The Last Days of the USSR
Audio of an abbreviated version of this introduction, given at an online public meeting to mark the 30th anniversary of the defeat of the Moscow coup
“The October revolution has been betrayed by the ruling stratum, but not yet overthrown.”
—Leon Trotsky, The Revolution Betrayed, 1937
“The aborted Moscow coup of 19-21 August was so ill-conceived and executed that it almost didn’t happen. Yet it will be remembered as one of the decisive events in the history of the 20th century. The victory of the openly pro-capitalist current around Boris Yeltsin after the coup collapsed shattered the state power created by the October 1917 revolution.”
—International Bolshevik Tendency, “Counterrevolution Triumphs in USSR,” September 1991
Leon Trotsky wrote The Revolution Betrayed, his seminal analysis of the degeneration of the world’s first workers’ state, while in exile, two decades after the revolution he led alongside Vladimir Lenin. The state born out of the Russian Revolution of October 1917 was built on a commitment to expropriating capitalist property in favor of a planned and centralized economy, but its leaders never expected it to survive without the support of revolutionary regimes in more advanced Western countries. The failure of the working class to seize power in the citadels of advanced capitalism during the revolutionary upsurge following the First World War allowed for the growth of a bureaucratic caste under Joseph Stalin—a petty-bourgeois layer which Trotsky, in an earlier article, called a “tumor” feeding off the degenerated workers’ state:
“The frightful difficulties of socialist construction in an isolated and backward country coupled with the false policies of the leadership—which, in the last analysis, also reflects the pressure of backwardness and isolation—have led to the result that the bureaucracy has expropriated the proletariat politically in order to guard its social conquests with its own methods.”
—“The Class Nature of the Soviet State,” 1933
With the illness and then death of Lenin in 1924 and the consolidation of the bureaucracy, a political counterrevolution took place. The most revolutionary and internationalist layers of the Russian proletariat were exhausted and demoralized, and many leading cadres had been killed. After outmaneuvering Trotsky in their internal faction fight, Stalin was able to bring the Bolshevik Party under his control largely by rigging elections to the Thirteenth Party Congress and carrying out the “Lenin Levy,” which flooded the party with an estimated quarter million new but inexperienced members. What remained of soviet democracy was replaced by bureaucratic fiat and appointments engineered from the top down to serve the needs of the ruling caste. Together, these measures effected a shift of power—a change in the people who ruled, the way they ruled and the purposes for which they ruled.
However, Trotsky always rejected the view that this had been a social counterrevolution, i.e., that the Soviet Union had in this process been converted into a capitalist state. Instead, the Stalinist degeneration had produced a contradictory social structure: “The anatomy of society is determined by its economic relations. So long as the forms of property that have been created by the October Revolution are not overthrown, the proletariat remains the ruling class” (Ibid.). Trotsky explained the character of the USSR by anticipating what the tasks of a hypothetical workers’ revolution would be:
“Let us assume first that the Soviet bureaucracy is overthrown by a revolutionary party having all the attributes of the old Bolshevism, enriched moreover by the world experience of the recent period. Such a party would begin with the restoration of democracy in the trade unions and the Soviets. It would be able to, and would have to, restore freedom of Soviet parties. Together with the masses, and at their head, it would carry out a ruthless purgation of the state apparatus. It would abolish ranks and decorations, all kinds of privileges, and would limit inequality in the payment of labor to the life necessities of the economy and the state apparatus. It would give the youth free opportunity to think independently, learn, criticize and grow. It would introduce profound changes in the distribution of the national income in correspondence with the interests and will of the worker and peasant masses. But so far as concerns property relations, the new power would not have to resort to revolutionary measures. It would retain and further develop the experiment of planned economy. After the political revolution—that is, the deposing of the bureaucracy—the proletariat would have to introduce in the economy a series of very important reforms, but not another social revolution.”
—The Revolution Betrayed
Given that capitalism had not yet been restored, there was still much to defend—collectivized property and central planning could be forcibly seized from the Stalinist bureaucracy by a resurgent proletariat and put to use in the construction of a society run in the interests of all. Indeed, communists had a duty to defend the Soviet Union against the threats of capitalist restoration. Trotsky explained that, since the purpose of overthrowing the bureaucracy was key in advancing toward socialism, it was completely out of the question to endorse any pro-capitalist movement to oust the Stalinists:
“We must not lose sight for a single moment of the fact that the question of overthrowing the Soviet bureaucracy is for us subordinate to the question of preserving state property in the means of production in the USSR…”
—In Defense of Marxism, 1939
While accepting that prolonged rule of the bureaucracy and continued isolation of the Soviet state would inevitably lead to capitalist restoration, Trotsky also understood the bureaucracy to be a highly contradictory social layer incapable of acting as an independent agent in a decisive showdown with the forces of counterrevolution:
“A real civil war could develop not between the Stalinist bureaucracy and the resurgent proletariat but between the proletariat and the active forces of the counterrevolution. In the event of an open clash 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. The fate of the subsequent development would be determined, of course, by the outcome of the struggle. The victory of the revolutionary camp, in any case, is conceivable only under the leadership of a proletarian party, which would naturally be raised to power by victory over the counterrevolution.”
—“The Class Nature of the Soviet State”
Trotsky recognized that at least some layers of the bureaucracy would likely attempt to defend the economic system on which their privileges depended against an internal or external threat of capitalist restoration:
“The bureaucracy has not yet created social supports for its dominion in the form of special types of property. It is compelled to defend state property as the source of its power and its income. In this aspect of its activity it still remains a weapon of proletarian dictatorship.”
—The Revolution Betrayed
At a time when revolutionaries, such as Ignace Reiss, were still breaking away from the by-then degenerated Third International and declaring for the Fourth, Trotsky argued that, in the event of an existential threat to the degenerated workers’ state, it may be necessary for these “genuine Bolsheviks” to form a temporary bloc with Stalin against counterrevolution. By 1991, no genuine Bolsheviks were to be found within the bureaucracy, but the requirement for such a defensive bloc remained:
“If tomorrow the bourgeois-fascist grouping, the ‘fraction of Butenko,’ so to speak, should attempt the conquest of power, the ‘fraction of Reiss’ inevitably would align itself on the opposite side of the barricades. Although it would find itself temporarily the ally of Stalin, it would nevertheless defend not the Bonapartist clique but the social base of the USSR, i.e., the property wrenched away from the capitalists and transformed into state property. Should the ‘fraction of Butenko’ prove to be in alliance with Hitler, then the ‘fraction of Reiss’ would defend the U.S.S.R. from military intervention, inside the country as well as on the world arena. Any other course would be a betrayal.
“Although it is thus impermissible to deny in advance the possibility, in strictly defined instances, of a ‘united front’ with the Thermidorian section of the bureaucracy against open attack by capitalist counter-revolution, the chief political task in the U.S.S.R. still remains the overthrow of this same Thermidorian bureaucracy.”
—The Transitional Program, 1938
As Trotsky argued, a bloc with the Stalinists during a moment of counterrevolutionary crisis would be short-lived—a tactical step to buy time to organize a political revolution in which the Soviet working class would wrest power from the Stalinists and reclaim the fruits of the October Revolution.
Trotsky’s projected workers’ political revolution never took place. Instead, Stalinist misrule continued for another half century before the Soviet Union was finally “overthrown” in a social counterrevolution and capitalist rule restored. In the late 1980s, Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika reforms and his accommodation to the fall of the Berlin Wall and encroachment of capitalism behind the “iron curtain” represented a desperate attempt to achieve what was ultimately impossible—retaining the basic structure of the Soviet state while making it acceptable to global capitalism. In the face of increasing public dissatisfaction, the weakness of the Stalinist system was revealed as Gorbachev zig-zagged between pressure from capitalist restorationists and hardline conservatives (traditional Stalinists). Armenia, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania unilaterally declared independence and a New Union Treaty increasing the independent role of the other republics was due to be signed on 20 August 1991.
On 19 August a “gang of eight” Stalinist apparatchiks intervened, attempting to apply the brakes. Vice President Gennady Yanayev, Minister of Defense Dmitry Yazov, KGB Chairman Vladimir Kryuchkov, Prime Minister Valentin Pavlov, Interior Minister Boris Pugo and three other senior Soviet politicians saw the danger that the reforms posed to their own positions and decided to take action. They formed an Emergency Committee, detained Gorbachev in his dacha with communication cut off and, using their influence in the KGB, military and state media, established themselves in Moscow with Yanayev as acting president. The coup would only last three days.
Boris Yeltsin, then President of the Russian Republic, saw his chance and pounced with a counter-coup. Easily evading half-hearted attempts to arrest him, he established an alternative seat of power in the White House (Russian parliament) in Moscow and secured support in the military, the church and among many Russian citizens, some of whom gathered in the street around the White House. Naturally, Yeltsin was supported externally by the imperialist powers, but also by the leaders of Ukraine, Moldova and Estonia. The coupists ordered troops to attack the White House but were met with reluctance from the military. Some tanks eventually made an attempt to clear the crowds, resulting in a confrontation in which three people were killed. Yeltsin called a general strike, which received some support in mines and factories, although the majority of workers in Russia did not take a public stand for either side. Key elements of the military began moving to follow Yeltsin or Gorbachev rather than Yanayev, while others simply stepped back. Recognizing that they had lost the initiative, the coupists sought an audience with Gorbachev, which he refused. Instead, Gorbachev succeeded in communicating with Moscow, denounced the coup and ordered the arrest of the leaders. Significantly, the armed forces of the state complied.
The contradictions of the Stalinist bureaucracy—represented by the openly pro-capitalist restorationist forces behind Yeltsin on one side, and by the hardline Stalinists behind Yanayev on the other, with Gorbachev attempting to balance between them—had resolved themselves with the defeat of the coupists. The old state that contained those contradictions was broken, along with the resolve of the remaining Stalinists. The defeat of the coup thus constituted a social counterrevolution, establishing a new state power committed not to collectivized property but to capitalist restoration.
The Communist Party of the Soviet Union was quickly banned and Yeltsin consolidated support around his position as Russian president. Within a few months, the Soviet Union was broken into its constituent parts—the declaration of its dissolution on 26 December 1991 was little more than an epilogue. “Economic reform” legislation began as early as November, allowing for key aspects of the restoration of capitalism, such as foreign trade and the abolition of price controls, all implemented on the advice of the Harvard Business School. Local officials began to personally expropriate the enterprises they had previously managed on behalf of the state.
We assessed the meaning of the coup and its defeat in a leaflet first published in September 1991:
“Anyone claiming that there was no essential difference between the contending factions would be hard put to explain why the coup leaders decided on such a desperate gamble in the first place. When one faction of the bureaucracy arrests the president, attempts to suppress the leading capitalist restorationists and sends tanks into the streets; when leading members of that faction carry out suicide pacts with their wives and hang themselves when they fail, it is abundantly clear that more is involved than a quibble over tactics.
“The reasons for the coup leaders’ actions are obvious. They represented the Stalinist faction that had the most to lose from a return to capitalism. They saw the aggressiveness of Yeltsin, the growing power of the pro-capitalist nationalists and Gorbachev’s prostration before these forces as a mortal danger to the centralized apparatus upon which their privileges and prestige depended. They acted, if only half-heartedly and at the eleventh hour, to stem the tide.”
—“Counterrevolution Triumphs in USSR”
The IBT took the position that the defeat of the August 1991 coup was the definitive moment marking the end of the degenerated workers’ state and that it was the duty of revolutionaries to bloc militarily with the coupists in their confrontation with the Yeltsinites. We discussed the possibilities and tasks at hand in “Soviet Rubicon & the Left”:
“Even a relatively small revolutionary grouping could have made a great impact during those critical August days, when the weak and vacillating coupists faced Yeltsin’s motley rabble. The weakness and disorganization evident on both sides presented an opportunity for a Trotskyist group committed to preserving nationalized property under the direction of democratic organs of workers’ power. The immediate tactical objective in those first days would have been to organize an assault to disperse the few hundred lightly armed Yeltsinites in and around the Russian White House.
“A determined initiative against the counterrevolutionaries would have won wide support in the working class, who were fed up with perestroika. It would also have been viewed sympathetically by a considerable section of the armed forces, and could have galvanized active support from pro-socialist elements. The floundering grey men running the coup would have had little choice but to accept this ‘help’ even though, carried out in the name of workers power, it would in the end have threatened their interests too. The scattering of the Yeltsinites could have been followed up by a call for representatives from every factory, barracks and working-class housing estate to gather at the White House to create a real, democratic Moscow soviet.”
The end of the USSR was not just a defeat for the Soviet working class but for the oppressed everywhere. The decade that followed was one of capitalist triumphalism in which the idea of “communism” (wrongly identified with Stalinism) was deeply discredited worldwide. Most ostensibly Trotskyist groups moved to the right, capitulating to the hegemonic ideology that there was no viable alternative to capitalism. Many reacted to the bad press ascribed to Leninism by abandoning the task of building an independent revolutionary party, some taking refuge inside social-democratic parties, others sliding toward anarchism or liquidating themselves into the anti-globalization movement.
This trajectory was foreshadowed by the attitude of the left toward the coup and its aftermath. Overwhelmingly capitulating to liberal anti-Sovietism, the left either backed the Yeltsinites on the grounds of “democracy” or remained neutral in the fray under the assumption that both sides were equally bad and the outcome therefore not particularly significant. The latter delusion required asserting either that capitalist restoration was already underway at the time of the coup or (to take the polar opposite view) that the workers’ state remained in place after it.
It was simple, of course, for those organizations adhering to a Third Campist position of “neither Washington nor Moscow,” such as the groups which now form various splinters of the International Socialists (IS) or Britain’s Alliance for Workers Liberty. They had rejected defense of the Soviet Union long before the coup events and could hardly be expected to oppose counterrevolution at the decisive moment in 1991. Tony Cliff’s Socialist Workers’ Party in Britain claimed Yeltsin’s capitalist restoration was a victory for the international working class on the grounds of “democracy.” Socialist Worker of 31 August 1991 declared triumphantly that “Communism has Collapsed,” which was supposedly “a fact that should have every socialist rejoicing.” History has proven them very wrong indeed.
Somewhat harder to comprehend is the response of many ostensibly Trotskyist organizations which claimed to defend the Soviet Union yet which, in the hour of need, decided to focus instead on abstract principles of democracy. The late Ernest Mandel, who led the United Secretariat of the Fourth International (whose current offshoots include Socialist Resistance in Britain, Socialist Action in the US and the leadership of the French NPA), wrote in International Viewpoint (3 February 1992): “The … putschists [Emergency Committee] wanted to severely limit or even suppress the democratic liberties that existed in reality.… This is why the putsch had to be opposed by all means available. And this is why the failure of the putsch should be hailed.”
As we noted in response:
“The working class must defend democratic liberties in capitalist society against all attempts to curtail or suspend them. Yet, the conquests of the October Revolution weighed far heavier than bourgeois democracy in the scales of human progress. The abolition of private property over one sixth of the earth’s surface and the replacement of market anarchy by economic planning were social foundations upon which democracy could become real for the millions who do not own factories, banks or media empires. The hypocritical ‘democratic’ imperialists hated the Stalinists not because they disenfranchised the Soviet workers, but because their rule depended on the survival of the gains won by the Russian proletariat in 1917.”
—“Soviet Rubicon & the Left”
In order to justify taking a position on the wrong side of the barricades, Mandel incorrectly asserted that Yeltsin merely “represents a faction in the top levels of the nomenklatura” (Ibid.) and drew a false equivalence between Yanayev, Gorbachev and Yeltsin in which all wings of the bureaucracy were presumed to be playing a similar role in the gradual restoration of capitalism. The events of August 1991 can be reduced to “democracy” only if they caused no fundamental change in the nature of the Soviet state. It was clear enough at the time that this was false; in hindsight blindingly so.
The organization now known as the League for the Fifth International (L5I—Workers Power in the US, Red Flag in Britain, ArbeiterInnenmacht in Germany, and the forerunner of the RCIT) also posed the conflict in August 1991 not as a fight for the survival of the degenerated workers’ state, but as a quibble over how capitalist restoration would be implemented and the amount of democratic rights. Bizarrely, the L5I correctly identified the two contending camps, declaring that the coupists “hoped by their actions on 19 August to defend their privileges on the basis of post capitalist property relations” while Yeltsin and his allies “represent a faction of the bureaucracy that has abandoned the defence of its caste privileges and their source—a degenerate workers’ state—in favour of becoming key members of a new bourgeois ruling class” (Workers Power, September 1991). Yet, despite this formally correct assessment of the situation, they nonetheless chose to side with Yeltsin anyway: “we had to stand with, and indeed take the front ranks in, the fight to stop the coup” (Ibid.).
The Militant Tendency (a heritage claimed by today’s CWI, ISA and IMT) also chose to support Yeltsin in August 1991: “In that battle to stop the hardline bureaucrats and to defend democratic rights were elements of the political revolution.” Like the L5I, they supported the counterrevolution while also recognizing much of the political reality on the ground:
“But the lack of a real socialist alternative for workers’ democracy has meant that for now they have been drowned by the process towards counter-revolution. The bureaucrats committed to a rapid move to capitalism were able to seize on the masses’ hatred of the old guard and their illusions in the market, to push ahead the counter-revolution. The new Soviet and Russian administrations are governments in the process of formation committed to dismantling state ownership.”
—Militant, 30 August 1991, cited in Marxism vs. ‘Militant’ Reformism
Militant did not merely support Yeltsin from its office in London—its leaders bragged about actively mobilizing on the ground in Russia to defeat the Yanayev coup:
“From the declarations of the [Emergency Committee] it followed that they were acting against the so-called ‘democrats,’ and that posed the danger of support to the putschists by workers organizations that did not share the principles of the ‘democrats’—the rule of private property and capitalist power. And that is exactly what happened. Some of the workers organizations were getting ready to send greetings of welcome, and at several factories the workers even tried to organize defense detachments in support of the putschists.
“From the morning on, all of our members explained to workers at their workplaces that the position of the Emergency Committee did not coincide with their interests. In addition to this, they connected up with worker activists of other organizations, in order to prevent hasty actions.”
—Rabochaya Demokratiya (October 1991)
Later, the leaders of the Militant Tendency justified their own participation in what they themselves described as “a defeat for the world proletariat” on the basis that “it was not the same kind of crushing social reverse and [sic] the change in world class relations that followed the triumphs of Hitler, Mussolini and Franco. Its effects were primarily ideological” (“Global Turmoil,” resolutions of CWI World Congress 1998).
While Militant, the L5I and USec all claimed on paper to be Soviet defensist, the organization that really staked its claim to orthodox Trotskyism on the basis of unconditional defense of the USSR was the International Communist League (ICL/Spartacists). The ICL claimed to oppose Yeltsin yet conspicuously failed to side with the bureaucratic hardliners at the very moment they took their last desperate and ultimately unsuccessful stand to resist counterrevolution. Two contradictory justifications were put forward to explain this dereliction of duty—firstly, that the coupists did not want to stop counterrevolution; and secondly, that they tried but were too weak to do so:
“The ‘gang of eight’ was incapable of sweeping away Yeltsin in its pathetic excuse for a putsch because this was a ‘perestroika coup’; the coupists didn’t 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.”
—Workers Hammer, January/February 1992
It must have been clear very quickly to the ICL that they had abandoned the USSR on the last barricade, but as a once-revolutionary organization, now dependent on the prestige of its politically bankrupt leadership, they had no possible way of admitting this. Instead they declared that while the defeat of the coup “unleashed a counterrevolutionary tide across the land of the October Revolution” (Workers Vanguard, 30 August 1991), Russia nonetheless remained a degenerated workers’ state until some point the following year. The Internationalist Group (League for the Fourth International), whose leaders exited the ICL in 1996, have retained the same confusion. Neither group has ever cared to describe exactly when, or how, the counterrevolution occurred.
The IBT is proud that, as a small organization with no forces in the USSR, we were able to do what larger and more established groups failed to do—identify the key programmatic tasks that the coup posed for the international proletariat. The articles that we wrote in the aftermath of the counter-coup (see “Counterrevolution Triumphs in USSR” and “Soviet Rubicon & the Left”) stand the test of time, and we republish them here along with a selection of other relevant material. But political propaganda does not often fall fully formed from the pen of individual writers. In a healthy revolutionary organization, it is refined and improved in a culture of discussion and debate.
This was certainly the case for the IBT, which in August 1991 was only a little over a year old, still consolidating its forces after the 1990 fusions which brought together three groups in North America, New Zealand and Germany. Our internal discussion, selections from which we publish here for the first time, is worth revisiting 30 years later. It provides an example not only of how a democratic-centralist organization reaches key programmatic conclusions but also of how to apply the Marxist method to new events and circumstances, attempting to identify a point where quantity changes into quality and to determine how revolutionaries should intervene.
Our position was arrived at during a short but intense debate during which the majority was eventually convinced of the line on which we have stood ever since. Taking place in the early days of email communication, when messages were checked less frequently and most comrades did not have easy online access, the debate nevertheless included a wide number of members with a range of perspectives, running alongside in-person discussions in the various branches of the IBT.
Our eventual position was foreshadowed in the last article we published on the Soviet Union while it still existed:
“It is possible that leading sections of the bureaucracy may attempt at some future point to arrest the process of capitalist restoration. If that happened, it would be our duty to side militarily with the ‘conservatives’ against the Yeltsinites. The Stalinist caste is incapable of solving the problems which gave rise to the ‘reforms’ in the first place, but slamming on the brakes could at least buy some time.”
—“Soviet Stalinism in Extremis”
However, it required some effort to consolidate the organization around this position when faced with the reality of the death throes of deeply decomposed Stalinism. Leading IBT comrades in New Zealand, soon joined by others in New York City, quickly advocated defense of the coup and understood that its defeat spelled the end of the degenerated workers’ state. Others in Toronto, the San Francisco Bay Area and Germany explored various alternatives as the debate developed over the next few weeks, focusing on two key questions: what position revolutionaries should take toward the Stalinist coup and Yeltsin’s power grab; and whether (and when) the degenerated workers’ state was destroyed. Eventually the NZ and NYC comrades convinced a majority on the International Executive Committee (IEC) of their perspective.
On the second day of the coup, Bill Logan in Wellington sent a short message reporting on views in New Zealand and seeking reassurance that other sections of the organization also took a position in favor of a military bloc with the Stalinist hardliners. The reply from Tom Riley in Toronto, however, indicated that “here we are inclined to be more cautious … as yet we cannot conclude that this was a blow against capitalist restoration, which we would defend, rather than simply an attempt to maintain power by the traditional apparatus.” He proposed publishing an immediate statement, taking a “conditional” and “conservative” approach.
Logan, with the support of the rest of the NZ leadership, pointed out that Riley:
“poses the question wrongly. The Stalinists have never been fundamentally opposed to capitalist restoration. They have always been motivated by the need to maintain the power of the traditional apparatus. The point is that the power of the traditional apparatus can be maintained only by maintaining the system of central planning.”
Comrades from the San Francisco Bay Area, Fred Riker and Gerald Smith, joined the discussion. They argued that support for the coup would depend on “who they shoot.” They were supported by comrade Harlan in Hamburg in their argument that “the coup that never was” could not be supported.
The collapse of the coup on 21 August prompted Logan to send a two-sentence email:
“The demoralisation of the armed forces, and reorganisation that they face at the hands of Gorbachev/Yeltsin means that [the] Soviet Union can be said to exist no longer as a deformed [degenerated] workers’ state. A bourgeois state—still rather weak—is now in the process of consolidation.”
Smith, Riker and Harlan strongly disagreed, arguing that the degenerated workers’ state remained in place after the events of August 1991. Leading German comrades Monsees and Kalisch put forward two differing perspectives. Kalisch suggested that the end of the degenerated workers’ state happened at some point before the coup when Gorbachev committed to capitalism. This logically led to a position of taking neither side in the coup. Monsees, at least initially, advocated military support to the coupists.
As the debate continued in the days following the fall of Yanayev and his collaborators, and pressure increased to make a decision and publish our line, the International Secretariat (IS), based in Toronto and New York, proposed three motions for the IEC to vote on. First was a simple up-or-down motion saying that the defeat of the coup signaled the end of the degenerated workers’ state. Second were two counterposed motions indicating differences of opinion within the IS. Riley and Nason in Toronto argued for no support to the coup while Cullen in New York City argued for a military bloc.
Amid a robust exchange of documents from all quarters, Riley changed his mind, citing a new fact he learned from a Bay Area comrade:
“As a result of the information in the LA Times, quoted in Smith’s most recent submission, that the coupists did in fact make several attempts to arrest Yeltsin early in the coup (information that was not available earlier) I consider the motion which Nason and I put forward regarding the proper attitude to the coup to be wrong.”
Monsees in Berlin also changed his position (as he put it to Riley) in the opposite direction, coming out against a military bloc with the coup.
The documents track a variety of suggested motions, amendments and counter motions, which were eventually streamlined to three motions that allowed for the various positions to be clearly expressed. Finally, a vote in the IEC on 10 September determined a position of a military bloc with the coup, and the recognition that, with its defeat, the degenerated workers’ state was dead:
“With the collapse of the attempted coup, the process of capitalist restoration that has been unfolding in the USSR for several years has reached a qualitative turning point. The state power established in October 1917 has been broken. The degenerated workers’ state has been beheaded, and while most of the means of production remain collectivized and the officer corps below the top level is so far largely untouched a degenerated workers’ state no longer exists.
“The territory of the former USSR is now ruled by a variety of weak, petty-bourgeois, procapitalist regimes; there is as yet no substantial capitalist class. These unstable regimes can be described as embryonic bourgeois states. Although bourgeois states have not been consolidated the major obstacles to their consolidation have been removed. During the period before capitalism can be constructed, the capitalist counter-revolution can be reversed by a reawakened working class without the obstacle of a developed capitalist class based on private property. The embryonic bourgeois states must, however, be destroyed if the counterrevolution is to be defeated.”
To recognize the coup as the decisive moment and its defeat as the final overthrow of the October Revolution was completely in accord with the writings of Trotsky and his political heirs from the 1930s onwards. In the last year of his life, Trotsky was heavily engaged in a faction fight within the Fourth International’s US section against an opposition led by Max Shachtman that argued that the USSR was no longer a degenerated workers’ state. Trotsky characterized the Shachtmanites as an impressionistic tendency who (either unconsciously or overtly) rejected the Marxist method of dialectical materialism, which looks at phenomena not as static forces but as contradictions in the process of change. Shachtman and his co-thinkers argued that Stalin’s temporary pact with Hitler made it no longer possible for Trotskyists to defend the USSR. Trotsky responded that Shachtman had failed to prove when or how the nature of the Soviet state had qualitatively changed:
“To determine at the right moment the critical point where quantity changes into quality is one of the most important and difficult tasks in all the spheres of knowledge.…
“Vulgar thought operates with such concepts as capitalism, morals, freedom, workers’ state, etc as fixed abstractions, presuming that capitalism is equal to capitalism. Morals are equal to morals, etc. Dialectical thinking analyses all things and phenomena in their continuous change, while determining in the material conditions of those changes that critical limit beyond which ’A’ ceases to be ’A’, a workers’ state ceases to be a workers’ state.”
—In Defense of Marxism
The defeat of the coup of August 1991, and the consolidation of the state forces around Yeltsin’s countercoup, unquestionably represented the point of change from quantity to quality.
The documents we are publishing here not only show the role of political debate in establishing positions on new developments but also illustrate the importance of the continuity of the Marxist program. The IBT was right on this issue against the full range of ostensibly Trotskyist organizations, defending the Soviet Union to the last, because we built our program on the work of revolutionaries of the past. We claim a heritage of Soviet defensism going back to the Left Opposition/Fourth International, upheld by Trotskyists from James P. Cannon, founder of US Trotskyism, through to the international Spartacist tendency (iSt) of the 1960s and 70s.
One feature these documents clearly illustrate is the crucial growing together and functioning of a newly fused international organization. The three components that formed the IBT in 1990—the Bolshevik Tendency (BT) in North America, the Permanent Revolution Group (PRG) in New Zealand and the Gruppe IV Internationale (GIVI) in Germany—had been working independently for the preceding decade but had a shared heritage in the iSt, enabling programmatic agreement on a high level. In our fusion statement “We Go Forward” (1917 No.9), we noted that: “all three parties to the fusion embraced the iSt’s early fight for revolutionary Marxism and renounced its later betrayals. Bringing together all comrades who share this understanding is an important first step to the reforging of the Fourth International.”
The debate and decision over the 1991 Soviet coup consolidated and helped define the organization, particularly considering the near-universal failure of our competitors to take the right position. Once the decision was made, even many comrades who had initial doubts grew increasingly convinced of its correctness—the internal debate providing a useful foundation for arguing the position with leftists from across the political spectrum. The IBT became, through this experience, a real joint organization with political agreements (and differences) crossing national lines and personal histories, and it set a solid basis for future work as a cohesive international group. The German section was composed, not only of the former GIVI comrades, but some from the BT, who worked together to expand to new layers. Three years after the coup, we established a new section in Britain, which at one time or another has contained personnel from all three original locations as well as new British recruits. As the IBT expanded and contracted, we gained supporters in East Asia, the Netherlands, France and Poland.
These documents show that it took some hard arguments to consolidate a majority around the correct position on the Soviet coup. The key point came when leading member Tom Riley in Toronto was won to the position advanced by his close collaborator Jim Cullen in New York City and by comrades in New Zealand from the former PRG, in opposition to the majority of the former BT. This gave a clear majority on the IEC in favor of military support to Yanayev and his “gang of eight.”
In a bizarre postscript, 27 years later Riley led a group of comrades out of the IBT (most of whom had joined the IBT well after 1990), claiming that his split somehow “dissolved” the original fusion (falsely implying that it had never been properly consolidated). The documents collected here, even one year after the fusion, show an organization that was much more than a temporary alliance and was to become increasingly “fused” as we recruited new comrades over the subsequent decades (including comrades in the North American section who did not leave with Riley). In addition to other logical knots into which he has twisted himself, Riley’s claim to have “dissolved” the IBT by quitting it raises the question of whether a hypothetical BT that had never fused with the PRG and GIVI would have come to the correct position on the end of the Soviet Union. The loss of these comrades three years ago has been an unfortunate and avoidable setback for the IBT, but it by no means erases the past three decades.
The issue over which Riley and his co-thinkers left the IBT again was centered on Russia and again demonstrated a difficulty in analyzing a changed world situation.
After 1991 the now independent capitalist countries of the former USSR were plunged into deep crisis and depression, as the imperialists and a growing group of local oligarchs fought over the spoils (see “Russia: A Capitalist Dystopia”). The world had lost the stabilizing influence of the Cold War nuclear standoff, and the dominant imperialist power, the United States, faced no viable competitor and few obstacles to bleeding the neocolonial world of its wealth. But gradually, building on what remained of Soviet infrastructure and technology and a plentitude of natural resources, Russia clawed its way back and re-established itself as a weak imperialist state, just as it had been prior to the 1917 revolution.
Riley and his supporters, perhaps influenced by nostalgia for Soviet defensism, have refused to recognize this reality. They present an understanding of imperialism based on the Cold War context, with one hegemonic imperialist power and a set of lesser allies, rather than open imperialist rivalries as seen in the first half of the 20th century. For them, to recognize the existence of an imperialist Russia is itself a capitulation to one’s own imperialists in the West. Contrary to the dialectical methodology of both Lenin and Trotsky, they embrace a mechanical and empiricist understanding in which only the most advanced powers can be considered imperialist, refusing to see parallels between the weaker imperialist powers of Russia, Japan and Germany before WWI (as discussed in Lenin’s Imperialism) and Russia today (see “Imperialist Rivalries Escalate”).
Not long after the counterrevolution, capitalist ideologues in the US and beyond were claiming “the end of history”—that liberal democracy and the bourgeois order had been permanently established. Yet the historic defeat of August 1991 set in motion tumultuous events over the past 30 years.
The official (Stalinist) Communist parties across the globe saw a sharp decline in influence, membership and material support without the backing of the Soviet Union. The Stalinists had always been able to recruit on the basis of “actually existing socialism,” arguing that their Trotskyist rivals had no real-world solution to counterpose. Increasingly, young leftists were now drawn to anarchism and the generic “anti-capitalism” of the anti-globalization movement, to the mostly pacifist anti-war movement and, later, to the rudderless Occupy movement. Many grasped onto radical identity politics, which views class as merely one kind of oppression among many, rather than the central division of human history. In 1998, we noted:
“The collapse of the USSR, a world-historic victory for imperialism, has cast a long shadow over this decade.… the fall of Soviet Stalinism profoundly affected the consciousness of hundreds of millions of workers and oppressed people around the world.”
—“Weathering the Storm,” 1917 No.21
In many countries, trade-union membership and the frequency and militancy of strikes decreased. Social-democratic parties, experiencing less competition from Stalinism, moved to the right, with the rise of Blairism in the British Labour Party echoed, for instance, in the French Socialist Party and the German SPD. The Keynesian economics of the post-war period was replaced by a neoliberal ideology (forged in the decade leading up to the 1991 counterrevolution) that imposed austerity on the working class within the imperialist countries and “shock therapy” across the neocolonial world. In the absence of Soviet support, many countries in South America and Africa saw little choice but to comply. Similarly set adrift, radical nationalist movements such as the IRA in the North of Ireland or the ANC in South Africa exposed their political bankruptcy by accepting compromise agreements that formally established “peace” and legal equality but left existing oppression largely intact.
In the USSR and the former deformed workers’ states of Eastern Europe, the imposition of the market hit hard. With “communism” and left-wing politics in general associated with the former Stalinist regimes, fascist organizations saw a resurgence. As the deformed workers’ states fell apart without their Soviet guarantor, national antagonisms rose to the surface, manipulated by the imperialists to cause maximum discord. Bloody wars in Armenia/Azerbaijan and in the former Yugoslavia were the result. NATO and the European Union were both expanded eastwards to better exploit the “emerging markets” and prevent Russia recovering into a viable rival.
Lacking a “big bad” enemy to redirect domestic dissatisfaction and justify increased military spending, the US ruling class settled on radical Islam—a movement it had once fostered in the form of the mujahedin fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan. In 2001, the 9/11 attacks on New York City and the Pentagon provided the rationale for invasions in Central Asia and later the Middle East, leading to two decades of destruction across Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, igniting civil wars and national and religious antagonisms all for imperialist control of natural resources and geostrategic influence.
Meanwhile, the “Russian question” has not gone away. In China, Cuba, Vietnam and North Korea, Stalinist castes continue to rule over extremely deformed workers’ states, viewing the fate of the USSR and its East European neighbors as a cautionary tale on the risks that fracturing of the state poses to their brittle positions. These are increasingly contradictory societies in which elements of capitalist penetration sit alongside state-owned property inside an economy that overall does not adhere to the accepted rules of the capitalist market (see, for instance, “Whither China?” 1917 No.31). While it is surprising these states have survived so long, eventually something will give way. Workers’ political revolution is desperately needed to oust the Stalinists, expropriate the capitalist enterprises and build a healthy workers’ state on the basis of the existing planned and collectivized economy. Failing that, it is a matter of when, rather than if, capitalist restoration will occur. It is possible that a section of the Stalinist bureaucracy will attempt to prevent this in defense of its own privileges and, if so, revolutionaries will once again need to form a temporary bloc as we struggle to build revolutionary parties and fight for political revolution.
The global situation has become more and more unstable over the past three decades, while the workers’ movement remains politically disarmed in the face of mounting threats caused by a capitalist world order in its phase of decomposition—imperialist war, poverty, inequality, pandemic and environmental devastation. Over a century after the October 1917 revolution, we live in a dangerous world, under a system, global capitalism, that cannot sustain either humanity or the planet we live on. The final overthrow of the revolution in August 1991 was an epic setback for the workers’ movement and for humanity. We have no choice but to begin again—but we do not start with nothing. We have the lessons of the victories, betrayals and defeats of the past. These give the working class a sound programmatic basis upon which to build Bolshevik parties that can lead to new Red Octobers in every corner of the globe.
“It is the duty of revolutionists to defend every conquest of the working class even though it may be distorted by the pressures of hostile forces. Those who cannot defend old positions will never conquer new ones.”
—In Defense of Marxism