Tony Cliff

Balance of powerlessness

(September 1991)

From Socialist Review, No.145, December 1991, pp.10-11.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The August coup was swiftly defeated. But, as Tony Cliff argues, the factors behind it are all still in place. The conditions for another coup will remain as long as the general crisis continues and the power of the state remains

Why did the coup take place? We can only understand it against the calamitous position of the Soviet economy.

When Gorbachev came to power it was against a background of what was called Brezhnev’s stagnation. Now we have a situation much worse than stagnation.

Recent figures showed that Gross National Product (GNP) was down in 1990 by 8.4 percent. This year it’s estimated the drop will be 17.7 percent. The Financial Times on 16 May reported that oil production was then down by 9 percent since the beginning of the year. Meat production from January to April went down by 13 percent.

There is no way of returning to Stalin’s command economy. That came to a full stop. In the first five year plan the annual rate of growth of the economy was 19.2 percent. In the period 1950-59 it was 5.8 percent. In the 1970s the growth rate was 3.7 percent annually. And then it went down to 1 percent.

Stalin transformed a very backward country into the second biggest industrial power in the world. But it couldn’t go on because his methods were only effective so long as he could mobilise a massive amount of human resources and raw materials.

You reach a certain stage where increases in the productivity per unit of labour begin to decline. So in the USSR today 30 percent of the population are in agriculture; yet there is still not enough food. Compare that to the US, where 4 percent of the population can produce sufficient food.

In the USSR the number of factory workers is a third higher than the US, the number of technicians twice that of the US, but production is half that of the US.

They have to raise the productivity of labour. That’s why all of them accept the need to move away from the command economy.

But they are trapped because the command economy is not yet dead and the market economy is stillborn. So they get a combination of both systems.

Central government says, ‘let’s have more free market, let’s have more black market, let’s cut the element of the command economy.’ But it is estimated that this year only 40 percent of the state’s orders for goods will be fulfilled. This is catastrophic for the economy.

Under Stalin there was a lot of waste. But if they aimed at 60 million tonnes of steel, then they would know the amount of coal and iron that they would need, and they would get it, more or less.

The market economy operates with what Adam Smith called the ‘hidden hand’. If 60 million tonnes of steel is demanded, then demand for coal and iron will rise and the companies who produce it will try and meet it. There’s waste and friction, but somehow it works.

The worst thing in the USSR today is that they have half abandoned one and not got the other. Under such conditions it is moving more and more towards a two-way or three-way barter economy.

But the economy is too complicated for such a system to work. For example, take the oil industry in Tyumen. The USSR is the biggest exporter of oil in the world. But oil production is going down. One reason is that under Stalin they neglected the living conditions of the oil workers. But it is also because they need to buy oil drilling machinery. When there was a command economy Azerbaijan, which is an oil producing region, provided the machinery. But now with the collapse of the command economy, the Azeris want something in return for it. The problem is that there is nothing Tyumen can give them that they want. This situation is being repeated throughout the economy and threatens to deepen the paralysis.

Because the rulers find themselves in such a cul-de-sac, they can’t go back and they can’t go forward. To achieve a real market economy would mean a massive amount of unemployment. Two Moscow economists of the Plekhanov Institute have estimated that between 31 and 38 million will be out of work before the transition to a market economy is over. Gennady Yanayev, who led the coup, estimated that the move to a market economy in the first year would mean 12 million unemployed.

Putting over 30 million people (over 100 million including their families) out of work on top of the 70 million people in the USSR who already live below the poverty line is terrifying.

And in the USSR it isn’t only a question of sacking thousands of workers to move towards the market, but of sacking thousands of managers too. That’s why there’s massive resistance to the changes and why there are not clear lines of division in the ruling class.

The ruling class is split in all sorts of ways which are always shifting. Gorbachev is the most extreme case. After first endorsing the Shatalin 500 day plan for the market, he then proceeded to smash it last winter. Then he put the knife into the modernisers. He brought in Pugo and sent the black berets into the Baltics.

Every time he did a turn, he lost somebody. He moved towards the modernisers and lost some of the conservatives. He moved to the conservatives and lost some of the modernisers. He is the extreme case of a Bonaparte. He could have some stability for a time. But at the end of the day there are three possible outcomes.

The situation can either fall to the left – that’s what the revolutionaries would love. Or it can fall to the right – that’s what the capitalists would like. Or it can remain the same – that’s what the social democrats would love.

But this third position cannot hold. You can either have one or the other. For as long as it held, Gorbachev became more and more isolated among the mass of the people, the most unpopular man in the USSR.

The problem in the present conflict and why the coup happened is that there was not a balance of power, but a balance of powerlessness. Both sides are extremely weak. The coup showed this.

Nor is it true that the state machine is on one side of the ruling class or the other. There is no abyss between the KGB and Gorbachev himself. Gorbachev came to office thanks to the KGB. It was Andropov, formerly head of the KGB, who selected him.

The KGB is always the most sensitive to the situation, it is always the most informed section of Soviet society because it is everywhere. This means that, though some of them support Gorbachev, some of them support Yeltsin.

The same applies to the army, which is also divided by nationality. The economic crisis and decline brings out those national divisions.

If the coup was a contest between two forces that are very weak, then we have an equation with a whole number of unknowns on both sides.

That’s why the coup looked so incompetent. There’s three examples of past coups which help to illustrate the present situation in the USSR. Pinochet’s coup in Chile in September 1973 killed thousands on the first day and was settled in a question of days.

Hitler came to power on 30 January 1933. But because there was still opposition to him, and because his side was not completely united, it took him until May to smash the trade unions and the social democrats at the same time. In Italy, the March on Rome was in October 1922, but it took three years for Mussolini to really finish the coup.

Why? Because his source of power was not as conservative as Pinochet’s. Pinochet was in as strong a position as Hitler, and in a much stronger position than Mussolini.

The coup in the USSR was the thin end of the wedge – and this leaves two possibilities. It can become thicker or it can disappear. Yeltsin called on workers to go on strike in support of Gorbachev. ‘You tell us two months ago to go on strike to get rid of Gorbachev? And wasn’t it you who stopped our miners’ strike?’

The main weakness of the Yeltsin side was the apathy, the feeling of ‘who cares about Gorbachev?’ The workers could have changed the whole thing. The degree, however, always depends on the existence of an independent workers’ organisation.

So some workers are complete marketeers – followers of Yeltsin – while some want to go back to the command economy. Others look to Anatoly Sobchak, the mayor of Leningrad, who called for support for Yeltsin. A few months ago he was calling for a strong state and for banning strikes.

The more you talk in general about the crisis in society, the crisis of state capitalism, the clearer the picture becomes. The more immediate it is, the more messy. If the coup leaders had known all the consequences when it took place they would have arrested Yeltsin immediately. The fact that they did not gave Yeltsin the initiative, but that is not the end of the story. Nothing is settled.

The problems of the economy remain, and the impact of food shortages, rising prices and unemployment will be massive. Empty stomachs can lead to rebellion or they can lead to submission. It depends on the confidence people have. And mostly it depends on how long the stomachs have been empty. If it goes on for too long, the anger can turn to despair. Millions of unemployed people in Germany joined the Nazis because they were hungry.

The coup was not answered by a crushing workers’ victory, and that means there can be a worse coup in a year’s time. And by then workers can be so sick they may well say, ‘we don’t give a damn, whoever promises us bread we join.’

The conditions for another coup will be there as long as the general crisis continues and as long as there’s a hierarchical structure in the army and KGB. The eye of the storm – who initiates the crack down – can be different next time.

The workers will learn quite a lot from the defeat of this coup. They will learn that workers can remove conspirators, and the minority who struck will feel vindicated in doing so. But those people who backed the coup can learn quite a lot too. They can learn for example, as happened in Chile, when the failed coup of June 1973 was followed by a successful one three months later, that the next coup must be more ruthless and bloody.

There is only one way to guarantee that such a coup doesn’t succeed. The Kornilov coup against the Kerensky government in August 1917 was smashed by the revolutionary military committee of the Petrograd Soviet coordinating the soldiers’ councils. Smashing the hierarchy of the KGB and the army – the state machine which remains intact – is the key to defeating such attacks in the future.


Last updated on 31.12.2004