Dialogue: On the Soviet Upheaval

Against the Current, No. 36, January/February 1992

Ellen Poteet

The ATC LETTER from the editors, “A Turning Point in World History,” offers a provocative and broad-ranging basis for discussion among those on the left, and my answer to the editorial depends greatly on its synthesis of information and analysis, even where I have differences in position from it (Readers who haven’t seen this statement can order it for $1. from ATC—.ed.)

With regard to the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, you write that it “was neither communist nor a party, but the political machine of Stalin’s counterrevolution and its bureaucracy.” I do not argue the distance that lay between the CPSU and communism or socialism, but we bum a mad behind us by blanketly condemning it.

The CPSU represented, at least, a bulwark against a capitalist order. Its more than 15 million rank and file membership has an historical, if often illusory, connection to mass organization for social change.

Undeniably, the party bureaucracy was oppressive and served to stifle movement towards socialism. But that bureaucracy was no more a monolith than any other collectivity of individuals across two generations. Your editorial supports that view, though taking only a negative interpretation of contradictions within the bureaucracy: On the one hand you charge it with oppressive power, on the other with an inability to act in its collective interest. Both themes can exist and still leave openings, and opportunities taken, for positive reform.

In being so quick to label the Soviet experiment as Stalinist for the better part of its life to date, there is (1) a relapse into the “great man” theory of history and (2) a sort of denial of Marx’s own insistence on looking past the leaders of a movement to the longer-term evolutions in a society. (There is a strange juxtaposition in the history of the idea of socialism itself that, while defined over and over as a cause of humanity against the dominant individual, its own currents are inextricably linked to some of the most charismatic personalities of this century.)

You state that “the destruction (in essence the self-destruction) of the CF is nothing to mourn” because it was nothing but a parasiticat institution. Yet the attempted August coup occurred because there was a reform movement afoot—we are ungenerous to the uphill battle for socialism if we minimize the processes which incited a coup opposing changes from within.

The Communist Party was an organization mounted against 19th century liberalism and capitalist individualism. In the event, it went a considerable way towards institutionalizing authoritarianism, without thereby accomplishing a “successful” socialism. We also know that multi-party states and the “democracy” of parliamentary tradition have thus far, in western European and U.S. history, camouflaged some of the most inhuman forms of authoritarianism modem history has witnessed.

The growth of true democracy within the CPSU was essential. Still, we set an enormous task for the CP when we ask it to succeed where no other European state or major political organization in international politics has.

The months ahead may reveal that, despite ongoing revelations of internal corruption and nepotism, the CF managed to set a ceiling on the concentration of power.

The ATC editors associate the independence of the republics with “legitimate democratic aspirations.” The disunity may just as likely lead to authoritarianism at a more localized level—and therefore with more direct control over the people—as well as to power unchecked by an organizational structure. One of the great dangers posed by Yeltsin’s power is his independence from an organizational commitment.

There is a tendency on the left to label the exploitation of capitalism as the inherent injustice of the system, while the exploitation and inequalities found in societies trying to break from capitalism are decried as betrayal of a yet hypothetical socialist model, or tragic, irretrievable error. The “mistakes” of Soviet society should not be hidden; they also should not be buried with the epitaph of “a monstrous system passing as ‘socialism.'” or else we lose too much of the history behind human endeavor to change.

Party elites were inimical to socialist reality, but they were at some level answerable to a social order fighting capitalism and, in that regard, participated in a dynamic with rank and file. It remains to discover whether the dissolution of the Soviet Union and of the overly centralized power of the Communist Party leads to positive or negative developments in the interactions between government leaders and people.

The ATC editors’ statement helps to clarify the uncertainties and likely crises ahead for the Soviet republics. To that extent the relation between the events of August and “a turning point” are explicit. As for a “turning point in world history,” which your letter seems to push in a positive direction, the changing Soviet map may rather become a grim confirmation of realities which predated August 19th.

For much of the Third World, any safety to be had from a socialist bloc acting as a countervailing force in imperialist competition was lost before August 1991. Independently of the events of August, the projection for the number of Africa’s poor for 1995 is double that of 1985: from 210 to 405 million. In January of this year the Economic Commission for Africa reported a decline in per capita incomes for the twelfth straight year.

The World Bank recently issued its report on economic growth in the third world: a 2.3% increase from 1989 to 1990, the lowest since 1982. For sub-Saharan Africa, developing countries in North Africa and the Middle East, and Eastern European countries making the transition to a free market, there were negative growth rates.

For the working classes of Europe, the projections of deprivation were in place before August 19, and the coup and its aftermath will almost certainly worsen economic hardship as a larger workforce is thrown on a market with a narrowing capacity for employment. For European Economic Community (EEC) countries the jobless rate in 1990 was 8.3%; at present it is 8.7% and for 1992 a projected 9.2%. In Spain the jobless rate is 15%, in Belgium 10.6%, in Britain 8.5%, in Germany overall 6.2% and in the former East Germany over 40%.

Finally, you limit your discussion of “a crisis to come” in the United States to the U.S. left. For U.S. workers and their families the crisis is firmly in place. The foreign policy obsessions of president Bush will surely heighten fears and insecurities within the working class. In the meantime daily living moves on its precarious trajectory of the past decade.

For 1991, almost two million workers used up their unemployment benefits. For the year ending in May 1991, 45 states and the District of Columbia saw a rise in joblessness. Unemployment rates for six states and D.C. were over8%.The official number of unemployed in the United States for July 1991 was 8.5 million, and that does not include discouraged or involuntary part-time workers.

The repercussions are immediately evident in figures on poverty: From 1989 to 1990 the poverty rate rose from 12.8% to 13.5%, with 2.1 million people joining the ranks of the officially declared poor.

August and September have not changed the issues at state for the masses of people living at the precipitous boundaries of survival. The dissolution of the Soviet Union will potentially alter for many the viability of organizing in resistance to capitalism under the principles of socialism.

The Iranian revolution, as a friend recently pointed out to me, was the first major successful revolution of this century without a socialist content. To see two roads—socialism or capitalism—for the former Soviet Union—is a western, “Eurocentric” perspective: Islam is an organizing movement capitalism has not defeated, and in the eastern Soviet republics of Tadzhikistan and Uzbekistan, the conflict is equally between Communism and Islam. We will probably see ahead other popular movements of resistance which intersect with socialism tangentially, if at all.

The ATC editors’ letter ends by identifying Soviet events with “the defeat of Stalinism.” I do not think that in August-September Stalinism was defeated—because neither was “Stalinism” a static entity bound by the walls of Soviet bureaucracy, nor is the human capacity for authoritarianism in the name of socialism automatically obliterated by one failed coup.

I also do not think that socialism was defeated, even though its service as a rallying point for those seeking a new historical vision has been severely challenged. Social transformation has, historically, been a developmental process, and the emergence of an era succeeding capitalism—be it socialism or some other form of human organization—is yet awhile in coming.

All the more necessary is it for socialists to hold onto our priorities of opposition to the present system, and not give way to a passive defeatism. With the editors of Against the Current, I support whatever solidarity can be created with Soviet workers, but less in celebration, as your letter asserts, than indetermination.

There is another direction as well for socialist priorities. The political power of the United States, partly as a result of the division of the Soviet Union into separate republics, has attained brutal hegemony in foreign policy. Furthermore, those with political and economic power represent an increasingly closed elite.

According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, the income after inflation of the richest one percent of the U.S. population rose 121% from 1977-1988; for the other 90% of the population income after inflation dropped 3.5%.

Alongside the widening gap between the majority and a ruling elite is the greater distance of that elite from the local communities of this country. That has meant of course the retraction of government subsidies for necessary public programs, the decay of inner cities and the too often forgotten rural poverty in this country.

It is paramount that socialists become more focused on their local communities, for in them the realization of day-to-day socialist commitment and activism is not only possible but absolutely necessary.

The international context for socialism is discouraging at present. It will become worse if socialists, imitating president Bush, leave off the problems closest to us because less “momentous,” and make internationalism a cause devoid of immediate relevance for workers and the poor at home.

January-February 1992, ATC 36