Workers Vanguard No. 866
17 March 2006
British SWP: Reformists Who Hailed Counterrevolution
They Fought for the Post-Soviet World, Now They've Got It
We reprint below an article that originally appeared in Workers Hammer No. 194 (Spring 2006), newspaper of the Spartacist League/Britain, section of the International Communist League.
In August 1991, when Boris Yeltsins counterrevolutionary forces backed by George Bush Sr. seized power, every capitalist ruling class on the planet was triumphant. They loudly proclaimed this to be the death of communism, hoping to bury the prospect of working-class revolution that the Soviet Union represented. Equally jubilant was the Socialist Workers Party [SWP—then affiliated to the International Socialist Organization in the U.S.], whose front page trumpeted: Communism Has Collapsed followed by Now Fight for Real Socialism. The article described this as a fact that should have every socialist rejoicing (Socialist Worker, 31 August 1991).
We of the ICL fought with all our resources against counterrevolution. While the SWP was rejoicing for Yeltsin, our comrades in Moscow distributed by the thousands a leaflet dated 27 August 1991 titled: Soviet Workers: Defeat Yeltsin-Bush Counterrevolution! which said:
The working people of the Soviet Union, and indeed the workers of the world, have suffered an unparalleled disaster whose devastating consequences are now being played out. The ascendancy of Boris Yeltsin, who offers himself as Bushs man, coming off a botched coup by Mikhail Gorbachevs former aides, has unleashed a counterrevolutionary tide across the land of the October Revolution.
—reprinted in Spartacist pamphlet, How the Soviet Workers State Was Strangled (1993)
Our leaflet emphatically stated that, although Yeltsin & Co. then saw their way clear to implement the reintroduction of capitalism, the outcome had not yet been definitively decided. In calling on Soviet workers to defeat Yeltsin-Bush, we said that Soviet workers are facing a disaster of catastrophic proportions: every gain for which they, their parents and grandparents sacrificed is on the chopping block. In the ensuing months the Soviet working class did not mobilise in resistance to the encroaching capitalist restoration and thus counterrevolution triumphed. Due to decades of Stalinist lies and misrule, the working class was atomised and bereft of any leadership that opposed capitalism. It also lacked any consistent socialist consciousness and was sceptical of class struggle in the capitalist countries.
What we said at the time has been overwhelmingly confirmed by subsequent events. The political landscape around the world today is still conditioned by the counterrevolutionary destruction of the Soviet Union in 1991-92. The final undoing of the worlds first workers state ushered in a global offensive against the worlds working class and oppressed by the imperialist ruling classes. The programme that the ICL upheld—that of Trotskys Left Opposition and of the Bolshevik Party that led the October Revolution—was proven correct. We fought to the end for unconditional military defence of the Soviet Union and the East European deformed workers states against imperialist attack and internal counterrevolution, while fighting for workers political revolution to oust the parasitic Stalinist bureaucracies and replace them with regimes based on workers democracy and revolutionary internationalism. This is the programme we apply today to the remaining deformed workers states—China, Cuba, North Korea and Vietnam.
In sharp contrast, the SWP got what they wanted in 1991. They rejoiced in Yeltsins triumph because it represented victory for what their tendency has stood for since it came into existence: the notion that imperialist democracy is preferable to Stalinism. In this post-Soviet ideological climate, which is dominated by the widespread belief that communism is dead, the SWP projected there would be a radicalisation. This was pure fantasy. Having contributed to this climate throughout the Cold War, and having spent the past 15 years trying to cash in on it, long-time SWP hack John Molyneux has criticised the party leadership because the SWP is not getting the pay-off. At a January SWP conference Molyneux stood as an oppositional candidate for election to the Central Committee on a document exposing the fact that, even according to the SWPs vastly inflated figures, somewhere during this period of radicalisation and outward success the party appears to have lost up to 5,000 (50%) of its membership (without acknowledging that this was happening) (from Why I Intend to Stand by John Molyneux, published in Weekly Worker, 5 January).
While Molyneux wants to bring the SWPs expectations into line with todays political climate, he firmly upholds the SWPs support for counterrevolution—the SWPs very own contribution to that climate. Molyneux writes:
A key problem, in my opinion, was our estimation of the effects of the collapse of Stalinism. We were right to identify this as fundamentally historically progressive and to argue that internationally it created a space for genuine socialist ideas to get a hearing. However we seriously underestimated the extent to which it was perceived by millions, indeed hundreds of millions as the defeat of socialism. This led to what was a major characteristic of the 90s and is still with us today: namely a yawning gap between the large numbers who could be mobilised against various things (pit closures, the criminal justice bill, the nazis, capitalism, war) and the small number who could be recruited for active revolutionary socialism.
—Weekly Worker, 5 January
Molyneuxs statement that the collapse of Stalinism was fundamentally historically progressive is a declaration of support to the SWPs political perspective that the restoration of capitalism was preferable to Stalinism. Well, Molyneux and the SWP got what they wanted. For anyone not blinded by anti-communist loyalty to democratic imperialism, the restoration of capitalism in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe was a defeat of historic proportions for the working masses of the whole world. In the former Soviet Union alone, from 1991 to 1997 gross domestic product fell by over 80 per cent; according to (understated) official statistics, capital investment dropped by over 90 per cent. By the middle of the 1990s, 40 per cent of the Russian population was living below the official poverty line and a further 36 per cent only slightly above it. Millions were starving; unemployment was massive; life expectancy plummeted. Life for women was drastically altered for the worse, and there was a resurgence of religious backwardness, both Russian Orthodox and Muslim.
This followed the devastating consequences of the tide of counterrevolution that had swept the former deformed workers states in Eastern Europe and led to the capitalist reunification of Germany in 1990. In the one superpower world, U.S. imperialisms military might allows it to dominate the world and to rape and plunder neocolonial countries such as Iraq. All the imperialist powers feel they have free rein to grind the working class at home and are trying to reverse historic gains for workers, as seen in the Blair governments attacks on wages, pensions and welfare provision. However it is not the repercussions of counterrevolution for the working masses of the world that bother Molyneux, whose only concern is that the SWPs numbers have plummeted.
The Significance of the Russian Revolution
Historically the destruction of the Soviet Union through counterrevolution in 1991-92 represented the final undoing of the Russian Revolution of October 1917. A defining event of the 20th century, that revolution was the greatest victory for the working people of the world. For the first time in history the programme of proletarian revolution became flesh-and-blood reality under the leadership of Lenin and Trotskys Bolshevik Party. The young workers state was a beacon of liberation: it decreed land to the peasants; pulled Russia out of the imperialist war; eliminated laws discriminating against women and homosexuals and recognised the right of self-determination for oppressed peoples. Production was collectivised and planned according to need—for jobs, housing, health care and education.
Under conditions of imperialist encirclement, extreme scarcity and social backwardness, a bureaucracy coalesced around J.V. Stalin. The proletariat had been decimated by the imperialist war and by the Civil War of 1918-20 against internal counterrevolutionary forces that were backed by invading armies of 14 capitalist countries. The failure of the German revolution in 1923 was a decisive factor in the isolation and resulting degeneration of the Soviet state. The Stalinist bureaucracy usurped political power in 1923-24 and later adopted the nationalist dogma that socialism could be built in one country (i.e., Russia). This was a renunciation of the Marxist understanding that socialism is a classless society based on abundance, requiring an international division of labour, which in turn requires proletarian revolution in several advanced capitalist countries.
The SWP rejected the programme of Trotsky and the Left Opposition, who systematically fought against the degeneration of the Soviet Union, seeking to maintain it as a bastion of world revolution. Trotsky defended the Soviet Union because it remained a workers state based on the planned, collectivised economy, while fighting against the bureaucratic misrule of the Stalinists. As he pointed out in The Revolution Betrayed written in 1936, the fact that within a decade the country had been transformed from a backward peasant-dominated country into an industrial powerhouse demonstrated the power of the planned economy, despite the bureaucracy. These gains included the collectivised economy that enabled the Soviet Red Army to smash the Nazis and liberate Eastern Europe and allowed the USSR to develop the military might to act as a counterweight to U.S. imperialism. Despite Stalinist degeneration, the fundamental gains of the October Revolution remained until the triumph of capitalist counterrevolution in 1991-92. Whereas Trotsky insisted that the Stalinist bureaucracy was an unstable caste, the SWP adopted the theory that the Soviet Union was state capitalist and that the bureaucracy was a new ruling class.
Korea and the Cliff Group
The SWP originated out of a capitulation to the anti-Soviet hysteria that accompanied the Korean War of 1950-53 by its founder, the late Tony Cliff, who broke from the Trotskyist Fourth International on the question of defence of the Soviet Union and other workers states. Cliffs break from Trotskyism was precipitated by the anti-communist Cold War hysteria that accompanied the outbreak of the Korean War. He reneged on the Trotskyist position of unconditional military defence of the Chinese and North Korean deformed workers states against imperialist attack, which took place under the auspices of the United Nations. This was a cowardly capitulation to the British bourgeoisie and to the Labour government that dispatched British troops to Korea.
As we wrote in The Bankruptcy of New Class Theories (Spartacist [English-language edition] No. 55, Autumn 1999):
The new class theories of these renegades from Trotskyism like [1939 renegade from Trotskyism in the U.S., Max] Shachtman and Cliff were an attempt to justify their betrayal of the class interests of the proletariat and their own reconciliation with capitalism by denying the working-class nature of the Soviet degenerated workers state and the post-WWII East European deformed workers states. In reality these theories were nothing but attempts—dressed up in pseudo-Marxist terminology—to conceal their real program of capitulation to anti-communist bourgeois public opinion and the renunciation of a proletarian revolutionary perspective....
The article further noted:
While clinging to their threadbare theories, the Cliffites and their ilk are oddly modest about their real contribution. The restoration of capitalism in the USSR and East Europe was the implementation of their program. Like Shachtman, who supported Washingtons Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba, Cliff & Co. did their utmost to seek to bring victory to U.S. imperialism in the Cold War, lusting for the bloodying of Soviet forces in Afghanistan, championing the trade union credentials of Solidarność—instrument of the Vatican, Wall Street and Western social democracy for capitalist counterrevolution in Poland—and vicariously dancing with the black marketeers, monarchists and yuppies on Yeltsins barricades in 1991.
Political Consciousness in the Post-Soviet World
In many countries of the world, hundreds of thousands have taken to the streets in protests against the Iraq War and there have been significant mobilisations in opposition to globalisation. But to win elements from these protests to revolutionary Marxism requires recognising that counterrevolution has been accompanied by a massive regression in political consciousness. As we stated in a report of the ICLs fourth international conference of Autumn 2003: The political worldview of the generation that has been politicized by hatred of global capitalism and opposition to the war against Iraq is for the most part far removed from historical materialism and a proletarian perspective, and these youth confront a world in which Marxism is widely portrayed as a relic of the past (Spartacist [English-language edition] No. 58, Spring 2004).
The SWPs answer to the retrogression of consciousness is to adapt to it by moving further to the right, increasingly abandoning their erstwhile claim to be the socialist alternative, which only ever amounted to pressuring the Labour Party to pressure British imperialism. Accepting the framework of democratic British capitalism, their programme amounts to unashamed class collaboration, which is amply demonstrated by the Stop the War Coalition (StWC) and Respect. The StWC is a cross-class bloc of leftists (the SWP, Socialist Party, Workers Power and others) and union bureaucrats in coalition with elements of bourgeois parties (the Greens) as well as Christian and Muslim organisations. Its purpose is to unite with all the forces who uphold the capitalist status quo, but disagree with Blair over Iraq. This is in flat contradiction to the Marxist understanding that opposition to war must be linked to a struggle against the capitalist system that gives rise to war. In Britain such a struggle must be premised on the need for workers revolution to overthrow British imperialism.
The Respect coalition is the SWPs most blatant acceptance of the British imperialist status quo to date. Led by maverick MP [Member of Parliament] George Galloway, this coalition makes no pretence to being a working-class formation. From the outset SWP leaders made sure that no formal commitment to socialism appeared in its programme and voted down a motion calling for the abolition of the monarchy. Within Respect, the SWP tailored their demands to the mosques, abandoning the struggle for womens liberation or gay rights in all but name, and they have not publicly disagreed with Galloway on abortion, which he opposes. A recent article in the SWPs press attacks Richard Dawkins, a leading defender of atheism and of science against religious obscurantism. Socialist Worker (21 January) complains that Dawkins can only view religion in an abstract sense—as a set of ideas that need to be fought. Marxism is based on dialectical materialism and atheism and therefore regards every religion as a set of ideas that need to be fought. Religion serves as a kind of consolation for material oppression and degradation, and therefore Marxists explain that for the masses to reject religion requires overcoming the material conditions that give rise to it.
Respect purports to represent Britains Muslims, who are among the poorest sections of the population and are foremost targets of the governments racist war on terror at home. Far from representing the interests of any oppressed minority, Respect is based on a bald-faced acceptance by the SWP of racist British capitalist rule, based on the monarchy, the House of Lords, the established Protestant churches and parliament. Respect certainly does not represent the interests of the working class, minorities or women. It ought to repel young activists who want to fight to overthrow the racist system of capitalist exploitation and to liberate women from the yoke of oppression and religious reaction—whether it comes from church, temple or mosque.
For all the SWPs opportunist adaptations, Respect does not appear to be the get-rich-quick scheme they imagined. George Galloway spent much of January locked in Channel 4s Celebrity Big Brother TV show, allegedly trying to reach a wider audience. This made him and the SWP a laughing stock on the left, gave New Labour a stick to beat him with and didnt go down well with some devout Muslims.
The SWPs capitulation to Islamic forces in Respect is a continuation of their cheering for the victory of the reactionary ayatollahs in the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran. This was followed by their support to the U.S. and British imperialists against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, where the Soviet Red Army was fighting a CIA-backed insurgency of mullahs, warlords and tribal chieftains. We said Hail Red Army! and Extend the social gains of the October Revolution to the Afghan peoples! The Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan was a prelude to counterrevolution in the USSR itself, which found the SWP rejoicing. Throughout our existence as a tendency, the ICL has placed the Trotskyist programme for defence and extension of the gains of the October Revolution at the centre of our work. As we noted in The Bankruptcy of New Class Theories, all the state capitalist and new class theories of the USSR were predicated on the search for an illusory third camp between capitalism and Stalinism, which always proved sooner or later (mainly sooner) to be firmly situated at the side of their own ruling class. We take pride in having fought to the limits of our ability to defend the remaining gains of October against imperialism and counterrevolution.