Chris Harman

The slippery slope

(March 1990)

From Socialist Worker Review, No. 129, March 1990.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

I AM constantly amazed by the ability of media commentators to create myths which fool them as much as their readers. One of the biggest is that Gorbachev has single handedly pushed the USSR in the direction of liberal democracy in the face of unrelenting resistance from arch-conservatives in the politburo.

Nothing, it seems, can dent this myth. Not the sacking of Yeltsin in October 1987. Not the open support of Ligachev at the special conference in June 1988. Not Gorbachev’s repeated denunciations of radical democrats as “extremists”. Not acquiescence in the Tbilisi massacre of April 1989. Not last autumn’s anti-strike law. Not the repeated threats against the Baltic independence movements. Not even the bloody attempt to crush the Azerbaijani popular movement.

So it was that virtually the whole of the British media told us that the Central Committee meeting at the beginning of February, barely a fortnight after the onslaught on Baku, was an epoch making event in which Gorbachev defeated the conservatives by pushing through a commitment to “multi-party democracy” and a “platform for Soviet revolution” (the Independent’s headline).

This meeting was in no way an open fight between supporters of Ligachev and supporters of Gorbachev. The only vote against the Central Committee theses came from Boris Yeltsin – seen by the radical democrats, however mistakenly, as their champion.

This followed three days of speeches, most differing from each other only in the degree of their conservatism. Yeltsin complained, “at least 40 out of the 58 speakers spoke in a conservative spirit”.

Far from embracing radical democracy, Gorbachev was adamant that the decision of the Lithuanian Communist Party to declare itself independent of Moscow, “should be regarded as having no standing” as the “separatist mood in Lithuania is based on emotion”. (TASS, 7 February 1990)

The “conservatives” and Gorbachev alike accepted the amending of Article Six of the constitution because, as a leading conservative told a commission of the Central Committee two days before the meeting proper, “while we are talking about a multi-party system it has become a fact”.

The real significance of this Central Committee was that it took place in the midst of the biggest eruption of social and political protests yet.

These shook not only the Baltic republics, Moldavia, Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan, but spread eastward through Asia into Tajikistan and Kirgizia.

In the Baltic states the mass of people were opting for full independence. Izvestia reported, “nervous tension throughout Moldavia. People have no faith in the future”. There were demonstrations in Kirgizia. Then troops were sent to crush what the Russian media described as “riots” and “pogroms” – in reality a popular, anti-Russian rising – in the Tajik capital, Dushanbe. Meanwhile, three weeks after the troops went in, Moscow Radio reported that 47 percent of enterprises in Baku remained on strike.

Most significantly, a wave of protests suddenly threatened the hold of party bosses in the core industrial areas of the Russian republic and the Ukraine, where the head of the state-run unions warned, “Popular discontent is rising and may lead to mass labour conflicts”.

Popular pressure forced local party leaderships to resign in such cities as Tyumen (the main centre of the oil industry), Sverdlovsk, Volgograd (formerly Stalingrad), Uzhgorod, Ivano-Frankovsk, Khmorlitisky and Donetsk. The resignations in Donetsk took place, significantly, after mass demonstrations of miners with slogans like “Army do not shoot on the people” and “Ligachev and his crew resign”.

There were successful demonstrations in the Russian cities of Krasnodar and Stavropol (Gorbachev’s old home base) against the call up of reservists for Azerbaijan.

An open split emerged at the base of the ruling party itself as a coalition of liberals and radical democrats met to form an open faction, the Democratic Platform.

Gorbachev had little control over events as the Central Committee met. He could only respond on a day to day basis, alternating between offers of concessions and threats of force to growing movements.

The combination has not worked. The threats have antagonised people from one end of the USSR to the other. The concessions have shown them that it is possible to stand up to the forces of the state and win. And every time they have stood up, they have weakened still further the ruling party on which Gorbachev’s own power has rested.

His latest gambit, taking dictatorial powers as president, shows the real weaknesses of his position. For it to have even a limited chance of success, this move would have to be based on the legitimacy of a popular vote. But Gorbachev might lose such a vote to Yeltsin, so he seems inclined to go instead for a mandate from the Congress of Deputies.

Gorbachev is like a man slipping down an ice covered slope, able to dodge obstacles but unable either to stop in his tracks or to look forward with any confidence to arriving safely at his destination.

The USSR today shows many of the classic symptoms of a pre-revolutionary situation. The rulers, unable to rule in the old way, argue vehemently with each other about the way forward. And the mass of people, pulled into political life by these arguments, will no longer tolerate the burdens imposed on them.

Not every revolutionary situation leads to a revolution. In the wings forces are waiting that may well destroy its momentum – from Yeltsinites on the one hand, who would use radical demagogy to advance their own positions while doing deals with the old order, to the Russian chauvinists of Pamyat and the United Workers Front on the other.

But whatever happens, Gorbachev’s own chances of staying on his feet are not that high.

Last updated on 12.8.2013