Stalinism: Its Origin and Future. Andy Blunden 1993

The Collapse of the U.S.S.R.

The working class expropriated capitalist property in the Soviet Union in 1917, and accumulation of capital remained illegal in the USSR up until very recently. Because of the isolation of the revolution, all political power was usurped by a privileged bureaucracy.

It must be emphasised that the isolation of the Revolution by Imperialism is the essential reason for the degeneration of the Revolution. The Revolution was defeated by Imperialism, not by Stalinism. All the aspects of the degeneration of the Soviet Union including the decline of its economy and the domination of political life by the bureaucracy are products of this isolation. The isolation of the Soviet Union was greatly aggravated by the loss of Eastern Europe.

The bureaucracy, owing to its conditions of life, aspired to ownership of the means of production, but was excluded from this by Soviet law. Nevertheless, like all bureaucracies, they used their position to gain the greatest possible freedom from the control from the population.

Consequently, the tendency to suppress workers' democracy, and replace it with administrative command is inherent in the nature of workers' bureaucracy. While always antipathetic to political freedom, this method of rule was adequate to the tasks of developing the productivity of labour only up to a point.

As the productivity of the statified economy declined, the opportunity for individual production and exchange, and small-scale business grew. As the productivity of the Soviet economy declined relative to the world economy, the possibilities for profitable illicit trade increased.

The bureaucrats themselves were best placed to participate in such illegal trading. However, within the police-military wing, whose business it is to suppress such illegal activity, antagonism towards this corruption inevitably existed.

The working class meanwhile saw its living standards decline while isolated from workers in the developed capitalist countries whom they saw enjoying better living standards. They viewed the workers' bureaucracy as a whole with contempt, but they were trapped.

The history of Czarism and the Revolution, the Civil War, the war against Nazi Germany, and the decades of living under the US nuclear threat taught workers that imperialism was their enemy. The state was built and defended by the Soviet workers for the purpose of freeing them from these evils. Likewise, it was this same state machine that was supposed to suppress the growth of petty crime, gangsterism, corruption, anti-Semitism and chauvinism. How could they overthrow this state without opening the way to the domination of all these reactionary forces?

I: Organised Crime and Socialism

From the mid-1950s on, the bureaucratically planned Soviet economy declined and fell further behind the West. In the final analysis, any social system that fails to develop the productivity of labour is doomed.

Because capitalism was illegal in the USSR, 'primitive accumulation' took the form of organised crime. So long as the state economy was able to provide cheap good quality products to the population, and continue to develop the productive forces, there could be no fundamental threat from this illegal trade and accumulation.

It is the experience of the 'prohibition' period in the USA, and generally where governments attempt to suppress trade in specific commodities, that nothing defeats illicit trade more effectively than meeting the need satisfied by the illegal trade, by legal means.

In general, there is finally no other way. Consequently, as the “command economy” increasingly failed to satisfy the basic needs of the Soviet people, and fell behind the productivity of labour in the rest of the world, this illegal economy grew in its specific weight and social influence. Inevitably, the growth of the “black market” actually undermined and corrupted the official economy.

With the growth of illegal capitalist production and exchange, there inevitably came illegal capitalist accumulation, and consequently the emergence of a new capitalist class. The new class was essentially not the bureaucracy, but anti-social criminal elements. These criminal elements of course included a sizeable proportion of the bureaucracy. But it is necessary to sharply distinguish the essential direction from which this new bourgeoisie arrived, from the view that the bureaucracy was itself already a capitalist class, needing only to free itself from the constraints of Soviet law. Or indeed that the legalisation of the market and capital accumulation was a voluntary choice by the “state capitalists” to change their system.

The state did fight this emergent capitalist class. But the fight of the Soviet police against trade was no more effective than the fight of the US police against the drug trade. And the KGB had no social policy to deal with the problem. Labour camps are no more effective in suppressing the growth of capitalism, they are in suppressing the drug trade.

Trotsky explained in Revolution Betrayed in 1937:

'Money cannot be arbitrarily “abolished,” nor the state and the old family “liquidated.” They have to exhaust their historic mission, evaporate, and fall away. The deathblow to money fetishism will be struck only upon that stage when the steady growth of social wealth has made us bipeds forget our miserly attitude towards every excess minute of labour, and our humiliating fear about the size of our ration. Having lost its ability to bring happiness or trample men in the dust, money will turn into mere book-keeping receipts for the convenience of statisticians and for planning purposes. In the still more distant future, probably these receipts will not be needed. But we can leave this question to future generations, who will be more intelligent than we are'.

The only means by which the growth of the “black market,” the harbinger of counter-revolution, can be suppressed, is by the development of an 'official' planned economy which provides the basic needs of the population in sufficient quantity and quality, and develops the productivity of labour in such a way that the economy may continue to meet these basic needs, within a world market and world division of labour.

To the extent that the bureaucratic “command economy” failed to deliver, it inevitably opened the door to the growth of capitalism in the form of illicit commodity trade, which in turn opened the way to the growth of organised crime – “soviet capitalism.”

Planning and “Command Economy”

The bureaucracy has its social base in the state, i.e. the instrument of violence built by the working class to defend nationalised property relations.

In a capitalist economy, the state plays a secondary role in the economy. However, in an economy where the means of production, distribution and exchange are nationalised, the state inevitably plays a dominant role in the actual life of the economy. After all, the workers state is also the “peak body” of the organised working class, and the workers require collective ownership and control of the economy.

The bureaucratised workers' state was ultimately ineffective in defending nationalised property relations due to the fact that it proved to be an obstruction to the development of the productive forces. Thus, the role of the bureaucracy in direction of the economy is a central political and economic problem in the workers' states.

In his article, The Art of Planning, written in 1932, Trotsky points to the three elements of planning in a workers' state:

'(1) special state departments, that is, the hierarchical system of plan administration, in the centre and locally; (2) trade, as a system of market regulation; (3) Soviet democracy, as a system for the living regulation by the masses of the structure of the economy.

'If a universal mind existed, of the kind that projected itself into the scientific fancy of Laplace – a mind that could register simultaneously all the processes of nature and society, that could measure the dynamics of the union, that could forecast the results of their interconnections – such a mind, of course, could a priori draw up a faultless and exhaustive economic plan, beginning with the number of acres of wheat down to the last button for a vest. [187] The bureaucracy often imagines that just such a mind is at its disposal; that is why it so easily frees itself from the control of the market and of Soviet democracy. But, in reality, the bureaucracy errs frightfully in its estimate of its spiritual resources. ...

'The innumerable living participants in the economy, state and private, collective and individual, must serve notice of their needs and of their relative strength not only through the statistical determinations of plan commissions but by the direct pressure of supply and demand. The plan is checked and, to a considerable degree, realised through the market. The regulation of the market itself must depend upon the tendencies that are brought out through its mechanism. The blueprints produced by the departments must demonstrate their economic efficacy through commercial calculation. The system of the transitional economy is unthinkable without the control of the ruble. This presupposes, in its turn, that the ruble is at par. Without a firm monetary unit, commercial accounting can only increase the chaos.

'The processes of economic construction are not yet taking place within a classless society. The questions relating to the allotment of the national income compose the central focus of the plan. It shifts with the direct development of the class struggle and that of social groups, and among them, the various strata of the proletariat itself. These are the most important social and economic questions: the link between that which industry obtains from agriculture and that which it supplies to it; the interrelation between accumulation and consumption, between the fund for capital construction and the fund for wages; the regulation of wages for various categories of labour (skilled and unskilled workers, government employees, specialists, the managing bureaucracy); and finally the allotment of that share of national income which falls to the village, between the various strata of the peasantry. All these questions by their very nature do not allow for a priori decisions by the bureaucracy, which has fenced itself off from intervention by concerned millions.

'The struggle between living interests, as the fundamental factor of planning, leads us into the domain of politics, which is concentrated economics. The instruments of the social groups of Soviet society are – should be: the Soviets, the trade unions, the cooperatives, and in first place the ruling party. Only through the intersection of these three elements, state planning, the market and Soviet democracy, can the correct direction of the economy of the transitional epoch be attained. Only thus can be assured, not the complete surmounting of contradictions and disproportions within a few years (this is utopian!), but their mitigation, and through that the strengthening of the material bases of the dictatorship of the proletariat until the moment when a new and victorious revolution will widen the arena of socialist planning and will reconstruct the system'.[187]

It is worth paying particular attention to Trotsky’s aphorism: 'politics is concentrated economics'. The problem of 'planning' in a nationalised economy is not qualitatively different from any of the tasks of a workers' organisation. The method of “central command” favoured by the bureaucratic apparatus counter-poses itself to the method of “workers' democracy.” Under certain circumstances, and within a certain domain, centralised command is a necessary facet of workers' organisation. However, such methods of command can only be effective to the extent that they are founded on a genuine consent, and express the outcome of democratic processes.

The role of centralised planning in the economy must be seen historically.

In the nineteenth century, and to some extent for much of this century, each individual capitalist enterprise acted as an independent agent within an environment which was more or less planned, but subject to “command” only to the extent implicit in the application of fiscal and monetary policy, collection of taxes, and health regulations, labour laws etc. needed to limit the destructive effects of capitalist anarchy, including those elements of regulation which have been imposed by the action of the working class.

In the post World War II period, West German heavy industry was nationalised as a temporary measure in order to tackle post-war reconstruction. In Japan, the MITI to a considerable extent directs the distribution of investment and division of markets between the major conglomerates.

However, regulation and planning is by no means identical with direction and command.

Furthermore, even the single capitalist enterprise nowadays is not run by the method of centralised command, as it would have been some years ago. Major international corporations have split their subsidiaries into independent companies, which may in some circumstances even compete with one another.

Modern capitalist management theory today urges managers to give the workers the greatest possible “ownership” of their work, to be able to make decisions about work practices and take initiatives which not long ago would have been seen as strictly the function of line management. It is a great irony that while a fisherman in Sakhalin must watch the fish rotting on the jetty while waiting for the order to bring them in to arrive from Moscow, but a line worker in Toyota or Fords is expected to operate as part of an autonomous work unit.

Soviet science was seriously hampered by the ignorant political interference practised by Stalin. Lysenko had kept Soviet genetics and agronomy in the dark ages until after Khrushchev’s removal. But in many areas of basic science that escaped this kind of interference, the USSR led the world. Furthermore, the USSR invested a higher proportion of its labour force in this work. However, the translation of basic science into technology and especially the application of technology in mass production and therefore in the production itself, pre-supposes both a certain amount of 'anarchy' in invention and a high level of initiative among the workforce. The advanced capitalist countries, it must be said, have allowed a revolution to take place in the application of technology in mass production. Bureaucratic absolutism and technological innovation are mutually incompatible. Modern technology itself militates against “totalitarianism.”

In the article in the Sunday Times referred earlier, Alvin Toffler asks:

“What will be the consequences of 'desktop publishing' for the Soviet Union? If the authorities prevent the people from having access to computers, what price will they pay in terms of reduced living standards?”

The writings of Marx and Engels and Lenin in relation to planned economy must be assessed historically and not mechanically.

For instance, in State and Revolution, references are made to 'planned economy' in a way that cannot be distinguished from 'command economy'. Before the question of workers' control of the economy became a practical, concrete question after 1917, the issue was simply one of contrasting collective ownership and production for need, on the one hand, with capitalist anarchy and commodity production and exchange on the other.

This historical dichotomy is absolutely valid. However, to deduce from these fundamental principles a justification for bureaucratic command economy is no more valid than justifying the running of a trade union like a medieval army on the justification of proletarian collectivism versus bourgeois individualism.

What is the implication of attempting to apply the principles of command economy in the twentieth century?

Direction and development of a whole, modern economy is not the work of a bureaucratic caste. It is the work of a whole social class. The method of centralised command is totally inadequate for the solution of all but the simplest tasks. Under certain circumstances it is adequate for the replication of techniques of production already perfected elsewhere, or the reconstruction of productive forces destroyed by war or other disaster, or the development of specific branches of industry towards well-defined goals, using well-defined techniques.

There can be no question of planned economy surpassing the level of capitalist development, other than by means of the active participation of the whole labouring population in the direction of the economy. For this there must be fully-developed workers' democracy.

What do we mean by “planned economy” then? Planned economy means the application of democratic centralism[188] to the direction of the economy.

It can be seen then that the domination of the workers' state by a bureaucratic caste posed an insurmountable obstacle to the development of the productive forces. The development of the Soviet economy required a 'political revolution' – the overthrow of the dictatorship of the bureaucracy by the democratic organisation of the working class.

Jacek Tittenbrun points out how the inability of the workers' bureaucracy to either run a modern economy by centralised command, or tolerate workers' democracy inevitably pushed the bureaucracy to restoration of the market:

“within the framework of the Stalinist system there is an inherent tendency towards the market mechanism and economic decentralisation. It is not only a question of the existence of many market elements in or alongside command economies, such as the labour market, money, prices, a margin of officially sanctioned private ownership (e.g. the private agricultural plots) or widespread grey and black markets, including non-planned activities of managers (e.g. unofficial barter between enterprises). It is not even the expansion of legal private enterprise which was typically seen by the authorities as an antidote to freebooting enterprise, that we are primarily referring to at this point. Since central control is ineffective, and workers; control is lacking, the bureaucracy sees the subjection of workers and managers to the discipline of the market as the only solution of the problem of economic inefficiency.”

Now, in the quote above from Trotsky, he refers in quite unambiguous terms to the necessity of money, 'supply and demand', and 'the market'. For instance, from Revolution Betrayed:

'For the regulation and application of plans two levers are necessary: the political lever, in the form of a real participation in leadership of the interested masses themselves, a thing which is unthinkable without Soviet democracy; and a financial lever, in the form of a real testing out of a priori calculations with the help of a universal equivalent, a thing that is unthinkable without a stable money system', and 'prices will serve the cause of socialism better, the more honestly they begin to express the real economic relations of the present day. ... The ruble is an instrument for the influence of the population upon economic plans, beginning with the quantity and quality of the objects of consumption. In no other manner is it possible to rationalise the Soviet economy'.

Does this mean that Trotsky is supporting Gorbachev, that Trotsky was also a 'market socialist'?

No. When Stalin abandoned the use of ration cards and returned to the use of the ruble, Trotsky described this as 'merely the rejection of fictions, and an open acknowledgment of the necessity of creating the premises for socialism by means of the return to bourgeois methods of distribution'. And in relation to the introduction of piecework payment 'It is not a question of renouncing socialism, but merely of abandoning crude illusions.' To Gorbachev, and Stalin, however, each measure, be it ration cards or rubles, wages or piecework-payment, was 'a higher stage of socialism'. In other words, more “crude illusions” and “fictions.”

The market cannot be “abolished” any more than religion or the nuclear family can be “abolished.” It must be overcome, transcended. Reliance on fictions and crude illusions is the opposite perspective. The seizure of state power by the workers does not end the class struggle, but merely places into the hands of the workers the most powerful lever for control over the economy. The class struggle continues under new conditions.

Thus, Marxists understand socialism as a higher stage of the development of humanity. Socialism is a development made possible by the conditions of capitalist development, but transcending it. The horrible distortions which were imposed on to the backs of workers in the Stalinists bloc, and the isolation of these countries from the world market, have resulted in the economic level in these countries, not only failing to “catch up and overtake” the capitalist countries, but actually falling behind capitalism.

Now, one of the most powerful influences on workers in the Stalinist bloc which initially at any rate persuaded them to embrace the restoration of capitalism was the perception that in the West workers enjoyed much better living standards than did they.

Bill Hunter of the British International Socialist League, wrote:

'The history of the labour movement of the world is a history of struggle to impose social, class curtailment on the rapacity of capitalist freedom and individual “enterprise.” Capitalist ownership and capitalist appropriation of the labour of the workers, the drive to accumulate capital, meant that capitalism strove to push to the utmost limits the exploitation of labour, irrespective even of the destruction of the labourers themselves. Only the organisation of the working class as a class has checked this tendency.

'The Soviet or Eastern European worker who looks out on the standard of living in the West sees conditions which have arisen not on the benefits of capitalism, but on the relationship of forces between the classes and the struggle and organisation of toilers'.

Bill Hunter summarised the problem in this way:

'The simple everyday summary of the difference between production in a capitalist society and in a workers' state is: under capitalism there is production for profit; under socialist planning production is for need. But for a plan to go forward based on needs, then it must have at all stages, from its outlines through to its carrying out and completion, a constant input and checking from the people it is serving. In the Soviet Union the “needs” of the people were imposed by the administrative apparatus'.[189]

The parody of “socialist planning” in the Stalinist bloc arose fundamentally on the basis of the isolation of the economy from the world economy. Secondarily, it was built upon the hegemony of a conservative and parasitic bureaucracy defending itself against both the demands of the workers and the threat of capitalist accumulation. The revolt of value against bureaucratic fiat was aggravated in the extreme by the combination of the relative backwardness of the economy, the qualitative development which had occurred in the productive forces in the capitalist world economy outside and the disorganising effect of the rising illicit capitalist economy. The battle between bureaucratic planning and the market set up a vicious circle in which the bureaucracy increasingly became an intolerable obstacle to production, not to mention distribution and exchange of products.

Workers' Democracy and Bureaucracy

The Trotskyist movement, the Marxist movement of the period following the capture of the Bolshevik Party by Stalin, based itself upon the perspective of social revolution in the capitalist countries and 'political revolution' in the Stalinist countries. By 'political revolution' we mean the revolutionary overthrow of the government by the organised working class, while preserving collective ownership in the means of production. Political revolution in a workers' state is contrasted with social revolution in a capitalist country because social revolution implies expropriation of the capitalist class, as well as smashing of the capitalist state.

The bureaucracy differs from the capitalist class because the capitalist class has its roots in the social relations of production; the bureaucracy has its roots in its holding office within a workers' organisation. The bureaucracy can be expelled from its office without overthrowing the social relations of production.

The struggle in Poland in the late 1970s and early 1980s demonstrated the complexity of the political tasks facing the working class in the Stalinist bloc. The emergence of Solidarity in 1980 marked the abandonment by the working class of its struggle to subordinate the state to its own control. Rather, they treated it as an alien entity and sought to negotiate with it. Up till this time, the bureaucracy was able to hold off the opposition of the working class by a combination of police repression and co-option of the advanced workers into the state and party apparatus.

Rioting proved insufficient for the revolutionary overthrow of the government.

But on the other hand, even the best communist workers who joined the Communist Party and the government with all the best intentions found themselves sucked into the life-style and social role of the bureaucracy.

In this respect, the workers' state bureaucracy is no different from the reformist bureaucracy in a capitalist country. Workers in capitalist countries are generally well aware of the social pressures which come to bear on individual workers who enter the trade union bureaucracy. How often have workers built a new rank-and-file leadership and ejected the old leadership, only to find a little while later that the new lot were just as bad as the old lot?

Political revolution implies more than a “cleansing” of the bureaucracy of its corrupt and opportunist human material. It implies a revolutionary perspective capable of overcoming the social and historical conditions which gave rise to bureaucratism in the first place. Foremost in such a perspective must be a perspective to overcome the economic, social and political isolation of the workers' state from the world productive forces.

The program of political revolution as elaborated by Trotsky is outlined in the excerpt from the Transitional Program. The reader will observe that its slogans have a considerable overlap with the demands emanating from the organised working class in the USSR in 1991.[190]

Everywhere in the Stalinist bloc, a common range of economic and political demands were raised, demands which are consistent with the program of political revolution – higher wages, shorter working hours, better social services, freedom to organise, independence of the unions from the state, levelling of wages and conditions, addressing the needs of women, of children, invalids and the aged, democratic control of enterprises and services, freedom for political parties, democratic rights, elections to state, local government and workers' organisations, release of political prisoners and no victimisations, expulsion of the bureaucrats and an end to their privileges, rectification of historical lies and cover-ups, an end to secrecy, protection of the environment, national freedoms and rights of ethnic and national minorities to use their own language etc.

In general, the workers have not raised the demand for private ownership in the means of production. This demand has come later and in general has been imposed on to the working class by leaders who have been elevated into power by the workers, or at least with the consent of the workers.

The program of privatisation advocated by both Gorbachev and Yeltsin, and for that matter the Chinese leaders and the “conspirators” of August 1991, has never received unqualified or unanimous support in the working class. It certainly never prolonged the life of their governments. But the alternative program of political revolution has failed to mobilise the active support of the working class without which it is impossible.

The program of political revolution opposes the call for privatisation and the restoration of private property, but calls instead for 'democracy' to be applied consistently in relation to the economy, while retaining collective ownership.

Instead of capitulating to the criminal elements who are grabbing bits of the economy for their own personal gain, the political revolution calls for the workers to take collective control of the economy through their own organisation.

Consequently, for its success the political revolution presupposes a new political leadership in the working class. Such a leadership would have to be independent of the bureaucracy because the task of the political revolution runs completely counter to the social interests of the bureaucracy.

The consideration given to the conditions under which bureaucratism arises within the workers' state in the earlier chapters is sufficient to show that the struggle against bureaucratism must be a permanent feature of a workers' state, so long as economic and cultural backwardness exists and so long as the workers' state remains surrounded by imperialism.

Since the economic problems of the Stalinist bloc originate principally in the isolation of their economies from the world market, the political revolution cannot succeed other than as part of a movement together with the working class in the advanced capitalist countries. Therefore, a successful political revolution also pre-supposes a level of co-ordination of the revolution on a world scale.

The formation of effective working class organisation is impossible without political leadership. The struggle can go so far without such leadership, solely on the basis of spontaneity, but only so far. It can go as far as the 'first stage' referred to in the section on Poland above, of the overthrow of the system, but spontaneity cannot suffice for the next stage, which must be the replacement of the old system with a new system.

It is history now, that Stalinism succeeded in preventing the building of an alternative political leadership in the working class within the USSR, the deformed workers' states and the capitalist world. It also prevented the effective building of a counter-revolutionary leadership, up until 1991.

Gorbachev and Stalin

To Stalinists, “Stalinism” means the “cult of the individual” and “crimes against Soviet legality,” in the terms of Khrushchev’s 1956 “Secret speech.” This is not what we mean by 'Stalinism'. Stalinism is the politics which expresses the interests of the bureaucracy of a deformed or degenerated workers' state.

If we look at Gorbachev’s role during his period of office, there can be no doubt that Gorbachev is accurately characterised as a Stalinist. He hoped (in vain, as it happened) to preserve the system of bureaucratic rule in the USSR, to improve, and indeed perfect it. He represented a view held by a section of the bureaucracy, that the Soviet economy had to be fundamentally restructured if it was to survive; that the Soviet Union faced a total collapse or violent explosion if it did not change; that the urgency of this change was such that it could not be delayed.

But change how? The principal elements of Gorbachev’s policy are referred to as perestroika (restructuring of the economy), glasnost (openness[191] in discussion of political and economic problems) and New Thinking in international relations (rapprochement with imperialism and non-interference in the affairs of countries in the Soviet sphere of influence, at least at the military level).

The way in which Gorbachev’s attempt to reform the system got out of hand is succinctly expressed by David Wedgwood Benn in the way the meaning of glasnost changed over the period:

'Soviet politics from 1985 to 1991 fell roughly into three periods; and in each one of them, glasnost took on a different meaning. Initially, it was seen as an aid to economic 'acceleration': that is, as part of a campaign to get the economy out of the doldrums. It was also a weapon in the anti-corruption campaign first launched by Yuri Andropov. Thus, in 1985, glasnost still looked like no more than another example of the “criticism and self-criticism” which all past Soviet leaders, including Stalin, had talked so often about.

'In the second phase – and most visibly from the end of 1986, when Andrei Sakharov was released from exile – glasnost was treated as a lever for political reform of the Soviet system within a one-party framework. This phase saw a progressive and very substantial relaxation of censorship, when a growing number of previously taboo subjects were thrown open to discussion. The culmination of pluralism within a one-party framework came in March 1989 with the holding of the first multi-candidate parliamentary elections, which effectively ended the old 'rubber stamp' Supreme Soviet.

'Finally, by early 1990 – with the rise of openly secessionist movements in the Baltic and the abolition of the Communist Party’s previous monopoly of power under Article 6 of the Soviet Constitution – the idea that 'reform of the system', or what Gorbachev had termed 'socialist pluralism', gave way to the widespread expression of openly anti-communist views in the media. In any case, during the previous year, the concept of glasnost had to a large extent been equated with, or superseded by, the notion of free speech'. [192]

However, the essence of the policy was the perestroika element, and the essence of perestroika was the concept of 'market socialism'. The other elements followed from the 'market' element.

Now, Stalin is not identified in Soviet history as an advocate of 'market socialism'. Stalin operated an almost endless series of economic policies at different times however, all of which were directed at preserving the system of bureaucratic rule within the isolated and bureaucratised workers' state. This is the essential element that Stalin shared with Gorbachev.

History has shown that 'market socialism' prepared the forces for the overthrow of the workers' state and the bureaucracy. But so equally did many of Stalin’s policies, as outlined in the section Isolation of the Revolution above. Gorbachev and the majority of the Soviet bureaucracy he represented believed that they had to be prepared to gamble all on perestroika or they would be overthrown.

Gorbachev was a Stalinist. The policies of glasnost and perestroika reflected the perspectives of a dominant section of the bureaucracy, and were designed to perpetuate its existence and that of the state it served. As it happened the perspective did not resolve the problems, and unleashed even deeper problems.

There can be no argument that glasnost and 'New Thinking' were not policies ever identified with Stalin. However, they are by no means foreign to Stalinism on a broader level. Elements of these policies can be seen in Tito and Khrushchev for example, and more significantly the 'euro-communist' parties that grew up in the 1960s and 70s.


Also, the way Stalinists argue for the market is quite different from the way capitalists and social democrats argue for the market. The capitalist well understands that the market is the foundation of all capitalism, but for the Stalinist, the market is 'an urgent necessity arising from the profound processes of development in our socialist society', ... 'we are conducting all our reforms in accordance with the socialist choice. We are looking within socialism, rather than outside it, for the answers to all questions that arise ... Every part of our program of perestroika [read “market”] – and the program as a whole, for that matter – is fully based on the principle of more socialism and more democracy'. ... 'In politics and ideology we are seeking to revive the living spirit of Leninism'. [193]

In other words, the move to market economy was presented as a development of socialism, and not a retreat. 'Perestroika is the rebirth of Lenin’s conception of socialism' proclaimed a banner at the parade marking the 120th anniversary of Lenin’s birth. According to Gorbachev the bureaucratic planning of the Stalin period were 'forms and methods of socialist construction corresponding to the historical conditions', which were no longer applicable, and Leninism now required a change to 'market socialism'.

In his time, Stalin presented piece-rate payment of wages, ration cards, the reinstatement of the nuclear family, social realism in art and annexation of neighbouring countries as “further developments of socialism” just as Khrushchev upheld 'Lenin’s principle of peaceful coexistence'.

The loosening of the military and political control of neighbouring countries known as 'New Thinking' was a necessity imposed by the already well-advanced centrifugal forces and the need to make a rapprochement with imperialism. It also flowed out of the drive towards market relations in economy.

Glasnost was also a precondition to the move to market economy. Glasnost was not intended to be genuine and thoroughgoing political liberalisation. It meant opening up and loosening the planning process. It was the necessary accompaniment to abolition of centralised planning. It was also essential to continue the process, begun by Khrushchev, of ending the political direction of science and technology.

Glasnost was also a necessary part of the 'revolution from above' [194] to mobilise the population to shake up the apparatus. In a certain sense, glasnost was reminiscent of Mao’s cultural revolution and there were even elements of the subterfuge of Mao’s 'Let a Hundred Flowers Bloom' campaign, i.e. of coaxing the enemy into exposing themselves.

True, glasnost would be a pre-condition to the development of socialism. It was equally a pre-condition to the development of a capitalist economy.


In the faction fight in the early 1920s, Stalin was the representative of the Centre Bloc, Bukharin the Right, Trotsky the Left. At the historical level, Stalinism is essentially a 'centrist' tendency, even though from time to time it occupies the extreme left or even the extreme right. Gorbachev, like Stalin, was also a 'centrist'. Calling for a 'stable political coalition of centrist forces', Gorbachev verbalised the outlook of the centrist in March 1991: [195]

'There are leaders who push themselves and us heaven knows where, some wanting a wholesale return to the old days, others galloping forth without taking account of the realities and the state of people’s minds', and:

'The position of the political centre is one of reliance on sober-minded forces. Life has shown that extreme manifestations, from the left or right, are in their essence destructive'.

Compare this with Stalin’s role as he took control of the Party in the 1920s. In one of his last public speeches in the Soviet Union, in October 1927, Trotsky described Stalin in this way:

'At first glance it seems as if the Stalin course were completely victorious, dealing blows to the left and blows to the right... In reality the whole policy of this centrist faction is itself going forward under the blows of two whips – one from the Right and one from the Left. This bureaucratic centrist faction, lacking all class basis, staggers between two class lines systematically sliding away from the proletarian to the petit-bourgeoisie. It does not slide in a direct line, but in sharp zig-zags'. [196]

From a political or theoretical point of view, Gorbachev’s policies were in no way a break from Stalinism. Gorbachev’s rhetoric in the late 1980s was similar to Stalin’s in the mid-1920s, as Stalin continued the turn to the petit-bourgeoisie in the face of rising counter-revolution and widespread revolt in the ranks of the Party. The Stalin group in this early period was known as the 'centre group'.

The dynamics of Stalinism as manifested in Gorbachev as he was battered back and forth between Yeltsin and the 'conservatives' was very similar to the dynamics of Stalinism in the mid-1920s. Not surprisingly. Stalin and Gorbachev both represented the bureaucracy, and in a period of sharp social crisis defended its interests against fundamentally irreconcilably opposed social forces – the bourgeoisie and the proletariat.

The bureaucracy has definite social interests, and these interests are reflected politically in Stalinism. Like the guerilla armies that came out of the jungle and made a deal with the government in a number of countries [197] during this same period, it was really just a matter of accepting defeat and getting the best deal possible. But as the leadership of a world Superpower, it was worth putting a brave face on the situation.

Again, it is important to emphasise that the essence of what was taking place was not really the betrayal of Stalinism, but the victory of Imperialism.

Gorbachev claimed to be 'renewing socialism', to be leading a 'revolution from above', to be fighting for 'socialist democracy', but workers' democracy could only arrive in the Soviet Union by means of a political leadership in the working class arising independently and in opposition to the bureaucracy and Stalinism, on the basis of the only consistent, Marxist critique of Stalinism that history has provided – Trotskyism.

History did not however provide such a leadership in the Soviet Union. All independent working class leadership was obliterated.

The last of the leadership that had its roots in the Revolution and the Civil War was exterminated in the Moscow Trials. The last leader of the Left Opposition politically active within the borders of the USSR was Victor Serge who escaped with his life in 1936. The execution of the leaders of the Red Army in 1939 extinguished the last refuge of Bolshevik opposition.

Atomised working class opposition existed up until the war, and there was an outbreak of opposition among the children of the victims of the Moscow Trials in late '40s, but these young people ended their lives in the permafrost of Siberia.

Right up to the Gorbachev period, oppositional groupings cropped up among workers, youth, students and national minorities which drew upon the legacy of the Left Opposition. Marxist oppositional ideas were passed on to new generations in the labour camps. [198]

However, these currents never managed to overcome the combination of police repression and co-option of workers' leaders by which the Stalinist bureaucracy maintained its rule. The non-Marxist and even downright reactionary dissidents that were better known in the West due to the support they received from imperialism were also unable to impinge on the power of the bureaucracy.

The opposition which finally succeeded in overthrowing Stalinism grew up not on the social base of independent workers' movement, nor on the base of a reformist section of the bureaucracy, nor on the basis of the intelligentsia, but on the politics of the rising Soviet bourgeoisie.

This opposition confronted Gorbachev, not as the leader of a reform movement, but as the defender of the old system. Its program was not to liberate the working class from the saddle of bureaucracy, not to “renew socialism,” but to clear the path to capitalism of obstruction by the bureaucracy.

The struggle between Gorbachev and Yeltsin

In the period from 1985 to 1989, the struggle in the Soviet Union appeared as a struggle between a 'reformist' wing of the CPSU, led by Gorbachev, and a 'conservative' wing led by Ligachev. Boris Yeltsin entered the fray as an ally of Gorbachev. From 1987 onwards Gorbachev occupied the 'Centre', with Yeltsin and the Democratic Platform openly advocating the restoration of capitalism, without any double-talk about 'market socialism'. This restorationist tendency more and more grouped itself altogether outside of the CPSU.

After a number of 'reformers' were expelled from the Communist Party in April 1990, Yeltsin encouraged members of the Democratic Platform to leave and form a new party, while he remained on the CPSU Central Committee at least until July, accusing the conservatives of 'mounting a coup against perestroika in the party', and commented “We need people inside the Communist Party as a reserve for a new party.” A Yeltsin adviser, Yuro Afanasyev, said “We need time to do as much harm as possible to this party which has done so much harm to us all over the years,” and advised members who resigned from the party to do so in an organised way, and to avoid being expelled one at a time.

Democratic Platform claimed the support of about 30 per cent of the Party.

In the first six months of 1990, 27,000 members left the CPSU in Moscow and another 19,000 – half of them workers – left in July. Also in July 162,750 members left the Russian Communist Party – 90,000 of them workers. [199]

In March 1991, Yeltsin appealed to his supporters: 'Let’s declare war on the leadership of the country, which has led us into this quagmire'. At least 100,000 people took to the streets of the major cities of the Russian Republic, and as far as the Kamchatka Peninsula, waving red, white and blue Russian flags and chanting “Gorbachev Get Out!” and placards reading “Red filth, get your hands off Yeltsin.” Yeltsin told a rally:

'There is no need for ministries and no need for bureaucratic machinery that imposes its decisions in an overbearing manner. We have been deceived and now we must open our eyes wide and realise it was a lie. And we must take our own path, not that of perestroika of recent years'. [200]

The Russian Congress of People’s Deputies in April 1991 voted 607 to 228 to give Yeltsin powers to rule by decree while the Central government overturned the appointment of a Yeltsin supporter as Moscow police chief.

Leningrad Mayor Anatoly Sobchak observed at this time:

'Gorbachev is still useful for the democrats, for the latter can't still form a government and hold on to power durably. They'd be swept out by a dictatorship'.

In the 18 months to August 1991, 4.2 million members resigned the CPSU, including the Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevadnardze, in July.

Thus, it is indisputable that the restorationist party originally grew up as a section within the Communist Party and the state apparatus. History has shown that in a country where all political life was dominated by the Party and where no rival party was tolerated, an opposition can grow up in no other way. [201]

Eastern Europe has provided counter-examples to this process, Poland in particular, so it would be wrong to elevate this tendency to a necessary law. However, the observation that the class basis of the opposition lay outside the state apparatus and outside the ruling party is crucial and does not contradict the observation that the opposition’s political leadership appeared within the ruling party. The action of Yeltsin to establish a rival party, even while he himself remained inside, in order to do the maximum damage reflected the perspectives of the restorationists to overthrow, not reform the party. As one Yeltsin supporter observed at the time: 'There are not “good” communists and “bad” communists, only communists and anti-communists'.

The contrast between the social policies of Gorbachev and Yeltsin were given a new and significant slant in the struggle over the Union. One observer noted that Gorbachev was more interested in the 'Union' than the 'Socialist' in Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. The multi-national State could survive a reform in the economy, but it could not survive the break-up of the union. Yeltsin’s decision to capture the Presidency of the Russian Federation as his base, and leave Gorbachev the leadership of the Union was decisive. In this way he set himself the objective of smashing the state – the program of [counter-]revolution, not reform.

By this means Yeltsin was able to mobilise the nationalists against the Communists. Perhaps this was a lesson he learnt from the days of the Civil War, when Imperialism and the Whites had the same perspective.

What role did imperialism play?

When Gorbachev began his program of change, Ronald Reagan was in the White House. To an old Cold War warrior, whoever rules in the Evil Empire must be Satan. The launching of the 'star wars' initiative in 1987 took the Cold War to a high point of science fantasy. But a spectacular unilateral initiative by Gorbachev in the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) forced imperialism to pay attention, and the START talks in Moscow were initiated in May 1988. Following the collapse of Eastern Europe in 1989/90, Gorbachev was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in October 1990.

The imperialist leaders began to see that a real social crisis was under way in the Soviet Union. The outcome of that crisis could be an opening of the USSR to capitalist exploitation and investment, or it could lead to a hardening of anti-imperialist policies. Gradually the imperialist leaders began to see that Gorbachev was in the midst of a real social crisis and that they had a role to play. The final signing of the START Treaty in July 1991 indicated that imperialism believed it could do business with Gorbachev.

In July 1991, Gorbachev toured the West begging for economic support for his program of perestroika. In a letter to the leaders of the Group of Seven, Grigori Yavlinsky and Yevgeny Primakov, Gorbachev’s economic advisers declared:

'The Soviet Union has entered a stage of deep social crisis. Three developments are taking place simultaneously: transition from totalitarianism to a democratic society; transformation of the economic system; and worsening of the nationalities problem, the solution of which has been postponed for too long.

'The Soviet economy finds itself surrounded by the obvious collapse of its monetary sphere, its consumer market, and its capital market. Different structures of government management have been drawn into the crisis as well'.

And if the Western leaders didn't get the point:

'The excessive social tensions expected to accompany transformation on such a scale inside a military superpower would present an unjustified risk for both the country and the entire world.

'Meanwhile the beginning of this year witnessed a sharp decline in Soviet production. The economy is on the verge of hyperinflation. The percentage of the population living below the poverty line is growing. Serious problems with the country’s paying capacity reflect its considerable dependence on imports. Social tensions have reached a dangerous level'. [202]

They went on to offer G7 the right to organise the proposed capitalist remedy as part of a Grand Bargain, the price tag for which would be $450,000m in investment from the West. Without a convertible currency the USSR could not integrate itself into the world economy. A convertible ruble was impossible without the support of the international financial institutions and imperialist governments. Without such an integration into the world economy there was no hope of opening the territory of the Soviet Union to capitalist investment and exploitation.

The perspective of imperialism up till August 1991 was that a stable Soviet Union, privatised under Gorbachev’s control, provided the best opportunity for profitable investment. British Foreign Minister, Douglas Hurd, expressed this view as late as May 1991:

'The USSR’s break-up into a kaleidoscope of republics is not in Europe’s interest'. [203]

It seems that their better interests got the better of their moral sentiments. Despite plenty of verbal encouragement, praise and the Nobel Peace Prize, very, very little ever materialised in terms of hard cash. A proposal that the G7 nations commit 5% of their defence budgets (i.e. $31,500m) to support their demands for rapid privatisation never got off the back of an envelope. So long as the imperialist leaders supported Gorbachev with their mouth but not their money, all the political support amounted to was deeper humiliation for the Soviet Union – and Gorbachev.

Business people were already re-orienting themselves towards the break-up of the Soviet Union and were looking towards the Republics from the beginning of 1991. However, the political leaders of imperialism on the whole did not make this change till later.

While Gorbachev was away the majority of his comrades in the leadership of the Soviet Republics became more and more determined to accept nothing short of sovereignty, and began to organise 'horizontal' links, i.e. bilateral relations independently of the Centre. Gorbachev begged his Communist Party colleagues to rally behind him: 'If this goes on the Party will lose every political battle and every election. If it indulges in cannibalism, it will lose everything' he told the Politburo.

But while Gorbachev was receiving star treatment from the Western politicians and media, Yeltsin was ridiculed in the media and frequently shunned by Western politicians, who tended to see his role as threatening to the stability of the USSR, and consequently to the prospects of capitalist investment, and aggravating the danger of a counter-attack by the 'conservatives'.