Workers Vanguard No. 899

28 September 2007


It's All About the Russian Question


8 July 2007

Dear Workers Vanguard

Your response to my second letter (WV 894) confirms your illusions in the Stalinist bureaucracy as a defender of the workers state.

You see the threat of capitalist restoration in China as coming from oppositionists such as Li Jianqiang and Han Dongfang, and deny the reality of capitalist restoration being carried out by the bureaucracy itself.

You write: “At the political level, the imperialists aim to replay in China the strategy used during Cold War II in East Europe and the former Soviet Union: promoting domestic anti-Communist oppositional forces”.

This is a one-sided account of imperialist strategy during the Cold War. In addition to cultivating opposition groups, the imperialists also cultivated pro-capitalist tendencies within the bureaucracy.

This was most clearly seen in the Soviet Union. Yeltsin came from within the Stalinist bureaucracy. He was a leading member of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union before he fell out with Gorbachev.

Yeltsin came to power essentially through a coup. During the power struggle in August 1991, he won the support of key sections of the officer corps. Mobilisation of Yeltsin’s supporters in the streets played a secondary role.

Even before Yeltsin’s coup, the bureaucracy had already adopted a capitalist-restorationist perspective. This was shown a year earlier when the USSR Supreme Soviet adopted the “500-day plan” for the creation of a “market economy”. Yeltsin won the intra-bureaucratic power struggle because he was seen as the best person to implement the bureaucracy’s perspective of capitalist restoration.

In Eastern Europe, mass protests played a bigger role in bringing about changes of government than in the Soviet Union. Some former leaders of anti-regime mass movements became leaders of capitalist governments, Polish Solidarity being an obvious example.

In the preceding years, imperialism had succeeded in winning over many of the leaders of protest movements in Eastern Europe. These movements arose out of a justified anger at bureaucratic privilege and repression. But setbacks in the struggle for socialist democracy in Eastern Europe, as well as setbacks in the working class struggle on a world scale, led some activists in these movements to abandon a socialist perspective. Imperialist propaganda portrayed bourgeois democracy as the only alternative to Stalinism, and (in the absence of a strong revolutionary left movement in the West) many Eastern European activists fell for this false solution.

Acts of Stalinist repression, such as the declaration of martial law and the arrests of thousands of workers in Poland in December 1981, made the problem worse. The Spartacist League supported Jaruzelski’s repression, not recognising that it was a gift to the imperialists. It made it easier for Reagan and Thatcher to pose as defenders of democracy, human rights and workers rights. This in turn helped them to sell “free market” economics to Solidarity activists and other Eastern European oppositionists.

Returning to China, you rightly condemn “the brutal suppression of the 1989 Tiananmen protests”, but seek to minimise the impact of the repression. You quote Trotsky’s statement that “on the road to capitalism the counter-revolution would have to break the resistance of the workers”, and argue that this has not happened in China. You say that, in the 1989 Beijing massacre, “the working class was not smashed”.

But a similar comment could be applied to Russia. Yeltsin’s coup of August 1991 did not “break the resistance of the workers”, or “smash” the working class.

The Russian working class did not resist Yeltsin’s coup; rather, the workers were spectators to the struggle within the bureaucracy. The coup was nevertheless very significant, since it initiated a policy of rapid privatisation that impoverished the working class and caused many workers to lose their jobs. The result was catastrophic, but the catastrophe unfolded over several years, not just on the day of Yeltsin’s victory.

Trotsky said that the bureaucracy “continues to preserve state property only to the extent that it fears the proletariat”. Yeltsin’s privatisation push showed that the bureaucracy had overcome its fear of the working class. The defeats for the international working class at the hands of Reagan, Thatcher etc had given the Russian bureaucracy confidence in its ability to defeat working class resistance to privatisation.

The same is true in China, though the details are different. The Chinese bureaucracy has proceeded more slowly with privatisation, and has continued to use the organisational form of the Communist Party. China has received much more foreign investment than Russia, with many transnational corporations choosing China as a base for production for the world market.

The Chinese bureaucracy’s “gradualist” strategy has been much more successful economically than Yeltsin’s “shock therapy”, which sent Russia into a deep depression. China has experienced a long boom similar to that in South Korea and Taiwan in earlier years. This boom is based on the extremely ruthless exploitation of the working class, especially the vast numbers of migrant workers.

Neither in China nor in Russia was there just one single “catastrophic” event that broke the resistance of the workers. The resistance of many specific groups of workers to privatisation, job cuts, welfare cuts, oppressive working conditions, etc has been crushed in numerous separate battles, but outbreaks of resistance have continued to occur in both Russia and China.

Nevertheless the state in both Russia and China is a capitalist state. It defends the interests of the capitalist class. This does not exclude the maintenance of a significant nationalised sector of the economy in both countries, nor attacks by the state on specific capitalists (e.g. Putin’s attacks on certain “oligarchs”), nor conflicts between the Chinese or Russian states and US imperialism.

Chris Slee

WV replies:

We have extensively answered Chris Slee’s arguments on the class character of the Chinese deformed workers state in our replies to two letters from him (see “Why China Is Not Capitalist: An Exchange,” WV No. 890, 13 April and “Again on Why China Is Not Capitalist,” WV No. 894, 8 June). Slee’s arguments echoed prevailing pseudo-left views on China; our replies provided an opportunity to underline our Trotskyist program of unconditional military defense of China against imperialist attack and internal counterrevolution and for proletarian political revolution against the Stalinist bureaucracy. They also provided a means to expose Slee’s social-democratic enthusing over “democratic” forces backed by the imperialists against the Stalinist regimes.

In his third letter, Slee again denies the contradictory nature of the Stalinist bureaucracy—portraying it as simply counterrevolutionary—in order to justify support to capitalist counterrevolution, including the Solidarność bid for power against the Polish workers state in late 1981. In replying to his second letter, we noted that “Slee does not deign to mention his longtime affiliation with the Australian Democratic Socialist Perspective (DSP), whose forerunners during Cold War II enthusiastically supported imperialist-backed counterrevolutionary forces in the former Soviet sphere, from Lech Walesa’s Solidarność in Poland to Boris Yeltsin’s ‘democrats’ in Russia.”

Slee readily admits that in East Europe and the former Soviet Union, “Some former leaders of anti-regime mass movements became leaders of capitalist governments, Polish Solidarity being an obvious example.” Quite so, as the mass movements they led were pro-capitalist. Slee falsely implies that Solidarność was initially struggling for “socialist democracy.” In fact, from its formation during the August 1980 Gdansk shipyard strike, Solidarność was led by pro-capitalist elements and actively supported by the Vatican and American and West European imperialism, not exactly champions of “socialist democracy.” And as we wrote in “Stop Solidarity’s Counterrevolution!” (WV No. 289, 25 September 1981):

“With its first national congress in September, decisive elements of Solidarity are now pushing a program of open counterrevolution. The appeal for ‘free trade unions’ within the Soviet bloc, long a fighting slogan for Cold War anti-Communism, was a deliberate provocation of Moscow. Behind the call for ‘free elections’ to the Sejm (parliament) stands the program of ‘Western-style democracy,’ that is, capitalist restoration under the guise of parliamentary government.” [emphasis in original]

There was no question that for genuine Trotskyists it was necessary to stand with the regime of General Jaruzelski when it spiked Solidarność’s bid for power in December 1981. We condemned the Polish Stalinist bureaucracy for driving the historically socialist Polish working class into the arms of Washington and the Vatican. Slee condemns the Stalinists for preventing Solidarność from overthrowing the deformed workers state at that time. We refer our readers to the October 1981 Spartacist pamphlet Solidarność: Polish Company Union for CIA and Bankers.

In arguing that the Beijing Stalinist bureaucracy has restored capitalism in China, Slee contends that this is also what basically happened in the former Soviet Union. He thus describes Boris Yeltsin’s seizure of power in August 1991 as an “intra-bureaucratic power struggle.” Yeltsin had been a leading figure in the Soviet Stalinist regime. However, in 1990 he and other right-wing forces split from the ruling Communist Party, which was then breaking apart. Trumpeting his support for “democracy” and “free market” economics, Yeltsin was able to gain the support of the U.S. imperialists in his struggle to overthrow the decomposing regime of Mikhail Gorbachev. What happened in the Soviet Union in 1989-91 was, as Leon Trotsky had predicted decades earlier, the disintegration of the Stalinist bureaucracy, out of which elements emerged that formed a capitalist-restorationist political force led by Yeltsin.

After seizing power in August 1991, Yeltsin dismantled the remaining structures of Stalinist bureaucratic rule. The Communist Party was outlawed and the armed forces purged of officers who might resist the dissolution of the USSR and the restoration of capitalism. At this critical juncture in modern world history, the International Communist League put out a leaflet, “Soviet Workers: Defeat Yeltsin-Bush Counterrevolution!”, that was distributed in the tens of thousands in Soviet Russia. 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. The first workers state in history, sapped and undermined by decades of Stalinist bureaucratic misrule, lies in tatters. The state power has been fractured, the Communist Party—its bureaucratic core—shattered and banned from the KGB and armed forces, the multinational union is ripping apart as one republic after another proclaims secession.”

WV No. 533, 30 August 1991; reprinted in the August 1993 Spartacist pamphlet How the Soviet Workers State Was Strangled

Slee blows a lot of smoke to obscure one simple, decisive fact: He and his party stood with Yeltsin and his counterrevolutionary rabble; the ICL fought to the last in defense of the gains of October.

Turning to China, Slee again asserts that the state is “capitalist.” This is simply a philistine cover for support to those forces which indeed seek such a counterrevolutionary outcome. In our reply to Slee in WV No. 890, we explained:

“Should China succumb to counterrevolution, the results would be catastrophic: the return of imperialist subjugation, the dismantling of the gains of the 1949 Revolution, the deepening of ‘death of communism’ ideology internationally. This is an outcome we seek to combat. And in such a showdown, the DSP will stand on the side of counterrevolution, as it has done and is doing.”

With this reply to Slee’s third letter, we rest our case.