Article 19
December 8, 1988




The 19th Party Conference. Freedom to criticize--but only past policies. Underdevelopment and national antagonisms. Strategy of imperialism toward Moslem fundamentalism. Sakharov promotes Armenian bourgeois elements. The Estonian "popular front." Estonia's history between the wars. Gorbachev's concessions to Western public opinion. Can USSR avoid growth of bourgeois nationalism?

While Gorbachev was basking in the sunlight of summitry politics with the U.S. and absorbing a flood of flattery from the imperialist press not too long ago, forces hostile to socialism were working, not too quietly, to undermine the very pillars of the national structure of the USSR. For a while it seemed that Gorbachev and his collaborators were either not noticing or not paying much attention to the serious developments casting a dark shadow over the glowing accounts of perestroika and glasnost.

For instance, as late as the spring of 1988, when Gorbachev visited Yugoslavia, he was asked by reporters how he could explain the disorders that had taken place in Armenia and Azerbaijan. Gorbachev answered with a question. "Name me a country," he said, "which doesn't have problems like these." But that is exactly the point! Hadn't progressives always thought of the USSR as being different from the capitalist countries, which are in a continual process of suppressing national minorities? Was Gorbachev deliberately putting the USSR on a level with bourgeois regimes?

Didn't he get the message of the rebellion in Kazakhstan in 1986? It came after the head of the Party in the republic was removed and replaced by an ethnic Russian. The response of the Gorbachev regime was to denounce irresponsible young people, hoodlums and the like. If he overlooked the significance of Kazakhstan, could he have forgotten what happened first in Armenia and then in the city of Sumgait in Azerbaijan just this February? The blood spilled there was hardly dry when Gorbachev visited Yugoslavia.

Then came preparations for the great event, the 19th Party Conference in June 1988. This was heralded as the opportunity for an all-out debate. It would be a great demonstration of the democratic transformation of the USSR that would put the whole country on a new historic plateau. Again, some in the bourgeois press pulled out all stops in praise of the new thinking, the new demonstration of tolerance, of criticism, of give and take. But look closer. Who was really doing all the debating? Who was doing all the criticism? Was there any criticism of Gorbachev and his administration?

Was even one person able to get up and forthrightly state that he or she was opposed to perestroika in principle? Did anyone say it was a return to petty bourgeois commodity production and the enrichment of the upper layers of Soviet society, that cooperative enterprises which rent the collectivized lands for as long as 50 years are a cover for free bourgeois enterprises? Did anyone blame the Gorbachev regime for the food crisis, or was it all heaped on their predecessors, the period of so-called stagnation under Brezhnev? And did anyone feel free to link the growing inequality between persons and regions to the rise of nationalist antagonisms?

But never mind that. There were great big issues to discuss. Yes, such as the question of Kazakhstan. How about discussing that, as well as the disorders in Azerbaijan and in Armenia? Was the fact brought up that the Party apparatus in both states was swept away by mass demonstrations, and that the Party leadership, whatever influence it might have had, had vanished into thin air?

Was it enough to say, as Gorbachev did, that all these problems grew out of the past period, and that he should get credit for bringing the matter into the open by stimulating democratic processes? Did it suffice that one or two self-serving representatives, carefully chosen by the Gorbachev regime from Armenia and Azerbaijan, made presentations that covered up rather than revealed the growing danger, which was spreading daily? Did anybody among the delegates note, for example, that the Ayatollah Khomeini's picture was appearing on flags and placards in the demonstrations in Baku? Did they think that had any meaning?

It seems that only the writer and historian Roy Medvedev, who is outside the Party and whose bourgeois leanings to the West are only too well known, will bring up such matters, discussing them with the bourgeois press. Medvedev recognizes the danger involved, but the Gorbachev regime seems to have turned a blind eye to it.

There is a problem of underdevelopment in the republics. Wherever there is no clear-cut communist solution based upon equality, they will inevitably become prey to bourgeois demagogy, which can clothe itself in reactionary religious forms. This should have been taken into consideration a long time ago, when the Khomeini regime first consolidated its reactionary dictatorship over the Iranian people.

One of the long-term strategies of U.S. imperialism, ever since Khomeini came to power (and it explains their equivocal attitude toward him), is to turn Moslem fundamentalism, headed by the Khomeini regime, into a spearhead against the Soviet Union. This has been openly talked about in the U.S. over a period of years. Under these circumstances, it is sheer folly not to have paid the greatest attention to this problem. Even if concessions of an extraordinary character were called for, they should have been made to overcome the underdeveloped state of the economy in Azerbaijan and to a lesser extent in Armenia.

Even back in Lenin's day, it was clear (as we have pointed out in earlier articles) that the New Economic Policy, necessary as it was, encouraged the growth of Great Russian chauvinism and cultivated bourgeois traits of acquisitiveness and individualism in economic relations. But this was recognized as a great danger and the Party was on guard against it.

The policy of perestroika has reignited and fanned the flames of ancient nationalism. A solution can be found to the national question by addressing the problems created by perestroika, not by reinforcing the bourgeois economic reforms.

Having made so much of the Party Conference, they could have brought up the national question there, but it was hardly the place for it. The first secretary of the Azerbaijan Central Committee in his talk mentioned the existence of the Soviet of Nationalities, which is the constitutional arm of the government where the resolution of this problem properly belongs. If not done there, he said, they should at least set up a commission or a sub-unit of the government to establish an ethnic ministry. Properly, this question should be taken up at a full-scale meeting of the Soviet of Nationalities. Of course, this could lead to an explosive discussion. But isn't it preferable to have an explosion within the confines of a constitutional arm of the government rather than in the streets?

When the struggle was confined to the Armenians and Azerbaijanis, it might have been manageable with enough foresight and sensitivity. But there was hesitation and an under-estimation of the problem. Under these circumstances, it was utterly inevitable that larger, more formidable forces would enter the arena. The imperialists were very quick, at the first outbreak of the disorders in Azerbaijan and Armenia, to set up facilities in Rome and in the U.S. to process Armenian applications for immigration. How different it is for Haitian, Guatemalan and Salvadoran refugees!

And then came Andrei Sakharov's open call for support to Armenia. It was an attempt to rally all the old Great Russian chauvinists, all the bourgeois and anti-communist elements. Sakharov has been legitimized as the leader of the bourgeois wing of the Gorbachev regime; he has gotten back on the governing board of the Soviet Academy of Sciences; he is a spokesperson on human rights for the bourgeois elements; and now he is promoting Armenian bourgeois elements. What once might have lent itself to an easier solution has now become a larger and more formidable struggle. All the chauvinists, all the bourgeois elements, are now gravitating toward Armenia.

In the light of what was happening in the southern republics, it is interesting to note that the Estonian delegation came to the June Party Conference with a ready-made "popular front." The older communists might have thought, well, here was something progressive. Perhaps it reminded them of the working class struggles of the 1930s, particularly the anti-fascist front in France. But they might have looked closer at that, since even the Popular Front in France was a coalition between the working class parties and the Radical Socialists, who were the authentic party of the French bourgeoisie at that time. And it was led by the Premier, Edouard Daladier, who soon made short shrift of his anti-fascist demagogy and became the signer, along with Britain's Neville Chamberlain, of the Munich Pact with Hitler.

But never mind that. It's all ancient history. This "popular front" from Estonia must be a good thing. Oh, sure it is. It is a provisional regime for the restoration of bourgeois private property and for an alliance with the imperialist bourgeoisie.

Is this "popular front," complete with its own cabinet and a near-unanimous legislature, just a home-made product? Or is it an embryo bourgeois government, so ill-disguised that any communist in the USSR should be able to recognize it immediately and treat it as such? The attempt to set it up as an independent government is a farce and a fraud.

All this was completely lost in the euphoria of self-congratulations over this great Conference. Now, however, Gorbachev has some second thoughts about Estonia and the "popular front." But this is November, not the halcyon days of June and July. So now, at a meeting of the Presidium of the Central Committee, he is obliged to remind the Baltic leadership that perestroika was meant to develop socialist property and not private property. The latter, says Gorbachev, leads to the "exploitation of man by man." 1 Does the working class of the USSR need to be reminded of this, or is it his particular grouping of "innovators and experimenters" who have to relearn the basics? "Our revolution," he said, "was staged for the purpose . . . of turning everything over to the people. The attempt to restore private property means a move backwards and is a deeply erroneous decision." 2 Well, well.

However welcome this reassertion of fundamental principles is, it is important to know that what the leaders of the Baltic states (Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania) have raised is not the validity or applicability of the Russian Revolution, but the annexation and incorporation of the Baltic states into the USSR in 1939.

We have written about the history of this region before.3 In brief, when the Baltic states were part of the czarist empire in 1917, an attempt was made by the workers to overthrow the bourgeois governments there simultaneously with the Russian Revolution. But they failed and then the German imperialists took over the area and occupied it. After the German defeat, the Baltic states were declared independent by the victorious Allies. Some of the comrades thought the right thing to do was to move in the Red Army and take over that territory again. But wiser counsel, led by Lenin, overruled this with the view that, given time, the workers of the Baltic states would rise to the historic occasion and overturn the landed barons and the German bourgeoisie who controlled the vital industrial arteries of the region.

Instead of allowing the free development of democratic processes, the bourgeoisie in the Baltics generally began to repress the workers' movement. The bourgeoisie in Estonia proved so weak and unstable, however, that it experienced 20 coalition governments before it succumbed to a near-fascist regime, which lasted until the Red Army arrived in 1939. The Soviet Union had just signed a non-aggression pact with Germany--but only after it tried and failed to get an agreement with Britain banning direct or indirect aggression by Nazi Germany in the area. Faced with the imminent possibility of pro-Nazi coups in the Baltic states, the USSR instead made an agreement with Germany that allowed it to send its troops into the area. Within two years, Germany attacked the USSR, occupying the Baltic states once again. It remained for the Red Army to free these states from Nazi occupation. They were won in a war of socialism against imperialism, and this cannot be negotiated away.

Why is the Gorbachev regime on the defensive on this? It's part and parcel of the accommodation with U.S. and European imperialism. It's not that they're afraid of the Estonian bourgeoisie--they're afraid of bourgeois public opinion in the imperialist countries, who are presenting the spectre of another Czechoslovakia.

These states were won in an international civil war, far more significant historically and as binding as was the victory of the North over the South in the bloody U.S. Civil War. The war was the final arbiter and this should have been made clear from the very beginning to Washington, to Bonn and to the Nordic satellites of imperialism.

The Estonians would never have the brashness, the insolence to come with an embryo so-called independent government and ask for recognition unless they were supported and instigated by the imperialist bourgeoisie and had been fed steadily with bourgeois economic concessions by the Gorbachev administration. But it's not too late. A turnaround has to be made by the Soviet government if it is to avoid the disintegrating effects of the growth of bourgeois nationalism as against communist working class solidarity.


1. Washington Post, November 28, 1988.

2. Ibid.

3. See Article 15.

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