External and internal causes of the USSR breakdown

By Sam Marcy (Oct. 24, 1991)

Following are excerpts from a talk by Workers World Party chairperson Sam Marcy in San Francisco on Oct. 12.

The question about the USSR that's on most people's minds is: Why did it happen? Why all this collapse?

Looking at the internal situation as it is presented by the capitalist press in the U.S. is wrong and inadequate. It is not the way to begin an analysis.

What happened is the break of a social system, the breakdown of the socialist cause, not just in the Soviet Union but around the earth. Under Marxist criteria, we have to look at it from a global point of view.

If you want to understand how Columbus got to Hispaniola, it is not enough to analyze the events surrounding him and his ships. We have to analyze the colonial ambitions of the rising commercial bourgeoisie in Europe. European commercial imperialism and colonialism was expanding and on that basis we can explain some of the events that took place in the Western Hemisphere.

And so it is with the USSR. We have to look at what was happening in the rest of the world and especially right here in this country. What happens internally in the USSR is to a large degree a product of the irreconcilable imperialism of U.S. finance capital--its aggressiveness, its nuclear expansionist policy and its daily, hourly policy of experimentation and research in the deadliest of all weapons.

The capitalist world had uniformly agreed to isolate the Soviet Union--not yesterday, not 10 or 20 years ago but from day one of the Bolshevik Revolution. For all those 74 years since 1917 the USSR had been a besieged, beleaguered state.

Even today with the collapse, the Soviet Union is still isolated. The U.S. will not give grain, food, or aid until it gets cash on the barrelhead, until it gets political concessions that conform to Wall Street's will.

Two hundred years before Columbus the capitalist system arose. It is based on oppression and exploitation worldwide. It has amassed riches all those years from five continents, including 300 years of slavery in this country. That has made it possible for U.S. imperialism to be the principal source of attack against the USSR.

So a great deal of the internal situation in the USSR has to do with what is happening here.

Bureaucracy and class

Our party has been the most consistent critic of Soviet foreign policy and of the bureaucracy in the Soviet Union. But our criticism of the Soviet leadership has nothing to do with criticism by the bourgeoisie in this country. It has nothing to do with the so-called left or ultra-leftist groups, which continually state that the principal cause of the Soviet Union's collapse is the bureaucracy.

The bureaucracy is one basis of the Soviet Union's decline. But it is by no means the principal cause. The principal cause lies in the overall objective situation: U.S. superiority in weapons and technology, and Washington's ability to threaten nuclear annihilation.

Certainly there is a bureaucracy in the Soviet Union. But those who think this is the principal cause of the USSR's decline never think of bureaucracy in capitalist society, in this country.

The labor bureaucracy is often referred to. But do we hear of the corporate bureaucracy? That's the more formidable bureaucracy. The bureaucracy of GE, of Westinghouse, of General Dynamics. Do we hear of the bureaucracy of the Fortune 500 corporations? Or the bureaucracy that is built up in the military field?

The corporate bureaucracy comprises a million people, maybe even more. They are the intermediaries who push the other bureaucracies--the military, the postal service, the clerical bureaucracy, and the municipal, state and federal bureaucracies. They in turn constitute millions more.

We communists have never considered that they are the principal cause of capitalist decline--unemployment, war or any of the other vices of the capitalist system. They are merely the tools, the instruments of a class. They may serve that class well or ill.

On occasion they may soften the class struggle in the interest of maintaining the domination of the ruling class. Or they may harden it in the interest of defending the ruling class. But they are not the principal cause of capitalist exploitation and oppression.

We hate the capitalist bureaucracy that never rides a subway, never sees homelessness or poverty. But we know the federal bureaucracy, which is being pushed by the corporate bureaucracy, is not in and of itself the problem.

The maladies of capitalist society are caused by exploitation, ruling class dominance by means of ownership of the means of production. It is necessary to see bureaucracy historically.

We must not confuse class with an instrument of a class.

Ancient China had a bureaucracy. It was feudal. There were landlords and serfs, peasants who were enslaved. Who built the Great Wall? It was built on the sweat and blood of the peasants. But who were the organizers, the planners? It was the bureaucracy, which served as an important tool to gather and enslave the masses, collect taxes and so on.

The bureaucrats knew how to read and write. They were useful to the ruling class. Often the ruling class would be dissatisfied with the bureaucratic leadership and throw them out. But if they did, they would get others.

The Soviet context

So bureaucracy as a general historic phenomenon is not something first seen in the Soviet Union. But why was it necessary for a workers' state to have a bureaucracy? Or was it necessary? And if it was necessary, how did it grow up?

The October Revolution took place in a country that was very backward, poor, with many of what we would today call Third World people. It had a profoundly revolutionary working class that--revolutionary and receptive as it was to Marxist thought--was nevertheless a minority in a country where the great majority were peasants.

That immediately made it difficult to form a class alliance on a permanent basis because the peasants, even when they are in the most revolutionary mood, are for private ownership of their own plot of land. Marxists are for collectivization of the land. They are for socializing all the land, all the property the workers and peasants have struggled to build.

These two oppressed classes made a great alliance and held on to it for many years. That was an achievement: they held out through four years of civil war from virtually the first day of the revolution until 1922, when they finally crushed the counterrevolution.

They were able to do all this on the basis of a correct Marxist policy erected by Lenin in the years of most difficult relations with the imperialist powers. The Soviet Union was forced to sign the Brest-Litovsk treaty, which gave away a large amount of territory. There was a counter-revolutionary rebellion at Kronstadt. The high hopes of building socialism worldwide collapsed with the collapse of the revolutions in Germany, Hungary and other parts of the world.

Understanding why it was so difficult to maintain the revolutionary regime at that time will help us understand why it was so difficult to maintain it during the period of the Cold War. We don't want to apologize for any of the false policies carried out by Stalin and his successors. We certainly don't want to take responsibility for the German non-aggression pact that Stalin signed during that period, which may have been necessary but which lulled the Soviet leaders and left the USSR unprepared for the Nazi invasion when it finally came. There were innumerable mistakes. There was the violation of the workers' democratic rights and the abolition of workers' democracy.

But the Soviet Union did become the second greatest industrial and technological power. Notwithstanding all the invasions, isolation, the blockade for many years, the threats of nuclear attack--they did maintain themselves.

Imperialist pressure

But they were in a life-and-death race with imperialism. They were in a race--wrongly, we believe--to say they could build a higher standard of living than France or the U.S. could afford.

The U.S. draws all the blood out of Latin America in order to build up its own scientific and technological apparatus. The Soviet Union, in contrast, had to utilize its resources and divide them with the southern republics, which were more backward, and also with the East Europeans who never acknowledged it because of the bourgeois leadership they had there.

So the inevitability of some collapse should have been foreseen because of the very severe pressure and the U.S. blockade against the USSR. The pressure arose from the fact that the USSR was supporting national liberation movements and oppressed countries under U.S. attack, such as Vietnam and Cuba and, earlier, China. That's one of the principal reasons the pressure against the USSR continued.

The external pressures had an important impact on the internal situation.

Socialist democracy

Naturally, we don't want to blame the disastrous collapse of part of the Soviet Union solely on the external factors. There are the internal factors, the inability to maintain a workers' regime without abandoning workers' democracy and resorting to totalitarian measures.

Democratic methods within the working class movement may have drawbacks. But it is one way to draw out the opposition. It is even useful to allow bourgeois parties to surface in order to see the opposition, to see how strong they are. Of course, if they become a threat to the workers' state, then to maintain the life of the workers' state you fight them. If necessary you use force and violence to maintain the workers' regime.

Has not every revolution gone through the same process? On the other hand, would the U.S. allow capitalist democracy, such as it is, if the bourgeoisie felt it threatened the existence of capitalism? No. The McCarthy period was an example of what the U.S. will do.

In the USSR, it would not have been altogether erroneous to permit the existence of bourgeois parties as long as they abided by socialist legality and were not financed by imperialist banks, the CIA and its worldwide networks.

But should that be the case, it is best that their existence be out in the open so as to rally the population, to rally the workers and peasants in the course of the struggle and win them over on that basis. To stifle the opposition is to give an advantage to the other side and allow them to quietly build up their forces, perhaps without the knowledge and understanding of the leading groups in the government, in particular the bureaucracy.

There are now in the Soviet Union more industrial and technical advisers from the U.S., Britain and Germany than there were in all the previous years of the Soviet Union's existence. They are not there to advise and help. They are there as espionage agents to ferret out ways and means to destabilize whatever remains that is still socialist in the Soviet Union.

Not until they have completed their work, not until they have communicated with their masters on Wall Street and Lombard Street and the Bourse, not until the imperialist powers have made up their minds that an investment is safe will they begin to trade with the USSR on an equal basis.

Capitalism not in yet

Let us not be fooled by the fact that the Soviet socialist system is in chaos into thinking that capitalism has already been restored in the USSR. That is not the case.

It is not true that the whole system has collapsed and that the workers won't rise to defend it.

The basic aim of the U.S. banks and corporations is to see to it that the Soviet Union's really important dynamic industries--that is, coal, steel, metals and aluminum, the electric and high-tech industrial infrastructure--become private property in the hands of individuals. Has that happened in the Soviet Union yet? No.

It is not true that the most important industries in the Soviet Union have been privatized and are in the hands of private business people. Socialists have to understand that so we don't get demoralized by imperialist propaganda claiming everything is all lost.

But what has happened is highly deleterious and dangerous to socialism. It is in a position where the system can be overturned completely.

A law was passed by the Congress of Peoples Deputies in August. This was just before the coup. The law permitted the government to privatize industries.

It is now lawful for the government to destatize--sell--parts of the state-owned and -controlled industries. It's not clear which industries, but that's what the law passed in August says. But it has not gone beyond the legal formulation yet. There has been no wholesale sell-off of the basic industries of the USSR yet.

High-tech, the infrastructure, the military--none of the basic industry of the USSR has been sold off. That is why the U.S. millionaires and billionaires are not advancing the money.

So there you have it at the moment. The workers believe that the industries belong to them, that they are socialist industries and cannot be sold without them. This is important. No matter how much the capitalist press claims that there is disorder and that the economic system is falling apart--which is true--it is not true that the industries have been sold off to the capitalist class. We hope it will not be true.

Why can't they do it? They can't do it because the government itself is fearful of selling it off to the multinational corporations, which in turn are fearful of taking on the responsibility of becoming neocolonialists in a socialist country. The Soviet leadership has a neocolonialist mentality, but the colonialists themselves are fearful of invading and penetrating too far for their own good. It has not happened and we hope it will not.

The coup

The Soviet leadership knew what the privatization law meant. It was the most dangerous thing that could happen in the Soviet Union. The idea that what belonged to the workers should be sold back to the old bourgeois system seems so reprehensible that if it was explained to the workers there would be a rebellion. But the law is phrased so that its real significance is hidden.

The Soviet leadership, however, knew very well that this law was being drafted, and discussed in Washington and on Wall Street. Delegations going back and forth between the U.S. and Moscow were all concerned with this one important law and how to put it across.

Some of these leaders in the Soviet Union knew the significance and danger of this new law--that it ultimately means the restoration of capitalism. Those in charge would know this.

They were the coup leaders.

For instance, there was the head of the KGB, the chair of the Interior Department, the prime minister, the head of the Association of State Enterprises and the defense minister. The leaders of the coup were in fact those in charge of the government, with the exception of Gorbachev and Yeltsin. All were in the most responsible posts. All knew or should have known the meaning of that law. It was passed on Aug. 8. They knew that afterward there might be a sell-off.

The thing for a revolutionary leader to do was explain this to the workers, rally them, sound the alarm--and if necessary resign your job and take up arms against it. Don't let it happen.

But instead they decided on a different course of action, a military coup. They would each speak to deputies or underlings. They would issue a state of emergency. And to take advantage of the fact that Gorbachev was on vacation, they would surround him with a "corporal's guard," put a few tanks into the Moscow area and declare that the regime of Gorbachev and Yeltsin was over.

Now that's a military coup d'etat. It's a coup because it's done without the consultation or participation of the masses. And Marxism is opposed to such a course of action. Marxists believe that emancipation of the masses can only be accomplished through their own action. It cannot be done by leaders from the top without the workers' participation.

If a coup coincides with a mass insurrection, that is something else. But a coup without the participation or knowledge of the masses is a risky thing. Ultimately it has all the characteristics of an inevitable disaster.

In the statement they issued declaring the state of emergency there wasn't a word about socialism. It only declared that there was economic chaos, disorder, living conditions slumping, all of that. It was a statement of fact made after the coup. But one thing that struck us in light of what I said about U.S. imperialism is that the coup would maintain relations with the outside world on the same level as before. Now why did they take this very vague approach, so vague that it could not move the masses?

At the same time they made a pledge to the outside world--really the imperialists--that they would maintain the same relationships Gorbachev had. That meant maintaining a neocolonialist position. Why?

Imperialism and the coup

They were afraid of military action by the U.S. to overthrow them. And why would the U.S. do it? Because Washington recognized the names of the coup leaders as hardliners. These eight leaders are known for their anti-Gorbachev, anti-perestroika position generally, even though they have gone along publicly with it.

They thought they would mollify the U.S. "It is an internal affair, it's between us and Gorbachev, it doesn't concern you, we're going to keep relations with you, we won't disturb the balance internationally, we're just going to change the governing group."

But the imperialists knew from the very first hours that this meant the overthrow of the Gorbachev regime and the end of the capitalist restorationist process. The coup was an attempt to sneak in a new governing group that would restore the old system at least economically. At the same time they would stop the process of economic disintegration. They hoped the imperialists would let it alone.

The imperialists recognized that the coup was a threat to capitalist restoration and would change the balance of power between the U.S. and the USSR. So the imperialists sounded the alarm. First came Washington, and then London and Paris and Bonn, and the Japanese were the least enthusiastic. But they all joined in against the coup leaders, and we don't know today what threats were made and why the coup leaders didn't call out the military forces. There were hardly any military forces involved. It was like a token attempt at a coup. And there was sufficient opportunity for the imperialists to threaten and give Yeltsin the chance to hit back.

Yeltsin called for a general strike of the workers and it collapsed. You never saw workers on strike. In Leningrad and Moscow nobody went out. There were mobs of people threatening the Kremlin. But what is 10,000 or 20,000 or 50,000? What's that in a country of 250 or 300 million? It's nothing. A demonstration that size in Washington isn't a threat to overthrow the government here and it isn't over there either.

What happened was that the leadership became indecisive and wouldn't call out the military or call upon the workers. It was in a state of paralysis, and in a state of paralysis the enemy has the advantage to move quickly. And so the coup collapsed and the counterrevolutionary elements took over. But they haven't been able to make the private property law operational. They haven't been able to execute the law.

A temporary standoff

So, that's where it stands, a standoff--temporarily. That is why Brzezinski, the former U.S. National Security Council adviser, warns of a second coup. That's why the imperialists are afraid to send money over there. The workers are beginning to awaken.

We're not looking forward to a coup. A coup is not the answer to the question. The answer is the mobilization of the workers. In the meantime the Communist Party of the Soviet Union has become virtually illegal. But they can't illegalize 16 million members and their millions of sympathizers. You carry out illegal work. Isn't that what you do if democratic rights are abolished? You go underground.

The counterrevolution is scared. It's a standoff. They haven't been able to move.

There's time to organize. There's time to explain to the workers that all the chaos is the result of capitalist reforms, and capitalist rules and regulations, and buying and selling--all of which had been overthrown by the revolution. It's all being restored. This is causing the dislocation. This is the economic basis for the chaos in the Soviet Union.

It is not socialism that is creating the chaos. It is capitalism. We need all the more to rededicate ourselves to the anti-imperialist struggle at home. We say, along with Yogi Berra, that it's not over 'til it's over.

We will strengthen the socialist elements in the USSR if we strengthen our opposition to imperialist attack against Cuba. That's what we've got to do. We will strengthen the socialist elements in the USSR if we strengthen our opposition to U.S. interference in Haiti.

Long live the anti-imperialist struggle! Long live the class struggle of the workers against the bosses everywhere! Long live socialism and communism!

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