When the dissolution of the USSR (Union of Soviet Socialist Republics) was declared in December 1991, a debate began that has continued until today about the causes of the collapse and the historical and political significance of this event.

By Alejandro Iturbe

Translated from Spanish by Rita Brown

There are four generally accepted interpretations of what happened. The most widespread one, circulated by imperialism and its media, is that the end of the USSR was caused by the triumph of capitalism over socialism because the former had proved to be a more efficient economic system and, furthermore, made a “democratic” system of governance possible. Democracy in this case was understood as the bourgeois electoral mechanism. The theory went like this: the masses of “socialist countries” had understood capitalism’s superiority, and, as a result, they overthrew the USSR and restored capitalism, just as they had knocked down the Berlin Wall in 1989.

We have already refuted the supposed superiority of capitalism in numerous articles, and so won’t reiterate those debates in this article. However, it is enough to look around at the harsh reality in which we are living—permanent increases in poverty, misery, and hunger, destruction of the environment, and the normalization of pandemics—to understand the true meaning of this supposed “triumph.”

For its part, Stalinism (the political expression of the bureaucracy that ruled the former USSR), took the opposite assessment to that of imperialism. Yet, it ended up reaching the same conclusion: both the fall of the USSR and the restoration of capitalism were, in the last analysis, the fault of the masses.

When Stalinism has to explain why this happened, it turns to bizarre logic. It argues that although “real socialism” had problems, the process was advancing [1]. The issue was that the masses were ultimately won over by “imperialist propaganda” and acted against their own interests as a result. Such an anti-Marxist explanation recalls the lyrics to a song by Cuban musician Silvio Rodriguez that translates roughly, although the context is different, to “the enemy got to him first”.

This reasoning attempts to hide the role of the Stalinist bureaucracy in the entire process. First, its own policy was responsible for the significant weakening of the workers’ state, just as it was the Stalinist bureaucracy itself that restored capitalism.

 

The Transition to Socialism

Faced with similar explanations coming from imperialism and Stalinism, we turn to the analysis, criteria, definitions, and prognosis made by the Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky in the 1930s, particularly in his book The Revolution Betrayed [2]. In that work, Trotsky poses the possible future restoration of capitalism by the Stalinist bureaucracy of the USSR if it isn’t overthrown by the power of the working class. This prediction was made almost 60 years before the fall of the USSR! For this reason, we consider it the only Marxist analysis of what happened, that is, a scientific interpretation consistent with the material reality of the situation.

Marx had foreseen that the socialist revolution would begin in the most developed capitalist countries of the time and that, necessarily, it would spread internationally. This was because a socialist society would be superior, from both the economic and cultural point of view to the most advanced of capitalist societies.

Based on this premise, he believed that after a short transition, consisting of the restructuring of the economy, the socialist phase of society would begin and, after the significant development that this would allow, society would reach the communist phase.

However, a combination of historical circumstances meant that the first revolution of this type took place in Russia, a relatively backward country. This represented a new reality, not foreseen by Marx, that would necessitate a longer period of transition to socialism. In this case, due to the limitations of national economic development, socialist norms could not be fully applied and certain capitalist criteria of the unequal distribution of the wealth produced would persist.

How wealth was to be distributed would be conditioned by how much was produced. This meant that the workers’ state and its superstructural apparatus would need to persist throughout that period. And, by extension, that its function could not gradually end, as Marx had foreseen in his framework of the advance towards communism.

For Lenin and Trotsky, the only possible solution to this limitation, and to the profound contradiction it represented, was the extension of the revolution on an international level to the most advanced capitalist countries. This is why they put their greatest efforts into the construction of the Third International. In those years, their gaze was especially focused on the revolutionary impulse in Germany.

 

The Degeneration of the Workers’ State

However, for reasons that we will not develop here, the revolution was defeated in Germany and other European countries. The young USSR was left isolated and subject to extremely difficult conditions. These were the circumstances under which the bureaucracy was consolidated within the workers’ state, and from which it went on to gain complete control of the State apparatus.

It was not a peaceful process, but rather a true counterrevolution that persecuted and assassinated most of the leaders of the Bolshevik party, and thousands of cadres and militants who had been active during the 1917 revolution. Trotsky and his followers fought hard against this process of bureaucratization and were severely persecuted as a result. Trotsky was expelled from the party, condemned to exile, and finally assassinated in Mexico in 1940.

When we speak of bureaucratization we refer to two closely connected processes. The first is the emergence of a privileged and parasitic layer that enjoyed a much higher standard of living than that of the USSR’s working classes and the masses on the whole. The second is the process by which this layer built a state apparatus of repression and political control over the masses in order to defend those privileges.

However, the principal crime committed by the Stalinist bureaucracy was the abandonment of the struggle for international revolution and the pivot towards “peaceful coexistence” with imperialism. This process unfolded under the reactionary theory that it was possible to build “socialism in one country.” Basing its policy and politics on that conception, Stalinism betrayed numerous revolutions in Europe and around the world.

 

An Alternative Outlook

It is within this framework of the triumph of the Stalinist bureaucracy that Trotsky writes The Revolution Betrayed, in order to analyze what had happened, define what the USSR had become, and characterize its perspectives.

After a deep analysis, Trotsky concludes that the USSR is still a workers’ state because the economic-social structures built by the October Revolution were still in existence. He argues that the Stalinist bureaucracy still defended them “in its own way and with its own methods.” Importantly, those structures, although they did not overcome imperialism (as Stalinism pretended), nevertheless generated important economic development at rates superior to those of imperialism which, after the reconstruction following the Second World War, made the USSR the world’s second strongest economy.

This is why Trotsky refers to these advances at the start of his book, and concludes that the efficacy of the centrally planned state economy had been demonstrated as valid not just in books, but in lived, historical experience.

Despite this observation, Trotsky was not deluded about what was meant by the figures that Stalinism proudly displayed in defense of its theory. This is to say that he was aware that imperialism’s productivity was superior to that of the USSR. At the same time, he analyzed the deep contradictions and social differentiations that already existed and were growing within the USSR. In particular, he highlighted the privileges of the bureaucracy compared to the standard of living of the working class, as well as the emergence of other petty-bourgeois sectors.

In other words, Trotsky believed that while the Stalinist bureaucracy still defended the economic-social basis of the workers’ state, at the same time, with its methods and policies, it was steadily eroding and weakening them.

In order to define this highly contradictory combination of the persistence of the economic-social bases built by the October Revolution alongside a state superstructure controlled by the Stalinist bureaucracy, Trotsky created a new conceptual category. He called Stalin’s USSR a degenerated (or sick) workers’ state.

He believed this strange political mixture was highly unstable and that its future destiny–whether it would advance towards socialism or regress to capitalism–was not predetermined. As a result, Trotsky concluded by giving his famous alternative outlook. The first possibility was that the working class would overthrow the Stalinist bureaucracy (that is, carry out a political revolution) and rebuild a healthy state superstructure, without contradictions and with the correct economic-social bases and therefore “open the path to socialism.” The second possibility was that the bureaucracy would end up restoring capitalism since, in order to defend its privileges, it would need to make them permanent, a promise assured only by “private property rights.”

It was a brilliant prognosis which, unfortunately, would be verified decades later. In effect, that is what occurred in China under the leadership of Deng Xiaoping in 1978, under the “Four Modernizations,” as well as in the USSR under the Perestroika of Mikhail Gorbachev in 1986, and again in Cuba under the Castro leadership during the Special Period in the 1990s.

In other words, the bureaucracy had ceased to defend the economic and social bases discussed above and had set into motion the process that would bring about the restoration of capitalism. According to Trotsky’s criteria that “the class character of a State is defined by the type of property it defends,” those countries had ceased to be workers’ States and had become capitalist States, despite the fact the political regimes controlled by the Communist Parties remained the same. This is why we say that Trotsky’s main argument has withstood the test of time.

In short, it was not the action of the masses but rather the Stalinist bureaucracy headed by Gorbachev (and supported by imperialism) that initiated the restoration of capitalism in 1986. This means that when the political superstructure of the USSR was dissolved years later, it was no longer a workers’ state but a capitalist state, even though imperialism and Stalinism offer the same alternative explanation of the process.

 

Trotsky’s Error

Despite his brilliant analysis, Trotsky made an error in his prediction when he affirmed that the Stalinist bureaucracy would need to carry out a counterrevolution against the masses in order to restore capitalism. He thought this would be necessary since the masses would defend the economic and social structures of the worker’s state and all of the gains that it represented.  Clearly, the reality was different.

We see Trotsky’s mistake as rooted in the fact that he did not understand that the Stalinist counterrevolution carried out between the second half of the 1920s and 1936 (the year in which he wrote The Revolution Betrayed) had meant a hard defeat for the workers and the Soviet masses. Because the workers and the masses had already been beaten, the bureaucracy had the correlation of forces necessary to restore capitalism, if it so desired.

From that year until 1986 various relevant events and processes took place, including the World War II invasion by Nazi Germany and other Axis countries (a counterrevolution which, had it triumphed, would have destroyed the USSR). This was met by the heroic response in defense of the workers’ state by the Soviet troops and masses, despite the fact that Stalin’s policy led to a terrible defeat [3]. Following that there was a period of reconstruction.

After Stalin’s death in 1953, Nikita Khrushchev and the bureaucracy announced they were making a series of modest changes in the political regime, which later came to nothing. Under Khruschev’s successor Leonid Brezhnev, it became clear that the policy being applied was what some analysts called “immobilism”[4]. It was under the institutional tendencies of immobilism from which, with the rise of Gorbachev, the bureaucracy would emerge with the policy of capitalist restoration.

Throughout the entire process, the apparatus of repression and political control built by Stalinism remained essentially intact. At the same time, in factories and firms there were ongoing de facto negotiations between management and workers for the fulfillment of government plans in exchange for additional benefits if these goals were met.

The workers and the masses understood that the socialist economic-social structures were expressed in certain victories that did not exist under capitalism, such as the right to a job or access to free public health care and education. In exchange for these benefits they tolerated the lack of democracy and the privileges enjoyed by the bureaucracy; this arrangement became even more entrenched after the defeat of the political revolution in Eastern Europe (Berlin, 1953; Hungary, 1956; Czechoslovakia, 1968; Poland in the 1970s). This combination of behaviors is what some authors called homo sovieticus [5].

Workers considered, and quite rightly, that within the existing state apparatus the bureaucracy was alien to them. It was a place “up there” where plans and directives were decided, and that they could only wait and see how these would affect their daily work and lives. They were used to plans and directives being changed from time to time. In their eyes, Gorbachev’s Perestroika was just one more of those changes being decided upon from “up there.” This means they did not necessarily perceive how profound these changes would be, in that they would transform the very class character of the State and begin the process of restoration.

When the workers and masses finally understood that the ongoing transformations would be detrimental to them, especially since the repressive political regime had remained intact, they came out to fight against it. This struggle intensified after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, and eventually brought down the political regime built by Stalinism, but unfortunately, it was not able to reverse the restoration of capitalism.

 

Our Confusion

The partial error in Trotsky’s prognosis generated confusion within Trotskyist organizations from the end of the 1970s. Changes that had begun to take place in the class character of the so-called “socialist” states and processes of capitalism restoration were not perceived as such because they were not accompanied by a counterrevolution against the masses on the part of the bureaucracy.

The IWL also made the same mistake in its analysis for several years, including during the lifetime of its founder Nahuel Moreno. For example, we did not understand the meaning of the Four Modernizations applied by Deng Xiao Ping in China from 1978, and we defined it as “a New Economic Policy led by Bukharin” [6]. This same interpretation was later extended to Gorbachev’s Perestroika as well.

This error led to further political confusion down the line. When the mobilizations took place that brought down the Berlin Wall and stirred up the Tiananmen Square rebellion (both in 1989), we characterized them as the beginning of political revolutions against the bureaucratic regimes of the workers’ states (as foreseen by Trotsky). Unfortunately we did not see them for what they truly were: struggles against capitalist dictatorships.

Since the end of the 1990s, various analyses were undertaken that overcame this confusion. This allowed us to understand what had happened and to adjust our political position to the current reality of countries such as Russia, China, and Cuba [7].

But, despite the partial error (and the confusion that arose from maintaining this position), we reaffirm that Trotsky’s interpretation and prognosis in The Revolution Betrayed is the only scientific, Marxist, analysis that reflects the reality of what happened.

Originally published in Spanish here.

Notes:

[1] See, for example, the documentary “The Fall of the USSR: The Myth of Economic Collapse.”

[2] In this book, see chapter IX (“What is the USSR?”), we use the following version: https://www.fundacionfedericoengels.net/images/PDF/La%20revolucion%20traicionada.pdf. This is another interesting article:  “Neither a Workers’ State nor a Bourgeois State?” https://www.marxists.org/espanol/trotsky/1940s/dm/37.htm.

[3] On this subject, we recommend reading https://litci.org/es/la-naturaleza-de-la-segunda-guerra-mundial-ii/

[4] See, for example, The Dynamics of Immobilism. The Soviet System between Crisis and Reform, by Peter W. Schulze, https://static.nuso.org/media/articles/downloads/1331_1.pdf

[5] See, for instance, (1986). Aleksandr Zinoviev’s Homo sovieticus  (Grove/Atlantic, 1986) and Svetlana Alekseyevich’s The End of Homo sovieticus (Acantilado, 2015).

[6] The NEP (Russian acronym for New Economic Policy) was applied in the USSR, starting in 1921, by Lenin’s proposal. It consisted in the authorization of the use of capitalist criteria of property in the countryside, commerce, and small industry. From 1923 onwards, factions of the Bolshevik party began to take shape regarding its application. The left wing, headed by Trotsky, was in favor of its continuity but warned of the profound risks involved, especially the enrichment of the rural landowners (the kulaks). The right wing, expressed by Nicolai Bukharin, on the contrary, was in favor of pushing it forward with the slogan “kulaks get rich”.

[7] See, for example the article “China, myth and reality” (2001) in https://litci.org/es/china-mito-y-realidad/; the “Debate of the LIT-CI with the Cuban leaders” (2001) in https://litci.org/es/debate-de-la-lit-ci-con-los-dirigentes-cubanos-2001/ and the book The Verdict of History, by Martin Hernandez (Sundermann, Brazil, 2008).