Where is Russia going?
The Communist Party and the unions
The most striking development is the rapid recovery of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (CPRF). The Party, which claims 550,000 members, swept the board in local elections in Volgograd in October 1995, taking almost every seat on the council. The rapid recovery of the CP is a very striking proof of the law worked out by our tendency that, when the working class begins to move, it always expresses itself through its traditional mass organisations, although in a surprising way which we did not anticipate. In the past, the CPSU was not a workers' party at all, but an organ of the bureaucracy. It acted as an appendage of the state, consisting mainly of aspiring bureaucrats, careerists, spies, informers and agents. Through the Party, and also the state-controlled "unions", the totalitarian regime extended its tentacles into every factory and workers' district. This was one of the factors that allowed it to survive for so long, giving it the appearance of monolithic stability.
But with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the crisis of Stalinism, the old relations have undergone a transformation. The Party is no longer an asset to that wing of the bureaucracy which wants to move towards capitalism. On the contrary. The Party and the unions are dominated by that section of the bureaucracy which has gained nothing from the reform and is hostile to it. The chairmen of collective farms, managers of big state owned enterprises and the host of lesser officials, Party and trade union secretaries and the like, who have become obstacles in the road of the nascent bourgeoisie.
After the defeat of the 1991 coup, the pro-bourgeois faction led by Yeltsin lost no time in radically separating both the CP and the unions from the state and depriving them of their privileged position. The CP and union officials were compelled to lean on the working class in order to maintain some kind of base. In the absence of any alternative, the workers have turned to these organisations, which now play a similar role to that of the traditional mass workers' organisations in the West. The leaders of the Russian CP have, in fact, much the same outlook, programme and philosophy as the reformist leaders in the West.
The fact that the CP was persecuted and even temporarily illegalised by the bourgeois Yeltsin government undoubtedly gained it widespread support, on the principle "the enemy of my enemy is my friend". This development is another salutary lesson in the dialectical way in which even the most apparently hopeless and moribund organisations can be transformed, once the workers begin to move. Despite the reformist illusions of the leaders, the fact that the CPRF now has a mass base in the working class is a very important new element in the situation. If one bears in mind the crimes of Stalinism with which it was identified, this is an incredible development, although not so incredible as the revival of the Polish CP.
A similar process has occurred in the trade unions. The old unions, which contained both workers and factory managers, were no more genuine organisations of the working class than the Spanish vertical trade unions under Franco. But that situation no longer applies. The trade unions are no longer linked to the state, and have moved into semi-opposition. By contrast, the leaders of the so-called independent unions have gone over to the bourgeois counter-revolution lock, stock and barrel. Even the supposedly "socialist" Association of Socialist Trade Unions (SOTSPROF) has gone over. In any case, they represent an insignificant force, whereas the overwhelming majority of the workers are in the old "official" trade unions. It is an amazing transformation that the "independent" unions turned into agents of Yeltsin, while the old official unions which were part of the state have actually been transformed into genuine trade unions (with some peculiarities) under the pressure of the working class.
Even in the big strike movement of 1989, which pushed the official unions to one side, there was no mass exodus from them. The workers set up unofficial strike committees to organise the struggle, but once the strikes were finished, they still had the need of stable organisations with national structures. The existence of a deep crisis made the union organisations still more necessary, the more so since in the USSR the unions always played an important role in the field of health, social security and the like.
The main reason, however, is simply that there was no alternative. Boris Kagarlitsky and Renfrey Clarke describe the evolution of the "independent" unions as follows:
"The first generation of activists in the independent labour movement held numerous hopes that turned eventually into cruel disappointments. The leaders of the workers' committees took a suspicious attitude to the intelligentsia, but were readily co-opted by government apparatchiks and local political leaders who used the miners to further their own intrigues. Within a few years many leaders of the strike committees became prosperous business entrepreneurs and state officials. The slogan 'The workers' movement should stay out of politics!' was used to justify a refusal to pursue an independent working class political course, and later, to bind the workers' committees to the policies put forward by Yeltsin and his neo-liberal associates—policies that were anti-worker in their very essence."
The attempt to build independent unions such as the Independent Union of Miners (NPG) and the SOTSPROF ended in failure. SOTSPROF first changed the word "socialist" to "social", then dropped it altogether. Later, the anarchists and socialists who had been active in SOTSPROF from the early days were expelled. There were scandals involving corruption in both SOTSPROF and the NPG. "After two years," the authors write, "the 'old' and 'new' unions had effectively swapped roles. The 'alternative' union organisations merged increasingly with the authorities, while the traditional unions took on the role of an independent opposition force."
The old All-Union Central Council of Trade Unions was abolished and the General Confederation of Trade Unions took its place. After the collapse of the USSR, this was transformed into an "international organisation". The Russian unions set up the Federation of Independent Trade Unions of Russia (FNPR) headed by Igor Klochkov. By September 1990 they had some 65 million members—96 per cent of the previous trade union membership. Some of the new leaders were people who had been active in the strikes of 1989 and 1990. There was thus a partial renewal of the union leadership, with the entry of new elements, ready to break with the past of the "official" state controlled unions. This is yet another extraordinary example of how the working class tends to stick to its traditional mass organisations.
After August 1991, when the Communist Party was suspended and the structures of the USSR collapsed, the unions remained practically the only mass organisations in Russia. More than 80 per cent, according to Kagarlitsky and Renfrey Clarke, "remained faithful to their organisations despite the changes that had taken place". There was a process of radicalisation within the unions, even at leadership level, reflecting the growing discontent of the workers with the social costs of privatisation:
"But as the social costs of the reforms became obvious, the FNPR officialdom underwent a radicalisation. The trade unions fought for the indexation of wages, and for the setting of the minimum wage at a level equal to the subsistence minimum income. Privatisation, accompanied by job losses and often by the shutting down of enterprise union organisations, aroused acute dissatisfaction among unionists. Within the FNPR, the conviction grew that the social interests of workers were being defended far better in state sector enterprises than in privatised ones. This, of course, ran directly counter to the philosophy of the Russian government."
Throughout 1993, there were mass meetings and stoppages in the Urals, a one-day warning stoppage of miners in Rostov Province in the South, a general strike in the Maritime Province in the Far East, in which the strikers demanded the resignation of the government. Unlike the movements in 1989 and 1990, the struggles in the summer of 1993 were led by the trade unions and took place on an all-Russian basis. However, the union leaders, lacking a clear perspective or a coherent alternative to the government's policy, confined themselves to "constructive opposition". The attempts to conciliate were redoubled after the crushing of parliament by Yeltsin in October 1993. The bombardment of the White House produced panic among the union tops.
Mikhail Shmakov, leader of the Moscow Trade Union Federation (MFP) advocated "moderation" while trying to bring the situation under control.
The timid policy of the leadership clashes headlong with the growing mood of anger and frustration that is building up in the factories and mines. There is no hope of conciliating between the nascent bourgeoisie, whose interests demand the ruthless driving down of living standards, and, ultimately, the destruction of trade union organisation, and the working class which is engaged in a life-and-death struggle for survival. The opposition trend within the unions will develop parallel with the tendency for the unions themselves to adopt a semi-opposition or even an openly opposition stance. It is absolutely necessary for genuine Marxists to find a way to the rank and file of the Russian trade union movement, which, together with the CPRF, is the key to the whole situation.
The big swing to the Communist Party does not mean that the workers accept Stalinism. Having gone through the experience of market reform, they conclude that "things were better before". They would like to enjoy the benefits of full employment and the other advantages of a nationalised planned economy, but without the oppressive totalitarian rule of the bureaucracy. In reality, they aspire to a regime of workers' democracy on the lines of 1917, but on a higher level. This would really be possible now, on the basis of a developed modern economy. It would be possible to introduce relatively quickly a four day working week and six hour day. Russia could start to move in the direction of socialism. The prior condition for this is that the workers take power into their own hands, through genuine soviets—workers' councils.
In the months before the 1996 presidential election Moscow was alive with rumours that the elections would be called off. There was good reason for this. Yeltsin knew that, as things stood, he would be slaughtered. One poll in late December gave him just 6 per cent. Even in his home town of Yekaterinburg his support was melting away. In a desperate attempt to get the signatures necessary for Yeltsin to stand, his henchmen intimidated railway workers, threatening them with the sack if they did not sign. When this was exposed, Yeltsin threatened to beat his campaign manager. Such things suggest that there was panic in the president's camp. Yeltsin's camarilla was in favour of postponing the elections, and said so openly. Yeltsin had already rigged the referendum over the constitution, so he is no stranger to such methods. But the situation had changed. He was not certain he could get away with cancelling the election.
Zyuganov tried to win the election by presenting a "moderate" and "statesmanlike" image. He spent most of his energies trying to conciliate the bourgeois and Western "public opinion". But despite all his "reasonable" speeches to the Moscow Chamber of Commerce, the nascent bourgeoisie was not convinced. Nor were the imperialists, who were alarmed at the December 1995 result. They were not impressed by the "moderate" speeches of CP leader Gennady Zyuganov, but wanted to know what he would do if he came to power. "Deeds, not words!" is the motto of the hard-headed men of business. It is not a bad one. In an attempt to placate the fears of foreign governments and businessmen, Zyuganov turned up at the World Economic Forum at Davos. The reaction of those present was predictable:
"What the Davos suits are really worried about is how come communism is back on the agenda all of a sudden? Anxiously they press Zyuganov on every occasion, but he never quite gives the answers they want to hear. 'It's a natural thing, a market,' he says with a shrug. Yes, he wants a larger private sector. How large, exactly? Well... Yes, he wants to bring some of the republics back into Russia. How? Well... Yes, he does worry about NATO spreading to the Russian borders. How much? Well..."
And The Independent's commentator concluded:
"The fact that the word 'communism' still wins big electoral support in Russia does suggest to me that there is unfinished business there... That they might wish to elect Zyuganov is nothing in itself; that they might still wish to elect Communists is everything." (The Independent, 7/2/96.)
The Economist on the 10th December 1995, expressed very clearly the fears of the West. "The Party," it wrote, "might still seek to rebuild the former Soviet Union ('voluntarily,' of course), reduce the presidency to a figurehead, put Boris Yeltsin on trial and renationalise swathes of Russian industry."
The crisis of capitalism signifies the crisis of reformism. This observation is far truer in Russia than anywhere else. The frightful collapse of the productive forces provides no basis for reforms. Any attempt to increase state expenditure would lead immediately to the nightmare of hyperinflation, a further steep collapse of investment and the rouble and a social and economic catastrophe. Capitalism can only be established in Russia on the basis of driving down wages in order to accumulate the necessary capital for investment. Such a policy is incompatible with free trade unions, the right to strike, and, ultimately, the existence of any democratic rights. The idea that it is possible to combine market reform with the welfare state and democracy is an attempt to square the circle. If Zyuganov comes to power with such a programme, it could only lead to a new catastrophe, preparing the way for a ferocious dictatorship of one kind or another.
The utterances of Zyuganov suggest that the leading group of the CPRF wants to continue the reform albeit at a slower pace, that is to go down the "Polish road". If, as is possible, to judge by the speeches of Zyuganov, the leaders of the Russian "Communist" Party came to power and tried to pursue capitalist policies, they would be compelled to administer the kind of medicine prescribed by the IMF. This would inevitably usher in a new period of terrible convulsions, preparing the road for a coup by Lebed or some other reactionary demagogue. The process is a contradictory one, however, and Zyuganov may not be able to follow the "Polish road". On the contrary, the "Polish road" itself will sooner or later run over a cliff. The fate of Poland, as ever, is closely tied to what happens in Russia.
The disastrous policy of the CP leaders in Poland, Lithuania and elsewhere, in pursuing the road of market reform have caused widespread disillusionment with the CP and a move to the right, as we predicted. But the policies of the rightwing parties will only mean a further deterioration of the position of the masses. This in turn will ensure a further swing to the left. There is no stable basis for capitalism in Eastern Europe. These regimes are at the mercy of the vagaries of the world market. In the event of a deep slump, they will be shaken from top to bottom. If the CPRF moves towards the renationalisation of industry, that would have a tremendous effect throughout Eastern Europe. The masses, who are already disillusioned with capitalism, would have a point of reference. The CPs in Poland and Hungary, which will inevitably enter into crisis in the next period, would either follow the lead from Moscow or split.
It is impossible to say what will happen on the basis of what Zyuganov says. The fact is that Zyuganov himself does not know what he is going to do. He is typical of those leaders who have partially broken with Stalinism, but have by no means gone back to Leninism. They have no theory, no perspectives, no strategy for taking power, and, of course, no intention of appealing to the working class except to vote for them. So why are the bourgeois worried? They know that, despite Zyuganov's moderate speeches, the CPRF is not just a reformist party like those in the West. Behind Zyuganov is the rank and file of the Communist Party, and behind them is the Russian working class. It is not just that the situation is desperate. It is also the fact that, in spite of everything, the old revolutionary traditions are still present not too far beneath the surface. Under these conditions, things can change very rapidly. The reformist elements can be pushed to one side. The strategists of capital are under no illusions on this score.
The miners' strikes
The only reason the process in Russia could take the form that it did was the absence of pressure from the working class. This is now beginning to change. The more far-sighted strategists of capital realise the danger of a social explosion in Russia. The inertia of the powerful Russian proletariat will not last forever. In December 1995, even before the elections, we repeated yet again that:
"Strikes, demonstrations and uprisings are inevitable at a certain stage. Paradoxically, a slight improvement in the economy, which the government is hoping for, could be the signal for an outburst of strikes. However, in the immediate period, it is more likely that the workers will turn to the political front and vote for the 'Communists' in the hope that they will bring better days. When this does not materialise, the stage is set for a stormy period in Russia."
This prediction materialised far sooner than we anticipated with the mass strikes of miners and teachers in January 1996.
Up to half a million miners in Russia and another million in the Ukraine went on strike to demand payment of back pay. The strike movement swept through the coalfields of Southern Russia, North Urals and Siberia, precisely the areas which provided the backbone for Yeltsin's faction in 1989. This fact, better than anything else, illustrates a fundamental shift in the consciousness of the masses. The strike was solid. Even Rosgul, the state coal monopoly admitted that 118 out of 182 mines were on strike. The real figure must have been higher.
Actions ranged from refusing to deliver coal for a limited period to the demand for an all-out strike. Political demands were also present. Miners marched through the streets of Vorkuta in the far North demanding the resignation of Chernomyrdin. The new spirit of defiance was summed up in the phrase of one miner reported in The Independent (2/2/96): "A miner can work on his knees on the coal face, but he cannot live on his knees and never will."
In the Ukraine, about 400,000 miners stopped work in 76 pits out of a total of 277. In a further 91, the miners refused to deliver coal. The Kiev government refused to negotiate with the strikers, on the grounds that they were bound by an agreement with the IMF. The miners had not been paid since October 1995. In the Donbass Basin 30 pits are threatened with closure under a framework plan proposed by the IMF. Le Monde (8/2/96) described the mood of the Ukrainian miners as follows:
"When the Donbass miners meet to discuss their strike, they do so under a portrait of Lenin, with an inscription: 'Coal is the bread of industry.' When they demonstrate, it is in front of a statue of Lenin in Lenin Square. The Donbass, the huge mining basin in the eastern Ukraine, is in the grip of a 'proletarian protest.' Here, people address each other as 'tovarishch' (comrade). Not just out of habit; they do it from conviction. Because 'the class struggle has broken out again' a toothless old miner declares, and there seems to be no alternative. 'We must choose between Lenin and Coca-Cola!' exclaims one striker, frustrated at seeing shops emptied of local products and full of imported goods which he cannot afford.
"Anyway, there is not much the miners of Donbass can afford. They have been on strike since the 1st February, because their wages (the equivalent of $100 a month) have not been paid for five months. Nor pensions, nor invalidity benefit, and there are many on the latter in Donbass. 'In what civilised country do miners go to work on an empty belly?' an indignant trade unionist asks at a meeting."
The mood of the miners reflect not only falling living standards and unpaid wages, but a burning sense of injustice and the feeling of loss of self-respect:
"Before to be a miner was something. Each month you brought home a wad of money. You retired ten years earlier than everybody else and the pension was very high—120, 160, even 175 roubles. Today this means nothing, but then the rouble was a rouble. To be a miner today means being a non-person. We don't exist any more." (Quoted in The Guardian, 5/2/96.)
The strike movement gave the workers a sense of their own power and identity as a class.
"'We will bring them to their knees!' intones Vasil Khara, a trade unionist, when speaking of the Ukrainian government. 'This will be like 1989,' he adds, alluding to the big strike of Soviet miners which dealt a death blow to Mikhail Gorbachov's perestroika."
Once the class begins to move, they rapidly begin to draw political conclusions, linking their problems to the general state of society. Anatoly Gerevich, a 40 year old striker quoted by Le Monde, curses the market economy, which he defines as follows: "Just take any businessman. The sausage he sells is ours. His shop is ours. But the suitcase full of money belongs to him."
The conclusion is inescapable: things were better before. "Before we lived in a rich and respected country. Now we are citizens of a banana republic." This is no isolated phenomenon.
An opinion poll organised by the International Foundation for Electoral Systems published one year before the strikes established that 92 per cent of Ukrainians were "dissatisfied with the general situation", and 90 per cent thought that it was the government's responsibility to guarantee people a job. When asked whether the economy should return to state control, 46 per cent said yes, as against 31 per cent who wanted to reduce the state's role, and 24 per cent who did not know or failed to answer. The opposition to capitalism will have increased still further after the Russian elections and the miners' strike.
The stormy strike movement caused shock waves in the political establishment in Moscow. It is significant that the Communists, who are now the biggest block in the Duma, immediately passed a vote of solidarity with the striking miners. This little incident is an indication of how a Zyuganov government would find itself under the pressure of an aroused working class—a detail which will not have been lost on the imperialists.
The strike went ahead despite the attempts of Yeltsin to deflect it by offering to pay up. He blamed poor organisation for the delays and threatened to sack the local bureaucrats responsible. But the problem of unpaid wages, which is widespread throughout Russian industry is not the result of the bungling of local officials, but the inevitable result of the disorganising of industry through the dismantling of central planning. Anatoly Yakunin, a Rosugol official, blamed the crisis on energy plants and factories that owe mines more than $400 million for deliveries. This problem will not be solved by demagogic speeches or by sacking a few officials. On the contrary. The plan to proceed with the wholesale closure of factories and the withholding of government subsidies will make the situation a thousand times worse. Although the miners have suspended the strike on the strength of government promises, there is no doubt that this marks a turning-point in the situation. The patience of the Russian workers is reaching its limits.
The miners, along with the rest of the class, went through the experience of the December and presidential elections, and are drawing conclusions. As the Morning Star stated:
"Interfax news agency said that wage arrears in the mining sector came to 2.6 million million roubles, while the government also owed miners 1.5 million million roubles in subsidies. Consumers owe miners about eight million million roubles. 'In fact, we are worthless slaves. At least slaves get fed,' said Oleg Kuslitsy, a coalminer who has worked without pay since April.
"Regional trade union federation deputy chairman Viktor Korovitsyn said: 'People want to eat and there is no more money to buy food.' One striking miner said: 'We live on the potatoes we grew in the summer. And I sold my garage to a businessman. Other people sold their cars and motorcycles. 'And we live off the pensions of our parents, although they also do not get paid regularly,' he said."
There are many tragic cases, like the miner who was quoted in The Guardian, 5/2/96:
"Four years ago he lost all his savings, 50,000 roubles, everything he had earned in 15 grinding years in Vorkuta, the harshest mining region in the Arctic Circle. 'I had saved the equivalent of five Ladas. Then Yegor Gaidar came along, raised prices in January 1992, inflation soared and my savings turned to paper'."
"He opens his paper and he showed me two pieces of black bread, two boiled potatoes, two salted cucumbers. 'This is what I have been eating for the last two years.' I felt so ashamed.
"Mr Cherkassov has left the independent miners' union, which helped Boris Yeltsin come to power. The old Communist union is back in power, but the disillusionment with all political parties is deep."
After five years of economic depression, industrial production and GDP continue to decline and the numbers of unemployed, cold, hungry and sick continue to rise. The population fell by one million in 1996 alone. Three quarters of the deaths were of working age. The Russian economy has become, to a large and growing degree, an economy in kind, with firms resorting to many types of barter transactions and many firms paying their workers in kind. According to Yevgeny Yasin, the economics minister, official unemployment now stands at 3.6 million. This is clearly a gross under estimate of the real state of affairs. Even Yasin had to admit that the number of "job-seekers" were approaching 10 per cent of the workforce. The GDP was now half of its 1990 level and falling. Wage arrears amounted to $8 billion, up from $1 billion one year ago, and many workers had not been paid anything for several months. Tax arrears had increased from $4 billion in 1995 to $30 billion at present.
Sergei Dubinin, the Chairman of the Central Bank, now thinks that the accumulated inflation in the first nine months of 1997 could be anything between 180 to 270 per cent. Dubinin also estimates that the rate for the dollar may increase to 22,000-27,000 roubles from its current level of about Rbs5520 (the rate was 40 to the dollar in 1990). Inter-enterprise debts have increased from Rbs15 trillion at the end of 1993, to Rbs100 trillion in November 1994, Rbs297 trillion in June 1995 and Rbs431.5 trillion in July 1996. All this is having its effect on the consciousness of the masses.
The fate of Russia is hanging by a single thread which will inevitably snap. Yeltsin and Chubais pretend to balance the budget by the simple expedient of not paying the workers their wages. This is a finished formula for social conflict. At a certain stage, exasperation will turn into fury. The population as a whole will realise what capitalism means. Above all the youth, which has rejected Stalinism, will react violently against capitalism. A recent authoritative opinion poll held by the All Russian Centre for the Study of Public Opinion and the University of Strathclyde concluded that two-thirds of the people now think that life was better before perestroika. This compares with 50 per cent in 1992. Seventy eight per cent were dissatisfied with their family's economic position. Sixty five per cent said they were worse off than five years ago. And 36 per cent said they had received their wages late.
Bleak prospects for Russian capitalism
If the Yeltsinites succeed for a temporary period in finishing the transition to capitalism, they would have to dispense with democratic rights. At the same time, the greedy, rapacious Mafia which controls huge swathes of the economy would increase its parasitic stranglehold on Russia. The unprecedented corruption which makes the Stalinist regime appear a model of rectitude by comparison would reach new levels, rousing the indignation of the proletariat to a fever-pitch. The Russian worker in general has a cynical attitude towards his rulers. But the workers could accept decades of Stalinist rule without an explosion because right to the end of Brezhnev's period the productive forces developed and conditions improved. This is in stark contrast to the present condition which is characterised by universal robbery and looting which is not accompanied by a development of the means of production.
The only way that a capitalist regime could achieved a temporary consolidation would be through the development of the economy. Marx explains that this is the only way in which a given socio-economic system can maintain itself. Ultimately this is reduced to the issue of labour productivity. Normally in the history of capitalism an increase in productivity of labour is achieved through investment. This is the secret of capitalist development. Unlike every other socio-economic system in the past, capitalism can only exist by constantly revolutionising the means of production.
It is true that, for temporary periods, labour productivity can be increased by other means. By increasing absolute and relative surplus value—that is, by a lengthening of the working day and increased pressure on the nerves and sinews of the workers—it is possible to increase productivity without extra investment on machinery and technology. In the recent period, this has been the position in Britain, and to a large extent also in the USA, Western Europe and even Japan. In Japan, overwork has even resulted in deaths of workers. In the other countries, there has been a huge increased in illness brought about by stress in the workplace which has reached epidemic proportions. This is a graphic expression of the sickness of capitalism in the present epoch. The present situation is intolerable and cannot last for long. There is a limit to how far the capitalists can extract surplus value simply on the basis of squeezing the workers without provoking an explosion.
The situation in Russia is even worse. There is little or no investment. The Mafia capitalists limit themselves to looting and exporting capital because they fear that their present spree may not last very long. Their role is therefore purely parasitic. Such a monstrous state of affairs is unparalleled in the history of capitalism. It is also unsound. It resembles the well known Russian fairy story of the witch Baba Yaga who built a monstrous house on chicken's legs. That is what Mafia capitalism is attempting to do. A collapse is inevitable and can be triggered by any accident.
Even with a regime of bourgeois Bonapartism, success is highly unlikely. In the first place, given the already unbearable conditions and low wages of the Russian workers, there is a limit to how far unbridled exploitation can precede without provoking an explosion. Secondly, it would mean the destruction of the internal market with no guarantee that Russian goods could compete successfully in world markets, even assuming that the USA and the other capitalist powers would be prepared to accept the wholesale invasion of the markets by cheap Russian products. Their present attitude towards China's trade surplus suggests that this would not be the case. In any case, all history demonstrates that an economy based on cheap labour can never triumph against an economy with high wages based on modern machinery.
The conclusion is inescapable. A capitalist regime in Russia might succeed temporarily, but only at the cost of stoking up new and unbearable contradictions. As a matter of fact, at the present time, far from participating in the world markets, Russia appears to be going in the opposite direction, toward greater protectionism. But this will also be accentuated, especially in the event of a slump which, under these conditions, would be a nightmare.
At every step, the reality of Russian life provides a cruel contrast to the demagogy of the Western economists who argued that all that was required to secure prosperity was to "set the economy free". In practice, all that has been achieved is a terrible decline. It is a situation which reminds one of what the Ancients wrote about Attila the Hun—that wherever he set foot, not a blade of grass grew. This situation is intimately bound up with the perspectives for capitalism on a world scale. World capitalism is sick. And Russia is the sickest of all. This is hardly surprising. The Russian bourgeoisie showed its bankruptcy long before 1917. Peter Struve wrote a hundred years ago, that the further you go to the East, the more corrupt and degenerate does capitalism become. Things have not changed very much since then. But this is precisely why capitalism broke at its weakest link, in Russia, as Lenin pointed out.
Like conditions produce like results. On the basis of experience, the Russian working class will rediscover all the militant traditions of the past. Russia will only find a way out of the crisis when the proletariat, armed with a revolutionary programme, puts itself at the head of the nation. The mighty Russian working class of today bears no comparison to the weak and uneducated working class of 1917. Today it is the decisive force in Russian society. All that is required is that it should be conscious of this fact and act accordingly.
Pessimism of the nascent bourgeoisie
A historically progressive class is one which impels society forward. It develops the means of production, the soil from which culture, art, science and technique can emerge. Of course there is no guarantee that social advance will be painless. The story of the primitive accumulation of capital is one of the bloodiest episodes in human history. And yet, from a scientific point of view, capitalism played a progressive role in developing industry and agriculture to an unparalleled degree, thus laying the basis for a higher form of civilisation under socialism. But the present nascent bourgeoisie plays no such role.
The Russian bourgeois, made up of get-rich-quick merchants, feel they have no real long term future. That is the reason why they are sending their fortunes abroad and buying up property in London, Paris and Bonn. State assets are systematically stripped and the wealth salted abroad in foreign banks. In the period 1992-93, the flight of capital from Russia amounted to a staggering $10-12 billion annually. The interior ministry estimated more recently that as much as $50 billion—almost a quarter of Russia's gross domestic product—was smuggled away to Western banks and tax havens in 1994. It has also been estimated that the total value of London property bought in 1994 by rich Russians exceeded the total UK aid programme to Russia. For Masha Saltykova, "the people who are making money are not interested in the stability of society. They're only interested in grabbing their share of the pie and running away". (Quoted in The Observer, 9/7/95.)
Because of the collapse of the productive forces and increased demand for Western goods, Russia now imports more than half its consumer goods. As a result of this situation, Russia is highly vulnerable to imported inflation—a direct result of the collapse of the rouble. A large part of these imports are luxury goods for the nascent bourgeois. Nearly all the cars on the streets of Moscow are foreign. By contrast, most of the earnings from exports are sent abroad to bank accounts in Germany and Switzerland. The crisis of capitalism means that even "respectable" Swiss banks are not fussy about where their money comes from. The Financial Times (7/2/96) notes that:
"Switzerland's economic problems have made some of its companies and financial institutions more willing to accept 'dirty' money from international criminal organisations, including the Mafia, according to senior European police officials. The trend coincides with predictions of a rise in money leaving Russia in coming months because of mounting fears among newly rich entrepreneurs that the Communists will win presidential elections in June."
The slogan of the nascent bourgeois is: "Get rich and get out!" The sons and daughters of the elite are already voting with their feet, as an article in The Guardian (1/2/96) indicated, citing the fact that over 2,000 visas are processed every year by the US consulate in Moscow for Russian students, in addition to thousands more enrolled in private schools in Western Europe. The attitude of this "gilded youth" was summed up in the words of an economics student, "I hate my country":
"Like many members of the emerging privileged class who have come of age at a time when Russia has open borders, Ms. Mikhailova has had the chance to compare the hardships at home with the abundance abroad and has decided that a life of sacrifice is not for her. 'I don't believe anything good will ever be created in Russia.'
"The children of those prospering from Russia's new found capitalism are leaving in droves to start careers in countries where they might be better rewarded...A common feeling among young people is a weakening desire to build a better Russia. 'I don't feel any obligation to this country,' said Masha Zakharovich, aged 20, who returned for the winter holidays. She is on a scholarship at Berry College in Mount Berry, Georgia. 'The only patriotic feelings I have are for my parents, for the flat where I grew up, for my friends—certainly not for the government'."
These lines provide us with a highly instructive insight into the psychology of this layer. They reflect the outlook, not of young people in Russia, most of whom are struggling to keep their head above the water, but of the children of the nascent bourgeoisie. If such moods of economic defeatism exist among the children of the nouveaux riches, still more must their fathers and mothers be infected with doubts and fears for the future. They certainly do not imply that optimism in the future which is the hallmark of a historically progressive class, but rather the kind of cynical and self-centred nihilism of a reactionary class of parasites which, immediately after birth, displays all the signs of senile decrepitude.
The impasse of society and the general mood of discontent will find an expression among the soldiers. The mighty Red Army which a few years ago was in a position to occupy Europe in a few weeks, is reduced to begging in the streets. This means that a revolutionary movement of the working class would immediately find an echo in the barracks. Even more than in February 1917, there would be a real possibility of a peaceful overturn, particularly if a genuine Leninist leadership existed. A big movement of the Russian working class would have tremendous consequences for eastern and Western Europe and the entire world. In particular, the Polish working class with their revolutionary traditions would be swept into action. But the same process can work in reverse. A movement in Western Europe similar to that in May 1968 in France, would have revolutionary repercussions in Eastern Europe and Russia. Far more than in 1848 or 1917-20, the present period is the epoch of world revolution. Once it begins, it will not stop at the frontiers, those remnants of an obsolete past which must finally disappear if humanity is to realise its full potential.
However, the victory of the working class is not a foregone conclusion. In the absence of a movement of the masses, and with an open split between the executive and legislature, the classical conditions arise for Bonapartism. The army generals, in a situation like this, imagine themselves as the true representatives of "the nation". A section of the officers undoubtedly dream of imposing order by the rule of the jackboot. If the Russian workers fail to take power, then the present unstable equilibrium of forces will have to be resolved, one way or the other. The possibility of Bonapartism flows from the fact that society finds itself in a complete impasse. The working class, paralysed by the leadership, is unable to take power, but the nascent bourgeoisie is too weak to set its stamp decisively on society. The deadlock between the classes enables the state to rise above society and acquire a large degree of independence.
At the present time, the bureaucracy is divided between that section which wants to go towards capitalism, and another wing that is either opposed or unsure. Up till recently, the first group has set the tone. Their confidence has been based on three things. First, the complete impasse of the old bureaucratic system; second, the pressure and "support" of imperialism, which held out the prospect of aid, loans and investment; third, and most importantly, the lack of any serious counter-movement on the part of the proletariat.
So far the army has remained uneasily on the sidelines. It has not really entered into the struggle. But the growing discontent in the military is an open secret. Wages are not paid for months on end. There are even stories of Russian soldiers dying of starvation. According to some observers, the conventional Russian army for all intents and purposes no longer exists. At all levels there is a frightening picture of collapse. Yuri Yakovlev, Major-General of Justice in Tula Oblast, says bribe taking increased 33 per cent in the course of 1996. Misappropriation of material was up 137.1 per cent. The number of officers among offenders has been steadily growing and went up by 109 per cent. Military prosecutors were currently investigating offences by 16 generals and over 80 colonels. There were no regulations to control private agents selling army materials and no experienced auditing staff. Such is the state of the army which single-handedly defeated the might of Hitler Germany and raised the Red Flag over Berlin.
The mood in the barracks was described in the British CP daily the Morning Star as follows:
"Underfunding has cut sharply into the military's cohesion, spirit and ability to react to crisis. Corruption scandals in the general staff have damaged the army's public reputation and deepened the malaise in lower ranks...Bitterness has grown in the officer corps over the use of the armed forces in internal Russian conflicts, such as the storming of the former parliament building in Moscow in October 1993 and the ongoing war in Chechnya."
Five years of market reform are enough to convince a growing part of the armed forces that capitalism is not delivering the goods. Apart from the terrible economic collapse, there is the crime, the social disintegration, the loss of power, income and prestige, and the humiliation on the international arena. The sensation grows that all this is wrecking Russia. This idea is particularly galling to the soldiers—not just the ordinary soldiers, whose demoralisation was starkly revealed in the Chechen conflict, but among sections of the officer caste. The army is only a copy of social relations. The top brass, for the time being, are in cahoots with Yeltsin and are busy feathering their nests, but they represent a small minority. The great majority of officers, from the rank of colonel down, feel bitter and angry at the loss of their privileges, and outraged by their sense of national humiliation.
The bureaucracy came under enormous pressure from imperialism, especially in the first stages of the process of counter-revolution. The relationship can be traced through the behaviour of Yeltsin in this period. The Russian "strong man" acted as a complete lackey and agent of imperialism, collaborating with NATO and the USA over Iraq, Bosnia, and everything else. But now that has all changed. The officer caste has for some time been flexing its muscles. The downfall of the foreign minister Kozyrev, a typical "reformer" and a pliant stooge of Washington, and his replacement with the hardliner Primakov indicate both the inevitability of a period of increasing tension with the West and the increasing assertiveness of the officer caste.
The threat of a coup is also understood by the CP leaders, who appear to be attempting to organise their supporters among the army officers. General Albert Makashov, one of the leaders of the armed defence of the White House in 1993 and now a CP member of parliament, says:
"We all understand that the army, the structures of power, can finally resolve the power struggle. This is very well understood by the president and his team and they act accordingly. We must support the activities of those officers who help the Communist Party. The time has come to create an analytical centre to co-ordinate professionally work with the military." (El País, 16/2/96.)
Nezavisimaya Gazeta also thinks that the main problem facing Zyuganov is that of "establishing the necessary contacts in the armed forces ministries and special services in order to prevent the introduction of direct presidential rule [a euphemism for a coup] after the announcement of the election results". The same paper considers that the army will stay neutral, and that the masses will come out on the streets to "force the Kremlin to recognise the victory of the left candidate".
The stupidity of the Yeltsin government in neglecting to pay the army is really incredible. It is an indication of the depth of the crisis and the impasse of the present set-up. Yeltsin would do well to reflect on the last words uttered by the Roman emperor Septimus Severus: "Pay the soldiers. That is all that matters."
The threat of Bonapartism
The constant social, economic and political convulsions in Russia have led some serious bourgeois strategists to look towards a Bonapartist solution to the problem. This fact, in itself, shows that they are uneasy about the outcome of the present situation. That is understandable because at present nothing is finally decided. Everything is still in flux. This must be the case in a significant section of the military caste. Lebed is only one of many who has Bonapartist leanings. In an article published in the pages of Socialist Appeal immediately after the first round, we explained the perspectives for a regime of bourgeois Bonapartism in Russia:
"If Lebed seizes control, the whole equilibrium of forces in Russia would be altered. This would mark a very serious step in the victory of bourgeois Bonapartism. Unlike the weak Bonapartism of Yeltsin, this would be a vicious reactionary regime. Lebed's admiration for Pinochet gives us an idea of how his mind works. Lebed would not hesitate to crush all opposition. It is not ruled out that he might retain some semblance of a parliament as a sop to Western public opinion, but it would be an impotent talking-shop with all real power concentrated into the hands of the Strong Man, ruling by decree. In other words, what Yeltsin aimed at, but never quite succeeded in doing.
"Such a regime would be a nightmare for the working class of Russia. How stable it would be is another question altogether. Lebed would inherit a ruined economy and a desperate people. In order to get things moving, he would inevitably be compelled to resort in the beginning to measures of recentralisation and even renationalisation of some key strategic sectors of the economy. A bourgeois Bonapartist regime in Russia would inevitably retain quite a large state sector, as did Brazil under the military dictatorship in the 1960s—probably the nearest analogy one can think of.
"There is no doubt that Lebed's threat to take action against the Mafia and corrupt elements is more than just words. Organised crime and corruption have reached unheard of levels and devour such a proportion of the surplus value that they threaten to undermine society completely. Any regime that seriously proposed to begin to get out of the mess would have to begin here. Lebed would not hesitate to shoot a few hundred, or a few thousand, speculators 'to encourage the others' as the saying goes. Such a policy would have the additional merit of being very popular.
"However, even if Lebed takes measures against individual capitalists and speculators, that will not mean that he does not stand for capitalism. In The Eighteenth Brumaire, Marx describes the drunken soldiery of Louis Bonaparte shooting down bourgeois in Paris after the coup d'état of December 1851. Louis Bonaparte and his gang of adventurers saved the bourgeois from revolution, but extracted a heavy price from their 'employers'. They took over the state and ruled on behalf of the bourgeois, but in exchange robbed and looted the state and the bourgeois to their heart's content.
"In the same way, Lebed seeks personal power, raising himself above society as the personification of the Russian state, complete with general's uniform, medals and jackboots. By 'taking out' the most corrupt and criminal elements of the Mafia bourgeois, and even nationalising some of their ill-gotten gains, his intention is to make Russia 'safe' for the capitalist class as a whole. But these services will not come cheap. Lebed and his gang of unscrupulous adventurers will stuff their pockets and loot society even more rapaciously than the Mafia. All this is in the nature of Bonapartism in general, and bourgeois Bonapartism in particular.
"Even as a regime of bourgeois Bonapartism, a Lebed regime in Russia would be an uncomfortable sort of neighbour to live with also for other reasons. By its very nature, it would be an aggressively imperialist regime, asserting its dominant role in Eastern Europe and the Balkans and moving to reconstitute the former USSR, or, more correctly, the Tsarist empire. Lebed would have to show some 'successes' abroad to make up for the lack of bread at home. In this respect also, he would be acting in the authentic tradition of Bonapartism." (Socialist Appeal, no. 43, July-August 1996.)
The removal of Lebed alters nothing fundamental in this appraisal. The precise identity of the Russian Bonaparte cannot be predicted, and is an entirely secondary question. The shifting combinations and alliances at the top have an accidental character. The underlying class mechanics do not. The constant changes in the tops of the army are themselves an expression of the unbearable tensions which exist in society and the state. At the same time they reveal the fear of Chernomyrdin and Chubais at the prospect of the emergence of a military strong man who could replace them.
Since foreign policy is merely the continuation of home policy, the CIA and the Pentagon are already preparing for a new period of struggle against Russia on a world scale. Their dream of a weak and divided Russia, meekly following America's lead, has been reduced to ashes. In his novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell described a nightmarish scenario of a world divided into a few gigantic blocs with totalitarian regimes in a permanent state of war. That has not come to pass. Under present conditions, all-out war between the major powers is ruled out, because it would mean mutual annihilation. However, the world is already divided up between three major blocs: the USA with Canada, Mexico, and the whole of Latin America as its sphere of influence; the European Union, which will control the economies of Eastern Europe and a part of North Africa; and mighty Japan, which is busy carving out an economic empire in South East Asia.
To these blocs it may be necessary to add a fourth. If capitalist restoration should succeed in Russia, a new imperialist power would emerge. This is hardly an agreeable prospect for the West. A capitalist Russia would be a powerful and aggressive imperialism like Tsarist Russia. It would use its military might to take back the breakaway republics, whose "independence" in any case will be seen to be largely fictitious, because they are so dependent on Russia.
A fully fledged capitalist regime in Russia would not be a weak, peace-loving country. It would be a ferocious military dictatorship with an aggressive imperialist policy. It would combine the expansionist policy of Tsarism with a military and industrial power a thousand times greater than that of the Romanovs. This is not exactly an inviting prospect for the West. Far from being a factor for stability, the movement towards capitalism in Russia merely adds a new element of instability on a world arena already fraught with conflicts from one end of the globe to the other.
The only way capitalism might be consolidated in Russia is precisely under the heel of a ferocious military dictatorship which would ruthlessly reduce wages in order to reinvest the surplus. This is what occurred in Brazil under the military regime. But given the enormous weight of the Russian working class, such a regime would be neither stable nor long lasting. After the initial inertia wore off within a few years, Russia would be facing a new October.
Is a return to Stalinism possible?
The above scenario is not the only possibility. It is by no means certain that a military regime in Russia would go down the capitalist road. A lot will depend on the world situation. A recovery of the capitalist economy would lend an impetus to the pro-capitalist tendencies. A downturn would have the opposite effect. The second variant is far more probable. Most likely there will be a new recession in the next few years, although it is impossible to be precise about the timing. However, the outlook for consolidating a capitalist regime in Russia, given the present world situation, does not look bright.
We have said in the past: Lebed is a bourgeois Bonapartist, but under certain circumstances, even he might jump the other way. Despite its apparently paradoxical nature, this is not really so difficult once you understand the nature of Bonapartism in general and proletarian Bonapartism in particular. Under certain conditions, as we have seen, a section of the military caste can decide to switch its class allegiance and even lean on the working class to expropriate a weak and degenerate bourgeoisie which has shown itself to be incapable of taking society forward. Is this certain to happen in Russia? No, it is not certain. Is it even probable? That depends on the general situation. In the event of, say, a deep slump in the West, then some such development would be quite probable. Whether it would be Lebed or another individual is a secondary consideration, of no real importance. But if we are asked, is it impossible? We have to answer in the negative. Such a development is quite possible under the kind of conditions we have specified. Is it really necessary to take into consideration such possibilities? Well, a good general should always consider every eventuality, so that his troops are not taken by surprise. Because in the next period in Russia many surprises await us—and the bourgeoisie also!
In Nicaragua the Sandinistas destroyed the old state. Even so it was not yet a workers' state, or more correctly, a deformed workers' state. They did not carry the process through to the end. Here once again we see the importance of the subjective factor. There was no objective reason why they should not have finished the job. If we define the state as "armed bodies of men" then the old Somoza state was smashed. The Somoza family owned about 40 per cent of the economy, so it would have been simple for the Sandinistas to declare the rest of the economy nationalised. We ended up with a hybrid transitional state with elements of nationalisation coexisting uneasily with capitalist elements.
But the Nicaraguan leadership's "moderation" did not save them. US imperialism used its Central American satellites (i.e., Honduras) as a base to organise, arm and finance the Contra thugs and launch attacks on Nicaragua. What was the class nature of the Sandinista state and in what direction was it moving? It is difficult to give a precise answer to these questions. But at any rate it was clear to us that it was not yet a (deformed) workers' state. We pointed out that the process in Nicaragua could be reversed and it was reversed. This despite the fact that the old state had actually been smashed by an armed uprising.
Although the process of capitalist counter-revolution in Russia is far advanced, it cannot be maintained that it has gone as far as the Nicaraguan revolution. Yet that process was reversed. Under certain conditions, the same could occur in Russia. A regime dominated by the military wing of the bureaucracy would be strongly tempted to move in the direction of recentralising the economy. The breakdown of central planning has had the most harmful effects at all levels, including the army's supplies and pay. The miserable performance of the Russian army in Chechnya was itself a devastating comment on the poor morale of the armed forces. Under certain conditions, it is quite possible that the generals will decide that the "free market" offers no future either for them as a privileged caste or for the Russian nation, in whose name they purport to speak. Any move to crush the criminal bourgeoisie would count on the enthusiastic support of the working class, including those sections which previously had illusions in capitalism.
A Bonapartist regime in Russia would have to take measures against the Mafia which is swallowing a huge proportion of the productive resources. But it is impossible to say where the Mafia ends and the capitalist class begins! In reality, they are one and the same thing. Any serious attempt to clamp down on the criminal element would involve an attack on the nascent bourgeoisie itself. This may well lead to violent clashes, and even civil war. The outcome of such a struggle would ultimately determine the direction in which Russia moves.
Irrespective of their intentions, the generals would be compelled to recentralise in order to get the economy moving. On pain of extinction, they would have to take drastic measures to clamp down on the black market, recentralise the economy, and overcome the sabotage of the nascent bourgeois. This would mean a partial return to the methods of the past: a combination of centralism and terror. Russian generals are not noted for their gentleness. They would not hesitate to arrest and execute thousands in order to re-establish "order". This can have an effect for a time. The combination of central planning and terror can stimulate production by holding in check the worst excesses of the bureaucracy, without in any way solving the fundamental problems of the system.
Clearly, such a regime would soon come into collision with the West. Even the miserable amounts of aid and investment which now reach Russia would be cut off. This, too, would have an effect. Forced back on its own resources, a Bonapartist regime in Russia would be tempted to go back to a modified form of Stalinism—a bureaucratically run "command economy", as the bourgeois call it. Such a perspective is by no means as improbable as some people think. After all, the military caste did extremely well out of this kind of "socialism". And for the mass of the people, after the nightmare experience of market reform, the period of Brezhnev must now look like a golden age.
One thing must be understood. There is no question of going back to Stalinism in its classical form. The totalitarian regime of the past lasted for decades for two main reasons: firstly, the unprecedented growth of the economy made possible by nationalisation and a plan. In the second place, the Stalinists succeeded in penetrating the working class to an unheard-of extent by means of an army of spies, stooges, informers and the like, through the "Communist" Party and the so-called unions, which were really part of the bureaucratic state machine. That is now impossible. A new variant of proletarian Bonapartism would not have such a mass base. It would rest upon the army and the police. But, as Trotsky explains, that is too narrow a base to allow for any degree of stability. Such a regime might last a few years, on the basis of the temporary inertia of the workers. But sooner or later, the contradictions of the bureaucratic regime would reassert themselves, provoking a new uprising of the working class. Such a regime would be shot through with contradictions. The underlying malaise which undermined the Brezhnev regime would begin to reappear. Corruption, the inevitable companion of a totalitarian regime, would gnaw at the bowels of the economy. The Russian working class will have passed through the experience of both Stalinism and capitalism. Slowly and painfully, the new generation will come to understand the need for a new system, based on the democratic rule of the workers themselves. At a certain point there will be a new explosion, but this time from the left, in the direction of a workers' democracy.
A neo-Stalinist regime, which is compelled to base itself on the working class, would be more similar to the regime of 1923-30. In the early period, Stalin could lean on the working class at various times. But now the situation is different. The proletariat is massively stronger. Moreover, it is an aroused working class, which has passed through the experience of a totalitarian regime and has no wish to go back. Under these circumstances, the bureaucracy would not be able to maintain itself in power for long. The class balance of forces would be entirely different to the past, when Stalin was able to maintain himself in power by balancing between the working class, the peasantry and the bureaucracy, leaning on different layers at different times. Under modern conditions, a Stalinist regime would be a regime of crisis. Very rapidly, the workers would see the stultifying role of the bureaucracy and move to overthrow it and establish a regime of genuine workers' democracy.
The outcome would partly depend on events on an international scale and the world balance of forces. Once the Russian workers moved to take power, the bureaucracy would be paralysed. Under such conditions, the transfer of power might be relatively painless. In that event, world imperialism would be shaken to its foundations. Far from contemplating armed intervention, as in 1918-20, they would be faced with mass movements of the working class at home. A successful revolution in Russia would have a far more electrifying effect than the October Revolution, because of the world crisis of capitalism, and the changed relationship of class forces in the advanced capitalist countries and the third world. It would immediately lead to the collapse of the rotten and degenerate rightwing reformists. The left would take over everywhere, preparing the way for the creation of genuine mass revolutionary currents and parties. Thus, a victory of the Russian working class this time would be the prelude to world revolution.
A new beginning
In February 1996, we wrote the following:
"The burning indignation of the workers threatens to boil over in a social explosion which could sweep all before it. The recent miners' strikes were a serious warning to those who had written off the Russian proletariat. The key to the whole situation to date has been the absence of an independent movement of the proletariat. Given its enormous size and power, once the Russian working class begins to move, it can swiftly transform the entire position." (The Collapse of Stalinism and the Class Nature of the Russian State.)
Throughout the autumn of 1996, all over Russia, from Vorkuta to Tula, there was a new wave of strikes. This movement reflected the general disillusionment with Yeltsin and his government and a growing rejection of market economics. The immediate issue was wage arrears, which had increased by 15 per cent over the space of a few months. Total arrears in wages were somewhere in the region of Rbs42 trillion. The outbreak of strikes and other protests showed the existence of enormous bitterness, mainly of the miners and the industrial working class. But it also increasingly reflected the anger of a layer of white collar workers and professional people—teachers, doctors, scientists, army officers and engineers, some of whom have resorted to hunger strikes. A mass hunger strike involving more than 200 workers began at the Maritime Territory SRPS on the 3rd September 1996.
On the 16th September, all the enterprises of Dalenergo (Far East Power) plus the Maritime Territory State Regional Power Station, which was not a part of that association, went on strike—11,000 people in all. At 124 naval enterprises in St Petersburg, civilian personnel went on strike on the 19th September. The entire police force in the city of Arsenyev, Maritime Territory, declared an open-ended strike on the 11th October. In the same city ten days later, 400 workers at the district heating enterprise went on strike. Borough court judges in St Petersburg struck work for more than a month, while their colleagues in Smolensk struck for a day on the 22nd October.
On the 5th December 1996, there was an all-Russian day of labour protest called by the Federation of Independent Trade Unions of Russia (FNPR). Hundreds of thousands took part in strikes, demonstrations and marches across Russia. Then came a new round of miners' and teachers' strikes. In St Petersburg the workers at a huge Chernobyl-type nuclear power station declared themselves on hunger strike. The central issue again was the non-payment of wages. True, the union leaders, like their counterparts in the West, clearly intended this as a means of "blowing off steam". But so desperate was the situation, that it was not certain that the union leadership would be able to hold the line. As one commentator put it: "However, the danger remains that in some regions the old skins of FNPR actions will not be able to hold the new wine of discontent. What will happen in that event, no one knows."
"The most vigorous action, now traditional, was taken by Russia's miners. 198 of Russia's 218 coalmines staged a 24-hour strike in which, according to Vitaly Budko, chairman of the Russian Union of Coal Industry Workers, 460,000 employees of the branch took part...
"In many cities of central Russia, despite the fact that the trade unions were the official organisers of the action, its tone was set by representatives of the Communists and the popular-patriotic forces. For example, at a rally in Ryazan the Communist candidate for governor, Vyacheslav Lyubimov, urged the assemblage to 'disobey the policy of the current government.' At a rally of 20,000 people in Yaroslavl, it was stated that the protest action should be regarded as an ultimatum to the country's leadership. Among the slogans was the following: 'Either you address the needs of the people, or we will launch a political struggle involving the declaration of a general political strike and demands for an early presidential election and the resignation of the government'." (The Current Digest, No. 44.)
Most of these strikes were organised not by trade unions but by strike committees at factory level. Interestingly, in some cases the managers actively promoted strikes in order to get money from the state. As the same commentator ironically remarked: "Now the bosses, driven out of the trade unions, are in the vanguard of the strike movement." The contradiction was only apparent. It reflected the fact that, whereas a small group of ex-bureaucrats had become fabulously rich, the majority of the old bureaucracy had not benefited from the movement towards capitalism at all.
In the case of the mines, the government had repeatedly failed to ensure payment of already budgeted central funds. In the absence of this support, the wage debt to the miners was continuing to mount. Many were owed more than six months' pay. At the same time, maintenance of mining structures and equipment had to be cut. This had led to further declines in health and safety and in output. The government promised to give priority to paying off its debts to the mining industry, but no action had so far been taken to keep that pledge. According to the miners' union Rosugolprofsoyuz, 161 of the country's 189 mines and 27 of its 69 open pits struck against wage arrears and poor working conditions. Miners were owed Rbs2,600 billion ($468 million) in back wages and Rbs1,500 billion ($270 million) in subsidies. A further Rbs7,500 billion ($1.35 billion) were owed by coal customers. The worst debtors were with the electricity generating companies. They owed Rbs4,100 billion, a 110 per cent increase on the figure at the start of 1996. Agriculture and associated industries owed Rbs2,700 billion, steel mills Rbs640 billion, and now independent former Soviet states, Rbs26 billion. Thus the breakdown of the plan has had a disastrous effect at all levels.
The problems of the Russian coal industry were the result of sharp cuts in state financing in the second half of 1996. The coal company Rosugol received only some Rbs150 billion from the budget, instead of the Rbs800 billion provided for by it. This was an indication that the government was attempting to carry out the orders of the IMF. In a last minute attempt to avert the strike, the government allocated Rbs700 billion as social support for coalmining enterprises. But this was merely a half-measure which could not solve the problem. In such regions as Rostov, Vorkuta and the Kuzbass state support accounted for about 40 per cent of operational costs. The miners knew that the restructuring of the industry demanded great financial expenditure which was impossible without support by the state. "No solution to the social problems in the coal-mining regions is possible without the adoption of a state programme and its control by the top officials," one miners' leader has said. This is highly significant because it showed that the miners had abandoned all hope of solving their problems on the basis of the market. The only way out was central state planning, but a plan in which those responsible for its implementation actually carried out the wishes of the workers.
On the first morning of the latest miners' strike, the union reported an 81 per cent turn out. All mines were on strike in Sakhalin, Magadan, Primorsk and Kuzbass (the towns of Beliova and Kisilov). The response in the Kuznetsk basin was more solid than in the past. In Kemerovo more than 100 mines joined the strike. Some 110,000 miners from the Rostov region supported an indefinite strike. They were joined by teachers, medical workers and pensioners who have not been paid their wages for several months. In this way, the miners' action served as the focal point for other workers. In other areas, such as Krasnoyarsk Territory the miners did not strike. The miners in the Southern Urals are vacillating. They all support the political demand of the federal government's resignation, but not all of them are yet ready to go on strike. Only three out of ten mining firms in the Chelyabinsk basin went on strike. But the only coal quarry in the Orenburg region decided to back the national strike.
The militant Vorkuta coalminers' union federation supported the idea of an indefinite strike. Elsewhere for different reasons, only partial actions were observed. In Irkutsk, East Siberia, ten coal quarries and two mines of the Vostsibugol joint-stock company stopped work for 24 hours as a token protest. The miners were worried about the effects of an all-out strike on the population, as the regional chairman Vladimir Solomin explained: "The idea of an indefinite strike advanced by the Vorkuta coalminers' union is unacceptable for us because in the Siberian conditions, where the temperature often drops to 30 degrees below zero, it is well-nigh fatal." But in other areas the miners have found the solution.
The miners of the Neryungri open-pit mine in Southern Yakutia, which is considered the largest mining enterprise in Russia's Far East, stopped supplying coal to their consumers, but were taking care of their own town's needs. In this decision we have potentially the elements of workers' control. The workers concluded that they had to begin to take over the running of distribution. This is a very important development which in some areas led logically to the setting up of elected strike committees—in effect embryonic soviets. Fred Weir reported that
"spontaneously-organised workers' councils ... are taking over local government functions and posing a direct challenge to regional authorities and trade union leaders alike. The 'salvation committees' are essentially the same idea as the 'soviets' of workers and soldiers that spread throughout Russia during the revolutions of 1905 and 1917. [They] have spread to every major community of the Kuzbass region ... and are growing increasingly confident". (Hindustan Times 4/12/96, my emphasis.)
A report in The Guardian (18/12/96) stated that:
"In a move reminiscent of the creation of workers' and soldiers' soviets which preceded the 1917 revolution, they have set up a 'salvation committee' to co-ordinate protests and take the initiative from the ineffectual local authorities.
"'It's like Lenin said: if the authorities can't govern in a new way, and the masses do not want to live in the old way, a third force appears,' said Valery Zuyev, aged 42, a mine electrician who heads the salvation committee.
"The committee movement, which began in September, has spread to other towns in the Kuzbass region. There have been calls to buy weapons and Moscow is worried. Unlike the strikes by unpaid miners and teachers, the committees unite workers from all sectors. 'If they drive you into a corner, if your children are hungry, if the constitution isn't respected, the only thing is to demand the government be changed,' said Mr Zuyev. 'If you can't achieve that peacefully, you do it by force'."
The workers did not call them soviets, but that is what they were. This fact is of the first order of importance. It shows that the traditions of the revolutionary past, despite everything, are still alive in the hearts and minds of the Russian proletariat, which is actively seeking a way out, relying on its own strength and its own methods. Very rapidly the strike movement began to put forward political slogans. Central to the miners' demands was the resignation of the government. At a joint protest meeting of coalminers and power engineering workers in Vladivostok dismissal of the cabinet was demanded. The meeting was attended by delegates of all enterprises affiliated to the regional Primorskugol and Dalenergo joint stock companies that run the mining and power operations in the far eastern Russian territory.
In such a context, the prospect of a return of the "Communists" fills the nascent capitalists with dread. No amount of reassuring speeches by Zyuganov can calm these fears, which are not as irrational as they seem. Lacking any real understanding of the broad historical processes, these people possess enough cunning to know how to distinguish between words and deeds. They know that the masses have learned enough about market economics to be completely hostile to reform and that the new rich are hated. They also know that a Zyuganov government would be under intense pressure from the workers, and that the Communist Party is divided.
Can Zyuganov be trusted? The answer to this question lies, not in his subjective intentions or moral character, but in the class balance of forces. Despite Zyuganov's intentions, the whole logic of the situation tends to an open conflict between the working class and the nascent bourgeoisie. Would it be correct to give critical support to that wing of the bureaucracy which was in conflict with the open advocates of capitalist restoration? That would depend. In one of his last works, In Defence of Marxism, Trotsky points out that it is necessary to give critical support to the Stalinist bureaucracy in struggle against capitalist regimes. At the same time, one had to distinguish clearly between situations where the bureaucracy is playing a relatively progressive role and where its actions are of a reactionary character. In connection with the Soviet invasion of Finland, he wrote:
"This bureaucracy is first and foremost concerned with its power, its prestige, its revenues. It defends itself much better than it defends the USSR. It defends itself at the expense of the USSR and at the expense of the world proletariat. This was revealed only too clearly throughout the entire development of the Soviet-Finnish conflict. We cannot therefore take upon ourselves even a shadow of responsibility for the invasion of Finland which represents only a single link in the chain of the politics of the Bonapartist bureaucracy.
"It is one thing to solidarise with Stalin, defend his policy, assume responsibility for it—as does the triply infamous Comintern—it is another thing to explain to the world working class that no matter what crimes Stalin may be guilty of we cannot permit world imperialism to crush the Soviet Union re-establish capitalism and convert the land of the October Revolution into a colony. This explanation likewise furnishes the basis for our defence of the USSR." (Trotsky, In Defence of Marxism, p. 219.)
What is the most pressing task for the Russian workers at the present time? To prevent the nascent bourgeoisie from liquidating what remains of the historical gains of October; to prevent the capitalist enslavement of the working people of Russia; to stave off the impending social catastrophe which threatens to push a large part of the people into physical and moral barbarism. The focal point of this struggle can be stated quite simply: The essential task in Russia at the present time is to defend state property against the nascent bourgeoisie, while simultaneously fighting for workers' democracy. We stand unequivocally for a policy of complete class independence. Under these conditions, the main demand would be for soviets—democratically elected committees of delegates from every factory, mine, office and barracks.
That is clear, but by no means exhausts the question. In the event of an open struggle between Zyuganov and the nascent bourgeoisie, we could not remain with arms folded. It would be necessary to fight for the defeat of the main enemy, the bourgeoisie, while patiently explaining that only the transfer of power to the working class can solve the problems facing Russia. If Zyuganov takes even half a step forward, we will support him, although not for a moment abandoning a principled class policy or muting our criticism of the programme and methods of Zyuganov.
As always, the policy of class collaborationism and reformist and constitutional illusions always become transformed into their opposite. Far from avoiding violence and civil war, they make it inevitable. While Zyuganov lulls the masses with slogans of peace, the representatives of the nascent bourgeoisie are preparing for a showdown. They understand that they cannot consolidate their hold on power without inflicting a decisive defeat on the working class. The CP and the unions, despite all the moderate speeches of the leaders, are obstacles in their path. At a certain stage, an open clash is inevitable.
To the degree that one wing of the bureaucracy actually takes steps to oppose the capitalist restoration, we are obliged to support them. Of course, this does not mean in the slightest degree supporting their policies and methods, which are not aimed at mobilising the masses, but on defending the privileged position of the bureaucrats. While supporting them against the nascent bourgeois, we will explain to the workers that the only real safeguard against restoration is to take the power into their hands. At the centre of our programme is the slogan of soviets—workers' councils, both as organs of struggle and future organs of workers' power.
Incidentally, here we see the theoretical and practical bankruptcy of the idea of state capitalism. According to this "theory", the regime in the USSR was already capitalist long ago. Why, then, should workers bother to defend the old forms of state ownership (state capitalism) against the nascent bourgeoisie, since there is no difference between them? This line of argument, which would completely disarm the working class in the face of the capitalist counter-revolution, is a glaring example of how a false theory leads inevitably to a disaster in practice.
In practice, that wing of the bureaucracy which stands for the defence of state ownership (however indecisively) is organised in the CP. If we pose the question concretely—do we give critical support to the CP against the parties of the nascent bourgeoisie? For anyone except the most thick-headed sectarian, the question answers itself. Not only should we give critical support, but all adherents of Marxism should fight in the ranks of the CPRF, and, of course, the unions, and attempt to win over the best of the workers and youth to the genuine ideas of Lenin and Trotsky. Our method should be that of Lenin—"patiently explain". We should put forward the full programme of revolutionary internationalism and workers' democracy, while supporting the CP against the Yeltsinites. We should explain that the only way to defeat the capitalist counter-revolution is by basing ourselves on the independent movement of the proletariat, organised in soviets.
The formation of action committees in every workplace, street, army barracks, college and collective farm would be the way to mobilise the population in defence of the most elementary democratic demands. This is the only way in which whatever elements of democratic rights that exist can be defended. Starting with defensive demands around opposition to postponing the elections, the non-payment of wages and the general social collapse, and linking these immediate issues to the demand for a nationalised planned economy under the democratic control and management of the working people, the Communist Party would get overwhelming support.
Towards a new October!
The possibility of a social explosion is implicit in the situation. Shortly before finishing this book, Galina Strela, executive secretary on the 65-million-member Russian Federation of Independent Trade Unions, was quoted in the Morning Star (8/10/96) as saying:
"'This problem has been dragging on for years and people have tried hard to make adjustments and come to terms with present-day realities, but the situation only grows more and more desperate for Russian workers. Unless people are given some hope, an explosion is inevitable.' Russia's far eastern territory is in a state of near chaos after weeks of rolling strikes by coalminers and energy workers.
"Huge areas of Siberia have been hit by walkouts of coalminers, transport workers and power station employees—the number of such job actions reported by the official ITAR-Tass seems to grow with each passing day. The governor of the coalmining region of Kuzbass has halted remittance of tax revenues to Moscow and declared a local state of emergency, arguing that the situation in the Siberian territory is 'catastrophic,' with tens of thousands of unpaid miners lacking money to buy food for their families.
"In the central Russian city of Belgorod, 4,500 defence industry workers blockaded the regional administration buildings last week, complaining that they haven't received any income at all since the beginning of 1996. There has been a huge upsurge in wildcat strikes and we can expect this to grow, perhaps to uncontrollable dimensions, in the coming weeks,' says Ms Strela."
These words convey better than any statistics the desperate position of the workers. This cannot go on indefinitely without provoking an explosion. The Federation of Russian Independent Trade Unions has called a nationwide general strike for the 27th March against the government and the growth of wage arrears. As of late January 1997, wage arrears caused by the shortage of funds in different budgets totalled Rbs9.48 trillion. Wage arrears caused by shortages in companies and organisations ran at Rbs39.12 trillion. According to FNPR, the total wage arrears rose by Rbs5.5 trillion from October 1996 through to January 1997. Zyuganov, who attended the FNPR General Council, pledged support for the stoppage: "The Communist Party will take a most active part in this action."
Given the colossal weight of the Russian working class, it could not be theoretically ruled out that such a movement—when it develops—could lead to the overthrow of the regime, even before the working class has had time to organise a party. The rotten nascent bourgeoisie would not be able to offer serious resistance to a general movement of the Russian workers. They would be brushed aside like an insignificant mosquito. Whether or not the present strike wave signifies the start of a generalised movement, or just a warning shot, it is impossible to say on the basis of the limited information at our disposal. But the general strike call for late March is very significant, given the mood that is developing within Russia.
The fact that so far there has not been an independent mass movement of the Russian workers does not mean to say that this will not happen. On the contrary, we confidently expect and predict it. And when it occurs, we will say with old Galileo: "Eppur si muove"—"And yet it moves!" Such a development, it is not necessary to emphasise, would completely transform the whole world situation. Needless to say, a revolutionary movement of the workers is something which fills all sections of the bureaucracy with dread.
Whereas, as Marx says, the material transformations of production can be determined "with the precision of natural science", this is not true of the political forms in which the class struggle is fought out, or the way in which human beings acquire consciousness of their true condition. These are much more complex and contradictory processes. The contradiction between the economic base and the superstructure cannot last forever. Sooner or later it must be resolved one way or another. How the contradiction is resolved is a question which cannot be settled in advance, like a mathematical equation, because it involves living forces. It involves the class struggle.
The result of the class struggle can no more be predicted with certainty than war between nations. It depends on many factors. Precisely for this reason, Napoleon said that war was the most complicated of all equations. Not just the numbers involved in fighting, but their morale, courage, discipline and experience, their supplies, weapons and equipment. Last but not least, the quality of their leadership, from the generals to the NCOs. Even then there are unforeseen factors like the weather and the terrain, and even an element of luck, which all play a role.
In the present work, we have tried to give a picture of the different elements which have shaped the modern Russian proletariat and influenced its consciousness. Mainly as a result of the lack of information (this was after all a totalitarian regime) we did not fully appreciate the terrible effects on the consciousness of the working class of two generations of Stalinist rule. As we have stressed, the only reason why the situation has evolved as it has is because of the temporary inertia of the proletariat. But that is now changing. The working class still remains the most important element in the equation. How is it prepared for the great events that impend?
Numerically, it is an impressive force. Moreover, thanks to the way that central planning operated, it is concentrated in huge industrial centres involving hundreds of thousands of workers. If anyone wants to know what that can mean, let them look what happened in Poland in 1980, when ten million workers moved to change society. Nobody expected that explosion. And in the same way, the Russian working class which everybody has forgotten about or written off, can take the world by surprise. True, decades of totalitarian rule have had their effect, confusing and disorienting the masses. But life moves on. The workers have had a taste of "market economics" and are drawing their conclusions. The recent strikes indicate that they are flexing their muscles. They will inevitably move into action in the next period. Moreover, they have understood the need to organise. The unions have over 60 million members. The Communist Party has over half a million. This would constitute a formidable force if it were mobilised to transform society.
The importance of leadership
Marx and Engels maintained that the socialist revolution was inevitable. But they also pointed out, if the working class did not succeed, it might end up in "the common ruin of the contending classes". The choice is ultimately between socialism or barbarism. In Russia at the present time there are already elements of barbarism. The present chaos threatens to bring about a complete collapse. This is a real possibility, if the working class do not take power in the next period. Of course, in a broad historical sense, socialism is inevitable because the capitalist system has reached an impasse on a world scale. That is one of the main reasons which leads us to doubt the viability of capitalism in Russia, although it is not ruled out that they may succeed for a time on a very unstable basis. But even an unviable system must still be overthrown. And that requires something more than just favourable objective conditions, numerical strength or even the willingness of the masses to fight for a change of society. The subjective factor is also indispensable.
It is a paradox that, if the Communist Party really stood for Leninist policies, we would be on the eve of a new revolution at the present time. In the absence of the subjective factor, all kinds of aberrations can take place. However, even without a party, it is not theoretically ruled out that the working class can come to power in Russia. Such is the colossal weight of the Russian proletariat that a general strike and insurrection could succeed before the Marxist party has time to develop. However, the history of the last seventy years has shown the need for a revolutionary leadership armed with theory, and basing itself on the collective experience of the revolutionary movement on a world scale. In the absence of this, there can be a catastrophe. Given the absence of revolutionary leadership, and the extreme confusion and disorientation of the workers, it is possible that the movement might end in defeat. In that case, the only conceivable outcome would be a period of Bonapartist dictatorship of one sort or another. The present unstable situation cannot last for very long. No society can exist in such a state of tension indefinitely.
This brings us to the nub of the question. When we say that the subjective factor is the key, what does this mean? We have already seen that, without Lenin and Trotsky, the October Revolution would never have taken place. The problem facing the Russian working class today can be summed up in one word—leadership. Fortunately, the subjective factor is not limited to the leading layer. Lenin said that the working class was more revolutionary than the most revolutionary party, and that is a thousand times correct. The Russian proletariat has a long and glorious revolutionary tradition. They will rediscover it in the course of struggle. Of course, this process would be far quicker and more effective if a genuine mass Leninist current were present. But they will learn anyway. The Russian proletariat was the first to set up soviets on the basis of the 1905 Revolution. We must never forget that the soviets were not the invention of the Bolsheviks or any other party, but the spontaneous invention of the working class.
The Russian workers will return to the traditions of 1905 and 1917. In fact, they are already returning to them. In the recent miners' strikes, the workers in Kuzbass had set up a soviet which was effectively taking over the running of the local area. That is the real tradition of the Russian working class. It demonstrates conclusively that the old ideas and traditions have not been entirely lost but live on deeply rooted in the consciousness of the class. This was the first time in 80 years that genuine soviets had been set up on Russian soil. That is a fact of enormous importance. With no lead from the Communist Party, from the unions, or from anyone else, they set up democratically elected committees. Although these will undoubtedly have been dissolved at the end of the strike, they will surely reappear again in new struggles, and will assume a far wider sweep as the crisis begins to affect the working class as a whole.
The conditions for an elemental movement of the Russian proletariat are now being prepared. An explosion can occur when least expected. We can be faced with a situation similar to the Paris Commune, but on an incomparably higher level. However, the truth is always concrete. In the specific conditions pertaining in Russia, such a movement could only result in the Communist Party coming to power. But if Zyuganov is impelled into power by a mighty movement of the proletariat, he may be forced to go much further than he intends. It would be difficult to maintain the gains of the corrupt Mafia capitalists. The workers would demand the renationalisation of all the main sectors. Once the working class moves into action, it will put its stamp on the entire process.
Under such conditions it would be impossible to reimpose a Stalinist totalitarian regime. At worst, it would be like 1923-30, the period before the bureaucracy was consolidated. That means that the working class could take over without the need for civil war. That would be a relatively simple step, given the immense power of the present-day proletariat in Russia. Under modern conditions, the working class could immediately begin to take over the administration of industry, society and the state and move in the direction of socialism in the real sense of the word, not the bureaucratic caricature of Stalinism.
In Greek mythology there is a giant called Antaeus who wrestled with Hercules. Many times he was hurled to the ground, but every time he would rise again with renewed strength which he derived from his mother, the earth. The working class is like that giant. No matter how many defeats and disappointments it suffers, it always returns to the struggle, because there is no alternative. No one can break the instinctive will of the working class to change society. The whole history of Russia in the twentieth century is living proof of this assertion. From the establishment of the first small propaganda circles of Marxists, to the 1905 revolution, 20 years passed. From the period of reaction that followed the defeat of the first revolution there was a gap of ten years until the new awakening. In this time, the workers' movement knew moments of bitter despair, but inevitably the situation changed. The present period is no different. In spite of all the difficulties, in spite of the terrible confusion and disorientation which are the inevitable result of six decades of totalitarian reaction, the Russian proletariat will rise again.
After the defeat of the Russian workers in the Revolution of 1905-06, Trotsky predicted that an economic boom would be necessary before the class would recover its confidence. That was shown to be correct. The economic revival of 1910-11 was the signal for a new revolutionary upheaval, which was only cut across by the first world war. Something similar can happen this time. But it is also possible, given the colossal accumulation of discontent, that the attempt to close the big factories will provoke fierce defensive struggles which might, under certain conditions, become transformed into offensive ones. One thing is clear. Once the class begins to move, the whole attitude of the workers will change. The whole atmosphere will be transformed. Events can be precipitated by movements on the political plane. Lenin pointed out that the first condition for a revolution is a split in the ruling class or caste. The ruling elite in Russia is already split. This is no accident. The political instability at the top is a distorted reflection of the general instability in society. For the past six years, there has been one upheaval after another, and no end is in sight, elections or no elections.
Once the fresh winds of the class struggle begin to blow, the fog that clouds people's minds will be rapidly dispersed. The ideas of October will once again command the allegiance of millions. The leaders of the Revolution will be restored to a place of honour, not in lifeless mausoleums, but in the hearts and minds of the working people—not only the great Vladimir Illyich Lenin, but also that other great leader and martyr of the working class, Leon Trotsky. He alone kept the spotless banner of October flying in the face of the most terrible adversity and unprecedented persecution. Trotsky was murdered by Stalin, but his ideas live, and have been triumphantly vindicated by history. The new generation of Russian workers and Communists will find a way to these ideas and make them their own.
On the basis of experience and struggle, the Russian proletariat will rediscover the traditions of the past—the spotless traditions of workers' democracy and internationalism which alone provide the answer for the problems of the working class in Russia and on a world scale. It is not possible at this stage to be categorical about how the situation will resolve itself. But one thing is clear—Russia has entered into a new period of storm and stress, the outcome of which will have a decisive effect on the history of the world. The land of October is once more a decisive factor in the world revolution.