fight for survival. (D. Gluckstein).
Although Informations Ouvrieres welcomed the anti-coup movement so enthusiastically, it did not specifically oppose the coup. Its issue of 21 August, which went to press before the collapse of the coup, expressed no support for resistance to the coup as distinct from resistance to "the bureaucracy" in general. Its nearest thing to a positive slogan was: "Against the dismantling of whole industries, against poverty and famine, for the defence of the workers' rights and conquests and of social property: one and the same struggle unites the workers of the world."
The other Trotskyist group which did not come out against the coup was the British Socialist Action, which refused to make any comment at all until their irregular magazine appeared in late October or early November. By then, of course, there was no percentage from any viewpoint in supporting Yanayev and his gang. Socialist Action did not enthuse about the coup - "an attempt to put the clock back towards the Brezhnevist past" - but that was basically the same assessment as the Bolshevik Tendency, and Socialist Action made it clear that "the Brezhnevist past" was preferable for them, to a victory of the pro capitalist democratic movement in the USSR: If the Russian Revolution were to fall, that is if capitalism were to be restored.. it would open a period of the most extreme international reaction... any sectarianism would be unforgivable... to currents emerging from the old CPSU who want to defend the socialised base of the USSR.
Socialist Action denounced the Filoche minority in the French LCR (Rouge) [the most enthusiastic about the overthrow of the old USSR regime] as having "passed out of the political framework of the working class ", and Ernest Mandel as confused, but praised the Morning Star ("perspective... entirely correct and justified").
The US Militant had the same view as Informations Ouvrieres, but combined with opposition to the coup.
"Soviet workers win great victory by defeating coup," it headlined (06/09/91). Working people in the Soviet Union won a giant victory when their resistance toppled the August 19 coup.
Class conflicts that will sharpen as the crisis deepens will end up in the working class organising a political revolution to sweep away the parasitic social layer that now holds the reins of power in the workers' state.
As they deepen their resistance they will reach out to struggles around the world and be influenced by revolutionaries and communists - from Malcolm X to the leaders of the Cuban revolution."
Other headlines included:
"Protest of coup is example of why workers defend nationalised property relations." And "Why US imperialism lost the cold war. "
The American group Socialist Action offered a more moderate version of the same perspective. It quoted Trotsky:
The political prognosis has an alternative character: either the bureaucracy, becoming ever more the organ of the world bourgeoisie in the workers' state, will overthrow the new forms of property and plunge the country back into capitalism, or the working class will crush the bureaucracy and open the way to socialism.
And it commented:
The political prognosis Trotsky poses is not for the far off future, but is the stark choice facing the USSR and the Eastern European countries today.
Socialist Action assessed the coup attempt as follows:
The difference between the opposed bureaucratic layers was whether it was possible to continue the process of capitalist restoration by political/parliamentary means, or whether an iron-fisted dictatorship was necessary to impose the anti-working class measures necessary to achieve the same end.
And its defeat:
The mobilisation of the Soviet people in opposition to the coup was the central reason for its failure... the bourgeois analysts who have focussed on the alleged "ineptitude" of the plotters as a major cause of their defeat have widely missed the mark. (Theses on the Soviet Union, 29/09/91)
The "Morenist" faction - a sizeable force in Latin America, especially - took a similar line. Its Argentine paper, Solidaridad Socialista, declared on 23 August that the defeat of the coup was:
A workers' and popular victory which will have big repercussions around the world favourable to all workers and the oppressed. It shows once more that when the people mobilise they can impose their will.
Bush, Menem, Yeltsin and Gorbachev all want the restoration of capitalism, to liquidate the great socialist conquests of the Russian workers, and to convert the USSR into a kind of big Argentina, with an economy ruled by the IMF. Therefore they all also want to preserve the KGB and the oppressive Soviet army.
But the Soviet working class has been strengthened by this great victory. The miners, for example, who have founded their independent union and have already organised three big strikes against Gorbachev, this time went on strike against the putschists.
It is a great revolution on the march, in which the mobilised people learn day by day. We call on the Soviet workers to destroy the KGB and the oppressive Soviet state and to govern themselves with their own organisations - like the miners union, strike committees - and to support the workers of Europe and all the world to end exploitation and capitalist imperialist oppression. This is the only way to save the USSR from imperialist colonisation.
The German fortnightly Sozialistische Zeitung, in contrast, was as firmly realistic as Rouge, or more so; but most of the "workers' statists" took a rather evasive middle way. Opposing the coup, they side-stepped hard questions by side-stepping any clear definition of current events (was it a capitalist counter-revolution?) and instead focusing on future possibilities (the current situation indeterminate in itself, might turn into capitalist counter-revolution or working-class socialist revolution).
Under the headline, "The people win", Manuel Kellner wrote:
The political position of the putschists had nothing in the least to do with a 'defence of socialism'. These men of the control centres of an important part of the old bureaucratic power wanted nothing other than the market economy, but with the maintenance of the USSR as a world power and by means of the dictatorial liquidation of all the democratic rights and freedoms granted and gained since the beginning of the glasnost era...
The inner disintegration of the members - numbering tens of millions - of the old ruling apparatus of power and administration made it possible for the resistance of a few hundred thousand people, at whose head Boris Yeltsin placed himself, to finish off the spectre in short time.
Nothing is as before. The fate of the CPSU is sealed... its discredit complete. From an emancipatory point of view no tears are to be shed for this political machine for organising careers and politically expropriating the great majority of the population...
The accelerated disintegration of the USSR and its end as a world power are irreversible...
Once again the world situation has changed in favour of capital and the rich western states... When the Tsarist flags waved outside the Russian White House it had to be clear, if it was not before, that here too reactionary mass sentiments are spreading... (29/08/91)
Do bad perspectives threaten? In spite of all that, through the latest events the democratic free. space and the possibilities for free political self-activity for the people of the Soviet Union have become lastingly greater, and that is essential in view of all the difficulties that they will be facing. (Article by E. Laurent)
As to the basic questions about the nature of the old Stalinist system, however, Sozialistische Zeitung offered only cryptic comment:
Economic historians may in more peaceful times, nostalgically sipping a glass of Gorbachev vodka, have out the argument about what it once was: the economy of a deformed workers state, that of a non-capitalist society sui generis, or a state-capitalist society. And the question of the character of the rulers of this country - caste, class, "new bourgeoisie " - is secondary today. In the light of concrete events it seems to me proven that the Soviet economy after the military putsch is moving into a breathtakingly fast process of transformation, at the end of which lies a private capitalist society of the type of the Third World countries... (Article by W. Wolf).
Most Trotskyist publications took a rather evasive middle way: on the one hand Yeltsin's triumph created dangers, on the other hand there are new possibilities for progress.
Thus Socialist Outlook:
The defeat of the attempted Stalinist coup is a tremendous victory for the workers throughout the Soviet Union. If the coup had been successful, the democratic gains won during the years of glasnost would have been savagely eiiminated.
The coup finally crumbled because of divisions within the army and KGB leadership. These divisions were in part a product of the defiance by politicians like Yeltsin, but above all because of the mass mobilisations to defend democracy
Perhaps the workers' mobilisations were not large enough to be absolutely decisive; but they showed what would have been necessary to make the coup stick - mass slaughter, new rebellions, probably civil war. All that was too much to stomach for more far-sighted leaders of the army high command.
The defeat of the plotters creates a massive potential for deepening democracy and advancing working class interests. But there are formidable obstacles to realising that potential. (14/09/91)
And the Fourth Internationalist Tendency (USA):
The defeat of the coup was a genuine victory for the Soviet peoples. The active intervention of the masses in this situation creates important opportunities for the forces of democracy and socialism..
Those who favour an all-out restoration of capitalism will obviously be strengthened and emboldened. To the extent that "economic reforms" are advanced at the expense of the masses, however, elements among the working class can be expected to utilise any and all democratic freedoms to struggle for defence of their economic interests and the rights won in 1917. Mass action against the anti-democratic coup may pave the way for mass actions in the direction of 8cauine socialism. (08/09/91)
And Workers' Press:
1) The coup was the last stroke of Stalinism, dying and in agony. We must definitely finish off the remnants of the totalitarian regime. Demand the KGB be disbanded!
...4) The coup was put down, in the end by the actions of the ordinary people - massive demonstrations and strikes. We must not allow forces that are against the people to profit from the fruits of the people's victory.
Today, the leading 'democrats' proclaim themselves sole 'victors over dictatorship'. They think the nation has accepted in advance their policies, including wide-spread privatisation, anti-trade union laws, etc. But this policy leads to massive unemployment, hyperinflation, and in the end, to a new dictatorship... (07/09/91)
Trotsky's definition of this state was that potentially it can be used by the workers: this because the nationalised property is a great gain. He speaks of the bureaucracy protecting the state structure with its own methods - but now we can't speak of this any more
It is attacking the structure relentlessly Now we are in a transitional period The workers' state is not liquidated: a bourgeois state has not yet taken its place. (Workers' Press, 14.9.91)
Workers' Power put more stress on the dangers, while still allowing its instincts to outweigh its theory and bring it out against the coup.
Yeltsin's seizure of power, depicted as a second "revolution" in the western media, is nothing more than a pro-capitalist counter coup.
This opens up an enormous opportunity for capitalism.
No one should mourn Stalinism's inglorious death. It was a system doomed in the historic short term. Not even a successful and bloody coup could have saved it in the long run.
But no one should he jumping for joy at the rise to power of a Thatcherite, Russian chauvinist...
We must defend what is left of the social gains ushered in by the October Revolution 1917.At the same time it means being the most resolute fighters for the real democratic rights of the masses, even where the masses have illusions in the form of the parliamentary "democracy " used to con us in the west into endorsing the rule of the profiteers. (September 1991)
The British Militant and the French weekly Lutte Ouvriere clearly registered facts which shattered the idea that the old USSR was a "workers' state".
Yet they combined their assessment of the lack of any live working-class element in the Stalinist "workers' state" with a refusal to reconsider the "workers' state" formula.
Leon Trotsky warned half a century ago of the tendencies towards capitalist restoration among these parasites who had usurped the political rule of the working people. What restrained them was fear of the workers' commitment to the principles of the planned economy.
But that was a mere generation on from the October socialist revolution. Today, 50 more years of accumulated resentment of the privileged bureaucrats and the dead stop to which they have brought the Soviet economy have for now undermined that commitment among the majority of the working class.
19-21 August marked a decisive turn towards capitalism:
The collapse of the 60-hour coup represents a decisive turn for the Soviet Union. It will have a decisive effect in Eastern Europe, hastening the move to the market.
It will have a decisive impact on world relations, confirming US imperialism's current dominant world position. (30.8.91)
Militant had no illusion that a revolution for socialist democracy was underway: it proposed as an immediate perspective, not the "political revolution" but only the building of "a genuine workers' party". Nevertheless it welcomed the defeat of the coup.
Lutte Ouvriere's leaflet on 19 August declared:
The putschists... to go by their first statements, have intervened to save the USSR which is weakened and threatened with dismantlement by centrifugal forces... The installation of a military-police regime in the USSR would weigh heavily on the soviet workers, who could be once again muzzled for years...
But the soviet workers could seize the opportunity to intervene in the current test of force, by opposing the coup on their own account, on condition that they do not put themselves at the tail of people like Yeltsin, who is as much an enemy of the working classes as the military and KGB men.
This outcome is, unfortunately, not the most likely one, because since the beginning of perestroika we have not seen the workers taking advantage of the measures of political liberalisation to create their own political organisations, and it is never easy to improvise...
We can only hope that the soviet working class surprise us...
On 23 August Lutte Ouvriere noted:
...There is the common affirmation, made (albeit with nuances) by the majority if not all the currents expressing themselves at the top of the bureaucracy, of the necessity of a return to the capitalist market. But none of them, whether they call themselves 'democrats' or not, really dare think or say that this capitalist restoration can be done peacefully, without the aid of a strong or even dictatorial government.
Then on 30 August it hedged its bets further:
The reiterated affirmation of the necessity of going fast along the road of reforms and the re-establishment of the market is witness to the complexity of the problems. Now [i.e. after the coup's collapse] the enormity of the economic and social problems is going to appear more cruelly...
This social phenomenon which is the USSR, both the outcome of the first workers' revolution and deformed by the Stalinist degeneration, remains a problem without precedent and its future may well give rise to a situation as unprecedented as its past has been...
As things stand, the victors are the bourgeois politicians like Yeltsin, who call themselves democrats just long enough to get themselves power, but who base themselves on the same kind of men as the putschists in the army and police... Clearly, we are far from a revolutionary situation favourable to the workers in the USSR today...
For those Trotskyist groups which had already rejected the "workers' state" formula, and concluded that the USSR was a variant of state capitalism, or a formation parallel to capitalism, there was no difficulty in principle about recognising the Yeltsinite anti-coup movement as bourgeois and yet welcoming it, as (for now) bourgeois-democratic. The Solidarity group in the USA (which includes some "workers' statists", but in its majority reckoned the USSR to be neither a workers' state nor capitalist) declared:
The destruction of the power of the Communist Party is all to the good. Now what will replace it? What we are saying is that we see not one, but two processes underway in the USSR, both dramatically accelerated by the attempted Stalinist coup and its failure. One is the process of democracy, initiated 'from above' by Gorbachev and now open to the masses to expand from below. The other is the attempt to 'marketise' the economy from above and from outside. This would inevitably create a capitalism with enormous inequalities, prosperity alongside incredible misery and huge indebtedness to western banks. In other words, it would be the kind of capitalism that exists in Brazil, not western Europe.
We see these two processes as being on a collision course - not immediately, but perhaps in the not too distant future.
Socialist Worker had long rejected the "workers' state" formula. Yet its response was curiously confused - partly, it seems, because of its habitual indifference to questions of political democracy, and partly because of its habitual glorification of militancy of any sort.
Socialist Worker proved unable to support the anti-coup movement without painting it up in the manner of Informations Ouvrieres: the movement was, Socialist Worker suggested, quasi-socialist, or at least likely to become socialist if it became more intense.
The fight against the coup is part of the fight for a new society, quite different to either Stalinist state capitalism or the market reforms of Gorbachev and Yeltsin.
That is why every genuine socialist must hope workers and soldiers heed the call to take action against the coup, but then carry through action in a decisive manner that goes much further than Yeltsin and Gorbachev - or their fans in Western governments - would ever desire.
And, alone with the "Bolshevik Tendency" (but attaching an opposite value), Socialist Worker described the coup as a serious attempt to restore the old order in the USSR.
The coup leaders, it declared (23 August), are the living embodiment of the Stalinist regime that screwed workers' living standards for the last 60 years while the rulers lived in luxury.
Whatever they say, the coup leaders want a return to those days.
Socialist Organiser issued a leaflet on 19 August against the coup:
Any claim that the new regime defends 'communism' or 'socialism' is a sham. In reality it is almost certain to continue Gorbachev's course of converting to capitalist market economics and reintegrating the USSR into world trade; on1y it will seek stronger, more brutal control over the working class and the oppressed nationalities during the process.
Even if the new regime should restore more centralised control over the Soviet economy, that would never 'justify' suppressing and crushing of the working class. Exploitation of the working class by a privileged bureaucracy through a centralised command economy is in no way an improvement on capitalism, or a step towards a democratically-run cooperative commonwealth.
Socialists in the West should support the small minorities in the USSR who fight for socialist democracy - such as the Socialist Party led by Boris Kagarlitsky - but also fight for freedom for the whole working class and the whole Soviet people, including those many who now have illusions about capitalist market economics, to think, to debate, to organise, and to work out their own future.
The Soviet working class, the new trade unions, and the oppressed nationalities, will resist the new regime. Western socialists should support the resistance...
In a broadsheet dated 20 August Socialist Organiser commented:
If the neo-Stalinist, quasi fascist backlash now triggers a deep popular revolution, it may not end quite as Yeltsin and the Russian neo-bourgeoisie want.
Socialists in Britain must give their unqualified support to the resistance to the neo-Stalinist dictatorship. Long live the Russian Revolution!
And after the defeat of the coup Socialist Organiser added:
There has not yet been that deep popular revolution. Far from it. Much of the state apparatus remains intact, the army high in prestige. The economy of the USSR spirals downwards daily into hyperinflation and probable famine.
Yeltsin win now have to take responsibility. He will not work miracles.
The army has, by its shotgun divorce from the CP, been rendered a more credible contender for the Third World army role of providing a military scaffolding when the bourgeoisie is weak and the society in chronic crisis.
Last week's failed coup and the radical backlash it licensed tumbled the system Stalin built into history's dustbin. It may also have decided what kind of authoritarianism - one controlled by the vacillating Gorbachevite apparatus-men or one controlled by the radicals - will be imposed in the period ahead.
The headline of our broadsheet last week remains true: 'Only revolution - that is, the destruction of the state apparatus, including the army - can secure liberty'. (29 August).
We defined what was happening:
What we are witnessing in the USSR is a bourgeois revolution The leaders of the anti-Stalinist revolution and their ideas; the ideas in the heads of the mass of the people (including the working class); the West European and US social models they look to - all define it as a bourgeois revolution...
It faces tremendous difficulties. But they are material, practical, technical difficulties - the lack of markets and of an entrepreneurial bourgeoisie, the tremendous weight of the bureaucracy even after it is certifiably brain dead, etc. - not difficulties arising from the resistance of the working class, or by the coherent resistance of any other class. (29 August).
And we drew conclusions:
Socialists in the USSR should be the most vigorous advocates of revolutionary measures against the old order, competing with the Yeltsinites for the leadership of the democratic revolution, while countering their pro-capitalist ideas and trying to organise the working class as an independent force. Their model should be the Bolsheviks, who before 1917 competed with the "Cadet" bourgeoisie for the leadership of the masses in the fight against Tsarism. (3 October)
Socialist Organiser 517-8, 19 and 26 March 1992