Fourth International 1990: The end of the Soviet Union

After the August Putsch: Soviet Union at the Crossroads

In October 1991, David North visited Moscow and Kiev on behalf of the International Committee of the Fourth International. On October 3 he delivered the following lecture at a workers club in the Ukrainian capital.

I would like to begin this lecture by paying tribute to the memory of the hundreds of thousands of Soviet Marxists and revolutionists who perished in the 1930s at the hands of the Stalinist regime. An entire generation of profound thinkers, inspired by the most noble ideals of human solidarity and embodying the finest traditions of both Russian and international socialist culture, was wiped from the face of the earth. The destruction of the Left Opposition and the physical liquidation of its leaders and cadre not only dealt a fatal blow to the political development of the Soviet Union; it also crippled its economic development; and, finally, it debased its intellectual, cultural and moral development.

To this day, far too little is known in the Soviet Union of the heroic struggle conducted by Trotsky and the Left Opposition against the rise to power of the totalitarian bureaucracy. More than six years after the introduction of glasnost—whose attitude toward the restoration of historical truth is shot through with bureaucratic cynicism and hypocrisy—the works of Leon Trotsky and other great figures of the Opposition, such as Christian Rakovsky and Evgenii Preobrazhensky, remain either inaccessible or unavailable to the Soviet people. Only a small fraction of Trotsky’s writings has been published. His greatest books and articles have still not been placed in the libraries and bookstores of the USSR. Who here has seen Lessons of October, Toward Capitalism or Socialism?, The Platform of the Left Opposition, The Critique of the Draft Program of the Comintern, Strategy and Tactics in the Imperialist Epoch, The Chinese Revolution and the Theses of Stalin—to name only a few of the most outstanding documents which flowed from Trotsky’s pen between 1924 and 1928?

At a time when the destiny of the state created by the October Revolution is being pondered and debated by millions, the policies advocated by one of its principal founders are still shrouded in darkness. But to speak knowledgeably of the October Revolution without being familiar with the writings of Leon Trotsky is as impossible a task as to seriously discuss the American bourgeois democratic revolution of 1861 -65 without having read the speeches of Abraham Lincoln.

While the historical record remains concealed, the old Stalinist lies prevail, or are touched up only slightly to meet the latest political needs of the ruling elite. Upon arriving in Kiev, I received a series of written questions from a journalist who desired an interview. The tone and content of his questions reflect the callous indifference toward historical truth that still prevails within the media of the Soviet Union.

For example, the journalist asked, “What is your attitude to the fact that when Trotsky was traveling south for a rest cure, having received a telegram about the death of the leader, he did not return for the funeral, although the funeral of Lenin continued for a large number of days?”

This so-called fact dates back to one of the earliest acts of political skullduggery committed by the Stalinists against Trotsky and the Left Opposition. The historical “facts” relating to this incident are well known. Upon hearing of Lenin’s death, Trotsky—who had been traveling south for a cure—immediately contacted Moscow and informed the Politburo of his desire to return immediately in order to attend the funeral. But Trotsky received a cable from Stalin informing him that he would not be able to return in time for the funeral and that he should continue with his cure. In fact, Stalin’s cable misinformed Trotsky of the date of the funeral—it was actually held one day later than Trotsky was led to believe—so that Trotsky would not return to Moscow and give a funeral oration. This historical fact is certainly known to this journalist, but he chose to ask a question which takes a lie as its point of departure.

In another question, he asks: “What do you think of Lenin’s words in his Testament, where he spoke of the ‘non-Bolshevism’ of Trotsky?’’ Again, this question is based on the ancient Stalinist distortions. In his Testament, Lenin was simply referring to the fact that Trotsky had not joined the Bolsheviks until 1917—a “failure,” if you wish to call it that, for which Trotsky more than compensated by his role in 1917 and his subsequent leadership of the Red Army. Lenin’s Testament was a straightforward declaration that it was politically unscrupulous to attack Trotsky for following a course to Bolshevism that proceeded, until 1917, independently of Lenin’s faction. Moreover, had the reporter been somewhat more concerned with historical truth—rather than with the repetition of old falsehoods and misrepresentations—he might have taken note that in the Testament to which he refers, Lenin speaks of Trotsky’s “outstanding ability” and praises him as the “most capable man in the present CC.”

There are other questions which are based on falsehoods which are easily disposed of, even if one has access only to those sources which have recently become available in the USSR. But, unfortunately, the 55 questions submitted by this “journalist”—who is, I understand, a member of the Communist Party—have been distilled from the vast compendium of lies that have been utilized for decades by the Stalinists in their unrelenting struggle against Trotskyism. I may, at some future date, take the opportunity to respond to the falsifications and misrepresentations which this journalist takes as his point of departure.

But as a partial answer to those who brazenly deny the historical role of Leon Trotsky and the Left Opposition, and even attempt to equate Trotskyism with Stalinism, allow me to read to you a passage which appeared in the memoirs of Leopold Trepper, the famous leader of the Red Orchestra which conducted espionage during World War II on behalf of the Soviet Union against the Nazi regime. Writing toward the end of his life in the late 1970s, he recalled with sorrow and shame the horrifying crimes committed against the Soviet and international working class by the Stalinist bureaucracy:

“But who did protest at this time?” Trepper asked. “Who rose up to voice his outrage?

The Trotskyists can lay claim to this honor. Following the example of their leader, who was rewarded for his obstinacy with the end of an ice-axe, they fought Stalinism to the death, and they were the only ones who did. By the time of the great purges, they could only shout their rebellion in the freezing wastelands where they had been dragged in order to be exterminated. In the camps, their conduct was admirable. But their voices were lost in the tundra.

Today, the Trotskyists have a right to accuse those who once howled along with the wolves. Let us not forget, however, that they had the enormous advantage over us of having a coherent political system capable of replacing Stalinism. They had something to cling to in the midst of their profound distress at seeing the revolution betrayed. They did not ‘confess,’ for they knew that their confession would serve neither the party nor socialism.

That passage constitutes, so to speak, a final valedictory to truth by a man of unquestionable integrity and courage—who, by the way, was himself hounded from his homeland by the Polish Stalinist regime. But despite the historical record, many of those who until very recently “howled with the wolves” against the Trotskyists find it personally unpleasant and politically inconvenient to be reminded of the struggle waged by Marxists against the Soviet bureaucracy. How easy it is for all those who were only recently members of the Stalinist apparatus—such as the present presidents of the Russian Federation and the Ukrainian Republic, not to mention the last general secretary of the CPSU—to rationalize their own catastrophic policies and justify their drive to restore capitalism by denouncing the October Revolution and declaring that Marxism has “failed.”

A few weeks ago Mr. Alexander Yakovlev granted an interview to an American newspaper and declared: “In the past two years I began to read and study again, and I found that not one of the predictions of Marx and Engels had come true.” This is a truly fantastic declaration by a man who for many years was known as a leading ideologist of the Communist Party. Unfortunately, he did not elaborate on this declaration and explain precisely how the failure of Marxism has been established. For more than 45 years Mr. Yakovlev was a member of a party that brutally persecuted Marxists and denied to the citizens of the Soviet Union the right to read the works of Trotsky and other great Soviet Marxists. He himself, in other words, functioned for years as a director—and not an insignificant one—of a vast bureaucratic machine which operated in violation of every principle—political, economic, historical and moral—that could be genuinely identified with Marxism. But now he surveys the wreckage of that machine, and absolves himself of responsibility by placing the blame upon Marxism.

But the refutation of Mr. Yakovlev lies in the historical record. The collapse of the Soviet Union may have come as a surprise to many, but not to the adherents of the Fourth International. All the events now taking place are a tragic vindication of warnings which were made not 5, 10 or even 20 years ago, but as far back as 65 years ago ... by the leaders of the Left Opposition, who intransigently rejected the theory, proclaimed by Stalin and Bukharin in 1924, that socialism could be built in a single country.

In his speech to the Seventh Plenum of the Executive Committee of the Communist International, on December 9, 1926, Trotsky declared:

But if we ‘abstract’ ourselves from the capitalist world—which, after all, does exist—if we intend to make with our own hands all machines, or at least the most important of them, even in the immediate future, i.e., if we attempt to ignore the division of labor in world industry, and jump over our economic past that has made our industry what it is now—in a word, if, according to the famous ‘ socialist’ Monroe Doctrine which is now being preached to us, we are to make everything ourselves, this will unavoidably mean an extreme slowing down of the rate of our economic development. For it is entirely clear that a refusal to exploit the world market to fill the gaps in our technology will very seriously slow down our own development. But the rate of development is a decisive factor, for we are not alone on the earth: the isolated socialist state for the time being exists only in the powerful imagination of the journalists and the writers of resolutions. In reality, our socialist state is constantly—directly or indirectly—under the equalizing control of the world market. The rate of development is not an arbitrary matter. It is determined by world development as a whole, because in the last instance the world economy controls each of its sections even if the section in question is under the dictatorship of the proletariat and is building up a socialist industry.

In the Platform of the Left Opposition, issued in September 1927, Trotsky wrote:

We cannot escape from capitalist encirclement by retreating into a nationally exclusive economy.... The monopoly of foreign trade is a vitally necessary instrument for socialist construction, under the circumstances of a higher technological level in the capitalist countries. But the socialist economy now under construction can be defended by this monopoly only if it continually comes closer to the prevailing levels of technology, production costs, quality and price in the world economy....

The orientation toward the isolated development of socialism and a rate of development independent of the world economy distorts the entire perspective, throws our planning efforts off the track, and fails to provide any guideline for correctly managing our relations with the world economy. As a result we have no way of deciding what to manufacture ourselves and what to bring in from the outside. Firm rejection of the theory of an isolated socialist economy would mean, even in the next few years, an incomparably more rational use of our resources, a swifter industrialization, and an increasingly well-planned and powerful growth of our own machine industry. It would mean a swifter increase in the number of employed workers and a real lowering of prices—in a word, a genuine strengthening of the Soviet Union despite capitalist encirclement.

In his introduction to the German edition of Permanent Revolution , Trotsky wrote:

To aim at building a nationally isolated socialist society means, in spite of all passing successes, to pull the productive forces backward, even as compared with capitalism. To attempt, regardless of the geographical, cultural and historical conditions of the country’s development, which constitutes a part of the world unity, to realize a shut-off proportionality of all branches of economy within a world framework, means to pursue a reactionary utopia.

Trotsky insisted again and again that the Soviet Union, despite the monopoly of foreign trade, could not free itself from the pressure of world economy; and that it remained dependent upon the world market. Moreover, he stressed that the development of the Soviet economy increased rather than lessened this dependence. “The international division of labor and the supra-national character of modem productive forces not only retain but will increase twofold and tenfold their significance for the Soviet Union in proportion to the degree of Soviet economic ascent.”

This last observation deserves to be pondered carefully, for it provides an insight into the current problems of the Soviet Union that is far more profound than the ones offered by those who, in place of an analysis, simply shout that nothing was achieved by the October Revolution and that “socialism” has failed. In fact, the very acuteness of the economic crisis is bound up with the immense growth of the Soviet economy and its tremendous complexity. As Trotsky prophetically warned, “the contradictions of the Soviet Union’s capitalist and pre-capitalist past not only do not disappear of themselves, but on the contrary rise up from the recovery from the years of decline and destruction; they revive and are aggravated with the growth of Soviet economy, and in order to be overcome or even mitigated they demand at every step that access to the resources of the world market be achieved.”

There are, I am glad to say, a growing number of people in the USSR, even among the intelligentsia, who recognize and admit that Trotsky has been proven right. The attempt to build socialism in one country was, they acknowledge, a tragic error which has led to a disaster. We now know, they assert, that it is necessary for the Soviet Union to become part of the world economy. But this valuable, though belated, insight is then compromised with a fatal conclusion—that access to the resources of the world economy requires, of necessity, the restoration of capitalism. In saying this, they imagine that the “insertion” of the USSR into the world market, on the basis of capitalism, is a rather simple task, like inserting a well-made artificial tooth in place of a rotten one that had to be removed. But even such a simple procedure often produces unforeseen complications—and, at any rate, the integration of the USSR into the structures of world capitalism requires far more than skillful economic dentistry.

Those who argue that it is only necessary for the Soviet Union, or what remains of it, to enter into the world market for it to solve its present problems simply ignore a number of critical historical and economic issues. First of all, the October Revolution was not a light-minded adventure foisted arbitrarily upon the Russian and Ukrainian people by wild Utopians. This cataclysmic event was deeply rooted in the development of Russian and world economy and their mutual interaction. It was an attempt to overcome, in the interests of the destitute masses, the immense obstacles to progressive economic development confronting a backward country within an international environment dominated by highly developed imperialism. The early economic and cultural achievements of the Soviet state, despite the depredations of the bureaucracy, captured the attention of the entire world; and these achievements, to this day, certainly compare very favorably to the state of affairs in backward countries where capitalist rule had not been overthrown. Hence the enormous influence exercised by the Soviet Union for decades after the revolution.

Moreover, even if one were to accept, and we do not, that the October Revolution was an adventure which should not have been attempted, there is no turning back to 1917. Just last week, I found it difficult to conceal my amazement upon being told by a Soviet professor in Moscow that it is necessary for Russia to return to the nineteenth century! But neither Russia nor the world can be returned to where it was yesterday, let alone to where it was last century. It’s one thing to pull down statues and rename cities; it’s quite another to recreate the past. Neither Russia nor the Ukraine can escape from the realities of world economy at the end of the twentieth century. As Russia and the Ukraine attempt to integrate themselves into the structures of world imperialism on a capitalist basis, they will quickly find themselves not only confronted with all the massive problems confronting every other third world nation—none of which has found successful answers to their problems—but with additional and especially harrowing difficulties. In the course of his recent visit to Washington, Kravchuk was informed by the IMF that wage levels and the corresponding social benefits of Ukrainian workers must correspond to their productivity of labor, using prevailing world standards as the scale of measurement. In practice, the “correction” of Soviet wage levels to meet the exacting capitalist standards of measurement would mean a drastic lowering of the social conditions of Soviet workers.

To the extent that they are even willing to acknowledge the grave implications of a return to capitalism in Russia and the Ukraine, smug economists among the ex-Stalinists, right-wing “democrats” and nationalists declare that Russia and the Ukraine are not like other “third world” countries. That is quite true: they both possess a massive industrial infrastructure and a level of social culture unknown to the masses of any other “developing” country. But herein lies the unique dilemma of the USSR and its republics. For the countries of the third world, capitalist development is theoretically “justified”—to the extent that it can be justified at all—as a means of creating modem industrial economies that will provide, at some unknown date in the very distant future, an escape from grinding poverty. Aside from the fact that this apology is based more on illusions and myths than on facts, it has no relevance for the Soviet Union. In this country, capitalist restoration can only take place on the basis of the widescale destruction of the already-existing productive forces and the social-cultural institutions that depend upon them. In other words, the integration of the USSR into the structure of the world imperialist economy on a capitalist basis means not the slow development of a backward national economy, but the rapid destruction of one which has sustained living conditions which are, at least for the working class, far closer to those which exist in the advanced countries than in the third world. When one examines the various schemes hatched by the proponents of capitalist restoration, one cannot but conclude that they are no less ignorant than Stalin of the real workings of the world capitalist economy. And they are preparing the ground for a social tragedy that will eclipse that produced by the pragmatic and nationalistic policies of Stalin.

This is not a theoretical projection; rather the future which threatens the USSR is the present reality in much of Eastern Europe. In all the countries where capitalism has been or is in the process of being restored, the result has been a catastrophic collapse of the national economy.

These omens are shrugged aside. The USSR, we are told, is not East Germany, Poland or Romania. But to what, then, should the USSR be compared? Perhaps to another very large developing country, richly endowed by nature, with an industrial base which is, at least by the standard of “developing countries,” fairly advanced. Should we take Brazil? Permit me to quote from the Financial Times of London, dated September 23, 1991:

“Brazilians are finally admitting the depth of the crisis, asking why they cannot produce political and business leaders and realizing that their country is undergoing social unrest more insidious than revolution. Land invasions are a daily occurrence; kidnappings are too frequent to make the news; both Rio and Sao Paulo average more than one bank robbery a day; and teenagers in Sao Paulo are shot dead for their sneakers.”

If political and economic arguments were won on the basis of facts and logic, no one in his right mind would be attempting to make the case for the restoration of capitalism. But what is involved here is not an argument between cultured English gentlemen, but a clash of social forces. Stalin did not defeat the Left Opposition in the 1920s because his arguments were superior to Trotsky’s; rather he won because his arguments found a response within an increasingly powerful stratum of bureaucrats who were determined to defend their material privileges.

Today, despite their utter impoverishment, the arguments on behalf of capitalist restoration are advancing because they reflect the material interests of definite social layers—the bureaucrats and emerging bourgeois compradors who are striving to convert the considerable assets of the Soviet state, built up by the working class, into private property. The political developments within the Soviet Union provide yet another vindication of the power of Marxist analysis. Since its formation in 1938, the Fourth International has always maintained that the Stalinist regime, unless overthrown by the working class, would lead to the restoration of capitalism. From this standpoint, the events of August represent the climax of this process. The conflict between the Yanayev-Pavlov faction of the Stalinist bureaucracy on the one hand and the Soviet compradors led by Yeltsin on the other was merely over how capitalism is to be restored and who would exercise control over this process.

Neither group has anything to offer the working class except growing unemployment, poverty and hunger. It is significant that in the aftermath of the putsch, the new regime of Yeltsin and Popov have not advanced a single progressive initiative to improve the conditions of life for the Soviet people. They have been concentrated exclusively on the fight over buildings and other pieces of property. With all due respect to these distinguished political leaders, allow me to suggest that the conflict between the Stalinists and the democrats resemble that between rival mafia gangs.

In the republics, the nationalists proclaim that the solution to all problems lies in the creation of new “independent” states. Allow us to ask, independent of whom? Declaring “independence” from Moscow, the nationalists can do nothing more than place all the vital decisions relating to the future of their new states in the hands of Germany, Britain, France, Japan and the United States. Kravchuk goes to Washington and squirms in his seat like a schoolboy while he is lectured by President Bush.

The Fourth International has always defended the right of nations to self-determination, and Trotsky spoke eloquently in 1939 of the right of the Ukraine to secede from a Soviet state dominated by the Kremlin oligarchy. This remains the political position of the Fourth International. However, we do not pretend that secession and formal independence can, of itself, provide an answer to the grave problems which confront the Ukraine and other republics. Indeed, even after achieving formal independence, the independent republics would confront, in a concentrated form, all the same problems which they formerly faced within the framework of the USSR—but without any of the advantages conferred by the existence of a large state with an “economy of scale.”

As in all other questions facing the peoples of the Soviet Union, the source of the extreme and justified dissatisfaction of the Soviet nationalities must be traced historically. It did not arise organically out of the October Revolution and the creation of the Soviet Union, but in the perversion of this union and its principles by the Stalinist bureaucracy. As far back as 1927, in the Platform of the Left Opposition, Trotsky wrote:

Bureaucratism, sustained by the spirit of great-power chauvinism, has succeeded in transforming Soviet centralization into a source of quarrels as to the allotment of official positions among the nationalities (the Transcaucasian Federation). It has spoiled the relations between the center and the outlying areas. It has reduced to nothing, as a matter of actual fact, the significance of the Soviet of Nationalities. It has carried bureaucratic tutelage over the autonomous republics to the point of depriving the latter of the right to settle land disputes between the local and Russian population. To the present day this great-power chauvinism, especially as it expresses itself through the state machinery, remains the chief enemy of integration and unity among workers of different nationalities.

What path, then, should the working people of the USSR follow? What is the alternative? The only solution which can be found is that which is based on the program of revolutionary internationalism. The return to capitalism, for which the chauvinist agitation of the nationalists is only one guise, can only lead to a new form of oppression. Rather than each of the Soviet nationalities approaching the imperialists separately with their heads bowed and their knees bent, begging for alms and favors, the Soviet workers of all nationalities should forge a new relationship, based on the principles of real social equality and democracy, and on this basis undertake the revolutionary defense of all that is worth preserving of the heritage of 1917.

In order to avert the catastrophe that threatens all the people of the Soviet Union, we call on workers to seize control of the factories, to establish democratically-controlled workers committees and councils on a factory, citywide, regional and all-union basis to organize and coordinate production and distribution of goods. Only through such action can the threat of catastrophe be averted. Workers should assume control of state property—which they themselves created—and decide how it is to be utilized. To the extent that limited privatization can be utilized to assist the task of economic reconstruction, it should be controlled and supervised by democratic workers councils. The workers must prevent the lawless and uncontrolled sell-off of state property. An inventory of the assets of the USSR must be drawn up. The secret reserves of the bureaucracy must be uncovered and controlled. Workers committees and councils must take control of the resorts, housing complexes, medical facilities, etc. which have until now been the exclusive preserve of the bureaucracy.

At the very heart of this program is the perspective of revolutionary internationalism. Never forget: All the problems which haunt the Soviet people today have their origins in the abandonment of the program of revolutionary internationalism.

In the 1920s, the emerging Stalinist bureaucracy exploited the discouragement produced by the defeat of the German revolution to promote the idea that it was more realistic to base the construction of socialism upon the internal resources of the Soviet Union than upon the possibility of world revolution. In the years that followed, the international policies which arose on the basis of the Stalinist program of “socialism in one country” became the principal cause of the defeats of revolutionary struggles by the working class outside the Soviet Union.

For decades the Kremlin has done all in its power to sabotage the international struggles of the working class. Indeed, it is to the Kremlin that the international bourgeoisie owes its survival. In the years after the Second World War—which was itself the tragic outcome of the betrayals of the European proletariat carried out by the Stalinists in the 1930s—the Kremlin devoted the bulk of its energies to rescuing the enfeebled and desperate bourgeoisie. In France and Italy, the mass Communist parties, which held power in their hands, suppressed the protests of the workers and returned power to the despised capitalists. In Eastern Europe, the Stalinists reluctantly assumed state power—not to advance the cause of social revolution, but to help reestablish a new political equilibrium vital for the stability of capitalism as a world system.

Throughout the postwar period, Stalinism and its half brother, social democracy, served as the main agencies of imperialism in the workers movement, deceiving and betraying the working class. All the mighty mass movements of the international proletariat, especially during the convulsive struggles of the late 1960s and early 1970s, ended in defeat and discouragement because of the treachery of the Stalinists and social democrats—in France in 1968, in Germany and Italy in 1969, in Portugal in 1974-75, to name only the most outstanding examples. And the examples of such direct betrayals of great movements of the working class do not give the full scope of the havoc wreaked by Stalinism in the international working class. Even more terrible have been the consequences of the monstrous misappropriation and distortion of both the vocabulary and ideals of Marxism, socialism and communism in pursuit of the Soviet bureaucracy’s reactionary material interests. No political force in the world has worked so assiduously and systematically to alienate the international working class from socialism and communism than the Soviet Stalinists and their satellite parties.

Now, as they work for the restoration of capitalism in the Soviet Union, the Stalinists bring their betrayal of the international working class to a climax by issuing effusive tributes to the glories of capitalism. It is not possible to watch television, listen to the radio, or read a newspaper in the Soviet Union without being bombarded with reports about the miracles being achieved by capitalism all over the world. One will search in vain for news about the horrifying poverty which afflicts the great mass of humanity in Asia, Africa and Latin America, of the countless millions who the each year from hunger, thirst and disease. Instead, the Soviet media is filled with reports of the glorious life supposedly enjoyed by the citizens of Europe and, especially, the United States. America, the people of the Soviet Union are now incessantly told, is a “paradise.”

The United States portrayed in the Soviet media is one which few American workers would recognize. The real America is a land of mass unemployment, of tens of millions of low-paid and underpaid workers, desperately struggling to make ends meet. It is a land where untold millions lack housing, are unable to obtain medical care, and cannot provide their children with a decent education.

I could speak here at length of the desperate social crisis in the United States; but it is not my aim to compare and contrast the Soviet Union and the United States. Such an approach does not educate the working class, and too frequently is utilized to justify conditions which exist in one or another country. Internationalism does not consist in drawing conclusions from superficial comparisons, but in understanding the complex and common problems which confront the proletariat as an international class, and which can only be resolved by the unified revolutionary struggle of the workers of all countries.

This internationalist outlook and perspective animates the activity of the International Committee of the Fourth International. We are fighting to build the World Party of Socialist Revolution. We look forward to the creation of a Soviet section of this world party that will conduct systematic political and educational work in Russia, the Ukraine—among all the people of the USSR.