There was a remarkable symmetry between the crisis of world capitalism and Stalinism. Both the rule of the bureaucracy and the rule of the monopolies succumbed to arteriosclerosis. In both systems, we saw the proliferation of waste, chaos, and anarchy which held back the free development of the productive forces. Both sides pointed to the faults in each other’s systems. But neither was capable of playing a progressive role in developing society. In the West, the productive forces had grown beyond the limits of private ownership and the nation states. In the East, in the countries of proletarian Bonapartism, there was a crisis of bureaucratic control and planning. In addition, there was the aggravated crisis of imperialist exploitation of the impoverished countries of the third world. War and poverty are an inevitable accompaniment of the contradictions of the capitalist system.
The early Soviet state spent little on arms. The main strength of the Soviet Republic was in its internationalist policy and the support of the workers of the world, which destroyed the attempts to intervene militarily against the Bolsheviks in 1918-21. Whilst paying attention to the material requirements of the defence of the workers’ state, Lenin and Trotsky nevertheless insisted that the main priority was the improvement of the living standards and well-being of the mass of the population. In the last analysis, that was the real guarantee of the security of the workers’ state, in conjunction with the support of the international working class.
All this changed with the victory of Stalinist reaction. Limited and obtuse in its outlook, the bureaucracy looked to a massive programme of arms expenditure as a means of competing with imperialism in the world arena. It relied exclusively on diplomatic manoeuvres and military might. For the whole period of the cold war, military expenditure imposed a huge burden on the Soviet Union. Given the intensification of the arms race between Russia and the West, and the criminal conflict between the two rival bureaucracies in Moscow and Beijing, expenditure on arms rapidly rose, devouring an ever-increasing proportion of the wealth produced by the Soviet working class.
This resulted in the formation of a powerful military-industrial complex in the USSR, with its own interests. A staggering 60 per cent of industrial output was earmarked, directly or indirectly, for the military sector, a monstrous incubus on the Soviet economy. As in the USA, the Soviet equivalent of the military-industrial complex spent colossal amounts of money in maintaining the vested interests and prestige of the military wing of the bureaucracy.
If this expenditure – both East and West – had been used for productive purposes, it could undoubtedly have solved all the economic and social problems of the terribly impoverished underdeveloped countries, the capitalist countries and the Soviet Union itself. But to imagine that this antagonism could be resolved through mutual ‘good will’ was to hark back to the ideas of the utopian socialists who believed that capitalists could be convinced by appealing to their ‘good will’ to adopt socialism. Foreign policy, as with home policy, reflected the vested interests of the imperialists on the one hand and the Stalinist bureaucracy on the other.
In 1961 alone there was a sharp 30 per cent increase in the military expenditure of the USSR. Fearful about the increase of American strategic weapons under the Kennedy Administration, the Soviet production of intercontinental ballistic missiles was stepped up from 50 to 200 a year by the mid-1960s. More missile-carrying submarines were commissioned. The surface fleet began preparing to compete with US forces on the oceans. Increasingly, with the intensification of the cold war, the arms race absorbed a massive amount of precious resources, and constituted a serious drain on the economy.
In Europe, the USSR had always had conventional military superiority, in numbers of men under arms and tanks. The production and development of nuclear weapons were seen as a means of overcoming this imbalance by the West. Although the estimates of military expenditure vary enormously according to the USA and the USSR, the figures for 1980 indicate a colossal burden on the economy. The Soviet figure for military expenditure was Rbs17 billion, or about $26 billion; the US figure for Soviet spending was $185 billion. The USSR figure is far too low, but the US estimate is also inflated. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, a more reliable independent source of information, for the year 1980, the USSR spent $107 billion, while the USA spent $111 billion on arms.
For the defence of the USSR, Lenin and Trotsky relied mainly on revolutionary propaganda and an internationalist appeal to the world working class. The bureaucracy could not do that, because a revolutionary movement of the workers in the West would threaten the very basis of their rule. In any case, the hideous totalitarian one-party regime, with a sluggish economy bogged down by bureaucracy, had no particular appeal to the workers of the advanced capitalist countries – although the same was not true of the masses in the third world.
As time went on, defence expenditure became a crushing burden on the economics of the West as well as on the Soviet Union and its satellites. Nevertheless, the imperialist powers were not prepared to cut down the production of armaments too much through any agreement with the Soviet Union. A massive cut would have affected the military-industrial complex in the NATO countries. It would have reduced a vital market for those capitalist enterprises, which were paid to produce scrap metal by developing new weapons as old ones became obsolete. Under capitalism, any substantial cutback would seriously aggravate any developing economic crisis. Under Stalinism, it would transgress the interests and prestige of the military bureaucracy.
Nevertheless, their growing contradictions forced the imperialist powers to seek a ‘compromise’. All the imperialist powers felt the burden of arms expenditure and would have liked to cut the arms bill to some extent. In the Soviet Union, particularly during the Brezhnev era, investment on defence was up to 15 per cent of GNP, reducing spending on other sectors and slowing down growth. The attempt to reach détente with US imperialism through the SALT and other agreements was intended partly to cut down on wasteful military expenditure, partly a vain attempt to achieve global stability. Despite the underlying contradictions between two incompatible socio-economic systems, the two sides, dialectically, recognised that they needed each other. In reality, they leaned upon each other. The capitalists attempted to justify their system by pointing an accusing finger at the dictatorial regimes in the East, while the bureaucracy attempted to justify its privileged caste rule by pointing to Vietnam, unemployment and racism in the West.
Neither side had any interest in taking any serious action against the other. They tacitly recognised each other’s spheres of influence. Increasingly, they traded with each other. But that did not alter the real relationship between them. They still hated and feared each other. The fundamental antagonism between the capitalist world and the nationalised property forms of the deformed workers’ states had not been removed. And despite all the efforts to arrive at a modus vivendi and freeze world relations, the situation remained tense and uneasy. At any moment, the whole set up could be upset by explosions in one part of the world or another, bringing the underlying antagonisms to the fore.
It’s inaccurate thinking to say that the use of nuclear weapons would be the end of the human race. That’s an egocentric thought. Of course, it’s horrendous to contemplate, but in strictly statistical terms, if the United States used all of its arsenal in the Soviet Union and the Soviet Union used all of its against the United States it would not be the end of humanity. That’s egocentric. There are other people on the earth. (Quoted by F. Halliday in The Making of the Second Cold War, p. 232.)
Even in the Reagan Administration, discussions took place within the military and government concerning the US capacity to destroy the USSR in the event of nuclear war. According to Colin Gray and Keith Payne:
Washington should identify war aims that in the last resort would contemplate the destruction of Soviet political authority and the emergence of post-war world order with compatible Western values… The USSR, with its gross over-centralisation of authority, epitomised by its vast bureaucracy in Moscow, should be highly vulnerable to such an attack. (Ibid., p. 52.)
These authors were later employed by the US government and their views became increasingly influential in the US defence establishment.
Of course, these opinions were not representative of the decisive sections of the ruling class, who understood that nuclear war is not a realistic option. Despite the widespread fears of a holocaust, there was no danger of a world war because under modern conditions a nuclear war between the superpowers would inevitably result in Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD). The capitalist class does not wage war for the sake of amusement, but to conquer foreign markets, raw materials and spheres of influence. A nuclear war would have led to mutual destruction and the end of the planet, which is precisely why it did not take place.
Recognising that developing the productive forces is the key to the stability of any society, Gorbachev aimed to reduce arms expenditure, in order to produce more consumer goods and boost the living standards of the increasingly restive Soviet people. That is why Gorbachev was prepared to concede more in negotiations with imperialism than he was offered in return. Another reason for the temporary détente between imperialism and the Stalinist bureaucracies in the 1980s was the dangerous social consequences of the super-exploitation of the ex-colonial countries.
The debt of the colonial countries to imperialism had reached $1300 billion. Rising interest rates and the widening gap between the relatively low price of raw materials and foodstuffs, the dominant form of production for the under-developed economies, and the relatively high price of the capital goods and industrial products, which are produced in the metropolitan countries, intensified the exploitation of the labour of the masses of the third world. This remorseless exploitation pushed them down into levels of poverty which were greater than at any time in the last 50 years. This was a formula for explosions and revolutions.
World history, since 1914 has been the history of attempts to arrive at agreements and compromises which end in further explosions. The temporary agreement between the so-called democratic powers and the Soviet Union during the course of the war against Hitler did not last long after the collapse of the Nazi regime and of Japan. Towards the end of the war there had been an agreement between the Allied powers for the Soviet Union to enter the war against Japan. But the imperialist powers changed that policy. The Japanese were ready to surrender but President Truman still ordered the dropping of two atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The bombs were a warning to the Soviet Union of what could happen to it, if it did not do what US imperialism wanted. However, Stalin realised that the troops of imperialism were war weary, and were demanding to be sent home as soon as the war was over. Russian troops invaded Manchuria and defeated the Japanese army in just ten days. So, the bombs failed in their purpose.
Very rapidly international relations entered the period of the cold war. This in its turn led to the arms race, dwarfing even the massive rearmament programme of Hitler between 1933-39. But the arms race cancelled itself out. One superpower’s attempt to gain an advantage in one sphere or another was immediately counteracted by the other. The cold war was followed by a period of relative détente but this was of a very shaky character. The arms race also served the purpose, for the West and the Soviet Union, of diverting the mass of people to look for an enemy outside the borders of their own country. Thus, American imperialism endeavoured to put all the blame for the explosions in the third world on to the shoulders of the Soviet Union and the Soviet bureaucracy. On the other hand, the Soviet bureaucracy portrayed itself (with more justification) as a beleaguered fortress threatened by imperialism.
‘Peaceful coexistence’ of different economic and social systems was Stalin’s, not Lenin’s idea. “We are living not merely in a state, but in a system of states,” Lenin said at the Eighth Party Congress in July 1919, “and it is inconceivable that the Soviet republic should continue to exist for a long period side by side with imperialist states. Ultimately one or the other must conquer. Until this end occurs a number of terrible clashes between the Soviet republic and bourgeois states is inevitable.” (Quoted by E.H. Carr, The Bolshevik Revolution, Vol. 3, p. 123.) Again, only a year later, after the defeat of the foreign armies of intervention into the Soviet Union, Lenin said: “We have passed from war to peace but we have not forgotten that war will come again. So long as both capitalism and socialism remain we cannot live in peace. Either one or the other, in the long run, will conquer. There will be a funeral chant either for the Soviet Republic or for world capitalism. This is a moratorium in a war.”
Two years later, Lenin summarised the relations between the new Soviet state and the imperialists:
We have got a certain equilibrium, although extremely fragile, extremely unstable. Nevertheless, such an equilibrium can exist – of course not for long – in a capitalist environment.
Before the Eighth Congress of Soviets, Lenin repeated this idea:
We cannot for a moment believe in lasting trade relations with the imperialist powers: the respite will be temporary. The experience of the history of revolutions and great conflicts teaches us that wars, a series of wars, are inevitable. The existence of a Soviet Republic alongside of capitalist countries – a Soviet Republic surrounded by capitalist countries – is so intolerable to the capitalists that they will seize any opportunity to resume the war. (LCW, Vol. 31, p. 472.)
And Lenin’s prediction was proved right when ‘peaceful coexistence’ ended in the nightmare of the Second World War.
It is true that for relatively short periods ‘peaceful coexistence’ was maintained. But inevitably the contradictions between two conflicting social systems generated irreconcilable antagonisms. That explains the euphoria of the imperialists at the collapse of Stalinism and their support for capitalist counter-revolution in Russia and Eastern Europe. Periodic diplomatic crises and accords between imperialism and Stalinism went on throughout the post-war period. In 1955, Soviet bureaucrats and Western imperialists met at Geneva for the first time since Potsdam in 1945. Negotiations were again resumed when Khrushchev visited the USA in 1959. The Cuban Missile Crisis of 1961 led to a round of negotiations that led to the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty the following year. In 1969, with the advent of the Nixon administration, relations led to détente and a series of arms reduction talks and agreements. With the Russian invasion of Afghanistan to prop up the pro-Moscow regime in Kabul, and the election of Ronald Reagan as US president, diplomatic relations between the superpowers began to deteriorate, leading to what some have called the ‘second cold war’.
The negotiations between Russia and the United States and its allies, including the Reagan- Gorbachev summit, were supposed to guarantee ‘world peace’. These summits attempted to breed illusions that world peace and international harmony (‘peaceful coexistence’) could be achieved through ‘good will’ between the imperialists and the Stalinist bureaucracies. This was fundamentally false. It was the boom in the capitalist countries in the 1980s, coupled with the contradictions within imperialism and the crisis in the Stalinist states, which led to a temporary desire by the superpowers to arrive at a mutual agreement. But the underlying reality was of two fundamentally opposed social systems which could not tolerate indefinitely the existence of the other. Their basic antagonism could be softened only temporarily.
In the 1980s, Gorbachev was desperate to arrive at some sort of an agreement with world imperialism. In an attempt to get an agreement with the capitalist powers, the Soviet leadership openly renounced the strategy of revolution and denied the relevance of class struggle. This was really only putting a stamp on what had been the position for a long time before. Erich Honecker, the ex-East German Stalinist leader, without blinking an eyelid, wrote in the British Morning Star that:
Human beings include people from different, even antagonistic classes in society. They extend from the working class to circles of monopoly capital itself. We are far from reducing international relations to a class struggle stereotype.
Similarly, at the time of Gorbachev’s visit to Britain, the Morning Star (5/4/1988) was happy to state that:
New thinking suggests that there are universal human values – peace, security and justice; values that are common to all of us irrespective of our nationality, religion, ideology or class; values that transcend all such differences.
These sentiments were utopianism of the worst character. Gorbachev claimed to have broken with Stalin, on whom he blamed all the crimes of the bureaucracy in the past. However, he had adopted the fundamental ideas of Stalinism, of a society in the Soviet Union which is divided between the bureaucracy, on the one hand, and the working class on the other. He accepted Stalin’s nonsense that ‘peaceful coexistence’ between the capitalist states and the Soviet Union, a deformed workers’ state, could continue indefinitely. However, the attempt to freeze world relations into fixed blocs inevitably broke down, creating a new and convulsive period in world history. Unexpectedly for the Stalinists and imperialists alike, the bureaucratic regimes of Eastern Europe began to unravel and entered into crisis.
Crisis in Eastern Europe
The crisis of Stalinism affected Eastern Europe in a particularly sharp way, because here the impasse of the bureaucratic regime was aggravated by the sense of national oppression. The marvellous revolutionary traditions of the Polish working class were shown again and again – in 1956 and 1970, 1976 and 1980. Above all in 1980-81, the courageous Polish proletariat came close to overthrowing the bureaucratic regime. The powerful Solidarity movement, numbering 10 million, could have taken power. Tragically, this revolutionary movement in Poland was betrayed by the leadership of Solidarity, dominated by Lech Wałesa, the reformist advisers and Catholic intellectuals. This layer sought a compromise with the ruling bureaucracy which was terrified by the movement of the working class, groping in the direction of political revolution. This attempt to reach an accommodation with the Stalinist regime led to the defeat of the movement and the coming to power of General Jaruzelski. Solidarity was banned in 1982. The impasse of the regime and the increase in strikes, however, led Jaruzelski to seek to embroil the reformist leaders of Solidarity. Finally, the CP leaders handed Poland over to the nascent capitalists, with the peculiarity that the old nomenklatura ended up with the lion’s share of the privatised firms.
Increasingly, the regime rested upon Wałesa, drawing his supporters into its orbit, and using them to hold back the workers. Round table talks were first mooted in August 1988 and opened in February 1989 with the aim of reaching agreement on economic stabilisation and political reform. If agreement was reached, stated the interior minister Lieutenant-General Kiszczak, who expected “compromise and loyal co-operation”, then Solidarity would be legalised. During the negotiations, Wałesa called for a moratorium on strikes and was keen to collaborate with the reformist wing of the bureaucracy. Agreement was reached in April over an austerity programme and the move towards a market economy.
The collapse of the old Stalinist regime resulted from intense internal contradictions. The electoral victory of Solidarity in 1989, represented the victory of a bourgeois government which moved in the direction of capitalist restoration in Poland. The election of Wałesa as president was a further move in that direction. Solidarity won a sweeping victory in the 35 per cent of the seats in the Sejm (lower house) they were allowed to contest in July 1989. In the Senate, they won 99 of the 100 seats. 33 members of the government contesting the election on a national list of 35 unopposed candidates failed to win the necessary 50 per cent in the first round and were disqualified. Solidarity was invited by Jaruzelski to join a coalition government. Wałesa told Jaruzelski that Solidarity would accept him as president. He urged the Polish United Workers’ Party (PUWP) to carry through further ‘reform’.
Once in government, the Solidarity leadership turned its back on the working class. In the time-honoured tradition, the ex-dissident and one-time supporter of the theory of state capitalism Jacek Kuroń was appointed minister of labour. It was a classic case of ‘poacher turned gamekeeper’. In the words of Kuroń:
For a long time, people couldn’t strike, so someone had to fight for them. That’s what I did. I used to co-operate with strikes. Now I have to extinguish them. (The Wall Street Journal, 10/11/89.)
That month full diplomatic relations were established between Poland and the Vatican after nearly 44 years.
As could be expected, the imperialists were not slow to fish in troubled waters. Jaruzelski was shortly visited by George Bush who welcomed the reforms which Poland was introducing as “indispensable”. Funds were promised, but they remained very low. Bush visited the Gdańsk shipyard where he was greeted by a crowd of 20,000. He then flew on to Hungary to a crowd of 10,000 people. Later he addressed the parliament where he praised Hungary’s free-market reforms, condemned state control and urged more political pluralism. At a speech at the Karl Marx University in Budapest, he announced he would press for international aid to help Hungary’s path to the market.
By August, the Polish National Assembly elected Tadeusz Mazowiecki as prime minister, heading a Solidarity-led coalition, with the United Peasant’s Party and the Democratic Party. By then Solidarity had evolved into an entirely different organisation to that of 1980-81. Its membership had fallen from ten million to 2.2 million. It had split and degenerated politically over the decade. As the participation of the workers dropped off, its leadership became more pro-bourgeois. By 1990, membership had fallen to one million.
On the other hand, the old official union, the All-Poland Trade Union Accord (OPZZ) had five million members and was threatening strikes against privatisation. On the basis of experience, the workers were turning against Wałesa. The OPZZ in reality had not been a genuine trade union at all but an arm of the bureaucracy. However, with the crisis of the regime, it became more independent of the state and began to defend the interests of organised labour. They were pushed into opposition to the austerity measures of the Solidarity-backed Mazowiecki government. The reaction was still sharper among the peasants, threatened with ruin by the market economy.
Wałesa became the enthusiastic champion of capitalist counter-revolution, travelling abroad to encourage foreign investment in Poland. “We seek buyers for 80 per cent of the Polish economy. We can’t find them in Poland, because Poles are too poor,” he told US businessmen. Thus, the standard bearers of Polish nationalism set about their work of selling off Poland to the highest foreign bidder, and at bargain-basement prices. Those who led the mass movement in 1980-81 were now part of the pro-capitalist wing of the bureaucracy. But that was not the only miraculous transformation.
The former Stalinist leaders abandoned their ‘communism’ for the market economy. As The Times (12/9/89) reported:
There has been a flurry of resignations as apparatchiks move hotfoot into private companies, or, in a few cases, buy shares in newly privatised state companies they used to run.
As in the other Stalinist states, there were illusions in capitalism at this time even among sections of the working class. Workers at the 10,000 strong Ursus tractor factory near Warsaw threatened strike action, demanding the privatisation of their plant, “and have declared a vote of no confidence in the management for failing to introduce radical change”. (The Independent, 20/11/89.) This is a devastating comment on the bankruptcy of Stalinism and the impasse into which the bureaucracy had dragged Poland. However, within five years, these illusions would completely evaporate. A similar process unfolded in Hungary with the Hungarian Socialist party.
Gorbachev had urged the PUWP to join the coalition, which it did, taking the Interior and Defence Ministries. The new pro-bourgeois coalition rapidly introduced austerity measures. Balcerowicz, the finance minister, planned to abolish key subsidies, change the indexing of wages, revise social security, abolish price controls, tighten monetary policy, reduce spending, and encourage private enterprise. The Stock exchange was reopened, and the zloty devalued. However, the first five firms to be privatised drew a queue of just 60 people. There was much anxiety and fear over the so-called restructuring which threatened bankruptcies and mass unemployment. According to one report, 40 per cent of those who voted for the maverick opposition candidate Tyminski on the first ballot said it was out of fear of privatisation.
The vicious attacks of the Mazowiecki government, resulting in mass unemployment, falling production, and big price rises, served initially to stun the proletariat. But the underlying discontent revealed itself clearly on the electoral front. The opposition to the austerity programme resulted in Mazowiecki being driven into third place in the presidential elections. Wałesa was forced to distance himself from the way these policies were carried out, declaring they were “insensitive to the common man”. One of the factors which provoked the greatest indignation was the spectacle of former ‘Communist’ bureaucrats transforming themselves into private owners.
Some of the fastest people off the mark in Poland’s efforts to switch back to capitalism are the Communists themselves. One of the first Communist enterprises to go private was the giant ‘Igloopol’ frozen foods company. Among the shareholders are a former deputy prime minister, a leader of the former puppet Peasants’ Party and a couple of Communist institutions. The first director also happened to be the deputy agricultural minister who put fat subsidies its way… The spectacle of the Communist nomenklatura coming out best in the carve up of state firms infuriates other Poles. (The Independent 14/7/90.)
Thus, the movement towards capitalism in Poland, far from introducing a new era of prosperity and contentment, has given rise to even deeper contradictions. In the words of The Guardian:
Those who wish to succeed in turning their economies toward the market must now inflict great pain upon their citizens. The more they wish to succeed, the more pain they must inflict.
Faced with his own deepening crisis, Gorbachev made it known that the Kremlin would not intervene in the affairs of Poland or any other country of Eastern Europe. It could not afford to bail these countries out. The USSR was also facing growing national problems of its own in the Baltic states, Georgia, Azerbaijan and the other Soviet Republics. In fact, Gorbachev leaned upon the ‘reformist’ leaders in Eastern Europe against the Old Guard who opposed his policies. He had opposed Honecker, and on a visit to West Germany in June 1989, when asked about the Berlin Wall, he replied “nothing is eternal”, and that it could disappear “once the conditions that generated the need for it disappear”. In this way, regardless of his intentions, Gorbachev in practice pulled the rug out from under the feet of the Stalinist leaders of Eastern Europe and gave the green light to the West to intervene.
The imperialists were promising loans and credits, and even spoke of a Marshall Plan to assist the restoration of capitalism. However, this remained largely talk and little else. The difference with the Marshall Plan that was implemented after the Second World War and the present situation can be seen at a glance. Between 1948 and 1952 the USA provided $13 billion ($69 billion in 1997), and an extra $2.6 billion ($13.9 billion in 1997) during 1951-53. These grants and credits were intended to underpin the European post-war economy as a bulwark against the threat of revolution. The amounts granted to the former Stalinist states were tiny in comparison. The West is very cautious about the stability of these regimes and is fearful of making massive financial handouts that could easily disappear. As The Wall Street Journal (26/9/89) commented: “It’s complicated: it’s complicated politically, complicated economically, and complicated in human terms.”
The collapse of Stalinism in East Germany, Czechoslovakia and Romania was entirely different. There the masses moved into action and the bureaucratic regimes collapsed like a pack of cards. Within a matter of a few months in November/December 1989, a series of mass demonstrations brought down the regimes in the GDR, Czechoslovakia and Romania. It saw the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of Stalinism. Fearful of the spread of the movement, the Bulgarian CP decided to ‘reform’ itself as a means of holding on to power. After the successful two-hour strike in late December, the Party agreed to begin discussions with the Opposition, the Union of Democratic Forces (UDF).
East Germany in ferment
It is not generally realised that, at first, the movement of the East German proletariat was not at all in favour of capitalism, but in the direction of political revolution. The initial mass demonstrations of the East German working class was for the overthrow of the bureaucracy and the introduction of democratic socialism. The Honecker regime had claimed to have received the votes of no less than 98.85 per cent of the population in the communal elections of May 1989. However, during August, September and early October, more than 30,000 East Germans ‘voted with their feet’, emigrating to the West. In October, in Leipzig, demonstrations grew daily from 50,000 to 100,000 to 300,000. This took great courage. The Stalinists could have resorted to violence, to a Tiananmen-type scenario, to keep themselves in power. In fact, they seriously contemplated it. But Gorbachev realised that this would have led to an explosion which would not have been confined to the frontiers of Germany. The GDR, with its powerful proletariat, was not China! In fact, the regime was paralysed in an agony of indecision.
Power really passed to the streets. Sensing the weakness of the regime, the mood of the masses became bolder by the hour. The numbers of demonstrators swelled. The following month in East Berlin 500,000 came on to the streets. Following advice from Moscow, the Stalinist SED attempted to introduce reforms from above to prevent their overthrow. Honecker was replaced by Egon Krenz, and a new government was formed. Unfortunately, the confused petty-bourgeois leaders of New Forum, the largest opposition group, did not know where they were going, still less how to get there. It is impossible to keep the masses in a state of ferment for a long time without raising the question of power in a clear and bold way.
The movement was triggered by the opening of the Hungarian-Austrian border, the first breach in the Berlin Wall. In the absence of any clear alternative, the tendency to ‘get out’ intensified. Over the weekend of 10-11th November around two million East Germans flooded to the West. Millions could now see the consumer goods available in West Germany – Europe’s richest capitalist economy – in contrast to the drab life in the GDR. This undoubtedly had a big effect. However, if the workers and youth had been offered a real revolutionary perspective for overthrowing the hated bureaucracy, installing a regime of workers’ democracy in East Germany, and then issuing an internationalist appeal to the workers of Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Russia, and, of course, the West, the situation would have been transformed.
Within a few months, the East German Stalinist regime collapsed like a pack of cards. The truth is that capitalism in East Germany won by default. No other alternative was offered to counter the siren voices from the West. The Stalinist regime was discredited. People yearned for freedom. In addition, the Bonn government hypocritically played on the national sensitivities of a divided people. Propaganda was churned out in favour of the unity of Germany. Given the collapse of the GDR’s economy, many saw unification as the road to higher living standards. Mighty West German capitalism was prepared to spend huge amounts of money to secure the reunification of Germany, a costly policy which has effectively undermined its public finances. The offer to exchange Ost-Marks for Deutschemarks on a one to one basis was intended as a massive bribe to convince the population of the GDR that they would enjoy West German living standards within a united Germany. The promise was false, but in the absence of a genuine democratic socialist alternative, the argument in favour of German unification won by default. The East German regime was disintegrating fast. The borders were thrown open.
With incredible cynicism, Moscow declared: “These changes are for the better.” Having held the people of East Germany down under a tyrannical regime for decades, these gentlemen were quite content to preside over the restoration of capitalism! But what occurred did not reflect the real aspirations of the East German workers. A couple of years ago, sometime after unification, an opinion poll revealed that a clear majority in the former GDR, when asked their opinion about the former regime, replied that it was not all bad, and that they would be in favour of socialism, provided that it was on a democratic basis. That means that the East German workers and youth were fighting for genuine socialism, not capitalism. If they did not succeed, it was not for lack of trying, but for the lack of a leadership worthy of the name.
The imperialists could hardly believe their luck. Bush said he was ‘elated’. Kohl came out as the champion of German unification. In reality, he was forced to act by the mass exodus which threatened to undermine both regimes. By this time great illusions had built up in the market, and the possibility of combining the cheap skilled labour of the East with the modern industry and capital of the West. With no serious Marxist alternative, and with the agreement of Gorbachev, unification was carried through on the terms of the West. This derailed the movement towards political revolution and marked a defeat for the East German working class.
The SED forced Krenz to resign, and voted to change its name to the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS). In its place, the new Modrow government promised free elections for May 1990, but then brought them forward to March. Modrow was also forced to allow the participation of a majority of non-Communists in his government, the first time in the history of East Germany. In March 1990, the general election resulted in the victory for the conservative Christian Democrats, in the guise of the Alliance for Germany. Backed by Kohl’s prestige (and D-Marks), they won nearly 50 per cent of the vote, campaigning for “rapid monetary and political union” with the West. Alliance ‘90, made up of New Forum and other opposition groups, received only 2.9 per cent of the vote, despite having led the mass movement. This result was not surprising. In a situation when fundamental questions are posed point-blank, there is no room for the well-meaning but confused and amorphous middle ground. Either forward to the political revolution, or back to capitalism. Under these circumstances, no other option was really viable.
Czechoslovakia, Romania and Hungary
The Czech workers had welcomed the CP’s takeover in 1948 with enthusiasm. So confident were the Czech Stalinists that they even armed the workers, although the arms were later collected in. But the experience of Stalinist rule rapidly produced disillusionment. Czechoslovakia was the only country in Eastern Europe with a developed economy at that time. With an educated working class and a powerful industrial base, it achieved better results than the other regimes, and living standards were also higher. But discontent with the bureaucratic regime was enormously exacerbated by the Russian invasion of 1968 which crushed the timid attempt of Alexander Dubček and the liberal wing of the Czech bureaucracy to carry out a limited reform. The brutal conduct of the Russian bureaucracy pushed a whole layer of youth into opposition. The Russian tanks were greeted with slogans such as “Wake up, Lenin, Brezhnev’s gone mad!” The accumulated sense of bitterness and frustration surged to the surface the moment the screws were loosened.
The mass demonstrations in neighbouring East Germany and the fall of the Berlin Wall gave an enormous impetus to the movement in Czechoslovakia, where it went even further. There was a general strike. Mass demonstrations took place throughout the country. The attempt by the Stalinist government to crush the movement by force backfired. On the 24th November, 250,000 demonstrated in Wenceslas Square. Two days later the crowd had swollen to 500,000. This forced Milos Jakes to resign as General Secretary of the CP.
Under pressure from Moscow, the Prague government entered into negotiations with the Civic Forum. On the 27th November, a two-hour general strike was supported by millions – the first in Czechoslovakia for 40 years. The Stalinists were forced to capitulate in the face of this tidal wave of opposition and abolished the constitutionally guaranteed ‘leading role’ of the Party even before their East German and Bulgarian counterparts. The Czech CP leaders, who had been ‘elected’ by Russian tanks in 1968, were forced to condemn in retrospect the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia. They attempted to hold on through a new government with a majority of non-Communists. It was a humiliating retreat in an attempt to save their skins. In December, President Husák resigned, and the pro-bourgeois former dissident Václav Havel was elected in his place. As in East Germany, a political revolution was implicit in the situation, but was derailed by the lack of the subjective factor.
The pro-bourgeois Civic Forum government announced it was introducing phase one of the market economy on the 1st January 1991, including a 390 per cent energy price rise. The finance minister and Thatcherite, Václav Klaus, planned the sell-off of over 100,000 state owned stores and shops within the next two or three years. The auction of 80,000 smaller state properties took place, and was to be followed by the privatisation of larger companies. But according to the Financial Times (12/11/90), the “large-scale privatisation under the Transformation Law will be a good deal more complicated”. To create this ‘people’s capitalism’, citizens were issued with vouchers! Triska, the minister responsible for privatisation, admitted, however, that he did not expect a rush to buy companies. For one thing, a substantial number were not expected to survive!
In Czechoslovakia, the fear of mass upheaval against the new year austerity measures panicked the government. Klaus warned: “I am really afraid that Czechoslovakia will not overcome the transition period from the 1st January… In Czechoslovakia, we are still living on a razor’s edge.” Growing economic chaos had given rise to widespread anxiety and had resulted in the Stalinist’s strong showing in November’s local elections. The fate of the Czech Republic is closely connected to its link with Germany. German imperialism was responsible for the criminal splitting of Czechoslovakia – which was against the interests of both Czechs and Slovaks, and would have been defeated if it had gone to a referendum. But Klaus, the agent of German imperialism in Prague, made sure that the people were not consulted.
In Romania, the movement went much further with the violent overthrow of the Ceaușescu regime. The regime was smashed by the classical movement of the working class on the lines of Hungary 1956. Between the 21st and 25th December 1989, the attempt by Ceaușescu to placate the masses by promises of wage increases was met with derision. The mass rally he addressed broke up and led to anti-government protests, leading to fierce clashes with the Securitate (Ceaușescu’s secret police). Clashes took place throughout the country. The whole system was on the verge of revolution. The state of emergency simply exacerbated the situation. The masses stormed the TV and radio stations, and Ceaușescu and his wife were forced to flee.
The army came over to the workers and assisted the defeat of the Securitate. Ten thousand were killed in the uprising. The opposition formed the National Salvation Front (NSF). The Ceaușescus were captured and executed. Power was in the hands of the workers, and through them the NSF, led by Ion Illiescu. It was similar to the February 1917 Revolution in Russia. The NSF formed a new government and issued a number of decrees in late December, with free elections promised in April, which were won decisively, to the horror of the Western bourgeois, by the NSF. They won 66 per cent of the vote and two-thirds of the seats. Illiescu won the presidency with 86 per cent of the vote. The openly pro-bourgeois parties were thrashed. The reason for this is that the Romanian workers made a revolution and their consciousness was determined by this fact.
It is true that, while all the parties (the NSF included) accepted the idea of a market economy, the opposition leaders Ratiu and Câmpeanu made the central theme of their electoral campaign the speedy introduction of capitalism. They accused the leaders of the Front, as ‘Communists’, of being insincere and half-hearted about privatisation. There can be no doubt that the vote against Ratiu and Câmpeanu was a vote against capitalism. The former Stalinists of the National Salvation Front won a sweeping victory. This undoubtedly reflected a mass mood against capitalism among the workers and peasants. What they wanted was socialism, but not totalitarianism. The elements of workers’ control existed in the factories, many of which were run by workers’ committees. The old managers were purged, and replaced by new elected managers who enjoyed the confidence of the workers. In many factories, the workers were armed and turned up to factory meetings with rifles slung over their shoulders. Members of the Securitate and other collaborators of the Ceaușescu regime were hunted down and arrested or killed. All the elements of a political revolution were present, but once again the subjective factor was missing. There was no revolutionary party to provide a conscious organised expression to the workers’ movement.
Under these conditions the ex-Stalinists of the NSF were able to step into the vacuum and derail the movement. The workers had overthrown the old regime but were unable to reap the fruits. While demagogically standing for ‘socialism’ the NSF leaders in practice wanted to move towards capitalism, but at a slower pace than the openly bourgeois opposition. In the words of the then prime minister, Petre Roman:
Not so long ago our opposition told us that we would never reform the Romanian economy, that the government wanted to talk about reform, but would never change the old system… you know the arguments… we are all still really communists. Well, who can say that now, when we are taking concrete steps to introduce the market economy? (Quoted in Galloway and Wylie, Downfall – The Ceaucescus and the Romanian Revolution, p. 284.)
In Hungary, the split in the bureaucracy resulted in the reformist wing opening up discussions with the opposition, fearing a serious challenge in the elections due in March 1990. The Hungarian Socialist Workers Party (HSWP) leadership agreed to an electoral system based upon free elections and the legality of opposition parties. As in East Germany, it was a belated attempt to introduce reforms from above to prevent revolution from below. They also opened the door towards capitalist restoration by passing a new law on associations which, according to the Financial Times (5/10/89), “creates a framework for a Western-style capital market and revives types of companies not seen since before the communist takeover”. Ownership of private joint-stock companies with up to 500 employees was legalised. The Budapest stock exchange had been reactivated in July 1988, 40 years after it was suspended following nationalisation. This began the process of privatisation of state assets, and by August over 600 joint ventures between Hungarian and foreign capital had been established. Gorbachev sanctioned these moves in his meeting with HSWP secretary Karoly Grosz.
In response to the establishment of the so-called independent trade unions, the official unions, SZOT, decided to suspend its statutes and reorganise itself into a federation of sovereign trade unions. In October 1989, the old HSWP changed its name to the Hungarian Socialist Party (HSP) in order to reform its image and entered into a dialogue with the opposition on constitutional reform. It was a victory for the pro-capitalist wing of Imre Pozsgay, which wanted a Social-Democratic party, greater privatisation and a mixed economy. In November, after a complete purge, the HSP applied to join the Second International. The remnants formed a few Stalinist groups.
A new constitution was introduced to allow opposition parties to operate freely. The electoral system was changed, effectively banning parties operating in the workplace, and the Workers’ Guard was dissolved. As a consequence, financial aid was promised from the EU and the USA. Following the general election, József Antall of the Hungarian Democratic Forum, became prime minister. Privatisation was to be the top priority of the new bourgeois government. Antall took measures to speed up the privatisation of industry, starting with 30 large entities as well as some 40,000 small service concerns. They had also come to an agreement with the IMF to curb the budget deficit and promote the market economy.
The switch to a market economy was “proceeding rapidly in the shops”, reported The Independent (28/11/90). “Hungarians already pay near-Western prices for food and other essentials, salaries are frozen by the government at Eastern European levels and a maze of regulations prevents Western businessmen from investing in Hungary.” Tolnay, president of the Hungarian Chamber of Commerce, boasted that Hungary had gone further than any other Eastern European country towards capitalism! Antall was to describe 1991 as “the year of the trial” for Hungary.
However, the turmoil of the transition period opened up a crisis and splits within the government over. Huge arguments raged over economic policy. As in the rest of Eastern Europe, experience of the market soon provoked a reaction on the part of the Hungarian masses. As early as 1990, The Independent on Sunday was complaining:
The optimism that followed the collapse of communism last year was replaced by a sober awareness of the headaches attendant on building stable democracies and market economies.
The national question and October
National oppression in Russia was incomparably rougher than in the neighbouring states not only on its western but even on its eastern borders. The vast numbers of these nationalities deprived of rights, and the sharpness of their deprivations, gave to the national problem in tsarist Russia a gigantic explosive force. ( Trotsky, The History of the Russian Revolution, p. 890.)
Tsarist Russia was a prison house of nationalities. One of the key reasons for the success of the Bolshevik Revolution was its approach to the national question. Lenin realised that the only way a new socialist federation could be built was on the basis of complete equality of the national minorities that made up Russia. There could be no compulsion of one nation by another. A socialist republic could only be established on a voluntary basis, as a voluntary union of nationalities. As a consequence, the right of nations to self-determination was enshrined on the banner of the party and the young Soviet republic, up to and including secession.
Lenin stood for the unity of the peoples of the former tsarist empire, but it had to be a voluntary unity. That is why he insisted from the very beginning on the right to self-determination. This idea is frequently misinterpreted to mean a demand for separation, but this is entirely incorrect. The Bolsheviks did not advocate separation, but defended the broadest possible extension of national self-determination, up to and including separation. No one has the right to oblige a people to live within the confines of a state when the majority do not wish to do so. But the right to self-determination no more implies the demand to separate than the right to divorce means the demand that all couples must separate, or that the right to abortion means that all pregnancies must be terminated. As Trotsky explains in his History of the Russian Revolution:
In this the Bolshevik Party did not by any means undertake an evangel of separation. It merely assumed an obligation to struggle implacably against every form of national oppression, including the forcible retention of this or that nationality within the boundaries of the general state. Only in this way could the Russian proletariat gradually win the confidence of the oppressed nationalities. (Ibid., p. 891.)
On the other hand, the Bolsheviks were implacably opposed to bourgeois nationalism that attempted to divide the working class. The Bolsheviks stood for the unity of all workers within one organisation, irrespective of nationality, race or religion.
A revolutionary organisation is not the prototype of the future state, but, merely the instrument for its creation. An instrument ought to be adapted to fashioning the product; it ought not to include the product. (Ibid., 891.)
In his work on Stalin, Trotsky explained that:
Segregating the various nationalistic portions of mankind was never our concern. True, Bolshevism insisted that each nation should have the right to secede – the right, but not duty – as the ultimate, most effective guarantee against oppression. But the thought of artificially preserving national idiosyncrasies was profoundly alien to Bolshevism. The removal of any, even disguised, even the most refined and practically ‘imponderable’ national oppression or indignity, must be used for the revolutionary unification rather than the segregation of the workers of various nationalities. Wherever national privileges and injuries exist, nations must have the possibility to separate from each other, that thus they may facilitate the free unification of the workers, in the name of a close rapprochement of nations, with the distant perspective of the eventual complete fusion of all. Such was the basic tendency of Bolshevism, which revealed the full measure of its force in the October Revolution. (Trotsky, Stalin, Vol. one, p. 232.)
This was a dialectical concept that could provide the basis for the resolution of the national question.
National problems were a leftover of the bourgeois democratic revolution. Capitalism in its decline exacerbated these problems. Only the socialist revolution could resolve them and provide a genuine equality of nations. When the Bolsheviks came to power the old tsarist empire was in a process of rapid disintegration. The Soviet republic could only reconstruct the unity of peoples, in the words of Lenin, “not by force, but by voluntary agreement”. This constituted a complete break with the Great Russian nationalism of the past. The Bolshevik doctrine of national self-determination was firstly applied to the concrete conditions of war, when the soviets issued an appeal for peace “without annexations”. Social liberation and self-determination became cardinal.
The right of self-determination was an important part of Lenin’s programme, insofar as it demonstrated clearly to the oppressed workers and peasants (especially the latter) of Poland, Georgia, Latvia and the Ukraine that the Russian workers had no interest in oppressing them and would firmly defend their right to determine their own destiny. But this was only half of Lenin’s programme on the national question. The other half was equally as important – the need to uphold the union of the proletariat above all national, linguistic or religious differences. As far as the Bolshevik Party was concerned, Lenin always opposed any tendency to divide the party (and the workers’ movement in general) along national lines.
After the Revolution, Lenin hoped that there could be a voluntary and fraternal union of the peoples of the former tsarist empire in the form of a Soviet Federation. To this end, he demanded that the nationalities be treated with extreme sensitivity. Every manifestation of Great Russian chauvinism was to be rooted out. As a matter of fact, for some time after October, the word ‘Russia’ disappeared altogether from official documents. The official name of the homeland of October was simply ‘the Workers’ State’.
Despite the military and strategic needs of the civil war, the Bolsheviks applied the right of self-determination unreservedly. In 1918 they accepted the secession of Finland and Poland. In Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania independent Soviet republics were recognised in 1918, but were overthrown with the backing of the British and were recognised as independent bourgeois republics in 1920. In Georgia, a bourgeois republic was recognised in 1920 and a Soviet republic in 1921. Only when the very survival of the Soviet regime was put at risk was this principle transgressed. As Trotsky explained:
At Brest-Litovsk, the Soviet government sacrificed the national independence of the Ukraine in order to salvage the workers’ state. Nobody could speak of treason towards the Ukraine, since all the class-conscious workers understood the forced character of this sacrifice. (Trotsky, In Defence of Marxism, p. 27. New York, 1970 edition.)
The Soviet intervention in the Ukraine in 1919 and again in 1920 was a measure of self defence against a government which had invoked foreign intervention. The same was true of the lower Volga, of central Asia and Georgia.
The defeat of the White armies, and the subsequent withdrawal of British, Japanese and French forces led to the recovery of territory and the establishment within the Russian Socialist Federal Soviet Republic (RSFSR) of numerous autonomous republics and regions. The principle of independence or autonomy had been extended to the whole of the former Russian Empire. The RSFSR was a loose union based upon bilateral treaties between the Federation and the republics of Ukraine, Belarus, Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Armenia. In 1922 Stalin, Commissar of Nationalities, was responsible for normalising relations between the republics. Eventually, on the 30th December 1922, the federation evolved into the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, a union of equal partners. Foreign affairs, defence, foreign trade, communications and posts and telegraphs all fell within the exclusive responsibility of the central government of the USSR. According to the declaration:
Finally the very structure of Soviet power, which is international by its class nature, drives the working masses of the Soviet republics along the path of union into a single socialist family.
All these circumstances imperatively demand the unification of the Soviet republics into a single union state capable of guaranteeing external security, internal economic progress and freedom of national development for the peoples. (Quoted by E.H. Carr, The Bolshevik Revolution, Vol. 1, p. 401.)
However, Stalinism – a regime of bureaucratic centralism – came into conflict with the aspirations of the minority nationalities. As early as 1922 Stalin came into collision with Lenin as a result of the former’s high-handed manner in dealing with the national minorities. Stalin was attempting to crush the opposition of the Georgian Bolsheviks to his plans for the Federation. Lenin wrote to the Politburo in September 1922 concerning Stalin’s handling of the republic’s relations with the RSFSR: “In my opinion, the question is of prime importance. Stalin is rather in too much of a hurry.” (LCW, Vol. 45, p. 211. Russian edition. It does not appear in the English Collected Works.) A week later, Lenin wrote to Kamenev, “I declare war to the death on Great Russian chauvinism”. (Mistranslated in Collected Works, Vol. 33, p. 372, original in Russian, Vol. 45, p. 214.) The following month he writes: “I think that Stalin’s haste and his infatuation with pure administration, together with his spite against the notorious ‘nationalist-socialism,’ played a fatal role here. In politics spite generally plays the basest of roles.”
In a broadside against Stalin, Lenin warned against that “really Russian man, the Great Russian chauvinist, in substance a rascal and a tyrant, such as the typical Russian bureaucrat is.” He continued: “There is no doubt that the infinitesimal percentage of Soviet and Sovietised workers will drown in that tide of chauvinistic Great Russian riff-raff like a fly in milk”. He then concluded: “The political responsibility for all this truly Great Russian nationalist campaign must, of course, be laid on Stalin and Dzerzhinsky.” (LCW, Vol. 36, pp. 605-11.) Lenin had suffered two serious strokes and realised he could die at any moment. While he was ill, he insisted on dictating a letter to Krupskaya for Trotsky congratulating him for having triumphed “without a blow being struck” in the Central Committee’s discussion on the foreign trade monopoly. Stalin got to hear of this, telephoned her and swore at her, unheard of conduct for a Bolshevik leader.
The following day, 23rd December 1922, very upset, Krupskaya wrote to Kamenev:
“Stalin subjected me to a storm of the coarsest abuse yesterday about a brief note that Lenin dictated to me, with the permission of the doctors. I didn’t join the Party yesterday. In the whole of these last 30 years I have never heard a single coarse word from a comrade. The interests of the Party and Ilyich are no less dear to me than to Stalin. At the moment, I need all the self-control I can muster…” Krupskaya asks (it is the editors who summarise without quoting) to be protected “from gross interference in her private life, unworthy abuse and threats”. (Central Archives of the Party at the Institute of Marxism-Leninism, in Lenin, Collected Works, Russian ed., Vol. 54, pp. 674-5.)
On the 30th December 1922, Lenin writes: “If matters have come to such a pass… we can imagine what mess we have got ourselves into.” He exchanged letters with Trotsky and entrusted him with the defence of their common cause. On the 5th March, he wrote to Trotsky asking him to undertake the defence of the Georgian case against Stalin. In his Testament, which he dictated at the cost of enormous effort each day, he calls for Stalin’s removal as General Secretary. This was Lenin’s last political act.
The national question requires great sensitivity. Bureaucratic high-handedness is incompatible with such an approach.
The cultural demands of the nations aroused by the revolution require the widest possible autonomy. At the same time, industry can successfully develop only by subjecting all parts of the Union to a general centralised plan. But economy and culture are not separated by impermeable partitions. The tendencies of cultural autonomy and economic centralism come naturally from time to time into conflict. The contradiction between them is, however, far from irreconcilable.
Although there can be no once-and-for-all prepared formula to resolve the problem, still there is the resilient will of the interested masses themselves. Only their actual participation in the administration of their own destinies can at each new stage draw the necessary lines between the legitimate demands of economic centralism and the living gravitations of national culture. The trouble is, however, that the will of the population of the Soviet Union in all its national divisions is now wholly replaced by the will of a bureaucracy which approaches both economy and culture from the point of view of convenience of administration and the specific interests of the ruling stratum. (Trotsky, The Revolution Betrayed, pp. 170-1.)
The national question and Stalinism
The Revolution played a colossally progressive role in awakening national pride. Tsarism, which had enslaved the peoples of the Empire, gave way to the promotion of national freedom and the strengthening of culture. Nations were formed out of races and tribes. Alphabets were invented or replaced for the majority of languages spoken in the USSR, where either none existed or were in aristocratic Asiatic script. Forty-eight languages appeared in the written form for the first time. These included Uzbeks, Turkmen, Kirgizh, and Karakalpak in Central Asia. The same was true of the Moldovians, Chechens and Ingushi. In Bashkiria, a Bashkirian language was fashioned out of Tatar and declared the official state language. After the Revolution, Central Asia was generally referred to as Turkestan, although separate nations with their own distinct languages were created in this area. This led to the rapid rise of national consciousness and communication between peoples in writing for the first time.
The modernisation of indigenous languages led to the promotion of the Latin alphabet. This especially affected the 16 Muslim peoples who used the Arabic script. These included the Azeris, Uzbeks, Kazakhs and Tatars. Buryat and Kalmyks, which formally used the Mongolian script, were also Latinised. By 1933, 37.5 per cent of all Soviet newspapers were in non-Russian languages. There were no schools before 1917 which taught in Ukrainian or Belarusian, but by 1927 over 90 per cent of these nationalities were being taught in their mother tongue. The same was true of the other republics. By 1935, primary education was being conducted in eighty languages in the Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic. This represented a colossal stride forward. But the national question was still not solved. The bureaucratic totalitarian regime in Moscow could not tolerate the slightest manifestation of independence. In open violation of every principle of Leninism, all the old tsarist methods were brought back with a vengeance.
Stalin suppressed the slightest ‘nationalist’ deviation. Towards the end of the Second World War, Stalin banished entire nations on the pretext of alleged collaboration with the Nazis. Collective guilt was the norm. This happened to the Chechens, the Ingushi and the Crimean Tartars. As Khrushchev revealed in 1956:
All the more monstrous are the acts whose initiator was Stalin and which are rude violations of the basic Leninist principles of the nationality policy of the Soviet state. We refer to the mass deportations from their native places of whole nations together with all Communists and Komsomols without any exception… Thus, already at the end of 1943… a decision was taken and executed concerning the deportation of all the Karachai from the lands on which they lived.
In the same period, at the end of December 1943, the same lot befell the whole population of the Autonomous Kalmyk Republic. In March 1944, all the Chechen-Ingush peoples were deported and the Chechen-Ingush Autonomous Republic was liquidated. In April 1944, all Balkars were deported to faraway places from the territory of the Kabardino-Balkar Autonomous Republic and the Republic itself was renamed the Autonomous Kabardian Republic. The Ukrainians avoided meeting this fate only because there were too many of them and there was no place to which to deport them. Otherwise, he [Stalin] would have deported them also. (The Khrushchev ‘Secret Speech’ at the 20th Congress of the CPSU, 24-25 February 1956. Quoted in The Moscow Trials – An Anthology, p. 32.)
These crimes and similar measures against the republics stored up enormous resentment and hostility to the Moscow regime. The element of Great Russian chauvinism against which Lenin had fought all his life was rampant in Stalin’s regime, encouraged by the ‘boss’ himself. Although Stalin himself was a Georgian who spoke Russian with a thick accent, he was a fervent upholder of Great Russian chauvinism. This is the rule with members of small nations who rise to power in the government of the oppressor nation. Let us recall that Napoleon Bonaparte was a Corsican, but likewise became an enthusiastic convert to French imperialism and centralisation. Immediately after the war, Stalin made the following speech:
Let me propose one more toast to you. I would like to drink a toast to the health of our Soviet people, and particularly to the Russian people. I drink to the health of the Russian people because it is the outstanding section among all the nations of the Soviet Union. I drink a toast because not only is the Russian nation the leading nation but its people show a sharp intellect, character and perseverance. (A. Nove, Stalinism and After, p. 169.)
This kind of speech would have been unthinkable when Lenin was alive. Great Russian chauvinism in all its manifestations did colossal damage, undermining the spirit of fraternal solidarity established by October and giving rise to deep resentment among the other nationalities, who felt like second-class citizens. These sentiments remained largely under the surface while the Soviet economy was advancing. The crisis of Stalinism was to release these explosive feelings, which in turn, led to the break-up of the USSR. The policy of Stalinism on the national question flowed inevitably from the totalitarian character of the regime and the bureaucratic concentration of power in Moscow.
With the death of Stalin, Khrushchev attempted to put all the crimes of the past onto Stalin’s shoulders. Although reforms were instituted to eliminate the worst features of Stalinism, national oppression, although milder in character, was ever present. It was most graphically illustrated by the anti-Semitism of the regime under the guise of anti-Zionism.
The scourge of anti-Semitism
Tsarist Russia was the land of the knout and the pogrom. It carried out a brutal system of national oppression, which singled out the Jews for special persecution. This persecution had always led a layer of Jewish youth, who rejected Zionism, into the revolutionary Marxist movement: Trotsky, Zinoviev, Kamenev, Rosa Luxemburg, Radek and many others. The socialist revolution was seen as the only way to abolish anti-Semitism and secure a future for the Jewish people. The Revolution gave the Jews all that had been denied to them: full rights, equal status with the rest of the population, and the perspective of putting their considerable talents to work in creating a new and better life for all. Tsarism had excluded the Jews. Bolshevism offered them the chance to integrate on the basis of complete equality. This was accepted by the overwhelming majority. However, even here Lenin showed great flexibility. Although the Jews were not strictly a nation (Lenin had characterised them as a special oppressed caste) they were nevertheless offered the right to set up their own homeland on a separate territory (Birobaidjan), although very few showed any interest.
The October Revolution attracted the most talented and forward-looking elements in the Jewish population in Russia and beyond its borders. Many joined the Communist Party and played an outstanding role. A case in point was the Pole Leopold Trepper who later led the famous Red Orchestra, the organisation of Soviet agents which did heroic work in the heart of Hitler’s Third Reich. In his remarkable autobiography, Trepper writes:
I became a Communist because I am a Jew. In my contact with the workers of Dombrova, I had seen the extent of capitalist exploitation. In Marxism, I found the definitive answer to the Jewish question that had obsessed me since childhood. In my judgement, only a socialist society could put an end to racism and anti-Semitism, and allow the complete cultural development of the Jewish community. (Trepper, op. cit., p. 69.)
These sentiments were typical of a whole generation of Jewish class fighters.
Reaction always sought to whip up anti-Semitism and use the Jews as a scapegoat. The very idea of tolerating anti-Semitic utterances in Lenin’s party would have been anathema. This garbage was the usual weapon of White reaction. In the civil war, it was usual to attack the Bolshevik leaders as Jews (Lenin included). But not until the Stalinist reaction against October did anti-Semitism raise its head inside the Communist Party. Anti-Semitism was used by Stalin in his struggle against his political opponents. On the 4th March 1926, Trotsky wrote a letter to Bukharin protesting that in a Party branch, rumours had been put in circulation that “the Yids are making trouble in the Politburo”. (Quoted in D. Volkogonov, Trotsky, p. 281.) In attacking the Opposition in 1927, Stalin said he was opposing Trotsky and Zinoviev not because they were Jewish but because they were Oppositionists. This was intended as a sly hint to his supporters, who were not slow to take it up.
Zionism had very little support among Russian Jews, who saw in the Revolution a solution to their problem. But whereas October gave the Jews full equality and freedom from persecution, Stalinism intensified discrimination against them, playing on the age-old prejudices of the most backward layers of the population. The fact that this anti-Semitism was thinly disguised with codes such as ‘rootless cosmopolitans’ and later ‘Zionists’ did not alter the substance of the matter. Anti-Jewish campaigns were whipped up periodically, especially after the Second World War, culminating in the infamous Doctors’ Plot. This led to the demand for emigration from the Soviet Union, especially after the formation of the state of Israel in 1948.
After the 20th Congress, a delegation from the British CP was sent to the USSR to investigate allegations of anti-Semitism. Their conclusions are included in the following report, which reveals the atmosphere of open and covert anti-Semitism in Stalinist Russia:
The Soviet Encyclopaedia, which in its 1932 edition devoted about 160 columns to the Jews, reduces this in the 1952 edition to four columns. The biographies of many eminent Jews have been removed. Marx was no longer referred to as a Jew. Then came the discovery from private conversations by Comrade Levy with Jews that the years 1948-52 were known among them as ‘The Black Years,’ the period during which many Jews were dismissed from their posts, Jewish poets and writers were arrested and charged with treason and executed…
Those arrested and charged in secret were prominent political or cultural workers. Shortly after his arrest, the immediate relatives of the arrested man would be deported to some distant place and there set to work, and often at low wages. Finally, the husband would be shot, perhaps after torture, to try to force him to confess or to incriminate others. In this way, practically the whole of the Jewish Anti-Fascist committee was liquidated. (World News, CPGB weekly, 12/1/57.)
As under tsarism, the regime resorted to the Jewish scapegoat in order to distract attention from problems at home. There was an upturn in anti-Semitism after the Israeli victories in the 1967 war. This took the form of a campaign against Zionism. Even if there had been a growth of Zionism, it could never be combated by administrative means. Only to the degree that Jews could feel secure in the USSR, would Zionist ideas fail to have an attraction.
The urge to emigrate was clearly a reflection of the inability of Stalinism to cater for the aspirations of the Jews. Emigration turned into a flood after 1971 after the initiation of détente under the pressure of the Jewish lobby in the USA. More than 200,000 left the USSR during the 1970s. The Jewish population living in the USSR fell from 2,151,000 in 1970 to 1,449,000 in 1989. This stands as a monumental condemnation of the Stalinist regime that this layer preferred to take their chances in Israel rather than stay in their homeland. This stands in stark contrast to the fact that only an insignificant number of Jews chose to emigrate after 1917, despite the appalling conditions, and the absence of any legal obstacles to leaving.
October offered hope to the Jews and all the formerly oppressed peoples. That hope was shamefully betrayed by Stalinism. Only through the socialist revolution can the Jewish question be solved. The state of Israel cannot resolve matters. As Trotsky forecast a month before his assassination in August 1940:
The future development of military events may well transform Palestine into a bloody trap for several hundred thousand Jews. Never was it so clear as it is today that the salvation of the Jewish people is bound up inseparably with the overthrow of the capitalist system. (Leon Trotsky, On the Jewish Question, p. 12.)
‘Independence’ no way out
The integration of the economies of the Republics under a common plan was beneficial to all the peoples of the USSR. The advantages were particularly evident in the formerly backward Republics of Central Asia. A Western journalist commented on the remarkable transformation in this area:
Certainly, Central Asia has seen a stupendous economic and social transformation in the past 70 years. In 1917 these steppes and mountains were inhabited by a virtually illiterate population, living in romantic but often abject poverty. Today, in Tashkent (population two million) the old silk route is transected by a Moscow-style metro, and a 200-acre botanical garden miraculously evokes, in what was once semi-desert, the illusion of a Buckinghamshire woodland. (The Observer, 30/3/86.)
But this was only one side of the picture. The Stalinist regime created a whole series of miniature bureaucracies in the Republics, which accurately reproduced all the negative features of the original from which they were copied. The national bureaucracies in the Republics gathered increasing power into their hands thanks to the successive measures of decentralisation pursued under Khrushchev and Brezhnev. Decentralisation without the check of workers’ democracy led to a flowering of unprecedented corruption. For example, one local bigwig in Turkmenistan, Gapurov by name, was pensioned off at the Turkmen Party Congress in December 1982. “Under him cadres were often promoted to leading posts on grounds of personal loyalty, family ties or birth place,” reads a report of the Congress.
He had created “a breeding ground for nepotism, flattery and careerism, created an atmosphere of laxity and back scratching, and gave rise to servility and irresponsibility”. (Financial Times, 27/3//86, my emphasis.)
This was not untypical, but Gapurov was unlucky to be found out.
Venal, inefficient and oppressive, these local bureaucracies also displayed the same chauvinist tendencies that are an inevitable feature of all brands of Stalinism. In order to bolster their own power and privileges, they leaned on the local chauvinists. Arrogant, narrow-minded and without a shred of internationalism, they deliberately played up to nationalist sentiments. Local bureaucracies battened themselves onto national grievances seeking to develop their power basis. The consequences of this were disastrous, as we saw later with the vicious fratricidal wars fought out between Azeris and Armenians, Georgians and Abkhazians, Trans-Dniester Russians and Moldovans, the national hatred against the Russian minorities in the Baltic States, and so on.
Gorbachev at first attempted to keep the USSR intact by blaming the policies of the Stalinist era for deforming Lenin’s ‘unique’ creation of a federal state in which national and cultural rights had been granted to peoples deprived of them under tsarist rule. He stated he would reassert Lenin’s nationalities policy, including the basic right to ‘self-determination’. However, Gorbachev claimed it was simplistic to describe self-determination solely as a right of secession (a right already ‘guaranteed’ to the Republics theoretically by the 1977 Soviet constitution). He described it more in terms of a “process of affirming national dignity, developing language and culture, consolidating political independence and advancing economic and social progress”.
It should be borne in mind that more than 60 million people (21 per cent of the total population) live outside their national republics as a result of economic, social and demographic processes and inter-ethnic migration. Naturally it is impossible to solve any problems without taking into account the legitimate interests and rights of fellow citizens.
In practice, Gorbachev’s line had nothing in common with Lenin’s. It echoed the opportunist position of Otto Bauer and the ‘Austro-Marxists’ who, before the First World War advanced the slogan of ‘national-cultural autonomy’ as an alternative to Lenin’s policy of the right to self-determination. What was really required was a genuinely voluntary union. But this was only possible on the basis of a regime of workers’ democracy.
With the slowdown and deepening crisis of Stalinism, together with the ‘reforms’ under Gorbachev, which partially lifted the bureaucratic central control, centrifugal tendencies were inevitably released which burst forth with extreme force, breaking apart the old Soviet Union and opening up a period of ethnic and nationalist turmoil. In order to further their own interests, some of these conflicts were stirred up by the local bureaucracies, basing themselves on nationalism, eager to assert their independence from Moscow. The breakaway of the Baltic republics gave the others the green light. One by one, the Republics came out in favour of independence.
Once the fear of Stalinist terror had diminished, the crisis of Stalinism led rapidly to the break-up of the USSR in December 1990. The speed with which this occurred is sufficient proof of the unsoundness of the previous relationship. This was the final punishment for decades of national oppression by the Moscow bureaucracy. Whereas Lenin’s careful policy on the national question resulted in the adhesion of almost all the oppressed nationalities to the revolution, the abandonment of Lenin’s policy under Stalin and his successors had the opposite effect. As soon as they had the opportunity, they broke away from the Union.
The move towards capitalism and the unleashing of all the pent-up tensions prepared the way for terrible bloody conflicts within the former Soviet Union. It was only recently, after five years of turmoil and Russian occupation, that some kind of truce was declared in the bloody conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia over the predominantly Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh. Both the Armenian and Azeri bureaucracies are concerned for their own power, prestige and privileges, and not the peoples of both areas. The Azeri bureaucracy denied the Armenian majority linguistic rights when they controlled the enclave, and encouraged pogroms against the Armenians in Sumgait and Baku.
Yet there is nothing inevitable about the conflict between Azeris and Armenians. After the Revolution, good relations were established between the two peoples. So much so that when in 1923 the leader of the Azeri CP offered to return Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia, the offer was declined. The issue appeared irrelevant. Only after decades of Stalinist misrule, when every local bureaucracy attempted to strengthen its base by appealing to the nationalist sentiments of the most backward layers of the population, was the basis laid for the return of the old demons.
Explosive developments have taken place in Moldavia, Georgia and Chechnya, which the Russian government has been incapable of solving even by force. Moreover, the break-up of the USSR gave rise to acute economic problems given the extreme interdependence of all the Republics after decades of centralised planned economy. As a result, both centrifugal and centripetal tendencies are at work. Only the Ukraine has a relative economic basis for independence, but even there, the Ukrainian economy is still tied by a thousand links to that of its powerful neighbour.
Decades of Stalinist repression has produced a powerful urge of the peoples to be free from the yoke of Moscow, but, as Gorbachev remarked, the populations of all Republics are mixed. The chauvinists of each Republic display the most brutal intolerance towards the national minorities in their own states, who, in turn, are terrified of becoming oppressed minorities in small newly ‘independent’ Republics. The Baltic nationalists combine a vicious chauvinistic attitude to the Russian, Polish and other nationalities with the most obsequious kowtowing to Western imperialism.
Experience has shown that the break-up of the USSR in which the economies of all the republics were linked together, signifies a disaster for all the peoples. The situation is not viable. Sooner or later, one way or another, they will be reunited with Russia. If this is done on a capitalist basis, the national oppression will be enormously intensified in what will then be an imperialist relationship. But the experience of ‘standing on their own’ has been so disastrous that even a great proportion of the people of the Ukraine, with gritted teeth, would probably prefer to go back. Only a regime of workers’ democracy would guarantee genuine freedom for all the republics in a free federation with a common plan of production, in which control would be in the hands of the working people, with the fullest autonomy and a guarantee of the right to self-determination.
 Of course, the situation has changed to some extent since Trotsky wrote these lines. Half a century later, six million Jews live in Israel, which is now the strongest military power in the Middle East. But this does not at all invalidate Trotsky’s analysis. To begin with, Israel, the supposed promised land of peace and plenty, has indeed turned out to be a bloody trap for the Jewish people. This is testified by four terrible wars, and even more frightful wars in the making. Moreover, Israel exists because the USA needs a reliable bastion in the Middle East. It survives only thanks to enormous expenditure on arms, underwritten and subsidised by Washington. This, however, may not always be the case. The future of the Israeli people, without a socialist revolution in the Middle East, will be a terrible nightmare in the future. This shows how the problems of the Jewish people have also found no solution on a capitalist basis.