Appendix One: Debate in the ICL Over Yeltsin’s Coup
The following documents were circulated in an internal discussion in the Spartacist League/Britain in June and July 2003. The first and final items are by Tony R., who while not associated with the IBT, had, as a result of the intervention of our British comrades, come over to our position on the August 1991 confrontation in Moscow between the remnants of Soviet Stalinism and the forces of capitalist restoration. The seven documents written in reply to Tony R. by a variety of ICL members reveal the extent of the group’s political confusion on the issue and the impact of our Trotskyist analysis on residents of “Jimstown.”
On the Counterrevolution in Russia
by Tony R., London, 26 June 2003
As comrades are aware I was for some time confused over our position on the counterrevolution in Russia in 1991/2. I was directed to several works by Trotsky, as well as documents about the collapse of the workers state. I also had a series of discussions with more senior comrades a month ago or so and have been going over the issues in my head ever since. During this time I have, despite my own questions on the issue, defended our position in public. I have tried to find a way to understand the arguments presented by comrades as best I can, but after thinking it over for some weeks, and reading everything recommended to me, I find myself increasingly certain that while our stance of unconditional defence of the degenerated Soviet workers state is entirely correct, our position on the August 1991 coup was flawed at the time and needs to be thought through seriously. For this reason I have written up the following document so that comrades can understand precisely what my criticisms are and hopefully there can be a full and clear discussion.
Comradely Greetings, Tony R
In October 1917 the Bolsheviks, ousting the Provisional Government, took power and the Russian workers state was born. Lenin, at the Second Conference of Soviets, opened his speech with the words, “We shall now proceed to construct the Socialist order”.
At this point the Bolsheviks had far from consolidated their power, as the events which followed were to show all too clearly. Neither had the Bolsheviks yet established a collectivised and centrally planned economy. What made Russia a workers state was the fact that an armed body of men, dedicated to the building and defence of a “Socialist order”, had taken state power. This workers state, despite its bureaucratic degeneration, was to survive for over 70 years.
On the events of 1917 we hold a correct and clear position rooted in Trotsky’s outstanding analysis of the Soviet Union. As comrades are aware, the ICL’s defencist position was key in my recruitment from the stalinophobic politics of the LRCI. However, while I have learned a great deal since joining the SYG, I feel that our position on the destruction of the Soviet workers state is not as clear as it should be, and in fact, not entirely correct.
In August 1991 an armed body of men dedicated to the construction and defence of capitalism (led by Boris Yeltsin) took state power in Russia. As with the Bolsheviks in 1917 this new government was yet to be consolidated and there was still a conflict between the economy and the state. Does the fact that the economy was not yet capitalist mean that a bourgeois counterrevolution had not yet taken place? No. As Trotsky explained in 1937:
“In the first months of Soviet rule the proletariat reigned on the basis of a bourgeois economy. In the field of agriculture the dictatorship of the proletariat operated for a number of years on the basis of a petty-bourgeois economy (to a considerable degree it does so even now). Should a bourgeois counterrevolution succeed in the USSR, the new government for a lengthy period would have to base itself upon the nationalized economy. But what does such a type of temporary conflict between the economy and the state mean? It means a revolution or a counterrevolution. The victory of one class over another signifies that it will reconstruct the economy in the interests of the victors.”
(‘Not a Workers’ and Not a Bourgeois State?’)
As Trotsky makes clear, the return of private property and destruction of the planned economy are not pre-requisites for counterrevolution, but rather “the replacement of a workers’ government by a bourgeois…government would inevitably lead to the liquidation of the planned beginnings and, subsequently, to the restoration of private property” (‘The Worker’s State, Thermidor and Bonapartism’, 1935). But what about the fact that Yeltsin had not yet consolidated his power in August ’91? Does this mean that the workers state had not yet ceased to be? Again the answer is no. Every new state, whether it be the workers state created by the Bolsheviks in 1917 or the bourgeois state created by Yeltsin in 1991, is initially extremely fragile and vulnerable. Yeltsin needed to consolidate his repressive state apparatus but this does not change the fact that he held state power. In 1917 the workers state had to go through a massive civil war before it was fully consolidated, and yet our movement never placed the date of the beginning of the workers state after the civil war.
As comrades are aware we often have to deal with the IBT at public events. This obviously involves the question of the coup, which is one of the issues they routinely raise at our public forums. I think the reason they do so is because they sense that we are not entirely clear about our position, and this gives them the chance to score points and make us look bad. I have to say that in reading over the articles from the past decade or so, our analysis of what happened in ‘90/‘91 has been characterised by contradictory statements and a disturbing vagueness. Nowhere has this been more apparent than on our attitude towards the attempted Emergency Committee (EC) coup.
Over three days the attempted coup, led by Vice President Gennady Yanayev, put Gorbachev under house arrest and sent tanks and armoured personnel carriers towards the White House. Rumours abounded that they were going to move in and attack the building. As it turned out the coup was a total failure. The EC leaders failed to give clear instructions to the tank commanders, arrest Yeltsin before the coup was announced, or even to cut the phone lines to the White House to stop communications between Bush and Yeltsin. The fact that the coup was so inept is one of the main reasons we put forward for not supporting it (“the gang of eight that couldn’t shoot straight”), asking “what was there to ‘militarily’ support?” (WV, 27 Sept.‘91). There were tanks and armoured vehicles. That it was pathetic and horrendously organised is unarguable, but since when did Trotskyists start basing their decisions on who to support on their military strength? By the same token it could be argued that we should not have given military support to Iraq in the recent war as the Republican Guard was a ramshackle force in comparison to the US marines and British army.
The EC was certainly no friend of the Russian workers, but the question that has to be asked is whether the victory of the EC would have made it less difficult or easier for the workers to seize power. The victory of the EC would have meant that the workers would have to overthrow a fractured and decimated Stalinist bureaucracy, not the western capitalist backed state represented by Yeltsin. Can we honestly say that had the EC tanks opened fire on the White House in August ‘91 it would not have made any difference to the course of the counterrevolution? That idea was unfortunately spelled out in ‘The International Bolshevik Tendency — What is it?’ where we state that the coup plotters were “just as committed to capitalist restoration as Yeltsin” (something which veers towards the formation that the Stalinist bureaucracy was ‘counterrevolutionary through and through’, something we of course reject). If this was the case then how come the failure of the coup “unleashed a counterrevolutionary tide across the land of the October Revolution” (WV, 30 Aug. ‘91)? For our position on such an important issue to appear, to say the least, muddled and confused, is to make our political competitors’ jobs a lot easier than they should be, and ours a lot harder.
When bringing up these problems with comrades I have been repeatedly told that things were more complicated than this and that I had to really understand dialectical materialism, especially the idea of “quantity becoming quality”, in order to see why the position was correct. Let’s therefore look at the law of transformation of quantity into quality. From a dialectical perspective everything is of course constantly changing. Although all this change has a quantitative element it always reaches a certain point when these slow, gradual, changes give rise to a qualitative change. This means that in all things there will be periods of gradual change interrupted by rapid periods of sudden change. The clearest example of this is the heating of water. When we heat water from 1 to 99 degrees centigrade there is a quantitative change, the water is getting hotter, but there is no qualitative change, it is still water. Heat the water to 100 degrees centigrade however, and it changes to steam. The slow quantitative changes have given rise to a qualitative change, the water has ceased to be and now we have steam.
In the case of the collapse of the Soviet workers state these quantitative changes had been occurring for years as the workers state was undermined by degrees. Yeltsin’s victory in August 1991 marked the qualitative change this process had given rise to, the end of the workers state and the beginning of the bourgeois state. Our position, as I understand it, is that this qualitative change occurred at some unknown point in 1992. When the counterrevolution took place is not just an academic question. As Trotsky clearly stated in 1939, “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 including sociology” (The ABC of Materialist Dialectics). It is a task at which the ICL has not yet succeeded in, as to this day we are still unable to state when the workers state ceased to be.
In relation to the question of counterrevolution in Russia Comrade Victor, who was there at the time, states in a recent letter that:
“It might be useful for the Marxist education of our own comrades to take a look at Eastern Europe 1945-47, and the Cuban and Nicaraguan Revolutions. The situations could not be more different from the piecemeal destruction of the Soviet Union of 1991-92, but in all these instances, the question of what state would emerge—its class nature—required a more or less prolonged period to fight out and clarify property forms that the new ruling class would defend.”
(“Reply to GR 28 May 03, Proposed Readings for ‘Why We Defended the USSR’ Presentation”, 7 June 03)
Comrade Victor is right, “the situations could not be more different” from the destruction of the Soviet Union. Unlike the above examples the nature of the property forms the new ruling class would defend in Russia was not in question, Yeltsin was openly and aggressively for the restoration of capitalism. Victor’s statement that there was a “piecemeal destruction of the Soviet Union” is also confusing. Counterrevolutions, as with revolutions, are not “piecemeal” processes. As we stated in the classic document “Genesis of Pabloism”, in relation to Ernest Mandel’s “The First Phase of the European Revolution” (Fourth International, August 1946),
“The title already implies the outlook: “the revolution” was implicitly redefined as a metaphysical process enduring continuously and progressing inevitably toward victory, rather than a sharp and necessarily time-limited confrontation over the question of state power, the outcome of which will shape the entire subsequent period.”
(Spartacist English edition No. 21, Fall 1972, on our website)
A “sharp…confrontation”, not a “piecemeal” process. The latter suggests what Trotsky referred to as “reformism in reverse” (‘The Class Nature of the Soviet State’, 1933), a gradual change.
Yeltsin’s victory was, of course, not an inevitable outcome. Had the working class acted as an independent force it could have stopped Yeltsin and taken power itself. It did not however. To militarily support the EC coup at the time did not mean writing off the working class, but rather recognising the reality that the working class was not acting while the EC was (an EC victory would have meant more time, at least, for the working class to act). Equally, to recognise the fact that the forces of open counterrevolution had won in August ‘91 did not mean giving up the defence of the gains the workers had made. All it meant was that to defend the gains of the working class the workers would have to fight as they would in any bourgeois state to defend their gains (e.g. the NHS in Britain) and through a socialist revolution to oust Yeltsin. They would be fighting not a bureaucratic Stalinist cast, but a body of armed men dedicated to the building and defence of capitalism. Hope was certainly not lost but to deny the fact that the workers had suffered a major defeat (counterrevolution) was to deny reality.
I cannot think of a good reason not to acknowledge the obvious; that the moment when Yeltsin won and a “counterrevolutionary tide” was unleashed was the moment of qualitative transformation. The fact that one of our political rivals happens to be right on a question is no reason for us to be wrong. It is of course a bit embarrassing to admit that we are late in making this assessment, but in response to those who might try to ridicule us for correcting an error, we can point out that even Lenin and Trotsky made occasional errors. If anything the fact that we corrected ourselves would show everybody exactly how seriously we take the Russian question. The test of a revolutionary organisation is of course not infallibility, but rather capacity to recognise and correct errors. And that is always better late than never…
by Bonnie B., New York, 27 June 2003
TO: SL/B London; George R./home cc: Jane/Toronto; Ali/home
FROM: I.S./New York
Dear George and comrades—
As per our brief conversation this evening, this letter is to follow up on some of the conversations you’ve had with Alison re: conducting a political fight over Tony’s position on our position on the 1991 events. The punchline being that this is a question of a political difference brought up by a young comrade and it requires thoughtful political response on the part of comrades in the youth group and the party. It’s also, if done right, a good opportunity for education and deepening comrades’ understanding of our position on the Russian Question as well as our own party history; a learning (and re-learning) experience.
I’d like to pass on two points from Alison: first there’s a Pabloite methodology that encompasses both the IG (the anti-Spartacists who abandoned the Trotskyist program in the aftermath of the destruction of the Soviet Union) and BT (who abandoned the Trotskyist program during the rigors of Cold War II, about which more below) and is reflected as well in Tony’s document. That being that it is necessarily up to a wing of the bureaucracy to take up the fight against counterrevolution. As the events in August 1991 graphically proved, however, such was not the case. Had the coup committee taken decisive action to crush the counterrevolution, there is no doubt where we would have stood militarily, just as we did in the crushing of Solidarnosc counterrevolution in Poland. Comrades should review the material on the fight in the SL/B over exactly that question (see International Internal Bulletin No. 25, January 1992 [originally published as Spartacist League/Britain Internal Discussion Bulletin No. 14, December 1991]).
Let me make a (somewhat lengthy) digression on that 1991 fight: the (then) comrades who wanted to rule out military support to the coup-plotters, objected to our forthright statement that:
“Had the coup plotters stuck to their guns, it could have led to a civil war—which is what they feared above all. And in an armed struggle pitting outright restorationists against recalcitrant elements of the bureaucracy, defense of the collectivised economy would have been placed on the agenda whatever the Stalinists’ intentions. Trotskyists would have entered a military bloc with ‘the Thermidorean section of the bureaucracy’ as Trotsky postulated in the 1938 Transitional Program. This precisely was our policy toward Jaruzelski in 1981.” (my emphasis)
These same comrades were loathe to continue our defense of the Soviet Union as a workers state in the immediate aftermath of Yeltsin’s coup. They weren’t alone. The then-Leninist organization (now the grotesque CPGB) decided to “briefly mourn before getting on with the job of organising on the basis of the lessons our defeat in the USSR teaches” with the results you see today in the pages of Weekly Worker.
And there was another group—namely the BT—which was in quite a hurry to declare the destruction of the USSR. Len usefully found a couple of Workers Vanguard articles documenting this at the time. See “Stalinophobes Go Stalinophilic?—No!/BT Writes Off the Soviet Union,” Workers Vanguard No. 535, 27 September 1991. As we wrote there:
“And on September 21, more than a month after the coup/countercoup, the BT distributed a statement definitively declaring ‘Counterrevolution Triumphs in USSR.’ The failure of the putsch, they say, means that ‘the major organized obstacle to the consolidation of a bourgeois state has been effectively removed.’ Thus, they simply write off the Soviet working class as a force against capitalist restoration.”
We did not, which is why it is important for comrades to read the “Soviet Workers: Defeat Yeltsin-Bush Counterrevolution!” statement [dated 27 August 1991] which [was] distributed when and where it counted, an intervention which every ICL member should be very proud of. As the WV article cited above put it:
“While the botched coup and the ascendancy of Yeltsin have opened the floodgates for capitalist counterrevolution in the USSR, the Soviet proletariat has yet to be heard from.
The question of which class shall rule is urgently posed, but it is not one that has already been determined.”
There are other useful things to read about the BT’s cynical, after-the-fact support to the failed coup as their way of finally being able to dump Soviet defensism altogether; see “BT ‘Forgets’ Support to Gang of Eight” (WV No. 540, 6 December 1991). This is of a piece with their retrospectively spitting on our call to “Hail Red Army in Afghanistan!” —patently an entrée to the anti-Soviet fake-left swamp. (See articles on that in WV No. 444, 25 March 1988; No. 453, 20 May 1988 and No. 482, 21 July 1989). You will find that the Stalinophobic language used by the BT when they decried our slogan over Afghanistan (e.g., “Trotskyists never hail Stalinist traitors or their state…”) really gives the lie to their supposed military defense of the USSR in August 1991.
Moving from my digression to another point from Alison: Tony writes in his document that, in fact, the coup was “pathetic and horrendously organised” and then goes on to say “By the same token it could be argued that we should not have given military support to Iraq in the recent war as the Republican Guard was a ramshackle force in comparison to the US marines and British army.” No, this doesn’t work as an analogy. There turned out to be no section, Thermidorean or otherwise, of the bureaucracy to bloc with against Yeltsin-Bush counterrevolution but, as above, this did not change our position at the time on the class nature of the USSR nor our position of unconditional military defense of the degenerated workers state. The Soviet proletariat was key and it was to them we directed our propaganda efforts. In Iraq, our position of defense of this neo-colonial country against imperialist attack was never contingent on the military prowess or lack thereof of forces which could resist the invading imperialist militaries—which is why our propaganda stressed the centrality of mobilizing proletarian opposition to the war within the imperialist centers (or citadels) as the agency for such defense. That fight—for an independent proletarian mobilization against the war as opposed to the rotten, Labourite (on British terrain), class-collaborationist, “all people of good will” “mass movement” that could not and did not stop the war—has been central to the work of most of our sections in the recent past.
The BT cut and ran during Cold War II; the IG departed after the destruction of the Soviet Union. But, even before Norden departed our organization, his proclivities to elevate the military over the political had been documented. Comrades recommend Ralph Eades’ document on the Workers Vanguard coverage of the first Gulf War, which falsely equated the tenacity of those fighting for social revolution (the heroic Vietnamese) with the forces at the disposal of the wretched, formerly Washington-backed Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq. In the recent war, of course, the country had been devastated by imperialist sanctions and, while we hailed every act of resistance against the imperialists, it would have been utterly fatuous to assume that the rocks, sticks and ancient SAMs at the disposal of the Iraqis would “defeat” the U.S./British forces. The fight for defense of Iraq was, rather, political: a struggle against the obstacles to mobilizing class resistance to the war, which was acutely posed in Britain.
Here’s a military fact: had the Soviet Red Army crushed the CIA-backed Islamic reactionaries rather than ignominiously withdrawing its forces from Afghanistan, things would look a lot different in the world today. Those who took the other side, or tried to split the difference (like Workers Power with its “counterrevolutionary to go in, counterrevolutionary to leave” position) were left chattering about a “united front” with the Taliban when the U.S. went to war against its erstwhile partners in Afghanistan in the aftermath of September 11. And the BT was much the same, and the IG, which managed to deep-six the whole question of the Soviet intervention into Afghanistan while pursuing its campus work in New York City during the war against Afghanistan. Beneath the paper/cyberspace howls about “defeating imperialism” lurks these explicit acts by both the BT and the IG to denounce and/or bury the Trotskyist position of unconditional military defense of the dictatorship of the proletariat, the conquest of which is how one defeats imperialism.
Lastly, given the important opponents’ interventions on the SL/B’s plate, I understand that comrades can only do so much reading. But on the BT itself: our exposure, subsequent trial and expulsion of one Bill Logan is very much part of the British section’s history. Those bulletins should be read by our members, not least because the BT hangs around our organization, having lost other host organisms (such as the SLP) as well as for its usual anti-Spartacist purposes. Knowledge of what a collection of sociopaths, misogynist bullies and outríght creeps came to form the BT does not rid us of our obligation to politically fight on political questions arising from their “work,” but it could cut against the rather academic view of political struggle as simply that of ideas, divorced from the practice, history and composition of the purveyors of such ideas.
Hope this is helpful, and best wishes for our interventions upcoming. Will talk to you tomorrow.
P.S. The SL/B and its youth group have had this problem since we began to break out and recruit new and young forces: the youth are recruited on a fairly soft basis, e.g., the ten-point program. But that is only the beginning of the work. The political consolidation within the common movement is in a sense where the real work begins. It’s not enough to tell a young comrade with a deviant line to go read X, it needs to be taken in hand through both formal and informal education, fights when necessary (such as now) and transmitting our party history to a younger generation. It sounds trite to write this, but it has and will keep coming up as long as we recruit and as long as the work of consolidating our newer members is neglected.
by Ben M., London, 28 June 2003
On the Counterrevolution in the USSR
In Reply to Tony R’s Document
I have taken time out from my reading and preparation for our intervention into Socialism 2003 to write a short document on the subject of Tony’s disagreement with our position on counterrevolution in the Soviet Union. I should firstly commend Comrade Tony on bringing his questions and disagreements to the fore in the manner that he has. As he stresses, he has defended our position in public and in raising his disagreement internally in his document Tony is fully adhering to the principles of democratic centralism. I am also glad to see that the formal discussion on this matter has been referred to the SYG and a meeting has been accordingly called for next week, reaffirming our commitment to Leninist youth-party relations.
Though Comrade Tony’s position is also that of the International Bolshevik Tendency, it appears to me that his disagreement is more a result of confusion about the reality of counterrevolution and an incorrect theoretical approach than one of hostility. I have no doubt that the distortions and parasitic phrasemongering of the IBT have abetted Tony’s current confusion. It is our responsibility to counter this confusion by a political fight in the SYG aided by the experience of senior party comrades (not least those visiting from other sections). The newer members of the SYG have not experienced a political fight and the matter being debated has not been discussed in detail by the youth. Therefore we should put evermore stress on the proper and comradely conduct of all discussion that takes place and, where possible, comrades should write documents. The participation of the SYG in the fight with Stephanie—though very different—was such, and given that Tony’s conduct is in no way hostile as Stephanie’s was, and he is adhering to democratic centralism, we should make doubly sure of such proper and comradely conduct.
No doubt much of what I am going to write has been expressed in informal discussions over the previous days, as well as in Comrade Eibhlin’s informative and useful presentation at the caucus for the Taaffeite event this weekend. Although my conclusions are based on these presentations and the reading of our propaganda, I do not intend to quote lengthily from our press. However, I intend to reply to Tony’s document directly and hopefully address some of the confusion with clarity.
In short, Comrade Tony argues that our position on the August 1991 coup and not declaring the counterrevolution complete until eight months later in 1992 is flawed. In addition he declares that we should have supported the “state emergency committee” (EC) in their coup by giving them military support. He uses a number of quotes from various of Trotsky’s and our own writings to support his arguments, as well as a number of illustrative examples. However, I think these are misplaced, and the conclusions made do not follow from the premises when material reality is taken into account. The first question asked is whether the fact that the economy was not yet capitalist (in August 1991) meant that a bourgeois counterrevolution had not yet taken place. Comrade Tony cites Trotsky, using the example of the 1917 Bolshevik revolution. “In the first months of Soviet rule the proletariat reigned on the basis of a bourgeois economy” wrote Trotsky, “Should a bourgeois counterrevolution succeed in the USSR, the new government for a lengthy period would have to base itself upon the nationalised economy.…The victory of one class over another signifies that it will reconstruct the economy in the interests of the victors.” But does this take for granted that the “victory of one class over another”—the counterrevolution—takes place overnight, or even in a period of days? Not at all.
For sure, the Bolshevik revolution was neither begun (1) nor concluded on the 7th and 8th of November. The decrees of workers’ control and land for the peasants issued by the People’s Commissars on the 8th of November did not constitute the social revolution, just as Tsar Boris Yeltsin’s decrees on the 22nd of August didn’t constitute the reversal of those great gains. However, far more importantly, in 1917 the working class was an active factor. In the months leading up to the October insurrection—when the Bolsheviks gained majorities in the Soviets—the industrial workers in the proletarian centres were overwhelmingly in support of the Bolsheviks. The proletariat played an active role. The 1991 coup, counter-coup and subsequent counterrevolution were marked by the relative absence of the proletariat and a revolutionary leadership. In hindsight we know that the consciousness of the proletariat had been eroded by decades of Stalinist misrule, but this does not negate the possibility that had our forces been larger we could have provided this leadership—as was also the case in the DDR in 1989-1990. As comrades know and are proud of, the ICL fought with all its ability to instil conscious[ness] necessary in the proletariat to fight for political revolution to oust the Stalinist bureaucracy. As Trotsky stated, a battle that is not fought constitutes a battle lost. But for Yeltsin and his counterrevolutionary rabble to win the battle it took more than just decrees and barricades attended by a few thousand yuppies and frauds of the likes of Workers Power, Militant and the International Socialists. It is well known that on the evening of August the 22nd, the day of the famous coup—which Comrade Tony argues was the moment of counterrevolution—Boris Yeltsin was found drunken and unconscious on the floor of his White House office by his deputy! It was by no means certain what would happen next, and the counterrevolutionaries, regardless of their ambition to become the new bourgeoisie, had not become organised as the new ruling class.
The other question, which Comrade Tony raises, is that of whether we should have given military support to the GKChP (EC). I think his analysis is based on the false premise that the EC had it in its own interest to mobilise the proletariat. The EC’s official programme was one of “Perestroika without Glasnost”—capitalist restoration at a slower pace. “The fact that the coup was so inept” and that the gang of eight couldn’t shoot straight was not the main problem with the EC, and it is not the sole nor the primary reason we gave for not giving it support. Surely we would have made a military bloc with them if they had sent tanks against the White House, but this would neither have prevented counterrevolution, or most crucially, mobilised the workers. To use the example of defending Iraq in the recent war is both out of context and misleading. Not only did we not emblazon “defeat imperialism” across our front pages (as the IBT and IG exclaim in cynical, parasitical horror), since such a possibility was negated by material reality, but the Republican Guard were not Stalinist bureaucrats with the power to delay a capitalist counterrevolution in a workers state. To ask, “since when did Trotskyists start basing their decisions on who to support on their military strength?” and cite the example of the decrepit Iraqi military is somewhat misled.
Equally, to state that our assertion that the EC were “just as committed to capitalist restoration as Yeltsin” is “something which veers towards the formation (sic) that the Stalinist bureaucracy was ‘counterrevolutionary through and through'” is incorrect. The two cannot be equated. The EC were committed to capitalist counterrevolution, but that is not the same as saying that this was necessarily the case with all other elements of the bureaucracy. Neither is the dating of counterrevolution months later than the August 1991 counter-coup the same as believing that what was happening was “reformism in reverse”. This is also out of context—Trotsky makes this accusation against state capitalist theorists who declared, as do their Cliffite contemporaries today, that a social counterrevolution had already taken place under Stalin.
Comrade Tony uses the example of boiling water to illustrate the dialectical logic behind an overnight counterrevolution. Let’s use this example and provide a very different conclusion, a truly dialectical one. From 1 to 99° centigrade there is no quantitative change in the water. But at 100° centigrade the water doesn’t all turn to steam. The quantitative change begins, but it takes time for all the water to evaporate. August the 22nd began the quantitative change, but the “water”—the gains of October—didn’t become “steam”, that is, bourgeois property forms, until some time later.
These gains could have been saved, and what’s more, it is by no means a hopeless dream to declare that the proletariat could have been led to a victorious political revolution, beginning a far different process to that which eventually took place. I hope that, by talking to comrades who were in Moscow in 1990-92, in Germany in 1989-90 and by reading our excellent propaganda from the time, Comrade Tony will see that, to use his own words, “when the counterrevolution took place is not just an academic question.” I do not accuse Comrade Tony of disregarding the ICL’s intervention, however the odious consequence of declaring counterrevolution to have happened overnight and well before the gains of October were really sold out is the writing off of the revolutionary capacity of the proletariat. It is nothing less than to run from the defence of the Soviet Union in the face of the final fight, something that our opponents—not least the IBT—are fully guilty of.
I hope my comments have been of some use, and no doubt where I have missed crucial points or exhibited inaccuracies other comrades will bring these to light.
(1) In his History of the Russian Revolution, Trotsky gives the example of the Provisional Government’s attempt to shut down the Bolshevik press and his own ability to send a detachment of Red Guards to reopen them to show that the working class held a large degree of power some weeks before the insurrection; one reason why the revolution in Petrograd was so bloodless.
Erratum notes on my document
In the interest of clarity, I should make one factual and one grammatical correction to my document (“On the Counterrevolution in the USSR. In reply to Tony R…”) which is of political significance.
1. Where I write “In short, Comrade Tony argues that our position on the August 1991 coup and not declaring the counterrevolution complete until eight months later in 1992 is flawed” (my emphasis), I initially intended to write “November 1992” but opted for stylistic purposes to give a timescale. However, due to my rather inept, unmaterialist mathematical faculties, I made a small miscalculation…November 1992 happens to be over 15 months later. (Though of course we do not give an exact date to when counterrevolution was not actually completed and thus “over a year later in 1992” is more appropriate I think.)
2. More significantly Comrades pointed out that my statement that we would have made a military bloc with the EC if they sent the troops against the barricades “but this would neither have prevented counterrevolution, or most crucially, mobilised the workers” is incorrect and misleading, as well as inconsistent to the position I put forward throughout the document, which is that of the ICL (obviously in a simplified form). The sentence should read “but though this wouldn’t have prevented counterrevolution in of itself, most crucially it would have mobilised the workers in defence of the gains of October, regardless of the intentions of the Emergency Committee.”
I think comrades will agree that, though they recognise a grammatical error was involved, it is of decisive political significance and for that reason I have made this correction.
by Ralf Neuer, 29 June 2003
The Proletariat is Key
After reading your letter “On the Counterrevolution in Russia” I would like to try to explain where you are wrong politically. (In the process of writing this note I was able to read not only Bonnie’s very useful note, but also Ben M’s document, which I liked. Ben deals with some of the main questions quite effectively.) In addition, I’d like to put these political issues into the context of our interventions as a revolutionary organisation:
l. The equation of the October 1917 Bolshevik uprising and taking state power with Yeltsin’s countercoup.
2. Who was key, the Stalinists of the GKChP (EC) or the proletariat?
The Bolsheviks had the majority of armed soldiers and workers behind their program for taking power, consciously fighting for the expropriation of the bourgeoisie, for land to the tiller, for ending the imperialist war, for the freedom of the oppressed people and looking forward to sparking revolutions in the imperialist West.
Yeltsin in August 1991 was the leader of one of the two main wings of the upper circles of the bureaucracy (among them for sure some army officials) but he had no hold over the army or the proletariat, and he wanted to go ahead with capitalist counterrevolution in a more direct way than Gorbachev with his “500 day plan”. Therefore he got the backing of Bush and U.S.-imperialism.
So to speak of him as having “an armed body of men dedicated to the construction and defence of capitalism” (my emphasis)—i.e. a capitalist state—in August 1991 is completely false.
To say it another way: Your false equation of Yeltsin and the Bolshevik revolution in reverse means to denigrate the October Revolution as a coup!!
As you write yourself there were soldiers in tanks and armoured vehicles who were pathetically and horrendously organised (by the EC!!)—they didn’t know what to do!
We knew! If we had at that time some comrades in the AZLK—or ZIL—auto plant (where we sold thousands of papers over the years we worked in Moscow till these were basically destroyed and closed), we could have mobilised some hundreds of workers to take out the rabble at the White House barricades (which did not at all have the support of the masses of people either). The soldiers of the armoured vehicles could have been easily won over to our side for the defence of the workers state and this would have opened up a civil war and a political revolution against the Stalinists. The coup plotters very much feared this. That’s the reason they consciously told the workers to stay home. If the EC had moved against Yeltsin, we would have been in a military bloc with them (for a short time). But they didn’t.
As for the line by the BT that the failure of the putsch means that “the major organised obstacle to the consolidation of a bourgeois state has been effectively removed”—this is to simply write off the Soviet working class as a force against capitalist restoration.
Right after the counter-coup we distributed tens of thousands of leaflets “Soviet Workers: Defeat Yeltsin-Bush counterrevolution!” (30 August 1991) in order to win workers to the defence of the gains of the October revolution. We were able to effectively intervene into workers’ conferences with our program.
At Revolutionary day 1991 our tiny Moscow group marched under the banner of the Fourth International with tens of thousands of workers to the Red Square while selling packets of our Trotskyist literature. (In fact we sold out and I had to get more from the office.) For us the key question was: will the working class fight back or will Yeltsin be able to establish and consolidate a capitalist state, which he started to build after his coup (naming new head of the soviet army, KGB and interior ministry; outlawing the CP etc.) but could not have had in August 1991.
The BT’s line, declaring with Yeltsin’s power grab that the Soviet military are henceforth “‘bodies of armed men’ dedicated to the objectives of western capitalists and their internal allies”, completely write off every soldier and officer of the Soviet army as a repressive agent of capital (see “BT Writes Off the Soviet Union” WV 27 Sept. 1991).
In Germany, the BT used the same methodology. When in October 1989 the repressive Stalinist apparatus fell apart, for the BT it was nothing but counterrevolution on the march. They spit on the massive pro-socialist demos in Berlin in December 1989 and they spit on Treptow, where the ICL addressed the working class with the Trotskyist program of revolutionary reunification of Germany (i.e. proletarian political revolution in the East and social revolution in the West). Our call to build workers and soldiers Soviets was taken up in many areas in Germany. I myself was recruited in 1990 as an officer and tank commander with a group of 5 people from our barracks. I took my political experience to Moscow to try to win Soviet workers and soldiers to the road of Lenin and Trotsky.
Unfortunately, we didn’t succeed. The working class didn’t rise up; Yeltsin consolidated and tested his state. In February 1992 cops attacked an anti-Yeltsin demo. Racist cops murdered an African student in September 1992 and Yeltsin broke a strike by air traffic controllers in October.
In November 1992 we state in “How the Soviet Workers State Was Strangled”: “The period of open counterrevolution ushered in by Boris Yeltsin’s pro-imperialist counter-coup in August 1991 has, in the absence of mass working-class resistance, culminated in the creation of a bourgeois state, however fragile and reversible.” (my emphasis) And we say the task is social revolution.
The Stalinists bear responsibility for this world historic defeat. Beginning with 1924 they poisoned and destroyed the consciousness of the working class for decades from the nationalist lie of “socialism in one country” to their description of WWII as the “Great Patriotic War” etc.
But we fought on the ground for proletarian internationalism in the defence and the extension of the gains of the October Revolution—and we are very proud of our fight.
P.S.: Looking forward to seeing and talking to you more about this at “Marxism”.
by Chuck, Toronto, 30 June 2003
Smoke and Mirrors over August ‘91: Beware BT’s “Allegory of the Cave”
(A Reply to Comrade Tony)
I just happened to read Tony R.’s June 25 document, “On the Counterrevolution in Russia.” I wanted to weigh in, mostly as one who’s often had the “honor” of answering the Toronto BT’s stock intervention on the Yeltsin coup, and also because I was part of similar fights in the Rouen local back in the fall of 1991. I’ll try (but won’t promise) not to repeat what has already been said by Comrades Bonnie, George and Ben.
The Bolshevik Tendency’s position on the “coup” is a centrist crock from start to finish. While I do not want to ascribe the BT’s motivation to Tony, the Comrade owes it to himself to think through the sequence of positions taken by the BT on the Russian Question since their inception (denouncing our support for a potential Soviet crackdown on Solidarnosc, renouncing “Hail Red Army!,” sneering at our intervention in the DDR) and up to the 1991 coup. He should seriously consider this sentence from our polemic, which he seems to have read:
“Behind the veneer of its after-the-fact support to the coup, the BT has found in the flop engineered by the ‘gang of eight that couldn’t shoot straight’ their long awaited opportunity to wash their hands of the Soviet Union—something they have yearned to do for years.”
(“BT Writes Off the Soviet Union,” WV No. 535, 27 September 1991)
What does Tony think of that statement?
Also, I don’t know how much Tony knows/remembers of the actual events of August 1991, but one of the BT’s “strengths” is to play on people’s ignorance. For instance, one thing that is important to know about the sequence of events in August 1991 is that the “Emergency Committee” coup was primarily directed against then-president (or whatever title he had) Gorbachev, not Yelstin. It is in fact when Yeltsin took the offensive that the coup collapsed without a fight. Why? Because they were “just as committed to capitalist restoration as Yeltsin”—and the last thing they wanted to do was to displease Western imperialism which stood behind him. At the same time, we were keenly aware that the Yeltsin forces represented a more immediate danger. As we said in the same article: “Certainly any serious opponent of capitalist counterrevolution in the USSR would have looked long and hard to determine if there was a basis for giving military support to the coup against Yeltsin’s open counterrevolution.” But the Emergency Committee’s boldest move was to…hold a press conference, where they advised everyone to stay home. Tony himself acknowledges that the coupsters were “inept,” yet he still wants to give them military support. But in the absence of military action, “military” support is just…support, i.e. polítical support. As our 1991 polemic points out:
“In and of itself, the collapse of the Kremlin Stalinists does not signal that the Soviet degenerated workers state has been destroyed. With its position that the failure of the coup equals the victory of counterrevolution, the BT apes the Stalinists’ lie which identifies the existence of the workers state with the continued rule of the parasitical, nationalist bureaucracy.”
Incidentally, this is where the BT shares the Pabloites’ “methodology,” although they come to formally opposite positions (but not, in the real world, conflicting ones—if the Pabloites openly embraced counterrevolution, the BT ducked the fight against it.) It is the same “methodology,” as we point out in the article, which led the BT to sneer at our intervention in the DDR in 1989-90.
And it was not just a question of “strength” either. This is the “straw-man argument” part of Tony’s document which I liked the least. I mean, Yanayev and Co. may not have had much authority over the armed forces, but they certainly could have used more force than they actually did. The point is that they didn’t, and they didn’t want to. Bringing up the defense of Iraq in this context, as Tony does—as another example of the ICL’s “confusion” I gather—only serves to muddy the waters. It also carries the implication that by not supporting the coup, we were simply neutral on defense of the Soviet Union, which echoes the BT’s most pathetic argument.
In their “live” interventions, the Toronto BT has indeed taken to accusing us of “neutrality” and “defeatism” in August 1991. In answer to this, I usually just wave around a copy of our statement: “Soviet Workers: Defeat Yeltsin-Bush Counterrevolution!,” which has the effect of cracking up the audience and distracting their intervention. More, seriously though, we can explain that our statement of active revolutionary defensism was distributed, in Russian, in the tens of thousands throughout the former Soviet Union. Contrast this to the BT’s statement—their erudite “analysis”—which came out in English more than a month after the events and, as far as I know, was never put out in Russian. The point is that we cared about stopping counterrevolution, so we fought, (in the course of which our heroic comrade Martha Phillips was murdered); the BT didn’t care, much less fight.
Instead, for the last 12 years, the BT has been obsessed with the question of “the date” of capitalist counterrevolution in the former USSR. Tony echoes this with a lecture on dialectical materialism. I thought Ben did a fine job at replying to this. I feel like adding that, yes, capitalist restoration over one fifth of the planet is a little more complicated then the evaporation of water. The only thing we can say for sure is that counterrevolution was a process which took place between August 1991 and July 1992 after a series of events showed that Yeltsin had indeed consolidated a capitalist state. The decisive moment was Yeltsin’s August 1991 coup, but to write off the Soviet workers state right away would have been a betrayal of our most basic principles—we are revolutionaries, we fight.
To paraphrase Lenin, all opportunisms boil down to an underestimation of the revolutionary capacity of the working class. That’s the other thing that struck me about Tony’s document. Throughout, the Comrade treats the proletariat like a passive object of politics, not as a potentially active factor—something he also shares with the BT. Once again, Tony would do well to reflect on this excerpt from our polemic:
“The BT calls for support to Yanayev, Pavlov & Co…without even a nod to mobilizing the proletariat! While the botched coup and the ascendency of Yeltsin have opened the floodgates for capitalist counterrevolution in the USSR, the Soviet proletariat has yet to be heard from. The question of which class shall rule is urgently posed, but it is not one that has already been determined.”
As for dialectics, I find the BT rather lacking. The methodology of a “Marxist” group that is so obsessed with “the date” (why not the time-of-day too, while they’re at it?), but not at all with intervening to change history is anything but dialectical materialism. For us, Marxism is a guide to action. For the centrist sectarians of the BT, it is a static “grid of analysis” (as my Quebecois sociology teachers used to say) mostly useful for posturing within academia and the fake-left swamp. When confronted with the choice of playing a role in the single most important historic event of the last several decades or staying on the sidelines, they chose the latter. “Military support” to the coup (long after it had collapsed!) is but a very thin cover for it all. I hope Tony can see this before too long.
With Comradely feelings, I hope Tony reconsiders his position. My best to the Comrades of the SL/B and SYG and hoped this helped a little.
30 June 2003
P.S.: As an aside, I do recommend that short piece by Socrates (see title), the “founder” of dialectics, so to speak. Tony’s obviously a smart young comrade, but he should take to heart the Greek philosopher’s admonition that it is not so important to be aware of how much you know, but of how much you don’t.
by Ed C., Chicago, 1 July 2003
On Yeltsin’s Coup
Tony’s document is, of course, a challenge to our understanding of the factors leading to the overthrow of the October Revolution in the degenerated Soviet worker’s state. Hopefully, he will abandon his current position. Simultaneously it gives us an important chance to review those events that can only accrue to the benefit of the ICL. He has been well answered by others; nevertheless, I want to throw in my two cents without too frequently repeating the points that have already been made. A year or so [ago] (probably longer) I wrote a document in which I stood against Victor’s position that a formulation in (I believe) a youth article that Yeltsin’s coup ushered in the social counterrevolution in the USSR demanded a WV correction. At that time I said something to the effect that in retrospect such a statement was not excessively errant and that a WV correction was not warranted. At that the time the PB passed a motion essentially approving my position. I want to elaborate on this by noting that the youth statement was only acceptable in retrospect and neither should have been our international’s position nor a full understanding of the factors involved.
First, a few words on dialectics. Tony seems to hold that if the exact point of transformation of quantity into quality were somewhat indeterminate then dialectic materialism would fail as a tool that reflects and assists in the understanding of natural and/or historical processes. I think not. Consider the construction of galaxies from inchoate gases. The standard for that transition, insofar as one exists, is not established by natural forces but rather by human estimation of the changes involved. Nor would any physicist or astronomer think of attempting to affix an exact date or time to this process. As to the example of boiling water cited correctly by Engels in his Dialectics of Nature, the point of transition—100 degrees Centigrade, is an approximation dependent on any number of factors, most importantly atmospheric pressure. Of course, one can tell by observation when the water begins to boil. That is hardly rocket science. Nevertheless, if one day it boils at 96 degrees (on a mountaintop) or at 103 degrees (below sea level) this does nothing to render invalid the dialectical processes used to understand this phenomenon.
To look more specifically at the events at the time of Yeltsin’s coup it is important to realize that this had initial resonance primarily in Moscow and Petrograd and then only among the rather scant social forces of the lumpen bourgeoisie. Let us suppose that in the weeks following the coup workers’ uprisings had occurred throughout the USSR with the result that Yeltsin had been overthrown and the October Revolution survived. Would Tony then say that a capitalist counterrevolution was followed by a second proletarian revolution. Hopefully not. Obviously, in that case, an attempt at counterrevolution would have failed. Alternately, if the proletarian uprisings had been defeated by Yeltsin’s forces that defeat would signal the capitalist overturn, not the coup in Moscow and Petrograd.
To cite another instance familiar to Marxists, one can look at France in 1870 when the Parisian working class rose en masse and seized Paris, an uprising that had echoes in other French cities. Certainly what was involved was a force infinitely more coherent than the rabble around Yeltsin. Did that uprising result in a social overturn in France? The answer is that was to be determined; on the one hand by the capacity of [the] bourgeoisie to put down the uprising and on the other hand by the capacity of the Communards to attract the peasants and workers throughout France to their banner. Similarly, depending on circumstances Yeltsin had to consummate his coup by seizing social power throughout the USSR. To mention one important task cited by Victor, the general staff of the Red Army had to [be] “rearranged.”
Others have stated that the conspirators who arrested Gorbachev in no way were a force in defense of the workers state. In fact, the coup was directed at Gorbachev’s attempts to weaken the hold of the bureaucratic caste on its positions of power. It is to be noted that the conspirators did not challenge perestroika. The bureaucratic caste retained political power at the time of Gorbachev’s arrest. However whether that power—which was always a threat to the gains of the October Revolution—would be used to defend the gains was, to say the least, at that time in question. As we have pointed out such industry and government administration as exists today in Russia is carried, for the most part, by one-time members of the ruling bureaucratic caste.
cc: Chicago local
by Olly, London, 3 July 2003
Dating the Counterrevolution—A reply to Comrade Tony’s document
Tony’s difference is based around the charge that our tendency is unable to specifically date the counterrevolution in the Soviet Union, and that from this follows inconsistencies in our analysis and an actual incorrect political line, post-Yeltsin’s coup.
Tony asserts that dating the counterrevolution is no mere academic task, quoting from Trotsky’s The ABC of Marxist Dialectics to demonstrate that being able to determine when quantitative turns to qualitative is one of the most important and difficult tasks. In this he is right: The Trotskyist Party’s attitude to counterrevolution must not be an abstract academic one, but must be based on urgent intervention into the concrete situation with its revolutionary programme. Yet [it] is exactly this understanding that Tony’s document desperately lacks. According to the analysis Tony appeals to, as soon as the victory of Yeltsin’s barricades is assured over that of the Emergency Committee “counter-coup”, the counterrevolution has succeeded, the world’s first workers’ state has been lost. There is no room for the Soviet working class in this analysis, and no window for the intervention of the revolutionary party (represented by our tendency) to lead that working class against the counterrevolution. For all of the document’s dialectical verbiage of quantitative turning into qualitative, the subjective role of the working class (the agent Marxists look to) led by its revolutionary vanguard (our entire reason for being) is written off, discarded straight away. The only forces shown to be in a position to become the catalyst in this point in history are the Yeltsinítes or the gang of eight, ie the bureaucracy.
This is a theory based on hindsight and an aloofness from revolutionary struggle. It is well documented in our press that we saw Yeltsin’s coup as a “counterrevolutionary tide”, but it was not in itself the determining factor. The decisive factor was the absence of the working class’ fight to defend its state against the forces of counterrevolution. Yeltsin’s coup announced the intention of a state committed to capitalist restoration, but Yeltsin had to consolidate that state. He had to ensure control of the apparatus of that state ie the judiciary, the police and the army, for the purpose of capitalist restoration.
When Tony claims that Yeltsin’s coup represented a “special body of armed men” committed to particular property forms as the Bolshevik revolution did, he is mistaken. Before the Bolsheviks could take power, they had to fight for it. They had to resolve the system of dual power by winning or consolidating the support of the vast majority of the soviets. This was a process of class struggle, a period in which they had to win over the masses and split the army. Only then could they take state power as a special body of armed men. To keep with Tony’s parallel of the Russian counterrevolution with the Russian revolution, Yeltsin’s coup should be compared with February rather than October: It was the opening up of a situation of the bid for power.
This correct parallel, together with looking at what the ICL actually did, conditioned by what programme during this period, should I hope, clarify things for Tony. We called for workers’ committees to defend the collectivised gains of the workers state, threatened by the counterrevolutionary tide that had been unleashed by Yeltsin’s coup. We called for officers’ and soldiers’ committees to defend against Yeltsin’s purges of the army. We were, uniquely, the upholders of the Trotskyist programme of unconditional military defence of the USSR, in this case, against internal counterrevolution, of which our ultimate call was political revolution: the ousting of the conservative parasitic bureaucracy, and its replacement with the rule of the workers, the revolutionary party at its head.
The facts are plain for all to see. Only those with a different programmatic appetite can choose to interpret them differently…which brings us on to the IBT, whose political line (and ultimately programme) Tony’s document is an expression of. The IBT is based on a collection of individuals who, in the main, fled our tendency over an inability to give any real content to the call of Soviet defencism. From Solidarnosc to the Red Army intervention in Afghanistan, when the pressures from the imperialists and their fake left lackeys were intensified to the extreme, these individuals broke with the Trotskyist programme, only later coming together with a characteristic retrospective cowardly and shameful cover of a “programme”. (As an aside, these are the guys who today give critical support to South Korea’s social democrats, ie the forces of counterrevolution in this area of the world, who are for a capitalist reunification of Korea, which is wholly consistent with their criticisms of us not uniting with the SPD in a front to defend the DDR!)
The IBT line (and that of Tony’s document) that we should have militarily blocked with the EC counter-coup is nothing more than a cover for their immediate writing-off of the Soviet Union—and a pathetic one at that. This “perestroika coup” was no force for the halting of capitalist restoration, demonstrated by concrete events: They made no real move to crush Yeltsin. There was no arrest, they did not cut his phone lines, they even allowed his appeals to be broadcast. We make the point that had the EC moved against Yeltsin, we would have militarily blocked—but it did not. Incidentally, Tony should look again at his comparison with our line on the recent imperialist war on Iraq. The fact that we called for defence of Iraq (an appeal to the working class in the imperialist centres and semi-colonial outposts) rather than victory to Iraq, was based on our correct assessment that the military forces in Iraq had no chance of defeating the imperialist onslaught and that the call for a military bloc in this case would be ludicrous and could only be taken as support for the regime. There is no point in entering a military bloc with non-existent military forces. In fact [it] is counterproductive in that it illustrates political support to alien elements.
The crucial point, the thing that separates our tendency from the swamp, is programme, and what motivates that programme. For the OTOs, and not least the IBT, the Soviet Union was a thorn in their side, something they wanted rid of as soon as possible. Yeltsin’s coup initiated a period that posed the Russian Question point blank for the final time in the world’s first workers state. The OTOs had built a political career on conceding to the camp of the imperialists on this question, the question of revolution. The last thing they were going to do is fight in the camp of the working class and oppressed. And the last thing the ICL was going to do was give up the fight before it was finished. The penultimate paragraph of Tony’s document is very revealing of the typical social-democratic position of the fake left. Tony states:
“…to recognise the fact that the forces of counterrevolution had won in August ‘91 did not mean giving up on the defence of the gains the workers had made. All it meant was that to defend the gains of the working class the workers would have to fight as they would in any bourgeois state to defend their gains (e.g. the NHS in Britain) and through a socialist revolution, oust Yeltsin”
The implication here is: ‘So the Soviet Union has fallen, big deal. The fight now is merely transformed to defending nationalisation on to the terrain of bourgeois democracy.’ But the fall of a state based on collectivised property forms is of the greatest loss to the world’s working class and oppressed, as can be seen with the devastation in the former Soviet Union, post-USSR world austerity, and the strengthening of imperialism. In this context the maxim that those who cannot defend old gains cannot gain new ones is greatly illustrated.
by Edward, London, 3 July 2003
On the capitalist counterrevolution in the USSR—A reply to Tony R
Comrades have already identified the central problems with Tony’s position, in particular the absence in his document of a perspective for fighting to mobilise the proletariat to sweep away the counterrevolutionary forces. I want to respond to some of the particular problems with Tony’s document and where I think some of the confusion on his part might be coming from.
It is completely untrue as the IBT claims that we were “neutral” on the question of fighting against counterrevolution. This is obvious to anyone who reads our propaganda from the time. We distributed over 100,000 copies of our Russian language leaflet “Soviet Workers: Defeat Yeltsin-Bush Counterrevolution!” across the Soviet Union. We fought to mobilise the proletariat to defend the gains of October which even after the countercoup included the proletarian dictatorship—and to fight for a proletarian political revolution, which required the early forging of a Trotskyist party. If we hadn’t it would have meant the political death of our tendency.
Tony’s argument rests on the assertion that after the countercoup Yeltsin had cohered “an armed body of men dedicated to the construction and defence of capitalism…(that) took state power in Russia”. Comrades Ben and Olly have already responded to this assertion. I wanted to ask: how can Tony know? What had happened to the previous state apparatus and the Soviet armed forces, which until that point had been defending a completely different set of property relations? Did they disappear overnight? It certainly isn’t clear that the workers state had been destroyed and replaced by a capitalist state at this point. Tony’s position identifies the collapse of the CPSU with the collapse of the workers state. Yeltsin’s countercoup opened up a period where a clear alternative was posed: capitalist counterrevolution or proletarian political revolution.
We would have blocked with a section of the bureaucracy that made a move to sweep away the open counterrevolutionaries. Such a move would have pulled the proletariat into political struggle against the forces of open counterrevolution. Such a situation would have developed into a civil war, with fundamental class forces being pulled into play. Under this pressure the bureaucracy would have split, a more or less significant part going over to the side of the proletariat.
However, this is precisely the reason that the “Gang of Eight” did not make any move against Yeltsin. The Emergency Committee feared the prospect of civil war and the independent political mobilisation of the working class above all. Tony claims that we didn’t support the EC because they were “inept”. This is not true. We didn’t support the EC because there was no prospect they would move militarily against Yeltsin. By way of comparison, Tony should familiarise himself with our position on the crushing of Polish “Solidarity”, after it was clear the Soviet bureaucracy would mobilise against Solidarity:
“If the Kremlin Stalinists, in their necessarily brutal stupid way, intervene militarily to stop it we will support this. And we take responsibility in advance for this; whatever the idiocies and atrocities they will commit, we do not flinch from defending the crushing of Solidarity’s counterrevolution.”
“Stop Solidarity’s Counterrevolution”, WV No. 289, 25 September 1981 (emphasis in original)
This principled defencist position drove the BT crazy, of course.
It is important to understand the BT’s (retrospective) “support” to the EC for what it is. The BT was desperate to relieve itself of the burden of having to “defend” the Soviet degenerated workers state, so they wrote off the USSR as soon as they could. Their after-the-fact support to the EC is a cynical cover for their failure to lift a finger to mobilise the Soviet proletariat against the counterrevolution. Tony should think about the BT’s history on the Russian Question to see this. They hated our line on the crushing of Solidarity; they hated the slogans “Hail Red Army in Afghanistan!” and “Extend the Gains of the October Revolution!”; today they give critical support to the Democratic Labour Party in South Korea, which has a programme for counterrevolution in North Korea. Their position on “the date counterrevolution happened” is related to this.
There is also a connection between their writing off of the Soviet Union before the decisive battle and their proximity to the reformist left internationally, for example their support to the Socialist Alliance in Britain. Lenin and Trotsky said that all revisionism has the same source: an underestimation of the revolutionary capacity of the proletariat and of the importance of the subjective factor, i.e. the revolutionary party. The IBT is hostile to the need for a Trotskyist party and this is consistent with their objectivist, passive position on the “date” of counterrevolution. This is also consistent with their support to the Socialist Alliance. Tony disagrees with their position on the Socialist Alliance; this is a contradiction. The BT reduces the proletariat to a passive object. There is an unfortunate similarity with Tony’s document where he says nothing about the possibility of mobilising the working class against counterrevolution, or about the need to have forged a Trotskyist party. Tony says it behoved revolutionaries to “recognis(e) the reality that the working class was not acting while the EC was”. The task of fighting off counterrevolution is therefore passed over to the Stalinist bureaucracy. What about the proletariat?
Tony claims “to recognise the fact that the forces of open counterrevolution had won in August ‘91 did not mean giving up the defence of the gains the workers had made.” Well, you’ve already written off the dictatorship of the proletariat, and that’s a pretty big loss. What else is there? “(T)he workers would have to fight as they would in any bourgeois state to defend their gains (e.g. the NHS in Britain)”, although Tony allows they would also need to fight for “a socialist revolution to oust Yeltsin”. But he has already written off the proletariat as a revolutionary force. So what you’re left with is the proletariat simply as an economic “class-in-itself” fighting against privatisation. That seems to me a fairly social-democratic conception of the proletariat. Also, although we do defend the National Health Service, it is hardly equivalent to the collectivised economy in a workers state.
Tony evidences a lack of understanding of the character of the bureaucracy. He quotes from the “Genesis of Pabloism” against our position on counterrevolution. I think this section is in fact a polemic against Tony’s position. It states that a revolution is “a sharp and necessarily time-limited confrontation over the question of state power, the outcome of which will shape the entire subsequent period”. If counterrevolution happened at the failure of the countercoup, then this would be the “sharp and necessarily time-limited confrontation over the question of state power”, i.e. the “confrontation over the question of state power” was between the Yeltsinites and the EC. This was not the case, and could not be. Such a confrontation, as Trotsky states repeatedly in his writings, had to be between the active forces of counterrevolution and the working class: the bureaucracy could not play an independent role. In “The Class Nature of the Soviet State”, written in 1933, Trotsky wrote:
“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 course of the struggle. The victory of the proletarian camp, in any case, is conceivable only under the leadership of a proletarian party, which would naturally be raised to power by the victory over the counterrevolution.” (emphasis mine)
Tony also claims that Victor’s reference to the “piecemeal destruction of the Soviet Union of 1991-92” “suggests what Trotsky referred to as ‘reformism in reverse'”. Victor is referring to the historical process by which the Soviet degenerated workers state was destroyed. Tony has misapplied Trotsky’s phrase about “running backwards the film of reformism”. Trotsky used this phrase in “The Class Nature of the Soviet State” as a polemic against those who argued that the Soviet Union had already been destroyed by a capitalist counterrevolution. Tony obviously has the following section in mind when referring to Victor’s statement:
“The class theory of society and historical experience equally testify to the impossibility of the victory of the proletariat through peaceful methods, that is, without grandiose battles, weapons in hand. How, in that case, is the imperceptible, ‘gradual,’ bourgeois counterrevolution conceivable?”
Trotsky continues that all previous feudal or bourgeois counterrevolutions have required the intervention of “military surgery”. He concludes, “he who asserts that the Soviet government has been gradually changed from proletarian to bourgeois is only, so to speak, running backwards the film of reformism”.
Tony fails to see the difference between the situation in 1991-92 with that in the 1930s, centrally in the question of the consciousness of the Soviet masses. It is important to consider the question of capitalist counterrevolution in its historical context, which Tony’s document fails to do. The Soviet proletariat in the 1930s was intimately connected to the proletariat that made the Russian Revolution. The proletariat would have responded much more decisively against an attempt at capitalist counterrevolution in the 1930s (and this would have certainly led to a civil war) than in 1991-92. This was after several more decades of Stalinist misrule had atomised the Soviet proletariat. The proletariat in 1991-92 was a different proletariat to that of the 1930s. The projection that a civil war would be needed to restore capitalism in the 1930s does not mean one was a sine qua non for capitalist counterrevolution in the 1990s. So in looking for this decisive military confrontation Tony seizes on the “coup” by the EC, which is hardly the “grandiose battle” for state power that Trotsky refers to. Tony’s position is misled and fails to take into account the changes in the consciousness of the proletariat in the period between the 1930s and the 1990s.
I think the documents reprinted in Spartacist no 45-46, “On the Collapse of Stalinist Rule in Eastern Europe” and “For Marxist Clarity and a Forward Perspective” are very important and Tony would benefit greatly from re-reading them. In “For Marxist Clarity and a Forward Perspective” Albert St. John cites Comrade Andrews making the point that “by assuming a workers state would be as resistant to counterrevolution as a capitalist state, Trotsky had overdrawn the analogy with bourgeois society”.
“The proletariat is a different kind of ruling class than the bourgeoisie, he said. At the upper levels capitalist society consists of a relatively small group of large property owners, a net of conscious individuals each protecting their own property through a system of property. Behind the special bodies of armed men, each big capitalist therefore is a particular point or node of resistance to the overthrow of the system as a whole.”
The proletariat is more atomised as a ruling class, and as such the preservation of proletarian power depends principally on consciousness and organisation, and the link between the vanguard with the most conscious layers of the class. “Thus, the ability of a workers state to defend itself depends heavily on the political character of its central cadre.”
This explains how the Soviet bureaucracy disintegrated in 1991 after the coup. The BT’s position, which identifies the last gasp of the Stalinists with the end of the workers state, echoes the Stalinists identification of themselves with the workers state. After YeItsin’s coup, the Stalinists were finished as a force but the workers state was not; the decisive confrontation—between the proletariat and the forces for open counterrevolution—had not yet been fought.
Ben responds in his document to Tony’s false argument that our assessment of the EC “veers towards the formation (sic) that the bureaucracy was ‘counterrevolutionary through and through'”. I wanted to respond to Tony’s comparison between our military defence of Iraq and our “failure” to support the EC coup. The comparison is false. We had a clear side in the war between the imperialist powers and benighted, semicolonial Iraq, and we stood for military support to the armed forces that were fighting against the imperialists. We did not have a side with the EC’s “perestroika coup” because it was not a move against counterrevolution. I wanted to make a point on an unclear section in Olly’s otherwise excellent document. The Iraqi military forces were not “non-existent” and we did support them, and we hailed the resistance to the imperialists as “heroic”. However, it was always clear that the imperialists would defeat the Iraqi military, and as such we emphasised that the best way to give content to our call for the defence of Iraq was through class struggle against the capitalist rulers at home. This required a political struggle against the social-democratic left which sought to channel opposition to the war into parliamentarist channels safe for imperialism. This was in stark contrast to the IBT and Internationalist Group who while blowing off about the possibility of a military defeat for imperialism in Iraq did all they could to ingratiate themselves with said social-democrats wherever they put their heads up.
I hope Tony and other Comrades find this useful.
by Tony R., London, 10 July 2003
Once again on counterrevolution in Russia
The first thing I want to try to clear up is the IBT red herring. I concede the fact that the IBT has substantially the same position as I do regarding the coup and its significance. I am not even going to respond to the various points comrades have raised on the IBT, except to note that revisionists or centrists, or even outright capitalists, can say things that are true, just as revolutionaries can make mistakes. It is necessary to think very carefully if you find yourself agreeing with centrists on an issue against revolutionaries, and I have certainly done so on this issue. But the simple fact that someone holds a particular view does neither prove it true or false. Cannon’s mistaken polemics with the Shachtmanites over the Proletarian Military Policy demonstrate that very clearly.
It is true that the IBT’s persistence in raising this issue at our public events initially brought it to my attention (and not only mine). I began to wonder why we seemed to have trouble effectively answering them. After looking more closely at our position I concluded that there are some contradictions or some confusion over it that the IBT has been able to exploit. I hope comrades will believe me when I say it has not been easy for me to make these criticisms; it is hard to disagree with the comrades who I like and respect and from whom I have learned so much. I thought about it a lot before raising it. But it is, of course, the duty of a Marxist to “say what is” and that is what I am trying to do.
Military Blocs And Revolutionary Strategy: 1991, 1917
I would like to try to explain to comrades the overall framework I am using for viewing the question. The events of ‘90-91 in the USSR seem to me to pose a strategic issue for revolutionaries that is essentially analogous, (in an inverted way because it is defence of an existing state, not its overthrow which was our objective), to a key episode in the 1917 revolution. A central question in this discussion is what policy a Leninist-Trotskyist vanguard would have pursued in a confrontation between the Kerensky/CPSU Perestroikaites and the Kornilov/Yeltsinites. (The coup against Gorbachev was carried out because the EC coup leaders considered that Gorbachev had made too many concessions to the Yeltsinites and the secessionist republics endangered the rule of the CPSU bureaucracy.)
Faced with two enemies who come to blows, we have a choice. We can bloc with one against the other and seek to use the struggle as an opportunity to win over elements of our partners’ base, or we can await the outcome of the conflict and then intervene. Which option is best is a question that can only be answered in the concrete circumstances—we cannot establish a general principle. But I think that in 1991 a revolutionary party should have sought a bloc with the CPSU Perestroikaites who, like Kerensky in 1917, had gradually isolated themselves through a utopian attempt to [serve] the interests of both the working masses and the capitalist bourgeoisie [which] pleased no one and only produced social chaos. In this analogy Yeltsin would be the equivalent of General Kornilov, the consistent reactionary. What was missing in ‘91 of course was the intervention of the working class able to act in its own interests, as it had in 1917 under the leadership of the Bolshevik Party of Lenin and Trotsky.
After the February Revolution Kerensky the fake-socialist emerged as prime minister. But of course the real task for him and the other “moderate” socialists was to preserve bourgeois property and maintain the Russian war effort. As time went on the workers began to see through the empty promises of the Mensheviks, Kerensky and other “moderates” and their base increasingly began to go over to the Bolsheviks. In response Kerensky was increasingly forced, after the July Days, to lean on the right wing, particularly the top army officers. According to Isaac Deutscher in The Prophet Armed (pages 280-282) by late summer 1917:
“The Conservative and anti-revolutionary forces rested their hopes on General Kornilov, whom Kerensky had appointed Commander-in-Chief.…His attitude towards Kerensky became ambiguous and then provocative. Finally, on 24 August, he openly declared war on the government and ordered his troops to march on the capital. Confident of victory, he boasted in advance of the clean sweep he was going to make of the counterrevolution”.
“Trotsky and his friends in Kresty (prison) received the news with mixed feelings.…But the situation also offered new hope. The moderate Socialists could not save themselves from Kornilov without the help of the Bolsheviks, just as in the July days they could not save themselves from the Bolsheviks without the help of the generals. Soon the government was pressing rifles into the hands of the Red Guards, whom it had just disarmed.…”
“A scene of almost whimsical fantasy took place in Trotsky’s cell. The sailors of Kronstadt sent a delegation to ask him whether they ought to respond to Kerensky’s call and defend Kerensky against Kornilov or whether they should try to settle accounts with both Kornilov and Kerensky. To the hot-headed sailors the latter course certainly appealed more. Trotsky argued with them… They must now honour this pledge and postpone the reckoning with Kerensky, which could not be far off anyhow. The sailors took this advice.…
“Kornilov was defeated not by force of arms, but by Bolshevik agitation. His troops deserted him, without firing a shot. From Kornilov’s defeat started a new chain of events leading straight to the October insurrection. Just as the abortive revolution of 3-4 July had swung the balance in favour of counter-revolution, so this abortive counter-revolution has swung it much more powerfully in the opposite direction”.
I think that the correct position for a Leninist party with a base in the working class in 1991 would have been to [have] taken sides when the conflict between the completely reactionary Yeltsinites and the inept Stalinist fossils of the EC broke out, rather than try to “settle accounts with both” at once, or sit out the confrontation between them which is what Deutscher says the Kronstadt sailors had wanted to do in 1917. It seems clear that the Yeltsinites became harder to suppress with each hour they were left alone. The failure to move against them gave time for the counterrevolutionaries to assemble, get organised and begin building their barricades and rallying support from the imperialists and appealing to Russian reactionaries outside Moscow to come to their aid. Once Yeltsin assumed power over the Soviet military and police apparatus in Russia, even though his grip was very tenuous and reversible at first, he was in a far stronger position. He immediately moved to consolidate it by dissolving the mechanism of Stalinist rule (the CPSU) and replacing some of the most “unreliable” ministers, generals and KGB men with ones from his own (openly pro-imperialist) faction of former Stalinist functionaries.
Comrade Chuck suggested the IBT plays on ignorance about what was going on at the time in ‘91 and asked how much I remember of the events. Being only 7 at the time I have no memory of it at all. Chuck is right that a correct position depends on an accurate understanding of what was happening at the time. I am no expert, but I have tried to investigate the situation and I think that, based on what I have seen of the bourgeois press at the time, there was no expectation that the coup would necessarily fail. Presumably Pugo, the interior minister, and any others who committed suicide after it fell apart had not known in advance that it was assured of failure.
From reading microfilm copies of several issues of the capitalist press from those days, it seems that at least for a time, it was widely anticipated that the coup could succeed, at least for a while. For example, Bernard Lewin in an editorial page comment in the Times on 21 August ‘91 (obviously written before the collapse was clear) boldly predicted the EC coup leaders would not be able to hang onto power past 1995!
Even more significantly, in a 2001 article by Frank Csongos on the US imperialist Radio Free Europe web site, written on the 10th anniversary of the coup, the author reveals how “then-U.S. Secretary of State James Baker” viewed the situation at the time:
“Baker flew to Brussels to discuss the events in Moscow with other NATO foreign ministers. RFE/RL’s Frank Csongos was chief diplomatic correspondent for United Press International at the time and flew with Baker. Csongos remembers that Baker seemed nervous during the flight and told him that ‘the stakes are high’.”
“In his memoirs, Baker said he felt ‘powerless’. He said he kept waiting for news that KGB and Interior Ministry troops had overrun the barricades, killing Russian President Boris Yeltsin in the process. But that scenario never happened.” (16 August 2001, RFE/RL)
If the foreign minister of the US, with all their spies and intelligence assets, expected the shooting to start soon, how could revolutionaries in Moscow or around the world possibly have known in advance that the EC would not offer serious resistance? I don’t see how comrades can explain this, except that in hindsight it is clear that they did not do a very good job. The claims made that it was certain that the coupsters would not actually do anything to Yeltsin and his rabble are easy enough to make in hindsight, but why would a revolutionary party not have sought to intervene in a conflict that appeared to every single commentator, from The Times to The Guardian (and no doubt every other capitalist paper around the world), to be a decisive political struggle. And I think that the comrades tend to forget that, while the coup was about as inept as one could imagine, it is not as if nothing happened. As part of its coverage of the 10th anniversary of the coup the Radio Free Europe website published “Russia: A Chronology Of 1991 Failed Soviet Coup” by Jeremy Bransten which contained the following summary of events beginning on the morning of August 19 after the EC’s press conference announcing their coup:
“Later that morning, Russian President Boris Yeltsin and other key Russian politicians denounced the coup as unconstitutional and called for a general strike. A joint statement—by Yeltsin, Russian Prime Minister Ivan Silayev, and Ruslan Khasbulatov, who was to become chairman of the Supreme Soviet—was issued condemning the motives of the coup-plotters.…”
“Yeltsin told a news conference the GKChP’s orders will not be carried out in Russia. Demonstrators began gathering on Moscow’s Manezh Square, outside the Kremlin.”
“At 1 p.m., Yeltsin climbed atop a tank outside parliament—known as the White House—and issued a call for mass resistance. Tanks took up positions on all the bridges in central Moscow. Movement on the capital’s main Tverskaya Street was blocked by armored personnel carriers. Moscow military commander Nikolai Smirnov said a state of emergency had been declared and the troops had been brought in to defend order and interdict ‘terrorist acts’.”
“At 4:30 p.m. Moscow Deputy Mayor Yuri Luzhkov denounced the coup and called on citizens to heed Yeltsin’s call for mass protests. A few minutes later, Yeltsin issued a decree declaring all USSR goverment bodies located on Russian territory, including the KGB, subordinate to his authority.”
“Demonstrators around the White House spent the afternoon building barricades in anticipation of an army assault. That evening, Russian Vice President Alexander Rutskoi, whose legendary military career made him a powerful spokesperson, urged his fellow soldiers to side with those fighting the coup…”
“That same evening, Leningrad Mayor Anatoly Sobchak called for a city-wide strike to begin the next day. Across Russia, confusion reigned, as some officials publicly declared their allegiance to Yeltsin. Others adopted a wait-and-see attitude. The night passed without incident, amid mounting tension.”
As the Yeltsinites mobilised the EC called on those who opposed the ravages of the market they had already been subjected to and were hostile to the greedy yuppies, spivs and racketeers who made up Yeltsin’s base to refrain from any demonstrations or any other actions. This would have been the moment for a Trotskyist group with a base in the working class to have sought to mobilise the more class conscious Soviet workers who opposed Yeltsin and the Soviet Thatcherites plans to loot the collectivised economy, to crush the rabble who were assembling at Yeltsin’s White House, the headquarters of the counterrevolution. The RFE account continues:
“On 20 August, Yeltsin spoke by telephone with U.S. President Bush, who told him Washington would not recognize the Yanayev government. In the evening, with reports of tanks moving toward the White House, Yeltsin offered amnesty to all military personnel and police who switched their allegiances and ignored the GKChP’s orders.”
“Radio Liberty correspondent Andrei Babitsky, who went on to cover the wars in Chechnya, filed frequent reports from inside the White House during the attempted coup. On the night of 20 August, he reported on attempts to prepare the defense of the parliament building:
“‘The action around the parliament building is reminiscent of an anthill. People continue to build barricades although the entrance to the building is already blocked with layers of material and all the nearest points are firmly secured. Granite blocks are surrounding the building, cars have been turned on their side. In the past several hours, security headquarters have moved to the center of the parliament building, where people are working out the plan for the defense of the building and coordinating the action of the defenders. The defenders have at their disposal automatic weapons and bottles of homemade incendiary liquid, boxes of which are standing right here’.
“Shortly after midnight on the morning of 21 August, a column of military vehicles approached the barricades around the White House. Clashes ensued. Two protestors attempting to block the vehicles’ way were shot, a third was crushed under tank treads. Crowds swarmed the vehicles. One armored personnel carrier was set on fire. The others soon retreated. The coup had collapsed.
“The next day, the ‘gang of eight’ was arrested. The statue of Felix Dzerzhinsky, founder of the secret police in 1917, was toppled in front of KGB headquarters in central Moscow. Gorbachev was free to return. But the crowds were chanting Yeltsin’s name.
“Yeltsin and the entire Russian leadership would not give up this chance. As Gorbachev himself noted, in his 1996 interview: ‘The initiative shifted fully to the Russian leadership, which had defended democracy and naturally felt itself to be in the saddle’.”
Red Guard Attack On Yeltsin: The Sooner The Better
Why should revolutionaries have waited until Yeltsin, the historic leader of the forces of counterrevolution was, in Gorbachev’s words, “in the saddle” before seeking to intervene? In a situation where the reactionary barricades were beginning to go up, tanks are sent, the actions of a few thousand socialist-minded workers, led by a serious revolutionary organisation, could have been decisive. The failure of the EC to strike hard at Yeltsin at the beginning encouraged the pro-capitalist rabble that began to assemble in greater numbers (although there never were that many) to erect what Workers Vanguard recently described as the “barricades of counterrevolution”. When the tanks arrived, they were met with various kinds of resistance. A political mobilisation of 10,000 (or fewer) opponents of capitalist restoration could have had a major impact on the morale of troops sent against Yeltsin. As it turned out a few of those sent hesitated and then went over to Yeltsin. This seems to have been an important moment in the way things turned out.
In his document Comrade Ralf wrote:
“If we had at that time some comrades in the AZLK—or ZIL—auto plant (where we sold thousands of papers over the years we worked in Moscow until these were basically destroyed and closed), we could have mobilised some hundreds of workers to take out the rabble on the White House barricades (which did not at all have the support of the masses of people either). The soldiers of the armoured vehicles could have been easily won over to our side for the defence of the workers state and this would have opened up a civil war and a political revolution against the Stalinists. The coup plotters very much feared this. That’s the reason they consciously told the workers to stay home”.
I agree with this, but a revolutionary party that represented only a small minority of the working class would have had far greater success mobilising support in the working class for action if it could hold out prospect of victory. Mobilising workers for a military bloc with the EC (even if they did not want one) would have provided a perspective of success. And the chances of such an intervention winning over the troops who were still following the orders of the EC, would have been vastly better if it was clearly posed as an action directed against the pro-capitalists that was militarily on the side of the EC.
The 1991 SL/B internal bulletin, “The Russian Question, Locally Viewed”, recommended as reading for this question, contains a September 20th 1991 letter by Len Meyers, on a Workers Hammer draft which criticized the RIL’s confused attempts to find a position that was both anti-coup and anti-Yeltsin at the same time:
“They recognize that a counterrevolution is taking place, they are opposed to it, but they refuse to break their ties with anti-communist ‘anti-Stalinism’. So they claim to oppose the Yeltsinites, but also oppose sweeping them away and call for participating in Yeltsinite strikes with the ludicrous aim of turning them into anti-Yeltsinite (and anti-coup) strikes. They really do have a ‘Third Camp’ position here, trying to situate themselves between the barricades and looking for a ‘third force’.”
In the same letter Comrade Meyers wrote:
“We were the only people who called for action by Moscow workers to suppress the pro-imperialist yuppie/black marketeer/speculator rabble (the social/political character of which WP’s account empirically confirms) who were the most activist elements, the shock troops, of the social base of capitalist counterrevolution.”
I think that this was the correct perspective for us to have taken against Yeltsin, but there is no reason to have waited until the EC collapsed to implement it. Just to be clear, I am not saying that the handful of mostly non-Russian ICL comrades in Moscow at the time could have carried out such a perspective. We clearly did not have the base in the working class to allow us to give that kind of direct leadership.
I am proposing as a correction to our line that we simply state clearly that a revolutionary organisation with a real base in the Soviet proletariat should have sought to rally the workers to suppress the Yeltsinites during the coup. This would amount to a military bloc of the sort the Bolsheviks made with Kerensky against Kornilov. That bloc was made despite the fact that Kerensky’s lack of either the military capacity or the political will to settle accounts with Russian reaction in 1917. The same criterion would make sense for the EC in 1991.
A Trotskyist group that actively mobilised workers to move against Yeltsin would inevitably have won over many workers and soldiers (and officers) who sympathised with the EC. By leading them in struggle against the counterrevolution, defying the instructions of the EC, revolutionaries could have sapped the ability of the EC to resist the forces of anti-bureaucratic political revolution after Yeltsin and his rabble were dispersed, in the same way that the successful fight against Kornilov sapped Kerensky’s ability to resist the Bolshevik Revolution. A military bloc with the EC was thus a dagger pointed at the heart of the Stalinist regime.
Comrade Meyers actually summed up the essential issue in his letter of 12 October 1991 (page 26 of the bulletin) where he wrote:
“…a call on Moscow workers to clean out the counterrevolutionary rabble would have been in order. If Keith were to plumb this question a little more deeply, he would first ask himself why we didn’t simultaneously call on the workers to clean out the coup plotters’ headquarters.…”
“So we were already (retrospectively) in a limited, de facto military bloc against the Yeltsinite forces. This was about as far as it could go given that the coup committee had neither the intention nor the capacity to move against the most blatant counterrevolutionary forces.”
This is exactly what I am proposing that we should adopt as our line, a “limited, de facto military bloc with the EC against the Yeltsinite forces”. For those who are concerned that this would be to give support to the perestroika coupsters, I would say that, to paraphrase Lenin, it would support them like a stool supports someone with a noose around their neck. As soon as the Yeltsinites were suppressed the revolutionaries would break the bloc (kick out the stool) and watch the EC swing, just as the Bolsheviks did with Kerensky after their military bloc against Kornilov.
Why wait until Yeltsin wins before calling on the workers to mobilise to crush him and his rabble?
That is the question that comrades who are opposed to taking sides in this confrontation have to answer.
In her contribution Comrade Bonnie mentioned:
“the (then) comrades who wanted to rule out military support to the coup-plotters, objected to our forthright statement that:
“‘Had the coup plotters stuck to their guns, it could have led to a civil war which is what they feared above all. And in armed struggle pitting outright restorationists against recalcitrant elements of the bureaucracy, defence of the collectivised economy would have been placed on the agenda whatever the Stalinists’ intentions. Trotskyists would have entered a military bloc with “the Thermidorean section of the bureaucracy” as Trotsky postulated in the 1938 Transitional Program. This precisely was our policy toward Jaruzelski in 1981′. (my emphasis—Bonnie)”
In 1917 Lenin and Trotsky did not wait for Kerensky to demonstrate that he had the organisational capacity (or the will) to mount a serious military challenge to Kornilov before engaging in a de facto military bloc. Why should we have had a different position in 1991? No one has addressed that critical issue.
The Stalinists were hostile to Gorbachev because they could see that his market “reforms” were strengthening the Yeltsinites, and undermining their privileged positions. They were rotten, cynical and demoralised, they had no positive programme and no historical perspective. And they did not shoot straight. But in their own inept fashion they did intend to offer some last minute resistance, and once they had failed the possibility of further resistance from elements of the state apparatus were vastly reduced. I think that the most important thing is that the extent and effectiveness of that resistance could not be known for certain in advance. But what was obvious, or should have been, was that there was a better chance of stopping Yeltsin, the declared agent/ally of imperialism, before his people got into the top positions in the military and the police than after. And a successful proletarian mobilisation against the Yeltsinites would have posed the opportunity for overturning the rule of what was left of the divided and demoralized Stalinist CPSU.
What Is A Revolution?
I want to point out a few other problems with the arguments of comrades in the 7 documents written in response to mine. I cannot deal in detail with all of the points raised (although many of them overlap to a considerable extent) but some things clearly need sorting out.
Ben wrote: “For sure the Bolshevik revolution was neither begun nor concluded on the 7th and 8th of November (1917)”.
The victory of the Yeltsinites and the dissolution of the CPSU in August 1991 represented the decisive moment of qualitative change in the political situation in favour of counterrevolution, just as the victory of the October Revolution was won on November 7, not in September or in January. Lenin, Trotsky and the ICL all agree that the deposing of Kerensky by the Bolshevik insurrection was the critical moment. Revolutions and counterrevolutions come at the end of a long chain of developments and both take time to consolidate (in a sense the revolution was not consolidated until the victory in the civil war that followed). But the victory is won or lost in the course of an insurrection, which is why it is an art. Yeltsin’s countercoup was the equivalent of an insurrection and we should date the destruction of the workers state from his victory, not the final consolidation of his rule, just as we date the origin of the workers state from November 7.
What Makes A Workers State?
One of the arguments put forward in various documents seems to be that the working class character of the USSR was not determined by the existence or character of the armed bodies (as well as other various governmental bodies) but by the Soviet working class regardless of its organisation or leadership (or lack of). It seems clear enough to me that after August 1991 in Russia the core of the state (which Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky defined as armed bodies committed to defending definite social property relations) had changed. If the workers state still existed in some way within the working class, despite the change in the character of the institutions of repression comrades should recognize that this is a new way of defining a state.
“I’d like to pass on two points from Alison: first there’s a Pabloite methodology that…is reflected as well in Tony’s document. That being that it is necessarily up to a wing of the bureaucracy to take up the fight against counterrevolution…”
It is not necessarily up to a wing of the Stalinists to fight counterrevolution; if a revolutionary organisation exists with a sufficient popular base the Stalinists could be pushed aside while the counterrevolution was crushed. But if a state apparatus in a deformed workers state has no elements willing in any way to fight against the restoration of capitalism, can it still be called a deformed workers state? I don’t think so, and Trotsky did not think so either. He addressed this question in his 1935 essay “The Workers’ State, Thermidor and Bonapartism”:
“The replacement of one political regime by another exerts only an indirect and superficial influence upon market economy. On the contrary, the replacement of a workers’ government by a bourgeois or petty-bourgeois government would inevitably lead to the liquidation of the planned beginnings and, subsequently, to the restoration of private property. In contradistinction to capitalism, socialism is built not automatically but consciously. Progress towards socialism is inseparable from that state power that is desirous of socialism or that is constrained to desire it”. (emphasis in original)
Trotsky reiterated the point later in the document:
“The inevitable collapse of Stalinist Bonapartism would immediately call into question the character of the USSR as a workers’ state. A socialist economy cannot be constructed without a socialist power. The fate of the USSR as a socialist state depends upon that political regime that will arise to replace Stalinist Bonapartism”.
There can be no question that the “political regime” that replaced the CPSU Stalinist Bonapartist rule was entirely dedicated to capitalist restoration.
Ed C. wrote from Chicago to say:
“Let us suppose that in the weeks following the coup workers’ uprisings had occurred throughout the USSR with the result that Yeltsin had been overthrown and the October Revolution survived. Would Tony then say that a capitalist counterrevolution was followed by a second proletarian revolution. Hopefully not”.
Why not? The Paris Commune held power for only a few months, but Marxists considered that to be the first case of workers holding state power. When it was crushed that was the victory of the counterrevolution and the end of the workers state. Had workers’ uprisings occurred in France a few weeks after the defeat of the Communards that had re-established workers rule in Paris would that not have been a second revolution?
If there had been an ongoing series of struggles for weeks or months following the coup then I think that we could have said that the issue of the victory or defeat of the capitalist counterrevolution was not decided. But as soon as the capitalist restorationists defeated their opponents they were immediately able to move to abolish the CPSU, the backbone of the bureaucracy’s rule, without any resistance. I think that can be fairly seen as proof that a capitalist counterrevolution had taken place. And if, after that, Yeltsin had been overthrown by workers’ uprisings I think that it would indeed have been a second proletarian revolution, and the old Stalinist bureaucracy would not very easily have been able to re-establish their control.
Ed C. also wrote:
“The bureaucratic caste retained political power at the time of Gorbachev’s arrest. However whether that power—which was always a threat to the gains of October—would be used to defend the gains was, to say the least, at that time in question”.
But if there was no element of the state power that was going to attempt to defend the social base of the USSR would that not mean that the deformed workers state had already ceased to exist? And if that were true would that not pose an issue of the peaceful restoration of capitalist rule? And would we not have to try to establish when it had been re-established? That is why the formulation in the pamphlet on the IBT about the more conservative bureaucrats represented by the EC being “just as committed to capitalist restoration as Yeltsin” is mistaken, as I pointed out in my original document.
Chuck quoted the following from Workers Vanguard in 1991:
“In and of itself, the collapse of the Kremlin Stalinists does not signal that the Soviet degenerated workers state has been destroyed. With its position that the failure of the coup equals the victory of counterrevolution, the BT apes the Stalinists which identify the existence of the workers state with the continued rule of the parasitical, nationalist bureaucracy”.
What does this mean? What would the Soviet degenerated workers state have looked like without a ruling parasitical, nationalist bureaucracy? Would that not be the definition of a healthy workers state? I know that no comrades are claiming that, but it seems to be the logic of the assertion that the bureaucracy was destroyed but the workers state survived. The fact that the collapse of the Kremlin Stalinists occurred as a defeat by counterrevolutionaries who then were able to assume (unconsolidated) control of the police and military apparatus and reorganise society according to their own programme was evidence that the Soviet workers state had indeed been destroyed.
Edward raised similar objections in his contribution:
“Tony’s argument rests on the assertion that after the countercoup Yeltsin had cohered ‘an armed body of men dedicated to the construction and defence of capitalism…[that] took state power in Russia’. Comrades Ben and Olly have already responded to this assertion. I wanted to ask: how can Tony know? What had happened to the previous state apparatus and the Soviet armed forces, which until that point had been defending a completely different set of property relations? Did they disappear overnight? It certainly isn’t clear that the workers state had been destroyed and replaced by a capitalist state at this point”.
Well I think it was clear enough that Yeltsin’s victory and the abolition of the CPSU signalled that counterrevolution had won an enormous victory. Yeltsin certainly thought so and, as far as I am aware, so did every capitalist government around the world. The coup and counter-coup produced a polarization of forces within the Soviet bureaucracy between the “conservatives” and the Yeltsinite pro-capitalists. It was not at all obscure: the pro-capitalist elements which had been growing stronger and stronger during the end of Gorbachev’s rule emerged as the new rulers with the success of the counter-coup.