Soviet Union: Revolutionary ferment of twenty years ago

The nightmare of capitalism’s return to the land of the October Revolution

The bosses’ media milked the celebrations of the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall to remind their audiences of the evils of Stalinism. Equating it as always with ’communism’, they welcomed the opportunity to repeat the lie that there is no alternative to capitalism – a system now deeply mired in crisis.

They have spoken glowingly of the “revolution, or series of revolutions” of 1989 which turned world history in their favour. At the same time, they condemn as a mere ’coup’ the genuine revolution of October 1917 – the mighty event that followed the overthrow of the Tsarist dictatorship and liberated tens of millions of people from war and capitalist exploitation.

Anniversary of fall of Berlin Wall, 1989

The events of twenty years ago, including the mass revolt in China, showed the potential for mass struggle to overthrow entrenched bureaucracies. Counter-revolution in terms of the restoration of capitalism across Eastern Europe and the USSR was by no means a foregone conclusion.

Long before the Wall actually came down, there had been a ferment in society across Eastern Europe, and inside Russia itself. A decade earlier, Solidarnosc in Poland had begun its life as a defiant independent trade union. Its 1981 congress adopted what amounted to the programme of the political revolution – for wresting control of the state and industry out of the hands of the ruling parasitic caste of bureaucrats and establishing democratic workers’ control and management.

The mass strikes which Solidarnosc organised terrified the ruling bureaucracy of the Soviet Union. They played them down as no more than ’temporary interruptions to work’, hoping in the process to prevent the idea catching on in their massive, but ailing, economy! (At the time, inhabitants of Leningrad, who knew all too well what was happening in Poland, began mockingly referring to the famous ’Strike Avenue’, which runs past the revolutionary Putilovsky factory as ’Temporary-Interruption-to-Work Avenue’!)


Gorbachev’s reforms

Mikhael Gorbachev rose to the position of General Secretary of the ruling Communist Party in 1985, acutely aware of the need to get the economy out of the doldrums caused by top-down management on a stultifying scale. Genuine workers’ democracy – the vital oxygen needed to keep the state-owned, planned economy functioning – would make the bureaucrats redundant. Hence the search for an alternative.

While swearing allegiance to Lenin and orthodox Marxism, Gorbachev revived certain ’market’ ideas like ’self-accounting’ in every enterprise. In his book of 1988, the economist Aganbegyan pointed to the need for ’intensive’ as opposed to ’extensive’ investment. Gorbachev needed to bring in reforms in order to prevent revolution.

No revolution or counter-revolution is one single event. Nevertheless, one event – the opening of the Berlin Wall – was of major significance. With hindsight, it appears, to have been the point of no return for the collapse of the state-owned planned economies. It appears to have led directly to the restoration of market capitalism in more than one sixth of the world’s surface, in much of which it had not existed for decades.

Solidarnosc, Poland

After the Wall fell, a social counter-revolution spread across Eastern Europe and the now ex-Soviet Union. The USSR, made up of fifteen major republics, soon crumbled into separate states, the Russian Federation being by far the largest. Almost without exception, they saw the local ruling ‘communist’ cliques converting rapidly to capitalism and pursuing their separate struggles for narrow, nationalist interests.

But in the 1980s, the bureaucrats in power in the Stalinist states were not the only ones who feared the revolt welling up beneath them. Recent revelations show that Thatcher, Bush (Senior), Mitterand and others not only dreaded a united Germany and (secretly, of course) also supported the rule of General Jaruselski in Poland rather than the coming to power of Solidarnosc. Along with Gorbachev, Honecker, Deng Xiao Ping, the Ceausescus and the rest, there is no doubt that the capitalist leaders feared just as much the aroused working class. If it succeeded in throwing off the incubus of Stalinist dictatorship, in the East, could it not move in the west to dispense with capitalist rule?

Inside the USSR

So how close did it come in the late ’80s inside the Soviet Union to a political revolution from below? Could workers have regained control of the state established by the Bolshevik revolution in 1917 – the workers’ state usurped a decade later by the murderous regime of Stalin?

On the 72nd anniversary of the Russian revolution, just two days before the fall of the Wall in Berlin, a thousands-strong ’unofficial’ mass demonstration made its way into Winter Palace Square, Leningrad. It was one of the biggest since the days of the Trotskyist Left Opposition in the late ’20s. (In the Summer, up to 500,000 had defied the authorities to show support for two well-known lawyers seen as champions of the struggle for democratic rights.) The bureaucrats here on the rostrum were booed and shouted at and yet, to the relief of those on the opposition demonstration, no tanks appeared.

The political outlook of the demonstrators was very mixed. Most were supporting the demand for multi-party elections – the abolition of Article 6 in the constitution that gave the ’Communist’ Party the “leading” if not exclusive, role in the state. Many carried slogans demanding free speech, freedom of assembly, freedom of organisation and freedom of the press.

Under ‘glasnost’, hundreds of small publications and organisations had begun to blossom ’unofficially’. On the opposition demonstration in Leningrad on November 7, 1989, there was a palpable enthusiasm for Solidarnosc in Poland, especially amongst those endeavouring to build new, independent trade unions. There was admiration and solidarity for the miners of Vorkuta, the Kuzbas and the Donbas who had challenged the ruling bureaucracy with a massive general strike earlier in the year. Others supported the growing independence movement in the Baltic states

“Let’s build socialism!”

Some on the demonstration had such hatred towards those who ruled over them in the name of Lenin and the Bolsheviks that they wanted nothing to do with them. Some supported the cooperatives that were developing and the idea of introducing market incentives as a way of getting round the shortages and blockages in the economy. Shares “might not be a bad idea”, some said, so alienated did workers feel from the state-owned ’enterprises’ in which they worked. But one of the biggest home-made banners on the November the 7th demonstration in Winter Palace Square read; “Power to the soviets, not the party!” and “Let’s build socialism!”.

Few, if any, at that stage favoured opening the door to full-blown privatisation. That was being discussed by the ’boys in pink trousers’ who supported the ideas of the Chicago School. Economists like Chubais and Gaidar were later keen advocates of ’shock therapy’, bringing the economy out of state hands in one blow – along the lines of Yavlinsky’s ’500 Days’ programme of a year later. For the moment, Gorbachev himself was keen to stick to what he called “revolutionary reforms” aimed to keep the state-owned planned economy in tact and safeguard the livelihoods of the bureaucracy that depended on it.

At this time, Boris Yeltsin who two years earlier had been sacked as Moscow Party boss – the ’man of the people’, riding on buses, standing in queues at food shops – was evincing ecstatic support. He denounced the privileges of the nomenclatura. The ’inter-regional’ group of Congress deputies was battling to break the grip of the multi-million ’Communist’ Party of the Soviet Union. He became far more convinced than Gorbachev about the need for the ’transition to the market’. After his dramatic victory later, in August 1991, over the generals’ coup, he would not only clear them and the old guard out of the way. He would push the CPSU Secretary, Gorbachev, aside, and illegalise the party itself, opening the road for the brutal and rapid wholesale privatisation of the economy.

Elements of revolution

But in 1989 there was still a potentially revolutionary situation in the making.

The upper layers in society were divided as to how to deal with the rapidly developing economic and social crisis. There were the reformers and the privatisers and then there were the-out-and-out hard-liners like Nina Andreyeva, Ligachev and co. They vehemently demanded a return to the methods of Lenin as they saw them and even of Stalin! Some of them would have favoured the ’Tiananmen Square solution’, which so many feared, to stop the revolt that was developing under their feet!

The troops had been sent in to quell revolt both within and beyond the borders of the Soviet Union, even since the death of Stalin, including Germany, Hungary and Czechoslovakia. They had also been used, in spite of heroic examples of insubordination, to put down workers’ strikes and demonstrations most notably in 1962 in Novocherkassk, capital of the Don Cossaks where hundreds were killed. Even Gorbachev, while clearly not willing to send troops into Eastern Europe, had ordered them in to crush revolt in Tbilisi in April 1989 and would send them into Vilnius in early 1990.

But in the ferment of 1989 it is unlikely that soldiers and police could have been deployed in the main Russian cities, against their brothers and sisters on the streets and in the work-places, people who now knew no fear. Conscripts returning from Afghanistan were also disaffected. They had organised an opposition movement called ’Zashita’ (Shield).

As the economy had slowed in the ‘70s and ‘80s, discontent had grown within certain layers of the intelligentsia. Samizdats (self- edited publications) appeared in their hundreds, defying the authorities. By the time of Gorbachev’s accession to power in 1985, there was more widespread discontent in the middle layers of society. They shared some of the privations of the working class in an economy grinding to a halt – the empty shops, the rationing and the queues everywhere.

Some looked towards Social Democracy as a way out, imagining to themselves that it was not really capitalist. Others openly returned to Menshevik opposition to socialist revolution. A few took up outright reactionary ideas of the pre-1917 period. Many wanted to return to an illusory golden era of democratic capitalist development that had simply been ’interrupted’ by Lenin and the Bolsheviks (with Stalin equated with Lenin)!

Workers and change

Within the working class there was a simmering resentment – a slow-burning fuse, much as there is in the oligarch-dominated Russia of today. There were outbreaks of strike action, usually brief, but sometimes bitter and long. Deeply-felt discontent was being expressed in newspapers, in letters to Gorbachev, in unofficial workers’ publications. The STKs – factory committees set up by Gorbachev – allowed workers to vent their anger with complaints and suggestions for improvements without actually exercising control.

This had all come to a dangerous head in the miners’ strikes of the summer of 1989. They flared up again later that year and would continue into 1990 (in spite of Gorbachev’s u-turn on workers’ rights in the passing of anti-strike laws). Miners had occupied the central squares of their towns and controlled everything that came and went. They had, to some extent, taken things out of the hands of their overseers in the work-place and in society. Like workers elsewhere across the Soviet Union, in what were only partially free elections, they had voted out a whole range of party hacks from the administrative bodies (mis-named Soviets) and replaced them with new people.

“The list of losers is startling,” the Washington Post reported at the time. “They include the commander-in-chief of the Moscow regional armed forces, the chairman of the Moscow city council, the prime minister of Lithuania, the chief of the Estonian KGB, the admiral of the northern fleet and the commander of Soviet forces in East Germany”…“In Leningrad, which has been dominated by a conservative party apparatus, the secretary of the city’s party committee, Anatoli Gerasimov, won only 15 percent of the vote, losing to shipyard worker Yuri Boldyrev.” In Moscow, the massive 89% vote Yeltsin received enabled him to boast he had been rehabilitated by the voters against the wishes of the Party.

Workers across the country took a whole two weeks off work to watch live coverage of the new delegates debating in the Congress of People’s Deputies. In a few places the black Zil cars of the bureaucrats had been ’arrested’. Their car boots had been opened to reveal hordes of sausages, vodka and other (for those times) ‘luxury’ items.

Things were moving fast. As one building worker in Leningrad commented during a still-illegal meeting of his independent union, “Anything that happened a fortnight ago is history!”. By this time, workers as well as elements in the middle layers were losing patience with the dithering of Gorbachev. His support was down to little more than a third in opinion polls.

If there had been a force with at least some roots in the working class, calling for workers to throw off the bureaucracy and take control into their hands, directly electing their own representatives to genuine soviets at a local, regional and all USSR level, it could have made a difference. The anger of the working class could have been channelled into a coordinated struggle for the re-establishment of workers’ democracy.

A revolutionary party could have grown rapidly in the turmoil of that period. But the odds were heavily stacked against such a development. The long years/decades of Stalinist repression weighed heavily on the scales of history:- the snuffing out of the slightest opposition, the threat of the Gulag for a passing comment. By 1989 anything associated with the old regime, including “Marxism”, was being rejected lock, stock and barrel; the attractions of life in the west were winning out.


When ‘Militant’ Labour Member of Parliament, Terry Fields, was invited to a congress of Siberian miners in Novokuznetsk in May 1990, his audience was delighted. He brought greetings “from the workers of Europe” and the wholehearted support he expressed for their struggle against the bureaucrat-bosses. But he began to warn them against taking the road to the market, if that was what they were contemplating, as the only way to get a better deal for their labour. It would not lead to a capitalism of the Swedish, North American or British type, but of the Latin American kind:- i.e. mass unemployment, hyper-inflation and dictatorship. The miners got restless and began to tap their watches, telling him that his time was up! They preferred not to hear his prophesy!

As Gorbachev’s star waned, miners gave their support to Yeltsin in his battle with the ‘communists’. Some miners’ representatives travelled to Western Europe to find direct buyers for their coal. One of them, a certain Yakovlev, when he came to Britain, actually asked to meet representatives of the CBI and to go to the Tory Party conference!

In his uncannily prophetic book, ’Revolution Betrayed’, Leon Trotsky wrote from exile in 1936: “The fall of the present bureacratic , if it were not replaced by a new socialist power, would (thus) mean a return to capitalist relations with a catastrophic decline of industry and culture”.

Within three years of Terry Fields going to Russia, (including to Leningrad), workers were experiencing one of the biggest collapses of any economy in history. eIndustry declined by 50%, inflation in 1992 reached 2,520% per annum, mass unemployment and non-payment of wages rocketed. Whereas 1.5% of the population was living in poverty (defined as income below the equivalent of $25 per month) in the late ‘Soviet’ era, by mid-1993 between 39% and 49% of the population was living in poverty.

Privatisation – daylight robbery

The ‘great money trick’ of capitalist restoration in Russia was “voucherisation”. Every citizen was issued a certificate of entitlement to an equal share in the enterprises they already theoretically owned (through the state)! Most of the population was so impoverished at the time that they quickly swapped the vouchers for cash. Grannies and spivs standing at stations and street corners to buy them were obviously working as agents for the would-be oligarchs who thus scooped up and concentrated in their hands whole swathes of the previously state-owned economy!

For a whole period, different wings of the old bureaucracy fought each other for control over the spoils of the privatisation process. They set up rival private banks with public money, they put out contracts for gunmen who would literally kill off competition. The biggest “shoot out” was when Yeltsin sent the tanks against his own parliament in October 1993. This and Yeltsin’s rapid concentration of power into his own hands signified the arrival of the dictatorship of which Terry had warned. (Today the country is headed, if not in name, then in practice, by a not much more salubrious Bonapartist than Yeltsin, in the shape of Vladimir Putin.)

The ‘shock therapy’ inflicted on the population of the ex-Soviet Union did nothing to assist the working class to live better. It has actually been blamed by medical researchers for no less than one million premature deaths of adults (The Lancet, January 2009). Most pensioners, students, workers have felt the baleful effects of the transition to the market ‘on their skins’, as the Russians express it.

It all sounded so fine in words. In practice, it has turned out to be a nightmare. Millions lost their life savings when pyramid scams collapsed. All have lost the security of a home, a job, a free health service, and free education to university level and beyond.

The quality of services, of products, of food was never great under the old regime. As Trotsky wrote, it “slips out of the hands of a bureaucracy like a shadow”. But the privations of life under Stalinism have begun to look bearable compared with what faces workers, pensioners and young people today. (This may be what lies behind the so-called popularity polls that give Stalin such a high rating. Few know today of the crimes of that mass murderer and think only of the stability and certainties that the planned economy used to provide, in spite the vile distortion it represented of ’socialism’.)

The bureaucrats-turned-oligarchs of today have accumulated unimaginable wealth – billions of dollars worth. They have almost literally bought themselves the ’strong state’ of Vladimir Putin. ’New Russians’ flaunt their ill-gotten wealth at home and abroad and stoke up the anger of a new generation of workers, growing up as capitalism shows itself to be a failing system. Many of today’s intelligentsia fail to take up the struggle for genuine democracy and themselves favour a ’strong state’ to protect them from future upheavals.

Just as the Russian economy had got back up to the level of 1990, mainly through rising prices for its energy supplies, it has fallen again this year by around 8%. There is a new storm brewing under the surface of Russian society. 40% of Russians live in absolute poverty. Unemployed workers have gone to the countryside to eke out a living. Carworkers facing tens of thousands of redundancies have organised mass protests and have been demanding total renationalisation of their industry.

Big clashes between the classes will engender a renewed interest in the genuine ideas of socialism. The lessons of the past must all be examined and forces built which can bring lasting victory over capitalism in Russia and internationally.

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November 2009