The end of the 1980s and the beginning of the 1990s were marked worldwide by enormous revolutionary processes in Eastern Europe. In the course of just a few years, the post-world war order changed.
By: Iván Rabochi
The borders and spheres of influence agreed by the victorious powers at Yalta and Potsdam, which had seemed immutable for decades, were subverted by the revolutionary action of the masses in the former USSR and Eastern Europe. The USSR was dissolved, Germany was unified, countries disappeared and new ones emerged or changed their names, and wars broke out again in Europe. Its iconic expression was the thousands of Germans literally crushing the ignominious Berlin Wall. But the momentous change brought about by the revolutionary intervention of the masses was the collapse of the Stalinist regimes, especially that of the former USSR.
These processes generated enormous debates that continue to this day. The alluvial nature of the events, the number of countries they covered, the depth and complexity of the changes produced at the time provoked innumerable interpretations as well as confusions. The element that most fuelled those confusions was undoubtedly the disappearance of all the former workers’ states and the restoration of capitalism in all of them.
The view we have been holding in the IWL is that the workers’ and mass movements in the former USSR and the East European workers’ states led colossal revolutions. But these revolutions were not against “socialist regimes” or bureaucratic dictatorships of workers’ states but against capitalist dictatorships, since it was the Stalinist bureaucracy itself that had restored capitalism. The masses rose up against the terrible consequences of the advance of the restoration, but for lack of revolutionary leadership, they were unable to prevent or reverse this advance. We also believe that they achieved an enormous triumph when they defeated the sinister Communist Parties regimes, despite the huge setback caused by the disappearance of these workers’ states and their achievements for the masses of the East and the world.
Were they revolutions?
In analysing the events that led to the fall of the totalitarian regimes, the fact stands out that in many cases what prevailed were only large mobilisations of the unarmed masses, without major violent confrontations with the repressive forces or major crises and division of the armed forces from below (with the exception of Romania). There was also no development of centralised dual power bodies (although there were embryonic processes of self-organisation). These elements may lead us to question our definition of these as revolutions. On the contrary, we believe that the independent mobilisation of the masses and their violent irruption generating abrupt changes in the political superstructure were common features of most of these processes. In this sense, we argue that they were revolutions and that both Lenin and Trotsky have left definitions of the concept of revolution that are applicable in this case. (1)
Capitalist restoration in the former USSR
As we explained in another article, since Gorbachev took over as General Secretary of the CPSU in March 1985, power was controlled by the sector of the bureaucracy with an explicitly restorationist programme. The 27th Congress of the CPSU in February 1986 voted to renew the CC and the Politburo and to begin implementing economic reforms that set a course towards capitalism. This became known as Perestroika (reconstruction). In order to win the support of the mass movement, these measures were accompanied by a certain controlled democratic opening.
Debating clubs were allowed, political prisoners were released, the dissident scientist Sakharov was allowed to return to the country, several party candidates were allowed to stand for the local soviets, almost all the Bolshevik leaders murdered by Stalin (except Trotsky) were rehabilitated, censorship was loosened, and so on. These measures were known as Glasnost (consultation) (2).
This was the bureaucracy’s response to the stagnation and growing crisis of the USSR, which was exacerbated by the occupation of Afghanistan by Soviet troops since 1979, which consumed an enormous budget for a war in which they only reaped defeats and demoralisation among the troops. (3)
The contradictions explode
The implementation of Perestroika, far from resolving the economic, political and social crisis, exacerbated it. The introduction of market mechanisms into the economy produced an increasingly chaotic situation. The empowerment of private enterprises in the service sector, the possibility of forming “cooperatives” with employees of state-owned enterprises (generally controlled by the former bureaucratic managers), the possibility of direct trade with imperialist enterprises, led to rampant corruption, hoarding, mafias, shortages and inflation. Social inequality increased sharply, many factories were paralysed for lack of inputs and salaries were no longer paid, not to mention the fact that these were no longer enough to buy even staple necessities.
This brutal attack on living conditions was combined, in the case of the non-Russian republics of the USSR, with the historical problem of national oppression by the Great Russians. It is therefore not surprising that the process of revolutionary mobilisation began in December 1986 in Almaty, the capital of Kazakhstan, with a popular uprising following the appointment of a Russian to the post of First Secretary of the CP.
From then on, the revolutionary process combined struggles against national oppression – and in some cases for independence – and demands for democratic rights with workers’ strikes that quickly took on a political character.
The oppressed nationalities rise up
The Russian Revolution inherited a “prison of nationalities” from Tsarism. They had been forcibly incorporated into the Empire and were dominated by the Russians. Lenin’s and the Bolshevik government’s unconditional defence of the right to national self-determination for all oppressed nationalities allowed the voluntary incorporation of almost all of them into the nascent USSR, with the exception of Finland, Poland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, which chose not to join. The “Declaration of the Rights of the Peoples of Russia”, adopted by the Congress of Soviets in 1917, expressly included the right to secession if their peoples so decided. But this enormous advance, which allowed the working class and peasants of the various nations to unite fraternally, overcoming centuries of resentment, prejudice and oppression, was reversed after the triumph of Stalin in the CP leadership. The newborn Stalinist counter-revolutionary regime reinforced the old oppression of the weaker nations. And it even aggravated the situation, annexing Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania and part of Poland as a consequence of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact (1939).
Just to gauge the importance of the problem, let us remember that in 1986 the USSR was made up of 15 republics, 8 regions and 10 autonomous counties, 130 languages were spoken and 5 different alphabets were written.
When the bureaucratic dam that compressed decades-long conflicts began to leak and some democratic channels were opened, the mobilisation of the oppressed nationalities was unstoppable. After the Kazakh uprising, the population of the Nagorno-Karabakh region (Armenian-majority but part of Azerbaijan) demanded to be incorporated into Armenia in 1987, which resulted in a general strike in both territories months later. Lithuania declared its independence in 1990 and, after several negotiations, Gorbachev finally sent troops into Vilnius, its capital, causing 19 deaths and later did the same in Riga, capital of Latvia. He also attempted an economic blockade against Lithuania, which was defeated by the solidarity of miners and other sectors of the Russian labour movement, who collected tons of goods in support of the Lithuanians’ demands. It also repressed, with dozens of deaths, demonstrations in Georgia and Azerbaijan, but the demand for independence grew (also encouraged by sectors of the republics’ own bureaucracies that sought to save their power). In 1988, Estonia declared the republic’s sovereignty over all resources and property in its territory, placing its laws above those of the Union. This declaration was cascaded by most of the republics, including Russia. As early as August 1991, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Ukraine and Georgia had declared their independence, and most of the republics had signed agreements with each other outside the Union.
A giant awakens
It is impossible to understand how the collapse of the formidable and fearsome Stalinist counter-revolutionary regime was possible without placing a central character on the scene: the Soviet proletariat, whose place of honour belongs to the miners who, with their historic strikes, put Gorbachev on the ropes.
1989 began with an overwhelming workers’ mobilisation in Minsk (Belarus) in February, with directly political demands, summed up in a banner that read: “Factories for the workers, land for the peasants and power for the people.” In July it was the turn of the miners of Kuzbass (Siberia) who went on strike against the increase in the rate of production, which led to work-related accidents, and demanded the provision of staple goods (food, soap, etc.) and pay rise for night shifts, overtime, etc. They formed a strike committee, organised themselves on the basis of massive meetings and imposed their control over the city, prohibiting the sale of alcoholic beverages, guaranteeing supplies and requisitioning the houses of the bureaucrats, where many of the missing goods appeared. The strike and its revolutionary methodology spread like wildfire throughout the mining areas. The Donbas and Dniepropetrovsk mines (Ukraine), Vorkuta (Russian Far North) and Karaganda (Kazakhstan) were soon joined. In Vorkuta and the Kuzbass, economic demands were joined by political ones: the right to strike, handing over power to the local soviets, annulment of Article 6 of the Constitution (which established the CP’s monopoly of power), direct and secret elections for the Supreme Soviet of the USSR and the local soviets. The strike was lifted after urgent shipments of soap and food, and promises of improvements in supplies, medical service, pensions, and participation in the management of the mines.
The non-fulfilment of several of these promises triggered new mining strikes in July 1990, and in late October 1990, the miners took another momentous step. At a miners’ congress with representatives from 678 mines, they founded the first independent union and voted to reject the “500-day plan” to speed up privatisation. The new miners’ strike, called by this union in March 1991, demanded, along with pay rise, the resignation of Gorbachev, the dissolution of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR and the calling of elections. They called for solidarity in Moscow and won the support of the population, who contributed tons of food. The strike committee calls for a general strike for Gorbachev’s dismissal and sends delegations to the main industrial centres. Workers at the Ulramash steel complex in the Urals join the strike. At the end of March, 165 mines in the USSR were still paralysed. On 3 April the Kozlov Electromechanical Works in Minsk went on strike. Within days, factories throughout Belarus go on strike and mobilise, and at a mass meeting, they vote for a strike committee of the republic, which calls for a general strike on the basis of the miners’ programme. In April, strikes spread like a gale through Leningrad, Sverdlovsk, Baku (Azerbaijan), Ukraine, and towards the end of the month 50 million workers in Russia stopped at the call of the Russian Federation of Independent Trade Unions (a breakaway from the official trade unions).
The strikes ended with the granting of wage demands in late April. The miners lift their strike on 5 May, with the promise that their economic claims would be settled with the transfer of the mines to the newly formed Russian Federation.
Coup and triumph of the revolution
By mid-August 1991, Gorbachev had lost any social base and his power as the once-mighty General Secretary of the CPSU had been completely liquefied. Within five years, his plan of gradual and controlled self-reform of the regime, to control the reaction of the mass movement to the advance of capitalist reforms, had been blown out of the water. The combined struggle of the peoples of the oppressed nationalities, the workers’ movement and the youth against the consequences of capitalist restoration and for democratic rights was cracking the apparatus of the CPSU and opening deeper and deeper cracks in the bureaucracy as a whole, which led to the weakening of the central apparatus, as the party leadership of each republic took control of property and political decisions in their territories. At the same time, sectors of the bureaucracy broke away from the CP, forming nationalist or opposition organisations such as Democratic Russia. (4)
In 1988 Gorbachev had pushed for the formation of a parliament (Congress of People’s Deputies) whose members, for the first time were elected by universal and secret ballot. Independent candidates could also stand. But an opposition faction began to emerge in the Congress, led by the rising leader of the Moscow CP, Boris Yeltsin (5). He becomes popular by attacking Gorbachev and the privileges of top party officials, calling for the downsizing of the party apparatus and the elimination of Article 6. After several mobilisations of hundreds of thousands, the Congress voted to repeal the article in March 1990, but in return, Gorbachev managed to get himself voted president by the Congress, with wide-ranging powers. He thus sought to strengthen his position as a Bonapartist arbiter, relying on his control of the Armed Forces and the KGB to take hold of power. But it was too late. The crisis deepened at the 28th and last CPSU congress in July. It also involved the Komsomol (6) and the trade unions. Yeltsin and Democratic Russia broke with the CP, and in December the “Perestroika team” (7) began to break with Gorbachev.
At the same time, Yeltsin grew stronger as an opposition leader, calling for demonstrations for Gorbachev’s dismissal, supporting the miners’ strike and joining sectors of the Russian CP that broke away, and finally, he was elected president of the Russian Federation in June 1991, with 57% of the votes.
By mid-August 1991, the economic and political crisis was total and the USSR was on the verge of disintegration. The only institution holding the country together was the CPSU, which was already in complete crisis. After a popular plebiscite (8), 20 August had been set as the date for the signing of a new Union Agreement. But a section of the central government apparatus, the Armed Forces and the KGB, decided to play their last card and launched a Bonapartist coup in the style of the Chinese bureaucracy at Tiananmen, taking advantage of Gorbachev’s vacation. It is important to clarify, contrary to what sectors of the left (including Trotskyists) claim, that the coup sector had no differences with Gorbachev’s and Yeltsin’s restorationist programme. In fact, they were part of the government that had been implementing it. Their aim was not to re-establish the old bureaucratic workers’ state but to crush the revolutionary mobilisation that prevented the orderly transition to capitalism, as it happened in China. (9)
The putschists first demanded that Gorbachev decree a state of siege, and when he refused they formed the State Commission on the State of Emergency (GKTChP) (10). On 18 August, media censorship, a ban on demonstrations, the dismissal of Gorbachev and the occupation of Moscow by troops were decreed. On the 19th, troops were deployed in the city and a curfew was decreed. But the population mobilised and Yeltsin called them to resist the coup. Barricades were set up in front of the “White House” (11). The Vorkuta miners called a general strike against the coup and were immediately joined by workers from the Kirov and Putilov works in Leningrad, and the strike began to spread as far as Vladivostok (12). Yeltsin takes command of all central institutions on Russian territory, including the Armed Forces, the KGB and the ministries, by decree. Soldiers and officers deployed refuse to carry out the orders of the coup plotters. The coup is defeated and the GKTChP members are arrested. Gorbachev returns to Moscow and a few days later resigns as General Secretary of the CPSU and dissolves the party. The CPSU dictatorship, now a capitalist one, had finally fallen and the democratic political revolution led by the Soviet masses had triumphed. On 25 December, Gorbachev resigned as president of the USSR and formally dissolved it, but in fact, it had ceased to exist and eleven of the former republics had formed the Commonwealth of Independent States.
The Glacis: from expropriation to restoration
After the heroic triumph of the Soviet masses at Stalingrad (1943), which defined the beginning of the defeat of the Nazi armies, the Red Army occupied the small countries of Eastern Europe bordering on the USSR in agreement with imperialism. The occupation of the Glacis (13) had a twofold purpose for Stalin. On the one hand, to prevent the outbreak of revolutionary processes there and, on the other, to ensure the plunder of these countries to ensure the economic reconstruction of the USSR. In this sense, it can be said that there was a sui generis process of semi-colonisation of these countries, as Jan Talpe explains in his book The Workers’ States of the Glacis (14). In its first stage, this was done through coalition governments between local CPs and bourgeois and reformist politicians but controlled by Stalin’s emissaries (15), and from about 1950 onwards, by Stalinist bureaucratic dictatorships based on the expropriation of the bourgeoisie and the nationalisation of the means of production.
The Stalinist bureaucracy refused to integrate the new workers’ states into the USSR and maintained their national borders and their existence as separate states. But from 1949 onwards it set up COMECON (16) as an economic zone for trade and the coordination of the economic plans of each Glacis country with the five-year plans of the USSR.
Within the framework of the semi-colonial relationship we have already mentioned, and the bureaucratic and totalitarian nature of the regimes of the new workers’ states, the expropriation of the bourgeoisie and centralised planning allowed for significant industrial development. The growth of production, the rise in the standard of living and cultural standards and the weight of the working class began to clash with the growing inequalities, bureaucratic privileges, totalitarian and national oppression by the USSR. This led to the outbreak of anti-bureaucratic political revolutions, which had different episodes. This process encompassed the uprising of the metal workers in East Berlin (1953), the revolution of the Hungarian Councils (1956), the Prague Spring (1968) and the revolutions in Poland (1956 and 1980). With the exception of Poland (defeated in 1981 by Jaruzelski’s military coup), all the other revolutions were crushed by the intervention of Warsaw Pact troops. (17)
In the 1970s, the COMECON economies, starting with the USSR, entered a process of stagnation, partly reflecting the downward curve of the world economy that began around 1968. With the fulfilment of Trotsky’s prognosis (18) and being scared by the possibility of new political revolutions that might succeed, the bureaucracies of the Glacis states advanced along the path of agreements with imperialism and capitalist restoration. From the early 1970s onwards, with varying degrees of unevenness and at different paces, they leaned on the strengthening of economic ties with the various imperialist countries in search of investments and loans and eventually asked to join the IMF (19). This process took a leap forward in 1986 when the Soviet bureaucracy itself became the driving force behind capitalist reforms in the Glacis as well.
The most emblematic case was Romania, which in this sense was a pioneer in COMECON (although not in relation to other workers’ states, since Yugoslavia in 1965 and China in 1978 had already restored capitalism). (20) Romania, which had joined the IMF in 1972, asked the IMF for a loan to pay off its growing debts with the international banks in 1981 and submitted to its adjustment plans. From 1982 onwards, part of the workers’ wages was converted into company “shares.”
Revolution in the Glacis
From 1986 onwards, Gorbachev travelled to East Germany and then to Czechoslovakia to push through Perestroika and Glasnost in the COMECON countries. He tried to convince especially Honecker and Husak. They governed the most developed workers’ states, with the strongest economies, but were reluctant to implement the new course. In 1989 he would let them and the other CP leaders in Eastern Europe know that they could no longer count on Soviet troops in the event of revolutionary uprisings.
Encouraged by the revolutionary process opened up in the USSR, the masses of the various countries have been engaged in a torrent of mutually reinforcing strikes and mobilisations since 1988, defeating the various repressive attempts of the dictatorial regimes. Within three years, none of these regimes was left standing.
In some cases, such as Hungary and Bulgaria (1989), the bureaucracy was quickly defeated after the mobilisations began and their dictators (Kádár and Zhivkov, respectively) were ousted. Sectors of the CP itself pushed for the reform of the regime and its transformation into bourgeois democracies. It should be borne in mind that due to the particular process of shaping the workers’ states of the Glacis, all of them formally retained a Parliament controlled by the CP where the participation of satellite parties, generally peasant and petty-bourgeois parties based on or backed by the Church, was tolerated. In general, these parliaments were to be recycled by eliminating the article establishing “the leading role of the CP in the constitutions” and calling for multi-party elections. By the end of the process, all communist parties in the region had been self-dissolved and recycled themselves as social-democratic parties.
In Poland, the rise began in 1987 with a mobilisation that was repressed, but during 1988 there was a powerful process of strikes against price increases and for the legality of “Solidarity” (21) that put the dictator Jaruzelski, who had already been implementing the restorationist plan, on the ropes. In February 1989, through the mediation of the Catholic Church, a Round Table was convened with the participation of Wałęsa and the POUP (CP), as well as other Catholic organisations and leaders, where the legalisation of Solidarity and a transition with limited elections were agreed upon until the POUP finally dissolved itself and a new bourgeois-democratic regime was installed.
In Czechoslovakia, a process of large-scale mobilisations for democratic rights began in 1988, which became known as the “Velvet Revolution.” These mobilisations reached their peak in November 1989 with the demonstration in Wenzel Square in Prague, which drew 800,000 people. Despite the regime’s systematic repression, the resignations of leaders and concessions, the demonstrations continued until Husak was forced to resign and a government headed by Václav Havel (a dissident intellectual, persecuted and imprisoned) and Alexander Dubček (former leader of the “reformist” CP, displaced after the Prague Spring) was installed as speaker of parliament in late 1989. The newly created Czech and Slovak Federation (already capitalist) was to be transformed in 1993 into two countries: the Czech Republic and the Slovak Republic.
It was in Romania that the violent and insurrectional nature of the revolutionary process in the East developed the most. The dictator Ceaușescu had prepared to resist the revolutionary uprising with blood and fire. He counted on the sinister Securitate, his 50,000-strong, highly paid and heavily armed political police.
In November 1987, the IMF’s harsh austerity plan triggered a strike in a tractor factory of 20,000 workers, who stormed the headquarters of the Romanian CP shouting “Down with the dictatorship.” On 16 December 1989, demonstrations in support of an opposition priest in the city of Timisoara were repressed and dozens were killed. The demonstrations continued and the regime organised a rally in support of Ceaușescu in Bucharest Square on the 21st, but it was turned into an opposition demonstration and the TV broadcast was cut off. Ceaușescu and his wife, Elena, flee. The mobilisation intensifies, the masses storm the Government House and other public buildings, there are clashes with the Securitate in the streets and soldiers join the insurrection. An opposition section of the RCP, led by Ion Iliescu, changes side and after the radio and television headquarters are seized, the formation of a National Salvation Front is announced on the 22nd. The Ceaușescu couple is captured. They are tried and convicted by a military court, which finally shoots them on 25 December. The crowd in the square celebrates. The revolution triumphs even at the cost of more than 1,000 deaths. The next day a transitional government is formed, and in January 1990 the RCP is dissolved.
Germany: revolution, reunification and restoration
At the end of World War II, Germany was occupied by the victorious Allied powers: the USA, Britain, France and the USSR. The Red Army occupied one-third of the eastern territory, where the capital, Berlin, was located, and the city was divided into two parts, one of which came under imperialist rule. In 1949, in the western sector the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG) was proclaimed, with its capital in Bonn, and in the eastern sector the German Democratic Republic (GDR), which from 1950 onwards became a bureaucratic workers’ state. The division of the country and of the strongest working class in Europe was thus consummated.
In 1953, as already mentioned, the first anti-bureaucratic uprising in the East was crushed by Kremlin troops in Berlin. A period of industrial development and stability of the bureaucratic regime followed, until from the 1970s onwards the dictator Erich Honecker began a process of rapprochement and increasing indebtedness to imperialism.
At the beginning of the revolutionary process in the USSR and the rest of the Glacis, the GDR was the strongest economy with the highest standard of living in Eastern Europe. But the bureaucratic suffocation of the totalitarian regime, the stagnation and the comparison with the imperialist side provided the conditions for the development of revolutionary mobilisation there as well.
In 1987 Honecker had made some gestures of liberalisation of the regime as part of his policy of rapprochement with the FRG. (22) But in 1988 he responded to the incipient protest process with repression and new imprisonments. In mid-1989, the situation took a leap forward in the context of the uprising in neighbouring countries, leading to the weakening and fall of the dictatorships. On the one hand, tens of thousands began to flee to the FRG through the opening of the Hungarian and Austrian borders, while others stormed the FRG embassies in East Berlin, Prague and Budapest and were allowed to travel. At the end of September, the Montagsdemos (Monday demonstrations) began in Leipzig. Despite the repression, they grew by tens of thousands from week to week and provoked a crisis at the base of the repressive forces. Wir sind das volk (We are the people!) is the most chanted slogan.
The mobilisation achieved its first victory at the end of October. Honecker was forced to resign and Egor Krenz took over, announcing the Wende (change of policy). But the demonstrations did not stop. On 4 November, an authorised music festival in East Berlin drew a million people demanding democratic rights and an end to the SED (Socialist Unity Party of Germany/CP) monopoly. On 9 November, a spokesman for the SED CC announced that from that day onwards the rules for applying for permission to travel to the FRG would be changed, and on the same evening, a crowd gathered at the Brandenburg Gate, forcing the guards to open the border gates. The Berlin Wall had fallen, and in the following days, more than two million Germans crossed the border.
By this time, the regime was in a state of total crisis. During November there had been a succession of resignations and changes in the CC and the government, until on the 1st of December the SED’s monopoly of power was removed. In the following days Honecker and his friends were expelled from the SED, Krenz resigned, and finally, Hans Modrow (SED) ended up co-governing with opposition organisations.
The totalitarian regime had fallen, but the mass mobilisation did not stop. The second democratic task, which was the driving force behind the uprising, was still pending and was coined in the change of slogan: Wir sind ein volk (We are one people), which had become the main slogan (it had already begun to appear in September). Elections were called for 18 March 1990, in which a coalition of Christians and liberals won, promising immediate reunification.
Finally, the masses impose the reunification of Germany in 1990 against the expressed will of the main leaders of European imperialism, Gorbachev, and Helmut Kohl himself, who tries to resist and postpone unity until he is forced to accept it. (23) The workers’ state of the GDR (already in disintegration) is absorbed into the FRG on the basis of the latter’s constitution, but the masses, by mobilising, achieve some concessions, such as the 1 for 1 exchange rate for the former GDR currency. (24)
The enormous triumph of unification for the German people can’t hide the fact that the East German masses lost many achievements of the former workers’ state and did not face restoration. But, as Jan Talpe puts it:
“Meanwhile, Honecker’s bureaucratic regime was not an assurance against restoration either, quite the contrary. (…) With the collapse of this state, Honecker appealed to the support of imperialism in order to preserve, not a “workers’ state”, but “his” state, which he was ready to include into the “third of socialist humanity”. In vain. To organise in defence of its achievements – and, in a historical perspective, to rebuild a workers’ state on a proletarian basis – the first task for the German proletariat was to overthrow the dictatorial Honecker regime, the only way to confront imperialism. That is what it did. And in a dialectical relationship with the struggles in the country of the first workers’ state, it also helped to overthrow the Stalinist apparatus. (…) The reunification is inseparable from the victory over Honecker’s bureaucratic regime. In Korea, the people did not achieve such a victory and capitalism did not cease to be restored, but in much more dramatic conditions, with the Korean proletariat divided.” (op. Cit.)
A strategic victory
The Stalinist bureaucracy, from its consolidation as an expression of counter-revolution within the workers’ state that emerged from the October Revolution, imposed a totalitarian regime that Trotsky considered “a twin of fascism.” To consolidate its power, it murdered more than 800,000 revolutionaries, including almost the lot of the leadership of the Bolshevik Party that led the Revolution. The same regime moved in on the Third International and all the Communist parties. All this was done in the name of the reactionary theory of “socialism in one country”, which required peaceful coexistence with imperialism. This was the ideology with which the parasitic caste headed by Stalin defended its privileges with blood and fire, and at the cost of the betrayal of the revolutionary processes by the Communist parties. Their policy of class collaboration led to the defeat of the second Chinese revolution (1925/1927) and then to that of the Spanish Revolution, huge processes that could have changed the course of history. Its counterpart, the ultra-leftist policy of refusal to push for workers’ united front opened the way to the triumph of Nazism in Germany. This was complemented by the Hitler-Stalin pact, which gave Hitler the green light for the invasion of Poland and the outbreak of World War II, and later by the dissolution of the Komintern as part of the agreement with the Allied imperialisms.
During the post-WWII era, Stalinism capitalised on the prestige gained by the Red Army and the communist guerrillas in defeating Nazism and its allies. This allowed it, in some cases, to prevent the triumph of revolutionary processes (Italy, France, Greece), and, in others, to halt them at some point and prevent their advance. As Martín Hernández explains in his book El veredicto de la historia, this was a period of great tactical triumphs but strategic defeats:
“From 1943 onwards there are great revolutionary triumphs, but the crisis of revolutionary leadership is maintained and deepened, and this led, on repeated occasions, to the catastrophic defeats Moreno spoke of (25) (which we are now calling “strategic defeats”), and it is precisely those defeats which were creating the conditions for the restoration of capitalism.
“The expropriation of capitalism in a third of humanity strengthened the workers’ states but only in a circumstantial sense because those states were not put at the service of the world socialist revolution. On the other hand, Stalin’s counter-revolutionary agreement with world imperialism and, especially, the surrender of power in the central countries left these same workers’ states isolated, and already in the 1960s, they began a permanent economic decline. The East [European] states, faced with their crisis, had two alternatives: either taking up again the path of the Russian Revolution, i.e. the path of world revolution, or turning themselves in the path of restoration. The first path could only be taken by stepping over the corpse of the bureaucracy. This possibility was raised in the revolutions in East Germany, Hungary, Poland and Czechoslovakia. But these revolutions were crushed by the bureaucracy and thus the road to restoration was paved.
“The defeat of Stalinism, on the contrary, meant a strategic victory of the world mass movement, which liquidated the most formidable counter-revolutionary apparatus ever known. A triumph that is comparable only to the defeat of Nazism and which required the joint action of the working class and peoples of several countries. Since its collapse, the Communist parties in the former USSR and Eastern Europe have been qualitatively incapable of playing the counter-revolutionary role they had played for much of the 20th century. They lost the control they exercised over the world labour and mass movement and almost disappeared in many countries, with a few exceptions such as Portugal or Chile, for example, where they still retain some strength. Other leaderships and apparatuses (bourgeois nationalist, neo-reformist and bureaucratic) have taken over and have been intervening in the revolutionary processes to control and defeat them, but none can match the strength and counter-revolutionary effectiveness of Stalinism. In that sense, its defeat has opened up qualitatively more favourable conditions for overcoming the crisis of revolutionary leadership and for the advance of the world revolution. This is the enormous contribution that the masses of the former USSR and Eastern Europe have made to the world working class with their revolutions, and with them, they have earned an important place in history.”
1- Revolution, in the strict and direct sense of the word, is a period in the life of a people when the anger accumulated during centuries of Avramov brutalities breaks forth into actions, not merely into words; and into the actions of millions of the people, not merely of individuals. (…) the people seize political freedom, that is, the freedom which the Avramovs had prevented them from exercising; the people create a new, revolutionary authority, authority over the Avramovs, over the tyrants of the old police regime (…). (Lenin, V. I. The Victory of the Cadets and the Tasks of the Workers’ Party, Collected Works).
The most indisputable characteristic feature of revolutions is the direct intervention of the masses in historical events. In normal times, the state, whether monarchical or democratic, is above the nation; history is the responsibility of the specialists in this trade: the monarchs, the ministers, the bureaucrats, the parliamentarians, the journalists. But at decisive moments, when the established order becomes unbearable for the masses, the masses break down the barriers that separate them from the political arena, overthrow their traditional representatives and, by their intervention, create a starting point for the new regime. (…) The history of revolutions is for us, above all, the history of the violent irruption of the masses into the government of their own destinies (Trotsky, Leon. History of the Russian Revolution, 1931).
2- As Jan Talpe explains (Los Estados Obreros del Glacis) the term is incorrectly translated as “transparency,” probably because of its similarity to the English word “glass.” Actually, it means “dialogue or consultation.”
3- The withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan began on 15 May 1988 and ended on 15 February 1989.
4- Among the nationalists were the Saiudis movement in Lithuania and the Azeri Popular Front in Azerbaijan. Democratic Russia is an anti-Gorbachev grouping, which emerged in early 1990 in Russia to run for elections of local soviets. It formally broke with the CPSU after the 27th Congress in July 1990.
5- Yeltsin headed the Inter-Regional Group of Deputies in the People’s Congress, which opposed Gorbachev, and later headed Democratic Russia.
6- The Communist Youth.
7- On 12/21/90, the economist Shatalin and several members of the Politburo resign. Other leading figures, such as Yakovlev and Petrakov, would break away in the following months.
8- On 17 March 1991, a plebiscite vote was held on maintaining the USSR as a “renewed federation of sovereign and egalitarian republics.” The YES vote won by 76% but Armenia, Georgia, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Moldova did not participate.
10- It was made up of Yazov (Minister of Defence), Baklanov (Deputy Minister of Defence), Pavlov (Prime Minister), Kriuchkov (head of the KGB), Pugo (Minister of the Interior) and Yanaev (Vice-President of the USSR).
11- Headquarters of the Supreme Soviet and the government of the Russian Federation.
12- City located on the Pacific coast, in the Russian Far East.
13- The term Glacis refers to a plain around a medieval castle, within range of its cannons and devoid of natural protection from an eventual aggressor.
14- Marxism defines as semi-colonies those countries subjected to imperialist powers through economic, political and military pacts. For Jan Talpe, in this case, it was a “semi-colonisation sui generis” since “Its purpose was pillage by means of semi-colonisation. But in the long run, this did not fail to raise the question of the relations of production, for lack of a bourgeoisie in the colonial country.(…) The bureaucracy of the USSR had to set up a local bureaucratic caste under its command from the Kremlin. And this ‘national bureaucracy’ had to displace the ‘national bourgeoisie’ from power, in order to be able to carry out the pillage.” (Los Estados Obreros del Glacis, 2019).
15- “In each of these countries, Stalin sent, together with the Red Army, his plenipotentiary who had spent the war in Moscow.” (Idem). Boleslaw Bierut in Poland, Walter Ulbricht in Germany, Klement Gottwald in Czechoslovakia, Mátyás Rákosi in Hungary, Ana Pauker in Romania, Georgi Dimitrov in Bulgaria.
16- Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (CMEA). Created on 4 January 1949. Dissolved on 28 June 1991.
17- Military Pact signed in Prague on 14 May 1955 between the USSR and the governments of the GDR, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Poland, Romania and Albania (that withdrew in 1968). It was officially dissolved in Prague on 1 July 1991.
18- “The political prognosis has an alternative character: either the bureaucracy, becoming ever more the organ of the world bourgeoisie in the workers’ state, will overthrow the new forms of property and plunge the country back to capitalism; or the working class will crush the bureaucracy and open the way to socialism.” (Trotsky, Leon. Transitional Programme, 1938).
19 – Romania in 1972, Hungary in 1982, and Poland in 1986 joined the IMF. Bulgaria and Czechoslovakia joined in September 1990.
20. In 1945, Yugoslavia was in the hands of communist guerrillas led by Marshal Tito, who managed to defeat the Nazis, expropriate the bourgeoisie and establish a workers’ state. After Tito’s break with Stalin in 1948, Yugoslavia followed a course independent of the Glacis and in 1965 began to implement a restorationist programme under the name of “workers’ self-management.” In the 1980s it joined the IMF and from then on the crisis deepened and strikes and national tensions broke out. Yugoslavia was a federation of republics of different nationalities historically oppressed by Serbia. In the heat of the processes in the USSR and the Glacis, strikes, mobilisations and uprisings of the oppressed nationalities broke out, leading to several bloody wars, imperialist intervention and, finally, the dissolution of Yugoslavia. Given the complexity of these processes, we will not deal with them, as they are beyond the scope of this article.
21- “Solidarity”, the big independent trade union which emerged from the historic strikes in the Polish shipyards in 1980 and grew to ten million members, continued to operate underground after Jaruzelski’s coup in 1981.
22- A peace march was authorised in September and on 12 December 1987, on the occasion of the 38th anniversary of the founding of the GDR, some 25,000 prisoners were amnestied.
23- As early as September 1989, when Wir sind ein volk! began to appear in the Leipzig Montagsdemo, Willy Brandt (former Social Democratic Chancellor of the FRG) declared: “Reunification is a concept I like less and less.” Margaret Thatcher commented to her ambassador in Bonn: “It is clear that Britain, France and the Soviet Union are fundamentally against German reunification.” And Helmut Kohl, on 28 November, when the masses had already begun to impose reunification in practice, still proposed a 10-point plan for a ‘federative structure between the two German states: reunification could eventually be achieved after a long process, if the GDR ‘democratised’.” (quoted in Los Estados Obreros del Glacis).
24- At the time of reunification, GDR marks were exchanged at half the value of FRG marks.
25- He refers to Nahuel Moreno, leader and founder of our current, who put forward this concept in the Theses for the Updating of the Transitional Programme (1980): “We can formulate this law as follows: as long as the proletariat does not overcome its crisis of revolutionary leadership, it will not succeed in defeating world imperialism and, as a consequence, all its struggles will be plagued by victories which will inevitably lead us to catastrophic defeats. (...) As long as the counter-revolutionary apparatuses continue to control the mass movement, every revolutionary victory will inevitably turn into defeat.”