December 2021 marks the thirtieth anniversary of the official dissolution of the USSR. This year’s Socialism event in November included a session on the legacy of the collapse of the Stalinist regimes in Russia and Eastern Europe, introduced by Clive Heemskerk, editor of Socialism Today, the Socialist Party’s monthly magazine. Below is an edited transcript of his introduction.
This year’s Socialism is taking place one month short of the day 30 years ago, on Christmas Day in 1991, that Mikhail Gorbachev announced the dissolution of the USSR – the ‘Union of Soviet Socialist Republics’ – which had been founded five years after the October revolution of 1917, in 1922.
The end of the USSR did not have the same iconic imagery as the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 or the execution of the Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu. But Gorbachev’s announcement was the culmination of the collapse of the Stalinist regimes in Eastern Europe and the USSR, events which opened up a new era and gave a renewed impetus to capitalism for a whole historical period.
Firstly, it led to an ideological disarming of the workers’ organisations – both the trade unions and their traditional political parties – consolidating the idea that there was no alternative possible to capitalism.
And secondly, it created a new world order – globalisation under rules set by the USA including the opening up of China – in which the countries of the ex-colonial world, both the masses and the elites within those countries, also no longer saw an alternative model of economic development.
But that ‘post-Stalinist’ era is ending, with the factors that gave capitalism a new lease of life turning into their opposite, opening up another new period – of the system showing once again its inability to solve the problems of society (economically, socially, and environmentally too); generating a new mass awareness of the need for a different way of organising human relations; and therefore creating the conditions for a mass revival of socialist ideas.
Those themes show that understanding the legacy of the collapse of Stalinism in Russia and Eastern Europe is not just an historical discussion, but sets the parameters for the events that will unfold in the years ahead.
There is an irony in discussing the legacy of the collapse of Stalinism at the Socialism weekend, because for us the totalitarian Stalinist regimes were not models of socialism but a grotesque caricature.
Leon Trotsky, whose ideas we base ourselves on, was actually the first Russian ‘dissident’ against Stalinism, defending the ideals of the 1917 October revolution which he led alongside Vladimir Lenin, against a regime headed by Joseph Stalin which emerged and then consolidated itself in power in the 1920s, before Trotsky was assassinated by an agent of Stalin in 1940.
Trotsky defended, as we do, the 1917 revolution as the greatest democratic movement in history, transferring power from the landlords, the factory owners, the judges, the elite civil servants, the police chiefs, the army tops, the owners and editors of the means of communication, the university directors, and so on, to committees of the people, of workers and peasants – the soviets – democratising every aspect of economic and social life.
But the revolution took place in a relatively underdeveloped country, mainly a peasant economy, with mass illiteracy, facing armed intervention from 21 different countries, including Britain, which sent troops to Archangel, Vladivostok, and the oilfields of Azerbaijan.
And because the revolution did not spread to the West – above all to the more economically advanced Germany where a series of revolutionary opportunities were lost from 1918 to 1923 – mass participation in the running of society was under constant pressure and increasingly replaced by the rule of the officialdom, the administrators, the bureaucracy as Trotsky termed it, which consolidated itself as a system of rule in the 1920s.
Initially, with the removal of the old owners, state direction of the economy still saw enormous economic progress made, even under the rule of the bureaucracy. There are many different figures but even the ideologically pro-capitalist Economist magazine, on the hundredth anniversary of the 1917 Russian revolution, pointed out that manufacturing output in the USSR grew by over 170% from 1928 to 1940 while “the rest of the world wallowed in the Depression”. (11 November 2017)
But without the check of either workers’ democracy or the price signals of the capitalist market, this came with enormous overheads. So, after a new spurt in the period following the end of world war two, the economy began to stagnate, unable to incorporate new technology, for example, or be flexible enough to meet new consumer needs, with the bureaucracy moving from being a relative fetter to an absolute fetter.
So what failed in the late 1980s and early 1990s was not democratic planning of the economy by the mass of the population – but the unchecked, top-down, bureaucratic planning of an unaccountable elite. Yet still the collapse of that system – not socialism but Stalinism – was used to ‘prove’ that socialism was unworkable and that the capitalist market was the only viable way of organising society.
It was an objective defeat, ideologically, for the international working class that led to a period of capitalist triumphalism – a torrent of propaganda about the ‘end of history’ – summed up in a headline in the Wall Street Journal, ‘We Won’.
Impact on working-class organisation
The first consequence was the impact for a whole historical period on the confidence of even the most active, politically conscious workers in the possibility of socialism. This had its effect on working-class organisation in the 1990s – on the combativity of the trade unions and workers’ parties – exemplified in Britain as the leader of an international trend with the transformation of Labour into Tony Blair’s capitalist New Labour.
The Labour Party had been formed in 1900 as the result of the working class and its organisations coming into conflict with the capitalists and their political representatives in both the Conservative and Liberal parties, and drawing the conclusion of the need for their own independent party – which in turn developed their class consciousness by bringing workers together to discuss collectively their different sectional interests and their common struggle.
The party was a ‘capitalist workers party’, with a leadership which still reflected the outlook of the capitalist class but with a working-class base, and a structure through which the unions could move to challenge the leadership and threaten the capitalists’ interests. This meant that, until Blair, Labour governments, while reluctantly tolerated as a means of holding the working class in check, were simultaneously undermined and eventually brought down by the capitalists when they could no longer accomplish that task.
That dual character of the party meant that when – in 1960 – the right-wing Labour leader Hugh Gaitskell tried to abolish the socialist Clause Four of Labour’s constitution adopted in 1918 for “the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange”, he was met with a storm of protest in the workers’ organisations.
Even Harold Wilson, who went on to become prime minister in 1964, opposed the move, saying at the time that “nationalisation is to socialism what Genesis is to the Bible – it is the fundamental opener”. While Michael Foot, who also later became Labour leader in 1980, said: “Like it or not, one of the most spectacular events of our age is the comparative success of the communist economic system”.
Contrast that with 35 years later, in 1995 – just five years after the fall of the Berlin Wall – when Tony Blair was able to replace Clause Four with a new clause supporting the dynamic “enterprise of the market and the rigour of competition” with barely a whimper of opposition. And then back that up with organisational changes massively reducing the role of the unions within the Labour Party, to change its character into the completely capitalist dominated New Labour.
That process – of changing workers’ parties into capitalist formations, which was an international trend – would not have been possible without the new conditions created by the collapse of Stalinism.
New world order
The collapse of Stalinism in Russia and Eastern Europe was an ideological defeat but it had material consequences in creating a new world balance of forces, no longer shaped by the ‘clash of systems’ that had defined the post-war period after 1945.
US imperialism had emerged from the rubble of world war two as the overwhelmingly dominant power among the capitalist nations. But the other victor was Russian Stalinism, with the war against Nazi Germany being effectively won on the Eastern front – there were 454,000 deaths suffered by Britain in World War Two, military and civilian, but at least 20 million by the USSR. The strengthened prestige of Russian Stalinism was especially dangerous for capitalism as a model in the former colonial countries, exploited and underdeveloped by the imperialist powers. But generally it presented a systemic challenge as a non-capitalist society.
The fear this generated was revealed in one incident, which only came to light after the release of government papers under the 30-years rule in 1991. In 1960, the Russian premier Nikita Khrushchev had gone to the UN and boasted that the USSR would ‘catch up and surpass’ the West. The then British prime minister Harold Macmillian sent a memo to the Foreign Office asking, “do you suppose this is true?” – to which the reply was ‘Yes’, maybe by 1980! This actually shows that they didn’t understand the inherent contradictions of a planned economy without the check of workers’ democracy, how the grip of the bureaucracy meant that it was doomed to stagnation.
But that fear explains the US intervention in Korea, in Vietnam, the propping up of the military in Pakistan, the attempt to overturn the Cuban revolution, and so on.
And it also explains the common interest that was created between the different national capitalist powers, a ‘glue’ to patch over their conflicting interests. Tensions certainly persisted between them throughout the cold-war period – erupting openly on occasions – but a lid was kept on them by the check made on world capitalism by the very existence of the non-capitalist, Stalinist, states.
It was this international order that ended with the collapse of Stalinism in Russia and Eastern Europe, leaving the US as the world ‘hyperpower’.
The post-1945 international institutions were remoulded in the 1990s under US direction – GATT, set up in 1947, was re-launched as the World Trade Organisation (WTO) in 1995, for example – and under presidents George HW Bush and then Bill Clinton a ‘Washington Consensus’ was inaugurated of unrestrained access for US capital to the world markets – ‘globalisation’ – so that 85% of the global capital stock (in real terms) of the world’s multinational corporations has been generated after 1990.
This included the opening up of China, which was admitted to the WTO in 2010 – actually on stricter terms, on paper at least, than the ex-Stalinist states of Eastern Europe.
This was a period of ‘capitalism unleashed’ – of US capitalism in particular – backed up militarily: between 1989 and 2001 the US intervened abroad once every 16 months, more frequently than in any period in its history.
Things turn into their opposite
But things turn into their opposite. The era of ‘unleashed capitalism’ – with the ideological and organisational weakening of the check that workers’ organisation imposes on the capitalists – saw an explosion of inequality.
The share of national income, including capital gains, going to the top 1% in the US has doubled since 1980 from 10% to 20% (while the share of the top 0.01%, 16,000 families, went from 1% to 5%), back to 19th century levels of inequality. But this was not just in the USA. In Britain wages’ share of gross domestic product fell from a peak of 65% in 1976, to 53% in 2008.
However, the consequence of this shift in power to the capitalists over the working class was to weaken demand and deepen a fundamental contradiction of capitalism. As The Economist wrote in 2012, noting the irony, “a high share of GDP for profits results in a low share for wages and thus may eventually be self-limiting – a positively Marxist outcome”.
And things turned into their opposite in world relations too. Without the ‘glue’ of the ‘clash of systems’ pushing the capitalist nation states together, inter-imperialist rivalries resurfaced and deepened.
There has been a ‘block-isation’ of the world economy, with no new global trade round completed for twenty years – there are now over 300 regional trade agreements compared to just 70 in 1990.
The US was, and still is, the greatest military power – accounting for 35% of global military spending. But there are new flashpoints, not least between the US and the rising world power of China – which has brought capitalist relations into its economy over the past 30 years but under the direction of the state, and which therefore continues to be officially classified by the WTO as a ‘non-market economy’, still not compliant with the 2010 entry terms.
And the Iraq war was a moment of ‘imperial overreach’ by the US, producing a global movement of opposition with possibly 30 million demonstrating in over 600 cities in February 2003 – which the New York Times said showed there “may still be two superpowers on the planet: the United States and world public opinion”.
That movement was largely an elemental tide of protest – the ‘potential superpower of the street’ lacked organised form and clear political aims. It showed both that the effects of the collapse of Stalinism had still not been fully overcome, but also how they will be.
The 2007-08 financial crash was a further turning point in shifting mass consciousness, in undermining both the ideas and the institutions supporting the capitalists’ control of society, and responsible for the revival of basic socialist ideas – as shown in the Corbyn waves, the support for the Bernie Sanders’ US presidential campaigns, particularly in 2016, the initial Syriza victory in Greece in 2015, the rise in just a matter of years of Podemos in Spain, and so on.
Even if those movements didn’t realise their potential this time because of the weakness of their programmes, they show that ‘capitalism unleashed’ will generate mass opposition that looks to ‘socialism’ – because socialism is not just an idea but the reflection of the common, collective interests of the working class.
Thirty years is a long time in the life of an individual but a brief moment in history. We still need to answer the fear that socialism will inevitably lead to dictatorship – the lasting baleful legacy of Stalinism – but the main point is that events are showing that the idea of socialism can again become a mass force, a ‘fresh idea’ for millions.
And that the new era that is opening up will create the objective conditions once again for Marxists to boldly intervene – as we have done before in our history, as in Liverpool or the great anti-poll tax non-payment campaign – and begin a movement that could challenge the capitalist system itself and adopt a full programme for the socialist transformation of society.