The International Bolshevik Tendency saw the aborted Soviet coup of August 1991 as Stalinism's last desperate stand. We said that its failure sounded the death knell of the Soviet workers' state. Because the coup makers represented the last obstacle, however weak and temporary, to the total destruction of the state power born of the October Revolution, we said that the Soviet working class should have sided with the Emergency Committee against the forces of capitalist restoration gathered around Boris Yeltsin. His victory, we argued, opened the door for the building of bourgeois states throughout the Soviet Union. Within days, the Communist Party, which formed the administrative core of the degenerated workers' state, was dissolved as the counterrevolution took hold.
The international bourgeoisie had no difficulty in recognizing the coup as an enormous defeat for the working class, or in acting on the basis of their own class interests by lining up behind Yeltsin. The ostensibly Trotskyist left, however, displayed no such consistency. The most cravenly opportunist among them simply joined the bourgeoisie in clapping for Yeltsin.
Yet, because these organizations pretended to be Trotskyist, they faced a theoretical predicament completely alien to bourgeois ideologues: how to reconcile siding with the avowed enemies of socialism and the working class in the name of socialism and the working class? We noted in the last issue of this journal that the most logically consistent rationale for this treachery came from the triedandtrue reformists of Ernest Mandel's United Secretariat of the Fourth International (USec). Mandel's followers argued that there were no real differences between the coup plotters and Yeltsin/Gorbachev, and, further, that postcoup Russia remained a workers' state. Since the fate of the workers' state was not at stake in August 1991, the only real difference between the two sides was over the question of democratic rights, the Yeltsin camp being the more democratic of the two. It was thus in the name of democracy that the USec took up the banner of counterrevolution.
But even those supposedly Trotskyist groups to the left of the USec refused to bloc with the Emergency Committee. Their rationalizations for this failure were, however, somewhat less consistent. Workers Power (Britain) and its affiliates in the League for a Revolutionary Communist International (LRCI) initially recognized that Yeltsin represented the most aggressive restorationist forces, and that the coup's defeat meant the end of the Soviet workers' state. But they sided with Yeltsin anyway, on the grounds that he was less likely to attack the democratic rights of Soviet workers. The Spartacist League (U.S.) and its overseas satellites in the International Communist League (ICL), while denouncing Yeltsin as a counterrevolutionary, remained neutral on the coup, and claimed until recently that the exUSSR remained a workers' state.
Since we last analyzed the views of the latter two groups, they have exchanged positions on the nature of the former Soviet Union. The LRCI now argues that the workers' state has been weakened, but remains intact. The ICL, on the other hand, has finally acknowledged that the USSR no longer exists. These line changes, made in both cases without any serious political accounting, were not occasioned by new developments in the exUSSR. The objective situation there has not altered fundamentally since the coup. It was rather the willingness of these two groups to defend their original positions that has diminished in the interim. We can understand why. Both positions were equally untenable. But these zigzags do not succeed in solving the problems of either group.
On the empirical level, Workers Power's initial response to the coup stood in marked contrast to that of the USec. For several months after the coup's defeat, Workers Power was reluctant to acknowledge the demise of the Soviet workers' state. However, when Gorbachev officially dissolved the USSR in December of 1991, they wrote: "The Soviet Union is dead. The spectre that haunted the capitalists for over seventy years has been laid to rest" (Workers Power, January 1992). WP also seemed to recognize that there was an essential distinction between Yeltsin/Gorbachev and the coup leaders. A September 1991 statement by the LRCI's International Secretariat says that Yeltsin represented "a faction of the bureaucracy that has abandoned the defence of its caste privileges and their sourcea degenerate workers' statein favour of becoming key members of a new bourgeois ruling class" (Workers Power, September 1991). The same statement asserted that the Emergency Committee "hoped by their actions on 19 August to defend their privileges on the basis of post capitalist property relations" (emphasis added).
Yet, by mid1992, Workers Power was already bringing its line into closer conformity with that of the USec. In a polemic against our New Zealand comrades, Workers Power (NZ) argues that:
The same article contains the following evaluation of postcoup Russia:
This line change was affirmed in the LRCI's Trotskyist Bulletin of November 1992. Here we read that, "there is little or no evidence that the coup makers were committed to defending post capitalist property relations...."
Thus, contrary to their initial pronouncements, the LRCI has concluded, like Mandel, that the events of August 1991 were not decisive. Both the Yeltsinites and the coup plotters were more or less equally determined to restore capitalism prior to August, and, in any event, the victorious Yeltsinites have not yet succeeded in doing so.
Why this turn? The answer lies in the fact that the LRCI, as selfproclaimed Trotskyists, are still formally committed to the notion that the precoup USSR was a workers' state, and that it was their duty to defend that state against all forces of capitalist restoration, without and within. If they were to admit that Yeltsin's victory represented the final destruction of the USSR, they could not possibly take his side in the coup without throwing overboard their claim to be Soviet defensist.
Yet their fear of unpopularity drew them irresistibly into the Yeltsin camp. In their haste to respond publicly to the August events, they perhaps neglected to think through the logical implications of some of their comments. Their initial response thus came a little too close for comfort to the truth. In our previous issue we wrote:
Did members and sympathizers of the LRCI make similar observations about their International Secretariat's initial reaction to the coup? Did this, in turn, prompt the leadership to pay closer attention to the teachings of the more practised opportunists led by Ernest Mandel? For whatever reason, Workers Power has since bridged the gap. Their current attempt to minimize the importance of the coup eliminates the logical inconsistencies of their earlier positionat the price of totally misrepresenting reality.
What Is a Counterrevolution?
The LRCI's Trotskyist Bulletin attempts to provide some theoretical underpinning for its position with the assertion that:
If the planning system is the only criterion for the existence of a workers' state, it is difficult to see why WP sees the counterrevolution in the future rather than in the past. The economy of the exUSSR can no longer be described as "planned," bureaucratically or otherwise. The destruction of central planning and the monopoly of foreign trade signifies that the economy has been subordinated to the international capitalist market. Capitalist restoration does not hinge on all the trusts being liquidated, or all the means of production privatized. Huge sectors of industry are today being kept in operation through state subsidies to preserve a tenuous social peace.
The LRCI's argument confuses the triumph of the counterrevolution with the completion of the necessarily protracted process of dismantling the system of nationalized property. The workers' state is destroyed when restorationist forces achieve political/military supremacy. This is a precondition for economic transformation but the two are not identical.
Nationalized property, while constituting the economic foundation of a workers' state, does not wholly define it, any more than private property alone defines a bourgeois state. One must also examine the relation between prevailing property forms and political institutions, i.e., the state in the narrower sense of the word. Are those who exercise political power the defenders or the enemies of the existing economic setup? If the character of states were defined by property relations alone, then the Bolsheviks, who did not conduct extensive nationalizations until the summer of 1918, stood for eight months at the head of a bourgeois state. But we am sure WP agrees with us in dating the birth of the Soviet workers' state from October 1917, when a government openly hostile to private property, and supported by its own "armed bodies," seized the reins of power. The death of the Soviet workers' state likewise dates from August 1991, when a government openly hostile to collectivized property took the helm, backed by elements of the military that had rallied to Yeltsin's side during the coup. Today that government's main concern is when and how to privatize the economy. It depends for this project on the support of the imperialist powers and their principal lending agencies.
It is true that the socalled hardliners did not resist marketization in the name of "socialism" or any other systematic set of beliefs. But, prior to August 1991, virtually every concrete measure aimed at privatization and the breakup of the USSRthe Shatalin plan for capitalism in 500 days, the freeing of prices on consumer items, concessions to national separatists at home and imperialism abroadran into significant resistance at the highest levels. Only after the coup collapsed was the situation definitively resolved in favor of the procapitalist wing and all those forces outside the bureaucracy that favored restoration.
The Nature of the Stalinist Bureaucracy
To refute our contention that the "hardliners" were resisting counterrevolution, Workers Power sets up and knocks down a straw man. In a recent polemic, the LRCI imputes to the IBT and others the position that "one major faction [of the Stalinist bureaucracy] must inevitably, or at least in the present circumstances, be committed to the defence of bureaucratically planned property relations." They go on to say:
This distinction does little to clarify matters. In calling the Stalinists a pettybourgeois layer, Trotsky did not mean to imply that it was a stratum of small property owners, as under capitalism, but rather sought to stress its intermediary position between the two major classes of modern societythe bourgeoisie and the proletariat.
Like the petty bourgeoisie, it had no distinct class interests or historical role of its own.
Trotsky viewed the bureaucracy as an essentially conservative social layer, whose main commitment was to the defense of its material privileges. These privileges depended, in the first place, upon excluding the proletariat from political power at home, and avoiding major revolutionary upheavals or confrontations with imperialism abroad. But the bureaucracy's privileges were also bound up with its role as administrator of the planned economy, whose foundations were laid by the October Revolution. The bureaucracy sought to maintain all these conditions of its existence. The Stalinist caste was inherently unstable because these conditions represented an equilibrium of class forces on an international scale that could not last indefinitely. In the event of a major offensive either by imperialism or the working class, the bureaucracy, like all intermediate layers, would split, some going over to the side of counterrevolution and others casting their lot with the working class.
The collapse of Soviet Stalinism demonstrated the fragile and transitory nature of the Soviet ruling caste, refuting once and for all those "third campists" who viewed the Stalinists as either a new ruling class or a statecapitalist bourgeoisie. The Soviet state did not fall to an imperialist military offensive. It was ultimately the economic stagnation brought about by six decades of bureaucratic rule that caused large layers of the Soviet intelligentsia and technocratic elite to look to capitalism as a way out of the impasse. This new mood among the liberal intelligentsia eventually spread to the top layers of the party and state apparatus, some of whom attempted to overcome stagnation by introducing limited market measures and grovelling before imperialism. Perestroika, in turn, encouraged an entire wing of the bureaucracy, personified and led by Boris Yeltsin, to come out increasingly under the banner of a complete return to capitalism. This wing also found support in growing movements for national separatism in the USSR's constituent republics.
The counterrevolutionary onslaught did, in fact, provoke a split in the bureaucracy, although in a somewhat less clearcut manner than Trotsky envisioned. Within the Communist Party there developed a "hardline" faction, which accused Gorbachev of yielding too much ground, and which drove the more rightwing elements out of the party and into Yeltsin's arms. This growing polarization culminated in the confrontation of August 1991.
Why the Working Class Had a Side
Contrary to Trotsky's expectations, the Soviet working class was not an active factor in the August events. Demoralized by decades of Stalinist misrule and suspicious of the Yeltsinite hucksters, the vast majority of workers were indifferent to the outcome of the struggle. Given the fact that both contending forces were enemies of the working class, the question was: what outcome would make it easier, or at least less difficult, for the workers to seize power in their own name in the future? Our answer was and is: a victory for the Emergency Committee.
The putschists could have vastly improved their chances by attempting to mobilize popular support, although they would have discovered that a victory over the Yeltsinites achieved with workingclass participation would have significantly altered the political equation. Yanayev, Pugo, et al. would have remained partially dependent on a popular base for the consolidation of their rule. This would have opened the door for continued and expanded workingclass political action.
In the event, the Emergency Committee explicitly called on the workers to remain on the sidelines and there was no section of the class prepared to act independently against the counterrevolutionaries. Yet even in the absence of working class support for the coupists, their victory was historically preferable to Yeltsin's.
In urging a military bloc with the Emergency Committee, we did not, as Workers Power implies, think that a wing of the bureaucracy "must inevitably" defend the workers' state. It was possible that the entire ruling caste may have gone over to the restorationists, or at least have surrendered without a fight, as in most of Eastern Europe. And, as we have pointed out previously, it almost turned out that way. But not quite. The fact remains that a section of the "hardline" faction did decide to act. They did not do so with any clear program to defend and renew collectivized property, much less, as Workers Power suggests, with some longterm strategy for restoring capitalism under authoritarian rule. They acted reflexively and belatedly to preserve what existed, to freeze a rapidly deteriorating situation. In this, their last act, they supplied a final confirmation of Trotsky's characterization of the bureaucracy as an essentially conservative caste.
The Emergency Committee represented the wing of the bureaucracy most dependent upon the survival of the central state apparatus, and thus saw its threatened breakup as a mortal danger. The Soviet working class, for entirely different reasons, also had a stake in the preservation of the institutions of the degenerated workers' state, which were an obstacle to capitalist restoration. There was therefore a temporary convergence of interests between the Emergency Committee and the historic interests of the working class, which could have formed the basis for a military bloc, but certainly not for a strategic political alliance. Once the Yeltsinite danger had receded, the workers would have faced the task of overthrowing a bureaucracy already in its death throes. Working class military support to the Emergency Committee against Yeltsin would have immeasurably improved both the prospects of defeating the counterrevolution and the conditions for working class political revolution.
Democracy & Counterrevolution
Workers Power sided with Yeltsin for one reason and one reason alone. Like the pettybourgeois democrats whose ideology centrism inevitably reflects, they view democratic rights as the holy of holies. This was why they favored a bloc with the "democratic" counterrevolution even when, immediately after the coup, they had an entirely different assessment of the aims of the contending factions. Their subsequent reappraisal, to the effect that both factions were equally procapitalist, was merely an afterthought, a rationalization intended to make their position appear more compatible with the Marxism they falsely profess.
While we defend democratic rights, we regard collectivized property in the means of production as a much more valuable conquest for the working class, and private property, not political dictatorship, as the greater evil. Unlike the social democrats, we do not argue that democratic rights and the struggle for socialism can never in any circumstances come into conflict. Yeltsin, or whoever replaces him, will not in the end succeed in restoring capitalism by democratic means. But the Emergency Committee was not comprised of champions of workers' democracy either. If the Emergency Committee had had reliable military units in the capital, and triumphed solely by force of arms, it might well have attacked the freedoms granted under Gorbachev sooner than Yeltsin. Many union leaders could have been jailed, union publications suppressed and meetings broken up. In the short term, there could indeed have been a choice between preserving certain democratic liberties and slowing down the assault on what was left of the planned economy. This was the choice we faced in Poland in 1981.
We say defense of collectivized property comes first. The need for political dictatorship is in inverse proportion to the strength of the ruling group. Private property in the means of production is a powerful social institution with deep roots in society, independent of any political regime. For this reason, capitalist class rule in the advanced countries is not normally threatened by the existence of universal suffrage or parliaments. Precisely because the Stalinist bureaucracy was a usurper caste, with no historical claim to legitimacy and no independent social moorings, it was forced to rely on a strict monopoly of political power. The Stalinists' use of dictatorial methods was an indication of their weakness, not their strength. The overthrow of the Stalinist bureaucracy by the workers would involve only a change in the forms of political rule, leaving the economic foundations intact. Breaking the rule of capital, on the other hand, involves a struggle against the domestic ruling class, as well as its powerful international protectors, and the complete economic restructuring of societya far more formidable task. Yeltsin's victory has set the Russian working class back not years, but decades. Workers Power now seeks to avoid responsibility for siding with the perpetrators of this historic defeat by denying that such a defeat took place. The Soviet worker on the dole for the first time since the revolution and the Cuban peasant eating grapefruit rinds instead of meat have a different tale to tell.
Spartacist League: From Unreality to Inconsistency
If Workers Power denies the reality of counterrevolution for the sake of a false consistency, the Spartacist League/International Communist League plunges into inconsistency in order to acknowledge reality. Like the rest of the reformist and centrist pseudoTrotskyists, the SL refused to extend military support to the Emergency Committee. Like the USec and the LRCI, they attempted to minimize this shirking of Soviet defensism by playing down the significance of the attempted coup. Until a few months ago, SL members were claiming that the exUSSR was still a workers' state, and denouncing those who argued otherwise as hopeless pessimists and antiSoviet renegades.
In a 27 September 1991 polemic against the International Bolshevik Tendency (IBT), Workers Vanguard (WV) wrote:
A year after the coup, in an August 1992 letter to a BT supporter (reprinted in this issue), the ICL was still claiming that recognizing the reality of Yeltsin's victory, "reflects your failure to make a break with the equation common to the USec throughout its wildly gyrating history: the Stalinist bureaucratic caste equals the workers state" (emphasis in the original).
A few weeks later, the ICL chose the occasion of its second international conference (the first in 13 years!) to proclaim that it too has joined the defeatists, cynics and traitors to Trotskyism who believe that the Soviet workers' state no longer exists. In a 27 November Workers Vanguard article entitled "How the Soviet Workers State Was Strangled," we read:
What cataclysmic events made the SL leaders adopt a position they had so vehemently denounced only months before? Had Yeltsin defeated the working class in a major showdown? Was there a major confrontation between the Yeltsin government and the officer corps? If so, these events are known only to the SL. The explanation for the abrupt line change must be sought not in Moscow, but in the SL/ICL's New York headquarters.
An Inconsequential 'Historical Turning Point'?
Until the end of November, the ICL was insisting that the exUSSR remained a workers' state. But the passing of each day brought new proofs of the patent absurdity of such a contention.
The old line was so starkly contradicted by reality that it finally had to be abandoned if the ICL was to be anything more than a laughing stock. But the SL leaders cannot simply admit that they were wrong. In order to save organizational face, they must pretend that the objective situation has changed.
For months WV had been searching for some development that would offer a graceful way out of the stillaworkers'state position. Hence the repeated warnings that a new bourgeois state might consolidate itself if the Russian workers did not soon rise up. Hence the constant reminders that every repressive act of the new regimefrom police attacks on an antiYeltsin demonstration in Moscow to the breaking of a Russian air controllers' strikewas a step on the road to "consolidation." The ICL's international conference document quotes from a letter by the SL/ICL's maximum leader, James Robertson, suggesting that Yeltsin might well find "a big bloodbath to be a suitable statement to the masses that things are then different and are going to stay that way." Such an event would indeed have provided a convenient excuse for recognizing that the character of the Soviet state had changed. But it never materialized. Having waited for over a year, the SL could wait no longer.
In November, Workers Vanguard finally announced that a bourgeois state had "consolidated itself" in the territory of the former USSR. When did this "consolidation" occur? Workers Vanguard can't say exactly, but rushes to assure us that, whenever it was, it was certainly not in August of 1991: "The ascendancy of Yeltsin and capitalistrestorationist forces backing him was a pivotal event in determining the fate of the Soviet Union, but it was not conclusive." There is also a suggestion that the new capitalist state emerged as the result of a gradual, incremental process:
The critical question is not when did the new Russian bourgeois state consolidate itself (it is still only very partially consolidated), but rather when did it come into being? Unlike the LRCI, the ICL has never claimed that there was a dualpower situation in the exUSSR following the coup. Nor have they argued that the post August governing apparatus was not committed to either bourgeois or collectivized property. If these two possibilities are excluded, there is only one other answer: the bourgeois state came into being with Yeltsin's victory in August 1991.
The significance of the August events is so patently obvious that even the SL is forced to recognize it:
One might expect that selfproclaimed revolutionaries would want to take a side in such a decisive event. Yet the ICL's conference document (passed unanimously) contains the following ambiguously phrased comment:
In other words, those (like the IBT) who grasped the meaning of the August events when they occurred, only demonstrated that they are the prisoners of bourgeois ideology, if not the paid agents of the capitalist state. WV's failure to understand what happened for more than a year after the fact, on the other hand, shows unflagging revolutionary optimism. In short, denial of reality is lauded as a revolutionary virtue.
The flipflops we are now witnessing originate in the initial refusal of the SL leadership to advocate the only position consistent with the defense of the rapidly decomposing workers' state against the Yeltsinites: a military bloc with the Emergency Committee. It would be easy to jump to the conclusion that this represents a capitulation to liberal antiSovietism. But the Robertsonites are too deeply immersed in their insular cultist existence to be overly sensitive to leftliberal moods. It is more likely that their error originated in their own recent history.
In 198990, the Robertsonites mounted a concerted intervention in the former DDR (East Germany). They premised their activity on the expectation that a section of the Stalinist bureaucracy would rise to defend the East German workers' state against the Bundesrepublik bourgeoisie's reunification drive. This expectation was bitterly disappointed when the DDR Stalinists capitulated without a fight. It was perhaps out of disgust with the DDR Stalinists, or reluctance to admit that the Soviet Union could meet its end in such a pathetic excuse for a coup, that the SL leadership refused to bloc with the Stalinists on the last occasion when they actually did try to hold the line against counterrevolution. When the showdown came between Yeltsin and Yanayev, the ICL refused to take sides.
The SL/ICL's failure to grasp the significance of the August 1991 events immediately placed them on the horns of a dilemma. If the defeat of the Emergency Committee meant the end of the Soviet workers' state, their neutrality was tantamount to third campism. They were thus forced to invoke many of the same rationalizations as the reformists and other centrists, viz., that the Emergency Committee was no less bent on capitalist restoration than the Yeltsin camp, and that the former's defeat did not alter the class character of the Soviet state.
The fact that the IBT took a clearly Sovietdefensist position in the coup made their predicament even more acute. On the one hand, the Robertsonites cannot answer the IBT without resort to standard centrist arguments. On the other hand, the SL cannot differentiate itself from the various reformist and centrist groups, who supported Yeltsin or refused to take sides, without recognizing an essential distinction between the adversaries of August 1991. Yet to do so would point to the necessity of a military bloc with the coupists, and amount to conceding that their arch enemy, the International Bolshevik Tendency, has been right against them all along. This is something the ICL can never do, especially on a matter as important as the Russian question. To do so would fatally undermine their central organizing principle: the infallibility of the AllKnowing, AllSeeing Founder/Leader, James Robertson. Instead, the SL/ICL leaders are attempting to wriggle out of this dilemma by searching for some middle ground between neutrality and military support for the coup.
This illusory middle ground is not to be found on terra firma. It lies on the other side of the telling little word"if"which dominates all SL polemics on the Soviet coup. They say they would have blocked with the Emergency Committee if it had mobilized the workers to crush Yeltsin. This, they claim, distinguishes them from other centrists, who would not have sided with the coupists if they had called upon the working class. According to the ICL's main international conference document, a major dispute erupted in the British section over what should have been done if the Emergency Committee had sought workers' support. The bizarre feature of all these debates is that they take place in a purely hypothetical universe, conjured up by the Robertsonites to deflect attention from the fact that in the real worldthe only one in which political positions matterthey took a neutral position similar to those of the groups they are polemicizing against.
James P. Cannon once said that whoever touches the Russian question touches a revolution. It is therefore of the utmost importance to understand when and how the state created by the Russian Revolution went down to defeat. The SL leaders, who claim to be the world's foremost experts on the Russian question, have proved themselves incapable of understanding the final destruction of the Soviet Union. They missed the meaning of the coup, and now play havoc with their own professed program and reason itself to cover up for their original mistake. This is the classic behavior of centrists.
Even worse than the ICL's abstentionism was the USec and LRCI's support to the counterrevolutionaries. Any thoughtful militants who remain in or around these organizations must sooner or later come to see that those who would adjust their politics in accordance with popular moods, or the requirements of maintaining the prestige of their leaders, cannot even interpret the world convincingly, let alone change it.