Against the Current, No. 35, November/December 1991
AFTER THE FIRST chilling news of August 19—a military coup in Moscow, which briefly appeared to portend a Soviet Tiananmen and perhaps a return to the era of mass terror—came events of truly revolutionary significance. Within days, not only had the coup disintegrated but the Communist Party of the Soviet Union had passed into history. The USSR itself was heading for a breakup or, at the very least, a thoroughly transformed confederation of sovereign republics. Developments that might have been expected to unfold over five, ten or twenty years were compressed into a week.
For socialists, many of these outcomes are cause for rejoicing without reservation. The Baltic nations’ legitimate democratic aspirations for national independence have been fulfilled; the death grip of Stalinist rule and politics has been removed not only from the throats of the Soviet working class, but also from the international left; the door has been opened for a p05sible genuine democratic revolution. We have not the slightest nostalgia for the system that has collapsed, of which we always considered ourselves revolutionary opponents–a system created not by the Russian Revolution of 1917 but by the Stalinist bureaucratic counterrevolution.
We are also realists. The possibility of a democratic revolution in the (former) USSR, with vast working-class socialist potential, must not be mistaken for today’s immediate realities. In the first place, the coup’s failure and the bureaucratic system’s collapse were brought on primarily by an implosion of the elite itself—the mobilization of tens or hundreds of thousands of democracy-minded activists played a significant part, but this mobilization was neither working class in composition nor independent of the Yeltsin-led wing of the elite.
Secondly, at this point both the democratic movement and political power are dominated by Yeltsin and the mayors of Moscow and Leningrad, Popov and Sobchak, men with a strong commitment to capitalism—arid none at all to democracy. Gavril Popov has stated explicitly, in the New York Review of Books among other places, that democratic power in the hands of the masses creates populism’ which is to be avoided at all costs.
Thirdly, in terms of practical power relations, the ongoing decline and now disappearance of the Soviet Union has been a victory for imperialist politics, giving the United States the status of uncontested political-military superpower in spite of its economic decline, and despite the difficulties that the removal of the official enemy empire creates for justifying the continuation of U.S. capitalism’s permanent war economy.
In this respect; to be sure, the Gulf War had already given final proof of the USSR’s reduction to a junior partner or capitalist imperial policy. Whoever may still have been looking toward Moscow as a practical counterweight to U.S. power has been living in a bygone world. Nonetheless, the grim prospects facing peoples in the gunsights of Washington’s unabated war on the Third World—from Cuba to El Salvador to southern Africa to the Middle East—must spur us to redouble our work at home to combat U.S. intervention and aggression against their right of self-determination.
Inside the USSR, or whatever new entity or entities may replace it, the question of what will arise on the ruins of the fallen bureaucratic state is open. There are in essence two processes underway, both greatly accelerated in the failed coup’s aftermath. The first is the growth of democracy: not simply an emerging multiparty punt (which is important) but a thrust toward independent social movements, especially in the working class but also including incipient feminist, ecological and gay movements, and, of course, the national struggles. The second process is the conversion of the Soviet economy into a “market-reformed” political and economic colony of Western capitalism.
A variety of scenarios have been suggested for achieving this “reform,” all of which entail the imposition of capitalism from above and from outside. As stated in the Wall Street Journal, the plan entails balancing the Soviet government’s budget, which “would require dismantling much of the Soviet Union’s military-industrial complex, and eliminating the jobs of millions of workers.” The same plan envisages the privatization of land, accompanied by “associate membership in the International Monetary Fund and World Bank,” promising to set loose an army of jobless agricultural workers at the very moment when state subsidies to industry are to be dramatically reduced. (“Harvard, to the Dismay of U.S. Conservatives, May Replace Communism as Soviets’ Planner,” WSJ 8/V191, A14)
Toward A Workers’ Alternative
Small wonder that Western capitalist planners and state managers contemplate with horror the prospect of “chaos” and “disintegration” in the USSR, speak approvingly of the need for a “strong hand” and have turned back to Gorbachev as a key figure to hold together some central structures. The program for establishing capitalism in the former bureaucratic system threatens social dislocations and collapse of living standards for tens of millions, reminiscent of the catastrophe of the crash industrialization undertaken by the Stalinist bureaucracy itself. Least likely of all possibilities is that such a capitalist program can be carried through on the basis of democracy!
In such a crisis, socialists must look to the working class to fashion and fight for its own solution—beginning with workers’ control of the factories and extending to self-management and democratic planning of the entire economy. While Stalinist rule led into a blind alley the societies it ruled, it leaves behind a working class of unprecedented size and social weight.
Yet we must not entertain illusions: In political and organizational terms this working class, especially in the Soviet Union, is only beginning to learn how to claim its basic rights, let alone to formulate a response to the catastrophe facing the society or to lead an authentic social-1st revolution.
Because it is only this working class that can organize a socialist solution, the prospect for the next period—stretching perhaps over years—is a turbulent process of imposing capitalist relations in bits and pieces: exploiting the USSR’s natural resources for multinational corporations’ profit; the insertion of Western financial aid with sufficient weight to destroy much of the remaining bureaucratic economy, but insufficient to create a new economy; a new political system that will combine the superficial forms of parliamentary democracy with the realities of demagogic manipulation and repression. The Stalinist (or post-Stalinist) bureaucracy has lost the coherence and the power to rule; the working class has the potential but not yet the consciousness, organization or leadership to do so.
It is hardly realistic to expect capitalism to fulfill its promises of decent lives and democracy for the people of the USSR, when it so patently fails to do so in the so-called Third World and, increasingly, in its own industrial heartlands. The best contribution that socialists in the West can make to the struggle for social justice in the East is to rebuild our own revolutionary left, on the basis of working-class loyalties and democratic values. The greatest limitation faced by the working class and democratic activists in the USSR today is the fact that the collapse of Stalinism occurs at a moment when the Western labor movements are in deep retreat.
That is the biggest reason why capitalism and authoritarian-elite politics appear as the only alternative to the defunct bureaucratic state.
Yet as the Soviet masses’ aspirations for democracy and a decent life confront the realities of “market reform,” the two fundamental processes will enter on a collision course—one which, we believe, eventually will make even the August events look like a footnote. Just as we solidarized with the people in the streets resisting the coup, we will stand with the workers as they organize to resist the devastation that market “shock therapy-will inflict on them first and foremost Out of that resistance can arise the possibility of finally realizing the dreams of democracy—and a new Russian Revolution.
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No. 35, November/December 1991