Workers Vanguard No. 1034

15 November 2013


From the Archives of Workers Vanguard

1991-92 Capitalist Counterrevolution

Why the Soviet Workers Did Not Rise Up

In our last issue, we marked the anniversary of the 1917 October Revolution with the article “The Proletarian Revolution in Russia” (WV No. 1033, 1 November). Fighting against the revolution’s degeneration under Stalinist misrule, Leon Trotsky insisted that defense of the Soviet workers state against its imperialist and domestic class enemies was an essential precondition to fighting for proletarian political revolution to oust the bureaucratic usurpers.

Based on this understanding, the International Communist League intervened into the crucial events touched off by Boris Yeltsin’s U.S.-backed power grab in August 1991, with our comrades in Russia distributing over 100,000 copies of a leaflet titled “Soviet Workers: Defeat Yeltsin-Bush Counterrevolution!” However, in the absence of mass working-class resistance, Yeltsin’s forces eventually consolidated power. A historic defeat for the international proletariat, capitalist restoration meant social catastrophe for the Soviet working people, a fate that would surely befall the masses in China and the other remaining deformed workers states in the event of a victorious counterrevolution.

Accommodating the bourgeois “death of communism” lie, self-styled Marxists worldwide rushed to remove any taint of association with Bolshevism. In contrast, the ICL drew the lessons of the bitter defeat in the former Soviet Union in order to go forward in the struggle for new October Revolutions. Below we reprint excerpts from our article “How the Soviet Workers State Was Strangled,” which appeared in WV No. 564 (27 November 1992) and later in a pamphlet of the same name.

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Since rising to power over the backs of the Soviet working class through a political counterrevolution in 1923-24, the Stalinist bureaucracy imposed a suffocating isolation on the first workers state, suppressing one international revolutionary opportunity after another. 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.

The isolated workers state was subjected to the unremitting pressures of imperialism, not only military encirclement and an arms buildup aimed at bankrupting the Soviet economy, but also the pressure of the imperialist world market. As Trotsky wrote in The Third International After Lenin: “it is not so much military intervention as the intervention of cheaper capitalist commodities that constitutes perhaps the greatest immediate menace to Soviet economy.” Although the planned economy proved its superiority over capitalist anarchy during its period of extensive growth, as the need for quality and intensive development came to the fore the bureaucratic stranglehold more and more undermined the economy. Finally, through his perestroika “market reforms” and acquiescence to capitalist restoration throughout East Europe, Gorbachev opened wide the floodgates to a direct counterrevolutionary onslaught by Yeltsin & Co.

The bourgeoisie and the Stalinists alike have long sought to identify Lenin’s October with Stalin’s conservative bureaucratic rule. But nationalist Stalinism is the antithesis of Leninist internationalism. The Soviet degenerated workers state (and the deformed workers states which later arose on the Stalinist model) was a historic anomaly, resulting from the isolation of economically backward Russia and the failure of proletarian revolution to spread to the advanced imperialist countries. Stalinism represented a roadblock to progress toward socialism. As Trotsky wrote in “Not a Workers’ and Not a Bourgeois State?” (November 1937):

“That which was a ‘bureaucratic deformation’ is at the present moment preparing to devour the workers’ state, without leaving any remains, and on the ruins of nationalized property to spawn a new propertied class. Such a possibility has drawn extremely near.”

While the Stalinist regime was able to prolong its existence as a result of the heroic victory of the Soviet masses over the Nazi invasion in World War II, Trotsky’s Marxist analysis has ultimately, unfortunately, been vindicated in the negative.

Why did the Soviet working class not rally to defend its gains? How did the counterrevolution triumph and destroy the workers state without a civil war? In his seminal 1933 work laying out the perspective of proletarian political revolution, Trotsky polemicized against social democrats and proponents of various “new class” theories who claimed that under Stalin’s rule, the Soviet Union had imperceptibly changed from a workers to a bourgeois state without any qualitative transformation of either the state apparatus or the property forms:

“The Marxist thesis relating to the catastrophic character of the transfer of power from the hands of one class into the hands of another applies not only to revolutionary periods, when history sweeps madly ahead, but also to the periods of counterrevolution, when society rolls backwards. He who asserts that the Soviet government has been gradually changed from proletarian to bourgeois is only, so to speak, running backwards the film of reformism.”

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

There was certainly nothing gradual or imperceptible about the social counterrevolution in the ex-USSR, which has been extremely violent and convulsive throughout the former Soviet bloc. However, Trotsky also advanced the prognosis that a civil war would be required to restore capitalism in the Soviet Union and undo the deepgoing proletarian revolution.

In a wide-ranging discussion in the ICL two years ago on the counterrevolutionary overturns in East Europe and the DDR (East Germany), it was noted that Trotsky had overdrawn the analogy between a social revolution in capitalist society and social counterrevolution in a deformed workers state (see Joseph Seymour, “On the Collapse of Stalinist Rule in East Europe,” and Albert St. John, “For Marxist Clarity and a Forward Perspective,” Spartacist No. 45-46, Winter 1990-91). Where the capitalists exercise direct ownership over the means of production, and thus are compelled to violently resist the overthrow of their system in order to defend their own property, the preservation of proletarian power depends principally on consciousness and organization of the working class.

Trotsky himself emphasized this point in his 1928 article “What Now?”:

“The socialist character of our state determined and secured in a decisive measure by the role of the party, the voluntary internal cohesion of the proletarian vanguard, the conscious discipline of the administrators, trade union functionaries, members of the shop nuclei, etc.”

—The Third International After Lenin

And again, in “The Workers’ State, Thermidor and Bonapartism” (February 1935), he stated: “In contradistinction to capitalism, socialism is built not automatically but consciously.”

When Trotsky wrote these articles, the memory of the October Revolution was still a part of the direct personal experience of the overwhelming mass of the Soviet proletariat, albeit already considerably warped by Stalinist falsification and revision. In the intervening decades, the nationalist bureaucracy did much to extirpate any real understanding of what came to be iconized as the “Great October Socialist Revolution.” In Soviet mass consciousness, World War II, dubbed by the Stalinists the “Great Patriotic War” and suffused with the Russian-nationalist propaganda Stalin churned out during the war, came to supplant the October Revolution as the epochal event in Soviet history. In the end, Stalin and his heirs succeeded in imprinting their nationalist outlook on the Soviet peoples; proletarian internationalism came to be sneered at as an obscure “Trotskyite heresy” of “export of revolution” or, at best, emptied of any content while paid cynical lip service.

With Gorbachev’s “new thinking”—i.e., his cringing capitulation to each and every imperialist ultimatum—even lip service to the ideals of the Bolshevik Revolution went by the boards. The Soviet soldiers who had been told, and believed, that they were fulfilling their “internationalist duty” in fighting against the reactionary Afghan mujahedin on the USSR’s border, were then maligned for perpetrating “Russia’s Vietnam” against Afghanistan. Gorbachev’s ignominious pullout from Afghanistan and his green light to the imperialist annexation of the DDR served only to further a sense of defeatism and demoralization among the Soviet masses, while the so-called Stalinist “patriots” who denounced Gorbachev’s concessions did so only to beat the drums for Great Russian imperial ambitions, explicitly harking back to the time of the tsars.

Even so, the spontaneous strikes which erupted in the Soviet coal fields in the summer of 1989 against the ravages of Gorbachev’s “market socialism” dramatically demonstrated the potential for militant working-class struggle. As Russian social democrat Boris Kagarlitsky documents in his book Farewell Perestroika (1990), the strike committees in many areas became “the actual centre of popular power,” organizing food distribution, maintaining order, etc. As we pointed out at the time, the Kuzbass strikes “have quickly generated organizational forms of proletarian power, including strike committees and workers militias” (“Soviet Workers Flex Their Muscle,” WV No. 482, 21 July 1989).

These developments pointed to the possibility of authentic soviets, which—by drawing in collective farmers, women, pensioners, soldiers and officers—could have served as the basis for a new proletarian political power, ousting the bureaucracy through a political revolution. But when the Gorbachev regime reneged on its promises to the miners, pro-imperialist agitators trained by the “AFL-CIA” moved into the vacuum of leadership and set up the Independent Miners Union, organizing an activist minority of the miners as a battering ram for Yeltsin.

However, a majority of the miners as well as the rest of the Soviet working class remained passive in the three-sided contest between the Yeltsin-led “democrats,” Gorbachev and the more conservative wing of the Stalinists. The mass of workers were wary, if not outright hostile, to the pro-Western advocates of a “market economy.” Unlike in Poland during the rise of Solidarność​, the forces of capitalist counterrevolution were not able to mobilize the Soviet masses in the name of anti-Communism.

At the same time, the bureaucratic elite (the so-called nomenklatura) was totally discredited by the flagrant corruption and cynicism of the Brezhnev era. Occasional appeals to defend “socialism” made by the more conservative elements of the Gorbachev regime, such as Yegor Ligachev, fell on deaf ears. The Stalinist “patriots,” organized for example in the United Front of Toilers (OFT), were able to mobilize only a relatively small number of worker activists.

Atomized and bereft of any anticapitalist 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.”...

The proletariat which made the October Revolution learned from Lenin and Trotsky’s Bolsheviks that it was part of an international struggle. It understood that its only prospect for survival lay in the extension of the revolution to more advanced industrial powers, chiefly Germany. The opportunities were manifold, but the revolutionary parties outside Soviet Russia were too weak and politically immature to pursue them. The German Spartakist uprising of 1918-19 and the 1919 Hungarian Commune went down to bloody defeat. The possibility of the Red Army marching to the aid of the German workers in 1920 by unleashing proletarian revolution in Pilsudski’s Poland was foiled. Finally, with the defeat of the German October in 1923, the Soviet proletariat succumbed to the demoralizing prospect of a lengthy period of isolation, which allowed the bureaucratic layer headed by Stalin to usurp political power. Thus was the revolution betrayed.

But this betrayal did not go unchallenged. The Left Opposition of Leon Trotsky continued the struggle for the authentic program of Leninism. In its struggle to defend and extend Soviet power, the Left Opposition urged a policy of planned industrialization to revive the enervated proletariat and enable the isolated workers state to hold out against imperialist encirclement. The Trotskyists fought uncompromisingly against the nascent bureaucracy’s Great Russian chauvinism. They fought against the treacherous policies emanating from “socialism in one country,” in the first instance the subversion of the Chinese Revolution of 1925-27 and the Anglo-Russian trade-union bloc which led to the knifing of the 1926 British General Strike. This led to the subordination of the German working class to Hitler’s jackboot, to the outright suppression of the Spanish revolution in the late 1930s. By selling out revolutionary opportunities at the end of World War II, particularly in Italy, France and Greece, Stalinism enabled capitalism to survive, and thus prepared the way for its own ultimate demise.

With the utter liquidation of the Communist International as an instrument for world revolution, Trotsky organized the founding of the Fourth International in 1938. Today the International Communist League fights for the rebirth of the Fourth International, whose cadre were decimated by Stalinist and Hitlerite terror and which finally succumbed in the early 1950s to an internal revisionist challenge which denied the need for an independent revolutionary leadership. Only as part of the struggle to reforge an authentic world party of socialist revolution can the workers of the former Soviet Union cohere the leadership they need to sweep away the grotesque horrors they now confront.