25 years of 1989
Boris Kagarlitsky, Christoph Lichtenberg, Mel Rothenberg
Platypus Review #75 | April 2015
On the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the 1989 revolutions—the ‘Autumn of Nations’ in the Soviet bloc—the Platypus Affiliated Society organized an international panel series on the significance of 1989 for the Left. The panel held at New York University on February 17, 2015 consisted of Boris Kagarlitsky, director of the Institute for Global Research and Social Movements in Moscow, Christoph Lichtenberg, supporter of the International Bolshevik Tendency, and Mel Rothenberg, a member of the Chicago Political Economy Group. The following are the edited excerpts from the discussion. A full audio recording is available online at http://platypus1917.org/2015/02/26/1989-nyc/
Christoph Lichtenberg: I am going to speak about the collapse of what is known as East Germany, though I prefer to call it by its German acronym, the DDR (the German Democratic Republic). I will talk about what the DDR was, the events that took place there in 1989-90, and then, finally, the response of revolutionary socialists to these events as they happened.
The DDR was of course a product of the Cold War. Nevertheless, it should be realized that it was historically more progressive than its Western counterpart. It was ruled by the Stalinist regime, which suppressed the workers and, ultimately, ruined the economy. A planned economy cannot be run successfully without the participation of the workers, and the DDR’s workers did not participate in a meaningful way. However, the DDR also had a number of significant social gains. These included free medical care, universally available childcare facilities, easy access to abortion, and virtually full employment. All of these things that people in the U.S. would benefit from were available to the citizens of the DDR. It was in our view a “deformed workers’ state,” and it was very similar in its structure to the USSR. Stalinists ruled the DDR, but they were rooted in a planned economy. While the planned economy was undemocratic, it was still a planned economy. As such, society was organized in a manner different from capitalism, in which profit is the highest principle. This principle did not govern the planned economies of the USSR, Eastern Europe, or the DDR.
The events that unfolded in 1989-90 had two important precursors. One was the rise of Solidarność in Poland. In 1980, Polish workers founded an independent union, which organized opposition to the ruling Stalinists. Unfortunately, it became a pro-capitalist formation by 1981 and subsequently rose to power in Poland in 1989-90. Importantly, the workers in the DDR looked to Poland and saw the workers there organized against the ruling elite. That was something that they remembered and took inspiration from, in many ways for the wrong political reasons. Nevertheless, this was an important precursor to what eventually unfolded in the DDR. The other important factor was the regime of Gorbachev in the USSR, which brought about glasnost and perestroika. Glasnostinvolved greater transparency, and perestroika entailed restructuring, which often meant a restructuring of the planned economy in favor of pro-capitalist measures. For example, joint ventures with U.S. companies were allowed. Of the utmost importance for events in the DDR was Gorbachev’s statement that he would pursue a policy of non-interference with regard to other Eastern bloc countries.
The regime in the DDR actually rejected the course taken by Gorbachev. The DDR’s rulers were not supporters of Gorbachev, and they were very worried about him. While the DDR’s regime rejected Gorbachev, its population increasingly rejected the regime. Many people in the DDR wanted reforms, and they looked to Gorbachev as a positive influence. They wanted real participation in the running of society and an end to the travel restrictions that had been imposed upon them. Ordinary citizens in the DDR were not allowed to travel to the West, and they could only go on vacation in Warsaw Pact countries. They wanted an end to the monopoly of the ruling Socialist Unity Party.
Throughout 1989, many cities in the DDR witnessed demonstrations, with people going out in the streets and discussing the reforms they wanted. In autumn, the demonstrations grew in size. There were two tendencies among them. One included those people who simply wanted to leave the DDR in order to go to the West. Nearly a quarter million people left in 1989, many of them young people. The other tendency that emerged, which formed a majority, included those who wanted to reform the existing regime. I want to emphasize that, at this time, reforms did not mean simply capitalist democracy, but rather the creation of something better. Many people talked about socialism at this time in the DDR, which they wanted to make work for them. They wanted better, more genuine socialism.
There emerged different political tendencies from this general situation in the autumn of 1989. Early on, there were the Social Democrats and Democracy Now. These were social-democratic parties and, as such, they were pro-capitalist. They did not really want socialism, but rather were in favor of Western-style democracy and capitalism. They were the counterparts to the West German Social Democrats. There was also the New Forum, which was led by intellectuals who attempted to unite all of the people of the DDR in favor of democratic reforms. The New Forum’s effort to unify people was not successful. In January of 1990, its right wing split off because they said they did not want to have anything to do with socialist projects. Then there was the United Left, which was a left-wing formation that called for a left-socialist alternative in the DDR. It contained several political tendencies, including former members of the ruling Stalinist party. They had 1,500 members, but very few workers joined. There were also conservative forces that emerged very quickly, including the German Social Union, which was basically the counterpart to the Christian Democratic Union in West Germany. It was a very conservative formation. Last, but not least, there was the Independent Women’s Union, which represented the beginning of the feminist movement in the East. Its members were drawn from the Women for Peace network and it included a number of lesbian activists. This organization eventually joined an electoral bloc with the Greens in 1990.
By September and October of 1989, there were mass demonstrations in all of the major cities, and there were small demonstrations in towns where a couple of hundred people would rally in front of the Stalinist party headquarters to demand resignations. The whole DDR was in upheaval. During these events, the Stalinists lost control. Their monopoly of power, which was enshrined in the constitution and had existed for forty years, was finally broken. Many people realized that “we do not need them,” and the ruling party was no longer sure that anyone would follow their orders. Thus, their monopoly was really broken through mass action. People everywhere were looking for an alternative to really existing socialism.
Finally, these developments culminated on November 9, when the ruling party of the DDR declared that all travel restrictions were lifted. This announcement became known as the fall of the Berlin Wall. This also marked a watershed in the ongoing dynamics. After the fall of the wall, and no later than December, the mood in the East was changing, with people more or less coming out in favor of reunification. This had not been on the agenda for the first few months, but, by December, more and more people were talking about reunification. This can be seen in the way the slogans of demonstrations changed. The slogan in October was “We are the People,” expressing the population’s desire to say, “we should be in charge, we are the people.” The slogan had changed by December to “We are One People,” expressing a desire for unification with West Germany. Nevertheless, there was widespread concern about reunification. Many people feared that reunification might actually be an annexation of the DDR by West German capitalism.
The elections on March 18, 1990 gave the Alliance for Germany, a coalition of conservative forces, an overwhelming majority. All of the new parties that had emerged the previous autumn basically disappeared, since no one really cared for them, and the majority of people voted for the Christian Democrats or the Alliance for Germany. This set the course for reunification. One of the important factors in all of these events was that the working class never stood on the political stage as a conscious force. There were some economic strikes and a few shop-steward committees were formed, but there was no organized working class conscious of its own goals and power.
I will conclude with what I believe was the appropriate political perspective at the time. The predecessors of the IBT were the German Gruppe IV Internationale and the Bolshevik Tendency. These formations produced very similar propaganda at the time, and eventually we fused because of the correspondence of our approaches. We called for the formation of workers’ councils at the time because we wanted workers to set up an alternative power base to the Stalinists, as well as to create a formation opposed to the reintroduction of capitalism. We participated in protests and argued for workers’ democracy instead of the Stalinist police state. As Trotskyists, we always stood for the defense of the social gains of the Eastern bloc against the danger of capitalist restoration. We put out a pamphlet in 1990 that said: “Bankruptcy of Stalinism, fight against capitalist counterrevolution, for proletarian political revolution.” That was our perspective at the time. We were not particularly popular for this, but I think it was the right perspective to have, and that is what we fought for. The problem really was that, in the absence of a revolutionary party, the workers of the DDR did not see a viable alternative to capitalist reunification. They could not imagine an alternative material force that was capable of creating something better than what they had already rejected, as well as something better than what was offered to them, which was capitalism. Such an alternative was lacking because a revolutionary party was absent at the time.
Overall, I think that the response of the rest of the Left to these events was abysmal. A lot of the so-called socialists in the West simply became cheerleaders for “democratic” change. They celebrated the end of Stalinism as if this would usher in an era of freedom for the working class. I think this happened because many groups on the Left did not appreciate the real social gains that existed in the DDR and the USSR. The consideration of these social gains did not enter into their analyses. The actual freedom that the workers of the DDR enjoyed after reunification consisted mainly of the total destruction of the country’s industry. There was mass unemployment in the East within a few years of reunification, with some areas witnessing 25-30% unemployment. All of these workers were put out of work, and nothing was there to replace it. This was one of the immediate effects of capitalist reunification. As I said, the defense of the DDR was critical at the time. It was not a popular thing to say, but I believe you have to say what is actually necessary. The defense of the deformed workers’ states did not entail the defense of Stalinists. We did not want to build unity with them, as the German Spartacist group did. What we had to do was to warn against German reunification, and also to warn against the reform wing of the Stalinist apparatus that was emerging then, a wing that eventually sold out the DDR to West German imperialism.
Boris Kagarlitsky: There are a few questions about 1989 that are absolutely essential for the Left to address, both post factum and in terms of analyzing future struggles. If we are looking at the historical process from a left-wing point of view, what we discover is that there was definitely a change in what one might call the dominant ideology of the critical movements. Christoph has already mentioned that the ideology of the movement in Germany changed. Initially, people were in favor of reforming the DDR, but a few months later they were already excited about reunification. We have to be very clear that, at the time, people did not think of reunification in terms of capitalist restoration—in fact itwas that, and it had to be that, as there was no other way objectively. Nevertheless, we must consider how people actually understood it at the time. In that sense, they did not understand the process of reunification in terms of capitalist restoration, as we socialists and Marxists did. We have to be very clear that most people are not socialists or Marxists, and, even when they are socialists, they are usually not Marxists. You should not expect everyone to be like yourself. You have to take this into consideration from the start, or else you will hardly be capable of mobilizing the masses, as they are not necessarily going to accept what you say, and they have their own vision and illusions. These illusions also have some objective bases, and they do not simply arise from nowhere or from bourgeois propaganda. There are other reasons for these illusions. Unless you understand this, you will fail time and again. This is one of the first lessons we have to draw from this history.
If you examine the opposition to the Stalinist regimes in Eastern Europe, and even to some extent in the USSR from the 1960s to the 1980s, what you discover is that initially much of the opposition shared socialist goals. Most of the dissidents in Eastern and Central Europe were to some degree left-wingers. There were different types, from social democrats to Trotskyists to what we might call “authentic” Leninists. The latter was a current of people who were not so much in disagreement with the official Communist ideology, but rather saw the problem as one of the ruling elites not following this ideology. This was a very strong current both in the USSR and in other Eastern European countries. In the case of Czechoslovakia, who were the main characters associated with the opposition during the Prague Spring? One can be very critical of the Prague Spring, but one must keep in mind that, for a short period before it was suppressed in 1968, it was calling for democratic socialism and democratic reforms not only in liberal terms, but also in terms of workers’ participation, workers’ councils, and so forth. In fact, some workers’ councils survived as late as 1969. There was a whole period of the “Second Prague Spring,” during which workers continued resisting long after the so-called “leaders” had surrendered, and councils continued to exist at the factory level. Again, if one takes Hungary, or even Poland, which was an exception, one finds left-wing dissidents such as Jacek Kuroń, Karol Modzelewski, and even Adam Michnik, who is alive and well today as one of the leading right-wing liberal figures in Poland, but who started his career as a dissident, publishing a good book called The Church and the Left in Poland, in which he discussed this relation from a left-wing perspective. Initially, he was a left-winger. In Russia, it was a much more mixed and contradictory picture, but again there was a left-wing opposition tendency, which included my friends and myself.
Additionally, one should realize that there were two different types of opposition to Stalinism within the USSR and the Eastern bloc. On the one hand, there were people who were more or less loyal to the system, and who wanted to reform it from the inside—actually, they wanted not so much to reform it as to improve it. These people in East Germany ended up first in the Party of Democratic Socialism, and eventually in Die Linke. On the other hand, there were people who wanted to transform the system from a left-wing, radical, socialist perspective. There were always disagreements and debates between these people, but compared to the restoration of capitalism, both of these tendencies can be seen as on the “Left” in a broad sense.
Where did it all go wrong? Why did it all disappear? If we take the events of 1989, we see that the Left collapsed extremely fast in most of the Eastern bloc countries. There are two explanations for this, which are not contradictory but rather complimentary. On the one hand, the ruling elite within most Eastern European countries (with the exception of East Germany) pursued a project of capitalist restoration from the very beginning, while the opposition did not have a project and, ironically, was very often actually doing the work of the ruling elite. The old bureaucracy was fairly happy about capitalist restoration, which entailed the possibility of converting political power into capitalist property and then turning such property back into political power under the new conditions! Once capitalist development is underway, property becomes power, so these bureaucrats were not losing anything, but actually gaining more resources. The system was definitely in crisis, but the ruling elite benefited from this crisis and had its own plan for getting out of it.
The Left was very weak politically in terms of strategizing, developing its own project, and forming itself into something capable of fighting and winning, but this was only part of the story. Christoph mentioned the working class, and I believe Russia was the only country where the working class really did fight. There were massive strikes in 1992, but not in 1993, when the final battle was fought and lost, and the regime of Boris Yeltsin engineered a coup d’état and imposed neoliberal reform. The most important strikes and working-class resistance happened in 1992, and they were defeated and then people became demoralized. There are two important things to note. This resistance of the working class was a passive resistance waged by atomized masses. The masses were atomized by the Stalinist system itself. The system created a situation where people did not have much of a collective experience outside of their jobs, and in which all of their interests were met by the state. Their social gains were not something that they had to manage, control, or achieve. The new generation did not realize that their social gains had to be fought for. I completely agree with Christoph that the social achievements of the Eastern European countries were absolutely without precedent. In social terms, they constituted the greatest welfare state ever achieved by humanity.
At the same time, it was a welfare state based on what my colleague Anna Ochkina calls “passive democracy.” In this sense, one simply receives one’s rights, and one expects these rights to be guaranteed and takes them for granted. It was absolutely typical for people under such conditions to think that free education, free healthcare, cheap transportation, cheap housing, the possibility of upward mobility, and so forth would last no matter what happened. At the same time, what the Eastern bloc lacked beyond Western-style democracy were consumer goods. People often called for “democracy” when they were actually thinking about consumer goods—and that is exactly what they got, consumer goods instead of democracy. People lacked class consciousness not only because the Left did not do its work, but also because social experience under Stalinism generated individualists and consumerists. One’s social rights were guaranteed by the state, and what one did on his or her own was to accumulate consumer goods and achieve specific personal goals. In this sense, a society of individualists was created. The generation of individualists was one of the results of the Stalinist welfare state. That was one of the reasons why the Left was so weak and why working-class resistance in the USSR was defeated so easily. It was because people did not have the necessary experience to organize effectively and to fight back.
Mel Rothenberg: Our topic is the fall of the USSR and its impact on the Left. This is a huge topic, but I want to narrow it. I will deal with the Marxist left, by which I mean those whose primary frame of reference is support for the international working-class struggle as it was first comprehensively theorized in the writings and political activity of Karl Marx. This is a broader array of political forces than those who describe themselves as Communists, Maoists, or Trotskyists, although it includes them. It also includes left-wing social democrats and anti-imperialist and revolutionary nationalists, from Nkrumah to Stokely Carmichael, who played a major leadership role in the anti-colonial struggles. This category is narrower than the broader one of progressives who view some type of socialism as the most desirable form of social organization and who form an important layer of political activists.
Although all of the Marxist left was surprised by the sudden collapse of the Eastern bloc in 1989, its rapid decline socially, economically, and politically over the previous decade should have been evident. A major section of the Marxist left, including the Maoists, left-wing social democrats, and a substantial wing of the Trotskyists, had previously written off the USSR as any kind of progressive or anti-imperialist force. According to them, the decline was the inevitable fate of a totally corrupt regime, which had long ago abandoned socialism. A different section of the Marxist left, including most of the Communist parties in the West, were uneasy with the turmoil shaking the Soviet bloc, but looked to Gorbachev and the internal reform movement he represented as the great hope for a Soviet revival. There was a third group, less organized and more amorphous, of which I myself could be numbered that, while deeply critical of both the existing Soviet Union as a model for socialism and Gorbachev’s reform model, identified both with the broad, international, anti-imperialist movement in which Marxists played a leading role and with the need to support Communist regimes on terrain liberated during this anti-colonial struggle, particularly in Cuba and Vietnam.
What complicated the politics of the Marxist Left during the 1980s is that this period also saw the rapid decline of all Marxist left movements. The earlier retreat of mainline social democracy into social-welfare capitalism stranded left-wing social democrats, who were without an organizational home. Maoism was routed in China, its center, while most of the post-colonial regimes, whose creation was the achievement of the international anti-imperialist forces, abandoned an independent, non-capitalist path of development and embraced, or were forced to embrace, neoliberalism. The collapse of the USSR was the fourth defeat, and the straw that broke the camel’s back.
The decline of the Marxist left during the 1980s was based on fundamental social, political, and economic developments, of which the collapse of the USSR was only the most dramatic and conclusive. The crucial question is not why the Marxist left declined at the end of the twentieth century, but rather why, fifteen years into the twenty-first century, there has not been a substantial revival of it, given the contradictions and failures of unchallenged capitalist rule over the past twenty-five years. Some might claim that this is because of the differences between, and the lack of unity among, the remaining Marxist forces. These differences are indeed sharp. However, my second thesis is that it is not the differences between these forces that are the root cause of the lack of a Marxist revival but rather the failed strategic premises that they have in common. While these premises were supported, reinforced, and strengthened by Soviet policy (and by Chinese and anti-colonial politics), they were not invented or imposed by it. They arose out of the real conditions of struggle during the first half of the twentieth century. These premises run deep and are organically imbedded in the international experience and politics of the Marxist left, and that is why they were not really challenged despite the massive failures of the 1980s. However, I contend that they are inadequate for the twenty-first century and, unless they are fundamentally revised and recast to reflect the current reality, there will be no revival of a Marxist left as the core of a major social movement. Until the Marxist left develops a serious strategy for politically engaging the working class, it will remain politically marginal. While treasuring the positive lessons of the Soviet period, and its many real accomplishments, we must accept that its basic line and practice failed to organize the international working class to decisively confront and defeat capitalism.
CL: I would like to follow up on a couple of comments made by Boris. The first I agree with, the second I disagree with. He said that people in the DDR did not really expect capitalist reunification to happen, or at least did not expect its effects. This is very true. The second comment, which I disagree with, was that the Stalinist elite was happy with capitalist restoration. I think that is true for some sections of the elite, but not for the majority or totality. I believe that the Stalinists actually depended on a planned economy, that they derived their privileges from the existing society, and that they could not simply switch over to capitalism wholesale.
In fact, capitalism has no need for a massive bureaucracy that administers inequality. Many Stalinists understood this, not because they were fiery socialists, but rather because they wanted to protect their own privileges. Hence, not all of the Stalinists supported the restoration of capitalism. I think the events in the USSR in 1991, i.e., the August coup, are a good example of this. A section of the hardcore Stalinists around Yanayev arrested Gorbachev, established the Emergency Committee (GKChP), and said, “We’re taking charge of this, because things are going downhill.” They sought to re-establish order and keep things in check. What they attempted to do was arrest the pro-capitalist force of Gorbachev and maintain the status quo. That is all they wanted to do, and they pursued it for their own narrow interests of privilege. However, they wanted to maintain the USSR and its planned economy for that very reason. I think that was an example of a section of Stalinists defending the status quo, and they actually came into conflict with Yeltsin, who was little more than the spokesman for Wall Street. That was a showdown in which the Stalinists split into the section around Yanayev and the GKChP and the section around Yeltsin. I think that, as Trotskyists, we had a side in that fight. We sided with those who fought against Yeltsin, with those who wanted to at least maintain the status quo. For Trotskyists, the defense of the USSR was very serious, and the events of August 1991 were the final chapter in the story of the USSR.
BK: I did not say that every single Stalinist bureaucrat supported capitalist restoration, and, by the way Christoph, I made an exception especially in the case of the DDR. I think there was a specific reason why, for example, a lot of top bureaucrats in the DDR did not support restoration, unlike in Russia. The reason is that West German capitalism already existed, and the East German bureaucrats feared that large West German corporations were going to take over industry and property. The bureaucrats understood from the very beginning that they could not compete under those conditions. That is why they did not support a restoration. It was very interesting to see how many bureaucrats like that joined the Party of Democratic Socialism, not because of conscious anticapitalism, but rather because they knew there was no space for them in the brave new world of German capitalism.
However, in the case of Russia, it was very different. There was some research done recently in other Eastern European countries, and what has become evident is that most of the bureaucracy did very well under the new regime. Of course, the bureaucrats were very divided. The ones running the industrial section of the party bureaucracy ended up privatizing enterprises in their favor. What were the ones running the ideological department going to get out of a capitalist restoration? Were they going to benefit from privatizing the collected works of Comrade Brezhnev? What was their game? What was their interest? Of course, these people, the ideologues, resisted. The military and security services resisted as well. It is a very clear story of interests. In Russia it was very interesting because every province had a first party secretary, who was the real provincial ruler despite the official state leaders. Under Yeltsin, all of these secretaries were appointed as governors of the very same provinces, and many of them continued into the period of Putin.
With regard to Gorbachev, the whole August situation was a bit of a joke. That is why the so-called GKChP coup failed. It was never that serious. It was very clear that Gorbachev was, in a certain sense, also part of the game, and was never really arrested. In a manner, he agreed to be put out of the game for a while, to let the others give it a try. He came back, but, unfortunately, Yeltsin, another party boss, was already in charge. Finally, I want to make a point about the importance of the welfare state, which is that it cannot work as a mobilizing factor on its own. It can serve as such a factor only if people mobilize and fight for it. This is an important lesson. In a certain sense, it is happening right now. The slogan of the “new welfare state” is emerging as a mobilizing call for a broad coalition on the Left today in Russia. This is because people are now beginning to understand that this is something that has to be achieved and fought for. The generation that was actually instrumental and essential in the events of 1989 to 1991 did not see that. They saw the welfare state as something that was guaranteed. They thought they were going to achieve capitalism, with all of its consumer goods and liberal democracy, and keep their jobs.
MR: I am very interested in these details, but there is a central question I would like to get back to. Namely, why did all of this occur from 1989 to 1991? Why not in 1979, or in 1969? We need some kind of historical perspective on the broader unfolding issues that culminated in 1989. In some sense, East Germany was not economically any worse off in 1989 than it was in 1979 or 1969. The USSR was not any worse off in 1989 than it was in 1969, 1959, or certainly 1929, when there was mass poverty and starvation. Something must have happened on the international level, in the fundamental balance of forces, which generated this crisis. I did not hear this discussed by anyone, and I would like to talk about it.
Q & A:
Mel has raised in a way the backward-looking question of what really led to 1989 from the perspective of the history of the Left. Often when the topic of 1989 is raised, it is parsed in terms of events happening and then the Left collapsing. However, it seems that the weakness of the Left was actually a direct cause of the events in terms of allowing things to happen. I want to ask about the historical problems that put the Left in the state where it was not able to prevent capitalist restoration and, hence, the hopes for reform on the basis of socialism and the planned economy were dashed.
BK: First, with regard to the question posed by Mel in his response, there were very specific reasons why the Eastern bloc collapsed from 1989 to 1991 instead of the other dates suggested. First of all, in 1973 oil prices were going up and, at this moment, Brezhnev and the leadership understood that no more reforms or democratization were required, but rather that they could simply continue selling oil to the West. At that moment, the objective reintegration of the Soviet bloc into the capitalist economy was beginning, long before things started happening at the social level. Second, debt became an issue. This was of course well known in the case of Poland, but do not forget it was also the case with Hungary, and, to a certain extent, with Romania as well. In the case of Romania, the debt was paid back, as in the USSR, but it led to the collapse of living standards in the country. In the case of Hungary, living standards were capped and, in a manner, the country was sold to the West. Then they came to the USSR and said: “Can you bail us out?” The USSR responded, “No, we would rather surrender you to the West.” There were debates among Soviet economists before 1989 concerning the cost of keeping these countries within the Soviet sphere of influence. The cost was too high, and this showed that they were already calculating in capitalist terms.
With regard to the question about the history of the Left, I think that the problem ironically is really to be found in 1968, in the West. With all of its tremendous attractiveness as a cultural and historical phenomenon, it was in 1968 that the first step was taken in terms of retreating from class politics. The New Left was very much oriented towards overcoming or transcending class, but, in the long run, they retreated from class. They did some important things, such as discovering the limitations of the traditional Marxist vision of class, discovering gender as an issue, and discovering cultural politics. They also discovered race as an issue. Though I do not know much about the history of the American left, generally speaking race was not an important issue for the classical Marxist vision. Of course, it was very much thanks to 1968 that race was discovered as a political issue for Marxist and socialist thought.
At the same time, while doing all of these important things, the New Left took a very radical step towards moving away from class politics. That is how I see it now, from the perspective of today. That was the first stage in the Left’s surrender of its position. It failed to produce any kind of economic project in response to the crisis of capitalism in the 1970s, partly for the same reason. They had some interesting debates about “revolutionary reformism,” but they did not go far enough and ended up surrendering at this level. The Western left ironically moved away from class and the economy in the long run. As for us in the East, we never had the experience of organized politics. I remember when we tried to do organizational work in 1989-90. We were totally ignorant. We failed at everything. Today, we will do it much better, I assure you. We had to learn our lesson through defeats.
MR: It may have been that the collapse of the USSR began with Iran and Afghanistan in 1979. In Iran there was a revolution against the Shah, in which religious fundamentalists, who managed to seize control of the revolution, wiped out the Left. And of course Afghanistan was a disaster, where the most right-wing elements defeated the Red Army. I cannot imagine that did not have a tremendous demoralizing effect within the USSR.
The other point I want to make is that the New Left, which I was sort of involved in, moved away from rigorous class analysis and economic issues partially as a rejection of the USSR. The Soviet Union was seen as bureaucratic and oppressive, and not as a workers’ state, and that was the basis on which the New Left moved towards Maoism, and the Maoists remained the dominant element ideologically for a long time.
Trotsky used the analogy several times of defending the degenerated workers’ state as a worker defends a trade union. I think the analogy between these bureaucracies is poignant. I think that what happened in the late 1980s and early 1990s was that, because the bureaucracy was so degenerated and there was such a lack of consciousness, these bumps in the road occurred and there was no political consolidation or leadership. Do I think the bureaucracy could ever have generated effective leadership? No, that was the nature of it, but there could have been a political struggle, and the tragedy is that Stalin did such a good job of eradicating revolutionaries in the USSR during the purge trials that there was a real rupture of continuity. Hence, there was no political leadership capable of struggling against Stalinism when it entered this period of crisis. While Afghanistan was certainly important, I think the crisis of leadership was the most important factor.
Before I make my non-Marxist comment, let me make this clear: I am a Marxist! I have to say that I think really bad luck played a role in why the collapse occurred in 1989. During the 1980s, there were two major capitalist countries that had their most reactionary leaders of the twentieth century, Thatcher and Reagan. We saw how they dealt with the opposition, such as the miners’ strike in the UK and the PATCO strike in the US. These were not people who would compromise with the USSR. And whom did we have at the helm in the USSR? We had the first great compromiser among Soviet leaders since Lenin. Gorbachev was rational and he thought that maybe a deal could be made, but he was trying to make a deal with two people who treated the Eastern bloc in the same way they treated the miners and air traffic controllers. The West kept none of the deals that it made with Gorbachev, e.g., that NATO would not encroach on the borders of the former USSR. Thus, a horrible combination of leaders faced the objective conditions unfolding at that time. I want to suggest that occasionally there is an appearance in history of someone who has strengths or weaknesses that contribute mightily to a situation. In such a scenario, an individual who has great power can have decisive effects. This happened in the 1980s because three positions were held by people who never should have been interacting in the way they did, and this contributed to the collapse of the Communist regimes at the time.
BK: But Bertell, do you think it was an accident? There was a certain logic in that happening.
Yes, but there is more than a logic. I think Reagan and Thatcher were uniquely reactionary, and Gorbachev, as a compromiser, was certainly very different from all of the other Soviet leaders.
BK: But Gorbachev was very much also the product of the degeneration of the Soviet system. One big problem that we face when discussing the 1930s is that all the important personalities, no matter which side they took in the struggles in the Bolshevik Party (whether they were Trotskyists, Bukharinists, or even Stalinists like Mikoyan), were produced by a revolutionary struggle. All of them shared this experience of fighting real struggles. By the way, that was one of the reasons why Stalin was so brutal, because he knew these people were also very strong. That is why he did not find any better way to get rid of his opponents given their strength. What kind of people did we have in the 1980s in the USSR? We had a generation that was a degenerated bureaucracy. By the way, in The Revolution Betrayed, there is a very interesting paragraph where Trotsky says that the bureaucracy can degenerate to such an extent that it actually carries out some kind of capitalist restoration, which is exactly what happened. Trotsky made this prediction, but he did not believe it himself. He believed it was merely a theoretical possibility. I actually met Gorbachev a few times after he was out of power, and he was a very nice person. Nevertheless, as we say in Russia, “a nice person is not a job description.”
MR: What Bert said is right, but not in the sense that Reagan and Thatcher outmaneuvered Gorbachev. Rather, the system produced in Russia a weak leader because the contradictions were of such a character that only someone like Gorbachev could emerge. In the case of Reagan and Thatcher, they were the products of a neoliberal policy that needed them. What happened in the 1980s could not have happened without them. Fanatical and very ideological right-wing leaders were needed at that moment, as when Mussolini came to power in Italy. In a way he was an accident, but actually he fit the social conditions. I think that there was an element of chance in the 1980s, but I also think that social conditions choose the politicians who are successful, not the other way around.
CL: I think Boris made an important point, which was that the bureaucracy itself in the 1980s was made up of people who had little affinity with the epochal event of the October Revolution. That was true for the Stalinist elite, but there was also the problem of the atomization of the working class under Stalinism. They also had lost a sense of their tradition. If you look at uprisings against Stalinism in the past, there was a much stronger element in earlier attempts, such as in the DDR in 1953 or, especially, in Hungary in 1956, which was explicitly pro-socialist and was made up of Hungarian workers who were running society and creating soviets. They were conscious of the fact that they did not want a capitalist restoration. In Czechoslovakia during 1968, there were many pro-socialist sentiments as well. However, with the passage of time, the working class forgot its own rules, its own history, its own power, and its own mission, because there was no one there to educate and re-educate them. The political education that the working class received in the USSR and the DDR was rubbish. It was not a political education at all, but rather a kind of misinformation and make-believe. It was half true in historical facts and half lies. The working class in those states did not really have a sense that, “This is our state, we accomplished that.” They had lost that a long time ago because they were not involved in running society. That was one of the problems in 1989 that, especially in the DDR, led the mood to change so quickly from a naïve, pro-socialist sentiment to an acceptance of capitalist democracy.
BK: That was also the problem of Western social democracy, no? It also very much followed the same trend—that is, of losing the capacity to fight. |P