Counterrevolution in the USSR – CL Says "Giant Victory"

Marxism & the Russian Question

Published by the Permanent Revolution Group (New Zealand Section of the International Bolshevik Tendency), in The Bolshevik (No 1, April 1993).

The events that have shaken Europe since 1989 have provided a series of litmus tests for all organisations claiming to be "communist". From the demise of the Soviet Union and its satellites in the East, to the shattered Yugoslav federation in the Balkans, the destruction of the network of bureaucratised workers' states across Europe has posed the "Russian Question" with great urgency—that is, the necessity for revolutionaries to call for the defence of state owned, collectivised property against the march of capitalist restoration. Genuine communists had to speak the truth about the massive scale of these unfolding defeats and expose the fake "democracy" touted by right wing, free market ideologues of the likes of Lech Walesa and Boris Yeltsin.

In New Zealand and internationally, the spectrum of pseudo communist organisations uniformly failed to meet this test: in one fashion or another the "revolutionary" left effectively sided with imperialism and its agents against the fragmenting Stalinist regimes. The failure of the Communist League of New Zealand (CL) and its senior partners in the US Socialist Workers Party (SWP), however, stands out as one of the most complete. From the very beginning, as the European deformed workers' states had begun to tumble, the SWP/CL responded with an absurd optimism, claiming that it was not the international working class but imperialism which had lost the "Cold War".

The August Coup and the Left

The defeat of the Stalinist coup in the USSR in August 1991 was the focal point of imperialism's victory in the Cold War; it marked the demise of the Soviet state power established in October 1917 under the leadership of Lenin's Bolsheviks. The victory of the arch Russian chauvinist Yeltsin heralded the replacement of the workers' state by an array of fragile bourgeois states, opening the floodgates to the full fledged restoration of free market misery. In December 1991, with the formal dissolution of the USSR and the formation of the "Commonwealth of Independent States" (CIS), the Soviet flag over the Kremlin was replaced by the emblem of the pre 1917 Tsarist regime, an infamous symbol of desperate poverty, tyranny and repression.

Only the International Bolshevik Tendency (IBT)—represented in this country by its New Zealand section, the Permanent Revolution Group (PRG)—responded to the coup defeat with a Trotskyist analysis. We argued that the Soviet working class should have blocked militarily with the coupists in a bid to fend off capitalist restoration, and as a prelude to the working class taking power from their Stalinist overseers (1917 Supplement, September 1991). In spite of the political decrepitude and manifest incompetence of the coup leaders, all genuine socialists had to defend this attempt by the Stalinists of the Yanayev clique to put a brake on the destruction of the old workers' state and the planned economy.

In sharp contrast, the Communist League cheered the defeat of the coup at the hands of the counterrevolutionary right. Their Militant ludicrously described the defeat as a "giant victory" for Soviet workers, who supposedly won "space to practice politics" (6 September 1991). The CL falsified the reality of the August events, claiming that the coup was defeated by "the working class". In fact, the disillusioned Soviet proletariat remained on the sidelines; the victory of the handful of petty bourgeois counterrevolutionaries gathered around Yeltsin at the "Russian White House" was made possible by key sections of the bureaucracy—particularly in the upper levels of the military—either remaining passive or going over to the side of Yeltsin's capitalist restorationists.

Oblivious to the collapse of the workers' state, the Communist League has argued that since there are still obstacles facing the reintroduction of capitalism into the ex USSR, the establishing of a state apparatus headed by Yeltsin cannot be seen as a victory for imperialism. The CL even managed to see the defeat of the Yanayev coup by supporters of capitalism as somehow a blow against capitalism. The Militant featured the absurd headline: "Protest of coup is example of why workers defend nationalised property relations" (6 September 1991).

But while it is certainly true that after the coup defeat there have been and will continue to be important demonstrations by working people against the imposition of free enterprise austerity, the Communist League ignores the fact that the decisive obstacle to capitalist restoration in the USSR was the Soviet state apparatus, the key sections of which simply collapsed in the face of Yeltsin's restorationist forces in August. For with the failure of the coup, the way became open for the consolidation of new state institutions dedicated to restoring capitalism. At the beginning of 1992 the procapitalist elements around Yeltsin celebrated the counterrevolutionary victory by decreeing brutal price hikes of several hundred percent, giving the peoples of the former USSR a bitter taste of their life to be under capitalist "democracy". But the Communist League remain oblivious to the connection between Yeltsin's savage free market attacks and the "giant victory" which allowed him to take power in August.

Unable to stand against the stream of mass popular opinion, the logic of the make believe "Communist" League leaders has led to some truly bizarre extremes. The CL's youth organisation, the Young Socialists, held an educational on 21 September 1991 where CL members rejoiced in the anti communist demonstrations that occurred in the wake of the coup. A Communist League leader, Janet Roth, proclaimed that it had been "absolutely fabulous" that statues of Vladimir Lenin and Felix Dzerzhinsky, Bolshevik leaders of the October 1917 revolution, were torn down in the USSR. The CL's inability to distinguish between bathwater and baby is truly astonishing.

Revolutionaries must tell the truth, no matter how sour it may be: August 1991 set the seal on a crushing defeat for the international working class. By contrast the CL can only pretend that nothing is amiss: on tour in New Zealand, the SWP's 1992 Presidential candidate, James Warren, was reported as claiming that "the Soviet dissolution has been the most major advance for socialism since the Russian Revolution ..." (Evening Post, 22 April 1991). In this way, applying previously undiscovered laws of logic, the Communist League argue that the final destruction of the Soviet workers' state was the greatest step forward since its creation in 1917.

Communist League: Imperialism Suffered "Historic Defeat" in Cold War

The Communist League has long been mired in a lethargic reformism, and its political practice has been to tail uncritically the most fashionable mass movements of the day. The positions it takes are therefore governed more by liberal public opinion than by anything else. And so, with the toppling of the Eastern European Stalinist regimes and the opening stages of capitalist restoration in 1989—90, the Communist League leaders could not resist climbing on the anti communist bandwagon.

But in order to justify this these fake revolutionaries had to attempt to falsify reality—the SWP/CL issued the bizarre proclamation that the losers of the Cold War were in fact the imperialists, and not the working people being ravaged by massive unemployment, rocketing prices and the rise of fascism. In 1990 they wrote that "by dealing a blow to Stalinism, the workers are dealing a giant blow to world imperialism ..." (Militant, 9 March 1990). The SWP/CL's explanation for their claim that the imperialist powers suffered "a historic defeat" defies all logic—at its 1990 convention, the SWP adopted a resolution which declared:

It is imperialism that has suffered the greatest blows from the accelerating crisis of the Stalinist regimes, which have served as its most reliable instrument for the transmission of capitalist values into the workers' states and more broadly into the international workers' movement (Militant, 6 September 1991, emphasis in original).

With their depiction of Stalinism as imperialism's "most reliable instrument", the Communist League here presents a one sided picture of Stalinism as being somehow more procapitalist than the capitalists. They are therefore prepared to support any movement opposed to Stalinism on the grounds that that movement must be inherently progressive, irrespective of its political character. In fact Stalinism was defeated at the hands of imperialist backed forces, and this has had the most reactionary consequences; but the CL chooses not to see.

The Communist League's ludicrous scenario—whereby world imperialism has supposedly been fundamentally weakened by the Stalinists' demise—ignores the harsh reality of the capitalist offensive which has occurred. Take the example of the ex German Democratic Republic (DDR) where unemployment is running at around 50 percent, where there have been massive attacks on abortion and childcare services, and where there has been a spate of vicious fascist assaults on foreign workers. These forms of class war are products of the victory of capitalist restoration, which requires the destruction of the social gains of the collectivised economy—not some abstract and fictional "space to practice politics". A similar picture holds true for all the countries where deformed workers' states have been overthrown.

Leon Trotsky and the Revolution Betrayed

The CL still feels obliged to give occasional lip service to the Trotskyist understanding of Stalinism and the Soviet degenerated workers' state, best stated in Trotsky's The Revolution Betrayed. But in both theory and practice the CL's Stalinophobia is a rejection of Trotsky's position in favour of the anti Soviet social democratic tendencies against which he polemicised.

The rise of the bureaucratic caste led by Josef Stalin in the Soviet Union in the 1920s produced a spectrum of political responses on the international left. At one pole has been the obsequious Moscow line Stalinist organisations, traditionally represented in New Zealand by the early Communist Party (CPNZ), and later the Socialist Unity Party (SUP). These organisations argued that the USSR was still a healthy, democratic workers' state, led by a wise, dedicated and kindly socialist leadership, elected by working people. The duty of socialists around the world, they maintained, was to follow uncritically every pearl of wisdom emanating from the Kremlin.

A diametrically opposite perspective—that of the "Third Camp"—has been that at a certain point in its history the USSR became qualitatively indistinguishable from a bourgeois state. It is argued by Tony Cliff's International Socialists (ISO), for example, that the caste of bureaucrats which came to rule the USSR had transformed itself into a new capitalist class, and the Soviet Union had thereby become a "State Capitalist" society. A variant of this is the British Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP) argument that the USSR was not capitalist but rather an entirely new kind of class society. The programmatic conclusions of these anti Soviet conceptions are the same: in conflicts between the Soviet Union and procapitalist forces they advocate neutrality—or even, in some cases, side with the counterrevolutionaries on the grounds that they are more "democratic" than the Stalinists.

Trotsky rejected both of these two false alternatives. On the one hand the Moscow line organisations attempted to cover for the Stalinists' horrendous crimes in strangling workers' democracy and to dress up their anti revolutionary strategy of "peaceful coexistence" with imperialism. On the other hand, the assertion that there was no politically important difference between the USSR and a capitalist state like the United States ignores the fact that the chief gains of the October Revolution—the expropriation of the Russian capitalist class and the collectivisation of the economy—were not overturned by the rise of Stalinism, and thus had to be defended.

Trotsky argued that as a result of the bureaucratic political counterrevolution led by Stalin the working class no longer had any means of exercising political control over the workers' state. The democratic workers', soldiers' and peasants' soviets (councils), which had constituted the state power after the October Revolution, had ceased to operate, and even within the Bolshevik Party itself real democracy was extinguished. Real power lay in the hands of the administrative bureaucracy, at the top of which sat Stalin and his network of cronies who ran things from the General Secretariat of the now degenerated Bolshevik Party.

But this counterrevolution, Trotsky saw, did not go so far as to strike at the collectivised economy which the state defended; thus the bureaucracy remained dependent for its privileges on the preservation of that economy. The bureaucratic seizure of power did not change the class character of the Soviet state, in that the property forms the state defended remained working class, collectivised property forms. Therefore, in the traditional terminology of the Trotskyist movement, the counterrevolution was only "political" rather than "social", and the outcome was a "degenerated workers' state".

The caste of bureaucrats which had arisen were not "capitalists", nor were they members of any other kind of "class". Their material privileges did not stem from the ownership of property but rather from their position in the state apparatus. The ruling bourgeois class is an essential organ of the body of capitalism, like the heart or the liver; ultimately you just can't have capitalism without capitalists. By contrast, as Trotsky argued, the Stalinist caste was a parasitic growth—a reactionary, anti democratic deformation in a society in which progressive, working class property forms dominated.

The programmatic conclusions that Trotsky outlined in The Revolution Betrayed were that the Soviet proletariat should fight to overthrow the Stalinist bureaucracy and restore political power to working class soviets of the type that had organised the 1917 revolution. But it was also vital to defend the workers' state against imperialism and internal counterrevolution: Trotsky saw that this defence would, on occasions, involve blocking militarily with the Stalinist bureaucracy, without ceasing to attack it politically. This is based on the recognition that, while ultimately the continued existence of bureaucratic rule is a dire threat to the survival of the workers' state, a parasite nevertheless depends for its own life on the life of its host, and thus in order to defend their livelihood of petty privileges the Stalinists were often driven in limited and deformed ways to defend the Soviet state.

And so, contrary to the Communist League's one sided depiction of the Stalinist caste in the USSR as purely and wholly reactionary, Trotskyists have always seen the bureaucracy as a contradictory social layer, which attempts to balance between the working class and the pressures of imperialism. This has been crucial to our understanding of the Soviet Union and of the other deformed workers' states—China, Cuba, Vietnam, et alia—where Stalinist bureaucracies preside over workers' property forms.

In a showdown between the Stalinists on one hand and capitalist restorationist forces on the other, it has always been necessary to side militarily with the Stalinist bureaucracy, despite their crimes against the working class. This was the perspective which informed the International Bolshevik Tendency's defence of the Yanayev coup in August 1991. For, as Trotsky argued, the overthrow of the Stalinists by procapitalist forces could only be a major defeat for workers everywhere:

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; that the question of preserving state property in the means of production in the USSR is subordinate for us to the question of the world proletarian revolution ("The USSR in War", September 1939, emphasis added).

But the Communist League offers the opposite perspective. Like the "state capitalists" whom Trotsky polemicised against, they declare that the main issue is one of "democratic rights" and support the counterrevolution. In order to kill the Stalinist parasite the CL/SWP are prepared to slit the throat of the host—the Soviet workers' state and the collectivised economy.

The Communist League attempts to excuse its failure to oppose the forces of counterrevolution with the argument that, in the postwar period, the success of these forces was historically unavoidable. Because of the absence of real communist leaderships in the USSR and Eastern Europe, it says:

... it became inevitable ... that the Stalinist regimes would not be overthrown in a communist led political revolution, but would first have to be torn apart by the popular masses in the face of a profound crisis, as is now happening; and ... that only then could the possibility of political life open up, out of which forging a communist leadership could be accomplished (1990 SWP Resolution, Militant, 6 September 1991).

So according to the CL leaders, the path to international socialism runs through successful imperialist backed counterrevolution. Armed with this perspective they portray the victory of capitalist restoration as some sort of historically progressive breakthrough!

Given the blind alley that the Stalinists had driven the Soviet workers' state into, without a successful proletarian political revolution capitalist counterrevolution was—ultimately—"inevitable". But it never occurred to the defeatists in the SWP/CL leadership that the solution was to fight to build revolutionary leadership and to tell the truth about the grave dangers facing the workers of the USSR and Eastern Europe. The task for revolutionaries was to attempt to transform working class disillusionment with Stalinism into a revolutionary—rather than a counterrevolutionary—force. But instead the SWP/CL closed their eyes to reality and applauded the counterrevolution as a gigantic victory.

The Question of the Revolution Itself

James Cannon, an important figure in the history of the international Trotskyist movement, wrote:

... the Russian question is the question of the proletarian revolution. It is not the abstract problem of a prospective revolution; it is the question of the revolution itself, one that actually took place and still lives. The attitude towards that revolution today, as yesterday, and as in the beginning, is the decisive criterion in determining the character of a political group (The History of American Trotskyism, 1944).

From the opening of Reagan's Second Cold War in the early 1980s to the collapse of the USSR a decade later, the various pretenders to the mantle of Trotskyism have repeatedly failed this most critical test. The Auckland based Workers Power—a local outpost of the centrist League for a Revolutionary Communist International (LRCI)—responded to Yeltsin's victory in August 1991 with the perverse headline: "Revolution in the Soviet Union". Like the CL, Workers Power failed to defend the coup and focused on the question of democratic rights (NZ Workers Power, September 1991).

The same approach was taken by Ernest Mandel's spineless "United Secretariat of the Fourth International" (USec), represented in NZ by the semi dormant Revolutionary Communist League (RCL). Mandel sided with Yeltsin, arguing that the only issue was "democratic liberties", and wrote that "the failure of the putsch should be hailed" (International Viewpoint, 3 February 1992).

James Cannon was indeed right: ever since 1917 the "Russian Question" has been a touchstone for all groups claiming to be revolutionary. For pseudo communists the gap between their pretences and their real politics is often most sharply revealed by their failure to defend collectivised property. The goal of revolutionaries is the creation of a socialist society, and the Russian Question concerns the fundamental necessity of defending the elements of a rational, socialist society represented in the here and now by the institutions of collectivized property. The Communist League is, like all other "revolutionary" pretenders, incapable of leading towards socialist revolution, because they are unwilling to defend the revolutionary gains of the past.

Posted: 22 August 2007