Chris Harman


The falling idol

(May 1991)

From Socialist Worker Review, No.142, May 1991, pp.6-8.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

In recent weeks it has looked like Gorbachev’s final crisis. As we went to press, he seemed to have gained yet another reprieve. But, as Chris Harman argues, it is only putting off the final problem. He goes on to analyse the relationship between ideas and activity in the workers’ movement.

‘NOW IT’S obvious that December was the turning point in our political development, especially for the policy of the leadership of the USSR. Gorbachev must make a hard hand or it will be made without him – the same dilemma which faced Kania and Jaruzelski in 1981 and Zhao in 1989.

‘Nineteen ninety one will be the year when the two great social actors – the army and the working class – actively and openly act on the political scene.’

SO PREDICTED a reader of ours, Nikolai, in a letter he posted from Leningrad in January and which, due to vagaries of the Soviet postal system, arrived only a fortnight ago.

The comments of many Western observers at the beginning of that week seemed to confirm his prediction as they spoke of Gorbachev’s imminent downfall. Articles in the Soviet press for the first time discussed who his successor would be as strikers assailed him from one side and the Soyuz group, with its military and KGB links, from the other.

Then Gorbachev suddenly strengthened his hand by a deal with Yeltsin which the conservatives were prepared to go along with.

Yet the Gorbachev-Yeltsin deal has altered none of the central features of the situation. It is very unlikely to halt the tendencies towards confrontation which have characterised the last six months.

The swing of the regime towards the conservative right over that period has been due to pressure from a new and powerful bloc of political forces. The main spokesmen for this have been military officers. But they do not simply act on their own behalf. Behind them stand all the major social groups who, benefitting from state capitalist exploitation in the USSR, make up its ruling class, especially the managers of large scale industry – the very group who both Gorbachev and the liberal democratic opposition place at the centre of their schemes for economic reform.

Resistance to the new right has come from three sources.

There have been the minority republics. In some – Moldavia, the Baltic republics, Georgia – radical intellectuals have assumed positions of official power with programmes of complete independence. In others-Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekhistan – chunks of the old party apparatus have broken at least partially free from the centre, using nationalistic phraseology to try to gain a popular following. In both cases, they have tried to maintain support for themselves by obstructing the implementation of directives from the centre.

Second there has been the liberal democrat opposition, strongly based in Moscow and Leningrad, and through Boris Yeltsin exercising a powerful influence over the government of the Russian Federal Republic, which in turn has obstructed central directives.

The liberal democrats have organised demonstrations of tens or even hundreds of thousands of people in Moscow and other cities, and exercise considerable influence within the new workers’ movement. But their resistance has been flawed by then: commitment to reforming the existing structure, and, therefore, to working with the same generals, police chiefs and managers who have been demanding repressive measures. They called showpiece demonstrations to protest at the advance of the right in the first three months of this year – and then lapsed into a demoralised passivity as the existing structure ignored their pleas for a coalition government.

Neither of these sources of resistance could impede the advance of the new right bloc for long on then: own.

What did cause forces of the right to temper then- offensive was the sudden emergence of a third source of resistance – the strike movement of March and April.

The new workers’ movement in the USSR only began 21 months ago, with the miners’ strikes of the summer of 1989, and since then it has suffered from downs as well as enjoying ups. The workers’ movement was confined to one main sector of workers, the miners, and the apparatus of the ruling party set out to corrupt and bureaucratise some of the new leaders thrown up by the strikes.

The result was that when the new offensive of the right began at the end of last year, organised resistance from the workers was minimal.

This began to change with the miners’ strike. But the change was slow at first: the majority of miners accepted the strike’s aim but did not have the confidence to join it in the early weeks. The strike spread slowly, with some pits coming out, returning to work and then coming out again. It was not until the spontaneous general strike in Byelorussia – after the miners had been out for more than four weeks – that there were the first signs of a wider generalisation of working class struggle.

The strike wave provided succour for the liberal democrats and the leaders of the national minorities in their hour of need. Many of them reached out to embrace this new support.

But for liberal democrat leaders, the strike wave was a double edged weapon. If it weakened the prospects of the right taking power through a peaceful coup, it also intensified the crisis of Soviet society and made the managers – who the liberal democrats looked to to carry through reform-more eager than ever to restore order.

Getting a political advantage from the strike wave meant, for Yeltsin, Popov, Sobchak and the rest, using it to get a toe hold in the state. But that in turn depended on an agreement with the forces most bitterly opposed to any activity by the working class – an agreement only possible on the basis of action to end the strikes.

This explains the spectacle of Yeltsin rushing to Gorbachev’s rescue in a deal which called for an end to the strikes, which described as ‘intolerable the attempts to attain political ends by incitement to disobedience or strikes’ and which threatened ‘a special work regime in industry’s base sectors.’

The leaders of the opposition have chosen to protect Gorbachev from the wrath of the masses in order to negotiate with him. But in doing so they are, whether they are aware of it or not, weakening resistance to the offensive of the right.

There are clear similarities with the various ‘social pacts’ and ‘social contracts’ which broke the advance of the workers’ movements in countries like Italy, Spain and Britain in the mid 1970s. They provided the basis for a restabilisation of the ruling class for years afterwards.

If that were to happen in the USSR Nikolai would indeed be proved completely wrong.

Such an outcome is, however, virtually impossible. The crisis of society is too deep, with none of the programmes on offer from any of the reformers, whether of the Gorbachev mould or the Yeltsin mould, offering anything other than continued economic contraction. Under those circumstances workers will be driven to try and defend their conditions, regardless of the advice given to them by Yeltsin, and the exploiting class will become increasingly bitter in its determination to restore ‘order’ for once and for all.

If a parallel with the past is wanted, Chile in 1973 is a better one than the Western European experience. On that occasion workers’ resistance stalled the advance of me right for several months, and the reformist left rejoiced in its ability to form a coalition government with the generals, not realising the impact of that government on weakening resistance to the right.

The outcome in the USSR need not be the same as in Chile. But society is moving towards a decisive confrontation. The working class has shown over the last two months that it still has enormous reserves of fighting power. The key question now is whether the workers, having lost all illusions in Gorbachev, can move towards a revolutionary class politics, distinct from that of the liberal democrats.

Changing through struggle

‘Seventy nine enterprises are on strike. Today a 200,000 strong demonstration in support of the strikers took place. A resolution was adopted which included economic demands such as an increase in wages as well as political demands such as the resignation of the president.’

THE STRIKE this report refers to took place in Minsk, in the Byelorussian republic of the USSR, last month. The situation it describes is a classic one.

Workers take action in one factory ,in this case the Minsk Kozlov electrical engineering works. Their first demands are economic – ‘market wages for market prices.’ But as other factories join in the struggle – the motorbike and bicycle factories, the potassium mines, the tractor works, the footwear association – the workers begin to feel they have the power to raise questions about their total situation, that is political questions. And they spontaneously throw up a new delegate body that directly expresses these aspirations.

To this extent, Minsk last month must have been very much like Petrograd in 1905, Barcelona and the Ruhr in 1919, Turin in 1920, Paris in 1936, or Budapest for a few tragically brief days at the beginning of November 1956.

But it is not only in the history books that you find examples of this classic pattern. It has occurred time and again in the last dozen years – in the ABC industrial belt of Sao Paulo in the late 1970s, in Gdansk in August 1980, with the rise of Fosatu and then Cosatu in South Africa and in South Korea in the mid-1980s.

What was important about all these cases is that the modern world capitalist system creates an ever larger working class, and that this working class becomes decisive for the political development of major countries. This may be denied by the theorists of ‘post fordism’ and ‘post industrial society’ who became so fashionable in the 1980s. But it was not something which anyone, whether on the left or the right, involved in serious politics in any of these countries could ignore.

Likewise in the USSR today. The Gorbachev government, the conservatives and the liberal-democratic opposition all at least half understand one thing: what happens to the working class revolts will determine the future options available for themselves.

But that, of course, in not the end of the matter. The working class may have made history in Poland and Brazil, South Africa and South Korea. But it has nowhere made it fully in its own interests. Instead, it has thrown up political forces who have advanced their own futures while, at most, delivering a few limited reforms for the mass of workers.

At present, things in the USSR do not seem to be going in a very different direction. The other side of the huge spontaneous struggles in the pits and in cities like Minsk has been the domination of those ideological struggles by liberal democrats who see privatisation and the market as the way forward.

This presents an enormous problem for genuine socialists. The emancipation of the working class is supposed to be the act of the working class itself. But huge working class struggles are taking place which are certainly not leading automatically to that emancipation.

We face a contradiction here which socialists have to come to terms with if they are not to shift from a mood of euphoria over the scale of the struggle to despair over its outcome.

The solution to the contradiction lies in grasping how any oppressed class grows up within a society under the ideological domination of its oppressors. Their control of the means of production also give them control of the means of propagating ideas

More importantly, perhaps, the oppressed class has no experience of any other sort of society and so, initially, takes its most basic ways of living for granted, demanding no more than reforms: it cannot conceive what a complete revolution would be like.

The socialist option is presented, at first, by only a small minority of activists – and activists who are often themselves marginal to the main currents of working class life.

It was this objective dilemma that led the German Social Democrat Karl Kautsky to insist that socialist consciousness arose, not from the working class, but from ‘outside it,’ through the ‘scientific’ efforts of middle class intellectuals who sided with the workers movement – a formulation which was repeated in a famous passage of Lenin’s book What is to be done.

The formulation has merits in certain concrete circumstances. It encourages socialists to avoid identifying with every passing mood of the mass of workers – like the current identification of most South African workers with the compromise politics of the ANC or of very many Russian workers with the Yeltsinites.

But it suffers from two grave faults.

First, the minority of socialists is never simply and is rarely mostly made up of middle class intellectuals. There is invariably a minority, however small, of workers who see further than the rest of their class and understand the need revolutionise society. They are not ‘outside the working class,’ even if they often feel they are as they argue against the confusion, the ignorance and sometimes the bigotry of those around them.

Secondly, the Kautsky formulation does not answer the question Karl Marx posed in his famous Theses on Feuerbach: how are the educators themselves educated? Middle class intellectuals, however ‘scientific’ they seek to be, are no more capable of escaping from the ideological premises of existing society than are factory workers – as a glance at any sociological journal or any copy of Marxism Today will prove.

The socialist minority comes into being in quite a different way. The workers’ struggle throws up, spontaneously, ways of acting and relating to other people in contradiction to the norms of existing society. This leads to a contradiction in the heads of all workers – and of those intellectuals who are attracted to the workers’ movement – between old ways of thinking and ideas that correspond to the new ways of behaving.

For instance, every workers’ struggle, anywhere in the world, throws up slogans that stand in complete opposition to the dictates of official ideology, slogans like ‘unity is strength’, ‘an injury to one is an injury to all’, ‘don’t scab’, ‘don’t walk through picket lines’, ‘unite regardless of skin colour or nationality.’

Embodied in these slogans is a new view of the world, based on completely different premises to those of the existing system. Yet most workers do not immediately see the contradiction, and try to live using two contradictory sets of ideas at the same time. There is a mix in their head between the ideas of the past and the ideas of the future.

The mix is not a static one. It changes with the ups and downs of the struggle. In general, the ideas which point to a new organisation of society based round the principles of solidarity and control from below grow with the success of workers struggles, while the ideas which hark back to the old world of submission and degradation regain their hold with defeat.

The process by which the new ideas spread and intermix with the old is not a mechanical one. It depends upon people giving articulate expression to their experiences of struggle and arguing with other people.

In the course of such arguments a minority of workers, together with the few intellectuals who support them, begin to elaborate a total view of the world. This is where Marxism came from in the late 1840s, and this is why every great workers’ struggle throws up ‘spontaneously’ people who move to ideas close to those of genuine Marxism. What this minority is doing, hi fact, is distilling out of the experience of the whole class those notions which break completely with existing society, and then using them as the base for a whole new world view.

The great mass of workers are not won to such a world view immediately. The dead weight of the past is too great. They operate with a hybrid mixture of the old ideas and the new, a mixture which usually sees working class activity as aimed at reforming, not overthrowing existing society. Lenin called this ‘trade union consciousness’, pointing out that while it involved workers fighting for limited economic goals, it also lead them to accept some of the main ideas of their enemies.

His misformulation about socialist ideas coming from outside the working class was part of an absolutely necessary insistence that the minority of conscious socialists had to fight to advance their fellow workers beyond ‘mixed’ or trade union consciousness. For ideas do not merely arise out of struggle. They also feed back into it. The more workers accept whole chunks of the ruling ideology, the more confused they are about how to struggle and the more likely they are to suffer defeat.

This interaction between ideas and struggle means that the current upsurge of working class struggle in the USSR is not simply going from strength to strength. Many of the best new workers’ leaders are under the influence of Yeltsin and other liberal democrats. As a result they are sometimes ending strikes in return for meaningless promises when they could be extending and developing the struggle until it had the power to carry through a revolutionary transformation.

If this were the end of the story, it would be a very pessimistic one. But it’s not. While the majority of the class is fooled, at least temporarily, by the Yeltsinites, and suffers as a result, the interaction between ideas and action will also be producing a minority who will reflect on their experiences and look for new ways of thinking and struggling.

In the USSR, as in many other parts of the world, struggles will suffer unnecessary defeats because of the lack of a genuinely Marxist current – a party – within the class. But the sheer scale of the struggles can also lead to the beginnings of such a party – to a minority of workers and intellectuals who begin to grasp the possibility of working class self emancipation. And that is a fact of world historical importance.

Last updated on 11 June 2010