This article originally appeared in the Bulletin on December 9, 1988.
The speech delivered by Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev to the United Nations on Wednesday has, if nothing else, served one important historical function: it has destroyed for all time whatever remained of the political myth that the ruling Soviet bureaucracy represents in any way the interests of the working class or that Stalinism has anything whatsoever in common with Marxism and socialism.
There is no capitalist class in the world more bitterly anticommunist than the American bourgeoisie. In this entire century, it has never displayed anything other than the most bitter hatred toward every genuine representative of socialism and the struggles of the working class. Thus, Wall Street’s jubilant reception of Mikhail Gorbachev—what the depraved media calls “Gorby fever”—was nothing less than official acknowledgement of his role as a lackey of world imperialism. The assignment of 6,000 police to protect Gorbachev is the clearest indication of the value that the American ruling class places on his activities.
Gorbachev did not disappoint his patrons. He deliberately chose the most reactionary forum of world capitalism, the United Nations, to offer his assurances that the Soviet bureaucracy is eager to collaborate in defending and strengthening the international imperialist status quo.
Lenin once described the League of Nations, predecessor of the United Nations, as a “thieves’ kitchen.” And that characterization hardly does justice to an organization whose history is so stained with blood as the United Nations, which has over the last 42 years presided over the most brutal crimes of imperialism—from the displacement of the Palestinian people in 1948 and the US-sponsored “police-action” in Korea in 1950 to the rape of the Congo and the placement of UN “peace-keeping” forces in South Lebanon.
But Gorbachev hailed this den of imperialist intrigue, telling the smug and well-fed UN bureaucrats, “We have come here to show our respect for the United Nations, which increasingly has been manifesting its ability to act as a unique international center in the service of peace and security.”
In the course of a speech that lasted nearly one hour, Gorbachev did not make a single reference to imperialism, the working class or the class struggle. He never mentioned the oppression of the black masses in South Africa or the extermination of Tamils in Sri Lanka. Gorbachev said nothing about the terrorization of Central America by US imperialism. He did not utter one word that could be interpreted as even suggesting the slightest hostility to capitalism. Rather, speaking as a firm defender of the capitalist nation-state system, the Soviet president went out of his way to convince the assembled representatives of world imperialism that he no longer considered Marxism and its concept of world socialist revolution to be of any relevance to the modern world. “Life is making us abandon established stereotypes and outdated views,” he proclaimed. “It is making us discard illusions.”
First among those “illusions” that Gorbachev proposed to discard is the belief that human progress is contingent upon a social revolution. In the most significant passage of his speech, Gorbachev stated:
“The greatest philosophers sought to grasp the laws of social development and find an answer to the main question: How to make man’s life happy, just and safe. Two great revolutions, the French Revolution of 1789 and the Russian Revolution of 1917, exerted a powerful impact on the very nature of history and radically changed the course of world developments.
“Both of them, each in its own way, gave a tremendous impetus to mankind’s progress. To a large extent, those two revolutions shaped the way of thinking that is still prevalent in social consciousness. It is a most precious heritage.
“But today we face a different world, for which we must seek a different road to the future. In seeking it, we must, of course, draw on the accumulated experience and yet be aware of the fundamental differences between the situation yesterday and what we are today.”
The philosophers whom Gorbachev now contemptuously dismisses are not only the great social thinkers who anticipated and interpreted the French Revolution and elaborated profound conceptions of human progress, but also, and above all, the two towering historical figures who transformed the existing theories of socialism from utopias into a science: Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels.
It is no exaggeration to state that the Soviet bureaucracy is finding it increasingly difficult to even pretend to believe in any of the basic theoretical, political and economic conceptions of Marxism. In an unintentionally candid remark, Gorbachev told the UN, “We are not abandoning our convictions.... But neither do we have any intention to be hemmed in by our values.”
In other words, the “convictions” and “values” proclaimed by the Soviet bureaucracy—its supposed belief in socialism—are merely empty words to which it pays political lip-service when absolutely necessary. In practice, it regularly violates and betrays Marxist principles and the interests of the working class.
According to Gorbachev, the era of proletarian revolutions is over. Gorbachev’s United Nations speech explicitly denied the universal historical significance of the 1917 October Revolution and renounced any connection between it and the policies of the present Soviet regime.
Not even bothering to pay lip-service to the conception that the October 1917 conquest of power by the Bolshevik Party marked the beginning of the world socialist revolution against the capitalist order, Gorbachev said, “It would be naive to think that the problems plaguing mankind today can be solved with the means and methods which were applied or seemed to work in the past.”
Emphasizing his repudiation of the class struggle, Gorbachev announced that “we have entered an era when progress will be shaped by universal human interests.
“The awareness of this dictates that world politics, too, should be guided by the primacy of universal human values.”
It is ironic that Gorbachev chose to deliver these Philistine platitudes at a point in history when the division of mankind into social classes representing irreconcilable interests has never been more obvious than it is today. Indeed, it is a measure of Gorbachev’s political vulgarity that his pious banalities were spoken in the financial center of world capitalism where daily life exposes the historically unprecedented polarization of society into rich and poor, exploiter and exploited, capitalist and proletarian.
All of Gorbachev’s talk of “universal human values” and “universal human interests” amounts to reactionary twaddle in a society where ownership of the means of production is concentrated in the hands of a few thousand capitalists whose vast wealth is based on the exploitation of the labor of hundreds of millions of workers.
Gorbachev went out of his way to absolve capitalism of any responsibility for any of the crises that afflict the world today. He spoke of war, for example, which every Marxist understands to be the inevitable product of imperialism, as merely the accidental outcome of silly misunderstandings over politics, ideology and religion.
Thus, Gorbachev asserted that war can be prevented once it is decided that “the use or threat of force no longer can or must be an instrument of foreign policy.”
But while offering such empty homilies, which cover up the rapacious character of world imperialism’s drive for markets and sources of labor and raw material, Gorbachev pledged that the Soviet Union stands ready to help the ruling classes stamp out local rebellions that threaten the international status quo. “The bell of every regional conflict,” he said, “tolls for all of us.”
It is not a new political phenomenon that the Soviet bureaucracy is a mortal enemy of socialism and the revolutionary struggles of the international proletariat. More than a half-century has passed since Trotsky, the exiled coleader of the October Revolution, demonstrated that the Stalinist regime, based on the program of “socialism in one country,” has been objectively transformed into a murderous counterrevolutionary agency of world imperialism.
However, Gorbachev’s speech is without any question the most explicit and unabashed declaration of the bureaucracy’s hostility to the proletariat and socialism and its political unity with world imperialism.
In this sense, Gorbachev’s speech exposes the real character of perestroika and glasnost as the ideological and political banner of capitalist restoration within the USSR itself. Far from representing any break with Stalinism, the policies of Gorbachev mark their logical political outcome. From the rejection of world socialism, Stalinism has reached the stage of rejecting socialism within the USSR itself.
It is highly significant that Gorbachev is compelled to acknowledge that the basic premise of “socialism in one country”—that is, national economic self-sufficiency—is utterly untenable. He said, “The world economy is becoming a single organism, and no state, whatever its social system or economic status, can normally develop outside it.”
However, Gorbachev’s answer to the predominance of world economy is not the international proletarian revolution, which he bitterly opposes, but the integration of the Soviet economy into the structure of world capitalism, or, to use his words, “a new structure of the international division of labor.”
Gorbachev’s speech not only provides fresh vindication of Trotsky’s scientific appraisal of the counterrevolutionary character of Stalinism; it also confirms the correctness of the struggle that has been waged by the International Committee of the Fourth International and the Workers League against all those political impressionists who have been claiming that the rise of Gorbachev has expressed the growth of a progressive tendency within the Soviet bureaucracy.
Together with the International Committee, the Workers League has insisted that Gorbachev’s policies represent a further right-wing degeneration of Stalinism and that the defense of the property relations established by the October Revolution requires the overthrow of the Stalinist bureaucracy in a political revolution.
The fight for this Marxist perspective now unfolds under conditions where Gorbachev’s direct encouragement of capitalist tendencies, undermining of the planned economy and attacks on the social conquests of the Soviet proletariat is leading rapidly to a political explosion in the USSR.
Indeed, the speed with which Gorbachev decided to cut short his tour and return to the USSR does not express his sympathy for the victims of the recent devastating earthquake in Armenia, but rather his sensitivity to Soviet working class resentment of his hob-nobbing with the reactionary American ruling class.
What brought Gorbachev to the United Nations, and what underlies the enthusiasm with which he is feted by the world bourgeoisie, is the realization of imperialism and Stalinism that they face a common enemy in the international proletariat. While the bourgeoisie rapturously applauds the Stalinist bureaucrat as he proclaims the end of the class struggle and the eclipse of Marxism, neither the orator nor his audience have the slightest faith in what is being said. At any rate, as they both know, it is only for popular consumption. Behind the scenes, they discuss what measures must be taken to cope with the coming titanic eruption of proletarian class struggle.
The development of the world crisis of capitalism is laying bare the real nature of every political tendency in the world today. It is becoming increasingly apparent to the most advanced sections of the working class that only Trotskyism, represented by the International Committee of the Fourth International, represents the historical continuity of Marxism, the October Revolution and the unification of the world proletariat in the international struggle for socialism.