First published: October 1991
The Soviet putsch of 19 August was an attempt to put the clock back towards the Brezhnevist past. Its failure made transparent the greatest class struggle in the world since 1917 – that for the survival of the Russian Revolution. It left the pro-capitalist forces in the USSR greatly strengthened.
These forces will betray the interests and hopes of the Russian and Soviet peoples. The Soviet peoples wanted to create a democracy and an economy which would serve their interests. But, as Boris Kagarlitsky put it: ‘Millions of people in Russia have been fighting for democracy. But what they have got is Yeltsin.’
Yeltsin’s government is a betrayal even of the democratic hopes of the Russian people – let alone the democratic socialism that alone can save their country from catastrophe. Through the attempt to reintroduce capitalism, it would create a new dictatorship in Russia, consign the Russian working class to a poverty it has not seen for decades, and finally allow imperialism to destroy the independence of Russia and other Soviet republics. Similar results would follow from the victory of the bourgeois nationalists who are strengthening themselves in the Ukraine.
If such a course were successful, then after seventy years of resisting the onslaught of world capitalism the Russian and Soviet working classes would finally be defeated, and the goal imperialism set itself in both the First and Second World Wars, to dismember their country, would be accomplished.
The catastrophic consequences of this for the Soviet working class and peoples, and the obstacles to such an outcome, are dealt with at length in The choices for Russia: The economic programme of the Left Opposition.
But what would be the consequences for the rest of the world if the Russian Revolution were to fall, that is if capitalism were to be restored in the former USSR? It would open a period of the most extreme international reaction, pose a new, qualitative, threat to a large part of the historical gains of the world working class, and that of the people oppressed by imperialism and, as we are already seeing, unleash even in its first phase a wave of racism that would engulf Europe and probably shatter its framework of liberal politics. The next stage, which would not be long delayed, would be an attempt to eliminate the welfare state and move Europe decisively towards the pattern of US and Japanese capitalisms – which, because they did not confront such a direct threat from a non-capitalist mode of production, never felt the necessity to concede the welfare state of Western Europe.
In Eastern Europe a new wave of capitalist dictatorship would set in – the consequences of which would pose a long term a threat to democracy in Western Europe.
The longer term consequences, and those for the ‘third world’, the overwhelming majority of humanity and already suffering the greatest wave of impoverishment this century, would be far worse.
Every major progressive step forward this century for freedom from imperialism has been inseparably connected to the fate of the Russian Revolution. This was inevitable. For five hundred years prior to 1917 Western colonialism spread through the world. Whole continents were conquered. Imperialism carried out crimes – annihilation of peoples, throwing back of whole countries, oppression of the entire African and Asian population of the world – which have no parallel in history. Imperialism’s superior productive power allowed it to defeat every revolt with only the smallest exceptions.
The Russian Revolution was the first devastating defeat imperialism suffered in half a millennium. The inspiration it gave, the material aid it could supply, and the ever-present threat it posed that a movement against colonialism, if radicalised, could become a movement against capitalism, meant the existence of the USSR played a decisive role in bringing to an end colonialism – the single biggest act of liberation in human history.
That victory of the colonial revolution, in turn, spread a liberal and progressive climate into the imperialist countries. The civil rights movement in the United States, and the fact that the US ruling class felt it could not directly confront it, was inextricably linked to the pressure of the colonial revolution. The civil rights movement, in turn, helped provide an impetus for a whole series of other progressive movements – above all the renewed movement of women. The combined struggle of the imperialist working classes for reforms, and the advance of the colonial revolution aided by the existence of USSR, created the progressive and liberal climate of politics in the imperialist countries which developed from the 1950s.
The defeat of the Russian Revolution would throw that whole process into reverse. Like a resurgent cancer imperialism would respread through the world – with the Gulf War merely the first taste. Imperialism would, furthermore, have a renewed instrument with which to compel surrender to its dictates – nuclear weapons. It was only the fear of the reaction by the USSR that prevented the US using nuclear weapons against Korea, Vietnam, Cuba, or China.
Eventually the destruction of the Russian Revolution would reignite the open contest of the imperialist powers for the division of the world. Anyone who has contemplated the consequences for the future of humanity of a nuclear arms race between the United States, Europe and Japan will understand with perfect clarity the stakes in the survival of the Russian Revolution.
Precisely because the stakes are so gigantic, the events in the USSR will churn the world working class movements to its depths. For the instrument which imperialism found to derail the Russian Revolution was a force within the workers’ movement – Stalinism, not an outgrowth of the Russian Revolution but a product of imperialist pressure on it.
Stalinism, for sixty years, despite its increasingly well known crimes, appeared to the overwhelming majority of the militant working class on a world scale to have one immense virtue which outweighed all else. It seemed to safeguard the existence of the Soviet Union, and on that bedrock, in time, other forces in the world would have the opportunity to advance. That was the reasoning of the majority of the world working class vanguard.
Trotsky broke with Stalin because he knew this was an illusion. That the policies and methods of Stalinism could neither offer a way forward for the world working class nor even defend the non-capitalist state in USSR. That is the reality which has now exploded into world politics. Trotsky’s genius was to foresee this, and the implications which flowed from it.
Two things are occurring simultaneously. First that the world working class is engaged in its most desperate struggle since 1917. A determination of the most advanced working class forces in the world that everything that can be done must be done to prevent the destruction of the Russian Revolution, and the historical catastrophe that this would represent for humanity. Second that within this framework every position and strategy that fights to defend that non-capitalist state in the USSR must be objectively discussed – because the stakes are too high to have the luxury to do anything else.
The result will be the greatest reorganisation of the world working class movement since 1917.