The former Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, died yesterday. Eulogies have come from many sources, including reactionary defenders of the capitalist system, like Henry Kissinger. But what did Gorbachev really stand for? What was his real ‘legacy’? Below, in a book review article first published in 2017, Peter Taaffe provides a looks at Gorbachev’s life and role.
Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet Union’s last leader, left a truly historical legacy. Aiming to reform bureaucratic rule he helped unleash forces that led to the complete collapse of Stalinism in Russia and eastern Europe. That then fed capitalist globalisation, opening up new markets and cheap labour – and a worldwide propaganda offensive against socialism. Gorbachev: his Life and Times by William Taubman is a comprehensive study of the central player.
Mikhail Gorbachev was the gateman for the capitalist counter-revolution in the former Soviet Union (USSR) which liquidated the last elements of the planned economy, albeit managed and controlled by a bureaucratic, privileged elite. This resulted in an unprecedented collapse of the productive forces – science, technique, and the organisation of labour – and, with this, the living standards of the masses in Russia and the other republics. Indeed, the economic catastrophe of Russia, the 15 republics of the former USSR, and eastern Europe was greater than the capitalist crash and depression of the 1930s.
At the same time, it allowed the world capitalist class to conduct an unprecedented ideological campaign against the ideas of ‘socialism’, collectivism, and an alternative to the selfish profit-driven system. However, Gorbachev did not consciously set out to achieve this end, as this new biography makes clear. It was the consequence of his and others’ attempt at ‘reform’ from the top which unleashed forces from below he could not control and ended in the demise of the system they represented. We lived through the events recounted and some of our comrades, such as Clare Doyle and Rob Jones, witnessed them firsthand, participating in some in Leningrad (now St Petersburg) and Moscow respectively.
The advantage of this impressive 700-page book is that it presents a picture of Gorbachev – and his generation – as he evolved as an intelligent representative of the bureaucratic elite which dominated the USSR. The author William Taubman, however, is a liberal bourgeois academic who quite clearly believes that a planned economy, let alone socialism – the goal of the Russian revolution of 1917 – was a doomed project from the outset and that these events merely confirmed this.
Yet there was nothing inevitable in the way that Stalinism collapsed – and the liquidation of the last remnants of the gains of the Russian revolution, the planned economy. It took a combination of exceptionally favourable circumstances for capitalism, both from a world point of view and within the Soviet Union itself, to re-establish itself. The world bourgeoisie – represented by US presidents Ronald Reagan and George Bush senior, the UK prime minister Margaret Thatcher, and West German chancellor Helmut Kohl – never expected, nor did they desire, the collapse of the Berlin wall and what flowed from this.
From peasant to premier
Gorbachev’s history and evolution had not been particularly remarkable. It was similar to millions who had experienced the terrible vicissitudes of life under Stalinism. His grandfather “welcomed the Russian revolution”, recognising the great step forward for the mass of the peasantry: “It was soviet power that saved us, gave us the land”.
Gorbachev rose from a poor background to become a ‘middle’ peasant, and he commented on the madness of Stalin’s forced collectivisation at a Politburo meeting in 1987: “What enmity collectivisation created! Brother against brother, son against father, through whole families it rolled. The quotas came down from above – so many kulaks [rich peasants] to evict, whether they actually were ‘kulaks’ or not”.
This criminal blunder of Stalin resulted in millions of deaths – similar to the number of victims of war. As Leon Trotsky argued at the time, this crippled agricultural output and left a terrible, lasting legacy. This is a country that was previously looked on as the ‘breadbasket of Europe’. Trotsky and the Left Opposition opposed forced collectivisation. Of course, Gorbachev did not mention this.
However, it is clear that he and his fellow students under the ‘thaw’, the relative loosening of control by the bureaucracy which followed the death of Stalin, had access to some of Trotsky’s works and discussed his ideas. Gorbachev added that, had they been discovered by the KGB, “serious consequences” would have resulted, probably ending in arrest if not execution. His family, like millions of others, had suffered from Stalin’s arbitrary system. His grandfather was arrested in the great purge of 1937, leaving a lasting impression on Gorbachev.
Nevertheless, despite his grandfather’s treatment, he remained a believer in Stalin, who allegedly remained ignorant: “Stalin doesn’t know what the organs of the secret police were up to”. This dual consciousness, a belief that the great ‘father’ of the nation did not know what was going on in his name, was the myth that was entertained by millions of the victims of Stalinism. It only began to be dispelled after Nikita Khrushchev’s revelations of Stalin’s crimes in 1956.
This was reinforced by the fact that Gorbachev was taken into the charmed circle of the bureaucracy. Taubman writes: “Gorbachev remained silent. Even after he became a high party official in Stavropol, even when he was a member of the party Central Committee, even after he became party general secretary and then president of the USSR, even after he fiercely condemned Stalin and Stalinism, Gorbachev never asked to see the records of his grandfather’s arrest and interrogation until 1991, at the time of the attempted coup against him. Even after he became ‘the nation’s leading de-Staliniser’, he admits: ‘I couldn’t cross some sort of psychological barrier’.”
This illustrates the criminal role of Stalinism in blotting out the collective memory of the Russian working class – through the one-sided civil war of the purges in the 1930s. There were not just ‘blank spots’. For over 50 years the collective experience of the working class and independent action was prevented by Stalinist terror with torture chambers, gulags, arbitrary arrest, imprisonment and murder. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn railed against the 1930s terror in his books but nowhere does he or most other authors or historians even mention that the main people accused in the Moscow trials were Trotsky, his son Leon Sedov and, collectively, their international revolutionary organisation, the International Left Opposition.
This was not an accident on Stalin’s part. He well understood that on the first day of revolt the masses would turn towards the heroic figures connected to the Russian revolution and their successors. Therefore it was necessary, above all, to seek to exterminate them and to create a river of blood between the masses and the Trotskyists. Even those who compromised with Stalin and the bureaucracy in their rise to power, such as Grigory Zinoviev, could be figures around which the masses might rally in the first instance and had to be wiped out.
This river of blood separating the heroic traditions and ideas of genuine Bolshevism from those of Stalinism made it doubly difficult for the Russian masses to create independent class organisations and leaders around which a movement could be built. It is true that the anti-Stalinist Hungarian revolution of 1956 did develop along the classical lines predicted by Trotsky for Russia: a political revolution with the emergence of independent working-class organisations, workers’ committees, the right of recall, etc.
This was remarkable given the fact that, prior to the revolution, the Hungarian working class had been kept in the dark by the fascist regime of Miklós Horthy, then by the repressive organisations of the Stalinists after the second world war. In light of this experience, it was probably correct to hope that the Russian workers and those in the other republics would emulate the Hungarian masses once the revolt against Stalinism broke out.
However, timescale plays a key role in politics. If a moment is not seized in time, the situation may not stay the same and can actually regress. This is what happened in eastern Europe and even more so in Russia. Given the delay in the world revolution, combined with the fact that capitalism was still going ahead economically in the 1980s – even if in a niggardly fashion compared to the past – it appeared as an attractive alternative to the stultifying Stalinist regimes.
In Poland, General Jaruzelski had snuffed out the Solidarity workers’ movement which contained elements of the programme for workers’ democracy in democratic workers’ states but, ultimately, reinforced a pro-capitalist movement. This had been done not through the Stalinist party apparatus, which was completely discredited in the eyes of the Polish population, but by the military. But this unprecedented military solution and the repression that went with it could not hold. Moreover, it prepared the ground for an explosion of mass illusions in capitalism.
In Russia, no real independent working-class movement from below developed either at this stage or later. Discontent was channeled through the party and the state – in practice, one and the same thing. In the 1950s and 1960s, there had been some isolated workers’ uprisings – Novocherkassk in 1962, for instance – but the repression was so great that all initiatives from below were nipped in the bud by the Stalinist state apparatus, particularly the KGB. Consequently, the working class and broad masses did not develop as a class ‘in itself’, ready to draw the necessary conclusions and take political and organisational initiatives.
Additionally, the repression meant that genuine Marxism was not able to take root and build a sufficient base in advance, to prepare for the masses entering the political arena and then to propose the necessary measures of control and management to overthrow the bureaucracy and introduce a democratic workers’ state. Moreover, the speed of the capitalist counter-revolution did not allow the full opportunity to assemble a base, a cadre, able to suggest a programme and organisation capable of reflecting the class opposition that was developing.
Splits in the bureaucracy
Gorbachev did not lead but was pushed by different and often contradictory pressures and forces. Taubman reveals: “Gorbachev believed in socialism… Stalin’s crimes… mocked Marxist ideals, [and] Gorbachev thought Soviet socialism could be saved by being ‘reformed’… Gorbachev believed in Lenin long after that”. Gorbachev wrote after he was removed from power in 2006: “I trusted him then and I still do”. Close acquaintances also recalled that he read all 55 volumes of Lenin’s works!
Even significant, ‘enlightened’ sections of the bureaucracy were not clear on what route to take, and what forces could be used to effect change. The bourgeois professor Taubman irritatingly seeks to debunk and dismiss Lenin’s significance. Yet Gorbachev also defended the Russian revolution, identifying “personally with Lenin… ‘Catastrophe of the country was banging at the doors and windows’, he says, when Lenin seized power in October 1917”. He measured himself against Lenin, “a great man who played a huge role in the history of humanity”.
Trotsky had carefully analysed the political divisions within the bureaucratic layer of ‘Soviet’ society in the 1930s. They were broadly divided then into three layers. One still appeared secretly to look back to Lenin and to workers’ democracy. Another, the majority, took a ‘centrist’ position defending the planned economy, albeit bureaucratically. There was also a layer that even then looked towards a return to capitalism. Trotsky added that the real danger of capitalist restoration lay not so much in armed intervention but in cheap goods in the baggage train of an invading army.
Something similar took place once the Berlin wall fell and the masses in eastern Europe and Russia contrasted their shortages and shoddy goods with what was available in the west. By the time Gorbachev came to power in 1985 the overwhelming majority of this bureaucracy was vacillating. Some sought reforms from the top but, when this failed, ultimately supported the move towards the market, capitalism. No layer of the bureaucracy wished to go back to the original aims of the Russian revolution: workers’ democracy, etc.
They had colossal weight in society. Gorbachev revealed that there were 20 million ‘communists’ ruling over 100 million state officials – the summits of which were the ruling state bureaucracy. Although sections of the bureaucracy opposed Gorbachev’s reforms, this was mainly on the grounds that he was proceeding too quickly and threatened to open the floodgates leading to the complete collapse of the system. As we will see, the bureaucratic plotters against Gorbachev in August 1991 did not have a working alternative to the return to capitalism.
In the time when it was a question of imitating and borrowing from the advanced industrial capitalist countries – roughly from the period under Stalin to the beginning of Leonid Brezhnev’s tenure in the 1960s – the bureaucracy played a relatively progressive role. Russia advanced from the India of western Europe to the second industrial nation of the world – only behind the US in its economic, scientific, and industrial progress. This was the period when Khrushchev promised not only to catch up with but overtake the capitalist USA. Moreover, Russia did take the lead in space travel initially with the historic flight of Yuri Gagarin in 1961.
Stalinism could play a role in the extensive development of the productive forces but not in intensive production – harnessing, for instance, the new information technology revolution that was developing in the late 1970s and early 1980s. This would only have been possible by marrying together workers’ democracy with the planned economy.
The USSR was effectively governed by six sick leaders, typified by the ailing Brezhnev and the ancient Stalinist bureaucrats who surrounded him. How could a handful of people in Moscow, with millions of prices for commodities to be set, control the economy in this way? Under capitalism, the issue of price is settled by competition, which takes place even where there is highly monopolised ownership of industry, and the limits of the market. At the same time, it is a blind system that manifests itself in periodic eruptions, economic crises, etc.
Even in a planned economy, it is impossible to achieve this task by dicktat or fiat. Only through workers’ democracy at all levels of society – drawing up the plan and establishing the necessary coefficients between different sectors of production, implementing and checking them – is it possible to have full and harmonious development of the productive forces.
A plethora of statistics contained in this book indicates the problems arising from stultifying bureaucratic control, which squarely confronted Gorbachev when he took over the levers of power. He concluded that the Soviet Union was “clearly losing the competition with its historic capitalist rivals”, economically, technologically, and in living standards. During his many visits to the west, he was taken aback at just how wide the gap between the system over which he presided and capitalism.
Consequently, by 1988 the masses in Poland were out on the streets greeting Thatcher who was, with Reagan, the fountainhead of the capitalist neoliberal counter-revolution worldwide. Undoubtedly, some of the same sentiments were already present in Russia by the time of Gorbachev’s accession to power. However, Gorbachev appeared to be different and was – in some respects – with his policies of glasnost (openness) and perestroika (restructuring). Initially, this allowed him to connect with ordinary working-class people in Russia and on these foreign visits.
‘Anti-communism’ seemed to be washed away merely by Gorbachev’s presence in a crowd in the west. This was partly because he struck a sympathetic note in his agitation for ‘peace’ and a lessening of tension between the ‘great powers’. The terrible nuclear meltdown of the Chernobyl plant in Ukraine in 1986 also played its part and had a profound effect on Gorbachev by showing just how devastating a nuclear war would be. He concluded: “In the nuclear age, all the earth is in one boat”.
However, Gorbachev unconsciously unleashed multiple crises soon after he came to power, in the economic and social spheres but also with the stored problem of the nationalities. The state which came out of the Russian revolution had an admirable record on the national question. As is well known, the Bolsheviks gave independence to Finland in 1918.
Even the state apparatus under Stalin sometimes played a contradictory role. On the one hand, it was relatively progressive in the formation and development of new nationalities out of tribes and scattered peoples, sometimes with their own alphabet for the first time. On the other, those nationalities that had opposed the brutal plans of Stalin and his apparatus were mercilessly punished and transported, sometimes thousands of miles away from their native homeland. With the lifting of outright Stalinist terror, a number of long-suppressed national questions bubbled to the surface: in the Baltic states (Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia), and even resulting in a bloody war and continual conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh.
An arcane discussion took place within the ruling group which revealed just how far removed they were from Lenin’s views and those of the Bolsheviks on the issue of a voluntary democratic confederation, which the USSR was initially. The false Stalinist ‘unity’ of 15 ‘republics’ merely disguised the crushing domination of the centralised Moscow bureaucracy. The past crimes against non-Russian nationalities made it impossible to retain the loyalty and support of all oppressed peoples.
The consequences of this are still felt today – for instance, in the lingering, often bloody national conflicts in what are often now separate countries, such as Ukraine. Gorbachev wanted to maintain some kind of federation whereas Boris Yeltsin proposed a more limited, capitalist Commonwealth of Independent States. Both proved unworkable with the centrifugal disintegration of the former USSR – inevitable unless it had been placed on a democratic and socialist basis.
It is significant that Vladimir Putin considers the collapse of the USSR as the greatest “geopolitical disaster of the 20th century”. Not the abolition of the gains of the October revolution with the ending of the planned economy, which enormously depressed the living standards and conditions of the Russian masses. For him, that was secondary to the prestige and power of the centralised ex-Stalinist bureaucracy.
The same criminal approach toward the future of the mass of the population was evident in the period of the USSR’s disintegration between 1989 and 1992, on which this book gives a lot of useful information. In its broad outline, and even in some important details, it completely confirms the analysis we made through our international organisation, the Committee for a Workers’ International, and Militant (now the Socialist Party).
Gorbachev was besieged by the hardliners who wished to maintain the status quo and hid behind the Sovetskaya Rossiya political newspaper, fronted by Nina Andreyeva but, in reality, by leading anti-Gorbachev figure Yegor Ligachev. The pro-market forces, including big sections of the bureaucracy, became bolder. Nothing seemed to be working, as Gorbachev later admitted: “We have made a mess of socialism”. What he was really presiding over was not socialism but the remnants of a disintegrating Stalinist regime.
What is astonishing is that none of the main players in the drama that was about to unfold with the collapse of the Berlin wall had the slightest inkling of what was coming. (While Nancy Reagan, wife of the US president, consulted her astrologer on the precise moment at which an important arms treaty was to be signed!) At the same time, international capitalism well understood the situation, as the US ambassador to Russia commented: “In sum, the Soviet Union has, in effect, declared the bankruptcy of its system, and just as with a corporation which has sought the protection of Chapter 11 [bankruptcy clause] there’s no turning back”.
Gorbachev got a very warm welcome when he visited the British Queen, whose grandfather’s cousin was Tsar Nicholas II – shot in 1918 so that he could not provide a rallying point for the Russian capitalist counter-revolution. The main place Gorbachev visited, however, was West Germany, in June 1989, where young people were cheering “in solidarity with Soviet reforms”.
The fear of the West German capitalists of the impending destabilisation was indicated by Kohl: “No one should poke a stick into an anthill disrupting the process of building trust between west and east. The consequences could be absolutely unpredictable”. He added: “I’m not interested in destabilising the situation in the GDR [German Democratic Republic – Stalinist East Germany]”. Gorbachev and his regime were at the mercy of events rather than in control of them. When he had visited China earlier in the year, the son of Deng Xiaoping confided to a reporter: “Gorbachev is an idiot”.
At this stage, the situation was entirely different in the then economically less-developed China. The Maoist/Stalinist regime still had a base and a certain room for further manoeuvre. The later bloody suppression of the revolt in Tiananmen Square and the subsequent crackdown, combined with the significant opening towards the market over a period, headed off mass movements in China. This approach could not work in the more developed economies of eastern Europe and Russia.
As part of glasnost, a discussion had taken place on the Hungarian events of 1956. Gorbachev’s regime concluded that it did not constitute a ‘counter-revolutionary movement’ but was a genuine popular uprising. In fact, both Hungary and Austria played a key role in the collapse of Stalinism in 1989, when the electrified barbed wire between the countries had been dismantled. This permitted thousands to swarm over to the West German embassy in Prague until they were allowed to flee across East Germany to the western border. Once the Berlin wall had collapsed, nine million people poured from East Germany into the west.
Most went to have a look and then returned – western governments were in favour of them going back! Former British prime minister Edward Heath declared: “Naturally, we expressed our support of German reunification because we knew it would never happen”. Thatcher, fearing a reconstituted, powerful united Germany, reacted with the same hostility to German reunification. Kohl was equally cool, proposing the “aim of a confederation, that is a federal order in Germany”. However, he too thought: “It would take five to ten years to achieve German unity”.
It was the demands of the masses that sped up and pushed the process for unification, changing Kohl’s position. In his own words: “If we don’t take the Deutschmark to them they will come to the Deutschmark”. In other words, millions of East Germans were in danger of pouring over in a disorderly fashion, resulting in the complete dislocation if not economic collapse of West Germany itself.
We explained this process and supported the progressive demands for an increase in living standards while completely opposing the neocolonial takeover of East Germany and the dismantling of what remained of the planned economy. We proposed the idea of democratic control and workers’ management of the state sector linked to the socialist transformation of both east and west.
The events in Germany posed a serious test for socialist and Marxist forces. Many, such as the International Socialist Tendency (the SWP in Britain and their German co-thinkers) failed the test because they worked on the basis of a false theory. To them, with their theory of ‘state capitalism’, Russia, Eastern Europe and East Germany did not represent an advance on capitalism. This led them to the conclusion that nothing fundamental had taken place! It was mainly, in the words of their main theoretician the late Tony Cliff, just a “sideways move”. They were, therefore, ‘neutral’ between East and West Germany.
Lessons for a new generation
In Russia, the hardliners made one last desperate attempt to turn back the wheel of history by staging a farcical ‘coup’ in August 1991. Some reviewers have criticised Taubman for not spending more time on the details of what happened. Yet the organisers of this plot, an assortment of Stalinist bureaucrats and washed-up KGB military chiefs, ran for cover at the first ‘whiff of grapeshot’. They were akin to the gaggle of Greek colonels and a handful of Cypriot fascists, led by the tin-pot fascist Nikos Sampson, who tried to organise a coup in Cyprus in July 1974 but called it off when they met resistance, one of their number concluding: “We are ridiculous!”
Some of the Russian plotters were arrested and put on trial, others killed themselves. Gorbachev was further discredited and compelled to give way to Yeltsin, who proceeded with others to return Russia to brutal capitalism. The rest is history. The people of the USSR subsequently paid a terrible price through the massive ratcheting up of poverty, wars, and ethnic strife. We have analysed the results of this gangster capitalism many times.
Gorbachev was initially lionised by the capitalist west, receiving countless awards including the Nobel Peace Prize. He converted to ‘social democracy’ – just as it was being completely discredited in Europe and worldwide. This was particularly the case for his new ‘friend’ Felipe Gonzales, former leader of the ‘Socialist’ Party of Spain (PSOE). Gorbachev even stood in a Russian presidential election as a social democrat, receiving less than 1% of the vote!
William Taubman’s book, although lengthy, is well worth reading, if only to remind the new generation of those tumultuous events and to learn the lessons. The most important of these is the need for workers’ democracy within the workers’ organisations. The bureaucratism that existed and which eventually strangled the Russian revolution originally arose through its isolation and the low level of culture. But today, even in developed societies like Britain, the tendency towards control from the top by conservative, privileged officialdom exists inside the trade unions. There would be a big danger of bureaucratism even if we were to establish a workers’ state in Britain unless there is democratic control at all levels.
To the superficial observer, Gorbachev seemed to promise so much in opening the doors to a new era, holding out the possibility of refounding the economy on ‘democratic’ lines. Ultimately, however, he was a product of Stalinism who, despite his original intentions, led to the destruction of the planned economy. The late Fidel Castro described this collapse as the equivalent of “the sun suddenly disappearing”. It was not quite the sun. It had many deformations inherited from the old society. Nonetheless, it indicated what was possible in the realm of planning, science, and the development of the economy. It will take a new generation to base itself correctly on the conquests of the past and create a new democratic workers’ state, not least in Russia, leading to a world socialist federation.