By Sean Matgamna
“The revolution... made its first steps toward victory under the belly of a Cossack’s horse”, wrote Leon Trotsky, describing the start of the Russian Revolution of February 1917.
Women workers persuaded the Tsar’s Cossack soldiers not to fire on the rebellious people on the streets, and in the course of doing it crawled under the bellies of the soldiers’ horses to get to them.
The Russian revolution of August 1991 advanced to victory over the Stalinist system not by working class women crawling under the bellies of horses, but by Boris Yeltsin, President of the Russian Republic within the USSR federation, jumping up, outside the Russian parliament, on to one of the tanks put on the streets to make a Stalinist counter-revolutionary coup, and, by a brave speech, rallying the Moscow workers against the coup.
It was a brave speech and a heroic stand, even though Yeltsin was probably drunk when he made it.
The organisers of the attempted Stalinist coup intended to again fix the Stalinist totalitarian noose tightly around the neck of the peoples of the USSR — to restore a variant of the Stalinist political system that had unravelled in the previous two or three years.
An attempt by Mikhail Gorbachev and other rulers of the Stalinist system to reform it drastically from above had unleashed uncontrollable forces “below”, not only in Russia but throughout the Russian empire and in Eastern Europe. The ruling “Communist Party”, the cartel of the bureaucratic ruling class, lost the monopoly of initiative and of political power on which its rule depended. The attempted coup, backed by the Communist Party, was an attempt to restore that monopoly.
Had the coup succeeded, then the USSR would probably have evolved as China has, unleashing capitalist and market forces presided over by a still-powerful authoritarian state, with the “Communist Party” retaining its political monopolies. The failure of the coup ended all such prospects in Russia.
Yeltsin’s leadership of the anti-coup forces in Moscow helped prevent a “Chinese” development.
Yeltsin had spent his life as part of the Stalinist ruling elite, then fell out with the reforming Stalinist tsar, Gorbachev, and quit the Communist Party. As the old political monopoly, under which only ruling-party “candidates” could stand in “elections”, disintegrated, Yeltsin emerged in June 1991 as the elected leader of the Russian republic within the USSR federation.
Yeltsin confronted both the coup-makers and the reforming CPSU boss, Mikhail Gorbacehv, with an electoral legitimacy and therefore with democratic credentials they could not match.
It was the decisive moment. The failed coup and the manner of its defeat accelerated developments from that point, and broke the back of USSR Stalinism.
The roughly parallel event in 1917 was when the Bolshevik-led soviets organised the defeat of the military revolt led by General Kornilov in September 1917 and in doing so strengthened themselves enormously against the Kerensky regime, which had no democratic credentials. That event presaged the October Revolution.
In the days after the attempted coup, Yeltsin and his friends acted as the revolutionaries they were. Ruthlessly they banned the CPSU and divested it of its economic assets. Revolutionaries — but bourgeois revolutionaries, against the Stalinist bureaucratic-collectivist system.
Their bourgeois social character was quickly apparent. The so-called oligarchs emerged — men possessing fabulous wealth which they had seized from the disintegrating Stalinist state as it broke up. Under Yeltsin’s rule was licensed an orgy of looting of state property — what should have been public property, but in fact had been the collective property of the bureaucracy, whose “ownership” of state power gave them the real ownership of the economy and society.
Though no-one asked them about whether state property should be looted, the Russian working class supported the bourgeois revolution that broke the back of the Russian Stalinist state. So did socialists like ourselves. From afar, we advocated that the working class should seize power and create a democratic socialist system.
But after six decades in the darkness of Stalinist totalitarianism, the workers had not had a chance to educate themselves politically, think things through, organise themselves in political parties, and prepare themselves to replace the bureaucracy with working-class rule.
The Stalinist regime all through its existence had repressed independent working-class activity with especial severity
The workers lived in a social world where “trade unions” were not trade unions but agencies by which the bureaucratic bosses controlled them in the factory. In a world in which “socialism” was the vile hypocrisy of a ruling class with immense economic and social privileges. A world in which there had been no freedom of speech, press, assembly, organisation, or political competition.
The working class was entirely unready to play a politically independent role. That was the great tragedy.
It ensured that for a long time economic and social chaos followed the collapse of Stalinism. In the 1991 revolution the working class played a big role in action, but, politically, only a subordinate, follower role, behind the intellectuals and former Stalinist politicians who wanted to make a bourgeois anti-Stalinist revolution.
That was true in the East European Stalinist states, too. In Poland, the working-class movement Solidarnosc was the spinal column of the Polish nation moving to throw off national oppression and the Stalinist social system which the USSR had imposed. The role of the workers in the fall of the USSR and of East European Stalinism had much in common with the role of the ancestors of the modern working class, the sans-culottes in Paris, in 1789 and after, who acted as the vanguard of what was, despite their aspirations and expectations, a bourgeois revolution.
In Eastern Europe, and Poland, and Russia, the workers aspired to liberty and prosperity — and, after their experience of counterfeit totalitarian Stalinist “socialism”, they identified liberty and prosperity with West European capitalism.
The condition to which Stalinism had reduced the working class at the point when it itself was collapsing is — all in all, and not for a moment forgetting the oppressions and slaughters, the slave-labour camps and the systematic oppression of the “free” workers in the factories — the single most clear-cut evidence of the utterly reactionary role of Stalinism in history.
Leon Trotsky, the leader with Lenin both of the workers’ revolution in October 1917 and of the working-class communist resistance to the Stalinist counter-revolution which subverted and destroyed that revolution, had written in 1938 that the Stalinist bureaucracy would soon split into two basic factions. He called them the factions of Reiss and of Butenko. Ignace Reiss was an old communist, who had remained a communist trapped inside the Stalinist bureaucratic apparatus; he declared himself for the working-class revolution against Stalinism and for the Trotskyist movement. (He was almost immediately murdered by the Stalinist secret police in Switzerland). Fedor Butenko was a now-forgotten functionary who went over to the Italian fascists.
Trotsky’s idea that the bureaucracy, or sections of it, would go over to capitalism proved entirely correct, if not in his time-frame, then in the long run. But his time-scale for the collapse of Stalinism was wrong by half a century. In terms of the political forces at large in it, the world in which the USSR collapsed, was a very different place from the one Trotsky lived in. In 1991 there was no “faction of Reiss” in the bureaucracy. It was to bourgeois democracy, sort of, that the decisive segment of the bureaucracy went over, not fascism.
And, after another half-century of Stalinism, not only was there no segment of the bureaucracy that was for “Reiss” — a working-class socialist revolution against Stalinism — but the tradition of the three great Russian revolutions of the early 20th century — 1905, February 1917, October 1917 — had been annihilated in the working class itself.
Nothing is as senseless as the nostalgia for the USSR that still exists in areas of the kitsch-left. That system was an utterly reactionary historical blind alley.
The most alive segment of the bureaucracy, that which organised the bourgeois revolution against Stalinism, was led by neither the faction of Reiss, nor that of Butenko, but by “the faction of” a brave drunken buffoon — the “Faction of Yeltsin”.
In Berthold Brecht’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle a drunken wastrel finds himself unexpectedly raised by confused rebels to be a judge — and behaves well, making wise, humane, and socialist-minded judgements. Real life is more complicated. The drunken renegade Stalinist bureaucrat Boris Yeltsin, who as a result of the chaotic breakdown of the Stalinist system, found himself raised to supreme power, became not the chief servant of the the people but the chief bandit, the tool and stooge and figurehead of the looting oligarchs.
And yet, looting and economic self-aggrandisement of some people at the expense of others is always a central aspect of bourgeois revolutions, even when those revolutions also perform good, historically necessary, and ultimately progressive work.
The capitalists of the northern states of the USA who made the “Second American Revolution” in the form of a fierce civil war against the southern slave states, and who did free the slaves, also, while doing that, and immediately after, looted the conquered South and the public lands all over the USA. And while the second American revolution freed the slaves, it left them for the ensuing century enserfed sharecroppers and racial helots.
Some of the Jacobin leaders in the French revolution, Danton for instance, were corrupt; others, in the new political conditions after the fall of Jacobinism, became notoriously and ravenously corrupt. In the English bourgeois revolution, the Parliamentarians and Cromwell financed their armies by selling vast tracts of Irish land and then, with the King’s bloody head triumphantly held up before a vast crowd of spectators in Whitehall, set out to reconquer that land and extirpate the people living on it. Karl Marx judged that the English Republic had been fatally undermined by that.
Such things are in the nature of bourgeois revolutions. To say that is not to justify or excuse, only to understand and put in historical perspective. The looting of what should have been transformed from Stalinist state property to public property in a democratic socialist system was a price that the working class of the USSR paid for the political condition that Stalinism had after over 60 years reduced them to.
The bourgeois revolution which Yeltsin personified in 1991, and for a brief heroic period led, did, amidst all the chaos and horrors, open an era in which the peoples — the oppressed nations of the USSR, as well as the Russian people — gained rights and freedom they had never had before, except for the early years of the revolution of 1917. The Russian people retain comparatively great freedom — measured against what they had under Stalinism — even under Yeltsin’s authoritarian successor Putin.
These are condition in which the Russian working class will clarify itself politically and prepare itself to create a socialist Russia.
Progress here has been less than we hoped in 1991? Indeed. Progress was impossible under the system which Yeltsin helped overthrow. Yeltsin himself, his role, his leadership, are both the proof and measure of that.