The attempt at reforming
the bureaucratic Soviet regime undertaken by Mikhail Gorbachev
was doomed to failure. This
confirms the impossibility of an attempt at self-reform by the
Gorbachev’s failure is
in line with that of Tito, Khrushchev, Mao or Dubcek.
The Soviet bureaucracy is too vast, its social networks
too strong, the web of inertia, routine, obstruction and
sabotage on which it rests too dense for it to be decisively
weakened by actions from above.
Its removal demands the initiative and action of tens of
millions of workers, that is, a real popular revolution from
below, an anti-bureaucratic political revolution.
Gorbachev was incapable of unleashing such a revolution
-- nor did he wish to. His
aim was to preserve the system while profoundly reforming it.
towards a radical reform of the system was not, in the first
place, the result of any ideological choice.
It was the outcome of unavoidable objective conditions,
of the ever deepening crisis of the system in which the USSR was
mired since the end of the 1970s;
The main signs of this
* The continuous fall in
growth rates, which remained lower than those of the USA for
more than a decade;
* The impossibility in
these conditions of maintaining at one and the same time the
drive for the modernization of the economy, the arms race with
imperialism, a constant, if modest rise in the living standards
of the masses and the maintenance and expansion of the
privileges of the bureaucracy.
At least two if not three of these objectives had to be
* The failure, predicted
by Trotsky in the 1920s, of the conversion of extensive into
This conversion demanded giving priority to problems of
quality rather than quantity, exact calculations of costs,
transparency of economic mechanisms and the growing sovereignty
of the consumers. All
of which are incompatible with bureaucratic dictatorship;
* The beginning of a
pronounced social regression, expressed particularly by the
existence of 60 million poor and the marked deterioration of the
health system (including for several years an absolute fall in
* The loss of any
political legitimacy by the regime, with the appearance of broad
sectors of opposition, (experts, writers, young people, the
oppressed nationalities, and workers acting to some extent
* A very deep ideological
and moral crisis that the bureaucracy could no longer control.
Gorbachev’s defeat is
above all the defeat of economic perestroika.
Badly conceived from the beginning, changing direction
several times, combining increasingly contradictory objectives, perestroika
ended up dismantling the old command economy without replacing
it with anything coherent.
From stagnation to
somersaults, economic decline followed stagnation from 1990
inflation contributed to precipitating the decline. The links between enterprises began to unravel.
Consumer goods disappeared from the official distribution
circuits, being gradually monopolized by various mafias and the
free market, where they were sold at exorbitant prices.
The essential minimal
income in Moscow at the start of 1991 was 200 rubles a month per
person, which was still covered by the minimum wage.
In October 1991 the essential minimum income had risen to
521 rubles according to calculations by the unions.
Some 90% of Muscovites got less than this sum.
Since then the situation has got still worse.
And now we have the massive price rises of January 2,
1992. Given this
progressive deterioration of the living conditions of broad
masses, Gorbachev completely lost his popular base.
The fundamental driving
force behind Gorbachev’s foreign policy was from imperialism
to save the sinking ship. This
led to counter-revolutionary regional accords at the expense of
the Central American and Cuban revolutions, and the liberation
struggles in South Africa and the Arab world.
In this, Gorbachev was doing nothing more than continuing
the long history of betrayals of the international revolution by
Stalin, his successors and their acolytes: the betrayal of the
Spanish, Yugoslav and Greek revolutions, the betrayal of the
opportunities for revolutionary breakthroughs in France and
Italy in 1944-48 and 1968-9, and the betrayals of the Chinese,
Vietnamese, Cuban (in the first phase) and Portuguese
However, if it was
illusory to expect Gorbachev to succeed, it would also be an
error to close one’s eyes to the profound and positive changes
that took place in the USSR under Gorbachev.
These changes are
essentially summed up by glasnost, or, if you prefer, the
substantial extension of democratic liberties in practice
enjoyed by the Soviet
These liberties are of
course limited, partial and not constitutionally guaranteed and
have been combined with authoritarian features that were
accentuated in the last period of Gorbachev’s reign.
But these democratic liberties were real enough.
Many parties, political associations, social groupings,
and independent workers’ organizations arose.
A press entirely outside the control of the party’s
censorship appeared. Public
demonstrations, often of great size, took place.
There were an increasing number of strikes.
Elections offering the voters a choice of candidates with
genuinely different political orientations were organized.
To deny that this was a
colossal change for the masses compared to the Stalinist and
post-Stalinist regimes, and to describe the Gorbachev regime as
“totalitarian”, amounts to prettifying the Stalinist
Under Stalin there were
millions of political prisoners.
Under Gorbachev there were less than in the USA, Britain,
the Spanish State or Israel.
Under Stalin all strikes were bloodily suppressed.
Under Gorbachev no strike was bloodily suppressed.
Such a mistaken vision of
the political reality in the USSR is the result of an
ultra-leftist conception of variants of political regimes.
In this conception only one distinction exists: the power
of the Soviets and the fascist -- or fascist-inclined --
bourgeois dictatorship. All
intermediary forms disappear from view.
The August 1991
putschists wanted to severely limit or even suppress the
democratic liberties that existed in reality.
They intended to suppress the right to strike and
independent workers organizations.
This is why the putsch had to be opposed by all means
available. And this
is why the failure of the putsch should be hailed.
This means the working
masses of the ex-USSR must now undertake a struggle on two
fronts: for the defense, extension and consolidation of
democratic liberties on the one hand, and on the other against
abandon one of these two central struggles would be to sacrifice
the fundamental interests of the working class.
There is no chance of the
development and victory of the political revolution in the
ex-USSR without the working class regaining its capacity for
mass independent political class organization.
This objective, in turn, can only be realized by a long
period of apprenticeship, of the development of struggles and
the emergence of a new vanguard.
Without democratic liberties in reality, this process
will be much longer, more difficult and would have fewer chances
of reaching a successful conclusion. And without such a
political revolution, the restoration of capitalism is
inevitable in the long term.
Gorbachev was not
overthrown by a mass mobilization.
Nor was he overthrown by an offensive by imperialism or
domestic bourgeois forces.
He has been overthrown by a wing of the bureaucracy led
by Boris Yeltsin.
Yeltsin: a man of the
Yeltsin, just as much, if
not more than Gorbachev, represents a faction in the top levels
of the nomenklatura. Yeltsin,
by his whole past and education, is a man of the apparatus.
His gifts as a populist demagogue do not permit the
modification of this judgement.
If there is something that distinguished Yeltsin from
Gorbachev it is that he is less inclined to evasion, more
authoritarian and thus more dangerous for the masses.
People will say that,
unlike Gorbachev, who continued in some vague fashion to call
himself a socialist, Yeltsin has come out openly for the
restoration of capitalism.
This is true. But
professions of faith are not enough for us to form an assessment
of politicians. We
have to look at what happens in practice and what social
interests they serve.
From this point of view,
Yeltsin and his allies in the liquidation of the USSR in favour
of the “Commonwealth of Sovereign States” represent a
faction of the nomenklatura distinct from the bourgeois forces
properly so-called (essentially the “lumpen-millionaires”,
the new bourgeoisie), although they can overlap at the margins.
The most typical cases
are those of the presidents of the Ukraine and Kazakhstan who,
together with Yeltsin, have “betrayed Gorbachev” (in the
latter’s own phrase) to liquidate the USSR.
Both were leaders of the
Stalinist apparatus in these two republics at the beginning of
the Gorbachev era. Both continue to rely on the local, hardly changed, KGB.
At the start both played a waiting game, or even
supported the putsch. They
have both used the legitimate revolt of the masses of their
region against national oppression to convert themselves into
Their cynicism is
manifested by their readiness to associate, at least for the
time being, with Yeltsin and his acolytes, who are authentic
Great Russian chauvinists.
What we are seeing in the
ex-USSR is a triangular struggle between: factions at the top of
the nomenklatura; directly restorationist, that is, bourgeois
forces in the social sense of the term; and the labouring
masses. These three
forces are distinct, acting in society according to their own
New putsches are
possible. Yeltsin may well rapidly lose popularity, given the
anti-worker and anti-popular policies he is pursuing. Behind him can be seen the sinister figure of Vladimir
Shirinovsky, the Soviet LePen, who looks for inspiration at one
and the same time to Stalin, the Tsar, and Pinochet; he has the
support of a wing of the army and is furiously Great Russian,
xenophobic, anti-semitic and racist.
His popularity should not be underestimated.
We do not today face
either a revolutionary or a pre-revolutionary situation in the
doubt, the working class is infinitely stronger than its
adversaries, far stronger than in 1917 or 1927.
At the same time Stalinism is, as we have always
predicted, in the process of collapsing.
But for it to be overthrown by a political revolution,
the working class must act as an independent political force,
which is not the case today.
Due to the enormous
discredit thrown on the very ideas of communism, socialism or
Marxism by the Stalinist dictatorship, the void created by the
profound ideological/moral crisis of Soviet society is not about
to be filled by the working class. This
is active, but only for a short-term immediate ends and in a
fragmented and discontinuous way.
The right wing has the political initiative.
The broken thread of
Contrary to our
legitimate hopes up until 1980-81 (the first rise of
Solidarnosc), the thread that leads from the revolt in the
Vorkuta labour camp and the East German uprising of 1953 through
the Hungarian revolution of 1956 to the “Prague Spring” and
the first steps of Polish Solidarnosc has been broken.
It will take time to restore it.
Does this mean that a
lasting restoration of the power of the nomenklatura or a real
restoration of capitalism are the most likely outcomes?
Not at all. They
are just as unlikely as a rapid move to political revolution.
Certainly, the Yeltsin
government has taken some initial steps towards capitalist
there is a huge distance between the beginning and the end of
such a process.
For a real restoration of
capitalism, an extension of the commodity economy --which
remains today less developed in the ex-USSR than in the time of
the New Economic Policy of the 1920s -- is not enough.
The big means of production and exchange must also become
requires at least $1,000bn, a sum which is not available in
present conditions, either in the West or the ex-USSR itself.
It is also necessary for
labour power to be subjected to the laws of the “labour
implies 30 to 40 million unemployed and a drop in living
standards of the order of 30 to 50%; this will meet with fierce
The most probable
eventuality is a long period of decomposition and chaos.
Our modest but real hope must be that in this period the
Soviet working class will be able gradually to reconquer its
class independence. The
main task of the small and fragmented socialist forces is to
link up with the workers and aid them to overcome the obstacles
to that end.