Thirty years ago the red flag was lowered for the last time over the Moscow Kremlin as the Soviet Union collapsed on 25 December 1991.
Most of the left saw it as a defeat for socialism.
But Socialist Worker argued it was “a fact that should have every socialist rejoicing”. A front page celebrated the breakup of the Soviet Union, saying, “Communism has collapsed—now fight for real socialism.”
The Soviet Union claimed to be a socialist state. Its constitution said “all power belongs to working people”, who wielded it through workers’ councils that had taken power during the Russian Revolution of 1917.
In reality, the Soviet Union and its satellites in Eastern Europe were “state capitalist” societies, where workers had no control.
Dictator Joseph Stalin and his successors built up a brutal dictatorship marked by exploitation and oppression.
This wasn’t the inevitable result of the Russian Revolution. It had shown the potential of workers running society without bosses, bankers and landlords.
The working class, in alliance with the peasantry, had seized power in October 1917.
The bedrock was a much more thorough-going democracy than under capitalism based on workers’ councils—“soviets”, the Russian word for council. Workers controlled key workplaces while landowners’ estates were broken up and handed to peasants.
Decades before the vast majority of capitalist countries such as Britain brought in mild reforms, Russia decriminalised homosexuality. Women were guaranteed the right to divorce and abortion on demand.
Vladimir Lenin and the Bolshevik party, which had given leadership to the revolution, argued it had to spread internationally to survive.
Unfortunately, a wave of revolt unleashed by the Russian Revolution failed to break through. At the same time 14 imperialist powers, including Britain, invaded Russia and fought alongside the Whites who wanted to restore the old Tsarist order.
The Red Army, led by Leon Trotsky, repelled the invaders and destroyed the White armies by 1922.
But the Russian Civil War had a devastating impact. It decimated the working class.
But the Bolshevik party found itself in charge of a state bureaucracy. During the 1920s its size and power grew—with Stalin as joint national secretary. In a total break with the Bolsheviks, he formulated the idea of “socialism in one country”, claiming under his leadership socialism was possible without world revolution.
By the end of the decade, the bureaucracy was transforming itself into a new ruling class.
In 1928 a combination of imperialist pressures and internal crisis pushed Stalin to adopt the first Five Year Plan. It aimed to force through rapid industrialisation by squeezing the working class.
To do so Stalin unleashed a full-blooded counter revolution that drowned in blood the gains of 1917.
The Five Year Plan was a decisive shift to “bureaucratic state capitalism”.
Karl Marx argued capitalism is marked by two divisions.
The first division is between workers and capitalists who own or control the “means of production”—such as factories and machinery.
Capitalists exploit workers to get their hands on profits, but they don’t do it just because they’re greedy. This is where the second division—among capitalists themselves—kicks in. Competition forces firms to reinvest their profits into new technology and squeeze more out of workers to grab a bigger chunk of profit than rivals.
This leads, as Marx put it, to a system of “accumulation for accumulation’s sake, production for production’s sake”.
The Soviet Union was marked by the first division between workers and the means of production. The subordination of the working class was at the heart of Stalinist labour laws.
One Communist Party central committee resolution from September 1929 made clear managers’ orders are “unconditionally binding on his subordinate administrative staff and on all workers”.
But what about the second division?
Viewed in isolation, the Soviet Union wasn’t marked by it as there was no market competition inside the Stalinist economies.
But this changes when we look at the Soviet Union in the context of imperialism, a global system of competing capitalist states. It was locked into military and economic competition with Western capitalist states.
This competition meant the bureaucracy behaved in the same way as a capitalist firm. Its aim was capital accumulation on the backs of workers.
Imperialist competition intensified during the Cold War.
By the time of Stalin’s death in 1953, the Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc’s rulers were staring at a crisis.
The bureaucracy had successfully built up heavy industry in the 1930s.
It had done so by increasing “labour productivity”—squeezing more out of workers—through brutal repression. But relying on terror to increase labour productivity was hitting its limits.
And modern capitalist development requires a healthy and educated workforce to move beyond an initial phase of industrial development.
This crisis caused splits between Stalin’s henchmen after his death. Eventually, Nikita Khrushchev managed to grab the top job promising reforms.
He launched a full-scale attack on Stalin’s “cult of personality” at the 20th Congress of the Communist Party in 1956.
Alongside the “stick” of state terror, Khrushchev now promised the “carrot” of higher wages and more consumer goods to increase workers’ productivity. But Khrushchev was just as willing to use repression when the bureaucracy’s rule was threatened.
As class societies, the Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc were marked by class struggle just like the West.
Workers in Czechoslovakia and East Germany had already risen in 1953 against assaults on their living standards.
And now Khrushchev’s speech caused ideological turmoil in the Stalinist states and ordinary people began to question their rulers.
Workers rebelled in Poland and Hungary in 1956. The “reformer” Khrushchev’s response? Send in tanks to crush the Hungarian workers’ revolution.
The Soviet Union saw impressive growth rates during the 1950s and 1960s. But internal growth wasn’t enough to overcome the constant pressure for more capital accumulation.
It continually crashed against the limits of capital accumulation set by its national economy. And the Soviet Union’s backwardness meant the Cold War arms race placed a particularly heavy burden on its economy.
Khrushchev’s reforms failed to make state capitalism more efficient—and he was ousted in 1964 by Leonid Brezhnev. But Brezhnev couldn’t solve the underlying problems either.
By the 1970s, the Soviet Union was in the throes of profound stagnation.
This caused splits between “reformers” and “conservatives”.
The first group wanted to introduce some reforms to make state capitalism more efficient. The second feared any change would threaten the bureaucracy’s rule.
In 1984, as a recognition of the crisis, Mikhail Gorbachev was appointed Soviet ruler and began “glasnost” (openness) and “perestroika” (reconstruction).
But the attempts at reform were too little, too late. And their inability to solve the crisis provoked further splits and unleashed forces at the base of society who began openly questioning their rule.
In 1989 a revolutionary wave swept away the Stalinist dictatorships of Eastern Europe.
And in 1991 the Soviet Union itself collapsed after a failed coup against Gorbachev by conservative sections of the bureaucracy.
But the old ruling class did its best to hang on to its class power.
The political setup changed, but social relations between bosses and workers didn’t. Communist politicians became “democratic” politicians.
The managers of state-owned companies became the managers and sometimes owners of newly privatised companies.
In some Stalinist countries, opposition movements and capitalist newcomers were part of the new setup.
But whether the new states were ruled by “reformed” Stalinists, liberal democrats or a combination of the two, the governments all accepted the logic of global capitalism. They pursued vicious free market policies.
That doesn’t mean socialists should mourn the collapse of the Soviet Union. What’s needed is that original spirit of socialist revolution and working class self-emancipation of 1917 that Stalinism buried.
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