The future that ended
Three decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the causes and consequences still elude most of the left, writes Paul Demarty
It is anniversary season once again, and on the agenda this time is the dissolution of the Soviet Union, which finally concluded on December 26 1991.
It had, of course, been a long time coming. The fall of the Stalinist regimes of central and eastern Europe in 1989-90 immediately posed the question - why should the USSR escape the same fate? If Mikhail Gorbachev, the last Soviet leader, was prepared to permit East Germans, Poles and the rest to determine the fate of their ‘socialist’ regimes, then why not those in the Soviet Union?
So the USSR’s various constituent parts began to break up. Various Soviet republics conspired together against the central state, and the centrifugal motion became unstoppable, once Russia itself - under the presidency of Boris Yeltsin - pulled behind the trend. Gorbachev proved powerless to resist the break-up, and once Yeltsin and his Ukrainian and Belorussian contemporaries signed an agreement that would effectively replace it with the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), Gorbachev finally resigned on December 25.
It is worth emphasising how much this came as a surprise to so many, especially in hindsight. Every secondary school history student, surely, will know today that Soviet society had been stagnant for decades. The ‘we will bury you’ promises of the Khrushchev era - of overtaking the west and building full communism within a few decades - were a bad joke by the 1970s. Attempts to modernise factories, to produce quality consumer goods and increase productivity ran to nothing. The black market loomed ever larger in daily life. Soviet citizens then faced the embarrassment of three ancient party eminences - Brezhnev, Andropov and Chernenko - dying while being general secretary of very obviously natural causes within a few years of each other. The cliché that ordinary Russians (and Poles, and … ) wanted blue jeans and rock’n’roll is well known, but increasingly the nomenklatura wanted Ferraris and Italian suits. They wanted, in other words, to be capitalists.
Commentary at the time, however, painted a very different picture. Ronald Reagan may have claimed for himself - rather dubiously - the credit of defeating the Soviets, but he could only turn to his more aggressive posture by vastly overstating the Soviet threat. The ‘respectable’ British historian, Paul Kennedy, in his 1988 bestseller The rise and fall of the great powers, rather embarrassingly failed to predict the fall of the USSR, just over the next hill. Soviet-loyal ‘official’ communists in the west could not allow themselves to believe it, and often venerated Gorbachev, the Morning Star called him the “Lenin of our day”.
The same, rather remarkably, was true of many Trotskyists, who saw in the glasnost and perestroika era not the piecemeal reversion to capitalism that was actually going on, but the political revolution predicted by Trotsky in the 1930s. Tariq Ali dedicated his Revolution from above - also from 1988 (a bad year for prognostication all round) - to a certain comrade Yeltsin! Others sought that political revolution in trivial groups of the rank and file. The Spartacist League, in its obituary of its long-time guru, James Robertson, recalled its German comrades marching with “masses of workers, soldiers, students and others” under pro-communist slogans.1 But in Germany and Russia alike, any such sentiments were - if not marginal to begin with - rapidly marginalised, and it is not clear that this perspective was better than ‘Victory to comrade Yeltsin’.
It was not only such orthodox Trotskyists as the Sparts who looked to a revolution from below. Those who viewed the Soviet bureaucracy as essentially capitalist exploiters could correspondingly expect the direct class struggle to impose itself sooner or later, and with it the possibility of workers’ action for socialism. We think here in particular of the Socialist Workers Party and its allies, who believed that the USSR was forced into capitalist social relations by the logic of inter-state competition. It, too, found objects for its admiration - notably the Solidarność trade union in Poland, despite its obvious and very rapid co-optation by US agencies, laundered through the Roman Catholic church.
If few were theoretically prepared for the collapse of the USSR, fewer still coped well with the consequences of that collapse. Socialist Worker reminds us, in its anniversary piece, of its own line:
Most of the left saw it as a defeat for socialism. But Socialist Worker argued it was “a fact that should have every socialist rejoicing”. A front page celebrated the break-up of the Soviet Union, saying, “Communism has collapsed - now fight for real socialism.”2
To repeat this line in 2021, as if nothing had happened in the interim to call it into question, is really quite something. But that is indeed the point:
Whether the new states were ruled by ‘reformed’ Stalinists, liberal democrats or a combination of the two, the governments all accepted the logic of global capitalism. They pursued vicious free market policies. [But] that doesn’t mean socialists should mourn the collapse of the Soviet Union.
That “vicious free market policies” were pursued in the aftermath of 1989-91 is true enough, but very much incomplete - and incomplete in ways that undermined the idea that, as SWP leaders put it at the time, history was ‘moving sideways’.
Russia, certainly, gives us the most complete picture of what a capitalist ‘utopia’, built from a standing start, actually looks like. The shock-therapy privatisation of the whole economy resulted in cliques of the nomenklatura and psychopathic mafiosi helping themselves to the country’s assets. Living standards declined sharply: by the end of 1993 Russia was bankrupt and effectively on the brink of state failure - put off for a time by Yeltsin’s self-coup against an increasingly hostile parliament. The result of free-market fundamentalism was not the sort of stable liberal society anticipated by its advocates, but - after Yeltsin was succeeded by Vladimir Putin - a relatively stable authoritarian kleptocracy.
On the other hand, it should be said that the faultlines along which the USSR broke apart were, in the end, national, and the immediate and long-term consequences took on that stripe. These events are sometimes implied to be bloodless among western triumphalists, but the immediate consequence outside of Russia was a series of bloody wars: in Tajikistan the new government faced off against Islamist separatists in a conflict that would claim up to 100,000 lives, and the newly-independent Armenian and Azerbaijani republics fought a short conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh, which was brutally relitigated only last year. Russia itself conducted a disastrous war in Chechnya from 1994 onwards.
Putin’s popularity is based on straightforwardly chauvinist national sentiment. His replacement of the drink-sodden, melancholic Yeltsin, his ostentatious ruthlessness towards hostile oligarchs, and his reversals of the social liberalisations of the 1990s on the gay question and the like appeal to a deeply rooted sense of national shame, and the need to exorcise it. (And, despite all the rigged votes and battered protests, Putin remains popular.) Pushback against Russia’s ‘grand strategy’ moves has, likewise, had a rightwing, nationalist character (one need only mention the grim coalition that governs Ukraine, and the fascist militias skirmishing with Russian-Ukrainians in the Donbass).
We observe, then, two complementary kinds of blind spot. Those like the SWP, who consider the Soviet bloc to have consisted of ‘state capitalist’ or otherwise class-exploitative regimes, cannot account for the monstrous carnival of reaction that followed in the 1990s and 2000s, both in the CIS and former Warsaw Pact and globally in the ‘new American century’. On the other hand, those, including ‘official communists’ and orthodox Trotskyists, who consider the events of 1989-91 to be a counterrevolution can readily understand such disasters as consequent upon the end of ‘actually existing socialism’; but they cannot confront the fact that nobody wanted it to continue, or lifted a finger to defend it with any effectiveness. Either the evils of the present or of the ‘socialist’ past must be repressed.
Given the miserable course of the last three decades, you would expect there to be a wave of fresh thinking on the Russian question. The supporters of this paper’s predecessor, The Leninist, analysed the USSR in terms similar to ‘defencist’ Trotskyist theories, broadly speaking, though it was more realistic about the danger of capitalist restoration. It still had the second problem, however: where was the political revolution, even a failed political revolution? And we have tried to rethink the question for that reason.
The far more common reaction, however, is - after the fashion of the Socialist Worker article quoted above - a stubborn refusal to modify any sacred theories, no matter how flatly they are contradicted by reality. In the end, this is a function of the role these theories played in the activity of such groups. Theories of the USSR served as a distinguishing shibboleth for sects of one sort or another, and so serious criticism of such theories tended to be suppressed or cast as unbridgeable differences of principle. Secondarily, these theories served as justifications for political strategy. The anticipation of a political revolution in the ‘socialist’ countries justified an expectation of sudden, spontaneous social convulsions, which was central to Trotskyist politics: a truly revolutionary USSR would revolutionise global class-consciousness. For the Cliffites, the theory of state capitalism correspondingly dovetailed with its ultra-spontaneist conception of the direct struggle of employer and employed solving the political problem.
The instrumentalisation of theories of the Russian question tends to obscure theoretical difficulties. For Marxists, there is an overarching directionality to history, and a rhythm to historical epochs. Transitions between epochs can be chaotic, however; to accept such a teleological outlook is not to suppose that there is nothing like contingency in human history. The trouble for historical interpretation of any particular social formation is in separating the world-historic from the contingent. It seemed to the Trotskyist leader, Michel Pablo, in the 1950s that the USSR and its satellites were a necessary form of the transition to socialism - that we would have “centuries of deformed workers’ states”. Tony Cliff thought Soviet-style ‘bureaucratic state capitalism’ to be a new ‘highest stage of capitalism’.
The unavoidable lesson of 1991 is that the particular features of ‘actually existing socialism’ were no such thing: they were not an intrinsic part of the historical transition from capitalism to communism, whether on the capitalist or communist side, but formed a contingent ‘morbid symptom’ of the transition. These societies were not able to reproduce their own social relations for more than two generations. While 1917 disclosed the possibility of working class revolution, its betrayal (or whatever you want to call it) showed us - and the world - the risks, and enormous costs, of failure.
We are all in the shadow of that failure, three decades later.