19th August 1991 was a turning point in world history, signalling the break-up of the Soviet Union and the transformation of its member republics to corrupt and undemocratic ‘market economies’. This was followed by stepped up neo-liberal attacks on the working class internationally, and an unprecedented ideological offensive claiming the superiority of capitalism. On 19 August, the people of Moscow woke to the sound of tanks driving down the street. So-called ‘hardliners’ within the ruling Communist Party had launched a widely expected coup, but one that also collapsed within days due to its own internal weaknesses and refusal of military units to obey the coup leaders. These events were analysed at the time by the majority faction in the Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI) in the document ‘Revolution and Counter-Revolution in the Soviet Union’.
The coup took place in the sixth year of Mikhail Gorbachev’s rule as general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU). Gorbachev and the ‘reform’ layer he led had attempted to steer the bureaucratic Stalinist system out of its deepening crisis by initiating economic and political reforms. Without this they feared a social explosion from discontented workers, peasants and discriminated nationalities that would sweep the entire system away. But the reforms themselves only aggravated the social and economic crisis, while not satisfying the masses’ desire for an end to economic decline and autocratic rule.
Genuine socialists had long explained that the planned economy, which was the outstanding and only remaining social conquest of the great Russian Revolution of 1917, could only function under a regime of full democracy and democratic planning by the working masses, not under the dictatorial bureaucratic elite that controlled society in the USSR. The so called ‘communist’ bureaucrats, both the ‘reformers’ and ‘hardliners’, some consciously and others less so, were preparing the ground for a return to a brutal form of capitalism.
The 1991 coup leaders – called the ‘Gang of Eight’ – miscalculated that they could profit from Gorbachev’s unpopularity and the general sense of crisis to re-assert a more centralized and dictatorial regime. They introduced martial law, a curfew and announced the aim of “fighting the black economy, corruption, theft, speculation and economic incompetence”. This, they said, was to “create favourable conditions to improve the real contribution of all types of entrepreneurial activity conducted within the law”.
Such statements showed that the coup leaders themselves did not represent 'socialism' or an attempt to go back towards a Stalinist system with its bureaucrat-controlled planned economy, but stood for a more controlled pace of capitalist ‘market reforms’ under a stronger, more centralised dictatorial regime. This was one of the contentious issues in the debate between the CWI majority faction and a minority faction led by Ted Grant and Alan Woods, who later left our ranks. This grouping was for many years in denial over the restoration of capitalism in the former USSR. The documents of both factions in this dispute are available on the marxist.net website.
The majority document ‘Revolution and Counter-Revolution in the Soviet Union’ stands the test of time. In contrast to the euphoria of the world bourgeoisie at the time of the break-up of the USSR, and the demoralisation of many on the left, it provides an analysis of these world-changing events and a perspective that enabled our international to anticipate in general outlines the subsequent events and to orientate ourselves accordingly. This material, appearing for the first time in Chinese, can be of special interest to Chinese readers.
The collapse of the USSR and its chaotic road to capitalism, especially in the early 1990s (when Russia’s GDP collapsed by around 50%), had a decisive effect on the mentality of China’s ‘communist’ rulers, coming just two years after their bloody counter-revolutionary crushing of a mass democracy movement in 1989, which contained important elements of political (anti-bureaucratic) revolution. The massacre of 1989 had not led to a reconsolidation of Maoism-Stalinism; the economic base of the Chinese dictatorship underwent fundamental change. As the CWI majority document explained, “… after this short period of re-adjustment, Li Peng and the hardliners have adopted pro-capitalist policies which are not fundamentally different from Zhao [Ziyang]’s”. The events of 1991 further convinced Beijing both that there could be ‘no return’ to central planning, but also that alongside capitalist ‘market reforms’ they must preserve the centralised one-party dictatorship to prevent a similar break-up of China and contain the pressure of the masses.
This doctrine – ‘economic reform without political reform’ – has been central to the Chinese regime’s outlook ever since. To this day, voices for ‘political reform’ make up only a small minority within the regime. This is why socialists explain that the decisive force for democratic rights in China will come from the masses, especially the vast working class, not from ‘enlightened’ elements within the one-party state and not from the capitalists who share in the benefits of the current repressive system.
The English version of the document ‘Revolution and Counter-Revolution in the Soviet Union’ and other material related to this issue can be found on marxist.net
Revolution And Counter-Revolution In The Soviet Union
CWI document, September 1991
A turning point in world events
1. The recent upheavals in the Soviet Union represent a turning point in world events. While this process began some years ago, the crushing blow suffered by the "old guard" signifies the collapse of Stalinism in the USSR. It will have enormous repercussions internationally, even greater than those which followed the collapse of the proletarian Bonapartist regimes in Eastern Europe. Marxists must assess what the prospects are now for the restoration of capitalism in the Soviet Union and in Eastern Europe where this process was already underway. We must assess what this means for the world balance of forces, the position of Imperialism, and the prospects for the remaining proletarian Bonapartist regimes. It is also necessary to gauge the effect of these events on the consciousness of the working class internationally...Read the rest here