The system Stalin built in the old Tsarist empire has collapsed irretrievably. The USSR is collapsing, too: most of its republics have now declared themselves independent. In most of those republics the “Communist Party of the Soviet Union” has either been banned outright, or banned from activity in the army and the KGB, and in factories.
For decades the cells of the 17-million strong “party” — in reality the machinery of a vast privileged bureaucracy, not a political party — have been the local institutions through which the central state-party has controlled society. Now the party’s property has been seized and put into the hands of the city councils.
The people who made up the CP still have immense power as managers and administrators; but all the structures which bound them together into an exclusive ruling class, with the ritual exclusiveness of a caste, have been shattered.
Radical reforms from above by the reforming Stalinist Tsar Gorbachev, the enlightened despot who wanted desperately to present himself as an ex-despot, have given way to revolution, which is shattering all the old ruling-class structures. The debris is being cleared out of the way of the development of capitalism.
The state has been prised away from the party. The army remains intact, and with an enhanced stature, ready to play the role of arbiter in the future.
The astonishing ease with which the Stalinist system finally fell asunder has few parallels in history. The nearest is perhaps the day in 1943 when the Fascist Grand Council in Rome met and, arresting Mussolini, declared the fascist movement dissolved.
This collapse began not with a Stalinist decision to self-liquidate, but with an attempt to organise an authoritarian neo-Stalinist coup.
On 19 August a committee of eight, headed by Gorbachev’s deputy Gennady Yanayev, declared a state of emergency, “suspending” political parties and trade unions. Gorbachev was arrested and held at his dacha in the Crimea. A curfew was imposed.
The prime minister, the head of the KGB, the Minister of Defence, and the Minister of the Interior were all part of it. Within three days the coup had collapsed. There are a host of unanswered questions about what happened, and why.
Some of the organisers of the coup had had experience in such work in places like Poland, where martial law was imposed in December 1981. Yet the Moscow coup was utterly bungled.
They arrested Gorbachev, who had little popular support and was still a man of the apparatus they were defending. (They had, it seems, even had talks with Gorbachev about helping him to impose just such a state of emergency). They did not arrest Boris Yeltsin, who has both popular support and the will to destroy the apparatus which ejected him four years ago.
The initial reaction of most people to the coup was, it seems, one of passive acceptance. Yeltsin, and the elected deputies of the Russian Parliament, changed all that.
They set up a centre of resistance to the coup, denied its legitimacy, and called for resistance to it at all levels, including a general strike. Miners in the Urals and Siberia struck. But even the call for a general strike was essentially a failure: there were strikes, but there was no general strike.
Resistance was growing and spreading round the country. Most of the republics rejected the claimed authority of the coup committee.
Some tens of thousands of people gathered round the Russian Parliament building to protect it from expected attack. Even there the forces mobilised were not overwhelming.
The fate of the coup was sealed by its own lack of will to impose itself. Having made their initial declaration, the coup makers were then paralysed.
The army command was divided. The coup organisers could not even get KGB forces to act as shock troops. Thereafter, the coup just melted away.
The neo-Stalinist group which seemed to have control at the beginning of the week had dissolved by Wednesday 21st, with only three casualties on the street. And as it dissolved popular activity guided by the Russian Parliament grew.
Yeltsin and his friends seized the hour. The CP was implicated in the coup attempt. When the coup collapsed, it was on the run. Yeltsin turned the Russian Parliament into a revolutionary committee, issuing decrees against the CP for which it had great popular support — and for which its action drummed up more — without any legal or constitutional right to do so. Gorbachev, released from captivity, found himself Yeltsin’s political captive. Real power in the USSR had already shifted to the elected representatives of the biggest republic, the Russian Parliament and Yeltsin.
Those elected structures formed a dual power structure under the old “USSR” skin, ready to slough it off. With the disintegration of the Soviet Union into its component parts and the breaking-away of the non-Russian republics, the “USSR” represented by Gorbachev had anyway grown shadowy and insubstantial.
The failed coup was based essentially on the old weakened, hollowed-out, “all-Union” USSR structures; the resistance on the new ones, in the first place the Russian parliament and its leaders.
With the failure of the coup there was a decisive shift to the new structures. The radicals attacked the vitals of the old system, backed by a burgeoning popular movement angered at the coup.
The CP crumbled with astonishing speed: it slunk into the grave, this bureaucracy which had sent uncounted millions untimely to theirs.
The unbelievably inept character of the coup, and what its failure led to, has made people of widely different politics speculate that it was not a real coup attempt at all, but a put-up job, designed to achieved what it has achieved — the destruction of the CPSU and a radical acceleration of the reform movement. There are other explanations.
There is a striking parallel in the history of the 1917 working-class Revolution. There the socialist workers’ councils, with increasing Bolshevik Influence, vied for power with a Provisional Government, trying to straddle the left and right poles in politics.
The Government had little authority. Things were falling apart. General Kornilov tried to organise a coup, to destroy the democratic working-class movements. Provisional Government leader Kerensky vacillated. Some accused him of collusion with Kornilov, but he opposed the coup.
The Bolsheviks organised the decisive opposition to Kornilov. They “defended” Kerensky, as Lenin was to put it later, “as the rope supports the hanged man”.
The Kornilov revolt melted away almost as surprisingly as the recent coup. Trotsky, who organised the Bolshevik-led resistance, explained the collapse of the coup by the utter decay, demoralisation, and disarray of the old order.
Astonishing as is the coup-makers’ failure to arrest Yeltsin, and even if we assume that there were all sorts of murky intrigues and double-crosses in the background, the fundamental explanation for the feebleness of the coup is probably the same explanation as for Kornilov’s: the decay, disarray, and demoralisation of the old order.
It is a different order of things to organise a coup in Moscow amidst great difficulties than it was to organise a military takeover in Warsaw in 1981, backed by the still-solid Soviet military machine.
During the hours when it seemed that the coup had been successful, the West was shaken but mostly reconciled to the coup.
The Financial Times put it like this: “Business leaders... suggested that — in business terms at least — an authoritarian economy was preferable to an anarchic one, and some executives believe Mr Gorbachev’s removal might lead to a clarification of recent uncertainties. ‘Economic progress can still be made in the shadow of authoritarian rule. China is the prime example of this’, said one executive.”
In the Socialist Organiser broadsheet on the coup we put out last week [22 August 1991] (most of the paper’s staff were, like Gorbachev, on holiday) we said this:
“The choice in the USSR now is either what the putschists want, Chinese-style authoritarianism and a growing sphere for market economics, or else a radical popular revolution which destroys the power of the old state.
“Gorbachev’s course — democratic reform from above by an enlightened despot — has failed: now it is either reaction or revolution. If the working class and others rally now round Yeltsin and his similars, it will be a revolution having more in common with the French Revolution of 1789 than the working-class Russian Revolution of 1917. Yeltsin wants to clear the way for capitalism: but for now he has chosen the side of democracy.
“A mass popular revolution to break the old state and win political and civil liberty — including the right to organise the free trade unions and working-class political parties now outlawed by the putschists — would be an immense step forward from Stalinism. In the course of such a revolution, workers who now follow Yeltsin, and who are not against the capitalist market, which they see as going with the comparative liberty and prosperity of the West, will find their political feet and begin to gain a class awareness of the need for socialism. That happened in very different social and industrial conditions during the Great French Revolution.
“If the neo-Stalinist, quasi-fascist backlash now triggers a deep popular revolution, it may not end quite as Yeltsin and the Russian neo-bourgeoisie want.
“Socialists in Britain must give their unqualified support to the resistance to the neo-Stalinist dictatorship. Long live the Russian Revolution!”
There has not yet been that deep popular revolution. Far from it. Much of the state apparatus remains intact, the army high in prestige. The economy of the USSR spirals downwards daily into hyper-inflation and probable famine.
Yeltsin will now have to take responsibility. He will not work miracles.
The army has, by its shotgun divorce from the CP, been rendered a more credible contender for the Third World army role of providing a military scaffolding when the bourgeoisie is weak and the society in chronic crisis.
Last week’s failed coup and the radical backlash it licensed tumbled the system Stalin built into history’s dustbin. It may also have decided what kind of authoritarianism — one controlled by the vacillating Gorbachevite apparatus-men or one controlled by the radicals — will be imposed in the period ahead.
The headline of our broadsheet last week remains true: Only revolution — that is, the destruction of the state apparatus, including the army — can secure liberty.