Article 22
August 3, 1989



Soviet coal miners "storm the heavens." Strike marks dawn of new period for working class. Gorbachev had to show sympathy and settle strike quickly. But miners' grievances flow from economic reforms which benefit thin layer at expense of workers. Comparison of this crisis to China and Poland. Imperialists hope strike will disrupt planned economy. Miners demand a curb on private entrepreneurs. Political autonomy vs. economic autonomy. Are workers challenging the state--or are they themselves the state? Distinction between workers' state and governing group. Class character of Soviet state. Problem of relations between social base and superstructure.

The strike of the Soviet coal miners, which began July 10, 1989, in western Siberia, spread to the Donets region of the Ukraine, and then enveloped most of the coal-mining regions of the USSR, is the most dramatic and significant development in the Soviet Union in all the years of the Gorbachev administration.

The strike is now over, and the very fact that there was a settlement is in itself an enormous phenomenon in Soviet labor relations. It is not so much what the workers won, although this is estimated to be considerable and substantial. It is the fact that they have won it. That the Prime Minister of the Soviet Union, Nikolai I. Ryzhkov, met in the Kremlin with the mine workers' strike committee is itself of formidable significance.

By this act alone, by having to "storm the heavens" (to borrow a phrase from Marx written in a different historical context), the workers have leaped from being a mere economic category to being a class unto itself.

The picture of Ryzhkov meeting with the strikers cannot but make every progressive, every class-conscious worker and every collective farmer feel that a new day has arrived. Pride and solidarity with the workers is bound to soar. The long period when the workers seemed dormant, inarticulate and indifferent is coming to an end.

The workers are now in a transition period. Their political consciousness is being transformed. They will no longer be a bourgeois economic category such as wholesale or retail trade, raw materials, or transportation--inanimate categories manipulated by the higher-ups. They will again become the most formidable political entity, as they were when their organized strength became the foundation of the USSR. They will achieve the aspirations of their early leaders--to make the working class the most developed, educated and consistently socialist class in the construction of a communist society.

Imperialist ideologues dream of returning the Soviet working class to the antiquated bourgeois system. This, however, is a reactionary utopia and an anachronism from the past which does not fit the immense socialist potential of the USSR.

It is no wonder that all Soviet society is now convulsed by the sudden appearance of this truly extraordinary phenomenon. For the moment, all groupings, political organizations and strata of Soviet society are groping with how to define their attitude, not just toward the miners, but also toward the working class as a whole, which is represented by the miners at present. There is no question that sympathy is overwhelmingly on the side of the mine workers. Gorbachev himself has been obliged to all but declare his own solidarity with the miners and to move expeditiously to settle the strike and put it on the agenda for discussion and review by the Supreme Soviet, the parliament.

For too long we have heard the voices of the so-called dissidents in the USSR, who are really bourgeois elements hostile to socialism and full of praise for the wonders of the capitalist West. Indeed, this narrow stratum of Soviet society has occupied the political arena almost to the exclusion of any but official government spokespeople. Now, at last, the whole world will hear the voice of the Soviet working class through one of the most critically important detachments of the great proletarian army of the USSR. They are now the topic of discussion in the Supreme Soviet, the Central Committee of the Communist Party and the Council of Ministers (the cabinet).

Only yesterday the important topics under discussion were how to appease the growing bourgeois interest in private cooperatives, the mushrooming of independent private entrepreneurs, plans for a volunteer and professional army, taxation, and the national budget. But now all this has disappeared from the agenda. The settlement of the miners' strike and what it may portend for the future is suddenly the main focus of all these central bodies of the Soviet government.

The miners' strike is, of course, not the first strike in the Gorbachev administration. There have been perhaps dozens of strikes by workers ranging from bus drivers to librarians. Although these have been sporadic, localized and of short duration, they nevertheless should have offered a clue to what was brewing. At the least, the government should have been publicly occupied with a critical examination of this data and made recommendations. It did not.

Gorbachev supporters, however, are quick to point out that the central government acted rapidly to deal with the strikers, dispatched a high-level delegation of Politburo members to meet with them, and made substantial concessions. This means, they say, that greater attention will be paid not only to the miners, but also to the working class as a whole. Of course, what is conveniently forgotten is that it took the pressure of the strike to accomplish this. Gorbachev himself had to make a special appeal on television to the miners in the Donets Basin of the Ukraine. Had the Gorbachev administration acted on its own two or three years ago, that would have demonstrated foresight and keen interest in the condition of the workers. Moreover, if a settlement like the one made with the miners had also been made with steelworkers, textile workers, transportation workers, etc., that would have been an altogether different matter. To carry the point further, if all of the really bona fide negotiations with representatives of the working class had been carried out pursuant to the Comprehensive Plan first proposed in skeleton form at a 1985 plenary session of the Communist Party Central Committee, it would really have been exemplary of proletarian democracy and socialist, centralized planning. But that didn't happen.

The Gorbachev administration has staked a great deal on the Comprehensive Plan, which promises to revolutionize society and its basic institutions. As it turns out, however, in document after document and decision after decision issued by the Central Committee on this plan, no provision was made for the unanticipated intervention of the workers. It was all shrouded in vague generalities.

Gorbachev cannot but be aware that the miners' strike has brought him face to face with a most serious political crisis, one flowing from his complex plans for restructuring Soviet society. The crisis is not caused solely by the conservatives among the Party cadres, or their "unwillingness to change." The crisis has a social character in that the new managerial system shifts the burden to the vast majority of the workers while a thin layer of bourgeois and petty-bourgeois elements thrives handsomely.

No matter how much Gorbachev may blame the lower echelons of the Party, no matter how much he may excoriate the coal industry officialdom or the trade union apparatus, as he has done in the face of the resurgent workers, this will be of no avail, for neither personnel nor organizational difficulties are at the root of the problem. The root of the problem is the bourgeois character of the reforms. Relentlessly, they gravitate toward the capitalist market and they foster the growth of social inequality among the masses.

Only a short while ago the top administrators were still scolding the workers for "wage leveling" and for "petty bourgeois egalitarianism," barbs that are aimed at undermining working class solidarity in the struggle against bureaucratic privileges. It will be interesting to see if this vicious and slanderous campaign will now finally come to an end.

Gorbachev is not altogether in a strong position to blame the Party. After all, he has headed it now for four years, long enough to have made his position clear on the very matters the miners have brought to his attention, if not to make the necessary changes. He has cultivated a variety of neobourgeois elements from the periphery of Soviet society, helping them to win posts and occupy prominent roles at the 19th Party Conference. These elements are now the principal critics of his policy from the right, yet he relies on them in the struggle against genuine left elements. Gorbachev stands with one leg in the camp of the outright bourgeois reformers and the other in the Party. But the middle ground is being cut from under his feet.

His attempt to coopt the strikers with an ingratiating TV speech and the expeditious manner in which the strike was settled may temporarily strengthen him. Yet he cannot but know that on the whole he has lost ground. Gorbachev, who eagerly breaks ranks from a parade to shake hands and kiss babies in the capitals of the imperialist world, showing that he is a man of the people, was not one to don miners' clothes and go down into the Siberian pits or to the Donets basin in the Ukraine. He did not go underground with the miners to emphasize solidarity with them, as he might have done had he felt he would be well received.

Gorbachev and his associates must also ponder the significance of the suppression of the counterrevolutionary elements in China. Some in the West see a possible similar development in the USSR. That, too, is the product of a total misunderstanding of the driving forces in China and in the USSR. The Chinese government was confronted with a bourgeois opposition which had grown to counterrevolutionary proportions. The Gorbachev administration at this moment is confronted not with a bourgeois opposition, not with an opposition oriented to Western imperialism, but with a veritable working class rebellion of potentially revolutionary dimensions.

Nor is the situation analogous to what is happening in Poland. The Polish workers' state did not issue from a proletarian socialist revolution, as did the USSR. True, there was a revolutionary social change, but the main task of defeating the Nazis and the Polish bourgeoisie fell to the Soviet Army. It should not be forgotten that the Polish People's Republic, which established itself in 1947 and gained recognition from the Western imperialist allies, is the historical survival of the coalition forced upon the Polish revolutionary movement at the Yalta Conference of 1945.

No matter how meritorious the economic grievances of the workers in Poland have been in the past, the strikes led by Solidarity have long served the interests of the imperialist powers, mainly the U.S., with Britain, France and Germany as junior partners. Never to be forgotten is that for many years now, the Polish economy has been completely dominated by Western banks. Now a coalition government has been formed with Solidarity. It is a coalition in which the bourgeoisie dominates and the more progressive anti-imperialist elements are forced to toe the line laid down by the IMF. Such a situation has no relevance to what is taking place in the heart of the Soviet working class today.

The world bourgeoisie are not at all disinterested bystanders in the miners' struggle in the Soviet Union. They follow every development closely, looking for opportunities to intervene politically and subvert the system. At this early stage in the reemergence of the working class in the political arena, the world bourgeoisie are still trying to assess the situation and define their attitude to this utterly unanticipated phenomenon. It is thus with malicious delight that the Wall Street Journal, in an editorial entitled "Soviet Workers Arise," said that "For those in the West who are rooting for reforms in the Soviet bloc, an aggressive, determined, independent and organized labor movement . . . would be an optimistic development indeed." 1 So thinks this organ of high finance.

Another view shared by most of the capitalist press at this moment was expressed by Flora Lewis in the New York Times. She is more cautious and much more solicitous of Gorbachev. In fact, the tone of her column is one of hope that Gorbachev will succeed with his "courageous" and "wise" tactics to win the confidence of the striking workers. Lewis says, "It's a moment of tremendous delicacy. So far Mr. Gorbachev's skill and audacity seem up to it. The test is at hand." 2

The imperialists fully understand the significance of democratic centralized planning for socialist development and are all too eager to see it disrupted, if not wrecked, as has happened in Yugoslavia, Poland and Hungary. The imperialists hope that the miners' strike will encourage other strikes of long duration that will disrupt the economic plans of the USSR and thereby open it to further capitalist inroads. But this scenario, like that of the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times, is based not upon fact, but on wishful thinking and deep-seated hatred of the socialist countries.

For many years, and even at this moment, the size and influence of the bourgeois elements in the Soviet Union has been highly exaggerated. The main danger is not from outright bourgeois elements but from the liberal reformists, articulate petty-bourgeois intellectuals, professionals and scientists enjoying inordinate privileges in this workers' state, both in and outside of the Gorbachev administration, who have in the last few years been more attracted by the fraudulent capitalist prosperity of the West and the capitalist market than by the potentialities of reforming Soviet society in a genuine communist direction. But their influence over the workers and peasants, if any, is highly questionable.

According to an article in the July 26, 1989, New York Times, the miners have called for "the abolition or curtailment of the private entrepreneurs." These elements, the Times said, while having amassed wealth under the new economic order that Gorbachev is trying to build, are strongly resented. The workers, who are the absolute majority of the population, are not at all as enthused by it as the capitalist press would have had us believe all these months! The Times reporter writes that the blue-collar workers are not supportive of modernizing and restructuring plans if that means closing so-called "bankrupt industries," deregulating prices (i.e., raising prices of consumer goods), and laying off "surplus" workers. These practices are characteristic of capitalism, but would be wholly new to the USSR if the Gorbachev plans go through. The workers are for modernization, but on the basis of a socialist, planned economy.

There has been much said about the miners' demand for autonomy. Local political autonomy is a correct demand within the framework of a multinational state. Economic autonomy, however, oriented to the capitalist market, disrupts socialist planning. Some in the media in the Soviet Union are emphasizing the workers' interest in greater economic autonomy, profit-sharing, etc.--bourgeois reforms which have drained proletarian socialist consciousness--but time and experience will demonstrate that this is only a momentary concern. For four years the Gorbachev administration has been promising the workers that these measures will ultimately bring about social and economic benefits.

The miners' strike and the world attention focused on it have once again pushed to the fore fundamental questions of theory and practice regarding the nature of the Soviet state in general and of the social character of the Soviet Union in particular. For example, both the extreme right-wing stand taken in the Wall Street Journal and the more moderate bourgeois view in the New York Times have this in common: They view the miners' strike as a challenge to the Soviet state. However, it is not the Soviet state that is being challenged.

What is happening? The state itself is challenging the governing group of the state. The difference is fundamental and worth pondering over.

The state is an instrument of a specific class defined by its relation to the means of production. The governing group, on the other hand, merely administers the state. Confusing the state with its administrators merely obscures the real relationships that govern society.

The governing group of a workers' state may administer it well and efficiently, in a revolutionary manner, as was done during the early years of the Bolshevik era. Or it can represent the state badly, inflict untold hardship on the masses and enact policies that erode the very class foundation of the state. Nevertheless, the state is and remains a state of the workers and peasants.

The identification of the Soviet state with its bureaucratic governing groups and its political apparatus is a gross misconception disseminated by the bourgeoisie to obscure the class character of the Soviet Union. Imperialism must hide the fact that the ruling class in a socialist state is the working class. Even if for many years the workers' voice has been stifled, their capabilities limited, and their freedom and initiative seriously curtailed, nevertheless, it is still the state of the workers and peasants. No part of this state is owned by the administrators. In fact, the miners' strike has shown once again that while the Soviet Union has gone through periods when its working class foundations seemed endangered, these periods of erosion have been followed by vigorous and dynamic growth.

The USSR has experienced a number of governing groups over the last 70 years, while the state itself has remained fundamentally unaltered. The governing groups have never been anything else but the administrators of the state, even in the brightest days of the Leninist period. At that time there was, of course, the greatest identity of interests between the administrators of the state and the workers' and peasants' state itself.

It is altogether different under capitalism. For example, when Donald Regan resigned as head of the Treasury and also as chief of staff for the U.S. president under the Reagan administration, he remained a capitalist. Even though he did not take a legal portion of the capitalist state with him, he had control of vast amounts of property.

On the other hand, if Nikolai Ryzhkov or Gorbachev himself should leave office, they do not take along with them any ownership of the means of production. Their social status might be that of a pensioner, or they could find another occupation, but whatever they might be doing, they would not become capitalists.

To confuse the governing group of a state with the state itself serves the bourgeoisie well. It most often gets them off the hook in times of struggle with the workers, and diverts attention onto the governing group, which may be easily dispensed with, legally or otherwise.

Throughout its long and bloody history, the bourgeoisie has always tried to confuse the class foundations of its states with its governing groups. The bourgeoisie is almost always displeased with its governing groups, whether they be conservatives or liberals, Christian Democrats or left-wing Socialists, or an occasional coalition of Communists and Socialists. Over the last 50 years a vast number of governing groups of the bourgeoisie have come and gone as though through a revolving door. But the class foundations of the capitalist states, that is, the industrialists, the bankers, the multinational corporations that hold and have legal title to most of the resources, remain the same. Indeed, the bulk of the wealth in the world remains in their hands.

The bourgeoisie does not like to popularize this aspect of the Marxist conception of the state. It is much more to their interest to pass off a particular governing group as the state rather than to show that the state is in reality based on who owns the means of production, distribution and exchange, transport and communications. All this makes up the state.

The problem of the Soviet state is the problem of the relation of the social structure to its superstructure; it is the problem of the relation of the economic foundations to the political administration, that is, the relation of the class to its leaders. The Soviet state has survived decades of struggle between the structure and the superstructure, now hidden, now open, and sometimes even violent. The governing group, the officialdom or the bureaucracy is not the state. It can act on the state's behalf, ignore it or even repress it, but it is not the state.

There comes a time, however, when the relation between the structure and the superstructure reaches a crisis. At such a time the workers step into the political arena, as the miners have done, and reveal to the whole world who in fact is the state.

This is of world historic significance. It is the real meaning of the miners' strike.


1. Wall Street Journal, July 21, 1989.

2. New York Times, July 23, 1989.

Main menu Book menu