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Fourth International 1990: The end of the Soviet Union

The Lessons of the August Putsch and the Tasks before the Soviet Working Class

The International Committee of the Fourth International welcomes the humiliating collapse of the August 19 Stalinist putsch in Moscow. Within just 61 hours, the military-backed putsch crumbled in an ignominious heap. The Stalinist bureaucracy, the gravedigger of the October Revolution, has suffered a defeat from which it cannot recover.

But the justified satisfaction felt by workers both in the Soviet Union and internationally at the failure of the putschists must not blind them to the fact that those now assuming center stage in Moscow are bitter antisocialists and ruthless exponents of capitalist restoration.

The implacable opposition of the socialist working class to the military-KGB coup must retain its complete independence from the political aims of the imperialists and their political and economic agents within the Soviet Union. The International Committee warns workers in the Soviet Union and around the world not to be misled by the media propaganda portraying the power struggle as a conflict between the forces of “communism” and those of “freedom.” The Stalinist gangsters who staged the putsch no more represent Marxism and socialism than George Bush, the political ally of Yeltsin and Gorbachev, represents democracy.

All workers should recall that even as President Bush poses as the defender of democracy in the USSR, he continues to support the Beijing Stalinists who carried out the Tiananmen massacre two years ago, not to mention countless bloodstained juntas throughout the world which he, as former leader of the Central Intelligence Agency, helped to place in power.

The disintegration of the coup signifies the onset of a new stage of decisive class battles within the Soviet Union. The crucial question which now confronts the Soviet masses is whether the collapse of the Stalinist regime will lead forward to genuine socialism, based on the program of revolutionary internationalism, or toward a terrible relapse to capitalism—a relapse which the reactionary policies of Stalinism have prepared over many decades.

The resurgence of genuine socialism and the rebirth of the great humanitarian principles which animated the October Revolution require above all the building of a Trotskyist party in the Soviet Union, as part of the International Committee of the Fourth International.

The International Committee of the Fourth International bluntly warns that in the absence of such a leadership and without the independent mobilization of the working class, the danger now exists that the collapse of Stalinism will lead to the restoration of capitalism.

The Soviet working class must boldly draw the lessons of the events in Eastern Europe. The struggles which culminated in the downfall of the hated Honecker regime in East Germany, Jaruzelski in Poland and the other Stalinist satraps in Eastern Europe have led to capitalist regimes which are liquidating nationalized property and implementing the Polish “shock therapy,” i.e., the vicious anti-working class policies of mass unemployment, social devastation and pauperization.

In the face of growing resistance from the working class—factory occupations in eastern Germany, work stoppages in Poland and a general strike movement in Bulgaria—all of these regimes are shedding their “democratic” pretensions and preparing massive state repression against the working class. Former Solidarity head Lech Walesa spoke for all of these pro-imperialist regimes last month when he announced his intention to use the police and troops to break strikes.

The Fourth International predicts that the “democratic” parties of capitalist restoration around Yeltsin will show their “gratitude” to the Soviet people in the aftermath of the coup attempt by proceeding to shut down factories and creating the same type of social misery as presently prevails in Eastern Europe. Moreover, they will seek to enforce unpopular measures by utilizing the old institutions of state repression in the Soviet Union which remain intact. These institutions are simply passing from the hands of the Stalinist gangsters into those of the emerging comprador Soviet bourgeoisie, led by the ex-Stalinist bureaucrat, Yeltsin.

Soviet workers must beware: All of the resources of the state will now be directed entirely to the dismantling of state property, the introduction of private ownership of the productive forces, and the ruthless suppression of all who oppose this policy.

In the immediate aftermath of the coup’s collapse, the imperialists are making clear the policies which are to be carried out by the Kremlin. The New York Times carried a frontpage column on Thursday, August 22, demanding that Gorbachev immediately undertake measures to impose capitalism, describing this as “the mammoth task of civilizing their country.”

The cynicism and hypocrisy which characterize the arrogant forces of capitalist restoration are encapsulated in the political career of their principal spokesman, Boris Yeltsin. He served for 35 years as a faithful member of the Stalinist apparatus. He joined the ranks of the Communist Party at the very time the Kremlin was putting down the upsurge of Soviet workers at Novocherkassk. He supported the bloody repression of the workers of Hungary and Poland. He speaks for a whole layer of Stalinist bureaucrats who have swelled the ranks of the aspiring capitalists in the “democratic” camp, deserting the sinking ship of Stalinism, but not before they have plundered and carved up the resources of the Soviet economy for their own selfish ends.

The Soviet working class must fight for its own independent class interests against the remnants of the Stalinist bureaucracy and the pro-capitalist democrats. It must not allow its fate to be tied to any section of the Stalinists, nor allow itself to be trapped behind the various petty-bourgeois democrats grouped around Yeltsin.

We call on workers and the socialist intelligentsia to defend and revive the basic historic conquests of the October Revolution. They must oppose the denationalization and privatization of the Soviet economy and the transfer of its assets to the imperialists and the ruthless speculators and compradors. Moreover, the democratic and socialist foundations for the reorganization of the Soviet economy and the establishment of scientific planning require the creation of genuine organs of workers power, i.e., soviets—mercilessly purged of the bureaucracy.

It is especially vital for workers to recognize that the basic instruments of state repression—the military and the KGB—still exist. Their transference to the control of the semi-bourgeois Supreme Soviet does not change or, for that matter, lessen the threat they pose to the democratic rights of the working class. They must be abolished and power must be vested in truly democratic organs controlled by the proletariat and its allies.

What Led to the Coup?

The real target of the coup was never Mikhail Gorbachev or Boris Yeltsin, but the Soviet working class. In fact, every one of the coup conspirators had been appointed to the Kremlin leadership by none other than Gorbachev! Yanayev and his cohorts in the military and KGB feared that Gorbachev had lost control of the situation, and that a coup was required in order to preempt a rebellion by the working class outraged over the drastic deterioration of its living standards.

Over the past year Soviet political life has been dominated by the increasingly bitter factional struggles over how best to carry out the restoration of capitalism in the Soviet Union in the face of mounting resistance from the Soviet working class. Even those factions of the Stalinists superficially described as “hard-line” have repeatedly insisted that they support the privatization. To the extent that they criticize the process of denationalization as it has been carried out so far, it is largely on the basis of their dissatisfaction with their share of the booty.

Gorbachev has been increasingly involved in a precarious balancing act, straddling between these disgruntled layers of the bureaucracy—who seek to defend their privileges within the framework of capitalist restoration—and those elements among his lifelong colleagues who are in the process of transforming themselves into a comprador bourgeoisie with the closest links to the various imperialist powers.

Over the past 10 months, the bitter internal conflicts have reached a climax. In September-October 1990 Gorbachev commissioned the so-called Shatalin plan, a 500-day plan for the Polish-style introduction of the capitalist market. But in light of warnings that the plan would bring up to 40 million unemployed and unleash a social explosion, he withdrew his support. It was precisely at this point that Eduard Shevardnadze, Gorbachev’s closest collaborator and his personal emissary to the leaders of world imperialism, resigned. Unable to carry out his plan to make Shevardnadze his vice president, Gorbachev turned to Yanayev.

One aspect of Yanayev’s biography is especially significant, as it exposes the deep hatred of the upper echelons of the Stalinist bureaucracy for Marxism. The doctoral thesis of this Stalinist hack was a bitter and lying diatribe against the Fourth International, entitled “Trotskyism and Anarchy.”

At the time of his nomination, Yanayev declared himself in favor of “diverse forms of property and a changeover to market relations.” But he warned, on the basis of his firsthand experience of suppressing the Soviet working class in his capacity as chief of the official trade union bureaucracy: “If we were to adopt some kind of shock therapy option for the change-over to a market, this would mean that we would have tens of millions of unemployed in the first year alone. Can we allow ourselves, in our country, to pursue such an irresponsible policy that would bring the emergence of social dynamite in the form of 100 million people, dynamite that could blow up society?”

Yanayev’s elevation brought furious denunciations from Boris Yeltsin who, in February, demanded Gorbachev’s removal. But the implementation of price increases in March as part of the program of capitalist restoration saw the eruption of a strike movement by miners, sending a tremor of fear through the entire bureaucracy.

In April, Gorbachev and Yeltsin entered an agreement to end the strikes and establish a new union treaty. The conflicts which erupted over this have nothing to do with the principles of self-determination, but center on the aspirations of the budding bourgeois in the republics to reap the benefits of the dismantling of nationalized property at the expense of their Kremlin counterparts. In May, one of Gorbachev’s economic advisers, Grigory Yavlinsky, made a trip to the United States to work out a more detailed proposal for the implementation of privatization and the dismantling of state-owned property to be put before the G-7 leaders. The draft plan called for the ending of state control over as much as two-thirds of the Soviet Union’s productive capacity by 1995 in return for massive imperialist aid.

In June Prime Minister Pavlov, voicing the same concerns as Yanayev, reported to parliament that the miners strikes of March and April 1991 had cost the state 18 billion rubles, and that an average of 40,000 people were absent from work every day last year through strikes and protests. He then gave an interview to Izvestia, attacking Yavlinsky’s plan.

In the face of a mounting economic crisis, and a ballooning budget deficit, Pavlov demanded emergency powers to enable him to issue decrees without the approval of the president or parliament.

Gorbachev continued to attempt to straddle the burgeoning divisions within the bureaucracy. In protest at Gorbachev’s continued wavering, Yavlinsky refused to accompany him to the meeting of the G-7 in London.

Gorbachev hoped that the worsening economic and political crisis could be mitigated if he convinced the leaders of world imperialism to pledge billions of dollars in order to finance the Soviet transition to capitalism.

But the assembled imperialist heads of state flatly refused to cooperate. Gorbachev was told they would not underwrite any economic program until they were entirely convinced that decisive measures would be implemented to dismantle nationalized property. To back up their hard line, the major banks in the imperialist countries drastically cut back their loans to the Soviet Union.

Much still remains clouded, including the specific role played by Gorbachev himself. But it appears that sections of the Stalinist bureaucracy, fearing that the implementation of the new union treaty would drastically curtail their powers, decided to act.

The Collapse of the Coup

The Yanayev faction launched the coup, not from a position of strength, but from growing desperation. From the outset, it was a “mutiny on one’s knees.” Having been hand-picked by Gorbachev as accomplices in his restorationist program, the conspirators were unable to claim they were acting to rally the working class in defense of “socialism” and the heritage of October. They had no viable program to offer in opposition to that of Gorbachev and Yeltsin. The traditional Stalinist program of “socialism in one country” had long since been discredited.

Every action taken by the putschists reflected their indecision, inner divisions and weakness. On the one hand, they were terrified of taking any action which would antagonize the imperialists. The Russian parliament was left untouched and no attempt was even made to cut Yeltsin’s telephone connections. He was able to maintain a constant and direct contact and collaboration with Tory Prime Minister John Major, US President George Bush and other leaders of world imperialism.

On the other hand, Yanayev and the coup leaders were desperately frightened of provoking an uncontrolled reaction in the Soviet working class.

The first pronouncements made by the eight-man State Emergency Committee were to outlaw all strikes and demonstrations, and to impose a curfew.

In a demonstration to the imperialist powers that they had no intention of abandoning the pro-capitalist policies of perestroika, they declared that all previous treaties and obligations remained intact and that the emergency measures “in no way” implied “renunciation of the course towards profound reforms in all spheres of life of the state and society.”

In a further statement, the committee declared its support for “private enterprise, granting it necessary opportunities for the development of production and services.”

From the outset the coup was wracked by internal crisis. Knowing full well the situation in their own ranks, the military leaders called it off almost before it had started. They were aware that they were in no position to carry through a repetition of Tiananmen Square in Red Square. This was not for lack of expertise. The Kremlin gangsters have had decades of experience in brutally suppressing the Soviet and international working class. On the contrary, top layers in the KGB and military feared that to uphold the coup by force would have unleashed the very social explosion they were desperately aiming to avert. Although the crowds that gathered in Moscow, Leningrad and other major cities were composed predominantly of students and intellectuals, the coup leaders were terrified that any bloody confrontation would set off a massive reaction throughout the Soviet working class, bringing millions onto the streets.

The actions of Boris Yeltsin played, in the final analysis, only a limited role in the failure of the putsch. His appeal for a general strike went largely unanswered, even in Moscow. The working class identified with neither faction. The coup was played out behind the scenes, in the offices of the KGB, the military and in telephone calls between the imperialist capitals and Moscow. When the Stalinist putschists realized that their actions would not be sanctioned by the imperialist leaders, upon whom they, no less than Yeltsin, were dependent, they lost all hope and their coup collapsed.

Tasks of the Working Class

The collapse of the August 19 coup is a large nail in the coffin of the Stalinist bureaucracy. But any premature jubilation on the part of the working class would be totally unjustified.

Those forces now in the forefront are the most ruthless and frothing enemies of the working class. Their aim is nothing less than the selling off of all the assets of the Soviet Union and its reduction to a semi-colonial status. By all accounts, the past few years have seen a wild selloff of state assets during which the most powerful and privileged sections of the bureaucracy have utilized their positions to make their fortunes.

In the name of defending “democracy” and upholding the rights of the “individual,” Yeltsin will justify the mass sackings and violent attacks on the working class which are now immediately on the agenda.

It will not be long before the illusions harbored by workers, students and sections of the intelligentsia in Yeltsin’s demagoguery will be brutally dashed. Those who today are being praised and hailed by imperialism as “democrats” and “defenders of the people” will tomorrow show no squeamishness whatsoever when it comes to defending their own class interests against the working class.

And the working class must take a warning from the unprecedented involvement of the major imperialist powers, who are already dealing with the Soviet Union as if it were a colony.

Without the independent intervention of the working class on the basis of a socialist program, the collapse of Stalinism in the Soviet Union will lead to even more brutal forms of repression and social devastation. Six decades of Stalinist terror will be replaced by the terror of capitalism. It is absolutely excluded that capitalist restoration will be implemented peacefully. Parliamentary democracy and capitalist restoration are totally incompatible. The only way in which capitalism will be restored is through the most violent and bloody suppression of the Soviet working class.

The Soviet working class must sweep away the entire Stalinist apparatus, free itself from the influence of the petty bourgeoisie, establish genuine soviets as organs of workers power and, in this way, guarantee real workers democracy. The most vital task now confronting all socialist-minded workers, students and intellectuals is to assimilate the decades-long struggle of the Fourth International against Stalinism and participate in the building of the Soviet section of the International Committee of the Fourth International.

The fate of the USSR will not be decided solely within its borders. It will be determined on the international arena of the class struggle.

The struggle of the Soviet working class to overthrow the remnants of the Stalinist bureaucracy, prevent capitalist restoration, stop the degradation of the Soviet Union into a Balkanized semi-colony of imperialism, and establish genuine workers democracy must be united with the struggles of the working class in the advanced capitalist countries and the oppressed nations against imperialism. This requires the building of the International Committee of the Fourth International, the World Party of Socialist Revolution.

Only the Fourth International, founded on the basis of the historic struggle led by Leon Trotsky against the counterrevolutionary Stalinist bureaucracy, defends the historic conquests of the Soviet proletariat and upholds its great socialist traditions.

Among the central tasks of the World Conference of Workers against Imperialist War and Colonialism, which will be held in Berlin on November 16-17, 1991, will be to lay the foundations for a new Soviet section of the International Committee of the Fourth International.

Soviet workers, youth, students and intellectuals: Join the Fourth International, the World Party of Socialist Revolution. It is the party of your coming victory.

  • Down with Stalinism!
  • No to capitalist restoration!
  • Defend the conquests and traditions of October 1917!
  • Build the Soviet section of the International Committee of the Fourth International!
  • Forward to the victory of the world socialist revolution!