Mikhail Gorbachev, who has died at the age of 91, was the last president of the Soviet Union from 1985 until 1991, and was also general secretary of the 20 million-strong ruling Communist Party. Extensive obituaries in the capitalist press have extolled the 1990 Nobel Peace Prize winner’s advocacy of democracy, world peace, and an end to communism.
But, as Socialist Party political secretary Peter Taaffe explained when reviewing a biography of Gorbachev, the last president of the USSR became “the gateman for the capitalist counter-revolution in the former Soviet Union”. As Gorbachev put it in his autobiography, he was both “a product of the nomenklatura (the party elite) and at the same time its gravedigger”.
After decades of bureaucratic mismanagement, the so-called Soviet system, in which there was no workers’ management and control, was grinding to a halt when Gorbachev became leader. But he was utopian in imagining that new life could be breathed into the state-owned planned economy without a political revolution from below which would throw off the parasitic bureaucracy.
In his search for a way to overcome sclerosis that had set in, Gorbachev experimented with policies of ‘openness’ (Glasnost) and ‘restructuring’ (Perestroika) but without success. He alternately lifted the lid of the pressure cooker and closed it again.
Workers and bureaucrats
At the beginning of the 1990s, the economy was in free fall. Near-empty shops were encircled by massive queues of people holding coupons for sugar, eggs, and sausages. Toilet paper was a luxury. The value of the rouble was plummeting. Young pro-capitalist economists began to push for a rapid ‘transition to the market’ and ‘shock therapy’.
Marxists in the Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI) warned that the introduction of capitalism would bring not prosperity and democracy, but economic collapse, hyperinflation, and dictatorship. Workers preferred to believe otherwise. History was to show that the predictions of the CWI were tragically borne out and that the capitalist states borne out of the USSR were unstable and, significantly, generally saw their populations fall.
Workers, as they turned against the ruling bureaucracy, including taking strike action in major workplaces, turned against Gorbachev. Abroad he was seen as the great reformer; at home, he was popular with many, to begin with, but came to be seen as weak and indecisive.
Without access to information about the real situation in the capitalist countries, and looking for a better life, some Russian workers even admired British prime minister Margaret Thatcher. Compared with the vacillator Gorbachev, she appeared to get on with the job, whatever it was! They were unaware how hated she was in Britain for her callous treatment of striking miners and the Liverpool councillors, as well as her attempt to impose an iniquitous poll tax on millions of working people.
By June 1991, Boris Yeltsin had been elected president of the Russian Federation promising big democratic and economic reforms. Article Six of the Soviet Union’s election law was changed to allow parties other than the Communist Party to contest. There was a churning going on across the Soviet Union.
On 21 August that year, it was Yeltsin who appeared as the saviour of democracy when an attempted coup against Gorbachev’s rule was defeated, and the president himself was ‘rescued’ from his holiday home in Crimea.
The death knell of the USSR was tolled. The republics of the USSR began to peel away declaring their ‘sovereignty’ or independence. The first was Ukraine on 23 August; last was Kazakhstan on 16 December. The Baltics had already left the USSR after violent clashes earlier in the year in which troops had killed peaceful protesters both in Vilnius and in Riga.
Just days after the failed coup in Moscow, the Communist Party of the Soviet Union was outlawed in the Russian Federation. Gorbachev spent the rest of 1991 trying to shore up the formation of a ‘Commonwealth’ of Independent States’. A CIS was established in name but meant little in practice.
By the end of 1991, the Soviet Union was no more. Mikhail Gorbachev announced on 25 December in a somber television broadcast the official dissolution of the USSR and was unceremoniously evicted from the Kremlin just two days later. (See ’30 years since the end of the USSR’ at socialistworld.net)
The re-establishment of capitalism across the former USSR was violent. It involved vicious battles, even shootouts on the streets. Representatives of the old bureaucracy used their positions to grab the banks and enterprises. The oligarchs of today owe their wealth and privileges to the gangsters of yesterday, not least today’s president Putin, who surrounded himself with KGB faithfuls.
Putin has lent faint praise to Mikhail Gorbachev. Elsewhere, however, Gorbachev continues to be seen as one of the great peacemakers of all time, and not without some justification.
From the time he became party chairman in 1985, Gorbachev had been planning the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan where thousands of soldiers were perishing. This was done in 1989.
By 1989 Gorbachev was making clear his support for the movements against the Stalinist regimes of Eastern Europe and later, for German reunification. Since 1991 Gorbachev remained in Russia with little media attention on him. His relationship with Putin has always been strained, not least since Putin blames Gorbachev for the breakup of the Soviet Union. While the capitalist press misuses the word empire to describe the vast voluntary federation of workers’ states established in 1922, Putin appears to be aiming to reestablish Russia’s power throughout the region.
As his illness worsened, Gorbachev saw in Ukraine all his efforts to end the ‘cold war’ and eliminate the possibility of a nuclear confrontation trampled on by Vladimir Putin. Gorbachev’s wife, Larissa, who died in 1999, was from a Ukrainian family. One of his own grandparents was from the country and he himself had strong ties with its culture and literature. He, like the majority of Russians, welcomed the return of Crimea in 2014 but has stayed publicly silent on the tragic events of the last six months.
Gorbachev had no clear idea of how to prevent the collapse of the vast federation of republics, still known as the Soviet Union. The sclerosis that had set in could only be remedied, as Leon Trotsky had explained, by a political revolution carried through by the working class. A party was needed to lead such a movement. Under the stifling grip of Stalin’s regime and successive governments, no such movement was able to develop.
All the lessons of the history of the USSR need to be drawn out for a new generation of youth and class fighters. The death of its last president can be a trigger for renewed interest within its former borders in the lessons to be learned from its history of the Soviet Union as opposition to oligarchic capitalism and to war inevitably grow. Beyond its borders, the alarming world situation that confronts a new generation of workers and young people, demands a thoroughgoing Marxist analysis and a determination to build genuine socialist organisations internationally.
- See also ‘Gorbachev: An accidental architect of world change’ at socialistworld.net