The Revolution Extinguished: Stalinism and the Fall of the USSR

It is often said that the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 took the world by surprise. To a certain extant is is true; no bourgeois party showed any degree of foresight or understanding of events. Yet the fall of the USSR was foreseen almost 60 years in advance by Leon Trotsky (in The Revolution Betrayed and other works) and serves as one of the most impressive confirmations of Marxist theory in recent history. The collapse of the degenerate workers’ state was conditioned by the parasitism of the Stalinist bureaucracy, which acted as a cancer on the economy and kept the USSR balanced on a knife’s edge between the counterrevolutionary capitalist restoration that actually did occur and a new proletarian political revolution for the rebirth of Soviet democracy.

Any understanding of why the USSR collapsed must begin with a profound truth about the nature of the Stalinist Soviet Union: the ruling bureaucracy was in contradiction to, rather than in harmony with, the economic superstructure of the USSR. The Soviet power meant the expropriated of the Tsarist landowners and Russian bourgeois, it meant the coming into being of a new form of society, the dictatorship of the proletariat. Under the leadership of Lenin and Trotsky, the Bolshevik party had at least begun the great task of the socialist reconstruction of society. However, on the basis of the isolation of the revolution in backward Russia- thanks to the world-historical betrayal of 2nd International Social Democracy- and the terrible damage caused by WW1 and the Russian civil war, a counterrevolutionary bureaucracy, with Stalin as its figurehead, rose to power in the Soviet Union. This bureaucracy waged war on the political and social conquests of the revolution while maintaining the nationalized planned economy as the basic conquest of October. Actual workers’ control was, of course, stifled by gray-faced bureaucrats waving around bits of paper, but the nationalized economy remained. The utopian Fourier once remarked that the progress of women’s rights and other social issues could be used to mark the development of civilization; in the early years of Stalin’s rule in the USSR this measure was inverted and one could use the repeal of the social conquests of the revolution to mark the advance of the bureaucracy within the Soviet Union.

Trotsky based himself on this contradiction, the negation of the revolution’s social and political conquests combined with the maintenance of the planned economy, in order to explain that the USSR was a sort of degenerate workers’ state where political power was held in the hands of a bureaucratic caste while the economic form was one of proletarian power. This easily lent itself to an analogy with the French revolution where the bourgeois democratic revolution led to Napoleon taking the political power while still maintaining the primacy of capitalist forms of property relations and the abolition of feudal domination; the bureaucracy represented the Soviet Thermidor, Stalin the proletarian Bonaparte. Trotsky, and Ted Grant (Russia: From Revolution To Counterrevolution), understood that by the very nature of its existence the bureaucracy was constantly straining against the nationalized economy, that it was a historical aberration, brought about by the particular forms of development created by the isolation of the Russian Revolution, and in contradiction to the economic superstructure of society. The bureaucracy introduced an element of disorder to the planned economy and consumed an ever increasing share of the value produced; its continued existence was not compatible with the socio-economic superstructure of society and therefore it could only survive for a decades at the most. This is the ultimate reason for the fall of the USSR: from the rise of Stalin onward, the basic system of the Soviet economy was unsound in its fundamentals, infected with a bureaucratic cancer incompatible with centralized economic planning, and doomed to stagnation and collapse.

Indeed, the entire history of the Stalinist regime prior to Gorbachev and after Khrushchev’s fall from grace is the history of nominal power being passed from grandfather to great-grandfather within a narrow clique of bureaucrats and of a stagnating economy propped up mainly by the high price of oil. This was an era of minimal growth rates, military failures, and rising discontent both in the the USSR and in the Eastern European bloc generally. The archetypical Soviet politician in this period is undoubtedly Brezhnev, who at least formally held power until 1982 and presided over almost a decade of economic and social stagnation. Even within the bureaucratic elite that governed the USSR, the clique of Brezhnev-style politicians that inhabited the Kremlin represented a extremely narrow circle of old-time Stalinists who rose to high office on the basis of their old age and unwillingness to make any major changes. In the era of stagnation, the ruling bureaucracy desired stability above all else.

Furthermore, bureaucracy itself was constantly straining against the planned economy as it sought to increase its privileges, gain direct control over the means of production, and establish inheritance rights for its children. The planned economy, and therefore the degenerate workers’ state, could only survive as long as A) the bureaucracy did not place so great a burden on the economy as to force on overturn and B) the Soviet proletariat was powerful enough to defend the planned economy as the fundamental conquest of the Bolshevik revolution- despite the loss of the political and social gains of the revolution to the Thermidorian rule of counterrevolutionary bureaucrats- and yet remained weak enough to be unable to complete the political revolution and unceremoniously show the bureaucracy to the door. The USSR was always balanced on a knife’s edge; on one side the proletariat seeking to achieve socialist consciousness and complete the political revolution (and thus the abolition of the bureaucratic regime) and the bureaucracy ready to launch into an orgy of market capitalism provided it could just slip by the proletarian watchdog guarding the door.  Any attempt to explain the fall using other factors, such as the decline in world oil prices, must begin with overall economic and political system as the main factor or it else it simply reduces itself to lifeless schematics or, in the case of attempts to pin the blame on Gorbachev’s incompetent leadership, cheap personality politics. The decline in world oil prices was one of the factors in determining when, not if, the USSR would fall and to single it out as the factor most responsible for the fall is to claim the superiority of the part to the whole. Oil was an important factor the Soviet economy, but its impact can only be understood in the context of the larger system it was part of.

It was to be a relatively young Soviet politician by the name of Mikhail Gorbachev, who brought a desire for reform and recognition of the immanent crisis to the Kremlin. Gorbachev’s rise coincided with a drop in world oil prices, which undermined the USSR’s cash reserves and deprived its economy of what little flexibility it had, setting the stage for collapse. The Gorbachev reforms were totally insufficient from both an economic prospective and a political perspective- too little to late, not that they could be anything else. The collapse of the USSR, overseen by Yeltsin, was the ultimate triumph of the bureaucratic counterrevolution and the final defeat of the Bolshevik revolution of 1917. The proletariat, beaten down and deceived by the years of Stalinism, was unable to seize the initiative in the decisive moment when the regime began to falter and fall and capitalism was restored in the Soviet Union

Boris Yeltsin, appeared on the Russian scene as the herald of the end. He led the defeat of a hardline coup and went on to take power in the newly independent Russian Federation with the breakup of the USSR and the subsequent collapse of the Russian economy and breakdown of social order. When Proudhon declared “La propriété, c’est le vol” he must have had the Yeltsin period in mind. The present Russia oligarchy established itself by the wholesale plunder of Soviet state property in a drunken orgy of corruption. Putin, then, appears as Russia’s hangover. He represents Russia’s desire to establish a new political order at home and to reestablish its influence abroad, primarily in the former Tsarist empire. The present conflict in Ukraine, for instance, needs to be explained in light of this reestablishment of influence and attempt to repel US and EU incursions into traditionally Russian dominated zones. Russia today is a modern capitalist state seeking to assert itself on the world stage as a major imperialist power,  even as the hundredth anniversary of October approaches and the Russian economy begins to falter.

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