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Peter Hadden

Stalinism in Ruins – following the failed coup

(September 1991)

From Militant, No. 200, September 1991.
Transcribed by Ciaran Crossey.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The abortive coup attempt has been a turning point in the Soviet Union. The uneasy equilibrium created by the rival pressures of the hard-line and the so-called ‘reforming’ wings of the ruling bureaucracy has been broken. Power has now shifted decisively towards the Yeltsinite advocates of immediate and unbridled capitalist restoration. The hardliners have had their day. Stalinism has received a blow from which it will not recover.

The coup itself was an act of desperation on the part of the hardliners. Earlier this year they had signalled their intentions with a military crackdown in the Baltic’s and preparatory troop movements in Moscow. The swift reaction of the Soviet masses caused them to bold their hand. But Gorbachev’s deal with Yeltsin and the agreement between nine republics due to be signed on the President’s return from his Crimean holiday, were the final straw. This “9 plus 1” treaty deferred powers over taxes, natural resources and state security to the republics. It also proposed a new Soviet cabinet which would include representatives from each republic. Opposing the break up of the Union, and fearing also for their jobs, the hardliners decided to act before the ground slipped completely away from beneath them.

Boris Yeltsin

The coup itself was executed without resolution, not because its organisers were not prepared to display the chill ruthlessness of their Stalinist forebearers, but because the once all pervasive state apparatus had rotted from within and was not prepared to give reflex responses to every Kremlin edict. Yeltsin managed quite easily to evade arrest and lines of communication and information remained open to the opposition. Edward Luttwak of the Washington Centre for Strategic and International Studies, a body with a long history of successful US coup-making to call upon, pointed out that the cardinal rule of successful coups had been ignored; that is; “to seize control of all the centres of power in one fell swoop, to paralyse the situation”.

But the key reason for the failure was the lack of mass support. The new junta calculated that the economic chaos and hardship brought about by the failure of Gorbachev’ s policies would
give them a sufficient base. In this they miscalculated. The Soviet masses’ dislike for Gorbachev, (his pre-coup standing in opinion polls was 10%) was strong but their hatred of the old guard ran much deeper.

On the first day of the coup the opposition was largely passive. Many workers adopted a wait and see attitude. Only a minority turned out onto the streets to protest. Yeltsin issued his appeal for resistance and a general strike to a crowd of hundreds, not thousands, outside the White House, the Russian parliament. By the second day this had changed. In Leningrad, a quarter of a million turned out to a city centre rally, perhaps the biggest demonstration in the city’s history.

The response to the general strike call was far from complete but inside the factories the workers were increasingly moving to organise resistance. Workers in Leningrad factories began to manufacture purpose built barricades to replace the more makeshift affairs which had been erected by crowds in the streets.

An enormous crowd of 300,000 turned out in Moscow on the Tuesday to hear Boris Yeltsin and other leaders. That night tens of thousands defended the Russian parliament. Hundred strong units, many of them Afghansky veterans of the Afghan war, guarded all approaches to the building.

Within in the four million strong conscript army there was divisions, a growing opposition to the coup, and a clear reluctance on the part of the soldiers to turn their guns on the Soviet people. Even special divisions were affected, some going over to the opposition. The critical point came on the Tuesday night when half hearted efforts by soldiers to break through the barricades surrounding the Russian parliament failed.

With its forces melting into the opposition the would-be “State Committee for the State Emergency” found its position hopeless and gave up. Their last ditch attempt to prevent Soviet society moving in the direction demanded by Yeltsin and the independence minded republics, only succeeded in propelling it along this road.

What failed in the Soviet Union, and what was finally swept aside by the collapse of the coup was Stalinism – the system of bureaucratic misrule in which the mass of the population were manacled by repression, while the top layers enjoyed enormous privileges.

In the initial period after Stalin usurped power and physically exterminated all traces of democratic workers rule established by the 1917 revolution, the advantages of state ownership and planning, albeit bureaucratic planning, allowed the Soviet economy to achieve rates of growth far ahead of the capitalist West. But by the Brezhnev era the by now modem economy no longer could be run by bureaucratic methods. Without the democratic participation of the working class in drawing up, overseeing and, as necessary, of amending the plan, the consequence was economic stagnation. Gorbachev’s attempt to achieve growth by incorporating elements of the market into the plan, in Yeltsin’s words, to mix “a hedgehog and a snake”, failed completely. In effect Gorbachev only succeeded in abandoning the old methods without putting anything in their place. The result – the present intolerable situation of shortages, economic collapse and threatened disintegration of the Union.

Last year the economy contracted by 4% while in the first half of this year it shrank by 10%. External debt has doubled since 1985. Last year the grain harvest could not be collected and distributed. This year will be worse with a smaller harvest and local farms hoarding their produce demanding higher prices from the centre. This is indicative of the general economic breakdown, already so bad that individual enterprises are forced to barter their goods for components and raw materials to maintain production. This collapse of Stalinism bas brought a return to pre-capitalist methods even in this economic colossus.

In face of this situation all sections of the old bureaucracy, having entirely lost faith in their own system, have gone over to the idea of the market. The difference between the “reformers” and the hardliners is not over what economic changes are necessary, but is over the pace of change and above all over the need to hold the Soviet Union together by force.

Had the coup succeeded the new rulers would have faced the same economic problems and would have had no alternative but to seek out the medicine prescribed by the capitalist West.

The Soviet masses, by their courageous and determined resistance, defeated the coup. However the spoils of this victory will go elsewhere. While elements of independent working class organisation and of the ideas of workers democracy and genuine socialism were evident during these days of resistance, in general these were subsumed by the barrage of calls from all quarters, East and West, for the dismantling of the entire system and the restoration of capitalism. Now a process has been set in train, not just to remove Stalinism but also, in the process, to sweep away the gains of the October Revolution, the state ownership of industry and the possibility of planning the economy.

For the Soviet masses the burden of Stalinism, the endless queues, the empty shelves, the second rate goods and the political oppression have made life intolerable. Forty million people in the Soviet Union exist below the poverty line. Disillusioned with their experience of Stalinism and with Gorbachev, the broad mass of the population see no alternative to the introduction of capitalism. They will now have to learn the hard way that the much vaunted “market” will not fulfil their expectations.

Rather, for the majority it will bring price rises, lower living standards and the threat of unemployment. Eastern Europe gives a glimpse of what lies in store if the privatisers and pro-marketers have their way. In the more favourable circumstances of East Germany one third of the workforce are in the process of losing their jobs. It is estimated that 90% of all industry would be unviable if all subsidies were removed and strict profitability criteria applied. Poland, now with its restorationist government, experienced a 25% fall in production in 1990. Unemployment has risen from 20,000 to 1.2 million.

In the Soviet Union this and worse is the prospect. More Western aid may now be forthcoming, but it will likely be tied with IMF strings. In any case the amounts being discussed fall far short of what would be necessary to rebuild the crumbling economy.

Within the country it is only the old bureaucrats, grown rich on the spoils of corruption, plus the black marketers, who have the funds to establish even small scale private concerns. Inevitably the major funds for restoration would need to come from the West and here big business, even after the coup, remains hesitant, seeking conditions of political stability before committing substantial sums.


The days immediately following the coup have demonstrated that it is not stability, but even greater turmoil, which is in prospect, at least for the next period. Much to the horror of the Western powers the collapse of the centre has given an impetus to powerful tendencies toward disintegration.

The Baltic states have had their independence recognised and most of the other republics have moved or are moving in this direction. Were it a straight forward matter of the demands of fourteen potential nations to wrestle free of Moscow, this would bring upheaval enough. But within all the republics, including the Russian republic, there are national minorities demanding autonomy or even separation.

The Soviet Institute of Geography states that of the 23 borders between the republics only three are not contested. They also estimate that there are about 75 territorial conflicts, new Nargorno-Karabakhs, waiting to erupt.

In the Soviet Union there does not exist even the embryo of a capitalist class capable of uniting the existing territory. The move to restore capitalism inevitably therefore raises the prospect of a process of Yugoslavisation and possible break up of the whole Union. Militant upholds the rights of all nations to separate, should a majority wish to do so, with, of course, minority rights fully guaranteed. But we also point out that the establishment of small capitalist statelets offers no panacea. It would replace the military enslavement by Moscow, with economic enslavement and subservience to the big capitalist powers.

The fact that the economy was planned makes break up doubly painful economically. All the territories of the Soviet Union were bound together by the plan. Inter-republic trade accounts for 70% of the GNP of Byelorussia, 66% of Estonia, 64% of Latvia, 60% of Lithuania ,62% of Moldavia, 63% of Azerbaijan. Throughout the union 30-40% of output is of products for which there is only a single manufacturer, meaning that the separation into new states would create endless problems of supply and would threaten economic collapse. It is these hard realities which have compelled leaders in the republics to consider the limitations of independence and the need to maintain a trading bloc on a new basis. Still, the inability of these rulers to satisfy the aspirations of their populations means that, unless there can be counter posed the alternative of a genuine and voluntary socialist federation, the tendencies to disintegration will continue under pressure from below.

A nakedly pro-restorationist leadership will now be in charge in Russia and the Soviet Union. But as has been the case in Eastern Europe the road to capitalism will he long and arduous. Although the working class may accept some of the unpopular market measures, because they see no alternative, the full implementation of the cuts in living standards demanded by the West will give rise to opposition. Bush, Major and other Western governments are now looking to Boris Yeltsin as the person with the authority to “impose” their solutions.

As events unfold it will become increasingly clear that the idea now being peddled by the Western media circus, reporting from Moscow that capitalism and the market equals democracy, is completely false.


Militant has nothing in common with the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU), really the political instrument of the bureaucratic ruling strata. However, the banning of the party, closure of its organs and outlawing of its cells in factories and the army, are not measures we would support. Such suppression of opposition, carried out not in the interest of the Soviet workers but of the profiteers and of Western capital, is a warning as to what may lie in store in the future.

Similar methods could be used to curb the activities of those who oppose the privatisations and price rises. In fact in the failure of this clampdown is contained the germ of a possible future clampdown, again in the name of “order” and “discipline”, but at the service of Yeltsin and the West.

The posturing of Bush and Major as champions of democracy in the East also rings totally hollow. In the initial stages of the coup it was quite clear that the western governments would have been prepared to come to terms with the new regime and avoid a return to the cold war, provided the economic course to the market was maintained.

Major has gone to Moscow to warmly greet Gorbachev, yet when Gorbachev was held in internal exile in the Crimea, Major made clear he was note demanding his return as a condition for dealing with Moscow.

The capitalists have no aversion to dictatorship. Rather they maintain their vested interests by propping up rotten dictatorial regimes throughout the colonial world. Interviewed in the Financial Times during the coup the director of the British Chamber of Commerce was able to see the bright side of what was taking place; “Companies have traded with hard-line governments in Moscow before and they will continue to do so. If we are going back to the bard line days that’s very sad, but one advantage for business could be that debts will be repaid promptly.”

The way forward for the Soviet working class is not, to go back to capitalism but is to return to the economic and political foundation laid by Lenin and the Bolsheviks in 1917. It may require the painful experience of privatisation and the market but events will ultimately push the mighty Soviet working class towards this conclusion.

All this will take time. In the meantime what has taken place in Russia will have repercussions throughout the world and on world relations. The regimes in Cuba, North Korea and Vietnam will find it harder to maintain their grip. The pro market elements in China will be encouraged.

Coming after their victory in the Gulf, US imperialism will feel itself strengthened and feel more tempted to play the role of world policeman.

Capitalist media

Undoubtedly the capitalists have been strengthened in the short term, especially given the role of the majority of Labour and Socialist party leaderships across the globe who have acted as the parrots of the capitalist parties, echoing their demands for the market.

The world capitalist media has revelled in those events. Pictures of the removal of statues of Lenin. Sverdlov and others of the founders of the Russian state have been shown almost nightly. The sickening and hypocritical triumphalism, will no doubt be continued for a further period.

All this will have a temporary effect on the consciousness of workers in the West and more particularly on their leaders. However these efforts to extol the virtues of capitalism must eventually run up against the reality of what capitalism is. Capitalism means millions reduced to conditions of destitution and dire need. In the USA, the citadel of world capitalism, one in five children live in poverty.

On the African continent, marooned at the other end of the scale of underdevelopment, the numbers living in absolute poverty rose from 220 million in 1986 to 335 million in 1990; this latter figure representing 52% of the population of the continent.

These are the inescapable realities which will leave millions with no choice but to struggle against exploitation thereby roundly and eloquently answering those who now declare the “class struggle” ended, and “socialism” and “Marxism” outmoded.

Fight capitalism

These events in the Soviet Union will have a profound effect on the class struggle and by no means all a negative effect. Stalinism has been a hindrance and an obstacle to those struggling for socialism internationally. Now that hindrance is being dismantled piece by piece. Rather than facing a world struggle against capitalism and Stalinism, socialists internationally increasingly face a single battle against capitalism, against Capitalism as it exists in the West and against those who would re-impose it on the peoples of what has been the Stalinist world.

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