What Will Russia’s Workers Do Next?

Against the Current, No. 44, May/June 1993

Bertell Ollman

REFERRING TO THE social ills brought on by his free market policies, Deng Xiaoping is reported to have said, “When you open the window you should not be surprised if a few flies come in.” Well, what about a swarm of locusts?

There can’t be many today who would dispute this observation, not just for China but for Russia and all the other countries that have taken the “free market” path. It is also part of popular wisdom, though, that the extreme unpopularity of the centralized and undemocratic planned economies of yesteryear makes a large-scale workers’ uprising against the governments and policies in place a virtual impossibility, at least for the near future. Indeed, ask workers in any of these countries and they will probably tell you as much.

Yet there is much happening in Russia, the most important of these countries and the one I want to focus on, that suggests that a social explosion of just this kind might be much closer than most people think. Rather than singling out any one (or two, or three) detonators, it is important to look at all the main relevant conditions and events together in order to grasp the full measure of the hope/threat that they pose. With this in mind, let me simply list everything that, in my estimation, is even now driving Russia toward its socialist revolution.

Nightmares of the Market

First and most important, the effect of the still-incipient free markets on Russian workers has been explosive, and all bad. The number and depth of the ills produced by the market, and the speed at which they have developed, have also come as a great shock to most workers. At this moment massive unemployment, material privation and worse are just around the corner as large sections of the Russian economy grind slowly to a halt, and the money most people had saved and the food they had hoarded run out Add to this a rampant inflation and a drastic reduction in social benefits and services of all kinds and one begins to see what is in store for workers in the months ahead.

Second, economic aid from the West—whether in the form of aid, trade, loans or investments—of an amount needed to make a difference is simply not coming. It has been estimated that to integrate East Germany, with 17 million people, into West Germany will take about 500 billion dollars. Viewed in this light, the $24 billion that the West has agreed to give Russia, with 160 million people, is no more than a drop in the bucket (one, moreover, with a hole at the bottom made by corruption). Those in Russia who are waiting for a capitalist Santa Claus to solve their problems are even now giving up that hope.

Third, standing around and watching large swaths of the existing means of production go to waste, as called for by market imperatives—when these machines and factories could still produce many of the goods people want and provide the jobs they need—is becoming too much for many workers to bear, unaccustomed as they are to capitalist logic. In the inevitable backlash that has already begun, the capitalist market and everything associated with it will be as discredited as the Communist Party and its version of socialism were earlier.

Fourth, because the market is still relatively new, it has not succeeded in mystifying social relations as thoroughly as it will in the years ahead. Among the social relations most in need of disguise are those that involve the emerging capitalist class. The workers are in no doubt over who these capitalists are—mainly black marketeers and former Communist Party bureaucrats and managers—and how they got their wealth. The waiters used to detest and fear these people; the fear is now gone but the hatred, if anything is greater.

Fifth, without the time for market mystification to work its full effect, the newly introduced democratic processes are not enough to delude workers into believing that they have freely chosen the market mechanisms which are despoiling them. In short, neither the market economy nor its corresponding Political forms possess the legitimacy they do in Western countries, and therefore cannot be expected to produce the same degree of acquiescence to suffering that they do here.

The Missing Means of Political Control

Sixth, the Communist Party is no longer around to divide workers into ardent supporters and equally ardent opponents, and to give aid and comfort to the new regime, which badly needs a unifying threat to hold together its wavering coalition. This is one important advantage Russian workers have over workers in the other Eastern European countries where the Communist Party continues to exist, albeit under new labels.

Seventh, another advantage is that there is no mass Social Democratic Party, as exists in Western countries and even parts of Eastern Europe (e.g., a prominent post-Solidarity political formation in Poland), to compromise, delay and defuse the anger that is growing.

Eighth, with over 70 million Russian workers in trade unions, which have become increasingly democratic without losing most of their centralized character, the working class retains the ability to engage in large-scale, coordinated political and economic activity. The Communist Party may have been defeated but the working class has not. Nor have all its organs of communication and mobilization been destroyed, a point of crucial importance.

Ninth, none of the main demands these unions have made regarding job security, minimum wage, welfare, work conditions and the like can be met under current conditions, no matter what the government has promised or, in some cases, even passed into law.

Tenth, the character of the Russian working class is also of some consequence here. From all accounts the workers still possess a strong sense of dam solidarity, with an accompanying egalitarian ethos that bridles at the gross inequalities emerging in their society. They also view full employment and the whole range of social benefits, which they are in the process of losing as essential rights.

The Workers’ Power, the Regime’s Weakness

Eleventh, Russian workers also possess an “heroic” tradition. The communist ideology, which presented them as makers of history while never giving them an opportunity to really act as such, was not without its effect. It’s hard to believe that a class schooled in this tradition will carry on indefinitely as the uncomplaining victim in a rapidly deteriorating situation without sooner or later taking a stand.

Twelfth, the workers are also very aware of their potential power, a power that comes from their numbers, their concentration in large cities, their hands-on control of the means of production, and their ability to engage in large-scale, coordinated activity. Remember that in any revolution the decisive confrontation occurs in only one or two of the biggest cities.

Thirteenth, there are fewer major national, religious or ethnic differences of a kind that have had such divisive effects on the working class in other parts of the former Soviet Union and throughout most of Eastern Europe and to the extent such divisions do exist they have not interfered with Russian workers’ ability to present a united front.

Fourteenth, workers are beginning to find a new language, unsullied by the distortions of meaning so prevalent in the Communist epoch, with which to think through their problems and carry on their struggle. At present most workers favor various socialist practices but refuse to call them “socialist,” a word they reject because of its associations with the old regime. The key notion in the new language is “workers’ self-management,” which is also helping the workers reclaim the related notions of “freedom” and “democracy” from the slogans of their enemies.

Fifteenth, on the other side of the struggle, the people promoting the market most vocally are badly divided, poorly led and becoming increasingly corrupt.

Sixteenth, the current regime has broken so many of its promises that the workers have become as skeptical about what it says as they were about the declarations of its Communist predecessor Yeltsin’s popularity, while still high among some workers, is dropping steadily in the class as a whole.

Seventeenth, the repressive forces that Russia’s new rulers will need to defend themselves against a workers’ uprising are also terribly divided—reflecting all the divisions present in the larger society—and very demoralized. One might almost say that the main reason the Russian army and police have held together so far is that they haven’t been used for anything. People tend to forget that in any conflict it is not power as such that counts, but the power of each party relative to that of the other(s).

Eighteenth, the enormous confusion over who actually owns state enterprises makes the workers’ claim to ownership both easier to conceive and to carry out than it would be under more settled conditions. Even Yeltsin, who speaks from all sides of his mouth, has put in an occasional good word for workers determining the fate of their workplace. Should the working class as a whole decide to take over and operate their enterprises, something smaller groups of workers have already attempted, the response would be anything but unified.

Perspectives for Revolution

When I put all these elements together—what is happening to the workers, the tenuous legitimacy enjoyed by the market and those who benefit most from it, the real alternatives set before the workers, the means available to them to act, the weaknesses of the government—I see a potentially explosive situation. The very speed at which the pendulum swung in the direction of the “market economy” should indicate how quickly and soon it may yet swing away from it.

What form would a workers’ uprising in Russia take? What kind of socialism would be established afterwards? Huge questions, to which I can only offer tiny answers. I would expect the uprising to begin as a general strike with mostly economic demands, in which workers occupy their enterprises and set up coordinating committees to ensure that the basic necessities are provided to strikers and their families. The Russian word for such committees is— “soviet.”

If the government is unwilling to meet the workers’ demands and unable to break the strike, it would soon cease to function. Meanwhile the soviets would have become an alternative government, taking on ever more tasks to meet the immediate needs of the population. With no single political party in a position to dominate, the soviets would be open to a variety of socialist and populist currents.

Reacting to the destruction wrought by the free market, the soviets would probably opt for a considerable degree of economic planning. Their earlier unhappy experience with the Communist Party; however, makes it likely that such planning will be very democratic and largely decentralized, with a heavy dose of workers’ self-management. That, and the enthusiasm generated by a genuinely popular revolution, is also why this time around widescale planning could work.

What happens in this scenario to the guns, the bombs, the army? There are of course many possibilities. But revolutions generally turn violent when the government tries to use soldiers to put down a popular uprising. This simply wasn’t possible for any of the regimes that were overturned in the period 1989-91, and for the reasons given above I don’t believe this option is available to the Russian regime today.

What about a revolt from the right, a revolt against democratic and socialist forces, in order to forestall any hostile actions aimed at the market? Everyone seems to agree that such a development, loosely aligned with reactionary nationalist currents, is more likely than the one I have projected.

I agree as well. But as far as the economy goes, an authoritarian regime would only make bad matters worse. The movement toward a full market economy would continue without experiencing any real successes, and the human suffering brought on by this effort would proceed apace. Politically, such a coup would also reunite and ultimately strengthen the struggles for socialism and democracy, which in Russia have gone on largely apart from and often in conflict with one another since the Bolshevik revolution of 1917.

In these circumstances, the kind of uprising that I have been describing would take longer and probably cost more lives, but all the reasons for it to occur still apply. On the other hand, the very attempt at a right-wing coup could serve as the spark that sets into motion the workers’ own uprising, first as a defensive action against the coup and then as a revolt with its own agenda. The “democratic” forces under Yeltsin used the August 1991 coup of the “hardliners” in just this way. Why would workers, made desperate by their deteriorating economic situation but still in possession of the means to make a difference, do anything less?

The French Revolution of 1789 did not end with the Constitutional Monarchy or with Robespierre, and the Russian Revolution that began with Gorbachev’s perestroika has not come to an end with Yeltsin.

May/June 1993, ATC 44