International Committee of the Fourth International
Fourth International (1990): 50 years since the assassination of Trotsky

Letter to a Soviet youth

February 13, 1990
Dear Comrade:

After a very great delay, I finally received your letter of December 12th. Hopefully, you have received the additional documents that I have sent you, especially Perestroika Versus Socialism.

In the three months which have passed since I visited the Soviet Union, so much has happened. History is once again moving at breathtaking speed, and all the old political categories of the postwar epoch, which seemed to be eternal and immutable, are all dissolving into nothing. Do you remember the words of Goethe, quoted by Engels in his pamphlet on Ludwig Feuerbach: “All that exists deserves to perish.”

But what is it that is perishing? Do the events in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union signify the end of Marxism? That is, of course, what the bourgeoisie and its political lackeys would have the working class believe.

Our analysis of these developments, based on the methodological principles of dialectical and historical materialism, is considerably more profound. The disintegration of the Stalinist regimes is bound up with the crisis of world imperialism, and opens up a new period of revolutionary upheavals whose outcome will decide the fate of civilization.

History will remember the 1980s as the decade in which the technological implications of quantum mechanics were realized in an astonishing transformation of the process of production. The tremendous advances in computer technology and its application to virtually all spheres of communications, transportation, and industry have resulted in an unprecedented global integration of world production.

Great social upheavals are but the political super-structural forms taken by these profound developments in the economic and productive base of society. The globalization of production has set the stage for the explosive eruption of the conflict between the integrated world economy and the historically-outmoded nation-state system. Twice in the twentieth century this basic contradiction gave rise to devastating imperialist wars, each of which called into question the very survival of the bourgeois order. Indeed, had it not been for the betrayals of social democracy and Stalinism, capitalism would have been overthrown by the working class. But with the assistance of its agents in the international workers’ movement, imperialism was given the opportunity to salvage its system after 1945. The so-called postwar system was, in the final analysis, simply an attempt to suppress the contradictions of the capitalist system within a political-economic framework dominated by the hegemony of US imperialism.

The shattering of the old postwar equilibrium of imperialism, which expresses the rebellion of the world economy against the strangulating national state framework, reveals itself in two forms which, however different in appearance, are intimately interconnected.

First, the old political and economic relations between the major imperialist powers is rapidly breaking up. The tremendous decline in the world position of American capitalism and the powerful rise of its old enemies, Germany and Japan, have already produced a new and dangerous escalation of inter-imperialist antagonisms. A deadly struggle has begun for dominance in the world market; and it is only a matter of time before the worsening trade rivalries assume militaristic forms.

Second, the collapse of the Stalinist regimes is the most graphic illustration of the predominance of the world market over the national economy. Considered from the standpoint of economics alone, the crisis which grips Eastern Europe demonstrates the impossibility of developing the productive forces, let alone creating socialism, within an isolated national framework. Precisely because the Eastern European regimes were based so directly on the historically-bankrupt perspective of national economic autarky, they have been the first to experience the political consequences of the last decade’s globalization of production.

The crisis of the USSR and the breakdown of the Stalinist regimes in Eastern Europe reveal one other crucial outcome of the revolutionary transformations in the global process of production: the drastic deterioration in the social position of the working class. To the extent that the organizations of the proletariat are based on a national-reformist, rather than international-revolutionary program, they are incapable of defending any of the past gains of the working class. The collapse of the Stalinist regimes and the parallel crisis of the trade unions in Western Europe and the United States are the historical demonstration of the complete bankruptcy of all national programs within the working class movement.

As we warned in the perspectives resolution of the International Committee, the Stalinist bureaucracies seek to resolve the crisis produced by their bankrupt national program and parasitic disruption of economic planning by reintegrating the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe into the structure of world capitalism. To all except the blind it should now be clear that Gorbachev is acting as an open agent of world imperialism. His role was perfectly described by an adviser to President Bush who told Time magazine (the leading news journal of the American bourgeoisie): “I would be hard pressed to see how a CIA mole planted in Moscow would be acting differently.” Gorbachev’s speech to last week’s meeting of the Central Committee made it clear that his aim is the complete liquidation of all that remains of the October Revolution: “We should abandon everything that led to the isolation of socialist countries from the mainstream of world civilization.” The “mainstream of world civilization” is, of course, the rule of the international bourgeoisie and the domination of private ownership of the means of production. Every capitalist newspaper is jubilantly hailing Gorbachev’s performance as the final renunciation of the socialist “dogmas” of 1917. The Wall Street Journal, the preeminent financial magazine of the American bourgeoisie, has declared that it fully expects Gorbachev to reestablish private property within the next few weeks.

Gorbachev’s policy is not a sudden renunciation of socialism. From the standpoint of both theory and practical policy, the Stalinist bureaucracy renounced socialism decades ago. However, the actions of Gorbachev nevertheless represent a crucial historical milestone: the onset of the final climactic stage of the Stalinist bureaucracy’s betrayal of October. Unless prevented by a political revolution, Gorbachev’s perestroika will result in the reestablishment of capitalist property and the conversion of the most powerful sections of the bureaucracy, blackmarketeers, gangsters and a layer of privileged intellectuals and technocrats into a new comprador-style bourgeoisie (ruling in alliance with foreign imperialist capital). This counterrevolution would inevitably lead to the dissolution of the Soviet Union into a large number of impotent colonies of the most powerful imperialist states. All the social and cultural conquests of the Soviet masses would be liquidated. It would mean, to put it bluntly, a historical retrogression with consequences so horrifying as to be almost unimaginable.

Perhaps some of your friends will reject this warning as an exaggeration. If so, they do not understand the implications of Gorbachev’s foreign policy, in which the bureaucracy’s drive to convert itself into a bourgeois class finds its most developed expression. It is important to examine the change which has occurred in the conduct of Soviet foreign policy. As the Trotskyist movement has continuously explained, the elaboration of the theory of “socialism in one country” by Stalin and Bukharin in 1924 marked the beginning of the bureaucracy’s open repudiation of the perspective of world socialist revolution upon which the program of Bolshevism had been based. By the 1930s, the Stalinist bureaucracy had become transformed into a conscious agency of imperialism in the international workers’ movement. In practice, this meant that the bureaucracy cynically manipulated and betrayed the revolutionary struggles of the international workers’ movement in the interests of its own deals with the bourgeoisie. To the extent that the bureaucracy identified its own privileges with the defense of the property relations established in October 1917, the Kremlin still was for the defense of the USSR against imperialism. But it conducted this defense in a way which sabotaged the international workers’ struggles and, in the long term, weakened the USSR. The local Stalinist parties, acting as the political agents of the Soviet regime, mobilized the working class in their countries not to overthrow capitalism, but to pressure the bourgeoisie to arrive at agreements favorable to the Kremlin bureaucrats.

However, under conditions in which the Soviet bureaucracy, working consciously for the restoration of capitalism, no longer identifies its own interests with the property forms upon which the USSR is historically based, the Kremlin’s foreign policy has undergone a further, qualitative degeneration. As the bureaucracy more and more openly defines its own interests in purely bourgeois terms, its foreign policy completely disavows association with any form of anti-capitalist and antiimperialist struggle. Its foreign policy is no longer directed, even in a distorted form, toward the weakening of imperialist pressure upon the USSR. Rather, it welcomes that pressure as a club against the working class. Indeed, the essence of Gorbachev’s foreign policy is to utilize the pressure of imperialism against the Soviet working class and the existing state property forms. This is proven by Gorbachev’s cynical approval of the speedy absorption of the GDR by imperialist West Germany. It is one thing to fight for the unification of the German working class on the basis of a revolutionary socialist program (i.e., the line of the International Committee). It is quite another to enter, as Gorbachev has now done, into an open alliance with German imperialism against the German, East European and Soviet working class!

It is only a matter of time before the Gorbachev regime resorts to open violence against the Soviet working class. In the Western press, by the way, this eventuality is taken for granted. If anything, the American bourgeoisie was becoming impatient with Gorbachev’s “democratic” squeamishness; and was overjoyed when he “proved” himself by sending troops into Azerbaijan. The press is hardly taking note of the bloodshed, let alone condemning it Instead, the bourgeoisie hopes that Gorbachev will prove no less determined to defend “law and order” when he confronts the next big challenge from the Soviet working class!

As Trotsky foresaw more than a half-century ago, the survival of the Soviet Union is bound up with the development of the political revolution. This, in turn, requires the building of a new revolutionary, i.e., Leninist-Trotskyist, party in the Soviet working class. The strategic significance of this task is underscored by the events now unfolding throughout Eastern Europe.

The collapse of the Stalinist regimes throughout Eastern Europe demonstrates, as noted above, the completely unviable character of the anti-Marxist and reactionary “national socialism” upon which these regimes were based. However, in the absence of a revolutionary leadership within the working class, the imperialists, with the assistance of “reform Stalinists” and the political representatives of the reactionary petty-bourgeois elites, are seeking to resolve the crisis on the basis of programs that are aimed at the restoration of capitalism.

Never forget, comrade, that there are two basic forms of opposition to Stalinism: from the right (the program of capitalist restoration) and from the left (the program of proletarian democracy and socialism). It is the former that currently predominates in Eastern Europe and the USSR. The regimes of Mazowiecki in Poland, Havel in Czechoslovakia, Nemeth in Hungary and Modrow in East Germany are utterly reactionary regimes that function as puppets of American and West European imperialism. The savage assault on the living standards of the Polish working class exposes the real nature of their “democratic” programs. The real social basis of these regimes is the frustrated and egotistical petty bourgeoisie, which dreams of improving its own position by climbing on top of the back of the working class.

During my trip to the USSR, I had the opportunity to speak with and observe some of the representatives of these middle class layers. They were as politically reactionary as any supporter of American imperialism here in the United States. It is not Stalinism they hate, but the Russian Revolution and the working class. They do not oppose Stalinism because it functions as an agency of imperialism within the international workers’ movement and betrayed the program of October. They could easily accept the most savage dictatorship as long as it permitted them, as in Chile under Pinochet or Germany under Hitler, to make money and live in luxury at the expense of the working class.

The great danger in Eastern Europe (and the USSR) is that the working class has still not broken with the petty-bourgeois reactionaries and organized itself on the basis of its own socialist class program. There is no doubt that the betrayals and crimes of Stalinism, carried out in the name of socialism, have produced a considerable degree of political disorientation within the working class. However, whatever illusions the masses presently have in the benefits of capitalism will be shaken by the impact of the restorationist policies now being pursued by the Eastern European regimes.

But whatever the moods that temporarily exist within the working class, the most solemn duty of Marxists is to base their program on a scientific analysis of the contradictions of capitalism as a world system. There is no solution to the crisis that confronts humanity except the world socialist revolution. There is no other way that the explosive contradictions of world imperialism can be resolved in the interests of the toiling masses.

In your letter, you mention that your friends believe that countries such as Sweden demonstrate the strength and viability of the capitalist system. As a matter of fact, all the financial newspapers during the past month have been dominated by the rapidly worsening crisis of the Swedish economy. The social democratic prime minister, Ingvar Carlson, declared last week that the economy is “falling apart.” He has demanded the imposition of a two-year freeze on wages and a total ban on all strikes. The working class is increasingly angry over the impact of inflation on its living conditions. A massive strike is scheduled for Wednesday (February 14) that will shut down transportation and many other sections of the economy.

I wonder whether the crisis in Sweden is being reported in the Soviet press. Gorbachev’s petty-bourgeois entourage has been trumpeting the Swedish model as proof that it is possible to reconcile the capitalist world market with reformist social planning. In reality, the globalization of production has completely undermined the “social consensus” policies that have been pursued by the Swedish reformists. Sweden can no longer maintain a protected domestic market and its important export industries have been weakened by the growth of international competition. Sweden’s balance of trade deficit is expected to widen from 37.5 billion krona in 1990 to 52.6 billion in 1991.

As for the social conditions in the United States, they continue to deteriorate for the working class which still happens to comprise the overwhelming majority of the American population. Sometimes, when one reads in the bourgeois press or hears on television the statements being made by the lackeys of imperialism about the “wonders” of the capitalist market, one wonders: where are the creatures living? When we read or hear it proclaimed that capitalism promises for the people of Eastern Europe a glorious future, we ask ourselves: Haven’t they made an investigation of conditions which exist today in the United States?

Permit me to quote the poverty figures released by government institutes. The bourgeoisie admits that 31.1 million people in America today can be classified as living in extreme poverty. Three million people five without homes. Thirty-seven million Americans have no guaranteed access to medical care. About 23 percent of all children in the United States five in poverty. Twelve million children have no access to health care. Forty percent of all children have not been immunized against the basic childhood diseases; 2.2 million children are classified as physically abused. Of all those who are unemployed, only 31 percent, less than a third, receive unemployment insurance.

Let me give you some other examples of, as it is called in America, “the miracle of the market.” In the last 10 years, employment among auto workers has gone from 1.2 million to 400,000. And economists predict that in the next year and a half, another 200,000 auto workers will lose their jobs. In basic steel, employment has gone from 450,000 to 167,000. And along with this decrease in employment, there has been a dramatic increase in labor productivity. This has been achieved through the imposition of the most drastic forms of exploitation—what, in America, we call speedup.

Allow me to quote a description of conditions in New York City which has appeared in the Financial Times, the leading organ of the British bourgeoisie. It vividly describes the social degradation that exists after a decade that has seen the most massive accumulation of personal wealth by the bourgeoisie and upper echelons of the middle class:

“It is a platitude that New York has become the ultimate city of extremes. It has been called a ‘rain forest’ society, where the rich live high up in their skyscrapers, rarely venturing into the streets. Meanwhile, the poor, the criminal, the homeless and the insane scuffle around in the undergrowth below, scavenging and fighting a Darwinian battle for survival. For the past ten years, New York has enjoyed the greatest economic boom in its history. At the end of this period of unprecedented prosperity, the treasury is empty, and the city is in a state of physical and social decline. While many New Yorkers prospered, they let their city and its poverty stricken under classes crumble. This is true not only of the city’s roads and sewers, but also the beggars, sleeping in ragged piles through which New Yorkers have to pick their way to work.

“Today, it hardly makes news when New York’s physical infrastructure collapses. Electrical circuits break, cutting power supplies and telephone services to hundreds of homes and offices for weeks. Underground steam pipes explode, showering apartments with asbestos and forcing evacuations of city blocks.

“More disturbing to most New Yorkers than the deteriorating infrastructure have been the city’s social problems. Crime, homelessness and race have long overtaken condominium prices, taxi accidents and AIDS as the main topics for small talk at dinner parties.

“The middle class has only a passing interest in the aggregate murder rate, running at 1900 homicides a year, or 5.2 a day, since nearly all the killings are in the ghettos.”

Another significant statistic has recently been published. An article in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine conducted a study that shows that a black male child born in Harlem (a New York City black ghetto) today is expected to die sooner than a boy born in Bangladesh. And, after reporting these conditions, the article explains the financial crisis which now exists in the New York City budget will lead to even sharper cuts in social services in the next period.

This is just one aspect of the reality of capitalism. And alongside these horrifying social conditions are the increasingly violent attacks on the working class. The miners union, which is marking its hundredth anniversary, is threatened with complete destruction. It has lost more than half of its membership in course of the last decade. Brutal state violence has been directed against miners who have gone out on strike. In Kentucky alone, there are four miners who are presently serving lengthy prison terms on the basis of charges concocted by the state. A fifth miner is going on trial for his life in that same state. Nine miners in West Virginia are going on trial later this year on the basis of a frame-up; and they face sentences of between 50 and 80 years in jail. And just last week three miners were shot down while peacefully standing on a picket line in southern West Virginia. Three hundred shots were fired at the men. One of them was killed, but no one has been arrested. Here you see most vividly the nature of “bourgeois democracy,” not as it has been described by Marx and Lenin, but as it exists in real life. No one is punished in the United States for using violence to break a strike and intimidate workers. For example, last year during the course of a bitter strike by telephone workers in New York state, a scab deliberately ran her car over a striker and killed him. The scab did not even receive a traffic ticket.

I have only talked about conditions in advanced capitalist countries like the United States and Sweden. But remind your friends that the overwhelming majority of the population of the “capitalist world” live in the backward countries of Asia, Africa, and Latin America, where it is estimated that more than one billion people live in subhuman conditions. It has been estimated that in these regions 40,000 children die every day from starvation. And as the international bankers redirect their investments to take advantage of the more promising prospects in Eastern Europe, it is expected that the plight of the most backward countries will grow even worse.

Never has the necessity for the world socialist revolution been greater than it is today. Despite the crimes of Stalinism, the objective crisis will create the conditions for the return of the international proletariat to the road of socialism. Indeed, the collapse of Stalinism has made it possible, despite the immediate difficulties, to clarify in the minds of the advanced workers the great historical significance of the struggle waged by Trotsky, the Left Opposition and the Fourth International against the Soviet bureaucracy. Our party is deeply convinced that the future of the working class all over the world depends upon an uncompromising struggle for the program of the Fourth International, which alone represents the real internationalist revolutionary traditions of October 1917.

Your comrade,

David North