30 years since aborted coup in Soviet Union

A tank on the streets of Moscow during the coup attempt, 19 August 1991 (Photo: Ian Simochkin/Creative Commons)

It is thirty years since an ill-fated coup was launched against Mikhail Gorbachev, president of what was still known as the Soviet Union (USSR). It was over in three days. By the end of 1991, the USSR itself no longer existed and its state-owned, bureaucratically planned economy was firmly set on the road to capitalist restoration.

From early morning on 19 August 1991, as was the tradition in the USSR in times of trouble, the Soviet Union’s TV channels carried nothing but classical music and Swan Lake – the ballet.

Only in the evening at 5 pm did the ‘gang of eight’ – top military and civilian leaders – hold a televised press conference to explain their action. It was chaired by the ‘Soviet Union’s vice-president, Gennady Yanayev; his clasped hands were visibly shaking.

He explained that Gorbachev was ill and their mission was to maintain order. In fact, they were moving to pre-empt the signing of a ‘New Union Agreement’ drawn up with a view to decentralising power to the fifteen republics of the USSR. They would not, he said, be halting the move towards privatisation, but simply slowing it down.

The very sight of troops on the streets and the threat to the fragile shoots of democracy that had begun to sprout in the late 1980s angered the mass of the population. Strikes were reported to be breaking out in a number of places.

In Leningrad, thousands made their way to Mariinsky Palace, the seat of the locally elected government and set up barricades using anything available. Two days later, on 21 August, a huge crowd filled Palace Square to hear mayor Anatoly Sobchak declare the local military command was on the side of ‘democracy’ along with the local KGB, who had actually organised the massive rally.

In Moscow, buses were overturned and barricades were thrown up to block the path of tanks and soldiers towards the Kremlin. Three men were killed in the clashes. The then-popular Boris Yeltsin famously stood on a tank outside Moscow’s White House among workers, soldiers and police who had refused to support the old guard’s attempted coup. Yeltsin was the recently elected leader of the newly established parliament of the Russian Federation – the biggest and most populous republic in the Soviet Union. His star was still rising as the influence of Mikhael Gorbachev went into steep decline.

Yeltsin sent envoys by plane to Crimea where Gorbachev had been put under house arrest by the coup leaders in his holiday home. The world-renowned president of the USSR returned to Moscow – a humbled man who knew his days in office were numbered.

By the end of August 21st, the coup attempt was over. The leaders were arrested – all except one, the interior minister, Boris Pugo, who had already committed suicide! The ruling Communist Party was banned and the only decision-making body of the USSR – the Congress of People’s Deputies was disbanded. The door was thrown open for the swift re-establishment of capitalism in Russia and across all the republics of the USSR.

By 25 December 1991, Gorbachev was announcing his resignation and the final dissolution of the ‘Soviet Union’. He was accepting the reality that most republics had already declared independence – the Baltic States before the coup and the rest in quick succession in the following four months.

The defeat of the 1991 August coup raised the hopes of working people. Gorbachev had been experimenting with reforms from above – Glasnost (‘Opening-up’) and Perestroika (‘Restructuring’) – to avoid revolt from below. But, while allowing debate, they had failed to breathe new life into the vast bureaucratically-run economy.

By the end of the 1980s, workers and their families across the USSR were suffering severe hardship. Queues of people with government ration tokens would stand for hours outside ‘supermarkets’ whose shelves were all but empty. The 20 million-strong bureaucracy, mostly card-carrying members of the ruling ‘Communist’ Party, had continued to live well and particular resentment was developing against a layer of ‘nouveau riches’.

Mikhail Gorbachev had been elected General Secretary of the ruling party in 1985 and president of the USSR – the ‘Union of Soviet Socialist Republics’ – in 1988.

Stalinism

The USSR had never been able to develop into a federation of truly socialist states, as had been the mighty aim of its revolutionary founders. Workers’ democracy had not been able to fully develop in the dire situation of an economy and agriculture wrecked by years of world and civil war. The prospect of linking up with workers’ states in developed capitalist countries faded as revolutions elsewhere were lost.

In a situation of scarcity, officials controlled distribution, gained increasing power and, in the absence of real control from below, began to ensure that they and their families were effectively at the front of the queue. Headed by Stalin and his entourage, this layer rapidly consolidated its power after the death of the Communist Party’s leader, Vladimir Lenin, in 1924. The increasingly elitist bureaucracy that had developed carried through a political counter-revolution

The failure of subsequent revolutions in developed industrialised countries and later the active sabotage by Stalin and the ruling bureaucratic clique of attempts in France, Spain and elsewhere to carry them through, meant the rapid degeneration of the workers’ state in the ‘Soviet Union’.

This grouping led by Stalin held onto power through the suppression of democratic debate and control and, increasingly, a brutal reign of terror. There was the forced collectivisation of agriculture, the gradual extermination of all opposition, including through the horrific purge trials of leading Bolsheviks and others, and the gulags (concentration camps). Leon Trotsky – the co-leader with Lenin of the 1917 socialist revolution – politically led the Marxist opposition to Stalinism and was assassinated in Mexico in 1940.

What had developed in the Soviet Union was a one-party dictatorship; it bore no resemblance to socialism or communism, but officially ruled in the name of the working class. The Communist Party was no longer a real party with discussion and debate; instead, it became a fig leaf for the elite, holding stage-managed meetings with inevitably unanimous decisions to justify its claim to power.

The impressive economic growth figures achieved in the USSR – 250% increase in industrial production between 1929 and 1935 – were due entirely to planning and state-ownership of the economy, however bureaucratically run, and to the enormous sacrifices exacted from the working class and peasantry.

What became a 20 million-strong bureaucracy continued to live off the backs of the working class in considerable luxury.

As Leon Trotsky argued in his marvellous book ‘Revolution Betrayed’ (1936), without the necessary oxygen of democratic workers’ control and management, the vast planned economy would begin to slow down as it became more complex.

An ‘either/or’ situation would be starkly posed. Trotsky wrote of “two opposite tendencies … growing up”. The log-jam could be broken in one of two ways. Either the working class would move to reclaim control and management in society by carrying through a political revolution against Stalin and his clique.

Alternatively, elements within the bureaucratic elite would move to carry through a social counter-revolution – establishing capitalism beginning with taking the banks and major industries into their own hands, possibly using co-operatives as a “transitional form of property” to provide initial cover for stealing the state-owned assets.

‘Either/or’

In ‘The Rise of Militant’, Peter Taaffe – political secretary of the Socialist Party – cites a speech by Terry Fields, the late Labour MP and supporter of Militant (forerunner of the Socialist), who addressed a meeting of 600 workers from across Russia, including many striking coal-miners, in Novokuznetsk in the spring of 1990.

Terry was warmly received by the conference as he expressed the widespread solidarity of the international working class. He turned to the question of the market, with the aim of dispelling illusions that capitalism for them would be like that in Britain, Sweden or the US.

Terry explained it would be more like that in Latin America bringing mass unemployment, hyperinflation and dictatorship. Then he was interrupted by a worker saying, “We’ve had enough!” Many miners in the new independent union at that time had the idea that selling their coal on the world market would be more profitable for them than providing the party bosses in Moscow with a good life.

Many compared their dire straits with that of workers in an apparently still booming Europe. They compared the indecisive Gorbachev with the ‘Iron Lady’ Thatcher, without knowing what she was inflicting on the working class in Britain.

Thatcher had defeated Britain’s miners using massed forces of the state against their year-long strike (and assisted by the refusal of the right-wing Labour Party and trade union tops to provide effective solidarity). She had got the courts to defeat the popular socialist councillors in Liverpool who had refused to accept her orders to cut jobs and services. She had engaged in battle with 18 million working-class people (organised by the Militant-led All Britain Anti-Poll Tax Union campaign) who refused to pay her iniquitous poll tax – and lost!

Thatcher had also given her backing to the pro-capitalist former trade union leader and dissident Lech Walesa in Poland who, in the absence of a working-class alternative, had become Polish president in 1990 and was proceeding apace with establishing a market economy.

Turning point

In the ‘Soviet Union’ of 1990, a few hard-line Stalinists had been arguing for a return to the military-police methods of the past. A certain Colonel Alksnis advocated a ‘Committee of National Salvation’ to replace Gorbachev but also block the path of Boris Yeltsin. But those already in the ascendancy were proponents of the ‘transition to the market’. The best known was Grigory Yavlinsky, with his ‘500 Days’ programme. Disciples of American right-wing ‘monetarist’ Milton Friedman like Yegor Gaidar and Anatoly Chubais, who advocated capitalist ‘shock therapy’, were understandably not popular.

But the hopes of many were now invested in Boris Yeltsin. As Secretary of the Moscow Communist Party, he had broken the mould – riding on public transport rather than in the limousines of the party bureaucracy and campaigning for the abolition of ‘article 6’ of the USSR constitution that allowed only one party to operate. In spite of his sacking as Moscow leader in ’87, his popularity continued to rise. Thousands packed into meeting halls to hear him speak while thousands more would listen on loudspeakers in overflow gatherings outside.

By the famous summer of 1991, capitalism was seeping into the vast economy of the ‘Soviet Union’. Cooperatives had long been breaking into the monopoly hold of state enterprises. Groups of independent trade unionists were discussing not workers’ control of state-owned enterprises but schemes for ensuring fair shares for workers in privately-owned enterprises. Commercial banks and joint ventures were already encroaching into the state-owned planned economy under the stewardship of Mikhael Gorbachev and his prime minister, Nikolai Ryzhkov. Their days were numbered.

Meaning of the coup

The idea that the eight party and army veterans who announced an ’emergency situation’ in August 1991 did so in order to prevent capitalist counter-revolution in the ‘USSR’ is totally mistaken. They admitted as much when they said they only wanted a more ‘managed’ capitalist restoration, perhaps along the lines that the Chinese ‘Communist Party’ leadership had begun experimenting with, creating a state capitalist economy.

However, a few members of the leadership of the CWI at that time insisted that the coup attempt should be supported for defending state ownership and planning. Later they modified their position but by the end of that year, they were parting company with the majority.

The CWI members living in Russia at the time had made perfectly clear their opposition to capitalist restoration and to its leading proponents such as Boris Yeltsin. We had been on the barricades in Moscow and in what was known as Leningrad (now St Petersburg).

We had witnessed workers overturning buses to block the way of the tanks in Moscow, the fraternisation of soldiers, the building of barricades in Leningrad and the massing of thousands in Winter Palace Square and at the White House in Moscow.

The approach of the CWI socialists at the time was ‘Down with the coup!’ ‘No to the capitalist market’, ‘Yes to workers’ democracy and genuine socialism!’. We warned of the dangers that, as already seen in central and eastern Europe, pro-capitalist elements would try to exploit workers’ anger and demands in order to open the way to capitalist restoration.

Eyewitness reports were carried in Militant and other publications and we maintained our warnings of what capitalism would mean. We pointed to the inevitable re-eruption of national conflicts, as very soon witnessed in Chechnya, Georgia, Ukraine, the Caucasus.

The aftermath

Within three years of the attempted coup of 1991, the warnings of the CWI, voiced by Terry Fields in Novokuznetsk, had proved correct.

As the commanding heights of the economy, including the major banks, were marauded by former party bureaucrats now transformed into gangster-capitalists, unemployment rocketed. Inflation reached 2,400% in 1992-93 and, in autumn 1993, Boris Yeltsin was sending tanks against the White House to bombard his own parliament. After the battles that followed that attack in Moscow, at least 147 people, including members of the armed forces, were dead.

Eye-witnesses of these events – part of Boris Yeltsin’s own coup – expressed their anger and shock at a public meeting organised soon afterwards by Workers’ Democracy – the CWI in Russia. In the northern city now known as St Petersburg, more than a hundred people also heard Tony Saunois, Secretary of the CWI, speak of what the return of capitalism – ‘wild capitalism’ – meant for the vast majority of people in the former Soviet Union.

A drastic collapse in the economy had already taken place, life expectancy had plummeted and general poverty rose, while a gang of former party bureaucrats had literally fought their way to the ownership of all the major banks and enterprises with Boris Yeltsin as their ‘protector’. This is what had followed the 1991 ‘August Putsch’, not a rosy future of democracy and plenty for all.

Repercussions

Despite Stalinism having been a grotesque caricature of socialism, its collapse and that of the Soviet Union itself was accompanied by widespread triumphalism on the part of capitalism’s representatives. They gloated that there was now no alternative to their system of private ownership and private profit. It was even famously called “The end of history” by Francis Fukiyama.

All this had serious consequences for the workers’ movement as the right-wing leaders of the unions and the social-democratic and ‘communist’ parties abandoned any talk of socialist alternatives. They failed to explain that what had existed in the former Stalinist states was not socialism. In some cases, organisations that thought they had no future, simply dissolved themselves.

The idea faded that socialism was even a realistic goal. In the 1990s, demands for nationalisation or even state intervention on behalf of workers were rarely heard.

In all the states that emanated from the Soviet Union, years of economic collapse and hardship were followed by a certain recovery from the worst aspects of the 1990s. But if some form of democracy was supposed to accompany the reintroduction of capitalism, illusions were undoubtedly shattered. Most of the former republics of the USSR have nothing but autocratic regimes where elections are rigged and critics in the media and on the streets are silenced.

The new generation that knows nothing of the 1990s may tolerate stability, even dictatorship, for a period if living standards are maintained. But there can be an explosion of anger over some particular injustice and even a widespread movement against authoritarianism.  If life for the majority fails to improve, workers and young people will question and challenge the rule of the self-perpetuating, privileged cliques and super-rich oligarchs.

Perspectives

Today’s autocratic ruler of Russia, Vladimir Putin, who first came to power in 2000, is a direct political descendent of the latter-day dictator, Boris Yeltsin. Last year he blatantly manipulated a change in the constitution to be able to remain in power almost indefinitely.

Putin and the handful of super-rich oligarchs around him have too much to lose if they are forced out. His vicious treatment of bourgeois opposition politician, Alexei Navalny, provoked mass protests especially of young people and big clashes with riot police, in towns and cities across Russia in January of this year. September will see a new, rigged parliamentary election and nothing resolved for the long-suffering people of Russia.

A struggle for basic democratic rights – freedom of speech, assembly, organisation and protest – is needed and free and fair elections. Truly democratic trade unions are vital for renewing workers’ struggles – free from interference by the state or by the oligarch owner-thieves. The re-birth, after generations, of a genuinely socialist mass workers’ party in Russia, and in all the former republics of the USSR, must be fought for. Only then, through struggle against capitalism and all the misery brought with it, can the prospect of a new confederation of genuinely socialist republics open up.

The deep crisis of world capitalism in 2008-9 exposed it as a system that cannot fulfil even the basic needs of the majority of the population. It breeds wars, civil wars, famine and environmental disaster. The even deeper crisis brought on by the Covid pandemic today has exposed all that is rotten in the capitalist system with the rich actually getting richer while millions die.

The ideas of struggle and democratic socialism, as constantly fought for by the CWI, are back on the agenda. Understanding what socialism is, and what it is not, is vital for convincing new generations to fight for an end to capitalism.

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