It is 20 years since the destruction of the Berlin Wall by the people of then divided Germany signalled that Russia’s control over Eastern Europe was collapsing. Russia had held Eastern Europe in a brutal grip for four and a half decades, since the end of the Second World War.
It had used the most brutal and bloody methods of imperialist control to maintain that grip. In East Germany in 1953, in Hungary in 1956, and in Czechoslovakia in 1968 it used as much military force as was required to beat down revolt against old-style Stalinist, and Russian, rule.
The threat of Russian invasion and re-conquest hung over the people in all its satellite states. When in Poland in 1980 the workers organised mass strikes, occupied the Gdansk shipyards and created the first mass trade union in any Stalinist state, it was fear of a Russian invasion that stopped them attempting to overthrow the Russian satraps who ruled Poland.
What was new 20 years ago was that Russia itself was undergoing a deep crisis. The USSR had been fatally sapped and weakened in its prolonged and, in terms of economic resources, unequal competition with the USA and Western European capitalism. A ten-year colonial war to subjugate Afghanistan had been a spectacular failure. In that same year, 1989, the last Russian troops withdrew from Afghanistan, admitting defeat. As a result the controlling sections of the Russian bureaucratic ruling class were by the mid-1980s experiencing a mortal crisis of confidence in their own system.
Since 1985 Michael Gorbachev, Russia’s dictator, had been engaged in an increasingly desperate attempt to reform the USSR’s lumbering economy. Trying to overcome bureaucratic inertia and resistance to their drive for reform, Gorbachev and his group progressively undermined and abandoned the ruling “Communist” party’s monopoly of political control.
When something very similar had shaken Czechoslovakia in 1967/8, the upshot was that Russia and its other satellites invaded Czechoslovakia to put an end to the Czech attempt to create a system of “socialism with a human face”. Now, there was no power to invade Russia to put the Stalinist lid back on. And the Russian rulers were no longer prepared to use brute power to keep control of their East European satellite empire. Once it became known that Gorbachev was not prepared to use force, as Russia had in the past, the Russian Empire in East Europe simply fell apart.
Mass revolt quickly won national independence in one country after another. Within the space of a few months, in 1989, the Russian domination of nearly half a century collapsed all over Eastern Europe. The old regimes were ousted, and new leaders — of different sorts, but all more or less pro-capitalist — took over.
Inevitably the internal Russian Empire — the dominant Great Russians were a minority in the USSR — also began to shake apart, at first in breakaway movements by peoples such as the Ukrainians, Georgians, the Baltic republics and others of those who had long been repressed within the Stalinist “prison-house of nations”.
In the summer of 1991 the USSR itself collapsed, suddenly. On 19 August a group of top bureaucrats, including the Defence Minister, the Vice-President, and the heads of the Interior Ministry and the KGB, detained Gorbachev at his holiday villa in Crimea, and attempted a coup.
After three days of turmoil, strikes, and demonstrations, they were themselves arrested on 21 August. Boris Yeltsin, who had been elected president of Russia (Russia proper, rather than the USSR) in June 1991, took power.
Yeltsin banned the Soviet Communist Party in Russia; seized its assets; and recognised the independence of the Baltic republics. Ukraine, followed by other republics, declared itself independent. By December the USSR had been formally dissolved. Soon Russia was hurtling into huge economic chaos caused by Yeltsin’s drive to hand out state assets to the new “oligarchs” and unleash market forces at top speed. The working class in all the states, Russia included, with the episodic exception of some Rumanian miners under Stalinist leadership, backed the moves towards restoring capitalism; and in Poland its organisation, Solidarnosc, spearheaded it
The articles in this pamphlet issue of Workers’ Liberty document the attempts of the AWL (then grouped around Socialist Organiser) to understand those epoch-defining events, including the role and attitudes of the working class in the Stalinist states.
The program we advocated
What is the political revolution that we advocate? (a) The smashing, through revolutionary direct action under the leadership of a revolutionary party, of the bureaucratic state apparatus, its dismantling, and the assumption of direct power by the working class masses through a network of workers’ councils (the historically established form of proletarian democracy).
(b) The simultaneous assumption of direct control in industry by the working class — control in which factory and area organisations will interact creatively with the central state power and organise the economy according to a democratically arrived at, and democratically controlled and implemented, working class plan.
(c) The complete destruction of the bureaucracy as a social stratum by removing all material privileges, as well as destroying its totalitarian monopoly of control and power in society.
The road to the political revolution will, as the events in Poland confirm, involve the development of struggles for such as demands as freedom of the press, freedom of assembly and organisation, the right to strike and the right to trade unions independent of the state, the rights of national minorities... (1981)
The system they overthrew, seen 20 years earlier
Stalinism is a regime of almost permanent crisis rent by explosive contradictions. The basic contradiction is between the interests of the workers and those of the rotten political/ social bureaucracy which monopolises power and as a rule maintains a stifling dictatorship of the apparatus over the working class. This expresses itself as a contradiction between the nationalised economic structure from which the capitalists have been eliminated, and bureaucratic rule.
A nationalised economy needs planning and conscious control by those who do the work: real planning demands freedom of discussion, of information, of collective choice of goals. Working-class democracy is as necessary for economic efficiency as is oxygen to a man’s bodily functions: lack of it produces convulsions, waste, contradictions.
But the ruling bureaucracy is a parasitic social formation which ensures its own material well-being and privileges by tightly controlling society. It fears democracy because it would lead to the workers questioning its prerogatives and privileges. It fears democracy because it fears the working class. Thus it cannot plan or organise the nationalised economy rationally. It plans and organises the economy its own way way, from on high — administering people as things, with the workers alienated and excluded from control as under capitalism.
Though statification of the economy ends the characteristic fetters of capitalism on production internally, bureaucratic rule in these states creates new types of contradictions. The necessary dynamism of a nationalised economy is full conscious control in every pore of the economy — only possible by the democratic control of the millions who live in the pores of the economy. Crude control from above is an anachronism, inefficient and wasteful, as if one had a new car and harnessed a mule to pull it along! In advanced Czechoslovakia, the economic consequences of this situation became catastrophic.
In Russia, the power of this bureaucratic caste arose out of the backwardness of Russia and the isolation of the October Revolution in the ‘20s. It seized power as a counter-revolution against Bolshevism. But in most of the other East European countries the bureaucrats were lifted or aided into the saddle by their Russian puppet masters in whose image they moulded themselves. Added to the contradictions between the workers and the bureaucracy, in the bloc as a whole there is tension arising from the national oppression and parasitism of Russia’s relation with most of the other countries, and also conflicts of interest between the different national bureaucracies.
This patchwork of tensions is aggravated by the unevenness of development within the various “satellite” countries, and between these countries and Russia itself. When the rulers in one country move to ease their own situation, they threaten the stability of their neighbours: Hungary 1956 was initially sparked off by the much milder movement in Poland, and went on to flower into one of the most significant working-class revolts in three decades. (1968)