The Soviet collapse: entirely unnecessary and utterly disastrous

This article originally appeared in the Morning Star

Thirty years ago, on 24 August 1991, President Mikhail Gorbachev dissolved the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) and resigned from his role as General Secretary. This was the first serious administrative step towards the dissolution of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. A day later, the Soviet flag outside the Kremlin was replaced with the Russian flag. From that moment, nothing meaningful remained of the Soviet state.

Boris Yeltsin quickly moved to ban the CPSU and to transfer its property to the Russian parliament, of which he was president. Before the year was out, the Soviet Union – the world’s first socialist state, and for seven decades the leading force of the socialist world – was erased from the map.

As far as bourgeois historians are concerned, the Soviet collapse was the natural and inevitable outcome of a misguided experiment; final proof of the all-round superiority of the capitalist system. From the standpoint of these capitalist ideologues, the dismantling of Soviet socialism was both necessary and desirable. However, from the standpoint of the Soviet workers, and indeed the working people of the world, the dismantling of Soviet socialism was entirely unnecessary and utterly disastrous.

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Why doesn’t the Soviet Union exist any more? Part 7: Capitalist restoration was a disaster for the global working class

There can be no more tragic spectacle in the history of humanity than that of a defeated revolution. When the revolt of the slaves in Rome was defeated, thousands were nailed to crosses on the roadside. This should give us an idea of what a defeated revolution is… There was also the dreadful slaughter of workers after the defeat of the Paris Commune [in 1871]. This, too, should give us an idea of what a defeated revolution is. History teaches us that a defeated revolution has to pay an extraordinary toll in blood. The victorious ruling class demands payment for the anxiety it experienced, for all the interests that were affected, or that were threatened. But it not only demands payment for present debts; it also seeks to collect, in blood, payment for future debts. It tries to annihilate the revolution down to its very roots. (Fidel Castro1)

A joke circulating in Russia in 1992 went like this. Q: What did capitalism accomplish in one year that communism could not do in seventy years? A: Make communism look good.2

From liberation to liberalisation

With the burden of Gorbachev’s social democratic fantasies lifted from his shoulders, Yeltsin went to work on behalf of his major constituency: the most corrupt and unscrupulous sections of the Russian nouveau riche, along with US finance capital. The goal was to totally wipe out the economic foundations of socialism and create a fully liberalised economy where capital would be free to reproduce without fear of restriction or regulation; an economic environment purpose-built for foreign investors, speculators, bankers and gangsters.

But, as Gregory Isaacs put it, “a rich man’s heaven is a poor man’s hell”. The welfare state was all but wiped out. The neoliberal economic advisors hired by Yeltsin – led by Jeffrey Sachs3 – mandated an end to price controls, meaning that the price of even the most essential commodities skyrocketed overnight. Unemployment went from practically nothing to over 12 percent within a few months. Asset-stripping reached dizzy new heights. Privatisation, deregulation and corruption were the order of the day, as production, government spending, earnings and even life expectancy plummeted: Kotz and Weir note that “from 1990 to 1994 male life expectancy in Russia fell from 65.5 years to 57.3 years… Such population decline normally occurs only as a result of major wars, epidemics, or famines.”4

As funding dried up, the healthcare infrastructure collapsed and the peoples of the former Soviet Union were subjected to epidemics of poverty-fuelled diseases not seen for many decades. “Azerbaijan has had a tenfold increase in measles, Uzbekistan suffered an outbreak of polio and typhoid fever has reappeared in Russia. Tuberculosis and syphilis are widespread, and the incidence of such children’s diseases as whooping cough and German measles has increased sharply”.5 Russia witnessed its first cholera epidemic since the 19th century.

In the first few years following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russian GDP and industrial production both contracted by more than 40 percent. “By comparison, in the United States the four-year economic contraction in 1929-33, which brought the American economy to the low point of the Great Depression, entailed a decline in gross national product of 30 per cent”.6 Needless to say, wages followed suit, and the Soviet people started to suffer serious poverty for the first time in many decades. According to a World Bank report on the ‘transition economies’ (all the former socialist countries of Central Europe, Eastern Europe and Central Asia), the number of people living on less than 4 dollars per day increased from 14 million in 1989 to 147 million in the mid-1990s. In Russia this corresponded to an increase from 2 percent to 44 percent; in Ukraine from 1 percent to 63 percent; in Central Asia from 6.5 percent to 53 percent.7

It took around 15 years for Russian GDP to recover to 1990 levels – during which period China’s GDP increased by around 300%. Even after GDP had returned to 1990 levels, the obscene levels of inequality meant that millions of Russians still lived with a level of poverty that hadn’t been seen in the Soviet Union since WWII. New problems emerged, most noticeably homelessness (including youth homelessness), drug addiction, social alienation and prostitution, all of which remain endemic in Russia today. A 2012 article notes: “The rate of alcohol and drug abuse among teenagers has increased dramatically, as have delinquency and suicide rates, which are likely related to the growing incidence of  domestic violence. By the mid-2000s, government spending on education per child dropped to half of the rate in 1990. Experts estimate that over 1.5 million children currently do not attend school.”8

Yegor Ligachev – one of the few members of the politburo in the late 1980s to resist the madness of glasnost – lamented:

During the years of Soviet power, a person was judged, not by his bag of loot, but by his labour, and lofty moral principles were reinforced: patriotism, internationalism, collectivism, industry, honour, justice. Now, all that is being stamped out of people’s consciousness and the historical connection is being broken. The current authorities and the mass media are encouraging the cult of gain, grovelling to the rich, contempt for the poor, speculation, hard drinking, prostitution and savage individualism.

Instead of the peace and quiet of the Soviet era, we are witnessing an unprecedented increase in crime and corruption, hundreds of thousands killed and wounded, and millions of refugees. All measures of development have taken a sharp downturn except mortality and crime – which are rising steeply. This is understandable. The property created by and belonging to the workers is being stolen, society is rife with alcoholism, and the number of unemployed and homeless is growing. The authorities cannot fight the very people they depend upon, that is, the speculators and the corrupt apparatus…

In the Soviet era … you could walk through any town at night without concern for your life; now murders and robberies are committed in broad daylight.9

The Soviet collapse also had a disastrous effect on cultural and social life. Michael Parenti points out that “subsidies for the arts and literature have been severely cut. Symphony orchestras have disbanded or taken to playing at block parties and other minor occasions. The communist countries used to produce inexpensive but quality editions of classical and contemporary authors and poets, including ones from Latin America, Asia and Africa. These have been replaced by second-rate, mass-market publications from the West. During the communist era, three of every five books in the world were produced in the Soviet Union. Today, as the cost of books, periodicals, and newspapers has skyrocketed and education has declined, readership has shrunk almost to Third World levels.”10 Racism, domestic abuse and violent crime all reared their ugly heads with the collapse of socialism.

No wonder a majority of Russians regret the collapse.11

Ironically, even elements within the western mainstream press now recognise that socialism offered a far better deal for ordinary people than neoliberal capitalism: “The planned economy of the vast Soviet Union offered financial stability. In the immediate aftermath of its 1991 crash, it quickly became apparent that Russia’s new market economy would offer a rocky ride. Economic reforms quickly had a harsh effect on general living standards. The rouble became almost worthless. Corruption was rampant. A deeply flawed privatisation programme helped put much of the country’s economy in the hands of an entrenched and often shady oligarchy.”12

It is now widely believed that US-led finance capital knowingly directed the post-Soviet Russian economy into disaster so as to: 1) thoroughly wipe out the economic roots of socialism by replacing it with gangster anarcho-capitalism; and 2) to prevent the Russian Federation from becoming a serious competitor to US hegemony in the ‘new world order’.

So much for democracy

Yeltsin in power confirmed what every thinking person suspected: he had not the slightest interest in democracy. The brutal neoliberalism imposed on the Russian people could never have enjoyed popular legitimacy – how to win widespread support for the dismantling of social welfare and the transfer of the state’s assets to a bunch of bureaucrats and crooks? Therefore a corrupt, plutocratic political system was installed that openly favoured the enormously wealthy and that actively excluded the poor.

In stark contrast to their role during Soviet times, trade unions were barred from political activity. Pro-communist and anti-Yeltsin media were routinely banned.13

By autumn 1993, Yeltsin was facing serious opposition even within the Russian parliament, a majority of whose members were appalled by the results of the neoliberal ‘reform’ and Yeltsin’s use of extraordinary executive powers to push his programme though. A constitutional crisis arose when Yeltsin decided to put an end to the pesky parliamentary opposition by dissolving the legislature (unconstitutional dissolution seems by this point to have become something of a habit). The parliament responded by denouncing Yeltsin’s actions, impeaching him and declaring vice president Aleksandr Rutskoy acting president. The crisis was only ‘resolved’ when Yeltsin ordered the army to storm the Supreme Soviet and arrest the parliamentary leaders that opposed him. Quite the democratic transformation.

Stephen Cohen notes that “the most influential pro-Yeltsin intellectuals were neither coincidental fellow travellers nor real democrats. Since the late 1980s they had insisted that free-market economics and large-scale private property would have to be imposed on Russian society by an ‘iron hand’ regime using ‘anti-democratic measures’. Like the property-seeking elites, they saw Russia’s newly elected legislatures as an obstacle. Admirers of Chile’s Augusto Pinochet, they said of Yeltsin: ‘Let him be a dictator!’ Not surprisingly, they cheered (along with the US government and mainstream media) when he used tanks to destroy Russia’s popularly elected parliament in 1993.”14

Three years later, in 1996, the Russian presidential elections were almost certainly fixed so as to maintain Yeltsin in power at the expense of the Communist Party candidate, Gennady Zyuganov.15

Yeltsin portrayed himself as the ‘father of Russian democracy’; in reality he was its leading assassin.

Global tragedy

The destruction of socialism in the USSR … inflicted terrible damage on all peoples of the world and created a bad situation for the Third World in particular. (Fidel Castro16)

The importance of the USSR’s role as a counterweight to US/Nato imperialism was made achingly clear by the series of imperialist wars that took place during and after the Soviet demise. Symbolic of this shifting power balance is Saddam Hussein’s misplaced hope in early 1991 that Gorbachev would act to restrain US warmongering against Iraq.17 The Soviet Union was supposed to be a great power, a longstanding ally of Iraq, with its Armenian borders extending to within a couple of hundred kilometres of Iraqi Kurdistan, and Gorbachev’s government did nothing to protect Iraq from invasion by a predatory imperialist power on the other side of the world. It’s rather difficult to imagine Stalin or Brezhnev presiding over such a mockery.

Horrifically destructive US-led wars soon followed in Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Iraq (again), Libya and elsewhere. The campaign to destroy Syria’s independence continues to this day.

In the post-Cold War world order, neutrality was no longer tolerable. Many states quickly modified their nationalist orientation and semi-socialist policies to play by the rules of global capitalism, but only complete capitulation was accepted. Any country that contradicted Washington’s plans and erected some barriers to the penetration of imperialist capital could find itself in the crosshairs. Immediately after the fall of the Soviet Union, the U.S. attacked Iraq, and then, in the Clinton years Somalia, Sudan, Haiti and Yugoslavia… After launching a ‘demonstration’ war against Afghanistan in 2001, Bush declared an ‘axis of evil’ — Iraq, Iran and North Korea — a hit list for further regime change efforts.18

The balance of power in the world changed sharply, with the overwhelming majority of European socialist states being replaced by right-wing governments and incorporated into Nato (despite the promises made by the US and West Germany that there would be no eastward expansion of Nato).19 The economic crisis ‎occasioned by the Soviet collapse also led to the demise of socialism in Mongolia.

With China yet to become the economic powerhouse it now is, underdeveloped countries in need of investment were left with no choice but to look to the US and the Bretton Woods institutions. As a result, ‘structural adjustment’ became the order of the day, and many poorer countries had no choice but to accept privatisation and austerity on a grand scale in exchange for loans that were desperately needed to avert acute crises.

Of the remaining socialist countries, Cuba, Vietnam and DPR Korea suffered particularly badly as a result of the sudden disappearance of the Soviet Union (and its friendly trade terms). It is a testament to the remarkable courage, creativity and vision of the Cuban, Vietnamese and Korean people that those countries have recovered from the shock of the early 1990s and continue building socialism today.

The collapse of the Soviet Union and European socialism could reasonably be described as the worst defeat suffered by the global working class in its history. It gave a lifeline to imperialism and set back the cause of human liberation by several decades.

The next, and final, article in this series attempts to answer the question: Will the People’s Republic of China suffer the same fate as the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics? In doing so, it will suggest a few conclusions from the preceding articles and outline some ideas around advancing the struggle for socialism in the coming decades.

  1. May Day rally in Havana, 1961. Cited in The Fidel Castro Reader, Ocean Press, 2003 

  2. Parenti, Michael: Blackshirts and Reds, City Lights Publishers, 2001 

  3. For further information on Sachs’ role, see New York Times: Dr. Jeffrey Sachs, Shock Therapist 

  4. David Kotz, Fred Weir: Revolution From Above – The Demise of the Soviet System, Routledge, 1997 

  5. LA Times: Infectious diseases flourishing in former USSR as living standards fall 

  6. Kotz and Weir, op cit 

  7. These figures sourced from Socialist Action: 10 Years After 1989 

  8. Institute of Modern Russia: Russia’s Invisible Children 

  9. Inside Gorbachev’s Kremlin: The Memoirs Of Yegor Ligachev, Westview Press, 1996 

  10. Parenti, op cit 

  11. That most Russians regret the Soviet collapsed is well established by a number of opinion polls. See for example RT: Most Russians regret USSR collapse, dream of its return, poll shows 

  12. Washington Post: Why do so many people miss the Soviet Union? 

  13. See, for example, UPI: Anti-Yeltsin media banned, liberal paper attacked by militants 

  14. The Guardian: The breakup of the Soviet Union ended Russia’s march to democracy 

  15. This is even admitted by the US media these days. For example Time: Did Boris Yeltsin Steal the 1996 Presidential Election? 

  16. Tomás Borge: El Nuevo Diario Interview with Fidel Castro 

  17. New York Times: Hussein Wanted Soviets to Head Off US in 1991 

  18. Imperialism in the 21st Century: Updating Lenin’s Theory a Century Later, Liberation Media, 2015 

  19. Spiegel Online: Did the West Break Its Promise to Moscow? 

Why doesn’t the Soviet Union exist any more? Part 6: Things fall apart (1989-91)

Many of us aspire to change the world for the better: you are among the few who have successfully done so. (John Major to Mikhail Gorbachev, December 19911)

The early Gorbachev era was relatively exciting and inspiring; there was a sense that the new General Secretary had the energy, creativity and commitment to lead the USSR out of economic stagnation and political disillusionment. By 1987, this initial excitement had waned, replaced with apprehension and worry. Economic growth, which in 1985 had been relatively slow, was by now anaemic, and the Communist Party was being actively marginalised. Many party members and leaders started to wonder – some openly – if perestroika and glasnost were really such great ideas after all.2

Nonetheless, the years 1987 to 1989 were still pretty much business as usual in the USSR. People went to work, received their salaries, and enjoyed an acceptable standard of living. Economics professor David Kotz notes that “the increasingly radical economic reforms of the late 1980s were disruptive, but economic growth continued at 2.2% per year from 1985-89. The Soviet economy did not have a single year of economic contraction over the whole period from 1950 to 1989”.3 However, from 1989 the winds of change picked up pace and gathered into a hurricane, the destructive power of which caught the masses off-guard and ultimately turned Soviet socialism to rubble.

By 1989, Gorbachev and his allies had completed their quiet coup, consolidating their power, removing enemies and rivals from positions of influence, and creating an open road for their ‘restructuring’. In the Congress of People’s Deputies, they now had a legislative body that was more-or-less free from the reins of socialist sanity that might otherwise be applied by ‘conservatives’ and ‘hardliners’. The media had succeeded in creating a political atmosphere in which any criticism of perestroika was simply ‘Stalinism’ – a word whose usage had come to imply acceptance of the most hyperbolic McCarthyite propaganda.

The leadership used its new-found freedom to start implementing much more radical reforms, closing down the central planning agencies altogether, liberalising prices, establishing market-based trade between the republics, and forcing state enterprises to survive or die in the open market. Many large enterprises were sold off at bargain-basement prices to budding capitalist opportunists. These abrupt, hasty and sweeping reforms were meant to introduce ‘dynamism’ into the economy; to leverage the supposedly dormant creative spirit of the Soviet people; to incentivise innovation and quality. Judged against their purported intent, the reforms were spectacularly unsuccessful, leading to the first recession in Soviet history and to terrible shortages of low-margin and previously subsidised products: “the Soviet economy moved from a condition of severe problems to one of crisis”.4

At the turn of the decade, the economy was in free-fall. With discontent rising and the CPSU in forced retreat, other political forces started to rise. Nationalist separatists in the non-Russian republics were able to prey on rising popular anxiety over the economy. Russian demagogues started denouncing the unequal relationship within the union whereby a wealthier Russia helped to sustain living conditions in central Asia. ‘Radical reformers’ like Boris Yeltsin, strongly backed by western media and money, stirred up mass discontent. Strikes became a feature of everyday life. The threat of counter-revolution, previously unthinkable, became all too real.

Dangerous economic deterioration

Kotz and Weir describe the deteriorating economic and social situation in 1989-90: “The Soviet Union experienced ever-lengthening lines outside stores, the rationing of more and more commodities, and the complete disappearance of many goods from the stores. The growing shortages had a profound impact on the political climate, changing it from one of optimism to one of crisis. This made it much easier for advocates of more radical changes to gain a serious hearing.”5

The following year, per capita GDP fell by around 15 percent; the reformers’ blind faith in the inherent corrective power of the market turned out to be misplaced; investment collapsed. “Net fixed investment declined at the astounding rate of 21 per cent in 1990 and an estimated 25 per cent in 1991.”

Price liberalisation inevitably led to speculation and inflation, which in turn exacerbated the acute shortages of everyday consumer items, in particular food. This had its most visible manifestation in the notorious shopping queues that were much talked about in the west and which were, ironically, used as examples of the failure of socialism. Keeran and Kenny observe: ”Private hoarding by consumers and, more important, public hoarding by republics and cities, spread dramatically, first with respect to food, then other consumer goods. Empty food shelves, the most glaring and most resented shortage, drew sharp public anger and had widespread political, psychological, and economic results”.6

In 1989 and 1990, socialist allies in Europe were transformed overnight into pro-western capitalist regimes, leading to further imbalances in the Soviet economy – the USSR had long enjoyed a symbiotic trade relationship with the German Democratic Republic, Poland, Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania and Czechoslovakia – as well as to a growing popular perception that the writing was on the wall for European socialism. Much frustrated by the economic crisis, and falling prey to the cynical demagoguery of Yeltsin and his coterie, who blamed all problems on socialist planning and the ‘privileged bureaucracy’, coal miners carried out strikes on an unprecedented scale. This contributed to a crisis of legitimacy. Gorbachev had little choice but to go running to the western banks, with which the Soviet Union quickly worked up a sizeable debt.

Yegor Ligachev, the most prominent ‘hardliner’ (ie socialist) on the scene at the time, describes the dangerously unstable situation of 1990-91: ”The consumer goods shortage hit hard, and people’s dissatisfaction mounted. In the republics of the former Soviet Union, separatist tendencies gained strength. The Soviet Union’s position in the international arena was weakened. There arose in the country political movements that aimed at eliminating the Soviet system and creating a society on the western model. Relying on active support from foreign powers, the shadow economy, the ‘elite’ of the creative intelligentsia, and a portion of the state apparatus, by means of deceit and demagoguery, especially regarding the nonexistent privileges of the nomenklatura [high-level party appointees], these movements were able to enlist the support of a certain segment of society”.7

In spite of everything, most people wanted to stick to socialism

“Our people have never rejected socialism. They were simply deceived by demagoguery and false promises.”8

As bad as things got, the Soviet working class was still not won over en masse to the putative delights of capitalism. Even with the level of ideological deterioration that had taken place; even with the pernicious influence of a hostile, anti-communist media; Soviet workers remained proud of the world-shaking achievements of their forebears and of the USSR’s record of solidarity with the global anti-colonial and anti-imperialist struggle. These were for the most part educated people whose loyalty could not so easily be bought. Many understood that the luxurious and carefree lifestyle portrayed in Hollywood movies had its counterpart in the suffering and exploitation of the western working classes and the oppressed masses of the developing world. Indeed there were many in the grassroots of the CPSU that were highly critical of the retreat from Marxism-Leninism, but these were precisely the elements that were disenfranchised under Gorbachev’s glasnost.

Facing a nationalist-separatist challenge throughout the federation, the Soviet government decided in late 1990 to hold a referendum on the preservation of the USSR – the only referendum in Soviet history. On 17 March 1991, Soviet people across the union went to the polls to give a yes-or-no answer to the question: “Do you consider it necessary to preserve the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics as a renewed federation of equal sovereign republics, which will fully guarantee the rights and freedoms of all nationalities?”

The vote was boycotted by the governing bodies in Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Armenia, Moldova and Georgia, but in the rest of the country turnout was 80%, with 147 million total votes cast. The result was an overwhelming majority in favour of maintaining the USSR: 78% voted in favour.

Interestingly, the proportion of ‘yes’ votes was slightly lower in Russia (73%) and Ukraine (71%) but extremely high in the Central Asian republics (over 94% in Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan) and Belarus. This reflects a growing eurocentrism and reactionary nationalism within Russia and Ukraine that resented sharing a state with ‘backward’ and ‘burdensome’ Asians – a prejudice that Yeltsin and others played to. Realising that there was precious little support for dismantling socialism in the Central Asian and Caucasian republics, and reasoning that an independent Russia constituted a more promising environment for the type of free-market capitalism he had in mind, Yeltsin led the drive towards greater autonomy for Russia. He is on record as saying, in 1990, “I soon understood that there would be no radical reforms at an all-Union level … and so I thought to myself: If the reforms cannot be carried out at that level, why not try in Russia?”.9

Even the lead capitalist restorationists didn’t feel confident enough to talk about getting rid of socialism altogether, because they knew they would never get a popular mandate for their plans. Yeltsin didn’t talk openly about capitalism, only about accelerating the reforms, removing the privileges of the ‘nomenklatura’ and ending the CPSU’s monopoly on power. Kotz and Weir write: “Yeltsin and his associates understood that a large majority of the Russian public were unfavourable toward the prospect of free-market capitalism. But the majority responded very well to criticism of the Communist Party leadership and to appeals for faster market reform, democratisation, and greater autonomy for the Russian Republic.”10

Soviet workers wanted to maintain and improve socialism and maintain the union; the USSR’s dissolution at the end of 1991 was in that sense profoundly anti-democratic. However, crisis and confusion were so entrenched that, while people might vote for socialism, most weren’t mobilised to fight for it.

The balance of forces favoured the capitalist restorationists

In spite of their catchphrases about ‘democratisation’, the anti-communists had absolutely no interest in the will of the Soviet people. Instead, they were intent on pushing through their programme of capitalist restoration by any means necessary. Thanks largely to perestroika and glasnost, they had both the economic incentive and political leverage to dismantle socialism, break up the USSR and send its people hurtling into an economic and social crisis of untold proportions (about which more in the next article in the series).

The major constituency pushing for capitalism was, to use Kotz and Weir’s terminology, the party-state elite – mid-level officials and enterprise managers who had taken advantage of their extensive connections and new-found economic freedoms to win control of assets and engage in trade and finance. Dissolution of the USSR offered such people (together with the bigger players in the underground economy) the promise of a completely deregulated trade environment in which they’d be able to get unimaginably rich, albeit at the expense of the remaining 99% of the population. Kotz and Weir discuss the mechanics of how these people came into money, and why the destruction of socialism was so close to their hearts:

The decree on foreign trade of 1988 opened an important means to get rich. The Soviet Union’s low controlled prices made many Soviet goods, particularly oil and metals, potentially lucrative export items for anyone who could get hold of them. After this decree opened up foreign trade to private firms, import-export companies were formed, in the legal form of cooperatives, which soon began to conduct a partly legal, partly illegal, and very profitable export trade. Over three thousand such firms were formed… By 1990-91 a new group of private capitalists had developed and was getting rich mainly through connections with the outside world… Any turn away from the emerging pro-capitalist direction of change, toward either a return to the building of a reformed socialism, or an effort to bring back the pre-perestroika system, would threaten the basis of their lucrative economic endeavours. Proceeding to capitalism was essential to the survival of their new businesses.

This pro-capitalist constituency had money. And money, for the first time, had become a significant factor in the Soviet political scene. ‘Free elections’ turned out not to be so free in the case of the Congress of People’s Deputies, where money bought high-profile campaigns and extensive media coverage. This was an unfamiliar environment for the silent majority in the Communist Party that had been brought up to believe that political leadership was a responsibility and honour earned through service to the people, not paid for with ill-gotten gains. This change, together with Gorbachev’s insistence on dropping quotas for working class representation, meant that “a striking change occurred in the percentage of deputies who were workers, collective farmers and office employees: this dropped from 45.9% of the 1984 Supreme Soviet to only 23.1% in 1989”.11 The counterpart to this was the monumental increase in the representation of management and intelligentsia.

With the formation of the overtly anti-communist ‘Democratic Russia’ movement in January 1990, the pro-capitalist elements joined forces and consolidated around a political vehicle that seemed to offer the quickest possible route to their chosen destination. Democratic Russia candidates managed to win a plurality of seats in the Russian parliamentary elections of March 1990, including several key Soviets (Moscow and Leningrad among them).

Democratic Russia also played the major role in electing Boris Yeltsin as Chair of the Russian Parliament in May 1990. By this time, Yeltsin had become recognised as the undisputed leader of the anti-communist opposition. He resigned from the Communist Party in June 1990, realising that his differences with Gorbachev were insurmountable: Gorbachev, for all his ineptitude and liberalism, still hoped to keep the USSR together and maintain some elements of socialism – for example the welfare state.

We are well aware of our weaknesses and unresolved problems, but neither can we forget the fact that socialism has given every one of us the right to work and to an education, free medical service, and accessible housing. These are genuine values in our society which provide social protection for the individual today and for the future.12

Yeltsin and his cohort wanted to press ahead with ‘shock therapy’ neoliberalism and had lost patience with Gorbachev. Yeltsin’s bold statements against the communist ‘conservatives’, his nationalist demagoguery, and his carefully nurtured (and entirely inaccurate) image of incorruptibility won him phenomenally high approval ratings from 1989 onwards. The reactionaries placed their hopes in his shaking hands.

The imperialist countries made it perfectly clear which side they were on, openly stating that any support for the Russian economy via the international banks would be predicated on an economic programme of large-scale privatisation and deregulation. Within this framework, “saving Russia” meant embracing the most brutal neoliberalism.

Counter-revolution in Europe

Reagan’s vocal support to ‘pro-democracy’ movements in Europe, along with Gorbachev’s clear indications that the Soviet Union wouldn’t intervene militarily to protect its allies, gave a tremendous impetus to the project of capitalist restoration across the region. With communists almost entirely sidelined in Moscow, pro-capitalist and pro-perestroika elements in the rest of the Warsaw Treatyf zone were emboldened. Well-funded western-backed organisations were able to use sophisticated marketing and radical posturing in order to leverage popular dissatisfaction into powerful movements for counter-revolutionary change. In the words of Margot Honecker, people came to believe they could “join together the glittering world of commodities under capitalism and the social security of socialism”.13

In August 1989, following extended negotiations between the Polish government and the ‘Solidarity’ union movement (a grateful recipient of bountiful CIA funds and papal support), leading anticommunist Tadeusz Mazowiecki became prime minister and Poland became the first of the European socialist states to fall.

Perhaps the most dramatic and symbolic events in Europe were in the German Democratic Republic, where large demonstrations were held, initially calling for greater democracy and bemoaning a stagnant economy. Anti-communist elements saw their opportunity and started steering the demonstrations towards a demand for German reunification – thereby implying that the GDR authorities were responsible for the ongoing division of the country.

As an aside, it’s worth noting that the basic history of German partition and the Berlin Wall continues to be wilfully misrepresented. In the negotiations over the status of postwar Europe at Yalta and Potsdam, the Soviet Union and its allies in the German Communist Party (KPD) had pushed strongly for a unified German state that would have multiparty elections, that would be prevented from rearmament and that would be committed to neutrality. This approach took into account both the wishes of the German people and the Soviet Union’s need to avoid another major war. Anxious to maintain a military foothold in Germany, the US and Britain worked with right-wing forces in the western zone (including many former Nazis) to set up a separate state in western Germany: the Federal German Republic (FRG), established in May 1949. It was only then that the GDR was set up as a separate, socialist state. The border in Berlin then became the nexus for covert actions by western imperialism against the socialist bloc (let nobody forget that, throughout this era, US-led capitalism was waging a horrifically violent global crusade against progressive forces, from Cuba to Korea, from Vietnam to Indonesia, from Guatemala to Congo). The constant threat of war was the sole reason for the construction of the Berlin Wall. Margot Honecker notes: “The Political Advisory Committee, which was the governing body of the Warsaw Treaty states, decided in the summer of 1961 to close the border in Berlin and the western state border after they decided a military confrontation could no longer be ruled out. I do not think that one can call the prevention of a possible third world war a mistake.”14

The counter-revolution in the GDR picked up pace rapidly after the Hungarian state – by now well advanced along the road of its own version of perestroika – tore down its border with Austria. Much encouraged by the western authorities, several hundred East Germans took the opportunity to cross the Austria-Hungary border and make their way to the FRG. This created a panic situation in East Berlin. In November 1989, crowds of Germans on both sides started dismantling the wall. Given the ‘facts on the ground’ created by the Hungarian border opening and the Soviet refusal to intervene, the authorities in the GDR – by now vulnerable and indecisive, with the Erich Honecker leadership sidelined – chose not to prevent the fall of the wall. Within a year, the GDR ceased to exist.

By 1990, communist parties had been removed from power in Poland, Germany, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria and Romania. Albania would soon follow suit, and Yugoslavia was descending into a series of nationalist secessions and terrible wars. The Warsaw Treaty of collective security was disbanded in February 1991. A few months later the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (popularly known as Comecon) was dissolved.

The collapse of the socialist states in Central and Eastern Europe served to significantly increase the pressure on Soviet socialism. At the most practical level, there had been a tight economic integration between the CMEA countries: a similar economic model meant that economic planning could be internationalised. The sudden disappearance of the USSR’s key trading partners meant a vertiginous decline in imports and exports, leading to sudden shortages of various essential goods.

The rising tide of nationalism in the USSR

National tensions started to escalate in the Gorbachev period, fuelled to a significant degree by Gorbachev’s insensitivity to the national question and his purge against those not toeing the perestroika line. Breaking with the tradition that the politburo and central committee should have representation from all the republics, Gorbachev oversaw a ‘russification’ of the central bodies, feeding into resentment and rising complaints about Russian chauvinism. For example, the highly capable Azeri leader Heydar Aliyev, promoted by Andropov to the position of First Deputy Premier of the Soviet Union, was unceremoniously kicked out of the politburo in 1987.15 Another senior party leader from Azerbaijan, Nikolai Baibakov, was fired in 1985.16 Dinmukhamed Kunayev, longstanding party head in Kazakhstan and a full politburo member for 16 years, was also dismissed as a result of his ambivalence regarding perestroika. His replacement as Kazakh party chairman by Gennady Kolbin – a Russian who had never lived in Kazakhstan – prompted rioting on the streets of the capital, Almaty.17

The sorry state of affairs in the Soviet economy gave a further stimulus to nationalist separatist movements, particularly in the western republics. Between March and May 1990, national separatists dominated the elections to the Supreme Soviet in Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia; all three republics promptly declared independence. Although Gorbachev opposed the independence of the Baltic states, he ultimately chose to accept it rather than enforce the union and thereby invoke the ire of his new-found friends on the international scene: US president George HW Bush and German chancellor Helmut Kohl.

By late 1990, with the writing on the wall for the union, the remaining republics had declared ‘sovereignty’ (not independence), asserting control over their own territory and the economic resources within it. The first republic to do so was in fact Russia, in June 1990 – an unconstitutional move by Yeltsin motivated primarily by the neoliberal hawks’ desire to go faster and further down the capitalist road than Gorbachev was willing to. The other republics responded to Russia’s declaration in kind. Kotz and Weir write that the passage of the sovereignty law in Russia ”had an immediate and profound effect on the other republics, transforming the nature of the nationalist impulses coursing through the republics. However much ethnic Russians might have dominated the Soviet system, the structure of the Union at least provided some safeguards and powers, as well as significant economic benefits, to the non-Russian republics. For example, Russia’s plentiful raw materials had been provided cheaply throughout the Soviet Union. Now the Russian Republic was asserting its right to control its own natural resources and their disposition. The leaderships of the republics which had previously been relatively quiet now immediately passed sovereignty resolutions. By August 1990 sovereignty resolutions had been passed by Uzbekistan, Moldavia, Ukraine, Turkmenistan, and Tajikistan. By October even loyal Kazakhstan followed suit as well.”

The breakup of the integrated economic system had an acute economic impact. “Since the beginnings of Soviet state socialism, the economy had been built as a highly integrated mechanism. Many products, including critical industrial inputs, were produced by only one or two enterprises for the entire Soviet market. A single factory in Baku was the sole manufacturer of deep-water pumps. One consortium produced all of the Soviet Union’s air conditioners. An estimated 80 percent of the products of the Soviet machinery industry had a single source of supply. Now many of the links in this highly integrated economy began to break down, as traditional supply relations between enterprises located in different republics were disrupted by the autonomy policies pursued by the newly assertive republics… This process was a major contributing factor to the economic contraction of 1990-91”.18

Too little, too late: the events of August 1991

By mid-1991, the confidence of the anti-socialist opposition was growing by the day. On 20 July, Yeltsin issued a decree banning the Russian branch of the communist party from operating in government offices and workplaces within the Russian Republic.19 It was perfectly obvious to all concerned that this was a power grab aimed at finishing off the CPSU and establishing Russia as an independent (capitalist) country.

Seeing their country hurtling towards oblivion – and recognising that Gorbachev lacked either the will or the ability to save it – a group of high-level Soviet officials organised themselves to take control of the country and establish a state of emergency, with a view to pausing the reforms and pursuing all measures to prevent the dissolution of the USSR. These officials organised themselves under the name State Committee on the State of Emergency (SCSE). Among them were some of the government’s top leaders, including Gennady Yanayev (Vice President), Valentin Pavlov (Premier), Boris Pugo (Interior Minister) and Dmitry Yazov (Defence Minister). They were joined by army commander-in-chief Valentin Varennikov and KGB head Vladimir Kryuchkov.

On 18 August, with Gorbachev on holiday in the Crimea, tanks moved into Moscow and a state of emergency was declared. The SCSE issued its Appeal to the Soviet People on 19 August, noting that “there have emerged extremist forces which have adopted a course toward liquidation of the Soviet Union, the collapse of the state and the seizure of power at any price” and denouncing the economic reforms which had caused “a sharp drop in the living standards of the overwhelming majority of the population and the flowering of speculation and the shadow economy”.20 The statement promised to clamp down on the emerging capitalist class and to initiate a country-wide discussion on the future of the federation.

However, the SCSE leadership quickly developed an acute case of cold feet, dropping its plan to storm the Russian parliament and showing no willingness to use force in support of its aims. They didn’t even perform the most basic preparatory task of cutting off Yeltsin’s telephone. Gao Di, chief editor of People’s Daily and high-ranking member of the Chinese Communist Party, wrote at the time that the SCSE “should simply have arrested Yeltsin and Gorbachev before they did anything else, just as we did the Gang of Four… You do not ask a tiger politely for his skin – either you kill him or he will kill you!”.21

On 21 August, Kryuchkov flew to Crimea in an attempt to persuade Gorbachev to give his stamp of approval to the SCSE and to join them in forestalling Yeltsin’s plans. “Gorbachev would not meet them. At 2:30 am on August 22nd Gorbachev returned to Moscow on the presidential plane along with the Russian Republic’s Vice President Rutskoi (Yeltsin’s ally, who had arrived in Foros on another plane), and Kryuchkov. Kryuchkov had agreed to join Gorbachev on the presidential plane, on the basis of a promise he would speak as an equal with Gorbachev. On landing, however, Kryuchkov was arrested by Soviet authorities. Back in Moscow, Gorbachev resumed formal power, though his real power was fast slipping into the hands of Yeltsin. At 9 am on August 22 the Soviet Ministry of Defence decided to withdraw its troops from Moscow, and the bizarre drama came to an end”.22

All in all, it was a thoroughly inept and half-hearted operation. As Gennady Zyuganov, leader of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation, remarked many years later in a statement on the death of Gennady Yanayev: “If they had acted much more decisively, our unified country would have been preserved”.23 Ligachev similarly remarks: “They courageously attempted to preserve the Soviet Union. If they are to be criticised, it is for their inconsistency and indecision”.24

Yeltsin was quick to exploit the events to further his own position and accelerate the overthrow of socialism. The pro-capitalist leadership within the Russian parliament immediately denounced the coup attempt, and called their supporters to defend Moscow’s White House (the base of the parliament), where the speakers called openly and defiantly for ending socialism without further delay. “This appeared to be the final confrontation over what system would prevail in the country. Russian Republic vice-president Alexandr Rutskoi told the crowd that ‘Either we shall live like the rest of the world, or we shall continue to call ourselves “the socialist choice” and “the Communist prospect”, and live like pigs.’ Former top Gorbachev aide Alexandr Yakovlev and former foreign minister Shevardnadze, who had left Gorbachev’s camp, joined the crowd at the White House.”25

The image of Yeltsin sitting atop a tank outside the Russian Parliament served as powerful fuel for his self-promotion engine, appearing on TV screens and front pages across the country and around the world. In the mainstream narrative, he was a courageous democrat, a hero of all that is good and pure. As Keeran and Kenny put it, the ultimate effect of the August crisis was to “enable Boris Yeltsin to seize full power in Russia, eliminate the moribund CPSU and do away with the USSR. That was the real coup.”26

The inexorable tide of disaster

With the SCSE defeated and imprisoned, events moved at lightning pace. On 23 August, Yeltsin pushed through the suspension of the Russian branch of the Communist Party. On August 24, Gorbachev dissolved the CPSU Central Committee and resigned from his role as General Secretary (maintaining his position as President of the country). A day later, Yeltsin ordered the transfer of the Russian Communist Party’s property to the Russian Parliament. The Soviet flag outside the Kremlin was replaced with the Russian flag. Nothing meaningful remained of the Soviet state.

In early November, Yeltsin issued decree number 169, banning the CPSU altogether. He sought to justify this move on the basis that “it has become evident that as long as the CPSU structures exist, there can be no guarantee against one more putsch or a coup”.27 This was thoroughly disingenuous, given that his executive order restricting the party’s activities in Russia was one of the key factors precipitating the SCSE’s attempt to restore socialist governance. However, there was by now nobody left in the leadership with the courage or strength to sabotage Yeltsin’s bourgeois bulldozer.

Yeltsin ignored the negotiations for a new union agreement and moved purposefully towards declaring Russian independence. On 8 December, he met with the Ukrainian and Belorussian presidents, Leonid Kravchuk and Stanislav Shushkevich, ostensibly for informal discussions. At this meeting, the presidents and their advisers drafted a document (known as the Belavezha Accords) announcing – with absolutely no legal authority – the dissolution of the Soviet Union: “The USSR, as a subject of international law and a geopolitical reality, is ceasing its existence.”28 Shushkevich’s memory of the discussion gives some idea as to how much attention was paid to the nuances of constitutional law: “Yeltsin said, ‘Would you agree for the Soviet Union to end its existence?’ I said OK and Kravchuk said OK too.”29

Even Gorbachev was shocked at the arbitrary and sudden nature of this declaration. “The fate of the multinational state cannot be determined by the will of the leaders of three republics. The question should be decided only by constitutional means with the participation of all sovereign states and taking into account the will of all their citizens… The hastiness with which the document appeared is also of serious concern. It was not discussed by the populations nor by the Supreme Soviets of the republics in whose name it was signed. Even worse, it appeared at the moment when the draft treaty for a Union of Sovereign States, drafted by the USSR State Council, was being discussed by the parliaments of the republics”.30

As discussed above, there was little support for Soviet dissolution in the Central Asian and Caucasian republics, but it wasn’t conceivable to carry the Soviet Union on without its most populous and prominent component. The Belavezha Accords were ratified a week later by the leaders of the remaining republics. Gorbachev’s resignation finally came on 25 December 1991. With no legal precedent or constitutional framework, Yeltsin simply transferred the Soviet state bodies and property to Russia, and on 31 December, the Soviet Union formally ceased to exist. This was the real coup d’etat. A great country was removed from the map, against the wishes of the majority of its people, by opportunist and conniving leaders. It was nothing short of a tragedy.

The next article will discuss the effects of the Soviet collapse, both within the territory of the former USSR and in the wider world.

  1. Financial Times: EBRD drew up debt-for-nuclear swap plan as Soviet Union fell 

  2. See part 5 of this series for an extensive discussion of perestroika and glasnost. 

  3. David Kotz: One Hundred Years after the Russian Revolution: Looking Back and Looking Forward, International Critical Thought, October 2017 

  4. David Kotz, Fred Weir, Revolution From Above – The Demise of the Soviet System, Routledge, 1997 

  5. ibid 

  6. Roger Keeran, Thomas Kenny: Socialism Betrayed – Behind the collapse of the Soviet Union, International Publishers, 2004 

  7. Inside Gorbachev’s Kremlin: The Memoirs Of Yegor Ligachev, Westview Press, 1996 

  8. My Russia: The Political Autobiography of Gennady Zyuganov, Routledge, 1997 

  9. Cited in Keeran and Kenny, op cit 

  10. Kotz and Weir, op cit 

  11. Sam Marcy: Perestroika: A Marxist Critique, WW Publishers, 1990 (Introduction

  12. Interview in Pravda, 22 June 1987, cited in Marcy, op cit (Chapter 10

  13. Workers World: Interview with Margot Honecker 

  14. ibid 

  15. BBC News: Obituary: Heydar Aliyev 

  16. New York Times: Nikolai K. Baibakov, a Top Soviet Economic Official, Dies at 97 

  17. NB. Almaty was at the time known as Alma-Ata 

  18. Kotz and Weir, op cit 

  19. New York Times: Yeltsin Bans Communist Groups in Government 

  20. Cited in Keeran and Kenny, op cit 

  21. Cited in David Shambaugh, China’s Communist Party – Atrophy and Adaptation, University of California Press, 2008 

  22. Keeran and Kenny, op cit 

  23. Al Jazeera: Leader of failed Soviet coup dies 

  24. Ligachev, op cit 

  25. Kotz and Weir, op cit 

  26. Keeran and Kenny, op cit 

  27. UPI: Yeltsin bans Communist Party 

  28. New York Times: Texts of Declarations by 3 Republic Leaders 

  29. BBC News: New light shed on 1991 anti-Gorbachev coup 

  30. Statement made on 9 December 1991, cited in Gorbachev: On My Country and the World, Columbia University Press, 2000 

Why doesn’t the Soviet Union exist any more? Part 5: Perestroika and glasnost

The basic cause of the dissolution of the Soviet Union may be identified as the long-term ideological chaos that prevailed in the USSR. Acting as a key driver of events were long-term mistakes in organisational policy, while the primary factor that dealt the direct, fatal blow was political betrayal, through the implementation of ‘perestroika and new thinking’.1

Gorbachev: the beginning of the end

After a decade of economic stagnation, declining popular confidence and escalating military confrontation with the West – and with three CPSU general secretaries in three years having died on the job (Brezhnev, Andropov and Chernenko) – there was an obvious need to breathe some new life into Soviet politics. Andropov understood this better than most; during the few months of his tenure, he encouraged younger members of the party’s Central Committee to step up and help modernise Soviet socialism. Mikhail Gorbachev, elected by the politburo as General Secretary after the death of Chernenko in March 1985, was part of this ‘new generation’. He was chosen “because he was young, energetic, imaginative, and – they believed – orthodox”.2

The early signs were promising: Gorbachev promoted a vision of enhancing socialist democracy and modernising the economy whilst maintaining social ownership of the means of production and preserving the political power of the working class. Keeran and Kenny write:

Gorbachev advocated the elimination of wage levelling. In a swipe at the illegal parts of the second economy and corruption, he called for a struggle against ‘unearned incomes’ and all ‘phenomena that are alien to the socialist way of life.’ In foreign policy, Gorbachev reaffirmed such traditional Soviet positions as the support of national liberation, peaceful coexistence, and cooperation with the West on ‘principles of equality.’ He gave special emphasis to ending the arms race and freezing nuclear arsenals.

In politics, Gorbachev proposed ‘strengthening’ and ‘heightening’ the leading role of the Party, a ‘strict observance of the Leninist style of work’ and the elimination of ‘false idealisation’ and formalism in Party meetings. Gorbachev spoke of the need for glasnost, or ‘greater openness and publicity’ about the work of the Party, state and other public organisations.3

Gorbachev talked of the need for perestroika – restructuring. This term, never very well defined, ultimately became a byword for the systematic destruction of Soviet socialism. However, this is presumably not how it was conceived of, and certainly not how it was presented to the Soviet people. Yegor Ligachev, Gorbachev’s second-in-command from 1985 to 1988, was a keen supporter of perestroika as it was presented in its early years (he later earned the epithet ‘leading hardliner’ from the western press after he fell out with Gorbachev). Describing what he had considered to be the principal aims of perestroika, he writes:

In the socio-economic sphere: modernise the machine-building complex and, on this basis, bring about the planned reconstruction of the nation’s economy and its social reorientation; link planning extensively with the development of money exchange relationships; create the necessary economic conditions for the financial self-sufficiency and self-financing of enterprises without state subsidies; and create major scientific and technical complexes.

In the political sphere: democratise the soviets, or councils, at all levels; and expand the rights and authorities of the regions, territories and republics.

In foreign policy: prevent nuclear war; make the transition from confrontation to real disarmament; and strengthen socialist concord.4

In short: make some limited use of market mechanisms to increase production and innovation, within the context of the planned economy; renew economic infrastructure; invest heavily in technology and science; increase popular participation in existing democratic systems; push hard for multilateral nuclear disarmament. These objectives sounded, and sound, sensible enough. Unfortunately they bear little relation to what actually took place in the name of perestroika. Gorbachev’s reforms didn’t strengthen socialism; rather, they laid the grounds for economic ruin and for the hollowing out of the Communist Party, which was transformed into little more than a training ground for budding manager-capitalists to gain control of assets that they would later get enormously rich from.

With the economy spiralling out of control and the party reduced to a shadow of its former self, alternative – explicitly nationalist and anti-communist – alternative centres of power arose to fill the political vacuum. With the support of a nascent capitalist class and the global mass media (not to mention western governments and intelligence agencies), these organisations gained sufficient strength that they were able to force through the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the banning of the Communist Party, the dismantling of socialism, and the introduction of the harshest possible neoliberal capitalist ‘shock therapy’. Such was the true harvest of perestroika.

Did Gorbachev inherit a crisis?

Although Gorbachev and his team would later claim they had inherited a society in crisis, this wasn’t actually the case. There was no serious public unrest in 1985. In spite of assorted economic problems and a degree of popular dissatisfaction (hardly unusual in any society), there wasn’t any serious trouble, and very few people would have imagined that within a few years Soviet socialism would no longer exist. For the most part, people were more-or-less content with the status quo. The economy was growing, albeit slowly. Everybody had their basic needs met in terms of food, shelter, heating, clothing and healthcare. Education and cultural facilities were world class. The social welfare system was unparalleled outside the socialist world. The streets were safe and people had the opportunity to live interesting, fulfilling, productive lives.

While some Soviet people complained about the quality and quantity of goods and about official privileges and corruption, most Soviets expressed satisfaction with their lives and contentment with the system. Polls showed that the level of satisfaction of Soviet citizens was comparable to the satisfaction of Americans with their system… Personal consumption of Soviet citizens had increased between 1975 and 1985. Even though the Soviet standard of living reached only one-third to one-fifth of the American level, a general appreciation existed that Soviet citizens enjoyed greater security, lower crime, and a higher cultural and moral level than citizens in the West did.5

As the western media became very fond of pointing out (and exaggerating), there were some shortages of consumer goods, leading to queues in shops. While this indicates inefficiencies in distribution (and wider economic problems, as discussed earlier in this series), it doesn’t testify to dire poverty or social collapse. As Samir Amin puts it: “It is obvious that if prices rise massively, there are no more queues, but the seemingly vanished poverty is still there for those who no longer have access to consumer goods. The shops in Mexico and Egypt are packed with goods, and there are no lines in front of the butchers’ shops, but meat consumption per head is a third of what it was in Eastern Europe”.6

The Soviet Union’s allies were facing difficult times in Afghanistan, Nicaragua and Ethiopia, but were in the ascendancy in southern Africa – particularly Angola. Vietnam’s economic situation started to improve rapidly after its adoption of Doi Moi7 reforms in 1986, and therefore its reliance on Soviet aid was reduced. Cuba and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea were doing well. After a very painful quarter of a century, there finally seemed to be a possibility of overcoming the Sino-Soviet split (ties were finally normalised in 1989 – by which time, sadly, the USSR was in its death throes). And although the Reagan administration had stepped up US economic, military and political operations against the Soviet Union, the latter was holding its own.

In short, the USSR in the mid-1980s was not a society on the verge of collapse. So what happened?

‘Restructuring’ the economy from bad to worse

In the field of economics, the major objective of perestroika was to “modernise and streamline the Soviet economy through the introduction of new management techniques and technology in use elsewhere in the world, particularly in the highly developed imperialist countries.”8 The vision was, within 15 years, “to create an economic potential approximately equal in scale to that accumulated throughout all the previous years of Soviet government and to almost double national income and industrial output. Productivity of labour is to go up by 130-150 percent… The implementation of the programme will … raise the Soviet people’s standard of living to a qualitatively new level”9.

The two major strategic themes put forward in order to reach these goals were: first, the extension of market relations within the overall context of public ownership, in order to boost innovation and productivity; second, an attempt to “democratise planning”, basically by pulling the plug on the entire central planning system. The former theme was not entirely without merit – it has worked rather well in China and Vietnam, for example. Dismantling the planning system, on the other hand, created unmitigated havoc, as a result of which the USSR, in 1990, experienced negative growth for the first time in its history.

Gorbachev’s initial steps in the economy were interesting but inept. The first big reform was an anti-alcohol campaign with partial prohibition, announced in May 1985. Intended to help alleviate the major problems the Soviet Union was experiencing in terms of public health and labour productivity (particularly absenteeism), the reform consisted of a price hike for all alcoholic drinks, reduced production of vodka and wine, an increase in the minimum drinking age (to 21), stiff penalties on drunken behaviour, the banning of alcohol consumption in the workplace, and various regulations in relation to the sale of alcohol.

Well-intentioned as the campaign may have been, it was a near-complete failure and had damaging side effects. Kotz and Wier point out that “while a slight increase in sobriety may have resulted, this campaign, like the American experiment with Prohibition after World War I, had unforeseen harmful consequences. Illegal private production arose to meet the unsatisfied demand. Private distillers stripped the retail stores of sugar, causing severe shortages. And an estimated 20 billion roubles in tax revenues were lost on alcohol sales during 1986-88”.10

The loss in income was a fairly serious blow to an already troubled economy that derived a substantial portion of its fiscal revenue from the state monopoly on alcohol. Furthermore, the sharp growth in production of illicit moonshine meant that there was no long-term improvement in labour productivity or public health. It also served to extend the underground economy, thereby contributing to the growth of a nascent bourgeoisie with an interest in expanding its market and legitimising its activities. Gorbachev himself would later acknowledge that “the anti-alcohol campaign and how it was implemented was a mistake in the long run”11.

The politburo went on to introduce a package of economic reforms that bore some resemblance to the Kosygin-Liberman reforms (discussed in the second article in this series12). The centrepiece was a proposal to allow state production enterprises to determine their own output levels, on the basis that the enterprises had more insight into their capacity, resources and circumstances than the central planners did. Gosplan, the central planning agency, was to withdraw from micromanaging enterprises and switch to long-term goal-setting. Kotz and Wier note: “The economic ministries were to end their day-to-day management of production. Republican, regional and local soviets were to be granted a larger role in overseeing the economy of their respective areas. Within enterprises, workers were to be given expanded power over decision-making. These reforms embodied the leadership’s idea of democratising and decentralising the economy, within the framework of public ownership and economic planning”.13

The reform was flawed in a number of respects, and had negative repercussions that would undermine the entire economic system. Worse, the leadership didn’t back out of the reform once it was clear that it wasn’t working; it was sudden and risky, imposed by the top level state machinery without suitable mechanisms for feedback and improvement. There was certainly no “crossing the river by feeling the stones”; it was more like taking a big leap into the middle of the river and hoping for the best. It’s perhaps useful to compare this approach with the methodology used in China’s economic reforms, for example the household responsibility system, a decentralised method of agricultural production that was tried out at the level of a single village (illegally, in fact) and which was sufficiently successful in boosting agricultural output that it was gradually rolled out at regional and national level over the course of a few years:

The household responsibility system was not designed by any leader – it was a product of villagers in Xiaogang village in Fengyang county, Anhui province. Driven by bad weather and low production in 1978, they took responsibility for their own gains and losses, with a proviso that if any of them were to go to jail for secretly embarking on this illegal system, the others would take care of their children. Seeing the incredible results, the Central Rural Work Conference at the end of 1979 decided that the poorest residents in rural areas would be allowed to engage in this system. At the end of 1980, 14% of the production teams around the country followed the system… All production teams under the household responsibility system had remarkable results that year. So in 1981 the government started to promote the system across the country. By the end of the year, 45% of production teams were in the system, in 1982, 80%, and in 1984, 99%.14

The most immediately visible result of Gorbachev’s reform package was to create shortages of certain goods. Enterprises were now able to determine their own product mix, but there was no corresponding change in the market for those products: prices remained fixed by the state, and therefore most enterprises simply focused on producing those items that had the highest mark-up. Allen Lynch writes: “Most Soviet factories simply stopped making low margin consumer items, and massive shortages of everyday items quickly set in (eg salt, sugar, matches, cooking oil, washing powder, baby clothes, etc). By mid-1989, coal miners in Donbass had no soap to wash with after a long day in the mines, a development that triggered massive strikes and a coalition of workers and intellectuals against the Soviet system and Gorbachev himself.”15

With more direct control over their spending, many of the enterprises chose to pay their workers more. Given endemic labour shortages, increasing wages would have felt like a sensible policy at the level of the individual enterprise, because it was a means of attracting and retaining workers. However, at a broader level, the combination of higher wages, ever-worsening shortages of consumer goods and state-fixed low prices served to create repressed inflation. This in turn led to increased black market activity and speculation, undermining the overall economy.

Furthermore, increased wages tended to mean less resources for investment; the future was sacrificed for the sake of the present. The result was a further decline in innovation and productivity growth. And although all of this was done in the name of “democratising” production, the new system allowed enterprise managers to exercise unchecked control over vast resources – a position that many of them leveraged to their advantage in the wild-west asset-stripping days of the early 1990s.

Late in 1987, Gorbachev pushed through a major decrease in state purchases of industrial output, thus forcing the enterprises to sink or swim in the open market, regardless of whether they were anything approximating ‘viable’ without their guaranteed monopoly. “Against the better judgement of Prime Minister Ryzhkov and Ligachev, Yakovlev [Gorbachev’s closest adviser] and Gorbachev pushed to shrink the state orders — the guaranteed government purchase of Soviet industrial output at fixed prices — from 100 percent to a mere 50 percent of the whole of industry. Reducing state orders to such a degree meant that, in one leap, half of Soviet industry would gain autonomy to buy and sell its output in a new wholesale market – trade between enterprises — with prices set by fluctuations in supply and demand… The Gorbachev plan proved utterly reckless. It plunged the economy into chaos. In 1988, consumer shortages proliferated and, for the first time since World War II, inflation appeared”.16

With the enterprises thrown into chaos and often struggling to sell their produce in a newly-competitive market, state revenues suffered a sharp reduction. Sitaram Yechury writes that this “led to a situation where the government had to increasingly resort to budgetary deficits. In 1985 the budget deficit was a modest 18 million roubles which rose to nearly 120 billion by 1989 or 14% of the Soviet Union’s GNP”.17 The fiscal deficit drove austerity: “during Gorbachev’s leadership, import of food grains and consumer items fell by the equivalent of 8.5 billion roubles.”

The next major step in Gorbachev’s economic reform was the 1988 law on cooperatives, which allowed people to set up their own businesses. British economist Philip Hanson describes this as “the most radical of all Gorbachev’s economic measures so far… Members of a cooperative could be few or many, and they could employ non-members. A cooperative was therefore capable of being a capitalist partnership, with the members exploiting, in Marxist terms, the labour of non-members”.18 Strictly speaking these cooperatives were not allowed to employ other people’s labour, but icn reality this regulation was observed almost exclusively in the breach.

Initially most of the cooperatives were cafés, restaurants, hairdressers and small construction firms – exactly the sort of business that tends to be quite effectively run on a small scale. However, the cooperative movement quickly came to be dominated by “pocket banks used by their founding enterprises to move funds around discreetly and cooperative banks that were able, when foreign-currency and government debt markets developed, to make large profits from playing very thin financial markets”.19 Many of the fabulously wealthy Russian gangster-capitalists of the 1990s made their start in ‘cooperative’ banks in the late 1980s.

In addition to paving the way for a new finance-capitalist class, the cooperatives also laid the ground for a lucrative non-productive underground economy: “Cooperatives providing consumer goods and services, which had to be readily visible to function, soon ran into difficulties from criminal gangs. Protection rackets developed, and the police were unable or unwilling to stop them”.20

The increasingly dire situation wasn’t helped by falling oil prices. In 1986, Saudi Arabia increased its oil production by two million barrels a day, causing the world market price to drop precipitously. This had a serious impact on the Soviet economy, which had since the early 1970s relied on high oil prices to cover for weaknesses elsewhere. As long as oil prices were high, there was enough hard currency to import goods and pay debts (a byproduct of this is that the Soviet leadership was able to procrastinate on economic reforms, unlike the Chinese leadership which by the late 1970s had very little choice but to fix the economy). Allen Lynch writes: “Gorbachev was thus forced to undertake the precarious (and as we have seen ill-thought out) programme of structural reform with a radically reduced resource base; the Soviet economy had lost its shock absorber”.21

Another obvious defect of Gorbachev’s economic reform package is that it lacked organisational infrastructure. Appropriate institutions might have been able to provide guidance and constrain the new freedom of the enterprises such that reduced investment, imbalanced product mix and repressed inflation were avoided. However, just when institutional supervision was most needed, Gorbachev and his coterie were busy delegitimising the Communist Party and hollowing out the economic ministries and planning bodies. As Vladislav Zubok points out, “instead of relying on the most pragmatic elements of the party and state officialdom in restructuring of the country, Gorbachev tried to build up new political forces and movements while gradually diminishing the power of the party and of centralised state structures”.22

The result was chaos. “The grave economic, financial, and state crisis began only between 1986 and 1988, and it kept growing worse because of Gorbachev’s choices and policies”.23 In place of cautious, measured experiments conducted within a stable political context, Gorbachev set in train a rapid dismantling of the existing system whilst at the same time creating political anarchy. Again, the comparison with China is apposite: “[In China] there was virtually no privatisation – state enterprises were kept under state ownership and control. There was no sudden price liberalisation – state enterprises continued to sell at controlled prices. Central planning was retained for the state sector of the economy. Rather than slashing state spending, various levels of government poured funds into improving China’s basic economic infrastructure of transportation, communication, and power. Rather than tight monetary policy, ample credit was provided for expansion and modernisation. The state has sought to gradually develop a market economy over a period of decades, and the state has actively guided the process.”24

Gennady Zyuganov, current leader of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation, is scathing in his assessment of the perestroika package of economic reforms:

As we know from historical experience, common sense, and scientific analysis, no reform can be implemented successfully without a well-developed programme and precisely defined goals; a team of vigorous and highly intellectual reformers; a strong and effective system for controlling political phenomena; thoroughly developed and carefully considered methods of instituting the reforms; the mobilisation of the mass media to explain the meaning, goals, and consequences of the reforms for the state as a whole and for the individual person in particular for the purpose of involving as much of the population as possible in the reform process; and the preservation and development of the structures, relations, functions, methods, and lifestyles that have earned the approval of the people. The reform process in China (PRC) developed along approximately similar lines. But nothing like this was done by Mikhail Gorbachev and his team. Labour collectives, party organisations, economic leaders, and much of the intelligentsia were excluded from participating in the renewal of society. The right to define directions and interpret the meaning of the reorganisation processes was appropriated by a small group of top leaders, who were given to superficial improvisation and were unable to organise and direct the reform properly… Instead of the hard work that was urgently needed, they unfolded a parade of political arrogance, demagoguery, and dilettantism, which gradually overwhelmed and paralysed the country.25

In 1990, the USSR went into recession for the first time. By 1991, its economy was in freefall.

Glasnost: the party’s over

What happened in our country is primarily the result of the debilitation and eventual elimination of the Communist Party’s leading role in society, the ejection of the party from major policymaking, its ideological and organisational unravellling, the formation in it of factions, careerists’ and national separatists’ penetration of the leadership of the party and state as well as the party and power structures of the republics, and the political conversion of the group headed by Gorbachev and their shift to the position of elimination of the Communist Party and the Soviet state.26

The purported meaning of glasnost

In 1986, Gorbachev and his advisers came up with the concept of glasnost (‘openness’) to encapsulate policies of greater government transparency, wider political discussion and increased popular participation. Corruption and inefficiency would be tackled, and more information would be made publicly available. At first, it sounded fairly innocuous – what reasonable person would object to a deepening of socialist democracy? However, it quickly became a battle cry for an all-out attack on the legitimacy of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and on the foundations of the Soviet identity. In short, it became a powerful weapon in the hands of social forces hostile to socialism.

It’s worth pointing out that Gorbachev never put much meat on the bones of ‘democratisation’. With hindsight, it’s obvious that his use of the term reflected an ideological concession to western capitalism; that he had come to believe that the Soviet Union should aspire to the political norms defined in Western Europe and the US. Such thinking neglects a number of factors that should be well understood by any Marxist:

  1. ‘Free speech’ in the advanced capitalist countries is essentially a piece of attractive icing beneath which lies a bitter cake of plutocratic repression. Via its monopolisation of the mass media, the ruling class dominates the field of ideas almost comprehensively. There is a level of debate and criticism, but only of a few individual policies and not of systemic features of capitalism. As Chomsky famously put it: “The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum”.27

  2. The political freedoms available in the west are much constrained owing to the correlation between wealth and power. Ordinary citizens have the right to vote, but their choice is nearly always restricted to two or three pro-capitalist, pro-imperialist parties, between which there is little substantive difference (so rare is the appearance of a meaningfully different option within mainstream politics, that when it happens it sends the ruling class into a frenzy of confusion, as is being witnessed at the moment with the rise of the Labour left under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn). Actual power is monopolised by the wealthy, and challenging it can be extremely dangerous, as is evidenced by the treatment of Irish Republicans that have served time in Britain’s colony in the north of Ireland, or the many longstanding black, Puerto Rican and indigenous political prisoners in the US who have spent decades behind bars on account of their struggle for equality and human rights.

  3. In a context of ongoing class struggle waged by the working class of a socialist country against its internal enemies (those that want to restore feudalism or capitalism) and its external enemies (the leading capitalist countries that will inevitably work to destabilise a socialist country), a level of political repression is an unhappy necessity; this is elaborated in the article on ideological deterioration28 in relation to Khrushchev’s denunciation of Stalin. The needs of the few – to get fantastically rich – can’t be allowed to compromise the needs of the many to enjoy a dignified, peaceful and fulfilling life.

The Soviet political system was undeniably rife with problems: the alienation and disaffection of young people, excessively centralised decision-making, corruption, arbitrariness by police and officials, insufficient levels of popular participation in the soviets, and more. But these weren’t problems that could be solved by imitating a western bourgeois-democratic model that had no cultural and social basis in the USSR. Rather, political reforms should have attempted to build on and improve the existing system, along the lines envisaged by Yuri Andropov.

Difficulties and contradictions notwithstanding, the Soviet Union had built a viable socialist democracy that, in terms of empowering ordinary people, was significantly more inclusive and meaningful than the capitalist democracy of, say, the US or Britain. For example, Al Szymanski (writing in 1979) describes the way that mass media was used to exchange ideas and inform policy: ”In the Soviet Union, unlike the Western capitalist countries, the major forums for public debate, criticism, and public opinion formation are the mass media, together with specialised journals and conferences. The media are the major forum for opposing views, with Pravda and Izvestia ranging more freely as social critics than the local weeklies. The Soviet press is full of public debates on a very wide range of issues: literary policy, economic and legal reform, military strategy, the relation between the Party and the military, city planning, crime, pollution, farm problems, the role of the press, art, women’s role in the economy, access to higher education, incompetent economic management, bungling bureaucrats, etc”.29

Szymanski describes “a few basic assumptions of Soviet society” that were not debated in the press: socialism as a system, communism as a goal, and the leading role of the Communist Party. “These issues are considered to have been settled once and for all and public discussion of them is considered by the regime to be potentially disruptive of popular rule.” This is consistent with Fidel Castro’s famous formula: “Within the revolution, everything; against the revolution, nothing.”30 These basic assumptions of socialism can be compared with the basic assumptions of capitalism: the supremacy of private property; profit as the major engine of economic activity; exploitation of labour as the source of profit.

The real meaning of glasnost

Gorbachev didn’t have widespread support for his economic reforms within the CPSU. This was partly due to a culture of caution and conservatism, but more importantly because Gorbachev’s schemes weren’t convincing and well thought out. The risk was too great in the eyes of many party veterans, particularly given the absence of a reasonable plan for gradual reform by carefully managed trial-and-error and with a clear rollback mechanism.

The initial enthusiasm of 1985-86 had, within a couple of years, given way to a sense of anxiety that the reforms weren’t solving any problems but were in fact contributing to the increasingly dire status of the economy. Rather than reflecting on whether a different approach was required, Gorbachev instead placed the blame on the party, which he claimed was opposed to his reforms and eager to see them fail. Writing in May 1988, Sam Marcy observes: “Perestroika has not in these almost three years been a spectacular success. Gorbachev himself does not claim it has. As a matter of fact, he has often spoken about lack of progress, but blames resistance within the Party, particularly in the lower echelons and the outlying regions of the country.”31 Keeran and Kenny make a similar observation: “From the early days Gorbachev saw the CPSU as the main obstacle, and the Party apparatus as his main enemy, not as an instrument to carry the struggle for reform forward. He had to outmanoeuvre the Party, not struggle within it. He always appealed to intellectuals and the public over the Party’s head. Everywhere, his memoirs contain such sentiments as ‘Party structures are applying the brakes’”.32

Glasnost, then, was an attempt to “unleash the public”, where the public was defined as people who unambiguously supported perestroika. Continuing support for perestroika was to be found primarily outside the party leadership, particularly among capitalist restorationists, anti-Soviet nationalists of assorted hue, sections of the intelligentsia, and the new generation of small capitalists and managers that couldn’t wait to get filthy rich.

Attack on the CPSU

The first major organisational step towards breaking the CPSU’s power was taken at the 19th party conference in June 1988, which Gorbachev presented with a last-minute surprise proposal that he had been careful not to distribute in advance. The crux of this proposal was to increase the separation of the party and the state, tilt power towards non-party structures, stuff these non-party structures with proponents of the ‘new thinking’, and create greater executive power for Gorbachev and his allies. “The old Supreme Soviet was to be replaced by a new two-chamber parliament. A 2,250-member Congress of People’s Deputies would be elected, whose members would in turn select a smaller Supreme Soviet from among the deputies, of about 500-550 members, to act as the standing legislature. While 750 members of the new Congress would be chosen by a list of ‘public organisations,’ including the Communist Party, the remaining 1,500 would be elected by the population in potentially contestable elections. The Congress would elect a chairman of the Supreme Soviet who would serve as head of state.”33

The elected chairman of the Supreme Soviet would essentially be an executive president – a post designed by Gorbachev, for Gorbachev. Keeran and Kenny assess that “the proposal, introduced in the final minutes in a surprise resolution by Gorbachev in the chair, amounted to the overthrow of the Central Committee.” Disoriented by the sudden appearance and radical nature of the proposals, a majority of delegates voted in favour.

The newly-created organs of power were chaotic, but they were much easier than the older structures for Gorbachev and his team to dominate, since they were largely composed of people that had been encouraged and promoted by Gorbachev and the increasingly anti-communist press. As a result, Gorbachev’s team suddenly had a mandate to accelerate the pace of reforms to a dangerous degree. Meanwhile, the new political space provided nutrient-rich soil for assorted right-wing nationalist movements around the country, leading to a bumper yield of insurrection and instability over the course of the ensuing three years.

Gorbachev also moved to change the class composition of the Communist Party. Before the 1988 Party Conference, he said very candidly that only people who supported his programme were eligible to be delegates: “There must be no more quotas, as we had in the past – so many workers and peasants, so many women, and so forth. The principal political imperative is to elect active supporters of perestroika.”34 Cheng Enfu and Liu Zixu observe that, “in the name of promoting young cadres and of reform, Gorbachev replaced large numbers of party, political and military leaders with anti-CPSU and anti-socialist cadres or cadres with ambivalent positions. This practice laid the foundations, in organisational and cadre selection terms, for the political ‘shift of direction.’”35

Later in 1988, Gorbachev moved against the more traditionalist (that is: communist) members of the party leadership. The most senior official, Andrei Gromyko – a key negotiator at Yalta and Potsdam in 1945, foreign minister from 1957 to 1985 and Chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet from 1985 until 1988 – was removed from the politburo. Nikolai Baibakov was fired as head of the central planning agency after two decades, in spite of his vast wealth of experience (which included overseeing Russian oil production during World War 236). Yegor Ligachev, who had become increasingly vocal in his critique of perestroika, was demoted from head of ideology to head of agriculture. As the communists were systematically removed from the party and state leadership, supporters of ‘radical reform’ were promoted, including a certain Boris Yeltsin.

Ligachev’s role as head of ideology fell to Alexander Yakovlev, Gorbachev’s closest political adviser and widely regarded as the “godfather of glasnost”, wielding what Keeran and Kenny describe as “the most powerful and pernicious influence of anyone on the entire reform process”. We now know that Yakovlev had long since given up on his commitment to Marxism and had his heart set on transforming the Soviet Union into a multiparty parliamentary democracy and market economy along the lines of Canada (where he had spent ten years as Soviet ambassador). Initially he hoped this could be achieved through reforms, but he reveals in his memoirs that, with the reins in his hands, he decided that nothing less than counter-revolution would do.

“In the first years of perestroika most reformers had the illusion that socialism could be improved. The argument was only about the depth of improvement. At some point in 1987, I personally realised that a society based on violence and fear could not be reformed and that we faced a momentous historical task of dismantling an entire social and economic system with all its ideological, economic and political roots. It had become imperative to make profound changes in ideology and overcome its myths and utopias”.37

Fomenting historical nihilism

Given almost complete autonomy in the areas of media and propaganda, Yakovlev went about “overcoming myths and utopias” by doing everything possible to attack the CPSU and Soviet history. He went so far as to claim that the October Revolution was simply part of Germany’s World War I strategy: “The October Revolution was the action of the German General Staff. Lenin received two million marks in March 1915 for sabotage”.38

Dissidents and anticommunists were appointed as editors of newspapers and magazines, and were given carte blanche to use their publications to openly attack the basic ideas of socialism and the whole nature of the Soviet system. “Liberal intellectuals were named to run Ogonyok, Sovetskaya Kultura, Moscow News, Znamya, and Novy Mir… The top political leadership had actually given editors, journalists, writers, and economists freedom to write as they wished, using the mass media as their vehicle”.39

It is unprecedented in any social system for the ruling class to hand over the state’s propaganda apparatus to its class enemy. What Gorbachev, Yakovlev and co did was akin to the British government handing management of the BBC over to the IRA, or Cuba’s Prensa Latina appointing Marco Rubio as its editor.

This was the putrid meat on the bones of Gorbachev’s “freedom of the press”. There was no freedom to criticise perestroika and glasnost, but there was freedom for a full-scale assault on the party’s history and ideology. No accusation went unmade. Zubok explains that “Gorbachev and his assistants allowed the process of glasnost to go on until it became a whirlwind of revelations that discredited the entire foundation of Soviet foreign policy and the regime itself… Some Moscow-based revisionists began to hold the Soviet Union solely and exclusively responsible for the Cold War. They began to consider the policies of the West to be purely reactive and dictated by the need to fight Stalin’s communist aggression and totalitarian threat”.40

Absurd exaggerations about Stalin’s crimes once again became the order of the day; these were in fact stalking horses for attacks on socialist construction and the defence of the Soviet Union against Nazism – the greatest achievements of the Soviet people. “It is a broad attack against communism, and Stalin is merely a convenient symbol”, wrote Sam Marcy in June 1988.41 This point was powerfully made in a famous letter to the newspaper Sovetskaya Rossiya in March 1988 by a Leningrad chemistry teacher by the name of Nina Andreyeva (the letter caused such a stir that Gorbachev used it as the justification for a new round of anticommunist purges). Andreyeva wrote:

Take the question of the place of JV Stalin in our country’s history. It is with his name that the entire obsession with critical attacks is associated, an obsession that, in my opinion, has to do not so much with the historical personality itself as with the whole extremely complex transitional era – an era linked with the unparalleled exploits of an entire generation of Soviet people who today are gradually retiring from active labour, political and public activity. Industrialisation, collectivisation and the cultural revolution, which brought our country into the ranks of the great world powers, are being forcibly squeezed into the ‘personality cult’ formula. All these things are being questioned. Things have reached a point at which insistent demands for ‘repentance’ are being made on ‘Stalinists’ (and one can assign to their number whoever one wishes). Praise is being lavished on novels and films that lynch the era of tempestuous changes, which is presented as a ‘tragedy of peoples’.42

Once the Congress of People’s Deputies was established in 1989, its proceedings were televised – another ad hoc decision by Gorbachev. “For thirteen days and nights, the proceedings transfixed two hundred million Soviet viewers”, who witnessed well-known personalities arguing persuasively against socialism. For example, on 2 June 1989, Kyrgyz author Chingiz Aitmatov – a close ally of Gorbachev – took the podium to laud the achievements of the “flourishing, law-abiding societies of Sweden, Austria, Finland, Norway, Holland, Spain and, finally, across the ocean, Canada”, adding that “we’ve done them a favour by showing them how not to build socialism”.43 Other speakers attacked the “KGB’s ‘history of crimes’, demanded Lenin’s body be removed from Red Square, denounced the one-party system, and disputed the validity of Marxism… The proceedings of the Congress shook the self-confidence of the CPSU to its foundations. For millions, the Congress undermined the legitimacy of the Party, Soviet history, and the whole social order. It also emboldened socialism’s opponents. It pushed back the boundaries of the politically thinkable. Managed reform was over. Gorbachev became ‘a surfboarder of events’”.44

Added to all this was the fact that Gorbachev and his allies decided to end restrictions on foreign propaganda, for example putting an end to the jamming of Radio Liberty45 – a generously-funded propaganda arm of the CIA, focused on spreading anticommunist lies around the socialist countries of Europe. So Gorbachev’s idea of “improving socialism” was in fact based on bulldozing its structures and legacy.

The attack on the party went so far that Fidel Castro, in December 1989, at an event commemorating the 2,000-plus Cubans who died in the course of their heroic internationalist duties in Angola, was moved to remark:

It’s impossible to carry out a revolution or conduct a rectification without a strong, disciplined and respected party. It’s not possible to carry out such a process by slandering socialism, destroying its values, discrediting the party, demoralising its vanguard, abandoning its leadership role, eliminating social discipline, and sowing chaos and anarchy everywhere. This may foster a counter-revolution – but not revolutionary change… It is disgusting to see how many people, even in the Soviet Union itself, are engaged in denying and destroying the history-making feats and extraordinary merits of that heroic people. That is not the way to rectify and overcome the undeniable errors made by a revolution that emerged from tsarist authoritarianism in an enormous, backward, poor country. We shouldn’t blame Lenin now for having chosen tsarist Russia as the place for the greatest revolution in history.46

By 1991, the job of destroying the CPSU was almost entirely complete. New York Times columnist Esther Fein was all too accurate when she opined in July 1991 that “the Communist Party’s decline in power and prestige is perhaps the most critical development in the reform of the political system.”47 This act of grand-scale political vandalism remains Mikhail Gorbachev’s principal endowment to the world.

The outright attack on the CPSU and the undermining of its authority is unique to Gorbachev. His predecessors can be accused of many mistakes, but actively weakening the power of the Communist Party isn’t one of them. Up until the glasnost period, the Soviet leadership always reiterated the importance of the party as the leading element in political life. For example Boris Ponomarev, a leading ideologist during the Brezhnev and Andropov periods, wrote just two years before Gorbachev’s appointment as General Secretary: “The leading vanguard position of the Communist Party has been the decisive subjective prerequisite for all the fundamental gains made by the proletariat in the course of the class struggle, for all the victorious socialist revolutions, for all the historic accomplishments by the peoples embarked on the path of socialism and building the new society. Conversely, where under the pressure of the class adversary, as a result of the internal struggle or of a departure from the correct class line the leading role of the party is weakened and is reduced to nought, the revolutionary force may well be threatened with defeat”.48

The genie wouldn’t go back in the bottle

Attacking the CPSU backfired badly for Gorbachev. He had made a dangerous assumption: that the liberals and nationalists he promoted would give him the political support denied him by the communists, thus allowing him to realise his dreams of a mixed economy with a welfare state and political pluralism. In fact, these elements wanted to go much further than Gorbachev. They didn’t want Nordic-style social democracy; they wanted full-scale neoliberal capitalism of the Milton Friedman variety. Soon enough they turned against Gorbachev and started looking for other means to promote their cause, stirring up nationalism and unrest, building openly pro-capitalist networks and attracting concrete support from the west.

To the extent that economic and political reform were necessary, they could only have been successfully carried out under the leadership of the CPSU, an organisation which, for all its faults, counted among its number the most dedicated and capable people in Soviet society. Contrasting Gorbachev’s approach with that of Deng Xiaoping, Allen Lynch writes: “Where Deng defended the Chinese Communist Party, the only organisation that integrated the country as a whole, Gorbachev undermined the Soviet Communist Party without having in place an alternative and legitimate system of authority… Deng would not risk experiments with the political monopoly of the Chinese Communist Party, although he proved much defter in establishing his leadership over it than did Gorbachev over the Soviet counterpart. And when Deng saw that discussion of Western democracy implied a challenge to Communist Party rule, he drew a bright red line; again, this was very much unlike Gorbachev, who ended his tenure torn between a Soviet Communist Party that he could not abandon and democratic forces that he would not embrace.”49

Having debilitated and alienated the Communist Party, and having failed to win enduring approval of the intelligentsia that he’d courted so assiduously, Gorbachev found himself increasingly isolated and unpopular. “Denied political recognition and support at home, he increasingly looked for it abroad, from Western leaders.”50 In the US, Britain and West Germany, he was feted as a great hero, and his response was to start adopting the language and politics that went down best in these countries: the language and politics of imperialism. Class struggle increasingly gave way to “universal values”. Defence of the socialist heartlands gave way to pacifism. The longstanding concept of nuclear parity was dropped. In the final insult to socialist morality and internationalism, Gorbachev responded to the US request that the Soviet Union participate in the 1991 Gulf War by saying: “I want to emphasise that we would like to be by your side in any situation. We want decisions to be made that will strengthen, not undermine, the authority of the United States”.51

The next article in this series will deal with the events of 1989-91; that is, the outright collapse and disintegration of the Soviet Union.


  1. Cheng Enfu and Liu Zixu: Analysis of the Soviet Economic Model and the Causes of Its Dramatic End, International Critical Thought, 2017 

  2. Rodric Braithwaite: Afgantsy, Profile Books, 2011 

  3. Roger Keeran, Thomas Kenny: Socialism Betrayed – Behind the collapse of the Soviet Union, International Publishers, 2004 

  4. Inside Gorbachev’s Kremlin: The Memoirs Of Yegor Ligachev, Westview Press, 1996 

  5. Keeran and Kenny, op cit 

  6. Samir Amin: Russia and the Long Transition from Capitalism to Socialism, Monthly Press, 2016 

  7. Return to the Source: Actually Existing Socialism in Vietnam 

  8. Sam Marcy: Perestroika: A Marxist Critique, WW Publishers, 1990 

  9. ibid 

  10. David Kotz, Fred Weir: Revolution From Above – The Demise of the Soviet System, Routledge, 1997 

  11. RT: Gorbachev admits USSR mid-80s anti-alcohol campaign ‘too hasty’ 

  12. Invent the Future: Why doesn’t the Soviet Union exist any more? Part 2: Economic stagnation 

  13. Kotz and Wier, op cit 

  14. Justin Yifu Lin: Demystifying the Chinese Economy, Cambridge University Press, 2011 

  15. Allen Lynch: Deng’s and Gorbachev’s Reform Strategies Compared 

  16. Keeran and Kenny, op cit 

  17. Vijay Prashad (ed): Red October: The Russian Revolution and the Communist Horizon, LeftWord Books, 2017 

  18. Philip Hanson: The Rise and Fall of the Soviet Economy: An Economic History of the USSR 1945-1991, Routledge, 2003 

  19. ibid 

  20. ibid 

  21. Allen Lynch, op cit 

  22. Vladislav Zubok: A Failed Empire: The Soviet Union in the Cold War from Stalin to Gorbachev, University of North Carolina Press, 2009 

  23. ibid 

  24. Kotz and Wier, op cit 

  25. My Russia: The Political Autobiography of Gennady Zyuganov, Routledge, 1997 

  26. Yegor Ligachev, op cit 

  27. Noam Chomsky: The Common Good, Pluto Press, 2002 

  28. Invent the Future: Why doesn’t the Soviet Union exist any more? Part 3: Ideological deterioration and decaying confidence 

  29. Albert Szymanski: Is the Red Flag Flying?, Zed Books, 1979 

  30. Granma: Culture in Revolution 

  31. Marcy, op cit 

  32. Keeran and Kenny, op cit 

  33. Kotz and Wier, op cit 

  34. New York Times: Gorbachev Asks Editors to End Perestroika Debate 

  35. Cheng Enfu and Liu Zixu: Analysis of the Soviet Economic Model and the Causes of Its Dramatic End, International Critical Thought, 2017 

  36. New York Times: Nikolai K. Baibakov, a Top Soviet Economic Official, Dies at 97 

  37. Alexander Yakovlev, The Fate of Marxism in Russia, Yale University Press, 1993 

  38. Cited in Li Shenming, The October Revolution: A New Epoch in the World History, International Critical Thought, 2017 

  39. Kotz and Wier, op cit 

  40. Zubok, op cit 

  41. Marcy, op cit 

  42. Cited in Marcy, op cit 

  43. Cited in Hanson, op cit 

  44. Keeran and Kenny, op cit 

  45. New York Times: Soviet Union ends years of jamming of Radio Liberty 

  46. Cuba and Angola: Fighting for Africa’s Freedom and Our Own, Pathfinder Press, 2013. 

  47. New York Times: Yeltsin Bans Communist Groups in Government 

  48. Boris Ponomarev, Marxism-Leninism in Today’s World, Pergamon Press, 1983 

  49. Allen Lynch, op cit 

  50. Zubok, op cit 

  51. Cited in Anatoly Chernyaev, My Six Years with Gorbachev, Pennsylvania State University Press, 2000