International Situation: The USSR in pieces

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Who said: "I am aware that we are on the verge of the dislocation of both economy and state"? Gorbachev himself! With every day that passes, the USSR plunges deeper into chaos. The ship of the state is rudderless, and when Gorbachev received the French President Mitterrand in early May, he gave a catastrophic overview of Perestroika, declaring that the soviets are "floundering in the dark", that "the instrumentation no longer works", and that "the crew is disunited". The new prime minister, Pavlov, a worthy representative of the Party nomenklatura, backs this up, saying that the USSR is threatened with "a colossal decomposition"[1]

Russian capitalism's road to disaster

The time, not so long ago, when the USSR's imperialist power made the world tremble, is definitively over. The USSR no longer has the means to keep up its rank as a world imperialist super-power. On the economic level, it never has had. The USSR, despite its under-development, had been able to challenge its American rival (whose GNP in 1990 was three times greater than its own) by concentrating the whole economy in the hands of the state and sacrificing it completely to the needs of its military power.

For decades, the USSR has devoted between 20% and 40% of national income to arms production and the maintenance of the "Red Army". This priority was imposed at the cost of increasing dilapidation in the rest of the economy. The high-tech sectors fell further and further behind. This then rebounded on the arms industry, with the growing technical superiority technical superiority of Western weapons, which still further handicapped Russian military power. Where technology was lacking, or machines unavailable, the brain and brawn of the proletariat was brutally exploited. Under the iron fist of the Stalinist party, the USSR was transformed into gigantic labor camp.

In the end, the USSR was unable to fight the war which it had prepared for so long. Not only were its weapons completely outclassed, the regime's utter rejection by the population made mobilization necessary for war completely impossible.

Faced with the economic collapse, the nomenklatura was forced into an agonizing reappraisal. Economic modernization became an urgent necessity: for this, reforms were required. Gorbachev was to be the standard-bearer of the new economic policy of Perestroika. However, calling into question the economic dogmas which served as a base for Stalinist state capitalism inevitably also meant calling into question the political dogmas at the heart of Stalinism itself, and in particular the dogma of the dictatorial power of the single party.

Far from putting the economy back to rights, Perestroika hastened the collapse of the politico-economic system established by Stalin. Today, the Russian bourgeoisie must confront not only the aberrations of its economy, but the USSR's accelerating plunge into the infernal spiral of economic, political and social chaos.

The question which posed today is that the very existence of the USSR.

The claim of Stalinism, the most brutal form of state capitalism, to represent communism has been the biggest lie of the century. Every fraction of the bourgeoisie, East and West, from extreme left to extreme right, has cooperated to keep it going. The language of Stalinism has prostituted Marxist vocabulary to the service of the USSR's imperialist ambitions, to providing it with an ideological umbrella and an alibi for the regime's exactions. The decomposition of the USSR today has laid bare the truth that revolutionaries have declared constantly for decades: the capitalist nature of the USSR, and the bourgeois nature of the CPSU.

The economic collapse accelerates

For the 1st quarter of 1991, relative to the same quarter of 1990, the state Office of Statistics announced an 8% fall in GNP, a 13% decline in agricultural production, a 40% plunge in exports, and an increase of 27 billion roubles in the federal budget deficit. Western estimates are more pessimistic still, and estimate the fall in GNP at 15%.

The military-industrial complex, the only branch to function with a minimum of efficiency until now, has become to all intents and purposes useless. The USSR has had to trim its imperialist ambitions. It no longer needs more weapons: it hardly knows what to do with the thousands of tanks and the tons of armaments it is being forced to evacuate from its bases in Eastern Europe. Industry's technological heart is almost at a standstill, while it waits for a hypothetical reconversion to the production of capital consumer goods, which would anyway take years. In the meantime, the USSR no longer knows what to do with the now useless technological pride of its industry.

The USSR's traditional customers in the ex-Eastern bloc are turning towards other suppliers, and Russian industry cannot hope to find other outlets for its products, which are technologically completely outdated, of poor quality, and unreliable. Nor is there any prospect of improvement with trade wars raging all throughout the world market.

The structure of the USSR's trade is characteristic of an under-developed country: it is above all an exporter of raw materials, especially oil, and at the same time an importer of food. In 1998, oil and mineral products accounted for 75% of hard currency earnings, while agricultural trade was in deficit to the tune of $12 billion.

Nonetheless, the oil industry has had to reduce production: because it has not been modernized for years, its equipment is constantly breaking down and hampered by a chronic shortage of spare parts. As a result, oil exports fell by 36 % in volume in the 1st quarter of 1991, relative to the same quarter last year.

Agriculture is in a terrible state. The specter of famine has returned to haunt the country, after being pushed back last year by an abundant grain harvest. Cereal production is expected to fall this year by 10%. A shortage of equipment, silos, transport, and machinery, means that 30% of the harvest is simply lost. The USSR will have to make up the deficit on the world market simply to face up to the immediate needs of an already severely rationed population. It will only be able to do so by going still further into debt.

Traditionally, the USSR has always been highly solvent, with a low level of debt. Today, the country is folding under the weight of a debt estimated at $60 billion. Every month sees new delays or defaults on payment, which has recently led Japan to refuse it any new credits. Gorbachev has been reduced to crying for help, begging for aid and new international loans.

But this picture of economic collapse would not be complete if we did not include the destructive effect on the economy of the dynamic of chaos into which the USSR is plunging.

In several republics, production has been virtually brought to a standstill by nationalist conflicts. The situation in the Caucasus is a revealing example. The road and rail blockade that Azerbaijan has imposed on Armenia - many of which have thus been forced to shut down - it has also created a huge bottleneck which encumbers goods transport throughout the southern USSR, forcing the closure of factories right outside the Caucasus region.

The discontent of workers, faced with a constant degradation of their already wretched living conditions, is constantly growing. Stoppages proliferate, massive strikes explode. In recent months, the miners blocked coal production for weeks.

Confronted with this catastrophic situation, the bourgeoisie is paralyzed and impotent. An important fraction within the party is deeply hostile to reform, and is deliberately sabotaging them, further accelerating the breakdown of the economy. The bureaucratic hierarchy's natural passivity is reinforced by the dithering and impotence of the hierarchs in the Kremlin. With decisions being handed down by different fractions at the center, local chiefs   prefer to wait to see which way the wind turns rather than take any decisions themselves.

In the meantime, the economy is becoming more and more dilapidated; as it waits for decisions which never come, utter disorganization reigns. Against a backdrop of increasing poverty, the black market has imposed its law of generalized corruption on the whole economy.

The paralysis of the ruling class

The form taken by the counter-revolution in Russia determined its ruling class' mode of organization. The state which emerged from the Russian Revolution, and the Bolshevik Party which had become identified with it, had been devoured from within by the Stalinist counter-revolution. The old possessing classes had been expropriated by the proletarian revolution; a new capitalist class was reconstituted within the Stalinist-Party-State, controlling all the means of production and the whole of social life. The political forms of the one-party state corresponded to the juridical form of state ownership of the means of production.

The members of the Party nomenklatura enjoy privileges which guarantee them living conditions which are simply incomparable with those of the proletariat, which subjected to a grinding poverty. The state ensures a luxurious way of life to those who control its functioning: specially reserved housing, access to shops abundantly stocked with all kinds of consumer goods, especially Western, "company" cars; over and above the salary it brings, a post in the bureaucracy is a source of hidden income from all kinds of traffic and dealing. More than any theoretical analysis, the reality of these facts is ample proof that a privileged class does exist in the USSR, a capitalist bourgeoisie which exploits the working class through the state. The form of exploitation differs from that in Western countries, but the end result is the same.

During the last decades, behind the monolithic façade of the so-called Communist party, quasi-feudal clans, Mafiosi, and dynasties have emerged. Wars between cliques have left their corpses behind, in the course of successive purges. Waste and incompetence reign at every level of the party, its leaders more preoccupied by their rivalries for power, source of wealth and influence, and be every kind of corrupt dealing, than by the management of the productive apparatus.

Brezhnev's death at the end of 1982 was the signal for the outbreak of a "war of succession" in the party, strengthening the centrifugal tendencies within it. When, after the brief interlude of Andropov and Chernenko, Gorbachev's accession to the leadership of the Politburo in 1985 confirmed the victory of the reformist tendency, the collapse of the economy was already clear for all to see, and the decomposition of the ruling party and the development of chaos in general already well under way.

Perestroika proposed to promote economic reform without calling into question either the single party or its control of the state; it only accelerated the collapse of the Stalinist regime. To preserve the unity of the party, Gorbachev had to perform a delicate balancing act between conservative and reformist tendencies; this condemned him to taking no more than half-measures, and so to impotence. Ever since this accession to power, Gorbachev's whole art has been to present a belated recognition that the situation was slipping more and more out of state's control, as a determined policy of bold reform. From one day to the next, Gorbachev has been obliged to accept what he had refused the day before. The aim of Perestroika was to save the USSR and its bloc through a policy of reform; Gorbachev, after trying vainly to maintain in power reformist factions under Moscow's control, has had to abandon any control by the USSR over the countries which has used to form its "glacis" in Eastern Europe. After rejecting repressive methods, he has had to send the army to repress nationalist agitation in the Caucasus and Baku, and against the Lithuanian parliament. After allying with the reformers, he has had to seek support from the conservatives, and vice-versa.

The attempts to gain democratic credibility have been a resounding flop. The elections only highlighted the irredeemable unpopularity of the Party apparatchiks. Nationalist and radical reformers monopolize the votes. In the absence of any food to fill the abyss between the population of the USSR and the Stalinist state. The years of horror, when millions of proletarians and peasants fell under the repression of a corrupt and ferocious state will never be forgotten. Under such conditions, despite all his media skill Gorbachev is incapable of controlling any democratic process. The latest referendum on the Union is a fine example. After years of preparation, it only entrenched the perspectives of disunity: the Armenians, Georgians, and Balts are hostile to the union, and refused to take part; the vote embodied the continued decline of Gorbachev's popularity, and the growing influence of his reformist rival Yeltsin.

The party is imploding, blurring at the edges. A myriad of new organizations have appeared. The Stalinist nostalgics, in favor of strong-arm methods to restore order, go arm-in-arm with the ultra-nationalist, anti-semites Pamyat. The radical reformers leave the party to found democratic associations. In the peripheral republics, splits have created new "communist" parties on a nationalist basis, confirming the breakup of the CPSU. Opportunism is raging. For many one-time apparatchiks, the only means of survival are populist and nationalist demagogy. Under the flags of various nationalities that are stirring the USSR, new alliances of convenience are being formed between the old local fiefdoms of the CPSU, the milieu of wheeler-dealers that has emerged from the flourishing black market, the reformists ranging from the worst kind of opportunist to naïve sould full of democratic illusions, and the historically archaic nationalists.

Ever-wider regions of the USSR are escaping from central control. The independentists are in power in the Baltic states, in Moldavia, in Armenia. Everywhere, the prerogatives of the central power are being reined in, the ruling nationalism encourages disobedience to orders from the Kremlin, while the local state bureaucracy, confronted with the paralysis of the center, hesitates between immobility and support for the newly emerging local powers. Power centers are proliferating everywhere.

Party and state have fractured from top to bottom. The recent agreement between Yeltsin and Gorbachev on the devolution of central power over management of mines to the republics, and the creation of a KGB under the control of the Russian government is an indication of the impotence of the central power.

The long miner's strike has demonstrated the Kremlin's inability to impose its will and get production going again. Since it no longer has any control over whole branches of the economy, it has no other solution than to leave management in the hands of the various local authorities. The USSR's economy is in the process of disintegrating into different poles. The central government is even beginning to lose control over international trade: several republics have already begun to trade directly with each other and with the West, accelerating the centrifugal dynamic of the soviet economy.

Like the party, the police apparatus which is so closely linked to it is splitting up more and more, putting itself at the service of the new nationalist centers of power. New police forces and nationalist militia are taking place of the old police forces to closely tied Moscow.

Frontiers have been set up within the USSR, defended by armed nationalist militias. Lithuania has set up frontier posts, and its frontier guards have clashed several times with Moscow police, resulting in several deaths. The conflict between Armenian and Azerbaijani militias has not diminished in the least since the intervention of the "Red" Army. Pogroms, war and repression in Baku have caused hundreds of deaths. The "Red" Army has not bogged down, without being able to impose a solution on the conflict. In Georgia, recent clashes between Georgians and Ossetians grow that a new area of tension has opened. Ethnic conflicts are proliferating at the farthest confines of Russia.

Within this context of disintegration, the only structure which has all resisted the overall decomposition, and the loss of control by the central power, and which still makes it possible to maintain some pretense of cohesion within the USSR, is the army. However, the same dynamic which dominates the USSR as a whole, is at work here also. Hundreds of thousands of soldiers repatriated from Eastern Europe find themselves and their families unhoused, living in conditions of real poverty which are all the more resented in that they have just returned from countries with a higher standard of living. This is aggravating the general malaise that has infected the army since the retreat from Afghanistan. There are out and out battles in the barracks between soldiers of different nationalities. Draft-dodging, desertion, and insubordination are becoming commonplace.

The soviet bourgeoisie no longer has the means to conduct a generalized repression. Although its army can still undertake to keep the peace in some regions, its room for maneuver is nonetheless very limited. The repressive apparatus' hesitations over the situation in Lithuania or the Caucasus express perfectly the disarray and impotence of the Kremlin government. Only a few principles, nostalgic for the Stalinist past, still think that large scale repression is still possible without tipping the USSR still faster into civil war.

The proletariat caught in the whirlwind

Neither the widespread discontent, nor the regime's complete lack of credibility, much less the class struggle, lay behind the collapse of the Stalinist state. The discontent is not new, nor is the state's lack of credibility. As for the class struggle, we only have to remark that there was no significant struggle in the USSR before the miner's strike in 1989.

In the name of the defense of communism and proletarian internationalism, generations of proletarians have been subjected to the bestiality of Stalinism, the product of the defeat of the Russian revolution. In rejecting the regime the workers of the USSR have also rejected all the proletariat's revolutionary tradition, its class experience, leading the descendants of the proletarians of the Revolution into total political confusion, identifying the worst capitalist dictatorship with socialism. In reaction to Stalinism, soviet workers' hopes for change have turned towards the mythical past of national folklore, or towards the wonderful mirage of Western capitalist "democracy".

The proletariat is suffering even more strongly from the devastating consequences of this dynamic of disintegration and decomposition because it did not overthrow the Stalinist regime itself. The democratic illusion has no historical roots in Russia, and remains the domain of petty bourgeois intellectuals. The proletariat is more receptive to populist and nationalist demagogy. The weight of nationalism on the proletariat is due both to the backwardness of Russian capitalism which was unable to integrate the populations colonized by Tsarism, given its economic weakness, and to the gut reaction against the central government, which is the symbol of years of terror and dictatorship.

With Perestroika, in the name of reforms and change, the attacks on workers' living conditions have intensified. Wage rises have not kept pace with the repeated price increases for staple products. Inflation is expected to be in triple figures for 1991. At the beginning of April, the prices of bread rose by 200%, that of sugar by 100%. The same is happening with all staple products. Under the pretext of renewing bank notes, the state stole the saves of wage-earners and pensioners. Rationing is applied to more and more products. Under such conditions, discontent has grown. According to the Office of Statistics, strikes have cost 1.17 million working hours during the first quarter of 1991. But although these developing strikes show that workers have recovered their combativity, and that they are ready to resist the attacks on their living conditions, they also illustrate their political weakness and confusion. We can see this in the miners' strike which hit the whole USSR this spring, or in the general strike in Byelorussia at the same time.

Although this strike began on the economic terrain, their strike committees were soon under the control of the most nationalist elements. The miners' strike shut down production in hundreds of pits, and mobilized hundreds of thousands of workers throughout the USSR; it rejected all the central government's proposals. And yet, the separate negotiations by strike committees with representatives of each republic, led to the movement's fragmentation. In Russia, Yeltsin's nationalist and populist demagogy, promising the miners that they "would have the right to chose their type of management and property" had more effect in stopping the strike than Prime Minister Pavlov's offer to double wages. No sooner than the miners gone back to work than Yeltsin, who had been gaining a cheap radical credibility for Gorbachev's resignation, returned to an alliance with Gorbachev to establish "exceptional rules" banning strikes in transport, basic industry, and enterprises producing for soviet consumers.

The weakness of the proletariat in the USSR in confronting the mystifications of democracy and nationalism means that not only is it incapable of defending any perspective against chaos, its struggles are being dragged off their class terrain and doomed to defeat. Yeltsin has been able to use the miners' strike to reinforce his own political credibility and economic. The central government's recent abandonment of its sovereignty over coal production is only a forecasts of what is to come, and heralds the breakup of soviet capital.

Too weak to resist, the proletariat is also affected by the dynamic of decomposition and disintegration ravaging the USSR. The poison of nationalism is a gangrene which not only hampers the proletariat in its struggle, but is a mortal factor in the destruction of its class identity and the division of the workers. In Armenia, Azerbaidjan, Georgia, the Baltic states, the workers are demonstrating not on their own class terrain, but on the terrain of nationalism, where they are atomized, diluted in the generalized discontent which nationalism crystallizes, enrolled in nationalist militia, drawn into new conflicts as in the Caucasus. The situation of decomposition which has affected the proletariat in the peripheral republics threatens the working class throughout the USSR.

The fear of great powers faced with the break-up of the USSR

Far from rejoicing at the tribulations of their one-time imperialist rival, which had been an object of fear for decades, the Western powers are gripped with anxiety at the consequences of the Stalinist system's collapse.

The break-up of the Russian bloc has determined the disappearance of its Western rival which has lost its reasons for existence, thus liberating worldwide capitalism's natural tendency to struggle "every man for himself". Stalinism's political collapse in the USSR has dragged down its allies all over the world. The various communist parties have had to give up power throughout Eastern Europe; they are replaced by fragile, unstable regimes which has set the seal on their new independence and the USSR's loss of control. At the periphery of capitalism, dictatorships whose sole legitimacy lay in the military and political support they received from the USSR have had to give up power. The ex-Eastern bloc troops have had to withdraw from Angola, and the MPLA has had to give in to Western diktats. In Ethiopia, the loss of Soviet arms supplies forced Mengistu to save his skin by fleeing abroad. One can only wonder how long Castro will survive in Cuba. The example is contagious, and is making all the dictatorships more fragile. The USSR's collapse is a profoundly destabilizing factor in the world situation as a whole.

The reawakening of the nationalities is accompanied by the exacerbation of nationalist tension. The war between Armenia and Azerbaijan is a foretaste of the disorder that will afflict these new states, whose existence is founded on the most archaic and anachronistic aspects of different national cultures.

The gigantic arsenal of the "Red" Army is threatened with dispersal as the USSR breaks up. Tomorrow, nuclear weapons and power stations, thousands, or tens of thousands of tanks and cannon, and guns are liable to fall into the hands of the most anachronistic forces thrown up by the putrefaction of the Stalinist regime. Any idea of the great powers controlling nuclear proliferation will become completely outdated, and the risk of nuclear "accidents" like Chernobyl vastly greater. Chernobyl is no accident: it is the exact concentration of the situation in the USSR.

Faced with such destabilization, the world's other great powers, with the USA and the European powers to the fore have no interest in any acceleration of the USSR's collapse, and disintegration into a multitude of rival states. Together, they will make every effort to support the factors of political cohesion in the USSR, and promote reforms to try to stabilize the economic and social situation.

In these conditions, the West can only support Gorbachev, who is the last guarantor of the USSR's unity, and a proclaimed partisan of reforms. The Western powers have followed this policy strictly for years, but in doing so they trapped themselves in the same contradictions as Perestroika. The least decompose fractions of the Party whose support Gorbachev depends on regroup those most hostile, or most timid towards reforms. With Pavlov as Prime Minister, the old guard is back in command. The most reformist factions have joined the nationalists, and their victory today would mean acceleration of the dynamic towards disintegration. For the sake of maintaining international frontiers and preserving the increasingly theoretical existence of the USSR, Western "democracies" are supporting, by conveniently closing their eyes to it, the repression aimed at calming the fever for independence of the Armenians, Lithuanians, and Georgians. The incapacity of the various Perestroika governments to reform the production going again, has led to desperate appeals for international aid and new loans. Prime Minister Pavlov, who only recently was accusing the West of poisoning last winter's food aid with radio-active elements, now declares that "we won't make it without Western help".

But the Western economies are under pressure from the advancing recession; they do not have the means to coming to the rescue of the soviet economy. The scarcity of funds, and pressing priorities make a new Marshall Plan for Eastern Europe and the USSR impossible. We only have to look at the situation in East Germany, which was the most developed country in the bloc, to see that the chaos of the USSR could absorb billions of dollars without any productive effect. Western loans are going to plug gaps and ease the immediate social tension, without any other result than to put off the day of reckoning.

But if the West is forced to limit its economic aid, it is not so stingy with its political help to Gorbachev. The leader of the soviet state is recognized as its only valid spokesman, and is given first class world media coverage. As for the representatives of the various nationalities emerging in the USSR, whenever they travel abroad they find themselves being lectured. They are advised to be patient, to calm their nationalist ardor, to enter into a dialogue with Moscow. When Yeltsin travelled to Europe last spring, just after demanding Gorbachev's resignation, he was rebuffed time after time. There was no question of the West giving greater credibility to the Russian leader, whose victory would mean the faster breakup of the USSR. Apparently, Yeltsin got the message, since on his return he made a complete U-turn and made an alliance with Gorbachev. The West is using every means it can to put pressure on the different players in the drama of the USSR, in an attempt to calm things down.

But the West does not have the means to prevent the inevitable breakup of the USSR, any more than Gorbachev. The most it can do is to try to slow it down, to gain time in order to control the most explosive aspects of the situation. The impotence of both the West and Gorbachev is an expression of the fact that the same fundamental contradictions which determine the collapse of the USSR are also at work in the rest of the world[2]. The ‘Third World' has preceded the USSR into the chaos it is undergoing today. The USSR's decomposition is not merely a product of its own specificities; it is the expression of a worldwide dynamic, which has been concretized more explosively and faster in the USSR because of the weakness of its capital and its historic specificities.

Unable to find any palliatives, or any way out of its contradictions, world capital has been sinking for more than 20 years ever deeper into crisis. The economic collapse of the USSR, after that of the Third World, and its present "Africanization", reveals the advance gangrene of decomposition which weighs today, ever more strongly, on the planet as a whole[3]. JJ                                 



[1] See International Review no. 60, ‘Theses on the Economic and Political Crisis in Eastern Europe, and the Definitive Bankruptcy of Stalinism' and International Review no. 61, ‘After the collapse of the Eastern bloc, Destabilization and Chaos'.

[2] See International Review no. 57, ‘The Decomposition of Capitalism' and no. 62, ‘Decomposition, the final phase of Capitalist Decadence'.

[3] See the editorial in this issue of the International Review.