Workers Vanguard No. 925
21 November 2008
We Are the Party of the Russian Revolution
We print below, edited for publication, the second part of a presentation by comrade Victor Gibbons, given in Los Angeles on 10 November 2007 in commemoration of the 90th anniversary of the Russian Revolution. Part One of this presentation was published in WV No. 924, 7 November.
Leading the fight against the Stalinist degeneration of the world’s first workers state, which was created by the 1917 Russian Revolution, Leon Trotsky’s Left Opposition upheld the revolutionary-internationalist program of V.I. Lenin’s Bolshevik Party. Central to the program of Trotsky’s Fourth International was the unconditional military defense of the Soviet degenerated workers state against imperialism and capitalist counterrevolution and the call for proletarian political revolution to oust the Stalinist bureaucracy and restore working-class political power in the USSR.
A crucial turning point in the fate of the Soviet Union—and world history—proved to be the war in Afghanistan during the 1980s. In December 1979, Leonid Brezhnev’s Kremlin had intervened militarily into Afghanistan to shore up a strategically important client state along the southern border of Soviet Central Asia. The modernizing bourgeois-nationalist regime in Kabul had repeatedly requested Soviet aid against a reactionary Islamic insurgency—backed and armed by the U.S.—which had taken up arms against the regime’s modest social reforms, especially those that improved the horribly oppressed condition of Afghan women.
In dreadfully backward Afghanistan, the Red Army represented the only real basis for social progress. A Red Army victory and a prolonged occupation of the country posed the extension of the social gains of the October Revolution to Afghanistan, transforming it along the lines of Soviet Central Asia.
It should have been easy for any leftist to see that it was necessary to take the Soviet side in this war. The war was doubly progressive on the part of the USSR, defending both the fate of women and elementary social progress in Afghanistan, as well as defending the Soviet Union’s strategic southern flank. Against the solid front that ran from the imperialists to their “left” drummer boys, the international Spartacist tendency (predecessor of the International Communist League) declared: “Hail Red Army in Afghanistan! Extend social gains of the October Revolution to Afghan peoples!”
The 1979 Red Army intervention into Afghanistan cut against the grain of the Stalinists’ nationalist dogma of “socialism in one country.” Our internationalist line, aimed squarely against the CIA-backed mujahedin, at the same time promoted political revolution against the Kremlin bureaucracy.
During the onslaught of the war hysteria cranked out by the U.S. ruling class—beginning with Jimmy Carter’s “human rights” demagogy and escalating to Ronald Reagan’s crusade against the Soviet “evil empire”—a defining moment took place for the left internationally. Much of the left rushed to embrace what was the biggest “covert” CIA operation in history. The lackeys of imperialism did not give a damn about the genuine progress that the Soviet presence from 1979-89 did start to bring about for Afghan women, anymore than they care today about the living hell women have been thrown back into by the triumphal march of imperialism and the Islamic cutthroats that they spawned in the region.
Left apologists for U.S. imperialism’s holy war against the USSR and progress in Afghanistan screamed bloody murder over purported Soviet violations of Afghanistan’s supposed “national rights.” But Afghanistan is not a nation. It is a feudal-derived state that is a mosaic of nationalities, ethnic and tribal groupings. And, in any case, this is beside the point. Even if Afghanistan were a homogeneous nation, revolutionary Marxists would have supported the Soviet Union’s armed intervention since the furthering of social revolution, including defense of the USSR against capitalist imperialism, stands higher than the bourgeois-democratic right of national self-determination.
The war in Afghanistan would prove to be a watershed. The Stalinist bureaucracy’s treacherous withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989 was the direct precursor to capitalist counterrevolution in the Soviet Union itself. As I will explain below, we fought for an internationalist response to help defeat the Afghan reactionaries. We said it would be better to fight against imperialism there than against counterrevolution in Moscow—and we were proved very right.
Bourgeoisie, Social Democrats Promote Counterrevolution in Poland
In the early ’80s, another anti-Communist campaign was waged around events in Poland where striking workers lined up behind an opposition composed of reactionary ultranationalists, Catholic clerics and pro-capitalist social democrats. Significant sections of the working class were mobilized against the Stalinist bureaucracy through Solidarność, a “trade union” sponsored by the CIA, West European social democrats and the Vatican. In the U.S. and West Europe, the trade-union bureaucracy went whole hog in mobilizing support for Solidarność.
The ascendancy of Solidarność was a direct consequence of the political bankruptcy of Stalinism. In Poland in 1956, 1970 and again in 1976, proletarian upheavals were headed off as the bureaucracy each time put forward a new leader or new promises for a better deal. At the same time, the Polish Stalinists strengthened the Catholic church in various ways, including by perpetuating a landowning peasantry. By the late 1970s, having been disillusioned three times with “national-liberal” Stalinism, significant sections of the Polish working class became susceptible to being organized in Solidarność.
At its first national congress in September 1981, Solidarność consolidated around a program of open counterrevolution. Its call for “free trade unions” was a war cry of Cold War anti-Sovietism. In regard to the Stalinist-ruled workers states, we have historically fought for trade unions that are independent of bureaucratic control and are based on the principle of defending the workers state and its collectivized economy. Solidarność also called for “free elections” to the Sejm (parliament), a program of capitalist restoration under the guise of a parliamentary government.
We described Solidarność as a company union for the CIA and bankers. Stressing the need to unconditionally militarily defend the Polish deformed workers state against capitalist restoration, we raised the call “Stop Solidarność Counterrevolution!”
When in December 1981 the bid for power by Solidarność was spiked by General Wojciech Jaruzelski, we unconditionally defended that measure as a means to defend the workers state and buy time for the formation of a Trotskyist party. By contrast, much of the left backed Solidarność. At the same time, we warned that the Stalinists were capable of selling out the Polish workers state to capitalism—and that is exactly what happened. In 1989, the Polish Stalinists ceded governmental power to Solidarność, which had won a landslide electoral victory that June. Thus Solidarność formed the first of the capitalist-restorationist regimes in East and Central Europe.
In Poland today you can see the result of capitalist counterrevolution: whole parts of the Polish economy—mining, heavy industry and textiles—have been massively destroyed. Unemployment—largely nonexistent in the period before 1989—hovers around 20 percent, and there are hardly any unemployment benefits. Women’s rights have been rolled back and a reactionary clerical capitalist government established.
The ICL and the Struggle Against Capitalist Counterrevolution
The fact that the Soviet Union was able to recover from the utter destruction caused by the Nazi invasion during World War II—and become an industrial and military superpower—was further testimony to the superiority of the collectivized planned economy. However, the Soviet economy—its level of productivity and technological base—necessarily continued on the whole to lag behind the advanced centers of the capitalist West. Over the next decades, the Soviet Union was subjected to the unremitting pressures of imperialism—not only military encirclement and an arms buildup aimed at bankrupting the Soviet economy, but also the pressure of the imperialist world market.
Trotsky had explained that the Stalinist bureaucracy was capable of extensive ecomomic growth. The Kremlin oligarchy could and did expand the Soviet economy by crudely transplanting capitalist production methods and even entire factories from abroad. But it was incapable of consistently raising the overall level of technology and labor productivity. As Trotsky put it in The Revolution Betrayed (1936): “Under a nationalized economy, quality demands a democracy of producers and consumers, freedom of criticism and initiative—conditions incompatible with a totalitarian regime of fear, lies and flattery.”
Although the planned economy proved its superiority over capitalist anarchy during its period of extensive growth, as the need for quality and intensive development came to the fore, the bureaucratic stranglehold more and more undermined the economy. By the 1980s, the cumulative effects of Stalinist mismanagement and parasitism had brought the USSR’s once explosive growth rate to just a few percentage points a year, and then none at all.
The bureaucratic caste in the Kremlin was no longer able to simultaneously fund defense spending, maintain the steady postwar rise of Soviet workers’ living standards, and invest in new industrial technology. A change of course was inevitable. In 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev came to power with his slogan of perestroika, a program of “market reforms” intended as a whip to spur worker productivity and enterprise efficiency. This was linked to a policy of glasnost (which means “openness”). The attempt to restructure the Soviet economy through so-called “market socialism” signified a transition away from central planning in favor of market mechanisms for running the economy. This led to a deepening of social inequalities and a strengthening of forces pushing for the restoration of capitalism.
These reforms were combined with increased diplomatic conciliation vis-à-vis imperialism under the slogan “new thinking” in foreign policy. When, in early 1989, the Soviet bureaucracy under Gorbachev withdrew Soviet troops from Afghanistan in the vain hope of winning the good graces of the imperialists, we denounced this as a crime against both the Afghan and Soviet peoples—as has been amply verified by subsequent events.
The reason Gorbachev threw Afghanistan to the imperialist wolves by withdrawing the Soviet Army was not that the USSR was militarily defeated in Afghanistan. That is a Cold War myth manufactured and marketed by the CIA and its media chorus. Today the imperialists’ spies and diplomats who ran the operation readily concede that the high point of the mujahedin insurgency was in 1980. From then on, the mullahs were consistently “getting beaten” and “are not strong enough to hold or deny territory to the Soviets” (quoted in Diego Cordovez and Selig S. Harrison, Out of Afghanistan: The Inside Story of the Soviet Withdrawal).
One’s blood boils reading the Politburo records of the generals and party bosses wrestling with the Afghan dilemma. Gorbachev ruled out extending the gains of the October Revolution to the Afghan peoples. Soon after coming to power he lectured the Politburo that, “after all, it’s not socialism we want there.” He stated in 1986 that “the USSR does not intend to remain in Afghanistan and does not seek a ‘breakthrough to warm seas’ [of the Indian Ocean].” Gorbachev was countering those who chafed at the humiliating retreat he demanded by evoking the Stalinists’ shared renunciation of the struggle for world revolution. But it was not just Gorbachev personally who betrayed the masses of Afghanistan for the sake of appeasing Ronald Reagan. No wing of the bureaucracy had an alternative to Gorbachev’s attempt to reduce the Soviet military budget and its commitments through a vain attempt to appease imperialism.
Just days before Gorbachev pulled the last Soviet units out of Afghanistan, the Partisan Defense Committee—the class-struggle, non-sectarian legal and social defense organization associated with the Spartacist League—sent a 7 February 1989 letter to the Afghan government offering to organize an international brigade to fight to the death to defend the right of women to read; to defend freedom from the veil and the tyranny of the mullahs and the landlords; to defend the introduction of medical care and the right of all to an education.
Unfortunately, the Afghan government declined our offer. They asked instead that we raise funds internationally for the civilian victims of attacks by the CIA’s cutthroats in the Afghan city of Jalalabad. We took up this cause and raised over $40,000 from all around the world. In immigrant communities, at factories, workplaces and union halls, and among foreign students, people who keenly knew what a victory of the mujahedin would mean donated generously. We also sent a press representative to Jalalabad to help break the imperialist information blockade. You can read about this in our bound volumes of WV for 1989-90; see, for example, “Afghanistan: Scenes of Civil War—Exclusive Photographs from Our Correspondent,” WV No. 484, 1 September 1989.
Had our proposal for fighting internationalist brigades taken shape, it could have had a real impact on the Soviet veterans of the Afghan war, whose socialist aspirations had been rekindled by their internationalist service. It could have helped to galvanize their real but partial and unfocused opposition within the USSR to Gorbachev’s betrayals. Reports emerged stating that “Soviet veterans of the Afghanistan war have asked the Central Committee of the CP to be allowed to return there with a voluntary division” to fight the counterrevolutionaries (Süddeutsche Zeitung, 27 July 1989). This mood was particularly felt by Soviet veterans coming from Central Asia, who in Afghanistan had battled the very slavery that the 1917 October Revolution had saved their grandparents from. The Soviet soldiers who had been told, and rightly believed, that they were fulfilling their internationalist duty in fighting against the reactionary Afghan mujahedin on the USSR’s southern border, were now maligned at home as “war criminals” who had supposedly perpetrated “Russia’s Vietnam.”
Now we have authoritative records kept by participants in Politburo meetings that show Gorbachev’s humiliating orders to “get out!” of Afghanistan. This evoked resistance all the way up to the Politburo, although in the end they bowed to Gorbachev. Had the beginnings of a Soviet Trotskyist party been crystallized in 1989—had our brigades helped to serve as a catalyst for this—history might have taken a very different path. Instead, Gorbachev’s ignominious pullout from Afghanistan only served to instill a sense of defeatism and demoralization among the Soviet masses.
Proletarian Revolt Against Stalinist Regime in China
During the 1980s, the influence of petty-bourgeois democrats and nationalists increasingly gained strength throughout most of East Europe, with the notable exception of East Germany. In July 1989, Gorbachev disavowed Soviet “interference” in the Eastern bloc countries. At the same time, as part of his market restructuring, he announced that the Soviet Union would now sell oil and raw materials to the East European deformed workers states at world market prices for hard currency—i.e., no more subsidies. Gorbachev was offering up East Europe to the imperialists. The fate of the East European and Soviet workers was thus posed: either proletarian political revolutions to defend and extend the gains embodied in the collectivized economies, or capitalist counterrevolution and all-sided social devastation.
The first sign of political revolution in this period appeared not in East Europe but in China. In May-June 1989, a protest initiated by students in Tiananmen Square in Beijing won widespread support among workers, who were furious at growing economic inequalities, rampant corruption and endemic inflation encouraged by Deng Xiaoping’s “market socialist” economy. Under Deng, during the preceding decade, agriculture had been decollectivized and centralized economic planning had been weakened. The “iron rice bowl” of guaranteed lifetime employment and social benefits for workers was becoming rusted out.
Groups of young workers joined the demonstrations at Tiananmen Square, which spread throughout the country. As we wrote at the time, “It was the beginnings of a working-class revolt against Deng’s program of ‘building socialism with capitalist methods’ which gave the protests their mass and potentially revolutionary nature” (“Defend Chinese Workers!” WV No. 480, 23 June 1989). Initially, both rank-and-file soldiers and some senior military commanders refused to carry out orders to suppress the protests.
The two weeks during which the army refused to implement martial law were a critical juncture. There was a political vacuum. Even a tiny Chinese Bolshevik organization could have played a significant role in 1989, especially during those two weeks. The situation in which working people were beginning to take control of the cities in their own hands needed to be developed into a fight for political power. Deng was finally able to find military units willing to suppress the protests. This was directed primarily at the working class rather than at the student protesters. The key factor in China in 1989 was the absence of a revolutionary leadership.
Nascent Proletarian Political Revolution in the DDR
The events in China were echoed in Central and East Europe, specifically in the German Democratic Republic (DDR) or East Germany. The broadening crisis there led to growing weekly demonstrations in October against the Stalinist regime of Erich Honecker. Gorbachev and the Soviet Army command in the DDR refused Honecker’s request to use troops against the protesters. The unlamented Honecker regime fell in late October. On November 4, a million-strong demonstration took place in East Berlin. Five days later the Berlin Wall came down.
Today we are constantly subjected to bourgeois propaganda that depicts all East Germans at that time rushing out to embrace West Germany and capitalist reunification. This is a big lie. The mass of workers, students and soldiers wanted to save the DDR from the collapse caused by the bankrupt Stalinist rulers. They marched under banners saying, “For Communist Ideals” and “Against Privileges.”
This was the setting in which we launched the largest and most important effort in the history of our tendency. Comrades, whether they knew German or not, volunteered from all around the world to fly into Germany. In December 1989, we began publishing a near-daily press: Arprekorr (Workers Press Correspondence). We turned our readers’ circles into a series of Spartakist-Gruppen (Spartacist Groups). Arprekorr took on a life of its own. Comrades would hit a new city and discover our press and leaflets had preceded us.
We called for proletarian political revolution in the East and socialist revolution in the West, as the road to a red, soviet Germany in a Socialist United States of Europe. We called for the founding of workers and soldiers councils. We unconditionally opposed capitalist reunification with imperialist West Germany.
We also directed propaganda and slogans to soldiers in the East German National People’s Army (NVA). Some units and soldiers committees of the East German army responded to our propaganda and circulated Arprekorr in the barracks. The West German bourgeoisie and U.S. imperialists moved to spike the nascent political revolution by fomenting German revanchism. Neo-Nazis incited provocations against the soldiers of the Soviet garrison, which was the decisive military force in the DDR.
We countered this right from the start by massively distributing greetings in the name of the insurgent German workers fighting for political revolution to our class brothers and sisters in the Soviet Army Zone. We saluted them and invited them to join us to celebrate the New Year in the Soviet custom of Novogodnyaya Yolka. We also distributed greetings to Cuban, Vietnamese and other foreign workers in the DDR.
The principal stalking horse intervening in the DDR for capitalist reunification was the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD). At the same time, the key obstacle to fighting against capitalist reunification was the ruling East German Socialist Unity Party (SED), because many had illusions that it would defend the DDR. Under pressure from below, the SED convened an emergency congress in December 1989 and added to their old name Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS). The SED-PDS, as it was now called, promised to oppose a “profit-dominated capitalist society.” It simultaneously advocated market-oriented reforms and praised West German chancellor Helmut Kohl’s program for “confederative structures,” which in reality served to incorporate the DDR into capitalist West Germany.
The SED-PDS leadership took the decisive steps toward disbanding the Betriebskampfgruppen (factory militias). These had been the voluntary, armed, factory-based militias for defense of the DDR under the political leadership of the SED. Established after the 17 July 1953 pro-socialist workers uprising in East Berlin against Stalinist rule, these militias were intended by the bureaucracy to be used against any future workers uprising. But it became clear that many workers in the Kampfgruppen did not take kindly to the idea of being used in that way. The Kampfgruppen had the real potential in November 1989 to become a crystallizing point for proletarian political revolution against the bureaucracy in defense of the DDR—so, the Stalinists dissolved them and thus disarmed the working class.
We called for a new Leninist egalitarian party to fight for the revolutionary reunification of Germany and “No to the Sellout of the DDR!” We emphasized: “For an Effective Planned Economy Through Workers Democracy!” Meanwhile, Arprekorr (19 December 1989) argued for the potential of workers political revolution in the USSR:
“All these aims must be combined with a vigorous offensive for a comparable proletarian political renewal in the Soviet Union so that a far larger combined economy in transition from capitalism to socialism may defend itself against the fifth column of social democrats, restorers of capitalism, and large masses of the intelligentsia who imagine, sometimes foolishly, that they will acquire the soft lives of the new capitalist masters. In the short run, look not to the West but to the East!”
The Fight for a Red Germany of Workers Councils
The validity and necessity of this perspective were soon borne out. In late December, the neo-Nazis went so far as to desecrate the Soviet monument in East Berlin’s Treptow Park. This monument honors the Red Army soldiers who fell liberating Germany from the Nazi scourge.
The ICL initiated a united-front demonstration against this provocation. In essence, this was a call to defend the DDR and the Soviet Union. The response to our call ran deep and wide. It compelled the ruling Stalinists to join in the mobilization for the demonstration on 3 January 1990. One leader of the SED-PDS, Lothar Bisky, told us, “You have the workers.” He didn’t mean that we had them organized in our ranks (yet); rather, that our program was articulating the aspirations of the pro-socialist workers. The potential for the explosive growth of a Trotskyist party was real.
The turnout to the demonstration showed the face of the nascent proletarian political revolution. Treptow Park was filled to capacity with over a quarter-million workers, soldiers of the DDR and USSR, immigrant workers and students. At this mass demonstration, for the first time in the history of the Stalinist-ruled Soviet bloc, the ICL was able to present its Trotskyist program in counterposition to the Stalinists’ betrayals of the DDR.
In the face of organized heckling by Stalinist hacks, comrade Renate Dahlhaus declared:
“Economic absorption and political incorporation by stages—which West German imperialism, aided by the SPD, seeks—can turn this political revolution into a social counterrevolution. This must not happen!...
“Our economy is suffering from waste and obsolescence. The SED party dictatorship has shown that it is incompetent to fight this
. The fight for the power to make these decisions and to run this country must lie in the hands of workers councils so that rational decisions satisfactory to the majority can be arrived at. This can only be done through open and sometimes painful debates before the whole people. Perhaps our example will encourage the Soviet Union to take the same road.”
Our program was beginning to take on living form in the struggles of the masses. In many instances, the SED-PDS tops had more knowledge about this than we did at the time. Thus, unbeknownst to us, in the days prior to the Treptow demonstration, a series of mutinies broke out in various DDR garrisons.
Gorbachev saw the historic importance of Treptow too—from his own treacherous point of view. Later, on 8 November 1999, he declared on German TV:
“We changed our point of view on the process of unification of Germany under the impact of events that unfolded in the DDR. And an especially critical situation came about in January. In essence, a breakdown of structures took place.... This began on January 3 and [went] further almost every day.... This was...like a torrent of fiery lava: the current was flowing.”
The Stalinist betrayers from Moscow to Berlin moved swiftly to head off further revolutionary developments. The SPD, howling at our exposure of their counterrevolutionary intentions, castigated the ruling SED-PDS on national TV for sharing a platform with the Trotskyists. The capitulating Stalinists quickly aimed their political fire at us and made any further actions like Treptow “verboten.” Gorbachev immediately summoned Helmut Kohl to Moscow. He gave the green light for capitalist Anschluss (annexation). The West German bourgeoisie threw 20 billion deutschmarks toward annexing East Germany and promised to make the ostmark equivalent to the West German deutschmark. DDR elections were moved up by several months and every CIA Cold War party, agency and priest came flooding in from the West to bury the banner of Treptow and raise in its place the flag of the Fourth Reich, the Greater German Fatherland.
We continued the fight into the elections, which had become a referendum on capitalist reunification. The Spartakist-Gruppen fused with the ICL’s Trotskyist League of Germany to form the Spartakist Workers Party. We ran an electoral campaign for the East German legislature in March 1990. We proposed the following no-contest agreement: if an organization is prepared to say clearly, publicly, unambiguously and in writing that it opposes capitalist reunification, we would call on our supporters to vote for its candidates in places where we don’t run, and the other party would likewise call on its supporters to vote for our candidates where it wasn’t running. Not one party took up our offer! On the ballot, the Spartakist Workers Party stood alone as the party of the Russian Revolution, of proletarian political revolution against Fourth Reich capitalist restoration.
The election results registered the post-Treptow reactionary blitzkrieg: the Auschwitz bourgeoisie was the new master. The workers of East Germany, West Germany, of the USSR and of the whole world had suffered a historic defeat. But history also recorded that the ICL alone knew what to do, and acted on it.
[TO BE CONTINUED]