The recomposition of the International Workers’ Movement, part 1

First published: October 1995     

The re-introduction of capitalism into eastern Europe in 1989 and the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, unleashed a carnival of reaction throughout the world; the advance of NATO into eastern Europe, starting with the bombing of Yugoslavia; the collapse of living standards throughout eastern Europe and the former USSR; the greatest rise of racism since the 1930s and the first serious attempts to start dismantling the welfare states in western Europe.

This course of events was predictable and predicted. The overthrow of the planned economies in eastern Europe and the break-up of the USSR changed the international relationship of class forces in favour of imperialism. The imperialist ruling classes consequently became, not more conciliatory, but vastly more aggressive – taking the offensive to secure their interests in the third world, in eastern Europe and against the working class within the imperialist states.

The critical issue today, is whether that imperialist offensive will be taken onto a new level by the restoration of capitalism in Russia. Four years after Yeltsin came to power that issue has still not been resolved.

The overthrow of the Russian Revolution would be the greatest defeat of the international working class in history. It would open a period of capitalist barbarism which would make what has happened since 1989 look benign. That is why the entire international workers’ movement is going to be recomposed around the events since 1989 and, above all, by the struggle in Russia.

We examine the driving forces of the greatest recomposition of the working class movement since 1917 and the point it has reached today.

1. The working class and ‘universal human emancipation’

The dynamic unleashed by the events of 1989 and 1991 demonstrated one of the most basic propositions of Marxism – that, because the victory of the working class is the necessary and fundamental step in ‘universal human emancipation’, each advance of the international working class benefits the whole of humanity, and every major defeat of the working class will throw back not merely that class, but the whole of human civilisation and culture.

That relationship between the working class and the future of society was the basis of Marx’s socialism. In Marx’s conception, a class could only lead society if it represented not only its own interests but wider interests of society: ‘The class making a revolution comes forward from the very start… not as a class but as the representative of the whole of society, as the whole mass of society confronting the ruling class… Its victory, therefore, benefits also many individuals of other classes which are not winning a dominant position… Every new class, therefore, achieves domination only on a broader basis than that of the class ruling previously.’ [1]

But, having achieved the leadership of society, the ability of previous leading classes to represent wider interests of society – their universality in Marx’s expression, or hegemony in Lenin’s – was limited and ultimately negated by conflict between their particular interests and the further development of society.

Thus the great bourgeois revolutions of the eighteenth century, by striking down feudalism, advanced not only the bourgeoisie but also all other classes oppressed by feudal social relations. However, after 1848, the particular class interests of capital more and more conflicted with the general development of society – private ownership and the national state made social control of the productive forces created by capitalism impossible. The result was increasingly violent economic and political upheavals, culminating in the world wars of the twentieth century.

From that point, far from representing the universal interests of human civilisation and culture, capital threatened to extinguish them. This posed the question of what class could prevent the progressive conquests of humanity, including those of the ascent of bourgeois society, being destroyed.

The answer was given in Russia’s October 1917 revolution, taking that country out of the First World War and providing an objective base of support for every subsequent struggle against capitalism and imperialism.

The Russian Revolution demonstrated in practice the historical role of the working class which had been theorised by Marx 70 years earlier: ‘All preceding classes that got the upper hand, sought to fortify their already acquired status by subjecting society at large to their conditions of appropriation. The proletarians cannot become masters of the productive forces of society, except by abolishing their own previous mode of appropriation, and thereby also every other mode of appropriation. They have nothing of their own to secure and fortify… All previous historical movements were movements of minorities or in the interests of minorities. The proletarian movement is the self-conscious, independent movement of the immense majority in the interests of the immense majority. The proletariat, the lowest stratum of our present society, cannot stir, cannot raise itself up, without the whole superincumbent strata of official society being sprung in the air.’ [2]

Thus, for Marx, the working class was the most universal class in history, because the accomplishment of its specific class goals necessitated not merely the liberation of itself with the continuation of the oppression or exploitation of other classes, but the liberation of the whole of humanity.

The emancipating role of the working class derived not from sentiment but from its objective position in society. ‘It is not a question of what this or that proletarian, or even the whole of the proletariat, at the moment regards as its aims. It is a question of what the proletariat is, and what, in consequence with this being, it will historically be compelled to do.’ [3]

But, to accomplish its historic role the working class has to become organised and conscious of it. As Trotsky put it: ‘The Marxist comprehension of historical necessity has nothing in common with fatalism. Socialism is not realisable “by itself”, but as a result of the struggle of living forces, classes and their parties. The proletariat’s decisive advantage is the fact that it represents historical progress, while the bourgeoisie incarnates reaction and decline.’ [4]

The relation of working class political organisation to the struggle for the leadership of society was developed by Lenin: ‘The industrial workers cannot accomplished their epoch-making mission of emancipating mankind from the yoke of capital and from wars if they confine themselves to attaining an improvement in their own conditions, which may sometimes be tolerable in the petty bourgeois sense… The proletariat is a really revolutionary class and acts in a really socialist manner only when it comes out and acts as the vanguard of all the working and exploited people, as their leader in the struggle for the overthrow of the exploiters.’ [5]

Antonio Gramsci elaborated this point: ‘The proletariat, in order to become capable as a class of governing, must strip itself of every residue of corporatism, every syndicalist prejudice and encrustation. What does this mean? That, in addition to the need to overcome the distinctions which exist between one trade and another, it is necessary – in order to win the trust and consent of the peasants and of some of the semi-proletarian urban categories – to overcome certain prejudices and conquer certain forms of egoism which can and do subsist within the working class as such, even when class particularism has disappeared. The metal-worker, joiner, building worker, etc. must not only think as proletarians, and no longer as metal-worker, joiner, building worker, etc, they must also take a further step. They must think as workers who are members of a class which aims to lead the peasants and intellectuals. Of a class which can win and build socialism only if it is aided and followed by the great majority of these social strata.’ [6]

This relationship of the goals of the proletariat to the liberation of the whole of society, dictates the central place which must be occupied in the class struggle today of the struggles for the liberation of women, of black people against racism and colonialism, for lesbian and gay liberation and against every other manifestation of oppression and exploitation.

This Marxist theory of the role of the working class in society was confirmed in practice on an immense scale by the course of the twentieth century. Each victory of the international working class took forward the whole of human society and each defeat threw back not only that class, but the whole of society.

To take the most colossal events. The collapse of the Second International into chauvinism on the eve of the First World War was a catastrophe for the international workers’ movement. But the First World War was far more more than that – it was the reduction of society to a level of barbarism without historical precedent.

Twenty five million people died in European countries alone in the First World War and its aftermath. Beside this all previous wars paled into insignificance – for example 174,000 soldiers had been killed in the 1870–71 Franco-Prussian war.

The events of 1933–45 demonstrated this process on a still greater wide. The fact that Hitler was allowed to take power in Germany without effective resistance from the German Communist and Social Democrat parties, meant not simply the crushing of the German working class, but also the Second World War: the greatest blood-bath in history. More than 50 million people perished and, in the Holocaust, Hiroshima, Nagasaki and Dresden, capital surpassed all previous yardsticks of barbarism.

If 1914 and 1933 showed the consequences of such immense defeats of the international working class, the October revolution in Russia showed the potential unleashed by its victories. October did not just bring the Russian working class to power. It saved the country from dismemberment by Japan, Germany, Britain and the United States. Russia survived only because the working class placed itself at the head of society.

On a world scale, the Russian Revolution halted the 400-year expansion of capitalist colonialism. The trajectory of the world up to 1917, was the enslavement of the majority of the human race by a handful of imperialist powers. The Russian Revolution awakened the political process in the east which ultimately destroyed colonialism.

For the first time, peoples fighting imperialist oppression had a material base of support at the level of a state power. As Trotsky, Stalin’s most irreconcilable opponent from the left, stressed until the end of his life – the crimes of the Soviet bureaucracy never outweighed this progressive significance of the Russian Revolution: ‘The existence of the Soviet Union, despite the far–advanced degeneration of the workers’ state, remains even now a fact of immeasurable revolutionary significance. The collapse of the Soviet Union would lead to terrible reaction in the whole world, perhaps for decades to come. The struggle for the preservation, rehabilitation, and strengthening of the first workers’ state is indissolubly bound up with the struggle of the world proletariat for the socialist revolution.’ [7]

This significance of the Russian Revolution was confirmed in the course of the Second World War and its aftermath. Against the war machine of German imperialism, socialist newspapers, trade unions and political parties were totally insufficient. The only two forces in the world capable of defeating German imperialism were the more powerful imperialist United States or the Soviet Union. The west European working class movement was swept aside by fascism and its allies, the Russian working class, having conquered state power, broke the back of the Germany army.

The fact that it was the Soviet Union which played the principal role in defeating German imperialism from 1943 changed the entire international relationship of class forces. Eastern Europe, the Balkans and by 1949, China, the most populous country in the world, were lost to capitalism. It opened the cycle of socialist and colonial revolutions in Asia which precipitated the end of European colonialism – the greatest blow against racism and oppression in human history.

The existence of a non-capitalist state capable of destroying the United States was the single most important constraint on US military force in the post-war period. Without it there is little doubt that the United States would have tried to break that post-war revolutionary dynamic with nuclear weapons against Korea or Vietnam.

Equally, after 1945 it was feared that the Russian Revolution might spread into war-devastated Japan and western Europe, which motivated both the creation of welfare states in western Europe and the military occupation of Japan and Germany.

Thus the history of the twentieth century made clear long before 1989 what the consequences would be of the overturn of so ‘colossal a conquest as planned economy’ in eastern Europe. As Trotsky had put it, ‘the collapse of the Soviet Union would lead to terrible reaction in the whole world, perhaps for decades to come.’ [8]

The re-introduction of capitalism into eastern Europe in 1989 and the destruction of the Soviet Union in 1991 had precisely the results foreseen – the reduction of hundreds of millions of people to a lifetime of poverty; the largest US military attack in the third world since Vietnam – the Gulf War; the greatest rise in racism in Europe since the Second World War; the drive to dismantle the welfare state in western Europe; the break-up, war and NATO military intervention into the former Yugoslavia; the decision to expand NATO to the borders of the former USSR; and the rapid increase in the military roles of German and Japanese imperialisms.

NATO, far from scaling down its operations, has seen its role dramatically expanded for ‘out of area’ activities. The Gulf War inaugurated a new period of north-south wars and the bombing of Yugoslavia signalled NATO’s advance to the east.

The causal connection between these events is clearly understood by the leaders of the capitalist class throughout the world. Newt Gingrich, right wing Republican leader in the US congress, for example, bases the possibility of rolling back what little welfare state exists in the US on the relationship of forces created by 1989 and 1991. As the Wall Street Journal commented: ‘Speaker of the US House of Representatives Newt Gingrich stood in front of reporters last week and announced that the progressive tax system was an artefact of the Cold War… We would widen the field further: The long, legislative run of Democratic liberalism was an artefact of the Cold War… When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, we all knew that the world had changed utterly, and indeed it has in the formerly vassal states of the old Soviet Union. Prague, Warsaw, Budapest, Tallinn are worlds away from what they were a mere five years ago. It was not possible to imagine that these forces would fail to touch the political structure of an America whose policies and strategies had been tied so long to that stolid Cold War reality… The long era of public paternalism that emerged throughout the West during the years of the Cold War is being swept aside…’ [9]

Having outlined the consequences of 1989 and 1991 to date, it must be understood that the results of the overthrow of the Russian Revolution, were it to happen, would be still more momentous. China would be directly threatened by imperialism, which would be able to use force with impunity in the third world, eastern Europe and the former USSR. Moreover, as after 1914 and 1933, the imperialist powers would eventually be given the scope to take their own conflicts to the point of war, only with immensely more powerful destructive forces than have previously existed.

Before 1991, Germany, Japan and the United States were forced to subdue their own conflicts because they faced a more dangerous enemy – a major state, the USSR, representing different class interests. Capitalism lost Russia and China in the First and Second World Wars. With a third of the world’s population in non-capitalist states after 1949, major inter-imperialist conflict would have meant still greater losses in Europe and Asia. In a nutshell, since 1917 the most important obstacle to war has been fear of socialist revolution. The Japanese and German ruling class, in the military front line of the Cold War, were acutely aware of this.

Japanese capitalism, facing the Soviet Union and China, depended utterly on US military support. West German capitalism, with hundreds of thousands of Soviet troops in east Germany, required an equivalent US military presence for survival.

The collapse of the USSR creates other options. Japan can develop nuclear weapons to counter China’s advantage in numbers. Germany will expand its military potential, including acquiring nuclear weapons, to underpin a new German sphere of influence in eastern Europe and the Balkans.

But these are not developments which would meet with favour in Washington. A recent pamphlet, funded by the British foreign office, points out with unusual candour: ‘The United States government remains engaged in Europe for the simple reason that the US has fundamental interests in the region. It has traditionally opposed the emergence of a hegemonic power in Europe, has fought two ‘hot’ wars and one cold war to prevent this, and would undoubtedly do so again in the future…’ [10]

Indeed, while the number one goal of US strategy after 1991 is to prevent any attempt to put the Soviet Union back together again, a second priority is to stop Japan or Germany emerging as military rivals to the US.

This was the conclusion of the Pentagon’s policy re-appraisal following the end of the Cold War. As the International Herald Tribune reported under the apt title ‘Pentagon’s New World Order: US to reign supreme, a policy to ward off future challenges’: ‘In a broad new policy statement the Defense Department asserts that the US political and military mission in the post-Cold War era will be to ensure that no rival superpower is allowed to emerge in Western Europe, Asia or the territory of the former Soviet Union… the paper foresees building a world security arrangement that pre-empts Germany and Japan from pursuing a course of substantial rearmament, especially nuclear armament, in the future… Nuclear proliferation, if unchecked by superpower action, could tempt Germany, Japan and other industrial powers to acquire nuclear weapons to deter attack from regional foes. This could start them down the road to global competition with the United States and, in a crisis over national interests, military competition.’ [11]

Discussion which followed gave a flavour of US thinking. Charles Krauthammer, for example, commented in the International Herald Tribune: ‘We Americans have had 40 years of competition with one heavily armed, nuclear superpower. Do we really want to devote the next 40 years to competition with two, three, many such countries – countries like Germany and Japan that have historically displayed far less prudence in their drive for hegemony than even Stalin’s Russia?’ [12]

These are the dynamics unleashed by 1989 and the stakes of the struggle unfolding today in Russia. They will totally re-make the international workers’ movement.

2. 1914, 1933, 1989 – remaking the international workers’ movement

While no analogy can be exact, the situation of the labour movement following 1989 and 1991 resembles that after the two comparable events in twentieth century history – the collapse of the Second International in 1914 and Hitler’s assumption of power in 1933 in Germany.

Those standing against the First World War in 1914 were a tiny minority of the Second International. But the conclusions they drew were immediate and unambiguous. In Lenin’s words: ‘The aims of socialism at the present time cannot be fulfilled, and real international unity of the workers cannot be achieved, without a decisive break with opportunism.’ He added: ‘The gravest feature of the present crisis is that the majority of official representatives of European socialism have succumbed to bourgeois nationalism, to chauvinism… The Second International is dead, overcome by opportunism. Down with opportunism, and long live the Third International…’ [13]. Or, as Rosa Luxemburg put it, the Second International had become ‘a stinking corpse’.

However, the persecuted minority which stood against war in 1914, had, by October 1917, led the Russian Revolution. Two years later they founded the Communist International which not merely excluded all those who had supported the imperialist slaughter, but included currents, originally outside the Second International, who came together on the basis of the Russian Revolution and the revolutionary tide which followed the First World War.

At its first congress the Communist International outlined the material basis of the degeneration of the Second International: ‘The general course of economic development had given the bourgeoisie of the wealthiest countries the opportunity to tempt and buy off the upper layers of the working class – the labour aristocracy – with crumbs from its enormous profits… From the leaders of the peaceable parliamentary movement, the heads of the trade unions, the secretaries, editors and officials of social democracy there developed a caste – a labour bureaucracy with its own selfish group interests essentially hostile to socialism.’ [14]

In 1933, those explaining, with Trotsky, that Stalin’s line of ‘social fascism’ would result in the victory of Hitler, were an even smaller minority than 1914. But the refusal of the Comintern to draw any lessons from Hitler’s victory sealed its collapse as an instrument of socialist revolution. The Comintern claimed, absurdly, that Hitler was merely a step towards socialist revolution in Germany: ‘The establishment of an open fascist dictatorship accelerates the tempo of development of the proletarian revolution in Germany by destroying all democratic illusions of the masses and by freeing them from the influence of Social Democracy.’ [15]

After Germany, Stalin’s political line led to defeat in Spain and France, the execution of almost every leader of the Russian Revolution and of the Red Army. By 1939: ‘After five years of the crudest fawning upon the democracies, when the whole of “communism” was reduced to the monotonous indictment of fascist aggressors, the Comintern suddenly discovered in the autumn of 1939 the criminal imperialism of the western democracies… From then on not a single word of condemnation about the destruction of Czechoslovakia and Poland, the seizure of Denmark and Norway, and the shocking bestialities inflicted by Hitler’s gangs on the Polish and Jewish People! Hitler was made out to be a peace-loving vegetarian continually being provoked by the Western imperialists. The Anglo-French alliance was referred to in the Comintern press as the imperialist bloc against the German people.’ Goebbels himself could have cooked up nothing better!’ [16]

This whole series of zigzags was capped, in 1943, by the disbanding of the Communist International by Stalin, followed by the dissolution of the Communist Party of the USA – as a gesture of goodwill to US imperialism.

The Communist Parties which led the socialist revolutions after 1933 – in Yugoslavia, China and Vietnam – had to break with the political line of the Soviet bureaucracy in order to do so.

On the basis of the rise of the colonial revolution following 1943, currents emerged, first within, then outside, the Communist Movement, outflanking the Soviet bureaucracy to the left. By the end of the 1950s, the Cuban Revolution was led not by the Communist Party but by Castro’s July 26th Movement which gave impetus to non-Stalinist revolutionary currents throughout Latin America. This historical process culminated in a second wave of revolutionary struggles in Central America following the US defeat in Vietnam, led non-Stalinist currents – the FSLN in Nicaragua, the FMLN in El Salvador and the New Jewel Movement in Grenada.

The development of revolutionary struggles and currents independent of the Soviet bureaucracy was the basis of the post-war growth of the Fourth International, founded by Trotsky, in the movements of international solidarity with the Algerian, Cuban and most massively the Vietnamese revolutions.

However, from a purely practical point of view nothing could compare with the material solidarity which the Soviet state could give – both in terms of restraining the scope of imperialist intervention and in economic and military support. As a result, even following the dissolution of the Comintern, the Soviet bureaucracy benefited from the prestige of the objective role of the non-capitalist Soviet state.

Trotsky had analysed this phenomenon at the time of the collapse of the Communist International in 1933: ‘Nine-tenths of the strength of the Stalinist apparatus lies not in itself but in the social changes wrought by the victorious revolution… it shows us how and why the Stalinist apparatus could completely squander its meaning as the international revolutionary factor and yet preserve a part of its progressive meaning as the gatekeeper of the social conquests of the revolution.’ [17]

This also explained the attitude of the Soviet working class towards the bureaucracy: ‘Will the bureaucrat devour the workers’ state, or will the working class clean up the bureaucrat? Thus stands the question upon whose decision hangs the fate of the Soviet Union. The vast majority of the Soviet workers are even now hostile to the bureaucracy… If in contrast to the peasants the workers have almost never come out on the road of open struggle… this is not only because of repressions. The workers fear lest, in throwing out the bureaucracy, they will open the way for a capitalist restoration. The mutual relations between state and class are much more complicated than they are represented by the vulgar “democrats”. Without a planned economy the Soviet Union would be thrown back for decades. In that sense the bureaucracy continues to fulfil a necessary function. But it fulfils it in such a way as to prepare an explosion of the whole system which may completely sweep out the results of the revolution. The workers are realists. Without deceiving themselves with regard to the ruling caste – at least with regard to its lower tiers which stand near to them – they see in it the watchman for the time being over a certain part of their own conquests. They will inevitably drive out the dishonest, impudent and unreliable watchman as soon as they see another possibility. For this it is necessary that in the West or the East another revolutionary dawn arise.’  [18]

This practical attitude of the Soviet working class expressed the real choices. Stalinism was the product of a temporary stand-off between the Russian working class and imperialism. After both the First and Second World Wars, imperialism proved strong enough to stop the Russian working class from extending the revolution to the more advanced capitalist countries, but, on the other hand, was not sufficiently powerful to restore capitalism in the USSR. Stalinism arose from, and then perpetuated, that impasse.

Stalinism was the attempt by the bureaucracy, which Stalin came to lead, to freeze that status quo by administrative repression against the pressure of the working class on its left and the pressure of capital from the right. In the 1920s, the last time open debate took place, the Left Opposition led by Trotsky expressed the pressure of the working class, while the Right Opposition led by Bukharin expressed that of capital. Stalin, in a bonapartist fashion, represented the bureaucratic centre between those two basic class currents.

As Trotsky put it: ‘If the Stalinist bureaucracy should be overthrown from the right, then its place will be taken by the most savage and unbridled fascism, alongside which even the regime of Hitler will look like a philanthropic institution. Such an overturn is possible only as a result of long convulsions, economic chaos, the destruction of the nationalised economy and the re-establishment of private ownership. If on the contrary Stalin will be overthrown from the left, i.e. by the working class, then Soviet democracy will take the place of the bureaucracy. Nationalised economy will be preserved and reformed in the interests of the people. Development toward socialism will receive a new impetus.’ [19]

The overall effect of the bureaucracy’s regime was not however neutral, it was to atomise the most fundamental obstacle to capitalism in the USSR – the Russian working class. As Trotsky put it: ‘The present CPSU is not a party but an apparatus of domination in the hands of an uncontrolled bureaucracy. Within the framework of the CPSU and outside of it, takes place the grouping of the scattered elements of the two basic parties: the proletarian and the Thermidorean-Bonapartist [i.e. those seeking the restoration of capitalism – ed]. Rising above both of them the centrist bureaucracy wages a war of annihilation against the Bolshevik-Leninists. While coming into sharp clashes from time to time with their Thermidorean half-allies, the Stalinists, nevertheless, clear the road for the latter by crushing, strangling and corrupting the Bolshevik Party.’ [20]

Under Brezhnev, the Soviet bureaucracy tried to circumvent these contradictions on the basis of building up the military strength of the Soviet state. But, while this gained time, it could not in the long run compensate for the demoralisation of the Soviet working class and the division of the international working class as a result of ‘socialism in one country’. The Soviet economy was only a seventh of the size of the international capitalist economy. If its survival depended upon straight economic and military competition with imperialism, the Soviet state would, in the end, be overwhelmed. Its fundamental strength was, first, that the one force stronger than world capitalism is the international working class, and, second, that for most of this century the imperialist states were divided.

When US imperialism overcame that division by crushing its competitors in the Second World War, it then faced a 30-year battle with the revolutionary struggles of the Asian workers and peasants. It was the derailing of the Asian class struggle by the Sino-Soviet split, a consequence of ‘socialism in one country’, which allowed Ronald Reagan to focus US resources on the arms race which cracked the Soviet economy.

The inability to match Reagan’s arms race brought Gorbachev to power on a programme of a radical shift to the right. Gorbachev’s goal was to reduce the pressure on the Soviet Union by making concessions to the West, for example voting for the UN resolutions launching the Gulf War. Internally, Gorbachev brought the crisis to a head by moving to a de facto bloc with Yeltsin which, after the failure of the coup attempt in August 1991, led to the dissolution of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. As a result the Soviet bureaucracy ceased to exist as a coherent force. But the Russian Revolution continued to fight for its life.

Around that continuing struggle for the survival of the October Revolution, all of the political positions which had been compressed within the Soviet bureaucracy were forced out into the open and polarised. As Trotsky had analysed: ‘All shades of political thought are to be found among the bureaucracy: from genuine Bolshevism (Ignace Reiss) to complete fascism (F. Butenko). The revolutionary elements within the bureaucracy, only a small minority, reflect, passively it is true, the socialist interests of the proletariat. The fascist counter-revolutionary elements, growing uninterruptedly, express with ever greater consistency the interests of world imperialism… Between these two poles, there are intermediate, diffuse-SR-liberal tendencies which gravitate towards bourgeois democracy.’ [21]

Those political currents would naturally find themselves on opposite sides of the barricades: ‘In the event of an open clash between the two mass camps, there cannot even be talk of the bureaucracy playing an independent role. Its polar flanks would be flung to opposite sides of the barricade. The fate of the subsequent development would be determined, of course, by the outcome of the struggle.’ [22]

This analysis captured precisely the dynamics which followed 1991.

Every conceivable current emerged from the break-up of the Soviet bureaucracy: fascists; right wing nationalists; advocates of capitalist dictatorship like Yeltsin; mouthpieces of the IMF like Gaidar; social democrats like Gorbachev; socialists like the majority of the re-founded Communist Party of the Russian Federation; attempts to re-create Stalinism, like Nina Andreyeva.

The crisis in the Soviet Union then gave impetus to the same polarisation of Communist Parties throughout the world.

To take first the rightward moving currents produced by this. Those standing for capitalism rapidly concluded that bourgeois democracy would have to be discarded because the economic collapse made bourgeois democracy unsustainable.

For the same reasons, although individual bureaucrats became social democrats, social democracy gained virtually no mass support As Boris Kagarlitsky observed. ‘It is not just that the conditions which gave rise to western social democracy do not exist in Russia. Rather more important the directly opposite conditions exist in Russia, which render such a policy impossible in principle… the mass movement in Russia can never be social democratic, even “with Russian specificities”. And if the left in our country really tries to become an influential political force it is doomed to radicalism.’

Nearly every group sponsored by the Socialist International in Eastern Europe failed. A clear pattern emerged: the successors to the Communist Parties were returned to government throughout eastern Europe and the former USSR in the second sets of elections following 1989. They are now the governing parties in Poland, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria and Serbia. In many cases, Poland and Hungary, for example, leading forces in these parties would like to become Social Democrats, and they carry out IMF-inspired austerity programmes, but, because this means dismantling the welfare states, the tensions between these forces and the parties as a whole are likely to explode. In Russia, the main trade union federation, together with Gorbachev and others, put significant resources into trying to launch a social democratic alternative to the communists, but this is unlikely to even get enough votes for representation in parliament.

In Western Europe, on the other hand, where a strong bourgeoisie most definitely does exist, the dissolution of the CPSU gave impetus to the transition of whole parties or major currents within them to social democracy. But, as Trotsky had observed 60 years earlier, this generally turned out to be just the final step on a road to complete dissolution: ‘In the capitalist countries, where all types of reformism to the right of the Communist Party operate, the right wing has no field of activity. Insofar as the Right Opposition has mass organisations, it turns them over, directly or indirectly, to the Social Democracy…’ [23]

Thus the Dutch Communist Party dissolved itself in 1991. Santiago Carillo, the Euro-communist former general secretary of the Spanish Communist Party (PCE) joined Felipe Gonzales’ Socialists in October 1991, stating: ‘the Communist movement as such has completed its historical cycle and it makes no sense trying to prolong it.’

In Britain, the trajectory of the Democratic Left is into the Labour Party to help Tony Blair fight the left. In Italy, the particular circumstances of the wipe-out of Bettino Craxi’s Socialist Party, allowed the majority of the Eurocommunist PDS to become, rather than join, Social Democracy.

The break-up of the Soviet bureaucracy also, on the other hand, accelerated the differentiation of political forces moving to the left – the re-emergence of left communist forces. Many of these, particularly in the third world, had opposed Gorbachev’s concessions to imperialism from the beginning.

The organisation which should have been in the best position to assist the political discussion with these currents was the Fourth International. Trotsky pointed out from the beginning that, faced with capitalist restoration, the Soviet bureaucracy would disintegrate, releasing not only pro-capitalist but also revolutionary socialist currents: ‘Not only the centrist faction but also the right wing of the party would produce not a few revolutionaries who would defend the October Revolution with arms in hand. But for this they would need a painful internal demarcation, which cannot be carried out without a period of confusion, vacillation, and loss of time… The presence of a Leninist faction would double the chances of the proletariat in the struggle against the forces of the counter-revolutionary overthrow.’ [24]

What Trotsky did not anticipate was that the leadership of the Fourth International would abandon the fight for the Russian Revolution at the very point it was mortally threatened. This began with a completely wrong analysis of Gorbachev and of the dynamic of events in Eastern Europe in 1989. Ernest Mandel, the Fourth International’s leading spokesperson at the time, wrote: ‘Contrary to what a superficial glance might indicate, the European bourgeoisie does not look favourably on this destabilisation. It has no hope of recovering Eastern Europe for capitalism.’ [25]

It was specifically denied that the restoration of capital was on the agenda. ‘The main question in the political struggles underway is not the restoration of capitalism.’ [26]

This led to disastrous political conclusions. Instead of unmasking the demagogy of the most pro-capitalist elements, like Yeltsin, his platform was singled out for its particularly ‘progressive’ elements in International Viewpoint.

International Viewpoint described the upheavals of 1989 as non-class ‘democratic revolutions’. This device permitted support for events which on a class analysis were leading to the restoration of capitalism. This logically led sections of the Fourth International to cross class lines by supporting the capitalist unification of Germany.

The majority leadership of the Fourth International did not do that. Three years after the event, it acknowledged what had been obvious to the rest of the world from the outset, that it had been unable to tell the difference between (capitalist) counter-revolution and socialist political revolution.

Socialist Action commented: ‘This error is undoubtedly the greatest confession of bankruptcy since the establishment of the Fourth International. The line of the leadership of the Fourth International took that organisation to the brink of destruction as a revolutionary force and besmirched everything that Trotsky stood for. They supported processes which constituted the greatest defeats suffered by the working class since fascism and which may well culminate in the greatest defeats in its history. Hundreds of millions in Eastern Europe face a lifetime of poverty as a result of events which the leadership of the Fourth International extolled and thousands of millions in the third world face the greatest dangers since 1917 as a result of these events. The leadership of the Fourth International proved itself totally bankrupt when confronted with the greatest events in world politics since World War Two…. What took place in the line of the leadership of the Fourth International since 1989 was no ordinary mistake. It represents a crossing of class lines as regards millions of workers and oppressed people. If the Fourth International is to reorient itself all the conclusions have to be drawn regarding the theories that created such a line and the leadership responsible for that line.’ [27]

In fact no lessons were drawn. If 1989 really represented a turn in world history, as indeed it did, the conclusion would be obvious: to mobilise every possible resource to aid those fighting for the life of the Russian Revolution and against the advance of capitalism into eastern Europe.

But the Fourth International did not do this. Instead, it abstained on the struggle in Russia. Catherine Samary wrote an editorial in International Viewpoint immediately after Yeltsin’s first attempted coup in April 1993: ‘Two different but equally reactionary plans both for domestic and international affairs are on offer in Russia: one, with a neo-liberal outlook, is striving to create a strong state to impose market discipline and is allied to the United States on international questions. The other, a coalition which embraces the “patriotic” far right rejects foreign diktats both domestically and internationally.’ [28]

This was simply to recycle the line of western governments that the opposition to Yeltsin was a reactionary ‘red-brown alliance’.

The ‘theory’ underpinning this was that, in addition to the basic class conflict between capital and the working class, in Russia, there was also a third camp, that of the bureaucracy, and therefore a ‘three cornered struggle’ between the working class, capital and the bureaucracy. The problem with this theory is that the bureaucracy is not a class, and faced with capitalist restoration it broke apart and polarised around the two, not three, basic class camps – that of capital and that of the working class. The theory of the ‘three cornered struggle’ was used to justify abstention from the fundamental class struggle in Russia – against capitalist restoration.

What in reality was taking shape was a collision between Yeltsin’s attempt to uproot the Russian revolution, and the confused, diverse, but real and massive, resistance to this. The fact that Constitutional Democrats, Christian Democrats, nationalists, social democrats and fascists fought alongside left wing Communists and democratic socialists, in conflicts culminating in the destruction of parliament by Yeltsin’s tanks, in no way altered the basic class character of the two sides. The Fourth International did not support the destruction of parliament – but it completely misunderstood the class character of the two camps which engaged in that battle.

Behind Yeltsin stood international imperialism and its supporters in Russia. On the side of the Russian parliament, stood a coalition of forces objectively blocking the process of capitalist restoration.

In such circumstances the purpose of Marxist analysis is to identify the class interests involved – not stand aside in a ‘third camp’. Lenin had harsh words for such critics: ‘So one army lines up in one place and says “We are for socialism”, and another, somewhere else and says, “We are for imperialism”, and that will be the social revolution!… Whoever expects a “pure” social revolution will never live to see it. Such a person pays lip-service to revolution without understanding what revolution is… The socialist revolution in Europe cannot be anything other than an outburst of mass struggle on the part of all and sundry oppressed and discontented elements. Inevitably, sections of the petty bourgeoisie and backward workers will participate in it – without such participation, mass struggle is impossible, without it no revolution is possible – and just as inevitably will they bring into the movement their prejudices, their reactionary fantasies, their weaknesses and errors. But objectively they will attack capital, and the class conscious vanguard of the revolution, the advanced proletariat, expressing this objective truth of a variegated and discordant, motley and outwardly fragmented, mass struggle, will be able to unite and direct it, capture power.’ [29]

Trotsky had discussed precisely the configuration of forces which would be posed by the attempt to restore capitalism in the Soviet Union. He specifically, and correctly, ruled out theories of three, rather than two, basic class camps: ‘In the event of an open clash between the two mass camps, there cannot even be talk of the bureaucracy playing an independent role. Its polar flanks would be flung onto different sides of the barricade.’ [30]

A clear practical conclusion flowed from this: ‘In the struggle against the counter-revolution the Bolshevik-Leninists will obviously be the left flank of the Soviet front. A fighting bloc in coalition with the Stalinists will result here from the whole situation. It should not, however, be thought that in this struggle the Stalinist bureaucracy will be unanimous. At the decisive moment, it will break up into fragments, and its component elements will meet again in two opposing camps.’ [31]

Trotsky’s analysis penned 50 years prior to 1989 laid bare precisely the dynamics of what actually took place. The Fourth International now rejects that class analysis.

The World Congress of the Fourth International, meeting earlier this year, deepened its wrong positions. It argued: ‘regardless of the main trend which appeared after it, the downfall of Stalinism is, first of all, the freeing of an immense class potential chained for many years by Stalinist bureaucracies in power or in opposition.’

This is quite false – the overthrow of the Stalinist bureaucracy by capital, which is what happened in eastern Europe in 1989, is a defeat for the working class. As Trotsky always argued: ‘Stalin overthrown by the workers – that’s a great step forward toward socialism. Stalin crushed by the imperialists – that’s the counter–revolution triumphant. That is the precise sense of our defense of the USSR.’ [32]


1. The German Ideology, Lawrence and Wishart, p68
2. Marx and Engels, Collected Works, Vol 6. p495
3. Marx and Engels, Early Writings, p254
4. In Defence of Marxism, 1940, Pathfinder Press, p30
5. Lenin, ‘Theses on the Agrarian Question’, in Theses, Manifestos and Resolutions of the first four congresses of the Communist International, Inklinks, p114
6. Gramsci, Selections from Political Writings 1921–26, p448
7. Trotsky, The Struggle Against Fascism in Germany, Pathfinder, p423
8. ibid, p428
9. Wall Street Journal, 10 April 1995
10. R. Latter, Nato in the new Europe, Wilton Park, May 1995
11. International Herald Tribune, 9 March 1992
12. ibid, 19 March 1992
13. Lenin, Collected Works, Vol 21, p27 and 41
14. ‘The attitude to the “socialist” currents and the Berne conference’, in Theses, Resolutions and Manifestos, op cit, p23
15. Statement of the Praesidium of the Comintern, April 1933
16. Trotsky, Writings 1939–40, p209
17. Trotsky, Writings 1933–34, p103
18. Trotsky, The Revolution Betrayed, 1936, p286
19. Trotsky, Writings 1937–38, p100
20. Trotsky, The Struggle Against Fascism in Germany, p424
21. Transitional Programme, 1938, Pathfinder, p143
22. Trotsky, Writings 1933–34, p118
23. Trotsky, Writings 1932–33
24. Trotsky, Writings 1930–31, p222
25. International Viewpoint, 3 April 1989
26. Mandel, International Viewpoint, 30 October 1989
27. Socialist Action, June 1992
28. International Viewpoint, May 1993
29. The Discussion on Self-determination Summed Up, October 1916
30. Trotsky, Writings 1933–34, p118
31. Trotsky, Writings 1933–34, p20
32. Trotsky, Writings 1937–38, p44