[Audio] Bolshevism vs. Stalinism: 100 Years Since the Founding of the USSR

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Transcript

[The Internationale song plays in Russian]

History shows that it is not enough for the ruling class to defeat a revolution. It must also slander it and its leaders, so that not even the memory remains to inspire new generations of class fighters. From the Black Book of Communism to the Victims of Communism Museum and Foundation, their main angle is to equate genuine socialism and communism with the bureaucratic totalitarian regime that arose from the isolation of the 1917 Russian Revolution in a backward country. They conveniently ignore the imperialist murder, torture, oppression, enslavement, and virtual extermination of entire populations—that’s all OK if it’s done in the name of private property and the free market.

But here you had a backwards, semi-feudal, mostly illiterate, overwhelmingly peasant country; dominated for centuries by a tsar; devastated by civil war and two world wars; invaded by dozens of imperialist armies, embargoed, sanctioned, demonized, and isolated; and still, it managed to launch the first human into space. This alone shows the potential power of a planned economy, if it were run democratically by the working class in the interests of all.

[Theme Music]

Hello everyone, welcome to this episode of the Socialist Revolution Podcast. My name is John Peterson, I’m the executive editor of Socialist Revolution magazine, you can visit our website at www.socialistrevolution.org. Each episode we feature contributions and discussions on current events, history, and theory from a Marxist, class-struggle perspective, featuring revolutionary socialists from around the country and around the world.

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This year marks the 100-year anniversary of the founding of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics—the USSR—also known as the Soviet Union. Just a few months ago, the last leader of the Soviet Union died, Mikhail Gorbachev. He was the man who tried to save Stalinism from itself, but ended up paving the way for the transition back to capitalism. There’s also a terrible war raging between two former “socialist republics”—Russia and Ukraine. And if you’ve seen the Netflix show, Stranger Things, a caricatured version of the Cold War Soviet Union is quite humorously presented there.

So, the Soviet Union has been in the media a bit lately, but as could be expected, lots of lies and distortions have been flying around about what it was, what it wasn’t, and why it failed. There is a lot that could be said about the subject, but in this episode, we’ll go into a little detail about what went wrong and why the USSR failed. This is a crucial question because one of the main questions a lot of people ask themselves before really committing themselves to the fight for socialism is “how can we be sure that Stalinism won’t happen again?”

To address that question, we have to understand the objective conditions that gave rise to this phenomenon in the first place. But we should be careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Because, despite everything, the Soviet Union concretely proved the potential for a planned economy and its superiority over capitalism. Its collapse was an objective step backwards for the world working class. Imperialism no longer had a counterbalance, and the world capitalist class immediately launched an all-out assault on the gains won by the working class over the previous century. From wages and conditions to union rights, and even basic civil rights and the right to abortion.

That being said, the collapse of Stalinism also meant a collapse of the mass Stalinist parties that dominated and stifled the left in many countries for decades. This led to new openings and opportunities for the forces of Trotskyism, whose ideas and perspectives on Stalinism were fully vindicated. Perhaps most importantly, as comrade Ted Grant said at the time, the collapse of Stalinism was merely a prelude to an even greater historical drama: The world crisis of capitalism and the opening of a new epoch of wars, crisis, revolution, and counterrevolution. That’s the world we live in today.

So this centennial anniversary is also a perfect opportunity to clarify questions like: Was the Soviet Union really communist? What is a workers’ state? What is internationalism and why do we need it? And what are Stalinism, Leninism, Trotskyism, and Bolshevism?

But first, I’d like to give a little history and background on the USSR, what it was and what it achieved—and why it was hated by the capitalist world.

Basic facts and figures

From its creation in 1922 to its dissolution in 1991, the Soviet Union was the largest country in the world. It was a transcontinental mammoth spanning over 8.6 million square miles across eleven time zones. For comparison, it was bigger than the US and Canada combined, which are huge countries in and of themselves, at about 3.8 million square miles each.

It really is incredible that a country that dominated over one-sixth of the planet simply no longer exists—a stark reminder that nothing lasts forever. It had the second-largest economy in the world, after the US, and it had the largest standing army and the biggest arsenal of nuclear weapons. It was a country unlike any other, with a federal structure made up of a series of individual soviet republics, with its capital at Moscow.

And although it lasted 69 years, it had just 8 leaders: Lenin, Stalin, Malenkov, Khrushchev, Brezhnev, Andropov, Chernenko, and Gorbachev. But as we will see, there was a huge difference between Lenin’s politics and leadership, and Stalin’s or Brezhnev’s. And there was a night-and-day difference between the USSR of the early 1920s and the USSR of the 1930s, 40s, 50s, and beyond.

Its founding members were the Soviet Federative Socialist Republics of Russia, Transcaucasia, Ukraine, and Byelorussia. It was officially founded on December 30, 1922, which formalized a political union between these regions that had existed since 1919. By 1940, 11 more republics had been added, for a total of 15, including: Armenia, Azerbaijan, Estonia, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kirghizia, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldavia, Tajikistan, Turkmenia, and Uzbekistan. To accommodate all of this, there were also 15 official or recognized languages, although Russian was clearly dominant.

Its total population in 1991 was 289 million, about 36 million more than the US at that time. And on top of the official members of the USSR, after World War II, the Stalinist Soviet Union had a series of satellite states under its sphere of influence and control, which extended its range even further to include: Albania (withdrew in 1968), Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Hungary, Poland, and Romania. This was the Eastern Bloc, which formed part of a military alliance called the Warsaw Pact.

But like a house of cards, all this seemingly monolithic power came crashing down, and on December 10, 1991, the Byelovezha Accords were signed, which declared the dissolution of the USSR by its founder states, and the establishment of a series of independent states. This was to have wide-ranging repercussions, which we’re still living with today, and led to economic, political, and social disaster for hundreds of millions of people across the region and around the planet.

What the revolution achieved—and why it was hated

Needless to say, the capitalist class rejoiced at the fall of the USSR. Ronald Reagan had called the Soviet Union the “evil empire” and “the focus of evil in the modern world.” We were told that capitalism and the “free market” had “won.” The American political scientist, Francis Fukuyama, declared that:

The period of post-history has arrived … Liberal democracy has triumphed, and mankind has reached its highest wisdom. History has come to an end.

The American imperialists promised a New World Order and a Pax Americana—like the Pax Romana under the heel of the Roman emperors and legions. As was the case when the Berlin Wall had fallen a couple years earlier, in 1989, images of cheering crowds toppling statues of Lenin and other Soviet leaders were splashed across TV screens.

History shows that it is not enough for the ruling class to defeat a revolution. It must also slander it and its leaders, must surround it with poison and suspicion, so that not even the memory remains to inspire new generations of class fighters. From the Black Book of Communism to the Victims of Communism Museum and Foundation, their main angle is to equate genuine socialism and communism with the bureaucratic totalitarian regime that arose from the isolation of the 1917 Russian Revolution in a backward country. They basically equate the USSR with Hitler’s Germany. And they treat Lenin as though he were the same as Stalin, while minimizing the role of Trotsky.

So, it should be no surprise that Vladimir Putin, who is a reactionary defender of capitalism and revived Russian imperialism, also slanders and pours filth on the memory of Lenin and the October revolution. Like so many other former ”communists,” Putin and his mafiosi gangsters rose to economic and political power, not on the wave of revolution, but as part of the counterrevolution that dismantled the nationalized planned economy and restored capitalism.

But the truth is that the imperialists despise the Soviet Union, not for the many terrible things that absolutely did happen—and which we also opposed—but precisely for the many positive aspects it represented, those elements of the USSR that we defend, and want to see expanded and blossom fully on the basis of genuine world socialism and workers’ democracy.

Let’s be clear, we are not apologists for the crimes of Stalinism. In fact, the worst of those crimes were carried out against Trotskyists like ourselves. But the hypocrisy of the capitalists knows now bounds. They condemn the crimes of so-called communism, yet turn a blind eye to the endless list of crimes of imperialism, including the rise of Hitler, Franco, Mussolini, Pinochet, and other enemies of the working class like Clinton, the Bushes, Trump, and Biden. They conveniently ignore the imperialist murder, torture, oppression, enslavement, and virtual extermination of entire populations—but that’s all OK if it’s done in the name of private property and the free market.

In fact, the regime established by the October Revolution was neither totalitarian nor bureaucratic, but the most democratic regime yet seen on earth. It abolished private ownership of the means of production, and proved that it was possible to run society without capitalists, landowners, and moneylenders. For the first time in history, the viability of a nationalized planned economy was demonstrated, not in theory but in practice. That is what the capitalists hated about it!

To be sure, the Soviet economy was run inefficiently and bureaucratically, and they eventually ran it into the ground. But here was a backwards, semi-feudal, mostly illiterate, overwhelmingly peasant country; dominated for centuries by a tsar, devastated by civil war and two world wars, invaded by dozens of imperialist armies, embargoed, sanctioned, demonized, and isolated; and still it managed to launch the first human into space. That alone shows the potential power of a planned economy, if it were run democratically by the working class in the interests of all.

To really appreciate what the Soviet Union achieved, we shouldn’t compare it to countries like the US, Germany, Great Britain, or France, which were already quite advanced 100 years ago. But to the many other countries that were far behind the curve of capitalist development at that time. It had some important concentrations of industry, mostly funded by foreign capital. But in 1917, out of a total population of around 150 million people, there were only approximately four million industrial workers. That means it was far more backward than a country like Pakistan is today. And it was a million miles from the situation we have in the US, where the overwhelming majority are educated and productive workers and there is a massive GDP.

Yet, despite the general impoverishment, the potential unleashed by the revolution was astonishing. The soviet people were responsible for countless revolutionary innovations in art, science, and technology, From the world’s first film school, founded in 1919; to the discovery of stem cells in 1924 and the invention of LED lights in 1927; from electric rocket motors, to single-rotor helicopters, underwater welding, and a range of military technologies and innovations, including the world’s first and largest corps of airborne paratroopers. They created the world’s first blood bank, performed the first kidney transplants, invented artificial hearts, and even the postal code. All of this and much more before the end of the 1930s, before Stalinism was fully consolidated.

And let’s not forget that it was the Soviets who defeated Hitler—on the basis of the planned economy and the heroism of an entire population that defended it—at a cost of 27 million dead. Compare that to around 300,000 US deaths in World War II, which is a lot, but nothing in comparison. And despite those losses and the devastation of the Nazi occupation and destruction, it managed to increase its GDP five times over from 1945 to 1979.

Due to the planned economy, the USSR became a modern, developed country with a high level of culture and a health and educational system equal or superior to anything found in the West. By the late 1970s, the Soviet Union was a formidable industrial power, and in absolute terms it had overtaken the rest of the world in a whole series of sectors: it was the biggest producer of oil, steel, cement, tractors, and many machine tools. In the 1980s, the USSR had more scientists than the USA, Japan, Britain, and Germany combined. Just recently, the West was compelled to admit that the Soviet space program was about ten years in advance of theirs.

All this was achieved with virtually no unemployment, inflation, or cyclical crises of overproduction. Its economy and society were still deeply connected to capitalism on a world scale, but internally, capitalist dynamics were modified or eliminated altogether, although there were many contradictory tendencies. But unemployment like that in the West was unknown in the Soviet Union. In fact, it was legally a crime.

Compare that to the US, where even during the current so-called boom, there are roughly six million workers unemployed. Worldwide, the figure is no fewer than 220 million unemployed. And hundreds of millions more are underemployed or badly paid.

Prices in the Soviet Union were extremely stable, with the cost of living in the 1980s not much different than it had been in the 1950s. The average apartment may not have been that luxurious, but rents were extremely low and stable. Compare that to rents in many major cities in the US, which have risen 25%, 30% or even 40% in a single year!

The USSR also had a balanced budget and even a small surplus every year. All this, despite the bureaucratic corruption and inefficiency of Stalinism. None of this is highlighted by the West, of course—except for the part about bureaucratic corruption and inefficiency.

Women and the revolution

Or take the question of women. The French utopian socialist Fourier saw the position of women as the most graphic indicator of the real nature of a social regime.

Under tsarism, women were regarded as mere appendages of the household. Tsarist laws explicitly permitted a man to use violence against his wife. In some rural areas, women were forced to wear veils and were prevented from learning to read and write.

But after the revolution, between 1917 and 1927, a whole series of laws were passed giving women formal equality with men. In fact, one of the first things the Bolsheviks did, in 1917, was to grant women the vote—the first major power in the world to do so. It’s no accident that the US was pressured by this to grant women’s suffrage a couple of years later, in 1919.

Women were no longer obliged to live with their husbands or accompany them if a change of job meant a change of house. They were given equal rights to be head of the household and received equal pay. Despite poverty, civil war, and famine, material advances were made in Russia to facilitate the full involvement of women in all spheres of social, economic and political life:

  • The provision of free school meals and milk for children;
  • Special food and clothing allowances for children in need;
  • Pregnancy consultation centers;
  • Maternity homes, nurseries, and other facilities.

Abortion was legalized in 1920. It took the US until 1973, and now even that basic right has been reversed. So which was really the backward country?

Divorce was simplified and civil registration of marriage was introduced—women literally had to simply mail in a postcard to get a divorce.

In the words of Lenin:

In the literal sense, we did not leave a single brick standing of the despicable laws which placed women in a state of inferiority compared with men…

And although the Stalinist counterrevolution reversed many of the early gains, women in the Soviet Union made colossal strides forward in the struggle for equality, including in the post-World War II era.

The retirement age in the USSR was 55 years old, with no discrimination in pay and terms of employment. Pregnant women had the right to shift to lighter work and received fully paid maternity leave for 56 days before and 56 days after the birth of a child. The number of women in higher education as a percentage of the total rose from 28% in 1927, to 49% in 1970.

The advances of the planned economy, with the improvements in healthcare that flowed from it, were reflected in an increase in life expectancy for women from 30 years in 1917 to 74 years by the 1980s, and the reduction in child mortality by 90%.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the restoration of capitalism rapidly reversed all of this, pushing women back to a position of abject slavery in the hypocritical name of the “family.” As in the rest of the world, the biggest part of the burden of the ongoing crisis of capitalism falls on the shoulders of women.

Bolshevik revolution and Stalinist counterrevolution

All of this explains why the capitalists wanted the Soviet Union destroyed, and why they continue to pour mud on it today. It’s an expression of deep-seated class hatred—and fear. Because in October 1917, the masses of oppressed and exploited workers and peasants rose up across the tsarist Empire in the greatest event in human history, and cast off the chains of capitalism and imperialism.

If the Bolshevik Revolution had successfully spread to the world, it would have meant the end of a world dominated by rent, interest, and profit. It would have meant the end to a world in which a tiny handful of people dominate the vast majority.

Of course, as a backward country, the Soviet Union had a lot of cards stacked against it, and had to play catch up with the capitalist world. After all, socialism begins where capitalism leaves off. Our aim is to build a world of superabundance by unleashing the potential humanity has developed under capitalism and rationally taking it to the next level.

But in 1917, Russia lacked the material basis for socialism. It was far behind the most advanced capitalist countries. This, in part, is what explains its ultimate failure. Capitalism is a world system, with a world division of labor and resources, and socialism will also be a world system.

After a long and bloody struggle, the Russian working class succeeded in expropriating the capitalists and landlords. But Lenin and Trotsky never intended for it to stop there. The Russian Revolution was never seen as a self-sufficient act, but as the beginning of the world socialist revolution. Spreading the revolution was a question of life and death.

On several occasions, Lenin said that he’d give up Russia if that would mean the victory of the revolution in a more advanced country, like Germany, where the material basis for actually building socialism were far more favorable. But, for a variety of reasons, above all, the lack of a revolutionary leadership in countries like Germany, France, Britain, China, and Spain, the Russian Revolution did not succeed in spreading worldwide.

Isolation kills, in more ways than one. Under Lenin and Trotsky, the aim was internationalism, workers of the world unite, and world revolution. Under Stalin, the aim became “socialism in one country”—a totally absurd proposition that condemned it to eventual destruction. Instead of seeing the Soviet Union as an outpost for the spread of world socialism, and the Comintern as a tool for making that happen, these were transformed into defenders of the power and privilege of the Stalinist bureaucracy.

Stalinism was a political counterrevolution that kept the nationalized property forms conquered by the revolution, but without the workers’ democracy that flourished in the early years of the revolution. The best revolutionary workers were literally killed off in the brutal civil war that followed the October uprising, as the imperialist powers invaded and imposed sanctions, and tried to strangle the revolution in its cradle.

That heroic generation of class fighters was replaced by a new layer of careerists and opportunists—many of them former tsarist officials or reformist enemies of Bolshevism and communism. By degrees, with Stalin as their figurehead, they shouldered aside the most advanced and committed of the working class and took control over the state and the economy.

We should be clear: Stalin was the gravedigger of the Russian Revolution and the butcher of the old Bolshevik Party. He literally purged and murdered almost every single Bolshevik who had been in the leadership in 1917, including Leon Trotsky, who fought to defend genuine Leninism to the very end, when he was assassinated by Stalinist agents in Mexico City in 1940.

The rise of the Stalinist bureaucracy was a terrible regression, and represented the liquidation of the political power of the working class. They didn’t own the economy, of course, the collective working class did, via the state. So although they leeched off of the economy for their own benefit, they couldn’t sell off the state companies or give them to their children as an inheritance. Only by restoring capitalism could they do these things.

When the Soviet Union finally collapsed, a handful of those former officials enriched themselves by seizing state assets and turning them into private companies that could be bought, sold, and inherited. There were roughly 45,000 state-owned enterprises in the Soviet Union, and with the exception of things like the defense sector, pretty much the entirety of the industrial, energy, and financial sectors were privatized.

It was “the most cataclysmic peacetime economic collapse of an industrial country in history.” In a play on the word perestroika, Gorbachev’s policy of trying to reconstruct the Soviet Economy after what was called “the period of stagnation,” the process of privatization was called katastroika by the workers, as it was a total catastrophe.

How and why the Soviet Union failed

So we should be clear that what failed in the USSR wasn’t socialism, but a vile, totalitarian caricature of socialism. And it certainly has nothing to do with genuine communism. The USSR was a transitional society standing between the property and social relations of capitalism, and moneyless, stateless communism.

Had the Russian Revolution spread successfully to Germany and Western Europe, the transition would have moved in the direction of genuine socialism and eventually, communism. By combining the vast resources of Russia with the technology and know-how of the powerful Western European working class, the objective basis for providing enough for everyone could have been developed relatively quickly. Even the US couldn’t have held out forever as a bastion of reaction, as the US working class would have been inspired by these events and moved towards revolution here as well.

The need for a state of any kind would have been melted away organically over time, as the vast majority would have been in direct control of society, with the material conditions of life improving rapidly. But on the basis of isolation, imperialist encirclement, and generalized poverty, instead of withering away, the state in the USSR was strengthened. And instead of defending against capitalist restoration, the bureaucracy eventually opened the floodgates to its return.

Trotsky once said that a nationalized planned economy needs democracy like the body needs oxygen. It’s not an optional bonus, but a prime requisite! So the Soviet Union was formally a workers’ state. But it was a degenerated and deformed workers’ state.

In scientific Marxist terms, it was what we would call Proletarian Bonapartism. The capitalists and landlords had been expropriated, and the key levers of the economy had been nationalized. This is the basic economic basis for a workers’ or proletarian state, hence the “proletarian” portion of that descriptive term.

As Trotsky explained:

The counterrevolution sets in when the spool of progressive social conquests begins to unwind. There seems no end to this unwinding. Yet some portion of the conquests of the Revolution is always preserved. Thus, in spite of monstrous bureaucratic distortions, the class basis of the USSR remains proletarian. But let us bear in mind that the unwinding process has not yet been completed, and the future of Europe and the world during the next few decades has not yet been decided.

The Russian Thermidor [by which Trotsky meant the political counterrevolution] would have undoubtedly opened a new era of bourgeois rule, if that rule had not proved obsolete throughout the world. At any rate, the struggle against equality and the establishment of very deep social differentiations has so far been unable to eliminate the socialist consciousness of the masses or the nationalization of the means of production and the land which were the basic socialist conquests of the Revolution.

Although it derogates these achievements, the bureaucracy has not yet ventured to resort to the restoration of the private ownership of the means of production.

But instead of workers’ democracy and control over production and distribution, whereby the workers have a direct say in politics and the economy, in what is produced and how, from below, the Soviet state and economy were run on the basis of bureaucratic centralism, a command economy, from above.

A huge gap opened up between the masses and the privileged officials and their families, who had access to expensive clothes, big cars, comfortable apartments, and summer dachas. Instead of trending towards less inequality and fewer privileges for the few, greater inequality and privileges went to a minority of society, who “ruled by the sword” and used intimidation, force, and terror to maintain their power. The contradiction was extra disgusting because the official propaganda claimed that the country had achieved socialism and even communism.

So the state—which again, was formally a workers’ state—was controlled by the bureaucracy, and it increasingly stood above society and took on a life of its own. This is what we’d call Bonapartism. Hence, the term proletarian Bonapartism.

The ruling bureaucracy based itself on the nationalized, planned economy and this allowed it to play a relatively progressive role in developing the productive forces, for a time. But the advances came at three times the cost of capitalism, with incredible waste, corruption and mismanagement. They siphoned an enormous proportion of the wealth produced by the working class into their own pockets.

Early on, when it was a question of producing tons of iron, steel, concrete, and basic agricultural goods, even a clumsy, corrupt, and inept bureaucracy could get results. But a modern economy, such as Russia had by the 1960s, is a delicate mechanism. The relations between heavy industry, light industry, agriculture, science, and so on cannot be established by arbitrary administrative decrees.

As the economy trended towards more sophisticated consumer goods like home electronics, a bureaucracy giving orders from above, divorced from the real process of production, could not get positive results. An economy producing a million different commodities each year could not be organized properly without the conscious control and participation of the majority of society.

Although it is also inefficient and wasteful, and geared towards maximizing the exploitation of workers in order to generate profits for the capitalists, the capitalist market does have mechanisms for regulating the economy. In the absence of such competition, the only way to avoid colossal bungling and corruption is through the conscious control of society and its democratic administration by the working class. But the introduction of a regime of workers’ democracy would have meant the end of the power and privileges of the bureaucracy, and they weren’t about to do that.

So in the USSR, there was virtually no input from the workers. Despite some scarcity and lack of variety, most of them had a decent enough quality of life, in general. And they certainly didn’t want to rock the boat for fear of running afoul of the secret police. So there was nothing to regulate the economy and a huge black market opened up to fill the gaps, leading to further imbalances.

To give just one insane example. There was apparently a shoe factory that produced one million left shoes, because the quota given to the bureaucratic management was one million shoes, and it was easier and cheaper to make them all the same. With stupidities like these, the economy eventually stagnated and then seized up altogether. The high levels of military expenditure and the costs of maintaining its grip on Eastern Europe imposed further strains on the Soviet economy.

Marx and Engels explained that a socio-economic system plays a historically progressive role to the degree that it continues to develop the productive forces. In the period of the first five-year plans in the 1930s, there was an astonishing 20% annual rate of growth. As long as the productive forces in the USSR continued to develop, the pro-capitalist tendency was insignificant. Especially in the period of the Great Depression, when capitalism wasn’t an attractive alternative.

But as the decades wore on, the Stalinist bureaucracy was transformed from a relative fetter to an absolute block on the growth of the productive forces. Already by the 1960s, as much as 30% or even 50% of the production of the USSR was being lost through corruption and mismanagement every year. By the time of Brezhnev, the rate of growth fell steadily, from 10% to 6% to 5% to 1%, and eventually, 0%. Once the Soviet Union was not able to obtain better results than capitalism, its fate was sealed.

All of this was explained well in advance by Leon Trotsky, for example, in his remarkable 1936 book, The Revolution Betrayed. This is an absolute must-read if you want to understand what the Soviet Union was and what it wasn’t. It’s a brilliant example of Marxist dialectics applied to a complex, contradictory, living, and ever-changing phenomenon. But as he wrote, the fate of the Soviet Union was not predetermined:

“The outcome depends upon a struggle of living social forces—not on a national scale, either, but on an international scale. At every new stage, therefore, a concrete analysis is necessary of actual relations and tendencies in their connection and continual interaction.”

As an example of this “struggle of living forces,” the Soviet Union was almost toppled by Hitler and the Nazis. But after incredible losses and sacrifices, it actually came out of the war stronger than ever. This gave Stalinism a new lease on life, and as the decades passed, the memory of October 1917, the role played by the working class in those events, and the workers’ democracy that had existed, faded further and further in the minds of the masses.

Trotsky fought for a political revolution to overthrow the bureaucracy, while preserving the nationalized economy. But he understood that if this did not happen, in order to preserve their privileges, the Stalinist bureaucracy “must inevitably in future stages seek support for itself in [capitalist] property relations.”

And this is exactly what happened. There was enormous pressure on the bureaucracy, both internally and externally. They were under pressure from the masses, who were fed up with the bad leadership, lack of basic freedoms, shortages, and corruption. In 1989, the Eastern Bloc had collapsed as Stalinism in Eastern Europe crumbled like a house of cards. In the case of Romania, the masses had risen up and executed the hated dictator Nikolai Ceaucescu.

The bureaucrats in Moscow certainly didn’t want to meet the same fate! They were also under the relentless pressure from world imperialism to restore capitalism. And they were under pressure by elements in the bureaucracy who were preparing to grab as many state assets as possible for their own benefit.

Gorbachev was smart enough to realize that, unless dramatic measures were taken by the leadership, the whole thing would fall apart. It’s unlikely that he was consciously aiming for capitalist restoration at first. His glasnost and perestroika initiatives were an attempt to carry out a bureaucratic reform from the top to prevent revolution from below.

Incredibly, at the time, some people on the left thought that Gorbachev, who stood at the head of the bureaucracy, was somehow going to reform the bureaucracy out of existence. But perestroika inevitably ended up in an impasse.

Had a genuinely Leninist alternative existed, the road would have been open for a political revolution in the Soviet Union to restore the regime of workers’ democracy that existed in 1917. But the consciousness of the masses was not what it had been 75 years earlier.

Something had to give, and the vacuum was instead filled by an attempted coup against Gorbachev, organized by Stalinist hardliners in August, 1991. They wanted to stop the reforms and to keep things as they had been, as they had comfy positions leeching off the workers’ state. But they were met with the resistance of the nascent Russian bourgeoisie led by Boris Yeltsin, a former protégé of Gorbachev who took advantage of the coup to promote himself as the alleged defender of “democracy.”

None of these factions appealed to the working class.With few exceptions, the masses were confused, disgusted, and exhausted, and they mostly sat it out on the sidelines.

Yeltsin succeeded temporarily in stabilizing the situation, became the first president of Russia in 1991, and he decisively took the road of capitalist restoration. Most of the privatizations that took place—i.e., the looting of public assets—took place on his watch. He ruled until 1999, when he was followed by Vladimir Putin, who remains in power to this day—though he won’t be there forever.

Conclusion

Of course, for the capitalists and their apologists, the collapse of the Soviet Union was simply because “socialism is bad, capitalism is good, and communism failed.” But again, the reality is that they hated the planned economy.

For the masses, the results were devastating. As we’ve seen, the economy collapsed to an unprecedented degree, worse than the dislocation caused by both world wars combined. From 1990 to 1995, production fell by around 60%. Wages fell by 43% between 1991 and 1993. Whereas women had once received wages averaging 70% of men’s wages, by 1997 the average had fallen to just 40%. After 1989, death rates soared by 30%. From being the world’s second economy, by 1995, Russia wasn’t even in the top 10.

It was a disorienting and disastrous humiliation, and laid the basis for the rise of a poisonous Great Russian nationalism and militarism. Today, in the land of Lenin and Trotsky, the land of the Great Patriotic War against the Nazis, there is even a proliferation of fascist organizations.

But there is also rising interest in communism and in Trotsky. Growing numbers of youth are disgusted by Putin and his gangsters and are reviving the ideas and traditions of their great grandparents. The older generations look back fondly at the days of so-called communism, when everyone at least had a home, healthcare, education, and access to a high level of culture.

Life teaches, and the reality of life under capitalism is a most powerful teacher—and not only in Russia. Despite decades of anti-communist propaganda, there is growing interest in socialism and communism here in the belly of the beast as well, especially among young people.

A recent poll found that the term “socialism” is viewed favorably by 49% among Gen Z. This is up from 40% before the pandemic. 35% of Millennials and 31% of Gen Z say they support the gradual elimination of the capitalist system in favor of a more socialist system. And 12% of Gen Z and 10% of Millennials think society would be better off if all private property was abolished and held by the government—i.e., they consider themselves communists.

That’s roughly 15 million young people who think the US should go communist! So if you’ve ever felt alone in thinking that capitalism can’t possibly be the only way to organize society, just remember that there are literally millions of people out there, just like you.

In short, even though it collapsed before most people listening to this were born, the Soviet Union is not ancient history, and there is much we can and must learn from this experience. Some Stalinists say that Stalin and the Soviet Union was “70% good, 30% bad”—whatever that means. Life is almost never clear-cut, black or white, or easily broken down into simple categories or percentages. It’s dialectical and full of contradictions—and far more interesting as a result.

This applies just as much to society and history. We have to separate the essential from the secondary and draw the necessary political and organizational lessons from the experience of the world working class, including the experience of the Russian Revolution and the Soviet Union.

To conclude this episode, I think these are some of the key lessons of that experience: To successfully overthrow capitalism, you need more than a crisis of the system and a revolutionary uprising of the masses. You also need a revolutionary leadership, built in advance, with roots in the working class, armed with a socialist program and committed 100% to class independence and class struggle. That’s what the Russian workers had in 1917, and which no one else has yet replicated.

But the experience of the Soviet Union shows that you need more than a favorable convergence of objective and subjective factors and the overthrow of the old regime. You also need the material basis for actually building socialism and eventually transitioning to moneyless, classless communism. As we’ve seen, that’s precisely what the Bolsheviks did not have.

But guess what? We do have that today. And nowhere are the objective conditions for socialism more ripe than in the United States. We have the largest economy, vast natural resources, and a massive and productive working class. A world of unimaginable superabundance is possible, and the experience of the Soviet Union gives us a small taste of how that can become a reality.

The world socialist revolution may or may not start in the US—but it will certainly end here. Because when the US working class seizes political and economic power, it will be game over for world capitalism. Revolutions do not respect borders and a successful American Socialist Revolution would spread like wildfire to the rest of the planet if it wasn’t taking place everywhere else already.

The basic model for building the kind of leadership we need has been passed down to us in the form of the Bolshevik Party of Lenin and Trotsky. Genuine Bolshevism and Leninism is based on democratic centralism This means freedom of discussion as we debate the best possible course of action, combined with disciplined unity in action once a decision is taken. This gives us maximum flexibility, efficiency, and strength.

Building a Bolshevik, Leninist leadership is precisely what the IMT is doing in the US and in dozens of other countries around the world. This has nothing in common with the top-down, unthinking Stalinism of so-called Marxist-Leninism. Leadership is not giving orders from above but providing political and organizational clarity, inspiring confidence, pointing the way forward, and leading by example. Our task is to study the theory and the history, and apply these ideas and methods to the conditions we face today.

Margaret Thatcher liked to say that there is no alternative to capitalism. But that’s a lie. Capitalism hasn’t always existed. It took centuries for capitalism to fully establish itself worldwide, and as we’ve seen, for a period of several decades, it was virtually eliminated across one-sixth of the globe. The reality is that capitalism reached its expiration date roughly 100 years ago.

And there is an alternative: socialism. The fall of the USSR was not the end, but only the beginning. The IMT is fighting for a new version of the Soviet Union, but on a far higher economic level, based on workers’ democracy and material superabundance. Instead of the USSR, we fight for the USSA—the United Socialist States of America—as part of a world socialist federation.

But to make that happen in our lifetime, we need the most thoughtful, committed, hard-working, and farsighted people in the world to help build the kind of leadership the working class needs and deserves. So if you aren’t already a member of the IMT, I invite you to join us.

Finally, I was only able to skim the surface of the incredible events and lessons of the USSR. I highly suggest you study the subject on your own, and here’s my list of recommended readings.

By Leon Trotsky I suggest:

And by Ted Grant and Alan Woods, I highly recommend


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