Twelve Years After Counterrevolution in the USSR

Why We Fought to Defend the Soviet Union

Reprinted from Workers Vanguard Nos. 809 and 810, 12 and 26 September 2003.

We print below an edited and expanded version of a presentation by comrade Victor Gibbons at a public Spartacist educational in New York City on April 27. In particular we have added a more extensive account of the intervention of the International Communist League in the USSR in the early 1990s, which was taken from a later presentation by comrade Gibbons in London on July 12. As a member of the ICL’s Moscow Station at the time, the speaker was centrally involved in the struggle to carry out the Trotskyist program in the Soviet Union at that crucial moment in world history.

Millions around the world burn with rage at the sight of Iraq reduced to rubble and humiliated by old-style colonial pillage. The images of U.S. troops trampling with their jackboots over a country which American imperialism first starved, then bombed and bled white in a display of global dominance by the “world’s only superpower” are truly obscene. This just outrage must be raised to a political understanding that the enslavement of Iraq is yet another price that the international working class and the oppressed peoples of the Third World are paying for the destruction of the Soviet Union through capitalist counterrevolution in 1991-92. Today’s imperialist global rampage was impossible when the USSR still existed.

It is especially important to understand this because among the main organizers of the current antiwar protests are reformist “socialists” who today proclaim themselves antiwar and “anti-imperialist” but who yesterday joined with the American and West European imperialists in cheering the demise of the USSR. We Trotskyists of the International Communist League fought to the end in defense of the Soviet workers state and the collectivized economy ushered in by the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. This defense was despite and against the Stalinist misrule that had undermined the foundations of the workers state for six decades and had opened the door to counterrevolution. Uniquely, the ICL intervened in the Soviet Union beginning in the late 1980s seeking to mobilize the working class against the powerful forces, backed by world (centrally American) imperialism, driving toward capitalist restoration. This was part of our struggle for new October Revolutions around the world.

Just as we Trotskyists had always warned would happen, the demise of the USSR decisively altered the political landscape on this planet in many ways. Despite the Stalinist bureaucratic degeneration, the Soviet Union represented the industrial and military powerhouse protecting every other country that had overthrown capitalist rule, from China to Vietnam to Cuba. It was only fear of possible Soviet retaliation that held American imperialism back from using nuclear weapons against North Korea and China in the Korean War of the early 1950s and against North Vietnam in the 1960s.

While the U.S. rulers are now grabbing more of the oil wealth of the Near East, their main and ultimate target is the People’s Republic of China, by far the largest and strongest of those remaining states where capitalism has been overthrown. China is confronting mounting American military pressure, from the expansion of U.S. bases in the Philippines to new U.S. bases across Central Asia. China (and North Korea) are among those states explicitly indicated as potential targets for a U.S. nuclear first strike as laid out in the Pentagon’s 2002 “Nuclear Posture Review.” This makes all the more clear our duty to fight for the unconditional military defense of China and North Korea, bureaucratically deformed workers states, against the imperialist powers. And that means defending the right of North Korea to develop nuclear weapons. 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.

Another result of the Soviet Union’s demise is that the nominally independent countries of the Third World can no longer maneuver between the “two superpowers.” They thus face the unrestrained economic exactions and brute military force of the imperialists. Look at the countries of sub-Saharan Africa, where the overturn of the October Revolution has led to the intensification of imperialist bloodsucking, and with it, the increased starvation and bloodshed—ethnic group against ethnic group, country against country, everybody out for some advantage in a battle for survival. This has occurred because the International Monetary Fund and World Bank have demanded repayment of the money they had given previously as a sop to these African countries during the Cold War against the Soviet Union.

Finally, the destruction of the USSR has inflamed the rivalries between the imperialist states of North America, West Europe and Japan whose conflicts of interest are no longer restrained by their capitalist rulers’ shared commitment to the former anti-Soviet alliance. These rivalries spur the rulers’ efforts to achieve greater economic competitiveness in the world market by intensifying the rate of exploitation of labor in their own countries. Thus the bourgeoisie has been trashing what is left of the “welfare state” in West Europe and the far more meager social programs in the United States.

The Trotskyist movement had long predicted that a 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 U.S. 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 unequaled 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” (February 1929); reprinted in James P. Cannon Writings and Speeches, 1928-31: The Left Opposition in the U.S. 1928-31 (Monad Press [1981])

Social Catastrophe of Post-Soviet Russia

The greatest devastation brought about by the fall of the USSR has taken place on its own former territory. The face of the “new Russia” can be seen not only in the economic catastrophe that has befallen the population but in the degradation of women and national minorities and in the slaughter and destruction inflicted by Russian occupation forces in Chechnya. A central goal of the counterrevolutionary regime of Boris Yeltsin was to destroy the collectivized economy inherited from the former Soviet Union. Against all complaints over incompetence or corruption, Yeltsin’s stock answer was to point out he had achieved the main thing he’d promised: no more communism in Russia.

And in place of what it destroyed, what has capitalism built in these 12 years? 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 these 12 years capitalism’s profit system reveals itself as a deadly enemy of humanity—a machine not for the advancement of the international productive forces and culture but for their destruction.

Capitalism has passed a death sentence on the Russian population: in absolute numbers deaths exceeded births during the first six years after the capitalist counterrevolution by 3.5 million; by 2001 this figure had become 6.75 million; and by now even conservative estimates of the population contraction are closer to 8 million! In 1989, average male life expectancy was 64.2 years. In Yeltsin’s Russia of 1994, it dropped to 57.6 years. This historically unprecedented sudden drop in life expectancy equals, for the nine-year period from 1987 to 1996, the ghosts of 11 million stolen lifetimes. 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 population of the Russian Federation, now smaller than Pakistan’s, has seen its greatest reversal in a 1,000-year expansion from the country’s origins in medieval Kievan Rus.

The death rate is not centered on the very young or old, as is typical of impoverished societies, but rather on men in their prime. In 2002, the State Statistical Committee predicted as its “most probable forecast” that the population of the Russian Federation would fall from 144 million to 101 million by 2050. In a worst-case scenario, the population would fall to 77 million, a reduction of almost 50 percent! This holocaust is looming not over a marginal hinterland, but the nuclear-armed colossus of Eurasia.

What is behind this catastrophe? The economic collapse of post-Soviet Russia was unprecedented for a modern society: gross domestic product fell by over 80 percent from 1991 to 1997; according to official (understated) statistics, capital investment dropped over 90 percent. By the middle of the decade, 40 percent of the population of the Russian Federation was living below the official poverty line and a further 36 percent only a little above it. Millions were literally starving.

This massive economic and social immiseration has combined with the destruction of the public health system. Tuberculosis (TB), which had been effectively eradicated in the Soviet Union, has returned as a scourge of Russia’s poor. Recent estimates put the number of Russians with TB at 88 per 100,000, compared to a rate of 4 to 10 per 100,000 in West Europe and America. The number of those infected with HIV/AIDS is increasing faster in Russia and Ukraine than anywhere else in the world.

Capitalism has wiped out a century of social progress, and what a century! What is being destroyed in Russia today is everything that Soviet workers and rural toilers had built, everything that their parents and grandparents before them had constructed with such sacrifice and heroism in the face of the Civil War and imperialist interventions of 1918-21, the murderous excesses of agricultural collectivization and forced-march industrialization, the invasion by Nazi Germany in the Second World War, the horrors of Stalin’s terror which reached into every family. All of this had been endured in the bitter resolve that it would someday, somehow lead to a better, socialist society. Now the proletariat’s very will to live is being torn away, as everything they had built over the generations is smashed to pieces and looted as the officially sanctioned and celebrated private property of vulgar capitalist gangsters—who in many cases are the very same Communist Party leaders and apparatchiks who had so long been falsely identified with “socialism.”

Red October 1917

To understand the social catastrophe that has befallen post-Soviet Russia and to save the banner of socialism, it is necessary to understand the origins of the Soviet Union in the October 1917 Revolution, led by the Bolshevik Party under Lenin and Trotsky, and its subsequent bureaucratic degeneration under J.V. Stalin and his heirs.

The October Revolution arose out of the imperialist slaughter of the First World War. It was the signal act of the 20th century, which Lenin described as the epoch of imperialist decay and socialist revolution. It took the question of socialist revolution out of the realm of theory and made it real in the former Russian tsarist empire.

The October Revolution created a workers state based on workers councils (soviets) and roused the toilers to forge a Red Army that triumphed in a civil war against the counterrevolutionary White forces and the expeditionary forces of every major imperialist power. The Soviet government of Lenin and Trotsky expropriated both the Russian capitalist and Western imperialist holdings and repudiated outright Russia’s massive debt to foreign bankers. It proclaimed the right of working people to jobs, health, housing and education, and took the first steps to building a socialist society.

The revolutionary government gave land to the peasants and self-determination to the many oppressed nations (themselves largely made up of peasants) of the former tsarist empire. It tore down the whole edifice of Russian patriarchal medievalism upon which the tsarist autocracy had rested. The early Soviet government not only separated church and state, it 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 eliminated all discriminatory laws, including against homosexuals. Soviet Russia was the first country of significance to give the vote to women, causing the Western capitalist “democracies” (e.g., the United States and Britain) to scramble to catch up.

The Bolshevik Revolution was seen from the beginning as only the start of what was to be a European-wide workers revolution. On the eve of the October uprising 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!”

Internationally, the Bolshevik victory inspired revolutionary uprisings throughout Europe, most notably in Germany, Italy, Finland and Hungary. Its thunderous message of national and social emancipation also inspired the workers and rural toilers of the colonial world. The Bolsheviks launched the Communist International (Comintern), which by 1921 had attracted six million workers to its banner. And during its first four congresses, the Comintern educated and trained workers around the world in the program and strategy of revolutionary struggle. This was a massive factor in the world political arena.

To give just one example: in the relatively politically backward USA, it was the leaders of the Russian Revolution who made the important connection between the cause of black liberation and workers revolution. Black poet Claude McKay tells the story of his 1922 visit to Soviet Russia, where he was feted by factory workers and Red Army soldiers:

“At every meeting I was received with boisterous acclaim, mobbed with friendly demonstration. The women workers of the great bank in Moscow insisted on hearing about the working conditions of the colored women of America.... When I got through, the Russian women passed a resolution sending greetings to the colored women workers of America, exhorting them to organize their forces and send a woman representative to Russia.”

McKay saw that this revolutionary spirit was not just a popular mood but also expressed the principles of the early Soviet government and Comintern:

“When the Russian workers overturned their infamous government in 1917, one of the first acts of the new Premier, Lenin, was a proclamation greeting all the oppressed peoples throughout the world, exhorting them to organize and unite against the common international oppressor—Private Capitalism. Later on in Moscow, Lenin himself grappled with the question of the American Negroes and spoke on the subject before the Second Congress of the Third International. He consulted with John Reed, the American journalist, and dwelt on the urgent necessity of propaganda and organizational work among the Negroes of the South. The subject was not allowed to drop.”

In short, a workers state, stretching across Eurasia, had emerged victorious from war and civil war and had launched a movement of the world’s exploited and oppressed to expropriate the entire bourgeoisie and smash their imperialist order.

The Stalinist Political Counterrevolution and the Trotskyist Left Opposition

The bourgeoisie and its lackeys have done everything in their power to poison, or wipe out entirely, any memory of what the Bolshevik Revolution and the Soviet workers state were really about. They cynically push the lie of the “death of communism,” but their real oath against the October Revolution is “Never again!” The biggest lie, the most effective slander, the one that weighs most heavily on the minds of workers and youth looking for an effective way to fight capitalism, is shared by open imperialist ideologues, social democrats, Stalinists and anarchists alike. They all claim that “Leninism led to Stalinism.” The best answer to this is a Marxist materialist analysis of the qualitative changes in the USSR that made it possible for the Stalinist bureaucracy to usurp political control from the revolutionary core of the party and begin a process of anti-Leninist degeneration. This analysis also shows that against the Stalinist reaction, the banner of Leninism was carried forward by Trotsky’s International Left Opposition, continuing with the Fourth International founded in 1938 and, today, our own International Communist League.

As powerful as the Bolshevik Revolution’s international impact was, especially in Europe, the insurgent workers failed to take power elsewhere due to a lack of sufficiently capable revolutionary parties similar to the Bolshevik Party in Russia. This meant that by the end of 1923 Soviet Russia for the first time had come face to face with an indefinite but prolonged period of isolation. Although the Bolshevik Red Army had successfully repulsed all of the imperialist invasions and won the Civil War, Soviet Russia emerged from this exhausted and bled white.

Industry was in ruins and the vibrant proletariat that had accomplished the 1917 Revolution had practically ceased to exist as a class. Soviet Russia had counted on the material resources of a European workers revolution to help it quickly rebuild its infrastructure and industries, which had been devastated by seven years of interimperialist war and then civil war. And this was all the more urgent as Russia was shackled with a technically and socially backward agricultural base. And now the postwar famine in the countryside had reached the point of cannibalism.

Not only had the revolution’s social base and the world context changed, so had its leadership. The most conscious and experienced layers of revolutionary workers, and many of the Bolshevik cadre of 1917, had died on the front lines of the Civil War. By the time of Lenin’s death in 1924, only about 2 percent of the Communist Party had pre-revolutionary experience, extensive Marxist schooling or a familiarity with what the European workers movement was really like. Many of the veteran Bolshevik militants who survived the Civil War were co-opted into the state and ruling Communist Party apparatus (and necessarily so). But this did tend to tear them away from what remained of the working class.

Under these conditions, a new conservative and bureaucratized layer in the party and state apparatus 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 at which the bureaucratic caste seized political power—from then on, the people who ruled the USSR, the way the USSR was ruled and the purposes for which it was ruled all changed. This was a political counterrevolution rather than a social one, because the nascent bureaucracy hijacked the governmental apparatus but did not overturn the socialized property forms created by October. But the struggle did not end there. It took a series of bloody purges through the 1930s for the Stalin clique to consolidate its rule. Throughout, Trotsky’s Left Opposition continued the fight for authentic Bolshevism and in defense of October.

In place of the October Revolution’s banner of world socialist revolution, Stalin in the autumn of 1924 put forward the false dogma of impossible economic autarky and isolationism known as “socialism in one country.” As the Kremlin bureaucracy gradually became more conscious of its position, this “theory” became the ideological justification for transforming the foreign Communist parties into bargaining chips in an illusory search for “peaceful coexistence” with imperialism. Over the coming decades, it meant the strangulation of one after another opportunity for socialist revolution in the capitalist countries.

From the mid 1920s until he was assassinated by a Stalinist agent in 1940, Leon Trotsky—co-leader with Lenin of the October Revolution—sought to rally communist militants throughout the world on the basis of the authentic principles and program of Bolshevism (i.e., revolutionary Marxism). In 1933, when the Stalinists’ failure to prevent Hitler’s rise to power in Germany did not even precipitate any fundamental struggle within the Comintern to change course, Trotsky called for new parties and a new, Fourth International. The 1938 Transitional Program of the Trotskyist Fourth International defined the Soviet Union under Stalin as a bureaucratically degenerated workers state and laid out the two basic historical alternatives confronting it:

“The USSR thus embodies terrific contradictions. But it still remains a degenerated workers’ state. Such is the social diagnosis. The political prognosis has an alternative character: either the bureaucracy, becoming ever more the organ of the world bourgeoisie in the workers’ state, will overthrow the new forms of property and plunge the country back to capitalism; or the working class will crush the bureaucracy and open the way to socialism.”

Trotsky posed a program to resolve this contradiction in the positive through the program and methods of Bolshevik internationalism. As he put it in the last great political struggle of his life, the 1939-40 fight against an anti-Soviet opposition led by Max Shachtman and James Burnham in the American Socialist Workers Party:

“We must formulate our slogans in such a way that the workers see clearly just what we are defending in the USSR (state property and planned economy), and against whom we are conducting a ruthless struggle (the parasitic bureaucracy and its Comintern). We must not lose sight for a single moment of the fact that the question of overthrowing the Soviet bureaucracy is for us subordinate to the question of preserving state property in the means of production in the USSR; that the question of preserving state property in the means of production in the USSR is subordinate for us to the question of the world proletarian revolution.”

— “The USSR in War” (September 1939), In Defense of Marxism (Pathfinder, 1973)

Contradictions of Soviet Economic Growth

Even though strapped by imperialist encirclement and bureaucratic parasitism and mismanagement, the USSR proved the superior capacities of a collectivized planned economy to unleash productive forces. In The Revolution Betrayed, written in 1936 when the capitalist world was mired in an economic depression, Trotsky pointed out that over the previous six years the Soviet Union had increased its industrial production by three and a half times. Over the previous ten years (1925 to 1935), heavy industry in the USSR had increased its production more than tenfold:

“Socialism has demonstrated its right to victory, not on the pages of Das Kapital, but in an industrial arena comprising a sixth part of the earth’s surface—not in the language of dialectics, but in the language of steel, cement and electricity. Even if the Soviet Union, as a result of internal difficulties, external blows and the mistakes of its leadership, were to collapse—which we firmly hope will not happen—there would remain as an earnest of the future this indestructible fact, that thanks solely to a proletarian revolution a backward country has achieved in less than ten years successes unexampled in history.”

But in contrast to the Stalinist lie that socialism—a classless, egalitarian society based on material abundance—could be built in a single country, Trotsky warned that:

“The dynamic coefficients of Soviet industry are unexampled. But they are still far from decisive. The Soviet Union is lifting itself from a terribly low level, while the capitalist countries are slipping down from a very high one. The correlation of forces at the present moment is determined not by the rate of growth, but by contrasting the entire power of the two camps as expressed in material accumulations, technique, culture and, above all, the productivity of human labor. When we approach the matter from this statistical point of view, the situation changes at once, and to the extreme disadvantage of the Soviet Union.

“The question formulated by Lenin—Who shall prevail?—is a question of the correlation of forces between the Soviet Union and the world revolutionary proletariat on the one hand, and on the other international capital and the hostile forces within the Union. The economic successes of the Soviet Union make it possible for her to fortify herself, advance, arm herself, and, when necessary, retreat and wait—in a word, hold out. But in its essence the question, Who shall prevail—not only as a military, but still more as an economic question—confronts the Soviet Union on a world scale.”

The same Bolshevik internationalism that guided the October Revolution determined the Left Opposition’s economic perspectives for the USSR: the international productive forces had to be torn out of the hands of the imperialists; the profit system and the bourgeois nation-state had to be scrapped by an international socialist revolution.

Trotsky also explained that the Stalinist bureaucracy was capable of extensive but not intensive economic growth. What does that mean? It means that the Kremlin oligarchy could and did expand the Soviet economy by crudely transplanting advanced capitalist methods and even entire factories from abroad, but it was incapable of constantly raising the overall level of technology and labor productivity. As Trotsky put it in The Revolution Betrayed: “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.”

I can tell you a firsthand story about how the Stalinist bureaucracy blocked high-tech advancement. In 1991, I went to the editorial offices of Pravda, the main CPSU newspaper, in Moscow as part of my job and got a tour of the printing plant. To my amazement, I saw typesetting was still done in “hot type,” that is, a technology superseded decades ago in the West. The bureaucrats preferred this lumbering, laborious method because it was so much easier to politically monitor and control than computerized printing processes. After the tour, I was taken upstairs to Pravda’s “emergency room” housing two parallel state of the art Macintosh-Linotronic systems allowing a special crew to supplant the entire operation below in the event of strikes and other disruptions. That was the heart of it: only a specially vetted and monitored crew could be trusted with powerful information technology.

Nonetheless, the USSR was able to sustain a bounding, extensive economic growth well into the 1960s. As long as additional layers of workers were drawn from Russia’s vast countryside into the cities, it also meant that overall labor productivity in the Soviet Union continued to rise as well. However, the limits and contradictions of Soviet economic growth came to the fore in the last part of the lengthy regime of Leonid Brezhnev, who occupied the Kremlin from the mid 1960s until the early 1980s.

During the first half of this period, American imperialism was bogged down in the long, losing war in Vietnam. One consequence was that the USSR was able to achieve approximate nuclear military parity with the U.S. The Soviet economy also got a big boost in the early 1970s from the multiple increases in the world-market price of oil. However, in the late 1970s the new Democratic administration of U.S. president Jimmy Carter launched a renewed Cold War offensive against the Soviet bloc in the name of “human rights,” combining increased military, economic and political pressure.

The Brezhnev regime responded by continuing to invest heavily in defense, seeking to maintain nuclear parity with the U.S. It also continued to buy domestic stability by maintaining and even improving the living standards of the Soviet working class and collective farmers. But these economic policies came at the expense of investment in the technological renewal of Soviet industry. By the late 1970s, the steady annual economic growth rate of 5 percent of the past two decades had fallen to about half that. And by the beginning of the 1980s, the economy was clearly stagnating, in the face of the imperialist anti-Soviet offensive.

The Final Undoing of the October Revolution

As the USSR began to fall behind Western capitalism dramatically, growing sections of the bureaucracy became convinced that the Soviet economy could never catch up on its own, and chose to cut back the massive burden of military spending by offering “partnership” to imperialism. Hostile from the outset to workers democracy and the fight for international extension of the revolution as the road to socialist development, Stalin’s heirs now repudiated the ideology of “socialism in one country” in the negative, in favor of increasingly open expressions of belief in the economic superiority of Western-type capitalism. Underlying this ideological attitude was the appetite of these privileged social strata, especially the younger layer of intellectuals and bureaucratic functionaries, to further enrich themselves at the expense of the working class.

The accelerating rightward slide of the Soviet bureaucracy and affiliated intelligentsia was represented by the new regime of the younger CPSU leader Mikhail Gorbachev, who took over the Kremlin in 1985. Restraints were eased on intellectual and, later, political life under the banner of glasnost (openness). Centralized economic planning and management were scrapped and replaced by market-directed mechanisms under the rubric of perestroika (restructuring). A global policy of appeasing and capitulating to Western (centrally American) imperialism was carried out in the name of “new thinking.”

The war in Afghanistan during the 1980s was a crucial turning point in the fate of the USSR and therefore of world history. In December 1979, Brezhnev’s Kremlin intervened militarily in 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 been provoked by the regime’s modest social reforms, especially those which improved the horribly oppressed condition of Afghan women.

It came as a surprise to Moscow when the Americans escalated this insurgency into a massive proxy war against the Soviet Union, launching the biggest CIA covert operation in history. Jimmy Carter’s chief foreign policy adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, later bragged about how they had long planned to bleed the Soviets. Texas Democratic Congressman Charles Wilson spelled it out at the time: “There were 58,000 [American] dead in Vietnam, and we owe the Russians one.”

This should have been an easy war for any leftist to take a principled stand on. It was doubly progressive, posing both the fate of women and elemental social progress in Afghanistan together with the defense of the USSR’s southern flank. But under 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. Here in the U.S., Vietnam War-era prodigal sons of the Democratic Party rushed to redeem themselves before their imperialist rulers by showing how fervently they now opposed the “Soviet Vietnam.”

Against the liberals and their “left” hangers-on, we raised the slogans: “Hail Red Army in Afghanistan!” and “Extend gains of the October Revolution to Afghan peoples!” Against all the demagogy about “Afghan national rights,” we explained that Afghanistan was not even a nation but an extremely backward country inhabited by diverse and mutually hostile ethnic groups. The only possible basis for social progress in Afghanistan at that time was the extension of Soviet military and political power. The Red Army intervention cut against the grain of the nationalist dogma of “socialism in one country.” Our internationalist line, while aimed primarily against the CIA-backed mujahedin, at the same time promoted political revolution against the Kremlin Stalinists.

Contrary to the imperialist Big Lie campaign, the Soviet armed forces were winning against the CIA’s mujahedin. It was not out of military necessity but for the sake of Gorbachev’s hoped-for strategic “partnership” with American imperialism that the Soviets pulled the last troops out of Afghanistan in 1989. Gorbachev’s policy in Afghanistan gave a green light to dumping Soviet-era “socialist and national liberation” pretensions. What we heard in the USSR at this point was outright racist Russian chauvinism like, “Afghan ‘blacks’ are not worth the blood of our Russian boys.” These types were fed up with the massive Soviet subsidies to Cuba, Vietnam, East Europe and Moscow’s Third World capitalist client regimes.

Soviet foreign minister Eduard Shevardnadze later conceded that surrendering Afghanistan was the key to what followed globally: “The decision to leave Afghanistan was the first and most difficult step. Everything else flowed from that” (Washington Post, 16 November 1992). Indeed, after Afghanistan Gorbachev threw East Europe to the imperialist wolves as well. Finally, he oversaw the destruction of the USSR.

As we declared in 1990 in the first issue of our Russian-language Byulleten’ Spartakovtsev (Spartacist Bulletin): “Far better to have fought imperialism through an honorable fight in Afghanistan than to have to now fight it within the borders of the Soviet Union” (see Spartacist [English-language edition] No. 45-46, Winter 1990-91). Days before Gorbachev pulled out the last Soviet units, the Partisan Defense Committee, the class-struggle legal and social defense organization associated with the SL/U.S., 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, freedom from the veil, freedom from the tyranny of the mullahs and the landlords, the introduction of medical care and the right of all to an education.” Though this offer was declined, the PDC and fraternal defense organizations allied with other sections of the ICL raised over $44,000 to aid civilian victims of an all-out mujahedin offensive later that year against Jalalabad, the Afghan city closest to the CIA’s guerrilla bases in Pakistan. Those emergency funds were gathered from working people throughout the world, including of Muslim origin. They rejoiced when the attack on Jalalabad was defeated!

But our campaign had an even greater significance. It signaled that the banner of communism trampled in the mud of Afghanistan by the defeatist Stalinists had its true champions in the Trotskyists! It was at that moment in 1989 that the international Spartacist tendency became the International Communist League (Fourth Internationalist).

Our Fight Against Counterrevolution in the Soviet Sphere

The International Communist League intervened at the crucial moments in East Germany—the German Democratic Republic (DDR)—in 1989-90 and in the Soviet Union in 1990-92. We put forward the program of proletarian political revolution to overthrow the decomposing Stalinist regimes as the only possible way to defeat the powerful, imperialist-backed forces of capitalist counterrevolution. Today, we need to make a special effort to put ourselves back into this period, before the defeats that followed, in order to appreciate the reality of the revolutionary opportunity that opened up, and how the ICL seized upon it.

In the summer of 1989, the Soviet Union was shaken by the miners in the first ever nationwide strike. Their strike committees resembled soviets, running whole cities. That same summer, Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev visited Beijing and saw the Chinese deformed workers state’s People’s Liberation Army beginning to melt in the face of an incipient political revolution triggered by the mass protests in Tiananmen Square. Workers, soldiers and students together were singing the “Internationale.” It began to look like Hungary 1956, where the pro-socialist working class had erected soviets and briefly shattered the Stalinist regime.

Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping drowned the nascent proletarian political revolution in blood. But within a few months, the spectre of political revolution was back, in East Germany. As mass protests besieged the discredited Stalinist bureaucracy, we threw our international resources into the fight for a red Germany of workers councils based on political revolution in the East and socialist revolution in the West.

Our daily Arprekorr (Workers Press Correspondence) called for the founding of workers and soldiers councils, like those in Russia in 1917. Workers from large East Berlin factories came to ask us how to do that. Because of our propaganda, units of the East German army formed soldiers committees, some of which circulated Arprekorr. It was these units the panicky Stalinists dissolved. We published internationalist greetings in several languages reaching out to workers from Vietnam, Cuba and Poland in the DDR and to Soviet soldiers and officers stationed there. ICL comrades were addressing meetings of hundreds of Soviet soldiers and officers with our Trotskyist program. (For further details, see “Revolution vs. Counterrevolution in Germany, 1989-90,” WV Nos. 730 and 731, 25 February and 10 March 2000.)

The signal event of our intervention in the DDR was the 3 January 1990 united-front demonstration against the desecration of Berlin’s Treptow Park Soviet Soldier Memorial by German rightists. The demonstration was essentially in defense of the DDR workers state and against the drive for capitalist annexation by the West German imperialists, the heirs of Hitler’s Third Reich. The impact of our appeal was such that the ruling Stalinist party, the SED/PDS, was compelled to join in building this demonstration of a quarter of a million workers and soldiers initiated by us. Lothar Bisky, a leader of the SED/PDS, told us, “You have the workers.”

I and another comrade were in Leningrad a few days later when the issues of the main Communist Party daily, Pravda, and the Soviet Army daily, Red Star, came out with coverage of the Treptow demonstration. Both papers hailed the demonstration, and the Soviet Army paper ran a prominent photo of our signed Trotskyist banner reading “Down With NATO! Defend the Soviet Union!” over our hammer, sickle and four!

The mass ICL-initiated protest awoke Gorbachev, Soviet foreign minister Eduard Shevardnadze & Co. with a start from their illusion in a gradual transition to capitalism in the DDR. Here’s what Gorbachev himself said in an interview on German TV on the tenth anniversary of those events:

“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. A threat arose—a threat of disorganization, of a big destabilization. This began on January 3 and [went] further almost every day.... This was, as you know, like a torrent of fiery lava: the current was flowing.” [our translation from TV transcript]

Gorbachev recounts that when West German chancellor Helmut Kohl visited Moscow shortly thereafter, the Soviet leadership urged him to swallow up the DDR immediately. In his own way Gorbachev recognized and feared that our Trotskyist program of proletarian political revolution and socialist internationalism was beginning to attract mass support among the East German (and from there, the Soviet) working class.

It was under the impact of Tiananmen, the Soviet miners strike and Treptow that Gorbachev endorsed Boris Yeltsin’s plan for a 500-day forced march to capitalist restoration in August 1990. At the same time, the terminal disintegration of the Kremlin bureaucracy also made it possible for the ICL to openly establish our direct presence in the USSR. We began massively distributing our first leaflet, “Soviet Workers: Smash Yeltsin/ Gorbachev 500-Day Plan!”, and published the first issue of our Russian-language Byulleten’ Spartakovtsev (Spartacist Bulletin), titled “What Is Trotskyism.”

I’ll give one dramatic example of how we fought to mobilize the Soviet proletariat on the basis of a revolutionary internationalist program and perspective. That was at the October 1990 Soviet Coal Miners Congress held in Donetsk, Ukraine—the heartland of the mass strike wave the year before.

There were only two of us, but politically it was the ICL on the one side and, on the other, U.S. and British embassy representatives, the AFL-CIO’s Freedom House, the Russian fascist NTS and, last but not least, the scab British “Union of Democratic Miners” (UDM), an anti-Communist outfit formed and financed in an attempt to break the great British coal strike of 1984-85 led by Arthur Scargill’s National Union of Mineworkers (NUM). The Soviet miners had raised huge funds in solidarity with the British miners and their union during the strike. This Soviet aid was a powerful countermeasure to the red-baiting campaign against Scargill and the NUM conducted by the Tory government of Margaret Thatcher and the British ruling class in general. Now the “AFL-CIA” types were pushing Soviet miners to repudiate their past support to Scargill and demanded the NUM hand over the money to the scab UDM!

But the ICL spiked this attempt and caused a sensation. At the congress of 900 delegates, we sold over 600 copies of Byulleten’ Spartakovtsev and we exposed the scab role of the UDM. Various delegations took back whole stacks of our bulletin. We played a crucial role in the decision of the congress not to pursue the UDM’s appeal to join in denouncing Scargill. The remarkable thing about this was that the bourgeoisie was represented by every spy agency and fascist around, but the proletariat’s historic stake was represented by the ICL alone. Our singular role demonstrated that our program had an impact vastly, even explosively, out of proportion to our tiny size. We counted on the power of our Trotskyist program to have this same explosive impact across the USSR.

August 1991: ICL on the Last Barricades

The introduction of economic competition and other market mechanisms served to intensify regional disparities between industrially more advanced and more backward areas and to embolden reactionary separatist forces in the better-off republics, like the Baltics. Openly bourgeois movements sired by Gorbachev had won elections during 1990 in Russia, the Baltics and other Soviet republics. They sought to gain as much control as they could over the local militias, armed forces and budgets. The leading figure in this camp was the head of the Russian republic, Boris Yeltsin, formerly one of Gorbachev’s chief lieutenants, who had split from the Kremlin leader to the right.

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 CPSU apparatus. Contrary to the propaganda of Western imperialism and its Russian camp followers, the “conservatives” were not committed to preserving a collectivized 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. Gorbachev, now officially president of the USSR, swung between the “democrats” and “conservatives.”

On August 20, 1991, a new Union Treaty was to be signed granting far greater control over economic policy and the armed forces to the constituent republics of the USSR. It was to prevent this new treaty that the day before a group of Gorbachev’s lieutenants declared they were taking power in the Kremlin in the name of the State Emergency Committee (EC). Throughout the day, tanks and armored personnel carriers rolled into Moscow. I went among them and talked to the soldiers. It turned out that none of them had the slightest hint of what they were there to do. As soon became evident, neither did their commanders.

Yeltsin responded by denouncing the EC as an attempt to restore the “Communist” system and moved to organize a countercoup, setting up barricades around the White House, the Russian presidential headquarters in Moscow. Yet the EC made no move to arrest Yeltsin or otherwise obstruct his efforts to mobilize whatever forces he could against them. Moreover, Yeltsin was throughout in open communication with U.S. president George Bush Sr., who became the co-organizer of Yeltsin’s countercoup.

In an effort to gain the acceptance of Western, above all American, imperialism, the EC issued a proclamation which made no mention at all of “socialism.” Rather they pledged to continue Gorbachev’s course, that is, to promote private property and to honor all of Gorbachev’s foreign policy commitments. Domestically, the EC declared martial law and told the workers to stay home. When Bush, nonetheless, made it clear that Yeltsin was his man in Russia, the EC rapidly disintegrated. Yeltsin and his henchmen quickly moved into the resulting power vacuum.

The ascendancy of Boris Yeltsin’s capitalist-restorationist forces in August 1991 was a pivotal event determining the fate of the Soviet Union. There was no longer a central Soviet government presiding over USSR state organs or over the governments of the constituent republics. These now began declaring their independence from the USSR. But the final undoing of the October Revolution was not yet a foregone conclusion. Only those who were politically desirous of washing their hands of the now-fractured workers state were in a hurry to immediately write off the USSR.

The ICL, on the contrary, uniquely raised the alarm, distributing tens of thousands of copies throughout the Soviet Union of our August 1991 statement, “Soviet Workers: Defeat Yeltsin-Bush Counterrevolution!” This was the first anti-Yeltsin communist protest in all of the USSR. It began:

“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 Bush’s man, coming off a botched coup by Mikhail Gorbachev’s former aides, has unleashed a counterrevolutionary tide across the land of the October Revolution.”

But we insisted that the battle was not yet over. We called upon the Soviet working class to mobilize against the still-weak Yeltsin regime before it was able to consolidate a new capitalist state apparatus amid the fractured state structures of the former USSR:

“While Yeltsin & Co. now see a clear field to push through a forced-draft reintroduction of capitalism, the outcome is not yet definitively decided.... The Soviet proletariat, whose capacity for militant action was dramatically shown in the miners strike of the summer of 1989, has not been heard from. Opposition from the factories against the ravages of capitalist assault could throw a giant wrench in the works and prevent the rapid consolidation of counterrevoltion.” [emphasis in original]

In this historic statement, we said a call for workers militias “to smash the counterrevolutionary Yeltsinite demonstrations was certainly in order.” We called for the formation of workers councils to fight the plunder and destruction of the planned, collectivized economy; for soldiers and officers committees to prevent the army from being used to attack workers’ interests; for multinational workers defense guards to ward off communalist butchery and anti-Communist terror; for a return to the road of Lenin and Trotsky through the forging of a Trotskyist party and linking the struggle in the USSR to the class struggle internationally.

In sharpest opposition to the ICL, almost every “far left” group in North America and West Europe supported and hailed the Yeltsin-Bush countercoup in the name of defending “democracy” against Stalinism. The British group then affiliated to the anti-Soviet reformists of the International Socialist Organization exulted: “Communism has collapsed.... It is a fact that should have every socialist rejoicing” (Socialist Worker, 31 August 1991). Posing to the left of the ISO is the small League for the Revolutionary Party, which stated that “revolutionary workers would have...tactically lined up in a military bloc with Yeltsin to defeat the immediate threat to workers’ interests” (Proletarian Revolution, Fall 2002). Catherine Verla, a leading spokesman for the international pseudo-Trotskyist current then led by Ernest Mandel, the United Secretariat, likewise asserted: “It was necessary to unhesitatingly oppose the coup and, on these grounds, to fight at Yeltsin’s side” (Inprecor, 29 August 1991).

Supporters of a number of “left” groups, like the British Workers Power, literally stood on Yeltsin’s counterrevolutionary barricades. The Russian affiliate of Peter Taaffe’s British Socialist Party and Committee for a Workers’ International even crowed in its newspaper Rabochaya Demokratiya (October 1991) of sabotaging efforts by workers to mobilize against Yeltsin and Bush’s “democrats,” warning of

“the danger of support to the putschists by workers organizations that did not share the principles of the ‘democrats’—the rule of private property and capitalist power. And that is exactly what several factories the workers even tried to organize defense detachments in support of the putschists.

“From the morning on, all of our members explained to workers at their enterprises that the positions of the Emergency Committee did not coincide with their interests. In addition to this, they connected up with worker activists of other organizations, in order to prevent hasty actions.”

In mobilizing internationally to fight for a Trotskyist party in the Soviet Union, we acted on Trotsky’s injunction:

“But in the event of this worst possible variant, a tremendous significance for the subsequent course of the revolutionary struggle will be borne by the question: where are those guilty for the catastrophe? Not the slightest taint of guilt must fall upon the revolutionary internationalists. In the hour of mortal danger, they must remain on the last barricade.”

— “The Class Nature of the Soviet State” (October 1933)

Our Lenin-Trotsky Fund, collected from around the world, made it possible for our Moscow Station to bring in reinforcements, engage in mass literature distribution and translations, secure office facilities—all in the effort to spur the proletariat to mount a political revolution against the capitalist-restorationist regime and revive the Soviet Union as a workers state. This fund also made it possible for our Prometheus Research Library to bring to the Soviet workers the first ever Russian-language version of Trotsky’s 1928 The Communist International After Lenin, the key founding documents of world Trotskyism in opposition to “socialism in one country.”

Our Fourth Internationalist banner was there for all to see at the Revolution Day celebration in Moscow on 7 November 1991. The demonstration was banned, but some 100,000 Muscovites—mostly workers—came out in defiance. So fearful were Yeltsin & Co. of a confrontation that the ban was lifted at the last minute. Our intervention that day was spectacularly successful. The ICL’s Moscow Station sold thousands of pieces of literature, including our call to defeat Yeltsin-Bush counterrevolution. Nobody was more shocked at the turnout than the Stalinist “patriot” organizers, who cut it off mid-way when the ICL demanded the microphone in Red Square. The Stalinists knew about the Spartacists at Treptow!

Another important test was Yeltsin’s murderous assault on the Soviet Red Army Day march in Moscow, 23 February 1992. The elite OMON militia forces boxed in the demonstrators, beating one Soviet general to death right there in public. The pavement of Moscow’s main street ran red with blood. The message was clear: a new master was blooding his attack dogs. Partisans of the Soviet state, opponents of private property forms, could be demonstratively lynched in the land of October. We immediately issued a new leaflet calling for “Workers and Soldiers Soviets to Stop Capitalist Restoration!” We warned the moment was growing late; the would-be bosses were taking the streets of Moscow away; and that White tsar Boris was bent on a decisive massacre, a new Bloody Sunday.

It was right in this period, on 9 February 1992, that our leading spokesman in Moscow, comrade Martha Phillips, was murdered at her post. The authorities stonewalled while we tried in vain to find out who killed her. She paid the ultimate price to plant the flag of the ICL on the last barricades in defense of the gains of October.

Yet working-class resistance—strikes and protests—to the Yeltsin regime, even after it had introduced economic “shock therapy” in early 1992, was sporadic and ineffective. Furthermore, the “hardline” Stalinist opposition repulsed and demoralized the multinational Soviet proletariat by making a political bloc with Russian fascists and other right-wing nationalists, the so-called “‘red’-brown coalition.” We exposed these anti-Semitic Great Russian chauvinists for what they were to anti-Yeltsin workers and youth, devoting the entire issue of Byulleten’ Spartakovtsev No. 3 (Spring 1992) to the fight for a Leninist party that was a tribune of the people, combatting every form of national chauvinism, anti-Semitism, and anti-woman and anti-gay bigotry roiling the brown tide of capitalist counterrevolution. We also, uniquely, mobilized in defense of the besieged foreign students of Moscow’s Patrice Lumumba People’s Friendship University after Yeltsin’s police murdered an African student in August 1992.

When the air traffic controllers went on strike that same month, Yeltsin demonstratively launched his first full-scale, frontal attack on the Soviet trade unions. The ICL put out a leaflet rallying to the union’s defense. Tellingly, the ex-Stalinist has-beens joined their fascist-monarchist partners of the “‘red’-brown coalition” in opposing the strike.

When by late 1992 the counterrevolution in Russia had been consolidated, we analyzed the main factors underlying the fateful political passivity of the Soviet working class:

“In the name of building ‘socialism in one country,’ the Stalinists—through terror and lies—methodically attacked and eroded every aspect of the revolutionary and internationalist consciousness which had made the Soviet working class the vanguard detachment of the world proletariat....

“Atomized and bereft of any anti-capitalist leadership, lacking any coherent and consistent socialist class consciousness, skeptical about the possibility of class struggle in the capitalist countries, the Soviet working class did not rally in resistance against the encroaching capitalist counterrevolution. And as Trotsky noted in The Third International After Lenin: ‘If an army capitulates to the enemy in a critical situation without a battle, then this capitulation completely takes the place of a “decisive battle,” in politics as in war’.”

WV No. 564, 27 November 1992, reprinted in Spartacist pamphlet How the Soviet Workers State Was Strangled (August 1993)

The Ravages of Counterrevolution

A half decade after the counterrevolution, the desperate and despairing condition of Russian working people was movingly expressed in a letter from a rural village cited on a Russian trade-union Web site:

“We are dying in the direct meaning of the word. The collective farm is hardly breathing. For a year we have been paid no wages. No money has been found to buy fuel for sowing. Everybody sits at home depressed. Many get cancer and other diseases. We are perishing like flies.”

By 1997, the real value of the average wage in the Russian Federation had fallen by almost 80 percent, of pensions by almost 70 percent. This was accomplished by “shock therapy” freeing price controls and setting off an inflation rate as high as 20,000 percent in 1992! I remember the horror on the faces of co-workers as the ruble lost half its value in one month. Before my eyes they became paupers. But even having a wage presumes one has a job, and who did? According to a September-October 1998 study sponsored by the U.S. Information Agency, only 50 percent of Russian adults were employed and only a quarter of the so-called “employed” got paid with any regularity.

Some 75 percent of the population of the Russian Federation was now compelled to grow some or all of their own food, moreover, in a society that was 70 percent urban. Individual garden plots sprang up along commuter train lines around every city, providing the major source of food for the urban population. Every Sunday evening the commuter trains headed back into Moscow were full of bone-tired workers, including those with college educations, hands cracked and dirty from scratch-gardening, too tired to think except perhaps when talk turned to farming tips. A nuclear power plant engineer in my neighborhood quit his job to guard his potato patch! An educated urban proletariat had reverted to scratch subsistence farming.

In the period between 1960 and 1980, a massive construction campaign had provided (for a nominal rent and utility charges) every urban family with its own apartment with modern amenities, usually including a telephone, central heating, electrical power, water, sewage and local public transport. All this was considered a right of Soviet citizenship. A truly historic achievement.

But in 1991 all municipal construction halted, and for the next five years housing rotted, looking more like dark caves than comfortable homes. Municipal water pipes began to burst, at times turning whole city intersections into boiling mud pits in which people fell to horrible deaths. The basic problem was that the service life of the heating grid was designed for only 20 years. Breakdowns have increased exponentially, and in 2010, less than seven years from now, the entire national heating grid in Russia will face complete collapse.

Many bourgeois ideologues in the West blame the unprecedented economic collapse of post-Soviet Russia on the criminal behavior of its new capitalist operators (the “oligarchs”), who looted the productive wealth of the former USSR and then transferred their ill-gotten gains to Western banks. But the basic underlying cause is the destructive logic of the capitalist system itself. As we explained in a 1994 article titled “Post-Soviet Russia: Immiseration and Chaos”:

“The employment of labor clearly demonstrates the fundamental difference between the capitalist system and a collectivized economy, even one subject to pervasive bureaucratic mismanagement and parasitism as was the former Soviet bloc. The aim of a capitalist firm is to maximize the return on the money invested in that particular company. Managers therefore seek to maximize output (if it can be sold) while minimizing the cost and employment of labor. Hence, you can see in North America and West Europe mass unemployment coexisting with brutal speedup for those workers fortunate enough to have jobs. Some people are forced to beg in the streets while others are forced to work 10-12 hours a day.

“The aim of a collectivized economy is to maximize the output of society as a whole by utilizing all available resources, both labor and the means of production. Moreover, Soviet-bloc governments prevented unemployment by not laying off workers even if their additional contribution to production was less than the wage paid them. That was far better than having them live on welfare or beg in the streets, risking unrest. As a result, industrial enterprises in East Europe and the ex-USSR were grossly overmanned by the standards of capitalist profitability....

“Now with the capitalist counterrevolution, production costs in post-Soviet Russia are being driven into line with those on the world market through a massive contraction of industrial capacity and an even greater slashing of the industrial labor force.”

WV No. 595, 4 March 1994

Over the past five years Russia has experienced some modest economic growth, mainly as a result of the higher price of oil on the world market. Russia’s role in the world economy is now similar to those Third World countries critically dependent on the export of a few products. Oil, natural gas, oil products and metallic ore make up almost two-thirds of Russia’s exports by value. What little productive investment is taking place is overwhelmingly concentrated in these extractive sectors.

However, the basic economic infrastructure and manufacturing industry continues to deteriorate, starved for capital investment. In 2002, more than two-thirds of the equipment in use in the Russian Federation had been in place for 15 years and almost a third for 20 years. The average age of Russia’s industrial plant is three times that of North America’s, West Europe’s and Japan’s.

Furthermore, with capitalism based on social inequality and the need to extract ever-greater profits from the working class, the “improved” economic performance in the past few years has not mitigated the terrible impoverishment of the Russian people and its resulting social pathology. Thus the life expectancy of Russian men continues to fall while infant mortality continues to rise.

A Demographic Holocaust

In the Soviet Union, the entire population—children in school, adults at work—were required to undergo annual screenings for diseases such as tuberculosis (TB). But as a Russian journalist commented in Izvestia (16 April 2002): “The universal preventative examinations that were regarded as one of the great achievements of Soviet medicine died along with Soviet medicine itself.”

The number of HIV cases in Russia last year was estimated to be between one and two million. A recent study by the World Bank projected that by 2020, up to 10 percent of Russia’s rapidly shrinking population would be infected. Primarily spread in Russia via drug users’ dirty needles, a growing avenue for the spread of HIV/AIDS has since become prostitution. By 1999, 14 percent of prostitutes in Moscow were infected. The helpless age (10 to 14) of some of the prostitutes and the piggish johns who pay extra for unprotected sex guarantee its continuing rapid spread.

As much as poverty and drugs, a major factor behind the explosion of AIDS in Russia is the reactionary ideological filth pushed in place of health education. There is an explosion of HIV/AIDS in Irkutsk, a main Siberian city on the Afghan drug route. But the chairman of the province’s Committee on Youth Policy rails against the “moral degeneration” of “‘safe’ sex and sex education classes.” The Russian Orthodox church campaigns against the use of condoms; fascists march against their use to promote Russian procreation. In fact, they are promoting the extermination of the Russian people.

Most ominously, the AIDS epidemic is intersecting a TB epidemic. One medical specialist warns: “When the HIV epidemic hits the pool of latent TB infections, there’s going to be an explosion of MDR-TB [Multiple Drug Resistant TB]. TB and HIV are like gasoline and a match.” Studies now find TB in 70 percent of Russia’s homeless, 20 to 30 percent of the prison population and 40 percent of refugees from the war in Chechnya and other areas. Soviet prisons were plenty brutal, but they were not hothouses for plagues. Now each year 30,000 former prisoners with active TB and 10,000 with MDR-TB are being released into the general population with little or no medical follow-up.

The Brutal Oppression of Youth and Women

The overall degradation of Russia’s populace is compounded by the special oppression of youth and women. A leading Russian pediatrician estimates that only 5 to 10 percent of children are healthy. Child malnutrition is now the norm, and by 1999 from 15 to 45 percent of children in the Russian Federation under the age of 15, depending on the province, were diagnosed as mentally retarded. As of last year, there were an estimated several million “orphans” in Russia—more than were left in the wake of World War II! These orphans’ parents are mostly still alive; they were abandoned. The character of Russia’s orphanages can be measured in the fact that one-third of those who grow up in them become alcoholics and 10 percent commit suicide within a year of leaving.

But only a third of Russia’s castaway children are even in orphanages. The others live in cellars, attics, abandoned houses and in larger cities by seeking shelter from the cold in sewer systems. Such youth are a modern-day reappearance on the Russian landscape of the bezprizorniky. These were the packs of wild children who emerged from the ruins of World War I and the Russian Civil War, preying in gangs on the towns and descending like wild dogs on rural villages. In 1921, the Soviet government formed a commission headed by the Bolshevik leader Feliks Dzerzhinsky to spearhead a nationwide campaign which saved several million bezprizorniky, giving them full lives as Soviet citizens. This chapter of Soviet power and the saving of the bezprizorniky remain a point of pride to this day.

Contrast this to what capitalist counterrevolution in Russia and the other former Soviet republics offers its castaway children. Petty theft by boys in Kyrgyzstan is punished by up to half a year in prison, often in solitary confinement, with no education or even parental visits. In Georgia, “repeat offender” youth can be jailed up to three years without any trial. And what does it mean for a youth to be in the general prison population? It means rape and other sexual assaults. This unspeakable barbarity is made worse by the level of AIDS among prisoners.

In 1993 Women and Revolution published an extensive article titled “From East Berlin to Tashkent: Capitalist Counterrevolution Tramples on Women.” Today I will limit myself to something new that has proliferated in the decade since that article was published, the international sex trade. From Russia alone it is estimated that 160,000 women each year are trafficked to Europe and Asia. They are drawn by ads offering work, or simply kidnapped. Once delivered, their passports are taken from them and they are terrorized into submission. The profits from this sex slavery out of Russia match even those of its drug business—about $7 billion annually. The women and girls are sold several times over, each time upping their buy-out ransom. A particularly horrific example came to light late last year when Swedish police questioned a 13-year-old Russian girl who reported being kept in a locked van as a sex slave for two years, driven by Russian pimps from one city in Europe to another.

Chechnya and Other Nationalist Bloodbaths

We’ve talked about what the return to the capitalist profit system has brought. The other major catastrophe has been the reimposition of bourgeois nation-states across the territory of the former USSR.

Here it’s necessary to emphasize that the Bolsheviks came to power by championing the struggles of the scores of nationalities trapped in what Lenin called the tsarist “prison house of peoples.” This was an integral part of the Bolsheviks’ struggle for world socialist revolution leading to a communist society in which the rise of international productive forces brings about the dissolution of all nation-states. The Bolsheviks could not have won influence over Russia’s multinational working class, to say nothing of the urban petty bourgeoisie and rural peasant masses, without being the best champions of the just causes of the oppressed Polish, Ukrainian, Baltic, Caucasian and Central Asian peoples. This proletarian internationalism was reflected in the composition of the Bolshevik Central Committee: Lenin was a Russian, Trotsky a Jew, Dzerzhinsky a Pole, Shaumyan an Armenian, Stalin a Georgian, Stuchka a Latvian, and so on.

The nascent Kremlin bureaucracy demonstrated its first alien political impulses through the Russian-centered apparat’s chauvinist disregard for the rights of minority peoples. Lenin launched his final political struggle in late 1922-early 1923 against Stalin’s bureaucratic abuse of the Caucasian peoples. As the degeneration of the Soviet workers state deepened, the bureaucratic caste went further toward Great Russian chauvinism as a political-ideological glue for its brittle rule.

But even this was held in check by the need to preserve the USSR as a vast multinational state. In marked contrast to capitalism, the centrally planned collectivized economy made possible an allocation of resources which brought about a relative equality between the various national republics making up the USSR. This resulted in the rapid socio-economic and cultural development of the most backward peoples of the former tsarist empire (e.g., in Central Asia) and also eased historic national tensions (e.g., in the Caucasus).

The progress of the Tajik people in Soviet Central Asia, in contrast to their ethnic counterparts across the border in Afghanistan, is only the most striking example. In the Caucasus, centuries-old blood feuds among the patchwork of geographically interpenetrated peoples were for the first time abated through the struggle to root out the sheiks, Cossack atamans, landlords and mullahs, and to establish a new life based on economic modernization and rising living standards. At the same time, Soviet industrial development created a historically new pattern of ethnic interpenetration, this time of proletarian populations in industrial and mining centers across the USSR. Workers of different nationalities frequently intermarried. They and their children began to no longer think of themselves as Ukrainian or Armenian but rather as Soviet.

The forces of capitalist counterrevolution—from Russia and Ukraine to the Caucasus and Central Asia—have used nationalism (often linked to religion) as their main political-ideological battering ram. The capitalist law of the jungle dictates that each capitalist state must have one dominant nationality. All the historic ethnic patchworks which had begun to weave together into a common Soviet pattern were now torn asunder. Over a hundred armed national, ethnic and religious conflicts have erupted across the former Soviet bloc, bringing death and destruction to millions.

By far the biggest bloodbath brought on by the capitalist counterrevolution in the former USSR is in Chechnya. Yeltsin’s colonial-style invasion in 1994 was about asserting the Kremlin’s role as regional cop in the Caucasus and gaining control of the Caspian Sea oil fields. The Chechens were also to be made an example of because of their special history of heroic wars in the 19th century against the Russian tsarist conquest of the Caucasus.

The ICL forces in Russia at the time called for the military defeat of Yeltsin’s colonial-style invasion without giving any political support to the bourgeois-nationalist regimes of Dudayev, and later Maskhadov, in Grozny, Chechnya’s capital. We called for the right of the Chechen people to decide their own fate, explaining the roots of the war in the capitalist counterrevolution. We also raised the urgent need to defend the peoples of the Caucasus, Central Asia and all non-Slavic foreigners against racist pogroms and police persecution throughout Russia.

Yeltsin’s invasion completely destroyed Grozny. But the Russian army was still militarily defeated by the Chechen forces. In 1996, Moscow accepted an armistice which gave Chechnya de facto independence. Then, in the winter of 1999, new Russian prime minister and soon-to-be president Vladimir Putin launched a second war against Chechnya. In part this was intended to spike the plans of the various bourgeois-nationalist regimes in the Caucasus and Caspian Sea region, acting in concert with Western oil companies, to build new oil pipelines which would exclude Russia. The second Chechen war was also an attempt to divert popular outrage in Russia and a sense of national humiliation provoked by the U.S./NATO terror bombing of Serbia, a historic Russian ally, earlier that year. Putin ran for president by reasserting Russia’s military “power” through a renewed genocidal onslaught against Chechnya. In response the ICL called for the military defense of Chechnya’s hard-won independence against Russia.

This war is still going on, and it is a ghastly picture of the barbarism capitalism has brought to the Caucasus. Whereas in Afghanistan in 1979-89 the Soviet Red Army’s presence made possible the beginnings of a modern urban infrastructure with universities, hospitals and factories built along Soviet lines, Putin’s Russian army in Chechnya has now reduced virtually every single city and town there to rubble! Russian forces have to date killed over 100,000 Chechens, that is 10 percent of the population.

For New October Revolutions!

The global toll of the USSR’s destruction must be torn from the tissue of lies of the so-called “death of communism,” and be put where it belongs: in the proletariat’s indictment of the capitalist system in its death agony. As the revolutionary Marxist leader Rosa Luxemburg said at the beginning of the imperialist epoch, mankind’s crossroads lead to socialism or barbarism.

The October Revolution took socialism out of the realm of theory and put its potential before us in concrete terms. The Trotskyist program of world socialist revolution is the only way that this potential can be realized, unlocking the planet’s human and material resources, opening a dawn of prosperity. And the alternative, a descent into capitalist barbarism, is now visible in far greater detail.

Consider the future effects of a counterrevolutionary destruction of the People’s Republic of China, a bureaucratically deformed workers state. If the capitalist slavery, plunder, disintegration and wars that have devastated the former Soviet bloc were to descend on China with its population of over a billion, the Russian catastrophe will be multiplied many times over. All of East Asia will become an arena of a renewed struggle between the imperialist powers—centrally the U.S. and Japan—for the redivision of markets and spheres of exploitation. More generally, if socialist revolution does not intervene, heightened interimperialist rivalry will sooner or later lead to military conflict, very possibly dragging humanity into a nuclear holocaust.

On the other hand, a victorious proletarian political revolution in China or a socialist revolution in one of the capitalist countries will have an electrifying effect on workers around the world, as did the October Revolution of 1917. The desperate and besieged toilers of Russia, who today fight for their very survival, will once again take their place in the struggle for world socialist revolution.

These are the stakes! We know that those under our banner today are few. We are but an international, revolutionary Marxist propaganda group. Our Marxist worldview and program is based on the understanding that capitalism has created its own gravedigger, the proletariat. It exploits and brutalizes the working masses, and mobilizes them for slaughter in nationalist bloodletting and imperialist wars. Billions of toilers around the world are forced to seek a way out. The demoralizing effects of defeats such as the destruction of the Soviet Union will be overcome. New generations—less schooled but also less scarred—will enter into the struggle.

The tide will turn our way again, as it did at Treptow in January 1990. Our resources in the DDR at that point were truly small. But the power of our program, its unique capacity to render the proletariat’s deepest material longings into a historically conscious force—into a Leninist vanguard party with a mass base—that program is what enabled the very small forces of the ICL to begin winning over socialist-minded workers and soldiers in East Germany. The imperialists, social democrats and Stalinists were all fearful that the proletariat had begun in the course of an incipient political revolution to rally around the ICL’s banner of a Red Germany.

The political and organizational stages that we will have to pass through in the rapids of the coming class struggles are not knowable. What we do know, and what is given, is that future workers revolutions must have a Bolshevik political arsenal; its cadres must be educated in the experiences of the October Revolution, the early Communist International, Trotsky’s Fourth International, and our own ICL. That is a fact! New gains will be won only by those who proved able to fight to defend past gains. As reformist and centrist opponents of Trotskyism seek shelter and fortune on the cheap among social democrats, Stalinist has-beens, bourgeois and petty-bourgeois nationalists and the like, the ICL tenaciously fights to uphold the banner of new Octobers. Join us!

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