The Left and Gorbachev

by Robert Bollard • Published 20 April 2020

In the last few years we have witnessed a turmoil of ideas – a recasting of the ideological mould set at the onset of the First Cold War. The catalyst to this process has been the crisis in the Eastern bloc. At its beginning, standing in the spotlight, was Mikhail Gorbachev. It was Gorbachev who announced the crisis to the world, promising to resolve it, and in doing so unleashing a wave of revolt that has yet to cease working its vengeance on the heirs of Stalin. Gorbachev’s popularity in the West and the popular belief that the revolutions in Eastern Europe were somehow his doing provided for a while a valuable ideological prop for former enthusiasts of the Stalinist states. The “Gorby” cult allowed them to distance themselves from the crimes of the KGB, the Stasi and the Securitate without challenging the essence of their Stalinist politics, the belief that progress can only come from above. For the followers of the Gorbachev cult the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union was for a while transformed into the daring “revolutionary” challengers of their own power and privilege. The crimes of the bureaucracy could be readily admitted, with all the agonising and hand-wringing that involved. After all even bourgeois commentators were convinced that the bureaucracy itself, under the leadership of Comrade Gorbachev, was the only hope for a solution.

Six years on since he took the reins of power, the illusions in Gorbachev have been exposed. The attempted coup of August 1991 was led by the very men Gorbachev appointed to his cabinet. It was beaten, not by machinations from within the bureaucracy (despite all the attempts to argue that Yeltsin stopped the tanks single-handed), and certainly not by the disgraced and weakened Gorbachev, but by a mobilisation from below. Certainly the divisions within the bureaucracy and the incompetence of the coup leaders helped. But without the mass opposition to the coup which broke out after Yeltsin’ s call for a general strike, it could not have been defeated. Moreover, the coal miners, the Leningrad factory workers who came out on strike, and the young working class Muscovites who drove the tanks from the Russian parliament did not do so with the praises of Gorbachev and perestroika on their lips. Their victory was not followed by a popular call for continued reform of the bureaucracy and its most visible political institution, the CPSU. Instead the call was for the party’s abolition. Now the saga is complete. The Soviet Union is no more and Gorbachev has resigned. Yet from the ranks of Gorbachev’ s admirers, which include not only Stalinists but former Trotskyists, who once heaped derisive ridicule on anyone who dared to question his revolutionary credentials, there has come no reappraisal of political method. As dire predictions of famine abound, those who claimed only two years ago that the Soviet economy was growing,[1] make no attempt to explain how or why they proved to be so wrong. The failure of Gorbachev to resolve the crisis in the Soviet Union is not simply due to some accident that has “spoiled the game”. Unless those who pinned their hopes on Gorbachev reassess the Stalinist politics that led them to do so, they are condemned to repeat the farce with yet another saviour from above donning the mantle once worn by Uncle Joe.

A revolution from above?

They would have preferred (me too!) if the changes in the Soviet Union had been brought about by a gigantic movement of the Soviet working masses and had revived the old organs of political power – the soviets – with totally new blood. That would have been very nice, but it didn’t happen in that way. What has happened is a movement from above…[2]

This view of workers’ power as an optional extra was expressed by a former leading British Trotskyist, Tariq Ali, in the preface to a book entitled (not ironically) Revolution From Above. The title is, to a Marxist at least, an oxymoron. Certainly change can come from above – from not simply within the ruling class, but from the very pinnacle of a society. But to describe that change as revolutionary is to suggest that a ruling class could mount a challenge to its own rule. Marxism is based on an understanding of society as riven with class antagonisms. A revolution is the supreme expression of those antagonisms, involving a mobilisation and challenge from below. It cannot be a process consisting simply of manoeuvres within the ruling class. To describe a struggle within a privileged elite, however exciting or vicious it may seem, as a “revolution” is to rob the term of any meaning. As a long-time orthodox Trotskyist, Ali of course doesn’t believe that the Soviet bureaucracy is a ruling class. But for all its faults, Trotsky’s analysis of the bureaucracy, which saw it as a caste produced by the pressure of imperialism on the workers’ state, was rooted in a class analysis. Which is why in The Revolution Betrayed, where he most clearly outlines this theory, Trotsky calls for a revolution (from below!) to overthrow the Stalinists. That is why those who have described themselves as Trotskyists but who continue to look at the possibility of reform (i.e. change from within the bureaucracy) for the fundamental transformation of Soviet society, have decisively broken with Trotskyism. Hence the recent attempt by the Australian Democratic Socialist Party (DSP) to justify their Gorbymania with selective quotes from The Revolution Betrayed is fundamentally dishonest. But there is more to this question than a quibble over the definition of revolution. Ali’s idea of a “revolution from above” shares with other Western apologists for Gorbachev a fundamental misconception of the origins and purpose of his reform project. It is a misconception based on the belief that the Soviet bureaucracy, whatever its faults and “mistakes”, belongs nevertheless within the camp of social progress.

For observers in the West, used to viewing Russian life through the opacity of Cold War divisions, glasnost appeared not only as the most exciting, but as the central element of Gorbachev’s reform program. What began simply as the opening of the pages of Pravda to critical letters, rapidly blossomed into an outpouring of open debate and oppositional activity. Political groups were formed, meetings, demonstrations and eventually strikes took place. And these were met with, if not always complete toleration, at least an often lenient response from the authorities unthinkable as late as the early 1980s. Yet within Russia, not least in the pronouncements and writings of Gorbachev himself, it was perestroika, the restructuring of the Soviet economy, which was always presented as central. Glasnost was seen as a necessary means to the end of perestroika.[3] The reason for this lies in the class position of the section of the bureaucracy around Gorbachev, and the economic crisis which it faced upon his accession to power. As the CPSU itself admitted when officially reviewing what it referred to as the Brezhnev period of “stagnation”:

the country [had been brought] to the brink of an economic crisis. A . far reaching, high spending system of economic management outgrew its usefulness. Its structure and expertise are at variance with modern requirements … Production, efficiency and living standards ceased to grow…[4]

According to Abel Aganbegyan, a key architect of perestroika, there was “no growth per capita” in the Russian economy in the period 1981 to 1985.[5] The initial response of the new Gorbachev leadership to this crisis was very much within the Stalinist tradition. There was a crackdown on alcoholism and corruption, even an exhortation by Gorbachev for Soviet workers to take inspiration from the infamous Stakhanovite movement of the 1930s.[6] But it was soon clear that the scale of the crisis could not be overcome simply by moral exhortation and repression. From 1986 the core section of the leadership around Gorbachev began developing the program of perestroika. It was to consist of three main components. The first was a shake-out and eventual replacement of old arid inefficient enterprises entailing a planned 16 million redundancies. The second was a general purge and streamlining of the bureaucratic planning and administrative apparatus. And the third was a greater use of market forces in order to discipline enterprises. There was certainly nothing progressive in such an economic program. It bears a strong resemblance to the restructuring programs attempted in Australia and New Zealand in the late 1980s, with the same theme of opening up to the market and the same anti-working class overtones of the need for greater productivity at the expense of jobs. That perestroika was a program directed by the bureaucracy against the working class is indicated in Gorbachev’s attitude to the position of women in Soviet society. In his book on perestroika Gorbachev had this to say:

Women no longer have enough time to perform their everyday duties at home – housework, the upbringing of children and the creation of a good family atmosphere. We have discovered that many of our problems – in children’s and young people’s behaviour, in our morals, culture and in production – are partially caused by the weakening of the family responsibilities… We are holding heated debates, in the press, in public organisations, at work and at home, to put the question of what we should do to make it possible for women to return to their purely womanly mission?[7]

It is an indictment of so much of the Western left that it could allow this gross and oppressive view of women’s role to pass without comment.

The second element of perestroika however, was directed against substantial elements of the bureaucracy. This meant that it could not be carried out simply by a secret struggle within that bureaucracy. It required an attempt to mobilise layers of the Soviet population outside of the ruling apparatus (most particularly the intelligentsia). And it was this which lay behind the program of glasnost. It began as simply the opening up of the pages of Pravda to letters criticising instances of inefficiency or corruption. However it soon developed a logic of its own as the Soviet people, emboldened by the opening from above, began to struggle for and win democratic rights far beyond anything envisaged by Gorbachev.

It was very much within the spirit of this campaign that Gorbachev instituted the reform most cited by his supporters in the West in defence of his “socialist” credentials – the election of directors of enterprises by their workforce. In 1988, Renfrey Clarke of the Democratic Socialist Party used this example as the keystone of a polemic against the International Socialists (the predecessor to the International Socialist Organisation). Clarke triumphantly pointed to the fact that the “election of managers is now a legal requirement, having been enshrined in the Law on State Enterprises adopted in mid-1987”. He then concluded that this could not be explained by those like the International Socialist Organisation who believe that Russia is a capitalist society. For “if socialist democracy can be gradually introduced by the ‘Russian capitalist state,’ why can’t it be gradually introduced by other capitalist states?”[8] Diane Fieldes refuted this nonsense in The Socialist of January 1989:

…the reality falls far short of the rhetoric. The June 1987 reform for elections to the local soviets only applied to 5 per cent of the seats. Izvestia’s report on the election of managers made it clear that it is not just the workers, but all employees (including managers and supervisors) who get the vote. In elections which have taken place so far, workers have not been allowed to campaign for individual candidates…

So much for workers’ power! The reality is that such reforms, severely constrained as they are, make no sense at all from the point of view of reviving genuine workers’ control. They can only be explained as a mechanism, among others, to mobilise sections of the working class within strict limits that don’t challenge the control of the bureaucracy as a class and under the leadership of the reform wing of the bureaucracy against its bureaucratic enemies. But even this limited reform was in the end too much for Gorbachev and was repealed. In the pages of Green Left Weekly and elsewhere, leading members of the DSP cited this repeal as evidence that perestroika failed. There has also been a change in their analysis of the earlier “heroic” period of reform, unfortunately without any admission that the former position was wrong. For instance, DSP leader Jim Percy wrote in the Green Left Weekly of September 1991 that:

Gorbachev himself created a very authoritarian presidency, with rule by decree. The attack on the privileges of the bureaucracy was limited; all of the ground was conceded to Yeltsin at an early stage [my emphasis – RB].

Previously the Gorbachev wing of the bureaucracy was seen as the harbinger of new soviet power – they were bringing in socialist democracy. Now this Leninist wing of the bureaucracy has apparently evaporated into thin air as the bureaucracy splits between the Yeltsinites who (according to Percy) are restoring capitalism and the Stalinist old guard who led the coup in September 1991 – an equally “restorationist” faction who baulk at the prospect of bourgeois democracy rather than at the market. The obvious conclusion, that a “workers’ power” wing of the bureaucracy never existed, is not admitted.

Of course socialists are not indifferent to reforms such as the democratisation inherent in glasnost, even when they are granted from above. However, only by understanding why the bureaucracy was willing to allow the opening up could we understand its limitations. Glasnost represented a tremendous opportunity for the Soviet working class to begin organising, to create independent organisations, to fight for their class interests. But the extent to which workers have illusions in any section of the bureaucracy, whether cohered around Gorbachev or Yeltsin, is an impediment to them doing so. The role of Yeltsin in ending two major miners’ strikes is a testament to this. That the Soviet working class should emerge from more than 60 years of Stalinism with lessons to learn anew is not surprising. It is the duty of the Western left to help revive a genuine revolutionary current in the Soviet working class. The cult of Gorbachev has been a major obstacle to this.

The failure of Perestroika

One of the most astonishing symptoms of the extent of the illusions in Gorbachev was the willingness of his Western admirers to deny the extent, or even the existence, of economic crisis in the USSR. Of course this sort of self-deception has a long history. Stalinist worship of the Soviet Union’s “glorious” economy, with its exponential growth as proof of the “superiority of socialism”, is legendary. But such a perception has not been confined to the Stalinists. It was Ernest Mandel, the leader of the orthodox Trotskyist Fourth International, who wrote in 1956:

The Soviet Union maintains a more or less even rhythm of economic growth, plan after plan, decade after decade, without the progress of the past weighing on the possibilities of the future… All the laws of development of the capitalist economy which provoke a slow down in the speed of economic growth are eliminated.[9]

Of course the Russian economy was growing .in the 1950s. It was still in the “heroic” phase of autarkic development, pulling peasants in from the countryside in vast numbers, developing the basic infrastructure for heavy industry. This early stage of state capitalist development, using the vast resources of Russia, marshalled under the whip of a seemingly omnipotent totalitarian state, to pull its economy into the twentieth century, was very successful. But once the basic building blocks of a modem capitalist economy were in place and qualitative development (more sophisticated technology, production of consumer goods, etc.) was called for instead of the simple accumulation of steel mills and coal mines, the strategy of autarky – the separation of the economy from the world market – became a problem rather than an asset. The rising organic composition of capital[10] was accompanied by a steady slowdown in growth rates throughout the 1960s and 1970s – mirroring the fall in the rate of profit in the West. Yet for those who refused to accept that Russia was capitalist, this fact was impossible to swallow. As the economy began to slow, Mandel and other orthodox Trotskyists failed to notice. As late as 1978, by which time the Brezhnev period of stagnation was well underway, Mandel was still writing of the states of Eastern Europes’ “ability to avoid among other things the slowdown and the great economic fluctuations, unemployment”. The Stalinists’ inability to recognise the crisis in Russia was predicated on their belief that Russia was socialist. After all, if a socialist state can suffer the same sort of economic crisis that afflicts the West, then what is the point of fighting for socialism? Despite their opposition to the bureaucracy, the orthodox Trotskyists’ characterisation of Russia as a “degenerated workers’ state” demanded a similar blindness to unpleasant economic statistics.

For Lenin in 1921, presiding over a genuine workers’ state (albeit one suffering, as he freely admitted, from “bureaucratic distortions”[11]) the criteria for defining a state as a “workers’ state” could remain political. The question was, which class controlled the state, not who controlled the economy. That was why Lenin had no compunction in admitting that the USSR was at that time state capitalist – albeit in that transitional stage to socialism, “state capitalism under workers’ control”. This was because the pressure of the world capitalist market made the development of socialism in one country impossible. The working class’s residual influence on the state could, as it did until 1928, moderate the extent to which the working class bore the burden of competition enforced on the Soviet economy. It could not eliminate it. Once political power resided neither in the hands of the workers’ soviets, nor even in the hands of a still revolutionary layer of old Bolsheviks, any attempt to describe Russia as a “workers’ state” could no longer be based on an understanding of who held political power.

Trotsky, in outlining his theory of the “degenerated workers’ state” identified the proletarian element of the state in the nationalised forms of property which he believed to be incompatible with capitalism.[12] This conception was a break with the Marxist orthodoxy on the question. As Engels had written in the course of a debate with a group of German socialists over their support for Bismarck’s program of nationalisation:

I know of capitalist production as a social form, as an economic stage: and of capitalist private production as a phenomenon occurring one way or another within that stage. What does capitalist private production mean then? Production by a single entrepreneur, and that is of course becoming more and more an exception. Capitalist private production through limited companies is already no longer private production, but production for the combined account of many people. And when we move on to the Trusts, which control and monopolise whole branches, then that means an end not only to the private production but also to planlessness.[13]

Engels actually went on to theorise a situation where the entire economy of a country would be under state control – state capitalism. Clearly the precise form of juridical ownership of the means of production is not the question. What is important is who controls production and to what ends. In Russia, a vast bureaucratic layer has controlled those means since it decisively entrenched itself in power during Stalin’s first Five Year Plan. It used that control to build up the Soviet economy at the expense of the mass of the population – the workers and peasants – and garnered wealth and privilege to itself. It competed on the world stage, attempting to match the US militarily – a competition which indirectly brought the pressure of the world market into the autarkic Russian economy. This surely is capitalism.

The theory of the degenerated workers’ state would, after World War II, led those of Trotsky’s followers who maintained the letter of his analysis to abandon the substance – the centrality of the working class in the struggle for socialism. They were forced to recognise that “workers’ states” had been formed in Eastern Europe and China without the intervention of the proletariat. The creation of states, clearly identical to Russia in every salient feature, without revolutions from below, posed a dilemma for Trotskyists. A handful around Tony Cliff in Britain (founders of the International Socialists) rejected the theory of the degenerated workers’ state, describing both Russia and its satellite states as “state capitalist”. This theory was consistent with the core of Trotsky’s ideas – the belief that the proletariat is the only class that can smash capitalism and build socialism. However the majority of Trotskyists maintained the old theory and extended it to the new states in Eastern Europe (only describing them as “deformed” rather than “degenerated” workers’ states). Stalin’s Red Army became the destroyer of capitalism, the creator of workers’ states, and the working class took the back seat. But also, the belief that the economies of the Eastern bloc contained superior “socialist” property forms and were based on superior “socialist” planning (however distorted by bureaucracy) led to the sort of blinkered faith in Soviet economic prosperity evidenced by Mandel and his followers. One such follower, Tariq Ali, was to become one of Gorbachev’s most ardent admirers in the West. Ali’s analysis of the origins of the crisis, while constantly using Marxist terminology, is nevertheless purely descriptive, pointing to such obvious triggers of the crisis as the need to compete militarily with the West without analysing what this competition says about the nature of the Russian state. His prescription for the economy is simply a banal homily:

This simple thesis is then given an ideological colouring: the market equals capitalism and it works; the plan equals socialism and it does not work. This is an entirely worthless argument at the level of general principles. Perfect markets would be fine and perfect planning would be fine, but neither are feasible in the present world… The fact is that both planning and markets possess benefits and deficiencies. What is clearly required is to practically combine the advantages of each while minimising their costs.[14]

Which class is responsible for the implementation of this benign mixture of planning and the market is unspecified. But then of course, Ali has already argued that workers’ power is simply to be “preferred”. The idea that the market has any place in a socialist economy is of course a clear break from Marxism. Enthusiasts for “market socialism” (another oxymoron!) often cite the adoption by Lenin of the New Economic Policy (NEP) of the early 1920s, with its limited opening up to the market, in order to give a Leninist gloss to their ideas. However the NEP was a temporary and defensive measure necessitated by the isolation of the Russian economy – by the impossibility of building socialism in one country. Lenin and the majority of the Bolshevik leadership were clear that this opening to the market had nothing to do with building socialism. We have already noticed how Lenin saw the economy of the workers’ state as essentially capitalist. Therefore the presence of market relations during the NEP is hardly surprising. The Bolsheviks were willing to make all sorts of economic concessions to the pressure of imperialism – of capitalism. They could hardly do otherwise in such a backward economy as Russia. What was important was maintaining the political core of proletarian rule until the spread of the revolution to more advanced capitalist countries such as Germany could place the transition to socialism on the agenda. That was why criticism of the Stalinist doctrine of “socialism in one country” was the starting point for Trotsky’s struggle against Stalinism. For “socialism in one country” could not, and did not mean the end to concessions to the economic pressures of capitalism. It meant instead describing, as the Stalinist bureaucracy was to continue to do for 70 years, the total capitulation to those pressures as the “building of socialism”.

Socialism can only be built on the basis of democratic planning based on workers’ control. The anarchy of the capitalist market is the very negation of any concept of an economy based on human needs. Those who worship it have abandoned the possibility that human beings can control their own destiny. Yet for those who long ago moved the working class away from the centre of their politics, the failure of the bureaucratic central “planning” in the Soviet Union leaves them with no alternative but some admixture of planning and the market. This is the case with Tariq Ali. It was also the case with the followers of Gorbachev here in Australia, such as the DSP. Renfrey Clarke in Direct Action in February 1989:

One of the reasons for this improvement is that the shift from the allocation of producer goods (such as plant and machinery) by the central state authorities to the use of direct market trade between enterprises has done away with countless delays and foul-ups.

But this use of the market is a specific mechanism within the socialised economy, and does not indicate that capitalist methods are superior, as much as the ideologues in the West would like to think it does. The difference, of course, is that the Soviet economy maintains effective central planning.

And just as Ernest Mandel was blind to the crisis in the Russian economy during the Brezhnev years, the DSP spent the last two years of the 1980s trumpeting a non-existent boom in the Russian economy. Witness the following headlines from their paper Direct Action: “September figures show living standards up” (29 November 1988); “Latest figures show further economic growth” (14 February, 1989); “Living standards rise as reforms bite” (21 February 1989). Mandel at least had the excuse in 1978 that the only figures which gave a clear assessment of the Soviet crisis were from the CIA. Yet one had to go no further in early 1989 than Abel Aganbegyan, one of Gorbachev’s advisers, to find the following admission:

The majority of Soviet families appear not to have sensed a change for the better… The supply of goods to the consumer market “suddenly” began to deteriorate sharply and noticeably before our eyes in the second half of 1987 and especially in 1988.[15]

There is no better example of this astonishing blindness than the article by Renfrey Clarke in Socialist Worker, quoted earlier. He argues against the notion that the USSR is in any sort of crisis with the selective use of official Soviet statistics. In the very same journal, Abel Aganbegyan exposes the dodgy nature of such statistics and bemoans the Soviet economic crisis!

So far I have concentrated mainly on those who most directly identified themselves with the Gorbachev cult. However the crisis in the USSR impacted far beyond their ranks. The problem with any attempt to describe the response of much of the left to the crisis in Russia is their astonishing lack of any attempt at an analysis. Tribune, the paper of the Communist Party (before party and paper both dissolved) is a case in point. While the Tribune of the late 1980s was not short of reportage on events in Russia, it eschewed the adulatory tone of Direct Action for bland reportage. In general it read like a rather shallow left-liberal news magazine, full of details of internal fights within the bureaucracy and general platitudes about the difficult situation Gorbachev found himself in, followed by pious hopes that the reform project wouldn’t fail. What the reform project represented, and what any of this had to do with socialism are obviously the sort of “dogmatic” and “passé” investigations that Eurocommunists have left far behind them. Nevertheless, the odd opinion sneaks through – albeit usually unintentionally. One such is the following extract from the draft platform of a Soviet Party conference published approvingly in the Tribune of 29 February 1990:

Another important task is the transformation of state property into property that will be democratically controlled by workers themselves…on the basis of leasing, full cost-accounting, contracts, joint stock and other forms. The use of any form of property must rule out the workers’ alienation from the means of production and the exploitation of man by man.

This novel concept of the liberating qualities of cost-accounting recalls the joke once current in the Eastern bloc that “capitalism is the exploitation of man by man, and communism the exact opposite”. Brian Aarons, writing in the Tribune of 18 July 1990 identified “one of the main obstacles to the success of perestroika” as “the blind refusal of much of the party apparatus to see the need for change”. He continued:

The existence of this very powerful and organised conservative force has been one of the main factors determining Gorbachev’s political moves up until now.

It is possible to draw one of two conclusions from this. Either Gorbachev’s isolation proved the impossibility of a socialist transformation being carried out from above, from within the ranks of the bureaucracy, or else (the position most commonly taken by the DSP) what was needed was for Gorbachev to reach out more energetically to the masses outside the CPSU to mobilise them against his conservative enemies. In this article Aarons chose the second, calling on Gorbachev to “move decisively to consolidate all the social and political forces favouring radical reform, and become part of their leadership”. Yet this call for Gorbachev to “do the right thing” was surely compromised by an earlier article by Jim Enderby in the Tribune of 2 May 1990 which commented:

Gorbachev still appears to have a clear agenda for change which charts a practical course between the extremes offered by the conservative and radical factions. It’s precisely this which makes Gorbachev’s position so strong.

So as Gorbachev found himself increasingly isolated within Russian society, hated by the mass of the population, with the bureaucracy polarising rapidly between the Yeltsin wing and the forces that would later launch the attempted coup, a small voice in the antipodes was cheering him on in his impossible tightrope act. Not only was the participation of the working class unnecessary in the Gorbachev “revolution”, the support of any significant section of the bureaucracy was not required. The demise of Tribune has left the task of commenting on Russia in the aftermath of the coup by what was the Communist Party to Australian Left Review (which could only be described as “left” under the broadest definition of that adjective). The first post-coup issue, under the quaint title “Goodbye Gorby”,[16] began by boasting that it used the headline “Death of Communism” before the bourgeois press. In an article entitled “Mikhail’s Moment of Truth”, Tony Phillips outlined how the

fourth, and most optimistic, scenario [for the USSR]…was the East European road. Somehow the democratisation process and the market reforms would continue in tandem to give the Soviet Union a more Western character.

With any luck they could end up with yuppies, homelessness, and ghettoes to go with their burgers and fries! He went on to argue that Gorbachev was too half-hearted in introducing market reforms. Paul Hirst, in an article in the same issue, entitled “The Limits to Civility”, created the bizarre counterposition of one-party rule with an eternally mobilised mass base versus multi-party democracy. He proceeded to argue for the second. In other words, if you want more than one party, you can’t have mass participation in the political process. The next issue of ALR (October 1991) concluded all this musing on the glories of Western parliamentary democracy with a series of articles on the theme “Are We All Social Democrats Now?”. The answer was generally in the affirmative. The only article to contain a substantial criticism of social democracy was one by Race Matthews, the former Victorian Police Minister and member of the ALP right! Matthews, in an article entitled “After Karl and Beatrice”, raised the radical (at least within the ALR milieu) notion that it

is no useful part of the social democratic or democratic socialist program to take major industries out of the hands of faceless and unaccountable directors…only to vest them in statutory corporations.

None of this commentary (with the exception of Paul Hirst’s opposition to mass protest) considered what the people at the bottom of these societies might want. The idea that the working class could have any say in the future of Russia and Eastern Europe was not even considered worthy of refutation. This failure to consider the attitudes or the behaviour of the working class is a thread running through most of the left’s reporting and analysis of events in Russia. It can be seen for instance in the failure of the Green Left Weekly to cover the great Russian miners’ strike of 1991. This in a paper that routinely covers even the most trivial debates within the Soviet bureaucracy and whose predecessor Direct Action was capable of devoting several pages to verbatim reports of Gorbachev’s speeches. The “Marxist” journal Arena is another case in point. For most of the period of Gorbachev’s reign it dealt with the problem of analysing the crisis in the supposed home of “Marxism” by failing to mention it. However the Eastern European revolutions of late 1989 forced the journal to devote a large section of its first edition of 1990 to the crisis. The editorial saw the crisis as the result of the failure of the “socialist” states (a definition which is accepted without question) to incorporate the intelligentsia. Doug White concluded with this reflection:

Whether Gorbachev and his associates can now restrain the pressures towards embracing the consumerism which dominates the West will decide their historical prospects.[17]

The dead hand of postmodernism, whose fashionable appeal has increasingly permeated this supposed bastion of the “Marxist” intelligentsia, is clear. The obsession with surface phenomena, the crude idealism which sees the apparent stability of the West as defined by the supposed “consumerist” incorporation of academics, leaves out of the analysis the hundreds of thousands of workers who struck or took to the streets of Budapest, Bucharest, Leipzig or Prague. And this refusal to look at the world from the point of view of the working class inevitably leads to a poisonous anti-working class political stance. The key to the situation becomes the ability of Gorbachev to “restrain the pressures towards embracing consumerism”. Since Arena printed these words, the workers throughout the old Eastern bloc have taken again to the streets to demand the living standards they were promised. Gorbachev and his “capitalist” counterparts in Berlin, Prague, Warsaw, etc. have shown great interest in “restraining” these “pressures towards embracing consumerism”. A genuine Marxist could only applaud the struggles of the working class. The editorial position of Arena on these recent struggles however remains a mystery, as its earlier silence on Eastern Europe has returned.

The retreat from October

The attitude socialists take to the Stalinist societies has always been a touchstone of their more general political stance. The worshipping of a foreign ruling class inevitably leads to elitism and a certain bureaucratism with regard to politics at home. The idea of “socialism from above” has poisoned the working class movement for over 60 years. Yet contradictory consciousness often allowed genuine militants to combine Stalinist politics with a subjectively revolutionary opposition to their own ruling class. The association of the Stalinist states with the genuine workers’ revolution of 1917 both played upon and reinforced this contradiction. The tragedy now is that for many the collapse of the Stalinist states is seen not simply as a reason for abandoning Stalinism but also for abandoning any commitment to revolution – for a retreat from October. Of course a handful may cling to their old ideas. The Moscow-line Socialist Party of Australia, always quietly suspicious of Gorbachev, initially supported the September coup. But what is possible for a small and ageing Stalinist sect may not be possible for those who represent more real forces. So for instance Joan Coxsedge, the Victorian State Labor MP, speaking at a forum of the left in Melbourne in October 1991, could both express nostalgia for the old East German regime, reflecting the latent Stalinist sympathies of much of the ALP left, while simultaneously declaring the need to reject the “authoritarianism” of Lenin.

Perhaps one of the most nauseating examples of this post-Stalinist rejection of Leninism comes from Joe Slovo of the South African Communist Party who recently wrote that:

Quite a few outstanding leaders of the Bolshevik revolution (including Trotsky, Bukharin, Kamenev and Radek) who came to be “oppositionists” to Stalinism, not only played a significant role in erecting part of its theoretical edifice, but also encouraged some of its practices before Stalin was in the saddle and long before the emergence of an economically privileged strata [sic].[18]

This statement comes from the leader of what has been perhaps the most unreconstructed of the – pro-Russian Communist parties – one which was implicated as recently as the 1980s in the murder of the very Trotskyists Slovo now wishes to accuse of proto-Stalinism! The problem is that the version of the Russian revolution adhered to by Stalinists was always one distorted by their own elitist and authoritarian conception of “Bolshevism” and in particular by the cult of Lenin. They saw the Russian revolution as a victory, not for workers’ power, but for the party, seizing power in the name of the masses under the infallible leadership of a godlike Lenin. When October is viewed in this way through the distorting prism of Stalinism, the crisis in Eastern Europe becomes a crisis for the idea of a revolutionary struggle against capitalism, or even for the notion that an alternative to capitalism is possible.

For a while, Stalinists can attempt to cling to Cuba as a last bastion. The genuine desire of all opponents of US imperialism to resist its attempts to impose its will on Cuba makes an identification with Castro seem more acceptable than would a glorification of, say, Kim Il Sung. But as the US blockade forces the Cuban regime to enforce harsh austerity measures on its own working class, unmitigated now by Soviet aid, the time scale for such a last ditch stand does not look promising. In the case of Cuba, the crisis of Stalinism runs into a related crisis of Stalinist liberation movements in the Third World. The days when liberal concern for the suffering of the Third World could combine with genuine anti-imperialism in the Western phenomenon of Third Worldism, thereby giving a left cover to Stalinist regimes in these countries, are numbered. In the Philippines and EI Salvador, the leaderships of the guerrilla movements have shown in the last two years a desperation to find a formula to end the armed struggle. The South African Communist Party, dominant now in the leadership of the trade union federation COSATU as well as the ANC, has followed the usual Stalinist policy of forestalling struggle in the hope of an alliance with a non-existent “progressive bourgeoisie”. When at the 1991 Socialist Scholars’ Conference in Melbourne, a speaker from the floor commented that the SACP programme appeared basically social democratic, a speaker from the SACP affirmed that it was. Ironically his affirmation followed a sneering reaction by the DSP members present that anyone could say such a thing of the SACP! The rate at which illusions are being shattered is simply breathtaking. The death of Stalinism is clearly upon us. The degeneration of its long dedicated cadre into social democracy continues unabated.

For the one-time followers of the Gorbachev cult, their own disillusionment carries similar dangers. We have already witnessed the way in which the likes of Tariq Ali and Renfrey Clarke were forced by their adulation for Gorbachev to adopt the fundamentally pessimistic and anti-working class notion of a “socialist” market. Now that Gorbachev has failed, the danger is that their adaption to Stalinism can slip over into the sort of social democratic adaption to capitalism witnessed in the phenomenon of Eurocommunism and which is evidenced in more hard-line Stalinist formations such as the South African CP. There is some hope that not all those who held some illusions in the Stalinist states will drift off in this direction. The Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire, the French section of Ernest Mandel’s Fourth International, recently admitted that recent events have cast doubt on the theory of the degenerated workers’ state. The 12 September edition of their paper Rouge had this to say:

…as of now the facts are sufficient to render necessary a critical re-examination of the analyses and of their consequences for practical activity. We are willing to take part in this re-examination and this debate, which will be illuminated by joint action with all those who, facing the enormous challenges that we do, will remain faithful to the defence of the exploited and oppressed.[19]

Such a re-examination would be welcome indeed. There is an alternative to a pessimistic retreat from October. It is an alternative which does not involve any concession to the Stalinist corpse whose stench so pervades the air of Eastern Europe and China. It is the tradition kept alive by Trotsky in the dark years of the 1930s, of socialism from below, of internationalism, of a revolution based upon workers’ soviets. In order to continue that tradition today, revolutionaries must reject any idea that the Stalinist regimes were in any way preferable to Western capitalism. The idea that Russia is state capitalist is no sectarian shibboleth, but an essential starting point for anyone who wants to defend the October revolution, or to oppose Stalinism without capitulating to social democratic illusions in the Western market or bourgeois democracy. The dream of Gorbachev has been dispelled. For those who fixed their attention on the figure in the Kremlin, the realisation that he is a mere mortal must be devastating. But for those of us who looked always to the streets and the factories, the mines and the universities, the defeat of the coup was a cause for excitement. The Soviet working class, silent for so long, is beginning to find its voice. We can only hope the shout of defiance we heard in September can become a roar, in another October.

[1] See for instance “Living standards rise as reforms bite”, Direct Action, 21 February 1989.

[2] Tariq Ali, Revolution From Above: Where is the Soviet Union Going?, Hutchinson, London, 1988, page xii.

[3] This difference is reflected in the fact that whereas one of the first sizeable opposition groups in Russia entitled itself “The Popular Front for Radical Perestroika”, the Australian Democratic Socialist Party popularised the slogan “Glasnost is it”.

[4] Resolution for the 19th Party Conference on perestroika from the Central Committee of the CPSU.

[5] Abel Aganbegyan, “Restructuring the Soviet Economy, its necessity, means and objectives”, quoted in Socialist Worker, theoretical journal of the Socialist Workers Party (Australia), November 1988.

[6] Pravda, 22 August 1985. Stakhanovism was a propaganda campaign which held “super workers” up as an example to force extra productivity out of workers at the height of the Stalinist industrialisation.

[7] Quoted in Chanie Rosenberg, Women and Perestroika, Bookmarks, London 1989, p100.

[8] Renfrey Clarke, “Perestroika and the International Socialists: A Critique of ‘State Capitalism’”, Socialist Worker, November 1988.

[9] Ernest Mandel, Quatrième Internationale, année 14 (1956), Nos 1-3.

[10] The “tendency for the rate of profit to fall”, central to the Marxist explanation of capitalist crisis, is understood to be based on the tendency for the “organic composition” of capital to rise. This refers to the increasing proportion of capital investment taken by non-labour components due to technical innovation (the source of surplus value – profit – being human labour). The fact that the rise of the organic composition of capital in Russia since the Second World War has been accompanied by lower profits and therefore lower growth rates is one of the key indicators of the fundamentally capitalist nature of Russia. See Chris Harman, Explaining the Crisis, Bookmarks, London, 1984, for a more detailed treatment of this argument.

[11] Quoted in Alex Callinicos, The Revenge of History, Polity Press, Cambridge, 1991, p27.

[12] For Trotsky’s views see The Revolution Betrayed, Pathfinder Press, New York.

[13] Quoted in Peter Binns, “The Theory of State Capitalism”, International Socialism, 1:74, January 1975.

[14] Tariq Ali, Revolution From Above, p71.

[15] Pravda, 6 February 1989.

[16] See Australian Left Review, September 1991 and October 1991 for the articles cited here.

[17] Doug White, Editorial in Arena, 90, 1990.

[18] Joe Slovo, “Socialist Aspirations and Socialist Realities”, The African Communist, No.124, 1991.

[19] Quoted in the British Trotskyist newspaper Socialist Organiser, 26 September 1991.

Confronting the Stalinist legacy

One of the magnificent features of the Arab revolutions is the ruthless manner in which they have exposed the dirty, duplicitous, hypocritical, blood-soaked truth about the global political establishment. As the revolutionary wave spread to envelop almost the whole of North Africa and the Middle East, Western politicians, diplomats, university heads, business executives and government bureaucrats squirmed, as evidence of their ties with the despots of the Arab world circulated across the internet.

Stalin’s industrialisation and the myth of the planned economy

Anne Picot debunks the commonly held idea that the USSR was an example of a planned economy.

Reading on Eastern Europe

Tess Lee Ack surveys contemporary literature that can assist readers to understand the fall of the Berlin Wall and its broader significance.