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Collapse of the USSR

The essay below was written in early March 1992 and sent to the leadership of the Workers League as a critique of the document "The End Of the USSR" written by David North in Dec. 1991 and adopted by the Workers League. The thoughtful reader should therefore study that important analytical document as well as the following documents of the International Committee of the Fourth International

The end of the USSR and the East European workers' states


The class nature of Stalinist states has long been the dividing line between Trotskyism and various forms of bourgeois ideology. A move to change the time tested determination of the class character of the Soviet Union and its successor states, the East European states and China — degenerated or deformed workers' states — cannot be undertaken lightly and must be accompanied by an exhaustive and concrete analysis of the changed class relationships in these societies.

That is why I was disturbed to see the Soviet Union characterized as a bourgeois state with so little discussion. The statement by the IC on the August putch welcomed the of the coup and stated: "It is absolutely excluded that capitalist restoration will be implemented peacefully. Parliamentary democracy and capitalist restoration are totally incompatible. The only way in which capitalism will be restored is through the most violent and bloody suppression of the Soviet working class."

As we see, on August 22, 1991, the IC affirmed that bourgeois counter-revolution was still ahead and must be accompanied by blood and violence on a mass scale.

On January 9th, 1992, five minutes before we began a lecture at M.I.T., Fred told me that the Workers League no longer considered the ex-Soviet Union to be a workers state. I could not understand this about-turn and remained disturbed even after reading David North's document of January 4th, 1992. The Workers League February public meeting in New York devoted to this subject witnessed no more than a standard, cursory, historical overview of the Soviet Union accompanied by some recent statistics on the sharply deteriorating living conditions of the masses. There was no discussion following the presentation.

The scope of our disagreements.

Firstly, I wish to state that I agree with the conclusion of the Workers League that Russia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Poland, etc. are bourgeois states. Neither do I disagree with the program of worker councils, resistance to plant shutdowns, defence of all the past social gains, etc. What I disagree with is the method by which the new class character was determined.

Marxist criteria for the class nature of a state

It is a basic postulate of Marxism that social revolutions (or counter-revolutions) do not occur peacefully, slowly, incrementally, in an evolutionary manner. A transformation in which one class passes state power to another must require violent and catastrophic measures. Time and time again, Trotsky argued that despite bureaucratic monopoly of political power, suppression of workers' democracy, mismanagement and abuse of the socialized economy and counter-revolutionary collaboration with imperialism, the state remained a deformed workers' state.

In opposition to all those, who claimed that the workers' state lapsed in Russia because of the victory of reactionary bureaucracy over the real Bolsheviks and the various, counter-revolutionary measures taken by this bureaucracy, Trotsky replied:

"Against the assertion that the workers' state is apparently already liquidated there arises, first and foremost, the important methodological position of Marxism. The dictatorship of the proletariat was established by means of a political overturn and a civil war of three years. The class theory of society and historical experience equally testify to the impossibility of the victory of the proletariat through peaceful methods, that is, without grandiose class battles, weapons in hand. How, in that case, is the imperceptible, "gradual," bourgeois counterrevolution conceivable? Until now, in any case, feudal as well as bourgeois counterrevolutions have never taken place "organically," but they have invariably required the intervention of military surgery. In the last analysis, the theories of reformism, insofar as reformism generally has attained to theory are always based upon the inability to understand that class antagonisms are profound and irreconcilable; hence, the perspective of a peaceful transformation of capitalism into socialism. The Marxist thesis relating to the catastrophic character of the transfer of power from the hands of one class into the hands of another applies not only to revolutionary periods, when history sweeps madly ahead, but also to the periods of counterrevolution, when society rolls backwards. He who asserts that the Soviet government has been gradually changed from proletarian to bourgeois is only, so to speak, running backwards the film of reformism.

"Our opponents may deny that this is a general methodological proposition and declare that no matter how important in itself it is nevertheless too abstract to solve the question. Truth is always concrete. The thesis of the irreconcilability of class contradictions should and must direct us in our analysis but cannot replace its results. One must probe deeply into the material content of the historical process itself.

"We reply, it is true that a methodological argument does not exhaust the problem. But, in any case, it transfers the burden of proof to the opposing side. Critics who consider themselves Marxists must demonstrate in what manner the bourgeoisie that had lost power in a three-years' struggle could resume this power without any battles. However, since our opponents make no attempt to invest their appraisal of the Soviet state with any sort of serious theoretical expression, we shall try to perform this labor for them here." Writings (1933-1934) pp. 102-103.

Origins of the workers' state

The workers' state came about in Russia as a result of a mass revolution and a three year civil war. Neither the first all-Bolshevik government of October 26th, nor the next coalition Bolshevik-Left SR government could really be said to rule over a workers' state. Overthrowing Kerensky changed the class nature of the government in Petrograd, but not yet of the Russian state. The first Decrees on Land and Peace did no more than fulfill the logical tasks of the bourgeois revolution, which were left unfinished by the Russian bourgeoisie.

The Bolshevik government was a workers' government ruling over a predominantly bourgeois (with traces of feudalism) country. It took a civil war and mass mobilization of the working class to secure the social foundations for this government, to transform the economic relations, to organize the economy so it suited the needs of the working class. This change in social and property regimes was effected in a catastrophic, radical upheaval. And, of course, the resulting state bore all the marks of backwardness, poverty and bureaucratic deformation, which real, not ideal, historical entities are bound to have.

For another historic comparison we must turn to the experience of the Paris Commune. In 1871, the municipal workers' government because of the Lassalean prejudices of its leaders, shrank back from attacking the bourgeois economic foundations. Lacking support in the economic base, the proletarian superstructure was quickly and easily, although, of course, very bloodily, overthrown.

Thermidor — transfer of state power to conservative labor bureaucracy

Many former Marxists, pointing to the introduction of the NEP or to the mass arrests of the Left Opposition in late 20's or to the forced collectivization and starvation of three million Ukrainians in 32-33, or to the Purges of 36-39 described these acts of counter-revolutionary terror as signifying the lapse of the workers' state and the reestablishment of some form of capitalism. But D. North correctly repeats with Trotsky that "The class character of the state is determined by its relation to the forms of property in the means of production." As long as the Soviet, Hungarian, Polish, East German, etc. bureaucracies for their own selfish reasons defended the social ownership of the means of production, Marxists were bound to say that these were very sick proletarian states, describe the disease and prescribe a cure: the political revolution, workers' democracy to eradicate the bureaucratic misrule, reorganization of the economy under the direct and transparent control of the producers-consumers, proletarian foreign policy, etc.

Again I agree with D. North that "The process of degeneration is not one, which extends into infinity. At a certain point degeneration becomes death." The bureaucratic illness of these workers' states — already noted by Lenin with respect to the young Soviet republic — progressed with time. Socialist consciousness, which animated the revolutionary generation was brutally insulted and exterminated during the long decades of Stalinist counter-revolutionary terror. Insofar as the workers and intellectuals identified this terror with socialism, capitalism began to seem preferable.

Following the explosion of Solidarity in Poland, under Andropov, Chernenko and, especially, Gorbachev, we begin to see ever wider layers of the bureaucracy seeking to anchor their dictatorship in private property. Ever more consciously, they begin to nurture layers of the Soviet middle class, encouraging the growth of a bourgeoisie; ever more frantically they strive to undermine the social preeminence and split the cohesiveness of the Soviet working class.

The conquests of the October revolution — already gravely undermined with the victory of the Thermidor in the 1920's — were now directly attacked by the very social group which held the monopoly of political power precisely in the name of their defence. Worse, the Soviet and East European proletariat was so confused and demoralized as to offer little organized resistance to the bureaucratic plans to restore capitalism.

As the IC said in its August 22 statement, all the various groups of bureaucrats — the apparatus heads around Yazov, Pavlov and Kriuchkov, the leaders of the Yeltsin, "democratic" wing representing the comprador bourgeoisie and Gorbachev himself trying to straddle both wings — all of these Stalinists wanted to restore capitalism and private property in the means of production. The fight among them was over the division of spoils, over the proceeds from this gigantic sell-off. However, the dangerous factor was the political abstention of the working class, the absence of a Trotskyist party in the Soviet working class. Working class did not assert its claims to the state, to the socialized property, to control over the direction of society.

What is the nature of the defeat of the Soviet workers?

The strikes, especially the wave of miners strikes two years ago as well as the general strikes of last spring warned the bureaucracy that its primary and urgent task was to deal a blow to the unity of the Soviet working class. The use by Kremlin of army terror against any national movement — Alma Ata, Baku, Vilnius, etc. — was consciously calculated to whip up waves of nationalism and separatism, to bury the common anti-bureaucratic movement of the working class beneath the rubble of reactionary, fratricidal, communal hatreds. Stalinist bureaucrats — who only yesterday carried out Kremlin's terror against modest and totally justified demands for cultural autonomy — overnight embraced insane and destructive calls for separatism. One more important factor in bureaucracy's turn to chauvinism is that the spread of territorial clashes and mutual communal hostilities provide a justification for the maintenance and even expansion of the tools and the apparatus of state terror: the police and army forces, prisons and concentration camps, restriction of civil rights, "legal" parliamentary grants of dictatorial presidential powers, extra-legal decrees, etc.

Immediately after the defeat of the coup, the victorious bureaucracy outlawed the Communist Party and banned it from the workplaces. This step removed from the factories one of the two supposed weapons of the working class (trade unions being the other). The power of the trade unions had been already undermined by their decades long servile support of the bureaucracy, by their bourgeois ideology and by their splits along national-republican-regional lines.

The period roughly speaking from 1988 till early 1991 was characterized by spreading demoralization of the Stalinist apparatus and the growing independence and assertiveness of the Soviet working class. The IC experienced this first hand. During the first trip to the USSR in 1989, various oppositional groups were quite eager to discuss with the IC. During the fall of 1990 trip to the USSR, the management of leading factories put no obstacles in the way of our contact with the workers. The head of Ukrainian Komsomol was anxious to meet with us, probably to provide his rotting apparatus with some "left" cover. Stalinist journalist printed a sympathetic interview in a mass circulation newspaper.

But soon after the failed coup, bureaucracy, by now firmly allied with the comprador bourgeoisie, began to take revenge. In the absence of a united proletarian opposition, political activity was banned in the workplaces, trade unions were cowed, worker-activists were silenced. Using the threat of factory closures and layoffs, labor discipline was being tightened, unions and factory committees were relegated to impotent pleas of protest to the various republican governments. The break up of the USSR was used very consciously to channel working class opposition to capitalist restoration into suicidal chauvinism.

The IC delegation to the USSR again experienced first hand this change in the wind. During the trip in the fall of 1991, its representatives were banned from all factories, even those, where we had active supporters; formerly friendly academics turned unapproachable; formerly friendly journalists did not return our calls or printed hostile rubbish about us.

The various national Stalinist bourgeois agents proceeded with the breakup of the Union. The bastard creation of the "Commonwealth of Independent States" is but a fleeting way station to general separation, of republican and even regional intra-republican ties and subservience of all to the imperialist West.

Program for Soviet workers>

What must the advanced, class conscious workers do in the present circumstances? What are they to tell to the rest of the proletariat? The old Stalinist Soviet Union cannot be resurrected. Socialist construction in a singe, isolated state is, not just theoretically, but practically impossible. The states of Eastern Europe and Asia must be integrated into the world economy. The question really is: which class will integrate the world economy, bourgeoisie or the working class.

Bourgeois solution

The property relations within the former USSR (and the other ex-Stalinist states of East Europe) and China are not yet bourgeois. There are still remnants of proletarian regimes left: gigantic industries (absurdly uncompetitive by bourgeois standards), housing complexes with their low rents and utility bills, public education, childcare and health systems, widespread cultural and educational networks, public transportation and communications networks, etc. The logic of capitalism requires the destruction of all of these appendages of the vanquished workers' states. The International Monetary Fund is hurrying its Russian, Ukrainian, Turkmen, Polish etc. stooges to stop with this nonsense of subsidizing all the various aircraft, railroad, electronics, machine-building and other industries. The "wise men" of Wall Street and Bundesbank are telling them to stop throwing good money after bad.

But what will the setting up of bourgeois property relations mean? Capitalist relations mean that each enterprise producing commodities must compete both on cost and quality against other enterprises around the world which produce similar goods. This implies nothing less than the bankruptcy and dismantling of the overwhelming majority of the industrial complexes across the fifteen republics of the former Soviet Union. The devastation of Eastern Germany is but a preview of the coming devastation of the whole Eastern Europe and Asia. Shutting of factories, mines, power plants, chemical plants, food processing plants, in fact, devastation of the civilization throughout the ex-USSR. It also implies the wiping out of the agriculture since even that requires machinery, fertilizers and energy and must also compete on the world market.

If any government were to present such a devastating outline before its people it would very quickly find itself out of a job. It is only within the context of a realistic assessment of the economic prospects facing the people of the former Soviet Union that the nature of current nationalist and separatist agitation becomes clear. They serve only these ends: to hide from the masses the effects of capitalism, to channel their exasperation into fratricidal bloodshed, to reinforce the dictatorship of the bourgeois compradors.

Proletarian solution

Russian, Ukrainian, Armenian, Azeri, Serb, Croat and Czech workers have no stake in the Black Sea fleet, no reason to destroy each other's villages and towns, no oil wells or coastal resorts to fight over. The US, German and Japanese imperialists will under no conditions provide them with jobs (except at levels paid to their other colonial slaves) and social benefits. The unemployment in the advanced capitalist countries is rising dramatically and budget and wage cuts are the battle cry of these governments. On the other hand, the only ally of the proletariat of the ex-Stalinist countries is the working class of the world, in particular of the industrial countries of Western Europe, North America and Australia.

It is time to resurrect the old slogan of Marxism: Workers of the world, unite! The question of the world socialist revolution becomes a burning question.

No to the bourgeois dictatorships of Yeltsin, Kravchuk, Milosevic and Walesa! For proletarian democracy through mass Soviets!

No to bourgeois privatization and rationalization! For workers' control over production and for democratic social planning!

No to the IMF-imposed shock treatment! Use market mechanisms to perform democratic social planning under the control of workers' Soviets!

No to the building of new armies, National Guard and Cossack regiments! Use the industrial and labor resources for rebuilding the economic infrastructures and for environmental cleanup!

No to the splitting up of states and regions! For the Socialist United States of Europe and Asia!

No to imperialist wars and colonialism! Forward to the world socialist revolution!