Polemics on the Soviet Coup

Robertsonites in Denial

Last summer comrade Marc D., a Montreal sympathizer of the International Communist League, was won to the program of the Bolshevik Tendency. A pivotal question was the August 1991 Soviet coup. Comrade Marc, whose lengthy analysis of the situation in Quebec appeared in Spartacist Canada (Summer 1992), is a former cadre of Ernest Mandel's United Secretariat. Reprinted below is a written exchange he had with two members of the ICL.

Trotskyist League of Canada
23 August 1992

Dear Marc,

We mutually agreed that the best way to continue our discussion is in written form. The central issue, of course, is the Russian Question....

For our part, the essence of the Russian Question is unconditional defense of the dictatorship of the proletariat wherever it exists. In other words, we defend the proletarian property forms which emerged from the Great October Revolution and from the post–war social transformations in Eastern Europe and the revolutions in China, Cuba and Vietnam. The Russian Question embodies the perspective of revolutionary struggle against our own ruling class because our goal is the destruction of the rule of capital and the inauguration of the rule of the working class. Some time ago you conceded that our tendency had been right in our opposition toward counterrevolutionary Polish Solidarnosc in 1981, and in hailing the Soviet Red Army in Afghanistan. Each of these cases poses fundamentally our historic legacy on the Russian Question, a result of our fight to put the Bolshevik program first, to be, in Cannon's words, "the party of the Russian Revolution."

Your new position that the Soviet state was transformed into a (nascent) capitalist state as of August 1991, in common with the Bolshevik Tendency, effectively writes off the Soviet proletariat as a force against counterrevolution. As we noted at the time, for the BT this became an opportunity to finally wash their hands of the Soviet Union—something they have longed to do for many years. This is a difference of program and perspective, not of empirical "assessment."

Central to our attitude to the events of last August is the Trotskyist understanding of the nature of the Stalinist bureaucracy in relation to the workers' state. As Trotsky wrote in his 1933 essay, "The Class Nature of the Soviet State,"

"A real civil war would develop not between the bureaucracy and the resurgent proletariat, but between the proletariat and the active forces of counterrevolution. In the event of an open conflict between the two mass camps, there cannot even be talk of the bureaucracy playing an independent role. Its polar flanks would be flung to the different sides of the barricade."

If there was a chance for political revolution arising out of the events in Moscow last year this did not lie in the prospect of a wing of the bureaucracy "impelling" the working class into action against Yeltsin. No—the opening of the political revolution depended on the entry of even a few thousand workers into struggle against the Yeltsinite mobs. This would have split the bureaucracy into pro– and anti–capitalist wings. And this whole prospect was the last thing the coup plotters wanted.

You also asserted that the ICL "abstained" in the events of last August, suggesting that our tendency was "neutral" on the question of Yeltsin's restorationist countercoup. At the time we wrote that a call on the Moscow workers was in order to sweep away the rabble manning the Yeltsin barricades and to drive back the counterrevolution. Hardly neutral or abstentionist! Our comrades distributed tens of thousands of leaflets with this firm position to workers in Moscow, Leningrad and elsewhere in the weeks immediately following Yeltsin's coup. It would not have taken much; several thousand workers from one factory could have done the job. If the perspective our comrades fought for had in fact been realized, this would have been the beginning of the political revolution, which is exactly why the putschists told the workers to stay in their factories.

In contrast the BT saw the Soviet proletariat only as "confused and demoralized by years of Stalinist betrayal." Does this not smack of the opportunist who habitually blames the working class for his own betrayals and cowardice? BT's cynical after–the–fact call for military support to the ineffectual coup exposes their utter defeatism over the capacity and will of the Soviet proletariat to be mobilized against counterrevolution. More generally it exposes their lack of faith in the working class as the agent of revolution, classic political pessimism which is at the heart of opportunism.

As we wrote:

"the coup plotters were not simply 'irresolute'; they did not want to unleash the forces that could have defeated the more extreme counterrevolutionaries, for that could have led to a civil war if the Yeltsinites really fought back."

Under these conditions a military bloc would certainly have been in order with those wings of the bureaucracy that were willing to fight. But in the absence of such a mobilization, this pro–perestroika faction saw its role only in terms of jockeying for the same "market" as Yeltsin, namely the franchise of U.S. imperialism, and the domestic counterrevolutionaries, including Yeltsin himself.

It is therefore no wonder that the BT has written off the Soviet Union as already capitalist. The August coup was in fact the last gasp of Stalinism and, from our perspective, your support for the BT's position on this question reflects your failure to make a break with the equation common to the USec throughout its wildly gyrating history: the Stalinist bureaucratic caste equals the workers state. In viewing the Stalinist bureaucracy, and not the proletariat, as the key to spiking the counterrevolutionary drive last August, your position strikes us as utopian and the worst possible form of abstention.

As we wrote in our polemic against the BT (Workers Vanguard No. 535, 27 September 1991):

"Today we urgently seek to mobilize the Soviet proletariat and the working class internationally against the forces of capitalist counterrevolution that are assiduously dismantling every gain of the world's first workers State. The BT, which has other fish to fry in alien class milieus, offers its belated sympathies to the corpse of the Kremlin Stalinists and writes off the Soviet Union as a lost cause."

We have called on the Soviet workers to take up the fight to smash Yeltsin, Kravchuk and the other reactionary regimes. In the current issue of Workers Vanguard we point to the "still multinational Soviet Army," which, for Marxists, is the core of the state. Clearly the situation is extremely grave. If the present lack of resistance to the introduction of capitalism persists on the part of the working class in Russia and the former Soviet republics, and if the Russian Government succeeds in decisively subordinating the armed forces nominally under its command to its counterrevolutionary course, the result will be the destruction of the workers state. But it is wrong to concede that the Soviet workers state is dead and gone before this is an accomplished and irreversible fact, when, as you have agreed, a "decisive showdown" has yet to take place....

Communist greetings,
Marie H. and Andrew R.

Reply to Trotskyist League
August 28,1992

Dear Marie and Andrew,

I have had the opportunity to carefully consider your comments and reflect on past discussions with both yourselves and other comrades of the Trotskyist League....While I appreciate a good display of tub thumping and revolutionary flag–waving as much as the next person, it is not enough to assert that you claim revolutionary leadership because you are "the party of the Russian revolution." You actually have to be such a party in order to make such assertions more than empty claims, and you have to recognize existing reality before you can act upon it and seek to lead those who would transform it.

The question of the Soviet Union poses these issues point blank. Has anything fundamental occurred since the Stalin bureaucracy gained ascendancy over sixty years ago, or do current developments still roughly correspond to those outlined by Trotsky in The Revolution Betrayed, [In] Defense of Marxism, etc.? Does a Stalinist bureaucracy still command and defend, in its own treacherous, incompetent manner the "dictatorship of the proletariat," that is a degenerated workers' state and the collective social property forms upon which it rests, or has that which we knew as the Soviet Union ceased to exist under the blows of a victorious capitalist counterrevolution? Does the counterrevolution lie ahead of us, or behind us already, and what then are the immediate perspectives for the revolutionary workers' movement?

Previous discussion as well as your latest arguments, expressed in your letter, would lead you to conclude that no, nothing fundamental has occurred in the Soviet Union, and yes, the Soviet Union still exists as a degenerated workers' state even if the Stalinist apparatus has been liquidated, and power has "nominally" passed into the hands of capitalist restorationists.

The Stalinist "coup plotters" of August 1991 were not Stalinists at all, we were informed, but out and out counterrevolutionaries, a pro–perestroika faction jockeying for the franchise of U.S. imperialism and domestic counterrevolution, and even Yeltsin himself. These irresolute and half–hearted counterrevolutionaries did not want to mobilize the proletariat against counterrevolution, "they did not want to unleash the forces that could have defeated the more extreme counterrevolutionaries." The whole world has turned topsy–turvy. This is third period Spartacism at its finest. I would suggest that after years of labelling your political adversaries, including those on the left, as "counterrevolutionaries," the term has lost all meaning. Now half–hearted and moderate "counterrevolutionaries" are condemned for not mobilising the proletariat against counterrevolution, against "the more extreme" counterrevolutionary Yeltsinites.

The "party of the Russian Revolution" appears not to have assimilated the lessons of this revolution, in particular the chapter dealing with the struggle against the counterrevolutionary Kornilovists. Why would counterrevolutionaries seek to mobilize anyone against counterrevolution? Why didn't the moderate counterrevolutionaries simply unite with the more extreme counterrevolutionary Yeltsinites against a confused, demoralized and leaderless proletariat? And what is wrong with being neutral and abstentionist in the struggle between two counterrevolutionary camps? This piece of fiction, this after the fact rationalization does not hold up to any serious examination.

World imperialism was certainly unaware that its fortunes were favored no matter which counterrevolutionary camp gained the upper hand. The heroes of the stock exchange panicked, as they are wont to do, and imperialism actively intervened to tip the balance in favor of the "more extreme" counterrevolutionaries. And what sense can be made of the latest WV [7 August 1992] assertion that in August 1991 the forces of counterrevolution led by Yeltsin gained ascendancy? If both struggling camps are counterrevolutionary, the ascendancy of counterrevolution is virtually assured, unless the proletariat mobilizes independently, and therewith the fate of the workers' state. If the "coup plotters" represented the pro–capitalist wing of the Stalinist bureaucracy, what became of the "anti–capitalist wing"? Are they buried somewhere within the "core" of the Soviet state, awaiting the signal for the revolutionary mobilization against counterrevolution?

There is a connection, though perhaps not immediately apparent, between "hailing" various Stalinist initiatives, hailing the Red Army, soft–pedalling Jaruzelski, eulogizing Andropov, in a word cutting the corners on program in your series of maneuvers and gyrations, while most recently condemning those Stalinist functionaries who rose in a hesitant, half–hearted, incompetent attempt to apply the brakes to the outright liquidation of the remains of the October revolution, this "gang of eight who couldn't shoot straight," as nothing more than simple second–rate Yeltsinite counterrevolutionaries. Believing your own hype expressed so admirably in polemics with the BT over the Andropov brigade, you search for revolutionary virtue in the Stalinist camp. Finding none to match your expectations, you write off Stalinism's last ditch defense against counterrevolution as some Keystone comedy, as some uneventful jockeying for position between two competing brands of counterrevolution, one mild, the other hot. As if the question was, do you want anchovies with that order?

Those feeble, irresolute, uninspiring, treacherous Stalinist bureaucrats are as good as you get, as real as they get, there's no repeat performance scheduled, the show's over, they sang their "swan song," went out with a whimper and no applause. Had the proletariat been mobilized in independent action under a revolutionary leadership, the balance might have been tipped against the "Yeltsinite rabble," and the score might have been settled with the Stalinist usurpers in due course, but that particular opening has come and gone. The working class, it is true, has not yet been subjected to a decisive confrontation, has not yet been dealt a crushing defeat, yet counterrevolution has managed to score a series of victories in the former Soviet bloc in the absence of any direct engagements with the workers' movement and in large measure due to the latter's passivity. The Stalinist apparatus, on the other hand, has been swept away by the counterrevolutionary tide, bourgeois counterrevolutionaries have established and are consolidating their own state machinery, including a repressive apparatus to defend the rule of capital which they are presently introducing. The counterrevolutionaries presently hold the political momentum and thus the political advantage. The workers' movement has not, to date, risen to its feet and struck any serious defensive blows. Such recognition of the decisive turn introduced last August constitutes, by your admission, "the worst possible form of abstention."

Comradely Greetings,
Marc D.