Workers Hammer No. 201
Spartacist League forum
90 years after the Bolshevik October
"We are the party of the Russian Revolution"
We publish below an edited version of the presentation given by comrade Edith Goldberg at a Spartacist League forum at the University of London Union on 3 November 2007. The forum was held in commemoration of the 90th anniversary of the October 1917 Russian Revolution. In her talk, comrade Goldberg pointed out that while various fake socialist groups are paying hypocritical lip service to the anniversary of the Revolution, they sided at every turn with the imperialist bourgeoisie’s campaign to overturn the world’s first workers state and restore capitalist exploitation to the land of October. In contrast, the International Communist League (ICL) fought to the limits of our resources to defend the USSR against capitalist counterrevolution. Today it is the ICL which uniquely upholds the programme of October, to rid humanity of capitalist barbarism. As American Trotskyist leader James P Cannon explained in a 15 October 1939 speech on the “Russian question”: “We are, in fact, the party of the Russian revolution. We have been the people, and the only people, who have had the Russian revolution in their program and in their blood.”
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We are here to celebrate the 90th anniversary of the Bolshevik-led Russian Revolution, which was an enormous step forward in human history. It profoundly shaped the history of the world in the 20th century. We of the ICL look to the Russian Revolution and the Bolshevik party as a model for the kind of party we seek to build and for our overriding goal of new October Revolutions. Above all the Bolshevik Revolution teaches us that socialist revolution is the only way to rid the world of the evils of capitalism. Under this system, neo-colonial adventures such as the barbaric occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as the impoverishment of the neo-colonial countries, are a necessary and permanent condition; so too is grinding poverty, the oppression of women and hideous racism, which is today fuelled by the targeting of Muslims under the so-called “war on terror”.
Moreover, today’s world is shaped by the counterrevolutionary destruction of the former Soviet Union and the bourgeoisie celebrates the so-called “death of communism”. The real meaning of this campaign against the Bolshevik October is “never again”. Never again should the working class lead the oppressed to overthrow the parasitical capitalists, landlords and their church. One of our most important tasks in the post-Soviet world is to maintain our proletarian revolutionary perspective and programme, despite the ideological onslaughts in this reactionary period. We do so by intervening as a fighting propaganda group in social struggles where our resources permit and by applying the lessons of our revolutionary forebears, particularly the Bolshevik party of Lenin and Trotsky.
For most of the 20th century, virtually every group claiming to be Marxist or “socialist” anywhere in the world felt obliged to pay lip service to the Bolshevik Revolution. Such was its immense appeal to the working masses of the world, even the parliamentarist British Labour Party was compelled to adopt “Clause IV” in 1918. This supposed commitment to “common ownership” was a conscious ploy to dupe revolutionary-minded workers into believing that “socialism” could be achieved through parliament, by electing a Labour government committed to nationalising industry while leaving the capitalist state machinery intact. The Labour Party’s role in betraying the working class was clearly seen during the revolutionary upsurge that followed the Bolshevik Revolution and the end of World War I, during which British capitalism was profoundly shaken. In 1920, in opposition to British imperialism’s military intervention to crush the Soviet workers state, over 350 councils of action sprang up all over the country and dual power was developing. The treacherous Labour leaders placed themselves at the head of these councils to head off the possibility of revolution and save the capitalist order.
For revolutionaries in Britain, one of the most crucial lessons of the Bolshevik Revolution is understanding that a fundamental dividing line separates Leninism from Labourite reformism. The Labour Party was what Lenin termed a bourgeois workers party, meaning it had a mass working-class base but a pro-capitalist leadership and programme. Politically, it was the party of the wretched trade union bureaucracy. For a century the strategic obstacle to building a revolutionary party in this country has been the Labour Party’s social-democratic reformism, based on peddling illusions in the “democratic” credentials of British imperialism and its vaunted parliamentary system.
The Bolshevik party was unique among the socialist organisations of its time. In the period during which it was forged by Lenin into an instrument for revolution, two key questions of programme divided revolutionaries from reformists: the interimperialist war of 1914-18 and the Bolshevik Revolution, ie the dictatorship of the proletariat. At the outbreak of WWI on 4 August 1914, the German Social Democracy (like most other parties in the Second International) passed definitively into the camp of social chauvinism by supporting their “own” bourgeoisie in war. The British trade union bureaucracy and Labour leaders too were firmly in the camp of British imperialism on the war. Prominent among them was Arthur Henderson who is said to have led the cheering in the British parliament when Irish revolutionary James Connolly was executed for leading the 1916 Easter Rising.
In 1914 Lenin insisted on the necessity for a political break with the Second International and called for the foundation of a new international. Following the Bolshevik Revolution, in 1919 the Third (Communist) International was founded and, under Lenin and Trotsky’s leadership, it sought to forge vanguard parties to fight for proletarian revolutions worldwide. British Labour leaders such as Henderson and Ramsay Macdonald tried to undercut this effort by reviving the Second International, which Macdonald described as “the only real bulwark against Bolshevism short of military execution” (quoted in Parliamentary Socialism, Ralph Miliband, 1972). And a bulwark against communism is precisely what the British Labour Party became. One of its leading figures, Ernest Bevin, who in 1920 had placed himself at the head of the councils of action, went on to play a leading role in the 1949 formation of NATO, the imperialists’ anti-Soviet military alliance. Labourite reformism combined two interrelated factors: anti-Sovietism and loyalty to “democratic” British imperialism.
Another vital lesson from the October Revolution is the need to relentlessly expose and combat the reformists and social chauvinists. Today, with New Labour no longer even pretending to be a reformist party, the role of duping workers into seeking improvements in the capitalist system by mass pressure on Parliament is carried on by reformist organisations such as the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) and the Socialist Party, both of whom have been firmly in the camp of Labour and British imperialism for decades.
Every left organisation is defined by its programme regarding not only the Bolshevik Revolution itself, but the state that issued from it, the Soviet Union. Defence of the USSR, despite its bureaucratic degeneration under the rule of the Stalinist caste, was a litmus test for all organisations claiming to stand for socialism. We Trotskyists fought to the end in defence of the Soviet workers state. Uniquely, the ICL intervened in the Soviet Union seeking to mobilise the working class against the powerful forces of capitalist restoration led by Boris Yeltsin, backed by imperialism. It is especially important to understand that many of the groups who today are singing the praises of the Russian Revolution on its 90th anniversary — including the Socialist Party and the SWP — in 1991 joined with the American and British imperialists in cheering for the demise of the USSR, a catastrophe of historic proportions.
The same test also applies today to those remaining states where capitalism has been overthrown: China, Cuba, North Korea and Vietnam. The imperialists are driving for capitalist counterrevolution in China and the other deformed workers states. We are unique in our fight for unconditional military defence of these states, and for workers political revolution to oust the Stalinist bureaucracies that rule there. This is part of our fight for socialist revolution in the capitalist countries worldwide.
Defend the Chinese workers state!
The reformists who supported counterrevolution in the homeland of October today declare that China is capitalist and/or that there is nothing there to defend. This flows from their programme of promoting bourgeois democracy over the dictatorship of the proletariat and the gains of the collectivised economy. The Chinese Revolution of 1949 was not led by a revolutionary internationalist party; the working class did not play a leading role and the state that issued from it was a bureaucratically deformed workers state. Nonetheless, Mao’s peasant army smashed the bourgeois state and the Chinese bourgeoisie fled to Taiwan. Land was distributed to the peasants and later collectivised. Women, who had been basically chattel for a thousand years advanced by many orders of magnitude beyond that oppression.
China today is not capitalist — the economy is still primarily based on collectivised property. It has one of the largest and most militant proletariats in the world, an industrial sector sufficiently developed to build a nuclear deterrent to the imperialists, who are intensifying military pressure on China. This makes all the more clear our duty to fight for the unconditional military defence of China and North Korea, against the imperialist powers and the threat of internal counterrevolution. As we did in the former USSR and the East European deformed workers states, we also call for proletarian political revolutions to get rid of the ruling nationalist bureaucracies — whose policies undermine and weaken those states — and install governments based on workers democracy and revolutionary internationalism.
Lenin calls to turn the imperialist war into a civil war
The hoopla and chauvinist flag-waving which was seen in all the imperialist countries at the start of WWI gave way to a wave of proletarian revolutionary struggle inspired by revulsion at the butchery of war. Lenin’s position on WWI, was revolutionary defeatism, meaning hostility to both sides and fighting for revolutionary upheavals of the proletariat on both sides. Lenin’s main slogans were: “The main enemy is at home!” and “Turn the imperialist war into a civil war!” The Bolsheviks galvanised revulsion against the war into an understanding of the need for working-class power, which required combating all illusions among the masses in the Mensheviks and the peasant party, the Social Revolutionaries (SRs).
By 1917 there were mass desertions in the tsarist army and orders were being refused. This was a key factor in toppling the tsar in the February Revolution, which opened up a period of dual power within Russia. The bourgeois Kadet party set up the Provisional Government, a capitalist government which existed side by side with the soviets, the organisations of the working class, peasants and soldiers. At the time of the February Revolution the Mensheviks and SRs formed the majority in the Soviets, because while the workers had overthrown the tsar, they were not yet sufficiently conscious of their historic role to actually take power. The Mensheviks helped retard consciousness with their perspective of “two-stage” revolution, according to which the revolution in Russia belonged to the bourgeoisie and the main task of the day was the establishment of a Constituent Assembly. Instead of fighting for working-class power, the Mensheviks supported the Provisional Government.
Describing what dual power means, the first Minister of War in the Provisional Government, Alexander Guchkov, complained: “The government, alas, has no real power; the troops, the railroads, the post and telegraph are in the hands of the Soviet. The simple fact is that the Provisional Government exists only so long as the Soviet permits it” (quoted in History of the Russian Revolution, Leon Trotsky, 1933). Between February and October there was continual conflict between the Provisional Government and the Soviets. Referring to the Menshevik/SR leaders of the Soviets, Lenin wrote: “They refuse to recognise the obvious truth that inasmuch as these Soviets exist, inasmuch as they are a power, we have in Russia a state of the type of the Paris Commune” (“The Dual Power”, 9 April 1917).
Lenin’s understanding of the nature of the state was based on the key lesson drawn by Karl Marx from the Paris Commune — that the working class cannot simply lay hold of the machinery of the capitalist state and wield it for its own purposes. The capitalist state must be shattered in the course of revolution and replaced by a new state power of the working class. Lenin considered this so important that he wrote his scathing polemic State and Revolution in the heat of revolution; the second part was published after the revolution as The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky.
It would take the October Revolution to resolve the dual power situation in the interests of the working class. The Mensheviks and SRs tacitly accepted that the February Revolution had achieved the main task of overthrowing the monarchy, and now the “free people” had to defend themselves against the German Kaiser. In other words the war aims of the Russian bourgeoisie would continue under the cover of “democracy” rather than the Romanov eagle. Lenin had been in exile during the February Revolution and the subsequent month. In his absence the Bolshevik leaders in Russia began to bend in the direction of the Mensheviks. In March, Pravda, then edited by Stalin, Kamenev and Muranov, carried an article which declared:
“Our slogan is not the empty cry ‘Down with War!’ which means the disorganization of the revolutionary army and of the army that is becoming ever more revolutionary. Our slogan is to bring pressure [!] to bear on the Provisional Government so as to compel it to make, without fail, openly and before the eyes of world democracy [!], an attempt [!] to induce [!] all the warring countries to initiate immediate negotiations to end the world war. Till then let everyone [!] remain at his post [!].”
—quoted and emphasis added by Leon Trotsky, Lessons of October (1924)
On his return to Russia in April, Lenin led a sharp fight to reorient the Bolshevik party. At stake in this fight was the question of the working class taking power, as Trotsky noted in Lessons of October, saying: “The fundamental controversial question around which everything else centred was this: whether or not we should struggle for power; whether or not we should assume power.”
Permanent revolution v two-stage class collaboration
The key aspects of Lenin’s fight in April were presented in his “April Theses”, in which he also argued for the abandonment of old slogans, including his own slogan of the “revolutionary democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry”. This in fact was a two-class dictatorship — a contradiction in terms. Lenin repudiated it in practice, thus arriving at essentially the same conception of the Russian Revolution as Trotsky had outlined as early as 1905, known as the theory of permanent revolution. Trotsky understood that the completion of the democratic tasks in backward Russia was conceivable only under the dictatorship of the proletariat, leaning on the peasantry, and that the seizure of power by the working class in Russia would place on the order of the day not only the democratic, but also the socialist tasks. This would give a powerful impetus to international socialist revolution, which was necessary for the development of socialism in Russia.
The programme of permanent revolution for neo-colonial countries of belated capitalist development has been confirmed over and over. It is the cornerstone of our programme for countries like Mexico, India and South Africa today. It is counterposed to the Menshevik schema of “two-stage revolution”, as practised by the Stalinist South African Communist Party who today use this to justify their participation in the capitalist coalition government with COSATU and the ANC. The Tripartite Alliance government has broken strikes, condemned millions to die of AIDS, while propping up the neo-apartheid capitalist order that leaves the overwhelming majority in dire poverty. The Mensheviks argued that because of Russia’s backwardness the country had to experience a period of bourgeois “democracy”, ie it was premature for the working class to take power. The point about the “two-stage” revolution is that the first stage is the alliance of the working class with alien class forces, and the second stage invariably sees the beheading and destruction of the workers movement by the bourgeoisie and certainly never leads to socialism.
Having handed power to the bourgeois Provisional Government in February, the Mensheviks proceeded to form a coalition government with the Kadets. This was a classic popular front government, a form of class collaboration designed to fool the workers that their concerns can be met through the bourgeois state. As Leninist revolutionaries, opposition to popular fronts is a question of principle. We fight for proletarian political independence from the class enemy. Even when a bourgeois parliament convenes with all manner of so-called socialists, it remains a capitalist government. Workers must fight for state power through their own organs.
Two months after the fall of the tsar the Kadet foreign minister Miliukov reiterated Russia’s support for the imperialist war, which provoked a demonstration by armed workers under the slogan: “Down with the Provisional Government!” Now in government, the Mensheviks took on the task of mobilising for a new offensive against Germany. This was naturally very unpopular and to try and recover some credibility with the working class, the Mensheviks called for a demonstration. On 1 July the workers turned out but to the horror of the Mensheviks, banner after banner was emblazoned with the slogans of the Bolsheviks: “Down with the ten capitalist ministers!” “Down with the offensive!” “All power to the Soviets!”
The military offensive was a debacle and the German army attacked Riga in August. Petrograd was vulnerable but, given the revolutionary ferment, the Russian bourgeoisie feared its own proletariat more than the advancing armies of the Kaiser. There was a real pressure in this situation to call for defence of Petrograd as the city of the revolutionary working class. Fearing that defensive moods would turn into a defensist policy, Lenin wrote: “We shall become defensists only after the transfer of power to the proletariat
. Neither the capture of Riga nor the capture of Petersburg will make us defensists.” Writing from prison, Trotsky said: “The fall of Riga is a cruel blow. The fall of Petersburg would be a misfortune. But the fall of the international policy of the Russian proletariat would be ruinous” (both quotations cited in Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution).
Bolsheviks lead working class to power
In July 1917 Petrograd was in revolutionary fervour with the rest of the country lagging behind, but by October this had changed. Peasants were seizing the land in the countryside and the whole country was ready for revolution. Lenin fought hard for the Bolsheviks to seize power. Early in October — over the head of the Bolshevik Central Committee — Lenin wrote to the Petrograd and Moscow Committees: “Delay is a crime. Waiting for the Congress of Soviets is a childish toying with formalities” and a “betrayal of the revolution” (quoted in Lessons of October). On 10 October the Bolshevik Central Committee voted for insurrection, by ten votes to two — Zinoviev and Kamenev voted against. The workers were arming, drilling, setting up the Red Guards. Workers at the weapons factories were funnelling weapons directly to the workers.
Key to the toppling of the tsar was the mass disaffection of the peasant base of the tsarist army. Likewise, for the working class to take power, a class split in the army was necessary. The mechanism for this was the Military Revolutionary Committee established by the Petrograd Soviet in October with Trotsky as its principal political leader. Through it, in what one might call a “cold insurrection”, the Bolshevik-led soviet took control of the armed bodies of men out of the hands of the Provisional Government. By 13 October, the Soldiers’ Section of the Petrograd Soviet voted to transfer military authority from headquarters to the Military Revolutionary Committee.
On 24 October, the head of the government, Kerensky, tried to shut down the Bolshevik newspaper. This provided the spark for the seizure of power. The Military Revolutionary Committee sent in a detachment to reopen the newspaper which also seized government institutions and communication centres. Lenin was still concerned that events were proceeding too slowly and went in disguise to the Bolshevik headquarters at Smolny, where the Petrograd Soviet was located. As the Second All Russia Congress of the Soviets opened on the morning of 25th October, the gunship Aurora was still firing on the Winter Palace. The uprising and seizure of power was openly proclaimed by the Military Revolutionary Committee.
Lenin opened his speech at the Congress with the famous sentence: “We shall now proceed to construct the socialist order.” The peace decree promised an end to secret diplomacy and proposed to the governments and peoples of the warring countries immediate negotiations to secure a democratic peace without annexations and without indemnities. The land decree, borrowed in its essentials from the agrarian programme of the Left SRs, abolished private property in land and provided for the transfer of all private and church estates to land committees and soviets of peasants’ deputies for distribution to the peasantry according to need. A new revolutionary government of People’s Commissars was appointed, which over the next period proceeded to nationalise the banks, restart industry and lay the foundations of the new soviet state.
The revolutionary government granted self-determination to the many oppressed nations of the former tsarist empire and tore down the whole edifice of Russian patriarchal mediaevalism upon which the tsarist autocracy had rested. The early Soviet government not only separated church and state but poured funds into secular education and science, promoting a thoroughly materialist worldview. It eliminated all laws discriminating against national and ethnic minorities and women; Soviet Russia also eliminated all discriminatory laws against homosexuals. It was the first country of significance to give the vote to women. From the beginning, the October Revolution was seen by the Bolsheviks as only the start of what was to be a European-wide workers revolution. And the revolutionary proletariat in Russia was infused with this internationalism. On the eve of the insurrection in Petrograd, the workers of the giant Putilov munitions factory and the pro-Bolshevik soldiers of the Pavlovsky Regiment exchanged banners of solidarity. The Putilov banner read: “Long Live the Russian Revolution as the Prologue to the Social Revolution in Europe!”
Rise of Stalinism
Russia was a very backward country in which the vast majority of the population were peasants. No one in the Bolshevik party thought for a minute that you could build socialism in Russia at this time, since Marxists understand that a socialist society is only possible once the majority of the world market is torn from imperialist domination through victorious workers revolutions in the imperialist centres. The Bolsheviks did however firmly believe that the working class should take power in this backward country and use this victory to inspire the proletarians of the imperialist centres to do likewise. The Bolshevik Revolution inspired many revolutionary struggles throughout the world. However the tide began to ebb, especially in the wake of the failure of the German revolution of 1923. This defeat was tremendously demoralising for the worn-out and hungry proletariat in Russia, and left the fledgling workers state in Russia without access to desperately needed industrial goods. After seven years of imperialist aggression, first in the interimperialist war and then through the wars of intervention and civil war, the economy was in tatters. Russia was left politically isolated, surrounded by hostile capitalist powers.
Under these conditions, a conservative and bureaucratised layer in the party and state apparatus coalesced around Stalin and came to the fore, intent on preserving its relatively privileged status amid extreme poverty, scarcity and imperialist hostility. The defeat of the emerging Left Opposition by these forces at the rigged 13th Party Conference in January 1924 marked the qualitative point in the seizure of political power by the Stalinist bureaucracy. Thus began the process of degeneration of the Soviet Union. It was a political counterrevolution rather than a social one, because the nascent bureaucracy hijacked the governmental apparatus but did not overturn the socialised property forms created by October.
Despite the triumph of the bureaucratic caste and the consequent degeneration of the Soviet workers state, the central gains of the revolution — embodied in the overthrow of capitalist property relations and the establishment of a planned economy — remained. The gains were apparent, for example, in the material position of women. That is why we, standing on the heritage of Trotsky’s Left Opposition, stood for the unconditional military defence of the Soviet Union against imperialist attack and for an intransigent fight against all threats of capitalist counterrevolution, internal or external. At the same time we understood that the bureaucratic caste at the top was a mortal threat to the continued existence of the workers state. We called for a proletarian political revolution in the Soviet Union to oust the bureaucracy, to restore soviet workers democracy and to pursue the fight for the international proletarian revolution necessary to build socialism.
The Trotskyist movement had long predicted that counterrevolution in Soviet Russia would enormously strengthen the forces of capitalist reaction on a global scale. For example, in 1929, a founding document of the International Left Opposition in the US forewarned:
“The collapse of the Russian revolution as the dictatorship of the proletariat would signify the retardation for decades of the revolutionary movement in Europe and America and the uprisings of the colonial peoples, whose main point of support today is the victory of the Russian October. A collapse would be followed by an unequalled reign of reaction throughout the world and would entail a restoration of world imperialist rule without precedent in the last two or three decades.”
—“Platform of the Communist Opposition”, reprinted in James P Cannon, Writings and Speeches, 1928-31: The Left Opposition in the US 1928-31 (1981)
The retardation of the revolutionary movement is a fact of life in the post-Soviet world.
Defending the Soviet Union in the Cold War
The Stalinist bureaucracy was an unstable caste resting parasitically on the socialised foundations of the workers state, which it was at times compelled to defend. This contradictory character was evident even in the last years of the Brezhnev regime, with the December 1979 Soviet military intervention into Afghanistan against a CIA-backed insurgency by woman-hating Islamic reactionaries. From the point of view of the working class, the intervention in Afghanistan was one of the few supportable acts of the Soviet Stalinists. Regardless of their intentions, the Red Army presence was an act of defence of the borders of the Soviet Union against the largest ever CIA covert operation and it posed the possibility of extending the gains of October to the benighted peoples of Afghanistan. We said: “Hail Red Army in Afghanistan!” The intervention of Soviet troops drew a howl of rage and horror from the Labourite left, including from so-called Trotskyist groups at the time.
The bureaucracy’s 1988-89 withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan under Mikhail Gorbachev, appeasing imperialism at the very borders of the USSR, was a critical betrayal, and a tip-off that the Stalinists would soon renounce any intention of defending the Soviet Union itself against imperialism. We said better to fight to defend the Soviet Union in Jalalabad than within the borders of the Soviet Union itself. We put our money where our mouth is and volunteered to raise a brigade to help defend the Afghan city of Jalalabad against the CIA’s mujahedin. The Afghan government turned down this offer, but we raised thousands of dollars in our public work to support the defence of that city.
Incipient political revolution in East Germany
Counterrevolution in the USSR was far from inevitable, as was shown by the incipient proletarian political revolution that developed in the East German deformed workers state when the Berlin Wall came down in late 1989. Here the ICL uniquely intervened, mobilising all our resources to seize the opportunity to implement the Trotskyist programme. Again, the fake-Trotskyists lined up with the forces of counterrevolution, in particular the West German social-democratic proponents of bourgeois “democracy”. The Committee for a Workers International (CWI, to which the Socialist Party is affiliated) called for the West German SPD to go on the offensive; we rightly insisted that the SPD was the Trojan horse for counterrevolution. We intervened actively with our perspective for a red Germany of workers councils, ie for revolutionary reunification of Germany. Ours was a direct challenge for power and the only challenge to the sellout of the DDR to West German imperialism by the Moscow and East Berlin Stalinists.
Although shaped by the disproportion of forces, there was in fact a contest between the ICL programme of political revolution and the Stalinist programme of capitulation and counterrevolution. Ten years after capitalist reunification we received a powerful confirmation of the impact we had in East Germany and the degree to which the Stalinists were alarmed by this, when Mikhail Gorbachev stated on German TV that the Soviet leadership changed its mind on the question of reunification after 3 January 1990. This was the date of the demonstration against the fascist desecration of the Treptow Soviet war memorial. We initiated this rally, which brought out 250,000 people because the SED feared how much our programme resonated among East Berlin workers and felt compelled to mobilise its base. For the first time since Trotsky’s expulsion from the Soviet Union, Trotskyists were able to address a mass audience in a deformed workers state. We threw our small revolutionary forces into a struggle for power. We were defeated, but we fought.
The events of August 1991 in the USSR proved to be decisive in the restoration of capitalism in the homeland of October. Gorbachev had unleashed openly capitalist forces within the Soviet Union who adopted as their leader Boris Yeltsin and propounded capitalist shock treatment. Opposing Yeltsin and the pro-Western “democrats” were the so-called “conservatives” or “patriots” of the Stalinist bureaucracy based in the military-industrial complex and Soviet Communist Party apparatus. Contrary to the propaganda of Western imperialism and its Russian camp followers, the “conservatives” were not committed to preserving a collectivised economy, much less to restoring the old Stalinist order. Rather they wanted to preserve a USSR-wide state formation while introducing capitalism more slowly and in a way that benefited themselves. Declaring themselves the State Emergency Committee, this group of bureaucrats announced they were taking control in the Kremlin. Yeltsin responded by organising a countercoup, setting up barricades around the White House. The State Emergency Committee made no attempt to arrest Yeltsin or to cut off his links with George Bush Sr. When Bush declared that Yeltsin was his man, the committee quickly disintegrated and Yeltsin and his henchmen took power. This government then set about enforcing capitalist shock treatment.
The ICL uniquely raised the alarm, distributing tens of thousands of leaflets throughout the Soviet Union “Soviet Workers: Defeat Yeltsin-Bush counterrevolution!” This was the first anti-Yeltsin communist protest in all of the USSR. We sought to mobilise the working class to defend the gains of the revolution, form workers councils, return to the road of Lenin and Trotsky. In sharp counterposition to this, much of the left stood on Yeltsin’s barricades. Workers Power for example wrote at the time:
“No matter what the socially counterrevolutionary nature of Yeltsin’s programme, no matter how many spivs and racketeers joined the barricades to defend the Russian parliament, it would be revolutionary suicide to back the coup-mongers and support the crushing of democratic rights”.
—Workers Power, September 1991
Along with the priests, yuppies and fascists, they were joined by the CWI, who went as far as boasting in their press that they intervened in factories to actively discourage workers from fighting Yeltsin. The SWP exulted: “Communism has collapsed”, adding: “It is a fact that should have every socialist rejoicing” (Socialist Worker, 31 August 1991).
The greatest devastation brought about by the fall of the USSR has taken place on its own former territory. Economic catastrophe has befallen the population; the degradation of women and national minorities — seen in the slaughter inflicted by Russian occupation forces in Chechnya — is rampant. Just as Soviet progress could be measured in the figures of concrete, steel and education, so now can capitalism’s return be measured in figures of ruin, disease and barbarism. In 1989, average male life expectancy was 64.2 years. In Yeltsin’s Russia of 1994, it dropped to 57.6 years. This is a historically unprecedented sudden drop in life expectancy. A 16-year-old boy has less of a chance to survive to 60 in Putin’s Russia than in the benighted filth of 19th century tsarism!
The economic collapse of post-Soviet Russia was unprecedented for a modern society: gross domestic product fell by over 80 per cent from 1991 to 1997; according to official (understated) statistics, capital investment dropped over 90 per cent. By the middle of the 1990s, 40 per cent of the population of the Russian Federation was living below the official poverty line and a further 36 per cent only a little above it. Millions were literally starving. Infrastructure from hospitals to heating is rotting, and rates of TB and HIV infection are soaring.
The betrayals by the reformists who supported counterrevolution in the former USSR did not fall from the sky, but were conditioned by their decades-long support for the British Labour Party which maintained British imperialism throughout the 20th century, and their intransigent illusions that bourgeois democracy is the highest form of government. This led to their support to counterrevolutionary movements throughout the 1980s, from the mujahedin in Afghanistan to Solidarność in Poland. In this, they share the political bankruptcy of the Mensheviks in Russia in 1917.
In the post-Soviet world, we struggle to maintain revolutionary continuity with the programme of Lenin’s Bolsheviks. The reactionary period we are in makes it all the more vital that we study the lessons of the revolutionary period defined by the great October Revolution. Because as Marxists we know the situation will change, and we don’t know when. A comrade’s remarks at a 15 April 2006 Spartacist League/Britain dayschool in London succinctly capture the situation we’re confronted with:
“Now we’re in an unusually deep trough, and the experiences that are immediately available to us are not very good. So we had better make very heavy reference back to the experiences of the workers movement when it could see much further: 1918 through 1921. And furthermore, there’s a quote by Lenin in January 1917. He gave a talk in Switzerland and said: ‘We of the older generation may not live to see the decisive battles of this coming revolution.’ Now, I run into various panacea-mongers who say, what is your immediate perspective? Don’t pay so much attention to your immediate perspective, because you don’t know what’s going to happen in February! What is your programme? That is the decisive question.”
—Workers Hammer no 195, Summer 2006