Chris Harman


On the Precipice

(September 1991)

From Socialist Review, No.145, September, pp.5-7.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Why did the August coup fail? What are the prospects for the future? The turmoil in the USSR is far from over argues Chris Harman in this analysis of the coup and its aftermath.

THE TIMING of the abortive Soviet coup took everyone by surprise, including ourselves. But this Review had been clear for months that the USSR was heading for a major political crisis.

Our predictions were a result of the theoretical analysis which the Socialist Workers Party and its predecessor, the International Socialists, have held for over 40 years. We were always distinct from the rest of the left, both in Britain and internationally, by our insistence that the USSR was state capitalist, and that, like any other form of capitalism, the dynamism that state capitalism showed in its youth prepared the way for endless crises in its old age.

As I wrote in the latest preface to my book Class Struggles in Eastern Europe, in the summer of 1988, when the great majority of commentators of both the left and the right saw Gorbachev as a colossus, single handedly bringing reform to the USSR:

‘The Gorbachev leadership, far from confidently striding into a more open and more prosperous future, as the Western media suggest, will waver between pursuing reform, in a desperate attempt to ward off economic crisis, and abandoning reform, for fear of the social convulsions that accompany it ... This could lead to upheavals in the USSR itself comparable in scale and importance to the events this book describes [in East Germany 1953, Hungary 1956, Czechoslovakia 1968 and Poland 1980-81].’

So although we could not foresee the exact timing of the coup or the detailed character of the popular response to it, neither took us by surprise. Nor are we all that shocked by the demise of the CPSU.

However, the same analysis which led us to foresee the upheaval also leads us to some caution in looking at the further consequences.

Those who have identified state capitalism as socialism see the essence of the system as lying in domination by a ruling ‘socialist’ party. In fact, that is to confuse the superficial aspect of things with the deeper forces that underlie them.

A collapse of a ruling party is not the same as the demise of the ruling class which sustains it. So fascism could collapse in Italy in 1943, Germany in 1945, Portugal in 1974 and Spain in 1976 without the collapsed class disappearing. Indeed, in the Spanish case the general secretary of the fascist party, Adolfo Suarez, remained as prime minister, heading the new Centre Democrats.

A reeling party provides a means by which the members of a ruling class act collectively, subjecting themselves to a common discipline and drawing around them supporters in other classes. This was true of the fascist parties, and is to a very large extent true of the conservative and Christian Democrat parties of Western Europe. It has been true of the Communist Parties in the USSR, Eastern Europe, China, Cuba, Vietnam and North Korea.

A ruling class is a body of people who share a common interest in pursuing a particular sort of exploitation of the mass of people. In the case of all these countries the exploitation was a form of capitalist exploitation, forcing the mass of people to engage in wage labour so as to permit the accumulation of capital in competition with other ruling classes internationally.

It was not only the party bosses who had an interest in perpetuating this. So did the enterprise bosses, the heads of the economic ministries, the military, KGB and police chiefs. That is why, under Stalin, they were genuinely enthusiastic about his policies, even if individually they feared for their lives – for his methods did permit the very successful primitive accumulation of capital. That was also why, for a time, they put up with Khrushchev’s hare brained schemes and tolerated the increasingly senile Brezhnev.

But once accumulation began to encounter serious problems in the 1980s, they began to lose their sense of common purpose. The different sections of the ruling class began to resent the common discipline which the party exercised over them under Gorbachev’s leadership. Some were nostalgic for the old repression and the old certainties, others put their faith in an increased tempo of reform.

THE FAILED COUP underlined the inability of the party either to provide cohesion to the ruling class or to draw other sections of society around it. It made the final demise of the party inevitable.

But that still leaves the different sections of the ruling class intact. The managers still continue to run the big enterprises. Some of the top officers may have gone from the military, the KGB and the police, but the ‘bodies of armed men’ are still run in a strictly hierarchical way by highly privileged groups. Even the party bosses are not all going to go away: many are already offering their skills at manipulating ‘contacts’ and ‘getting things done’ to the republican leaderships and the leaders of the fledgling ‘centre’ parties, like the Movement for Democratic Renewal (whose leading member Shevarnadze was for many years security boss and then party leader in Georgia) and the Democratic Party of Communists of Russia.

All the best known figures around Yeltsin’s Russian government were high up in the Communist Party itself until relatively recently – Yeltsin was party boss for years in the key industrial centre of Sverdlovsk; Yakoklev was the party’s leading ideologue only a year ago; Popov, the mayor of Moscow, was committed enough to the party to attack Yeltsin at the time of his fall from the politburo in 1987.

So Guardian correspondent Jonathan Steele, can report that:

‘Younger politicians of the 1980s era worry that the old nomenklatura is being replaced by a new nomenklatura, linked no longer to the Communist Party, but to the new industrial concerns and commercial banks which the more far sighted of the party started to promote from last year onwards. They are a corporate elite of a new kind.’

Even when such new influential politicians come from the radical intelligentsia rather than the old ruling class, they still look towards running things through the old hierarchies in the enterprises, the army and police, and the civilian state bureaucracy. Their aim is to give a new direction to capital accumulation, not to bring it to an end.

So hardly had they dealt with the organisers of the coup than they were worrying about how to keep the mass of the population in their place. Thus Sobchak, the mayor of Leningrad, claimed that the coup was defeated because of ‘discipline, restraint and calm’ and within days was saying that talk of a break up of the USSR was ‘insanity’.

Sergei Stankevitch, once associated with the Moscow Popular Front but now deputy mayor of the city and a Yeltsin adviser, repeated a similar message:

‘The greatest danger is the break up of the whole state, the whole system of governing, and entering a very difficult autumn and winter without any strong, democratic, effective power.’

Shevardnadze warned:

‘People will very soon start judging people by the way they cope in new conditions when extremely serious problems confront the country. If these problems are not resolved, people may take to the streets.’

Yakoklev was even more explicit that he saw popular radicalisation as representing a danger:

‘I worry about the possibility that the real revolution might be used by people who have nothing to do with democracy. I worry that a lumpen consciousness might win. A lumpen mood and consciousness might include not just poor people but academics and engineers and so on – anybody who does not want to work.’

THE NEW RULING group in each republic is hastening to set up new structures of control to replace the old Communist Party structures it dismantled. Yeltsin has declared he wants to replace the local councils running each city and region by prefects or governor generals. He says these will be similar to the pre-revolutionary officials who used ‘to act as the eyes and ears of the Tsar.’ But their powers will be remarkably close to those of the displaced regional party secretaries.

He claims this is necessary because the councils were under the domination of people whose election last year was due to the power of the old party machine. But that problem could have been solved by going for new elections. In fact, the keenest people to curtail the power of the councils have been Sobchak in Leningrad and Popov in Moscow, who have resented opposition from councillors more radical than themselves.

The collapse of the old ruling party in the aftermath of the failed coup resembles the changes in East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Poland and Hungary in late 1989. But life will be much more difficult for the new Yeltsin and his supporters than it was for those who came to power in the northern part of Eastern Europe.

The economic situation is much more acute. Deepening recession and acute food and energy shortages today plague the Soviet republics.

The new rulers of Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia and former East Germany had a few months in which to use their popularity to bolster up the state before implementing deeply unpopular austerity measures.

The situation for the Soviet republics is much more akin to that which beset Romania, Bulgaria and Albania in the midst of their political changes, with economic hardship producing alternating moods of despair and anger among the great mass of the population, but little in the way of positive support for rulers, new or old.

Yeltsin, Popov, Sobchak and the rest were able to avoid direct responsibility for the crisis – and therefore the bitter complaints of the population – while they were clearly in opposition to the central government, with their own powers overshadowed by those of Gorbachev. Yet, even in those circumstances, popular enthusiasm for them began to wane. Since they increased their power with the defeat of the coup, things will be much more difficult for them.

In Bulgaria and Albania, opposition groups which looked to reforming society in very much the same way as Yeltsin and the others, were forced by the very scale of this crisis to enter into coalitions with the old Stalinist rulers, only to find that popular anger was increasingly directed against themselves. In Poland, Walesa was able to maintain his popularity through much of 1990 by standing aloof from the Mazowiecki government and letting it bear the brunt of popular disillusionment. But once he used this disillusionment to win the presidency for himself, he found his popularity began to decline as well, and by this summer he was threatening the forces of the state against his old trade union comrades.

The economic crisis will be aggravated by the disintegration of the Soviet Union into separate republics. The economy of the Russian Empire and then the Soviet Union developed in a highly integrated fashion, with industry and agriculture in one part highly dependent on industry and agriculture elsewhere. Its complete break up would damage the economies, and therefore the ruling classes, of each of its component parts much more so than the break up the European colonial empires.

This was one major factor leading the heads of major Soviet enterprises to demand repression since the end of last year. They argued that if they had to turn to the market, then they wanted the largest possible market to turn to. Theirs was a key source of the pressure that led to many of Gorbachev’s old Union government to back the abortive coup.

Such managers will have quickly readjusted their sights to take account of new political realities in the aftermath of the coup’s failure. They will be offering support to Yeltsin’s entourage, and to a lesser extent to the heads of the other republics, but in return asking them to show ‘understanding’ for the economic problems they face.

In Yeltsin’s case such ‘understanding’ will mean him worrying, much more than in the past, about the effects on the big Russian based enterprises of the break up of empire. As we go to press, Yeltsin has already made moves in their direction, by arguing that the other republics, particularly the Ukraine and Kazakhstan, should only be able to enjoy independence if they allow the Russian republic to annexe Russian speaking areas. This sounds reasonable until you realise that .the Russian speaking areas are where most industrial resources are concentrated and, in Kazakhstan’s case, separated from Russia by several hundred miles of Kazakh speaking territory.

YELSTIN IS, in reality, seeking to placate the industrialists by putting forward the old Tsarist and Stalinist programme of Russian domination in a new guise. From being an opponent of the empire while in opposition before the coup, he is rapidly moving to being its protagonist today. But his motives will not only be to please the enterprise bosses. Over the last 18 months he has used Russian nationalism as a way of making it seem that the Soviet government was the oppressor of Russian people, leaving his own government helpless to solve their problems. Now he will increasingly use it to put the blame for everything that goes wrong on the ‘unreasonableness’ of the other republican governments.

The other republics will no doubt respond in kind. We can expect a period of economic cold war, in which each republic turns bitterly against the others, seizing property belonging to enterprises based elsewhere, imposing further controls on the movement of food and consumer goods, raising prices to outsiders. At the same time, although they are all committed to the market, each will be tempted to try to buy local popularity by subsidising local enterprises, even if the price of doing so is a continual inflation of the money supply.

A report by the Swedish Foreign Ministry on the Baltic republics notes that although all three are formally committed to the market, ‘there is little consciousness of market requirements’, ‘private economic activity is viewed with suspicion and mistrust’, and governments ‘have adopted an interventionist stance on prices, production and delivery obligations, on the movement of goods and services in and out the country’.

ANALOGIES BETWEEN what happens in one country and what happens in another are always rough and ready. Nevertheless, studying events in Yugloslavia in the last ten years may well throw some light on developments in the USSR. There the ruling class responded to the crisis of the early 1980s by a double strategy, of accelerating its turn to the market and of trying to rebuild popular support by encouraging republican nationalisms. But the second part of the strategy cut across the first. Political leaders in the different republics outbid each other in the effort to become popular, inflated the money supply and broke up the old country wide market into increasingly segmented, semi-autarchic fragments. The end result of the whole process is the present civil war.

The USSR can move in the same direction at much greater speed. In such a situation, the Yeltsinite ministers, mayors and military officers who opposed last week’s coup will be under increasing pressure to try to prevent the complete collapse of the old empire, either by throwing their weight behind the old USSR state, or by trying to extend the boundaries of the Russian republic. In either case, they will be looking to the use of economic or military sanctions to impose their will. Some, at least, will see that as entailing compromises with those in the military-industrial complex who were half in favour of the coup.

The collapse of last month’s coup was a setback for those sections of the ruling class who look to repression to solve their problems. But it by no means spelt their final defeat. We are not in for a period of peaceful development in the USSR, but of increasingly bitter conflicts between republics, between different ethnic groups and between classes. And in such a period we can expect new groupings to emerge within the ruling class looking towards a violent solution to their problems.

Only a minority of workers had the confidence to take to the streets and to strike against the coup. Fortunately, they were faced with a divided ruling class, and their actions were enough to swing the balance against those who wanted immediate repression. We have to hope the minority is able to install a new confidence into the majority of workers in the corning months and to come to see the need for complete political independence from the Yelstinites. Otherwise the outcome of the next confrontation could be very nasty indeed.

Last updated on 11 June 2010