Our Position on the Soviet Coup:
Yeltsin’s Counterrevolution Was the Greater Threat
[First printed in 1917 West #1, Spring 1992]
EDITORIAL NOTE: The following article is based on our comrade’s presentation in a November 1991 debate with the Revolutionany Trotskyist Tendency.
The Bolshevik Tendency does not have any very unusual insights into the coup in the USSR and its aftermath. It is really rather obvious what has happened. What’s different about us is the political conclusions we reach on the basis of our analysis of the August events.
A critical part of our analysis is shared even by bourgeois commentators around the world who believe that there has been a change in the framework for the governing of the USSR. They correctly believe that certain obstacles to the redevelopment of capitalism have been removed there and, not surprisingly, they’re very happy about it.
We don’t like anything that helps strengthen the world capitalist system. The restoration of capitalism in the USSR would not only be a defeat for the working class of the USSR, it would also be a significant defeat for the world working class. To the extent that capitalism is restored in the USSR, capitalism is strengthened worldwide. New markets, new sources of raw materials, and new poois of cheap, skilled labor become available to imperialists around the world.
What we have seen in the aftermath of the August coup in Moscow is a qualitative step in a process of counterrevolution in the Soviet Union that began in the early 1920s with the rise of Stalinism.
Prior to this, when the working class took power in Russia in 1917, it had established the most democratic regime the world has ever seen. Contrary to bourgeois falsifications, proletarian democracy flourished, and there was even a rebirth of artistic expression that inspired much of the civilized world. The young workers government removed laws against abortion and homosexuality, established easy divorce, and began to make advances in resolving the national question.
But there were very definite limits as to how far toward socialism it was possible to go in Soviet Union. Lenin and Trotsky, who led the Russian Revolution, did not at first believe that the revolution could survive more than a few months unless it spread to Western Europe. For Marxists, you see, socialism can only be built on the material base developed through advanced capitalism, and it can only be developed if workers have political power internationally.
Many people are now saying that socialism has been tried and has been shown to be inadequate. In fact, except for that brief period in Russia, the world has only seen various deformed workers states and the degenerate workers state of the Soviet Union. But from our point of view, even these politically deformed states, under the control of bureaucratic Stalinist castes, have proven the superiority of a socialized means of production and distribution. Further, it is important to keep in mind that none of these so-called socialist states has ever had at its disposal the resources developed by advanced capitalism. Moreover, the working class, except for the brief period after the Russian Revolution, has never had political power in these countries, let alone held power on an international basis.
Marxism certainly hasn’t been given a fair test in the Eastern bloc. The main strategy of Lenin and Trotsky after the revolution was to stabilize power in the Soviet Union and build an international socialist movement that could spread the revolution internationally. But the new revolution faced a long and bitter civil war, with the counterrevolutionaries getting military aid from all the main imperialist countries. This led to the destruction of much of the Russian working class, through economic disruption and outright physical annihilation. Internationally, too, the Comintern met a series of defeats. What was left of the rather small Soviet working class became somewhat demoralized and very isolated. Thus the way was opened for the Stalinists to take power.
In taking power bureaucratically, the Stalinists dismantled the Marxist program that had guided the Soviet Union up to that point. The Marxist program is centrally concerned with organizing the working class to take political power as a class fully conscious of its historical aims. Critical to this task is the internationalization of the struggle.
The Stalinist counterrevolution was an act counterpoised to the democratic exercise of power by the working class. While remaining within the parameters of the collectivized property established by the 1917 revolution, the Stalinists politically expropriated the Soviet working class by taking the reins of power for themselves. They established themselves as a bureaucratic caste living off the privileges of their positions, and very soon developed the theory of socialism in one country to justify giving up on the spread of proletarian revolution internationally.
So the important thing here is that Stalinism was not socialism or Marxism. The question is, what was it?
Some people thought the Soviet Union under Stalin was capitalist. But really that doesn’t make much sense. You didn’t have the main economic institutions of society owned by a number of individuals who could buy or sell their interests. You didn’t have people able to bequeath their share of productive property to their children. You didn’t have economic decisions made on the basis of profit. The Soviet Union simply did not work like a capitalist society.
The main spokesperson for revolutionary proletarian opposition to Stalinism was Leon Trotsky. Trotsky’s view was that the Soviet Union under Stalinism could not survive for long. He believed that it had the form of property ownership and many of the economic institutions that, if they were under workers democratic control, could be the basis for moving toward socialism. But they were not under workers democratic control, they were under Stalinist bureaucratic control. So Trotsky called it a degenerated workers state, a designation that we have kept until the defeat of the coup this past August.
The Trotskyist view is that the relatively backward Soviet economy regulated through bureaucratic planning was able to make some spectacular advances for a time, but as it developed the contradiction between collectivized property and the narrowly based bureaucracy which controlled decision-making ultimately paralysed it. This contradiction could only be solved in one of two ways: either by a democratic workers political revolution, wherein the workers maintained the collectivized ownership of property and replaced the Stalinists with democratic organs of workers control, or by capitalist counterrevolution.
Well, it’s taken longer than we expected, but Trotsky has been proven right. One of the things that delayed a resolution of this question for so long was the outcome of the Second World War, which gave the degenerated workers state access to a great deal of resources, technology, and skills while vastly boosting the political authority of the victorious Stalinist regime. Another thing that delayed the resolution was the absence of the working class as a conscious factor, fighting for its interests which was to a large extent the result of the bloody massacre of the cadres who had made the revolution, and those who remained true to the banner of Leninism, in the course of the purge trials of the 1930s. A working class fighting for power independently would have been possible only through the leadership of a revolutionary party.
During this period in which the resolution of the contradictory role of the Stalinists was hanging in the balance, the Trotskyist view was that we defended the degenerated workers state against imperialist attack from abroad or capitalist restoration at home, while simultaneously calling for workers political revolution to overthrow the Stalinist bureaucracy and move forward toward socialism. So when the workers in Hungary rebelled in 1956 and attempted to put political control in the hands of the workers councils, we supported that uprising.
On the other hand, we have often opposed the efforts of the Stalinists to crush various forms of opposition that were not directly threatening collectivized property. For example, we opposed the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia to repress the liberal Stalinist reform movement. Similarly, when the Chinese Stalinists mowed down a democratic opposition movement in Tiananmen Square in 1989, we opposed that, too.
But when the opposition to Stalinism was integrated with a program of capitalist restorationism, then we advocated a military bloc with the Stalinists. What does this mean? It means that we side with the Stalinists however pitiful their efforts to resist capitalist counterrevolution, which is to say that we view the Stalinists as a lesser evil in comparison with the imperialists. Therefore, when Solidarnosc in Poland was trying to reestablish capitalism, we supported the suppression of Solidarnosc’s restorationist leadership and its counterrevolutionary followers. And last August, when these tired old Stalinists very belatedly, inadequately and half-heartedly opposed Yeltsin’s moves to establish capitalism in the USSR, we were on their side against him.
Now over the last few years there was a strong movement toward the resolution of the contradictions in the Soviet degenerated workers state in favor of capitalism. But there were also a number of serious obstacles to the reimposition of capitalism in the Soviet Union, the major obstacle being the fact that the privileges of the Stalinist bureaucracy were tied to the command economy and the system of centralized planning. In other words, their objective interests were opposed to the redevelopment of capitalism.
Now, what happened in the August coup was that these bastards actually, belatedly, started a fight to maintain their privileges. And because the people who were actively endangering their privileges at the moment were the capitalist restorationists around Yeltsin, the Stalinists started to fight against him and his followers. We would have wanted to point our guns at these restorationists just as the Stalinist bureaucrats were feebly attempting to do themselves.
Now, we have no illusions in these Stalinists. We know they are a murderous bunch who have always been our enemies. They have historically killed and imprisoned our comrades and worked overtime to derail working-class revolution around the world. Let there be no confusion between our position and any political support for the Stalinist swine. Just as Trotskyists called for the political overthrow of the Stalinists while fighting with them against fascism in World War II, we also would not for a moment have given up that call while militarily blocking with them this past August. The military bloc is a tactic. It is one application of the tactic of the united front, which does not deviate from the principle or strategy of independently organizing the working class and undercutting a mis leadership of the working class, in this case the Stalinists. This, after all, is what we mean when we say that only Trotskyism can defend the gains of October.
If the opposition to the restorationists had been successful, it would have allowed us the chance to present the Soviet working class a different path than either the maintenance of the bankrupt Stalinist regime or the reintroduction of capitalism. What is necessary is to put another choice before the workers of Russia, the choice of reentering the road to socialism through maintaining the property system of the Soviet Union and administering it under democratic organs of workers power.
If during the coup and its aftermath there had been a clear voice for socialist property forms and workers democratic power, then the outcome might have been very different. The coup came at a time when just a few people with a clear program had a real chance of speaking to the whole country and setting the agenda. If there had been a Trotskyist grouping in a military bloc with the coup that counterpoised itself to the relatively small number of Yeltsinites on those critical August days, we might very well be facing a different future today in Russia.
Now, of course, our call for a military bloc with the Stalinists flies in the face of international public opinion, which has been molded by the bourgeois media. Public opinion and the bourgeois media were on the side of Yeltsin. Their main argument is the argument of democracy. The enemies of socialism have been very successful at harping on the importance of democracy. Exactly what these democracy-mongers mean when they talk of democracy has recently been revealed by bourgeois praise for Yeltsin’s latest effort to grab dictatorial powers for himself and his call to prevent local and regional elections because he’s afraid the Stalinists will make a good showing for themselves.
As Marxists, we never talk about democracy without talking about what class it serves. We know all too well the difference between bourgeois democracy and a genuine proletarian democracy. Of course, we are in favor of maintaining as many democratic rights as possible, and will fight to do so. But when the conflict poses the question of the survival of collectivized property, we are on the side of the Stalinists against their capitalist attackers.
Capitalists frequently paint themselves as democratic, but it is a lie. Yeltsin is no democrat, and today the objective conditions in the former USSR dictate that a liberal bourgeois democracy is simply not in the cards. In a capitalist context, the prerequisite for the kind of widespread democratic rights we have in advanced capitalist countries is a strong bourgeoisie whose power is secure—something clearly lacking in any part of the former USSR.
The development of capital in the former USSR is in its very early beginning stages and the would-be capitalists cannot possibly afford democracy, given the likely resistance workers will exert against the measures taken to establish capitalism. That is why they have started out by banning the Communist Party. They have banned it because they fear that, just as in Poland today, the CP could be a vehicle for mass working-class opposition to capitalist austerity measures.
As capitalism attempts to stabilize itself and develop in Russia, we will see more and more limitations on democracy, as the nascent capitalist regime institutes massive austerity measures as a necessary part of the move toward capitalism. The resistance to these austerity measures will have to be smashed. Widespread democratic rights are an obstacle to the restorationists’ plans.
Having said this, however, we do not believe that capitalism has yet been fully established in the former USSR. What has happened as a result of the collapse of the Stalinist coup is that the state, that is, the army and the top structures of the governing apparatus, are no longer committed to collectivized property. The old network of Stalinist bureaucratic interests has fallen apart. There is an embryonic capitalist state power in Russia of which Yeltsin is the central representative and a number of other nascent capitalist states in the former republics, too. These new states have not been fully consolidated—quite the contrary. But the forces of capitalism are ascendant and these new regimes are in the process of gathering the beginnings of a coercive state force necessary to secure a capitalist society. Russia has taken a course, through the victory of Yeltsin’s counterrevolution, of prolonged instability, turmoil and material deprivation. The prospects are not pleasant.
So the first argument for being on Yeltsin’s side is the argument of democracy, and that is simply wrong. Yeltsin’s side is not going to provide democracy.
The second argument for being on Yeltsin’s side is the argument that it was the popular side, but since the RTT doesn’t make too much of that argument regarding the August coup, I won’t belabor it. Popularity, as most of us know, is no guarantee of correctness.
The RTT does, however, hang a lot on the issue of democratic rights, and this is a common theme that links its position on support of Polish Solidarnosc in its bid to restore capitalism in 1981 and its current rationale for not supporting a military bloc with the Russian coupists. In the RTT’s supplement dated October 24, 1991, it wrote that “The conservatives would have crushed not only Yeltsin and company, but also all the democratic gains that the working class had achieved in the last five years.”
Well, first of all, we think this kind of prediction of the outcome of armed conflict that approaches civil war is fraught with mistakes. While the coupists are not known for their democratic impulses, no one can really tell if democratic gains would have been increased or diminished had the coupists won. Why? Because it depends upon the scenario by which victory was obtained. One scenario, of course, is that the coupists could have won while the working class remained passive and then immediately moved to enact severe political restrictions on the Soviet masses.
However, another scenario is that given the evident lack of internal cohesion of the coupists and current crisis of Stalinism, the Soviet working class might actually have increased its democratic rights and advanced the march toward workers political revolution had it been independently mobilized in the struggle against capitalist counterrevolution.
The RTTs position, in effect, is that it would have refused to direct any workers militias it might have organized to point their guns in the same direction as the tank divisions that initially had pointed their turrets at the restorationist bandits holed up in the Russian White House. The RTT would have refused to cooperate with Soviet troops had they attempted to scatter the reactionary bands who rallied to Yeltsin’s side.
This position of the RTT runs directly counter to a cardinal tenet of Trotskyism, which assigns greater importance to property forms than on democratic rights when the former are under attack. We agree with Trotsky, who wrote in his book In Defense of Marxism that “The question of overthrowing the Soviet bureaucracy is for us subordinate to the question of preserving state property in the means of production in theUSSR.”
The RTT, at least, remains consistent with its position on Poland in its latest departure from Trotskyism. The unfortunate reality is that workers are capable of being duped into fighting in favor of capitalism, as happened in Poland in 1981. After nearly 70 years of Stalinist treachery, and in the absence of a Marxist vanguard party, the working class of Russia, too, is severely disoriented.
So with the victory of the counterrevolution in the aftermath of the coup we have suffered a world-historic defeat. And we say so quite openly. Only by openly acknowledging our defeats and with coolness calculating the effects of those defeats will we lay the conditions for the eventual victory of the working class internationally.
The counterrevolution, however, is not fully consolidated. It’s not a finished process. There are favorable conditions in the future for Russia. The thing that is most favorable is that it will be very unstable, it will be subject to rapid change, and there will be opportunities for the working class to intervene in defense of the gains it has made. There will be struggles in defense of jobs, in defense of welfare benefits, in defense of housing, and so on. But there is nothing automatic about these struggles occurring. Still less is there anything automatic about these struggles opening the way to socialist revolution. Only with the building of a Leninist vanguard party is a victory possible