Last August 19 was the 20th anniversary of the coup performed by the self-entitled “State Emergency Committee”[i] in 1991. Again, the armored cars through Moscow streets, the ballet “Swan Lake” on all channels[ii], the demonstrations against the coup, the barricades, the beginning of the strike wave and Gorbachev’s arrest were reminded. Yeltsin, who would soon drive the country into a total catastrophe, then appeared on top of a tank, leading the movement against the coup. The communist officials of the PCFR[iii] repeat until today that the coup was the last attempt to preserve the “socialist state”. However, the official version expressed by the media continues to spread the disjunctive: either the socialism with tanks on the streets, the Swan Lake ballet on TV and the ban of meetings with more than two people, or the catastrophe of the Yeltsin government.
There is much confusion surrounding the topic, as well as, in general, there is much confusion around the whole process of capitalist restoration in the former USSR. This article does not intend to analyze comprehensively such a broad topic, but we will endeavor all efforts in an attempt to clear up the confusion by giving our opinion on three points: Did the attempted coup really aim to defend the socialism against the catastrophe to which Yeltsin led the country then? Did the coup accelerate the capitalist restoration? Was there, anyway, an alternative to the dilemma between the ruling military junta and Yeltsin’s catastrophe?
Was the defeated coup an attempt to “defend socialism”?
The official version in the media says that the coup was the dividing line between a planned economy and a market economy, between socialism and capitalism. This version is the most widespread, because it is also repeated by the Stalinists who supported the coup. But, first of all, this version closes the eyes to an important fact of reality: that in 1991, i.e. even before the USSR disintegration and the collapse of the CPSU[iv], capitalism had already been restored in the USSR, by the hands of the same ministers who later took part in the “State Emergency Committee”, the would-be defenders of socialism. A simple analysis of the facts confirms it:
The key pillars of the economic system established by the October Revolution were: (a) the centrally planned economy (rather than the market), (b) the state monopoly of foreign trade (which prevented the country from being absorbed by the imperialist world economy) and (c) the state ownership of the means of production. These measures, taken through their entirety, gave rise to what we call a workers’ state, which differed qualitatively from the capitalist states (bourgeois states). These measures allowed a colossal leap in the country development, despite the bureaucratic Stalinist leadership, which in the 1920’s displaced workers from power, usurping the leadership of the USSR and the CPSU.
The Stalinist bureaucracy consumed gradually the workers’ state bases that had been created by the October Revolution, by performing a series of setbacks towards capitalism. Still, at that time, the capitalist restoration had not been placed on the agenda yet. The planned economy, the state monopoly of foreign trade and state ownership of the means of production remained in force. But, in the scenario of another crisis of the Soviet economy, the time finally has come in 1985. This year, Gorbachev took the office of General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and began the capitalist restoration by making use of what was called the Perestroika[v]. Under a clear support of the Western powers he began, clearly and consequently, the dismantling of the workers’ state foundations.
So, in the end of the 1980s the fundamentals of a market economy were already present in the USSR: a) the companies, even still remaining state-owned, had already started working as private ones, with theirs profit-oriented production (market instead of planning), and they started to freely choose their business partners, b) the companies received the right to trade freely with foreign companies (end of the state monopoly of foreign trade), c) all forms of ownership, including private banks, were allowed and d) foreign capital investments in the form of joint ventures were permitted. The picture above allows us to affirm that capitalism in the former USSR was restored in the late 1980s, though the state’s role in the economy and a number of social achievements of the past still remained as “survivals”.
For this reason, in the confrontation between Yeltsin and the “State Emergency Committee”, the question on the type of economy was not placed. Add to it the fact that the coup “for the salvation of socialism,” was headed by the same Gorbachev government ministers who, through their own hands, restored capitalism. The current official version, as much the bourgeoisie one as the Stalinists, tries to draw in an idyllic and incoherent setting, in which the pro-restoration ministers changed their minds and began to defend socialism in a sudden. This framework is far away from reality.
The real causes of the coup
As seen before, the “State Emergency Committee” was not confronted with Yeltsin due to any controversy about the type of economy to be defended. If any difference could be raised between them, it was only about the form of restoration, and about which factions of the bureaucracy and the new bourgeoisie should lead it, i.e., should receive the dividends for it. Anyway, the cause of the coup was neither the type of economy to be defended nor the form of restoration.
The fact is that the capitalist restoration process has led since 1986 (and could not be otherwise) to a violent worsening in the economic and social situation of the people: empty shelves in the markets, queues, black markets, increasing unemployment and crime. As in all Eastern Europe countries, in the USSR people started demonstrating against the restoration consequences and there was a revolutionary wave of protests and strikes, which destabilized Gorbachev’s pro-restoration government and, together with it, the whole project of capitalist restoration. So, the following question was posed to the pro-restoration government: how to deal with the serious political crisis, a possible waiting room for revolution? And, as it often happens in revolutionary crisis, there was a split in the top establishment of power on how to answer to this question.
Part of the elite bet on a project that aimed at crushing the masses resistance directly by force. This was the project personified by the “State Emergency Committee”, of which the Defense Ministry, the KGB, the Ministry of Interior (police) and other officials of the armed forces were part. Not coincidentally, one of the key points of the “State Emergency Committee” program was the curfew, the ban on strikes, demonstrations, marches, meetings and political parties (the coup plotters popularized this point with the slogan “to end the disorder”), as well as … the distribution of land to all the inhabitants to build dachas[vi]. In other words, the coup goal was to defeat the class struggle, disperse people through the country and have them to grow potatoes and so save the decaying regime. A right-wing coup disguised in a red flag – this was the essence of the 1991 coup which led to so much confusion.
Has the coup accelerated the restoration process?
In the USSR the masses could defeat the plan to crush the revolutionary crisis through the weapons force, dismantle the coup and overthrow the dictatorship regime of the pro-restorationist Communist Party. However, this did not happen everywhere. In China, where the Communist Party had restored capitalism yet (some years before), the masses also took the streets in order to resist the consequences of the capitalist exploitation. But in China, unlike the USSR and Eastern Europe, it ended in a bloodbath against the people, caused by the restorationist bureaucracy in power. By then, Tiananmen Square turned to be the symbol of the resistance. In China, the Communist Party regime was able to impose a defeat to the masses and maintain its dictatorship. The result is that the Communist Party of China, disguised in a red flag and in a socialist rhetoric, rules the most barbaric capitalist country in the planet with the lowest wages in the world, maintained through a brutal dictatorship which works according to the interests of the Western multinationals companies installed there, for which China has become a haven for capital investments.
A similar situation has happened in Cuba, where, although there was no bloody repression of the masses, the regime of the Cuban CP, with the Castro brothers in the leadership, restored capitalism and held the power in their hands. And currently the key areas of the Cuban economy belong to multinationals, the population lives on $ 15 a month and the government has recently approved an austerity program with tough economic measures, as 500 thousand layoffs of public workers.
The aim of the coup in the USSR was to preserve the PC regime and then advance as soon as possible with the capitalist restoration project. If the “State Emergency Committee” had won, if the masses had not overthrown the ruling regime, USSR destiny would have been the same as China and Cuba. The pro-restoration government would have continued working on its task, but having the resistance struggle already defeated, i.e., the pro-restoration government could have deepened capitalist restoration and the consequent acceleration of the country’s colonization by the Western powers.
By defeating the “State Emergency Committee” military coup, the URSS’ workers achieved a great victory that, though it was not able to stop with the restoration, it could at least bring down Communist Party dictatorship and could also ensure a range of democratic freedoms. Therefore, the deepening of capitalist restoration in Russia faced many difficulties. Yeltsin was forced to bomb the parliament in 1993, to carry on with two wars in Chechnya, to face the 1990’s strikes and to face the “war roads”[vii] on 1998. It was only after strangling the fights after 1998 (with the invaluable help of PCFR), with Putin’s arrival to power and a long-expected economic growth, that the Russian elite could gain the necessary tranquility, limit the democratic freedoms and “rehabilitate” the police and the FSB’s[viii] repressive apparatus, although at a level incomparably lower than during the CPSU dictatorship.
Thus, the Russian and the world bourgeoisies conquered the necessary “peace” that allowed attracting foreign capital to the country, in the same proportion as China, deepening the country’s colonization by the transnational enterprises. The Chinese Communist Party, which managed to defeat the revolution in 1989, hasn’t faced any similar problems. Therefore, the defeat of the coup hindered the restoration deepening, though it could not stop it.
Was there an alternative to the disjunctive between the military coup and Yeltsin’s catastrophe?
Different from both versions, the media official version and the Stalinist coup defenders’ version, we affirm that there was an alternative to the military junta and the catastrophe of Yeltsin. And this alternative was shown by the masses, who in the end of the 1980s took their destiny in their hands, dismantling the military coup and overthrowing the CPSU dictatorial regime. In those days of August the broadest unity of action was needed aiming at the coup defeat. And this unity of action did happen. But the main problem revolved around the capitalist restoration issue. Yeltsin wanted to silence the masses and to continue with the restoration plans. Therefore, in order to achieve real changes, the only solution should have been a worker revolution against Yeltsin and the other restorers. The solution would be to centralize the workers’ mass organizations and their struggle to seize political power in the country, bringing back the planned economy under their leadership.
However, the process of resistance to the coup was led by the pro-restoration officers. In a situation where much of the left supported the coup while the other did not know what to do, it turned to be very easy for Yeltsin to lead the movement, keep his restoration plan, privatize the state property and bring the country to a halt and destruction comparable only to those consequences of World War II. He also found it easy to equate socialism with repression against the masses, sowing an enormous confusion in the workers’ minds, which has not ended yet, and managing to attract the sympathy of workers’ broad sectors to the capitalist program. The masses managed to overthrow the regime and to win democratic rights, therein lays their victory, but failed to seize power and hold the restoration process, therein lays their defeat.
Lessons learned from the capitalist restoration process
For many, the events from the late 1980s to early 1990s were an unexpected shock. However, still in the 1930’s, Trotsky, leading the fight against the bureaucratic degeneration of the Bolshevik Party and the workers’ state, made it clear about what was the alternative: either the masses drew the power from the Stalinist bureaucracy, or this bureaucracy, sooner or later would restore capitalism in the USSR. Because of this never changed statement and because of his restless struggle against the bureaucracy, Trotsky was assassinated and his fellow fighters sent by Stalin to the labor camps of Siberia. Because of the same reasons, all of Trotsky and Left Opposition’s works were destroyed in the USSR, so that nobody could know the truth. And so, unfortunately in the same way, the second alternative happened: the Stalinist bureaucracy managed, in the end, to restore capitalism in the former USSR.
We must study and learn all the lessons from the capitalist restoration process. Some conclusions seem clear:
First, the capitalism disaster that afflicts Russia allows us, better than nothing, to evaluate the capitalism itself. The current world crisis has in fact led capitalism and neoliberalism to an ideological bankrupt, because it became obvious that they cannot offer workers anything but a permanent deterioration of their situation.
Second, the fact that capitalism was restored also allows us, better than nothing, to evaluate the Soviet bureaucracy’s character, who, in order to maintain their privileges, consumed for many years the resources of the workers’ state established by the October Revolution until its destruction. There can be no expectation in the bureaucracy.
Third, taking into account the capitalism being restored by the bureaucracy, the revolution of the masses against the dictatorship of the pro-restorationist CPSU and Yeltsin’s rise to power diverting the revolutionary wave, it’s fully demonstrated the need for power to be in the workers’ hands and the need for the proletariat dictatorship, which cannot be replaced by any “great leader”. Nowadays, taking the Arab Revolution as example we see once again as this thesis is reaffirmed: without the seizure of political power by the workers’ organizations, the revolution goes nowhere and there is no possibility of improving people’s lives standard.
Fourth, to enable workers to take power into their hands, they need to build “their” political party with a program that aims to seize power, i.e., a revolutionary party, which does not allow the bourgeoisie, the bureaucracy, the “charismatic leaders” and all sorts of “saviors” divert workers from their goals. And as the reality shows us on an everyday basis, all the processes now take place on a global scale. As the situation in each country is in fact a reflection of the world economic crisis, as well as the class struggle has an international character, as well as the bourgeoisie of the whole world tries to coordinate their plans to impose on workers of all countries, then the working class party must also be global, international and worldwide. Stalinism has paid a high political price for its betrayal, failing to represent a global orientation for workers and the vanguard, thus opening up new prospects for the possibility of building up a world revolutionary party.
1991 and the blindness of the left
The confusion that exists around the events of August 1991 is understandable: to understand everything clearly amid this history mess is not so easy. The Stalinist falsification is also understandable: they are forced to defend their bureaucratic dictatorship regime even against the facts. However, 20 years later, the confusion continues to exist even in a number of organizations who claim to be Trotskyist.
Thus, the CWI (The Militant) in relation to the coup writes: “the attempt of a Stalinist counterrevolution accelerated capitalist restoration.” It is worthwhile correcting them: “the attempt of a Stalinist counterrevolution would have accelerated the restoration of capitalism, if it had been victorious.” This would be a great truth, as we see in China. But the Stalinist counterrevolution in the USSR, i.e., the 1991 coup, was defeated, which made it very difficult to deepen the restoration.
The CWI also writes that the State Emergency Committee “had the idea of protecting the planned economy from the onslaught of the privatizers but, without democracy from below, it had become unviable to maintain it.” This quote of the CWI article gives the impression that the “State Emergency Committee” was defending a just cause: to save the planned economy, however, through wrong methods. This is the same old story that the “State Emergency Committee” was defending socialism. We have already shown above that the committee members did not defend the planned economy, and also that the planned economy had already been destroyed by them before 1991, when they were ministers of Gorbachev’s government.
The CWI also writes that “he [Gorbachev] had promoted reforms to try to prevent an explosion from below and to retain the state-owned planned economy intact. This was the structure that had for decades provided his own caste in society with its income and privilege.” Right here is the core issue as to keep these “caste” privileges has turned to be impossible without the capitalist restoration. Therefore, the Perestroika was, not only an attempt to “prevent an explosion from the bottom up”, but also a project consciously directed to liquidate the planned economy and lead the transition to a market economy. The resulting character of the measures taken to dismantle each element of the planned economy, as well as Gorbachev’s own half truths and half lies in his book “Perestroika, new ideas for my country and the world” leave no room for doubt.
Another current, the RSD (section of the United Secretariat), in a “poetic” material entitled “Forget 1991”, prefers to forget the 1991’s events than trying to explain them. RSD writes: “This is a period (August 1991) about which nobody wants or can say anything of importance. The timing of the birth of a country, we want to forget as quickly as possible. For most people, in spite of so many worn out myths about it, August 1991 will always be weird and tragic. Confused, sitting in front of their radios, the unhappy Soviet people tried in vain to understand something, at least a bit of it, about their future, which, as always, was decided by others.”
The problem of the “revolutionaries” of the RSD is that they forgot a “detail”, that is: in 1991 a revolution has happened! The RSD sees in 1991 only the “unhappy confused people, sitting in front of their radios”. But if the RSD had left the mirror and had taken a look at reality, then could have seen the Eastern Europe people on strike, people would take to the streets in demonstrations and marches, as well as the masses of the USSR dismantled the apparatus of the second strongest military force in the world and overthrew the Stalinist regime which had ruled the country for over 60 years and now was responsible for the capitalist restoration. Instead, the RSD prefers to “forget 91” and, as always, avoid answering such important questions. We do not want to “Forget 1991”! We want to repeat it!
Like the CWI, the RSD assumes that the events of August 1991 accelerated the capitalist restoration: “however, the consequences of August were more terrible than the worst fantasies – unemployment, poverty, hopelessness, fear”, as if, by overcoming the coup, the masses were not achieving a major victory, but only destroying their own future.
The victory of the masses against the military coup could never accelerate the capitalist restoration. If something did facilitate Yeltsin’s restoration work and the resulting anti-communist propaganda, it was the uncertainty of most of the Left in that the 1991 military coup defeat had really been a great victory for workers and all the people. In a situation where most of the Left either openly sympathized with the “State Emergency Committee” or was secretly sympathetic to it (as if it defended something good, and its defeat had accelerated the restoration), then it was very easy for Yeltsin himself to assume the masses leadership. For workers, unlike most of the Left, there weren’t any doubts about their victory. They were ready to follow those who could defend it. And in the struggle against the coup, the workers found only Yeltsin, because most of the Left has not found its place until now.
Not becoming aware of a revolution going on is an evil habit of many “revolutionaries”. As the RSD did not see a revolution in Eastern Europe in the late 1980’s – and can’t see it until today – they neither see the Libyan Revolution now.
The CWI, unlike RSD, always leaves its positions clear and in this way writes against the military coup of 1991. But in an incredible contradiction, they believe that the coup organizers defended something good. The CWI supports the Arab Revolution, including in Libya, but … just as this revolution does not start hitting the walls of Israel – the military fortress of imperialism in the region.
For all this we want to say:
Long live the Revolution in Eastern Europe, which overturned the Stalinist dictatorships of the pro-restoration Communist Parties!
Long live the victory of the Soviet workers against the military coup of August 1991!
Long live the Arab revolution, which is tearing down the pro-imperialist dictators and threatening Israel’s existence – a fortified post of the imperialism in the region!
Long live the Libyan Revolution, which destroyed the regime of Gaddafi!
No confidence in bourgeois leaderships: these will only divert the fight and lead the revolution to the defeat.
For the seizure of political power by the workers’ organizations – the only possibility of carrying out the revolution and achieve the so much-needed changes to the working people!
For the construction of a proletarian revolutionary leadership – an international workers’ party with a program in defense of the proletarian dictatorship.
How has the path been paved leading to the capitalist restoration?
When Stalinism emerges in the USSR and is put in force its theory-program of “peaceful coexistence with imperialism” as well as their refusal to bring forth the world revolution, it was confirmed the USSR economic isolation. However, for the maintenance of world capitalism, this meant that the Soviet economy, although isolated and inconsistent with capitalism was, by all means, part of the world imperialist economic system, which inevitably means that it was subordinate to it indirectly, the same way that a part is subordinated to the whole.
The USSR was a country whose development was historically backward in relation to Western Europe and the US. The isolation required economic self-sufficiency, disconnecting the USSR from the benefits of world division of labor (at the same time, anyway, USSR never won a total self-sufficiency). Their situation as “the odd one out” in the imperialist system demanded huge spending in the defense of the country, which had the effect of a continuous bleeding of the economy. The imperialist countries however, continued, as a vacuum cleaner, sucking the wealth of the undeveloped countries and strengthen themselves at the expense of the whole world. Twice (1918 and 1941) the imperialism tried by military means to destroy the workers’ state in the USSR, causing a massive destruction. Having all this in mind, to overcome the imperialism economically was as impossible as to overcome the own train one is travelling in.
Such situation led the imperialist economy to slowly choke the Soviet economy, leading it to a crisis where it could be possible to be rescued from only through two ways; either the liquidation of the imperialist world economy, i.e. the October World Revolution continuation, or to retreat before the imperialism, turning to it and asking for help. Obviously, the USSR ruling bureaucracy, observing that a revolution would threaten their privileges, increasingly resorted to the second path of successive setbacks before the imperialism. Trying to stop the “imperialist train” would threaten the Stalinist bureaucracy to lose their comfortable bed coach. Being so, even cursing the “machinists”, they preferred to reach an agreement with the imperialism and continue their journey on the “train”. Bureaucracy established with imperialism closer relations, expanding trade, importing high technology products (thereby increasing their technological dependence), shortly after taking loans, etc… Under the conditions of a relative backwardness of the USSR, these relationships with imperialism happened with high inequality. Thus it grew the dependence of the Soviet economy in relation to imperialism.
Closer economic relations with the imperialism inevitably led to the Soviet economy “contamination” with elements of capitalism. This provoked an increase of the Soviet economy internal contradictions and thus prepared new attacks. Like a spider starts wrapping its victim with its web, then inject digestive juices into its prey, dissolving its inner parts waiting for its final swallowing, in the same way the imperialism “tied” the USSR with its many economic links, infiltrating inside the Soviet economy, slowly digesting this “odd one out”. The Stalinist bureaucracy managed all this process, consuming the resources of the workers state founded by workers during the October Revolution, and in the late 1980’s, they (the Stalinist bureaucracy) eventually destroyed it.
The Stalinist “theory” of building “socialism in only one country” was tailored designed to justify the deal sealed with imperialism. In exchange for its renouncing to the world revolution and the carte blanche given to imperialism to rule the world, the Stalinist bureaucracy acquired entitlement to benefit from the resources of the state workers and thus ensure their privileges, earning at the end the right to become the new Russian bourgeoisie.
The process of capitalist restoration buried this Stalinist “theory” once and for all.
[i] – Also known as the Gang of the Eight, a group of conspirators of the CPSU “hard line” who organized an attempted coup in the Soviet Union against Mikhail Gorbachev between 18 and 20 August 1991. The group consisted of people close to Gorbachev occupying important positions within the Politburo, the CPSU, and the KGB.
[ii] – During the coup, those responsible for the media have taken control of TV and for the whole day they broadcasted scenes from this ballet, so that nobody could find out about the coup.
[iii] – Communist Party of the Russian Federation
[iv] – Communist Party of the Soviet Union
[v] – Reconstruction
[vi] – Russian country houses, where, traditionally, a significant portion of urban population in the summer cultivates tubercles, vegetables and fruits to supplement their diet which is insufficient due to low salaries.
[vii] – Wave of roadblocks by struggling miners when they managed to stop even the Siberian Highway, the world’s longest road.
[viii] – Former KGB