Workers Hammer No. 192

Autumn 2005


From Berlin to Moscow:

We fought to defend the Soviet Union

Spartacist League Dayschool

We publish below an edited version of the presentation given by comrade Mick Connor at the Spartacist League’s 21 May dayschool. Comrade Connor spoke about the International Communist League’s work directed towards Soviet soldiers in East Germany and later our intervention in the USSR itself.

When the Berlin Wall came down I was in Moscow, and when I came back to London, I got a call from our London organiser at that time, who said “How would you like to go to Germany, for what may be the only political revolution you’re likely to see in your lifetime?” Of course there was no question, and within a week I was in Germany. All the comrades of our international responded magnificently to the opportunity that opened up in East Germany.

Our propaganda had already been written about defence of the USSR, and it was time for action. We knew that the obstacles we faced were gigantic. But we also knew that we had the Trotskyist programme and we knew that workers in East Germany had shown they wanted to fight. Television reporters asked workers crossing from East Berlin, “what do you want to see in East Germany?” and they kept saying “socialism”. There were massive demonstrations in Berlin, with banners saying “For communist ideals”, “For a new Communist Party”. Workers had had enough, they wanted change, they wanted socialism.

I went to the USSR in the immediate aftermath of the August ’91 coup/countercoup, which was a crucial point in the counterrevolution and overthrow of the remaining gains of the October Revolution. I also spent some time in the ICL’s Polish section. I was at the Treptow Park demonstration and I was also involved in work towards the Soviet Army. There were 400,000 Soviet soldiers stationed in East Germany, and that was the de facto state power there. You could not have anything resembling a programme for political revolution in that country without confronting this basic question of the Soviet Army. In East Germany, it helped to have some appreciation of the fact that in Hungary in 1956 there was a political revolutionary uprising against the Stalinist bureaucracy. The Kremlin sent in the Warsaw Pact forces with the lying claim that they were going to put down a fascist uprising. The soldiers found nothing of the sort. Instead they found workers councils, and workers who were ready to die to defend collectivised property, but who were rebelling against the Stalinist bureaucracy. The fraternisation between the Hungarian soviets and the Soviet soldiers meant that the Kremlin was forced to withdraw those troops and find others who were more willing to do the job and it was eventually put down.

When we intervened in East Germany, there was no political revolution unfolding in the Soviet Union, but clearly a successful political revolution in Germany would have spread there. We saw the Soviet troops as a bridge to the Soviet Union. Why were they the de facto state power in East Germany? Well, as comrades have already said, they crushed the Nazis in Germany. That was a heroic struggle which we hail, as did [American Trotskyist leader] James Cannon, who said the whole world hails this Red Army which smashed Hitler’s armies, and all of humanity owes a debt to the Soviet Army for that. We were for the defeat of the Allies in the Second World War, as we were for the defeat of the Axis powers. Both sides were imperialist. But we defended the Soviet Union.

The imperialist rulers often whip up a hoopla about the “great” D-Day, but D-Day was really a side-show. The Soviet Army prevailed despite Stalin’s sabotage, including the beheading of the Red Army through purges of its leadership, which had real consequences in the Soviet Union later. For example, the kind of mass tank attack supported by aircraft that is known as blitzkrieg was not invented by the Germans, it was a Red Army Comintern strategy, intended to quickly support revolutions in other countries; it was developed by people like Soviet Marshal Tukhachevsky, who was executed by Stalin before Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union. The Nazis learned from the Soviet Union under the Stalin-Hitler Pact and were able to turn such weapons on the USSR. That’s just one example of the terrible weakening of the workers state that had taken place. Huge numbers of Soviet soldiers died in the liberation of Eastern Europe, I believe 600,000 died to liberate Poland alone. Many died also in Germany and there are memorials to the Soviet war dead all over East Germany, but Treptow Park is the biggest.

The East German workers state covered one third of Germany. It’s a pity that the Red Army advance through Europe stopped at the Elbe river. The Soviet Army’s 400,000 soldiers were the front line against NATO during the Cold War. It was useful that Gorbachev seemed unwilling to use the Soviet Army to suppress the workers mobilisations in blood. We published greetings to the Soviet soldiers in Russian; very early on we also published a leaflet in Russian titled: “What do the Spartacists want” which was distributed en masse to the officers and soldiers at Soviet military bases. The first edition of “Byulleten’ Spartakovtsev” [Spartacist Bulletin] contained the article “What is Trotskyism?” We published writings by Trotsky from the Bulletin of the Opposition and we distributed to Soviet soldiers articles by Trotsky and his book The Revolution Betrayed. Because we became known through our work, on the anniversary of the Red Army victory we were able to hold a meeting in a very large airbase just outside Berlin that was attended by around 300 Soviet soldiers and officers. In keeping with our fight for the revolutionary unity of German, Polish and Soviet workers, one of our speakers was from our German section and another was from the Spartacist Group of Poland. Following that meeting the Soviet army drove us by bus to one of the Soviet army cemeteries where we laid a wreath.

As you can imagine, when the withdrawal of the Soviet Army was announced by Gorbachev, there was huge demoralisation among East German workers, because it meant no more workers state. If the Soviet Army is not there, the forces of NATO and the West German state — the Bundesrepublik, the Bundeswehr, would move in. We had comrades in the East German army who refused the oath of allegiance to the new forces of the BRD. For months, we saw Soviet military hardware being moved out of East Germany. That was counterrevolution passing in front of our eyes. It truly represented a reversal of the decision of the Second World War, of the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany. I remember going to Sachsenhausen, one of the former Nazi death camps, which is now a museum. A huge poster said that during Soviet times, people came here and learned about the atrocities of the Nazis, but now you can learn that this camp was used by the Soviet forces to imprison German citizens after the Second World War. Who were they talking about? The SS, who’d been imprisoned in Sachsenhausen!

Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan was the first hole in the dam, after which things started to unravel. We said that it was better to fight the forces of counterrevolution in Afghanistan than in the Soviet Union itself, and we made a proposal to organise a brigade to fight in Afghanistan when the Soviet troops were withdrawn. That’s a hallmark of a revolutionary organisation, as opposed to all kinds of charlatans — the cowards who flinch and the traitors who sneer. For revolutionaries, your words are in accord with your deeds. Then the fight shifted to East Germany. After defeat in East Germany the battle shifted to the homeland of the October Revolution itself.

Our meeting is not a memorial meeting. We know that the world proletariat has suffered a terrible defeat. The fact that these workers states fell without a shot being fired, not through a NATO invasion, for example, but through Stalinist collapse and sell-out makes that betrayal all the more demoralising for the proletariat, which has been thrown back in many different ways. It has impacted both on the material conditions and on the consciousness of the oppressed and exploited around the world, through the bourgeoisie’s myth of the death of communism. But we know that capitalist imperialism by its workings always impels the masses into struggle against racism, against war, against the depredations of imperialism. Because of that, there will be opportunities for new October revolutions. But to be successful it is necessary to assimilate the lessons and pass them on to new generations. Trotsky said that if the worst case scenario were to happen — counterrevolution in the USSR — revolutionaries should be on the last barricades. We did that, and we take forward those lessons into our fight to defend China, North Korea, Vietnam and Cuba. The ICL uniquely has the moral authority to do that. The heroic Polish-Jewish spy and leader of the Red Orchestra [Soviet spy network], Leopold Trepper, wrote a very famous commentary on who fought against Stalin, where he said, the Trotskyists are the ones who did that. They didn’t howl along with the wolves, they refused to shut up. And we carried that through, we took up Trotsky’s injunction.

We intervened in the Soviet Union itself beginning in the late 1980s. We sought to mobilise the proletariat against the imperialist-backed forces of counterrevolution, as part of our struggle for new October revolutions. The Soviet Union by that time was seriously weakened. Gorbachev had introduced the whip of the market, so-called perestroika, which we warned would lead to the break-up of the USSR. It would exacerbate the differentials in regions and increase the antagonism between republics, thus loosening the USSR and seriously undermining the workers state.

There was enormous imperialist economic and military pressure on the Soviet Union. When the fledgling Soviet state was being invaded by over 20 different imperialist armies, Lenin was less concerned about the armies, which they could deal with. They rallied the masses of the USSR, the oppressed workers and rural toilers, forged this red fist under Trotsky called the Red Army, which won the Civil War against the White armies and against all these imperialists. Lenin was concerned about what they bring in the baggage cars, the cheap manufactured Western goods, etc. In other words, the Soviet Union had a very powerful army, but the world capitalist market remained. This is why you can’t have “socialism in a single country”, because of the whip of the world market, the only one remedy for which is international proletarian revolution.

Yeltsin and Gorbachev introduced something called the “500-day plan”, which amounted to a forced march to the restoration of capitalism in the USSR. There was going to be untrammelled private ownership. We put out a leaflet in the Soviet Union, which we distributed also among the Soviet troops in East Germany, calling for the workers to smash the 500-day plan. Gorbachev had seen the 1989 Soviet miners strikes and he was in China at the time of Tiananmen, and he was also aware of the January 1990 Treptow Park demonstration. This had a huge influence on later events because our Treptow Park demonstration was picked up in the Soviet Union and was on blaring front page headlines in two newspapers, including the newspaper of the Soviet Army, which carried it very enthusiastically. They took out our name, but showed the slogan for defence of the USSR, unsigned banners and so on. Gorbachev himself, interviewed on West German television, spoke about how Treptow was the turning point. He pinpoints it to early January. That’s when they realised that the rule of Stalinism was shaken, that the potential was there for political revolution and that’s when he decided to fast-track the West German takeover.

One example illustrates the kind of work we did and something about the Soviet working class. There was a coalminers congress in the Ukraine, which our comrades intervened in. This congress in Donetsk was crawling with everything conceivable: spies, fascists, social democrats, fake Trotskyists — everybody was there. One of the participants was something called the “Union of Democratic Mineworkers” (UDM) the scab union formed during the great miners strike in Britain in 1984-85. The miners strike and defence of the USSR were intimately connected. Remember Margaret Thatcher was a big fan of Solidarność while she was attempting to smash the miners; the Healyite Workers Revolutionary Party deliberately set up miners leader Arthur Scargill for a massive witch hunt on the eve of the strike because he refused to support counterrevolutionary Solidarność.

At this Ukraine congress the UDM was attempting to spread poison about the National Union of Mineworkers to force the NUM to hand over money — donated by the Soviet trade unions to the striking British miners — to the UDM. The Soviet workers did give enormous amounts of money to the British miners. There was a fracture in the Stalinist bureaucracy over support for the strike, which shows it was a contradictory phenomenon. While Gorbachev was getting into bed with Margaret Thatcher, money was being channelled to the striking British miners. In Donetsk, two comrades of the International Communist League spiked the anti-communist operation by the UDM. That tells you quite a lot about what a Trotskyist party could have done in the USSR at that time.

Now I come to August ’91, the pivotal point for counterrevolution in the USSR, as it turns out. The bureaucracy was replacing the Union Treaty with a new treaty in which the various republics that make up the Soviet Union would be given more autonomy. Against this, a State Emergency Committee was formed. The State Emergency Committee attempted to carry out what we have called a “perestroika coup”. The word “coup” is an enormous compliment because at no time did this “coup” attempt to move against Boris Yeltsin and the open counterrevolutionaries, who were in direct contact with George Bush Sr at the time. But the coup leaders, this State Emergency Committee, were no less committed than Boris Yeltsin to the restoration of capitalism. They wanted a slower pace and to remain within the framework of the USSR.

On the evening of 20 August they sent some tanks out into the street — which didn’t seem to know what they wanted to do. Meanwhile, among the people who descended on the White House [Russian Parliament] to defend it were spivs, racketeers, the new little capitalist gangsters, Orthodox priests, an assortment of fascists, Workers Power and the Taaffeite organisation. The Workers Revolutionary Party turned up with a red flag and said people expressed surprise to see a red flag. Of course they would have been enormously surprised. These were the forces for counterrevolution. The State Emergency Committee that same morning had phoned George Bush and explained what they were going to do. They held a press conference in the evening and didn’t mention “real existing socialism” or any of those things, but mentioned that they would continue Gorbachev’s work and his foreign policy commitments. They didn’t at any time attempt to arrest Yeltsin, although he challenged them to do so.

What happened to these guys? They basically gave it up. This was the gang that couldn’t shoot straight, and didn’t fire a single shot in anger, except when one of the coup plotters, Boris Pugo, shot himself in bed a couple of days later. This “coup” was the last pathetic gasp of the Stalinists in the USSR. And with its collapse, the armed forces were pulled out of the city and Yeltsin’s forces were in the ascendancy. Yeltsin launched an offensive to dismantle the Soviet Union, to force through the restoration of capitalism. Now as Trotskyists we said, it ain’t over, because the Soviet working class has not spoken yet, and that is actually quite a big factor, the working class that made the October Revolution. They did not come out on the streets in answer to Yeltsin’s call for a general strike. And although some of the workers looked quite favourably on the coup, because they thought it was a move against Yeltsin and perestroika, the coup leaders told them to stay at home and imposed martial law.

The ICL was first to protest and to mobilise against Yeltsin. We put out a leaflet calling on the workers to smash the Yeltsin-Bush counterrevolution. We called for workers militias to smash the Yeltsinite demonstrations; for workers councils to fight the plunder and destruction of the collectivised planned economy; for soldiers’ and officers’ committees to prevent the army being used against the working class. We called for multinational workers defence guards to guard against racist attacks and anti-Communist attacks. We called for a return to the road of Lenin and Trotsky through the forging of a Trotskyist party and linked that to international class struggle. It wasn’t over. We looked at what the Trotskyists did when Hitler came to power in 1933 — they geared up for the struggle to reverse it. We wanted this very weak Yeltsin government to be overthrown before it could consolidate, which required the working class to move.

The British SWP came out with the infamous headline “communism has collapsed” and said: “It is a fact that should have every socialist rejoicing”. Well, who’s rejoicing now? A few years later they were popping champagne for the victory of Tony Blair, which is much more to their liking. We established a Lenin-Trotsky fund to collect money to fund and support our work in the Soviet Union. We put out also for the very first time in Russian Trotsky’s book The Third International After Lenin.

I will go through some of the things that happened in the aftermath of the Yeltsin countercoup. On Revolution Day — 7 November — in 1991 the annual demonstration was banned by Yeltsin. But 100,000 Muscovites were going to march in Moscow anyway. At the very last moment the panicking Yeltsinites withdrew the ban and the demonstration went ahead. We distributed our literature massively and, halfway through, when we demanded to have the microphone, the Stalinists just ended the demonstration, because the last thing they wanted was the Trotskyists addressing the crowd. On Red Army Day, 23 February the following year, the OMON special forces bloodied the Soviet Army — they beat a Soviet general to death in the streets of Moscow. This was a period of consolidation and the Yeltsinite forces wanted to bloody any kind of resistance. Our own comrade Martha Phillips was murdered around this time. We attempted to get a serious investigation into her death, but the authorities in Russia stonewalled. Comrade Martha Phillips paid the ultimate price for being at her post in defence of the Soviet Union. And as an organisation we paid a high price — we had comrades arrested, attacked, we were stalked by fascists, etc, and eventually we were banned — declared persona non grata — from the Ukraine.

With counterrevolution, all the old crap came back. Since then, we have published this pamphlet called How the Soviet Workers State Was Strangled, a collection of most of the main articles we wrote at that time. It also explains the main factor in the counterrevolution in the Soviet Union, which was that the consciousness of the working class had been eroded by decades of Stalinism, and by atomisation, to such an extent that they did not fight the counterrevolution. Nor would they have been very inspired by the sight of so-called “Reds”, the Stalinist leftovers in a coalition with the kind of Pamyat fascist filth that was called the “Red-Brown” coalition. I saw these people myself in Moscow during demonstrations against the closure of the Lenin museum. I have been in a number of different sections and one of the things you are guaranteed to hear from anti-Communists is “why don’t you go back to Moscow?” Well, I went back to Moscow and as I was selling the paper there, these leftover Stalinist hacks said to me, “go back to Israel”. It was virulent, anti-Semitic filth. I remember that while we were fighting to hold these people back, a comrade said defiantly: “Stalin didn’t shut us up 70 years ago and you ain’t gonna do it now!”