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The Truth About the Coup

Document of the 1991 - 1992 minority faction of the Committee for a Workers International

January 1992

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The Method of Mandel

The document of the IS majority faction "Revolution and Counter-revolution in the USSR" represents a fundamental departure from the method of Marxism. Under the guise of a "balanced" analysis, it attempts to point in all directions at the same time, confusing and blurring the process, so that it is difficult, if not impossible, to say where exactly the authors stand. This is not an accident. For some time now, the representatives of the IS majority faction have abandoned the scientific Marxist perspectives in favour of the "method" of eclecticism, empiricism and impressionism.

Hiding behind the alleged "complexities" of the present world situation (what situation is not complex?), and so-called "conditional perspectives" (what perspective is not conditional?), they put forward a number of different scenarios in every situation, without clearly stating which perspective they defend.

In this way, of course, they are never "wrong", because they never actually put forward a real perspective. This was the method of Mandel in the past, which we used to ridicule, before it became, regrettably, the fashion in our own ranks.

Thus, on Afghanistan, one supporter of IS majority tendency put forward half a dozen different "perspectives" in one article, while privately assuring everyone who could listen that Najubullah would be overthrown very quickly by the Mujahidin. Similarly at the time of the Gulf War, they publicly maintained that the likelihood of war was "50:50", while privately ridiculing the idea that war would take place at all. The problem with this method, apart from its inherent dishonesty, is that it is impossible to have a serious discussion of differences. It is like boxing with shadows which flit endlessly from one position to another. A worse feature of something which was entirely alien to our tendency, is the systematic distortion of the positions of your opponent. Not for nothing did Marx and Lenin insist on quoting at length from the writings of their opponents, so as to avoid any possible distortions or inaccuracy.

Supporting the Coup?

At the outset of this discussion on the August events in the USSR, the IS majority faction did not hesitate to repeat the lie that AW and EG had "supported the coup" despite the fact that neither of us had ever hinted at such a position, and when asked a direct question on this issue in the IS, answered clearly and unambiguously in the negative.

The accusation of supporting the coup was too scandalous to be taken seriously. The IS majority faction therefore dropped it in favour of a more "balanced" slander that EG and AW's position amounted to a position of "doing nothing" in the face of the coup. This is how these comrades try to present the position of class independence, which from the outset was put forward by the Opposition.

Why did they find it necessary to launch such a campaign against the Opposition? The answer is quite simple. The coup took the comrades by surprise. They anticipated nothing, understood nothing, and therefore were prepared for nothing.

A fake perspective sooner or later is reflected in mistakes in action. The perspective of the IS majority and its supporters in the USSR was that the coup was off the agenda. Indeed, in the period immediately prior to the coup, they tried to show that EG was "incapable of understanding the contemporary situation in the Soviet Union", citing as the prime example of this the fact that he had predicted that there would be a coup!

In a transparent attempt to cover their tracks, the majority document cites a couple of quotes in the British paper, one dated 17th January 1991, the other as far back as July 1989 to show they also predicted a coup. Throughout this period there was repeated speculation both in the Soviet and Western media about the dangers of a coup. From a Marxist point of view this was obvious, and no special prescience was necessary to predict it.

We were, therefore, quite surprised when one of the majority supporters who is working in the USSR bluntly accused EG of committing an unpardonable error by predicting a coup. This statement was not repudiated or corrected by any of the IS majority who were present. On the contrary, it was repeated in a chorus after the IEC meeting by supporters of the majority: "You see how out of touch EG is he predicts there will be a coup in the Soviet Union!" The supporters of the majority had a good laugh over this right up to the events of the 18th-21st August, which took them completely by surprise.

The quotes from the British paper are a smokescreen. Why quote from January 1991 and July 1989? Why not quote from the article which appeared in the paper on 16th August just three days before the coup, signed "by a Moscow correspondent"? This article takes up an entire page, and yet does not even hint at the danger of a coup. That would not be so bad, were it not for the fact that, throughout the summer, the whole of Moscow was buzzing with reports of fresh activities of the hardliners which is not reflected in this.

The majority had made up their mind that EG's prediction of a coup was a mistake, because it did not immediately materialise. This is typical of the empirical approach they adopt to all questions. Trotsky defied Marxism theory as the "superiority of foresight over astonishment". A tendency which bases itself on empiricism is forever doomed to lurch from one "surprise" to another. The problem is that the organisation as a whole pays a very heavy price for such enterprises.

Instead of honestly admitting their mistake, the supporters of the IS majority immediately launched on an aggressive campaign, alleging without the slightest attempt of proof, that EG and AW "supported the coup". As if predicting something meant supporting it!

But worse was to come. Having been taken completely off guard by events, the comrades pushed themselves into a position which meant advocating a de facto bloc with Yeltsin, and the mixing up of revolution with counter-revolution. It is difficult to imagine a more serious mistake for a revolutionary to commit than that.

Of course it was always possible that these initial articles which appeared in the British paper, clearly written in haste, contained carelessly written formulation. But the most cursory glance at this material, especially the first (unsigned) article, reflecting the EB position, clearly gives the impression of uncritical support for the movement around Yeltsin. No attempt to explain the class character or reactionary aims of the Yeltsinites. Just a mass of impressionistic statements, idealising the "heroic defenders of the Russian parliament."

People's Power?

The first thing that strikes you about these articles (22/8/91) is their complete lack of class content. In the initial broadsheet the word "people" is repeated thirteen times. Thus we have "people power", the "Soviet people", the "Russian people" and so on and so forth.

This is not the language of Marxism. The Stalinists and reformists have always abused words like "people" and "masses" to cover up the class nature of the movement and conceal their class collaborationist policies. This was always rejected by Lenin and Trotsky who insisted in bringing out sharply the class nature of each and every movement, because they always based themselves on the independent movement of the working class.

Strangely enough, in these first reports, apart from odd mentions of workers building barricades and "two large factories in Leningrad on strike" (20/8), there is no attempt to show any massive presence of workers on the pro-Yeltsin demonstrations.

This is no accident, because the big majority of workers took no part in them. The report from Moscow dated 21/8 admitted that "Before the scale of the coup had sunk in, many, particularly workers, had an ambivalent attitude towards it. More opposed it, but few felt inclined to support Gorbachev or Yeltsin. One worker commented that he could see no significant difference between Yeltsin's economic programme and the junta's. Another called it 'a big game being played by the ruling elite'".

There is no doubt this mood was widespread, especially among the workers, as the author is obliged to admit, while adding that it "began to change as the protest grew in size and as the consequences began to sink in."

Nevertheless, despite this assertion, the fact remains that, when the report was written, the participation of workers in both demonstrations and strikes against the coup was clearly minimal. This is shown by the complete lack of any facts and figures (except for "two large factories" in Leningrad) in the eyewitness reports themselves. It was left to the editors to add the assertion that "Across the Soviet Union, demonstrations took to the streets after Yeltsin's appeal for a general strike, workers stopped work from Kuzbass in the south to Vakuta in the north. Workers in Leningrad factories formed armed defence squads" (22/8/91).

"From the Kuzbass in the south to Vakuta in the north" constitutes an extremely large geographical area. The implication is that, if not all then a very large part of the 150 million of workers of the Soviet Union responded to "Yeltsin's appeal for a general strike".

That is what the article says, but what are the facts?

The only significant section of the workers who responded to Yeltsin's call for a general strike were a part of the miners in the area mentioned and a few factories in Leningrad and the Urals.

This is what Reuter's correspondent had to say about the response to Yeltsin: "But Yeltsin's appeal for strikes was meeting with a patchy response. In the Soviet Union's biggest coalfield, the Kuzbass, whose miners had previously shown themselves willing to use their industrial clout as a political weapon against the Kremlin, only about half the workers downed tools. In the Vakuta coalfield of Siberia, only five mines were to respond positively to Yeltsin." (The Guardian 22/8/91)

So only half the coalminers went on strike. Also the oil workers, a decisive section to whom Yeltsin specifically directed his appeal, debated the call and decided to take no action.

Try as they will (and they have put a lot of time and effort in over a period of months) the supporters of the IS majority faction (including the "eyewitnesses") have been unable to come up with any facts or figures which would demonstrate the existence of a serious response to Yeltsin's call for a general strike. That is not surprising, for the simple reason that the call was a total flop.

Despite claims of the editors, "from Kuzbass in the south to Vakuta in the north", there were virtually no strikes. No strikes in the Ukraine, the most important centre of industry, where the problems of workers are exacerbated by the national problems. No strikes in Byelorussia, where a big movement had earlier taken place. Half the miners refused to come out, as did all the oil workers and railwaymen. Little or no response in Moscow. Nothing in the Baltice, the Caucasus or Central Asia.

That leaves us with Leningrad, which has been seized upon by the IS majority, for the simple reason that they have been unable to come up with anything else. And what of Leningrad? The report dated 20/8 states that: "Today only two large factories in Lengrad went on strike, the Kirovsky (which used to be the famous Putilorsky) and an engineering factory. But many left work to go and demonstrate in the Winter Palace and returned." (22/8/91)

The vagueness of the last sentence is typical of many such assertions. "Many" demonstrated, it says how many, from which factories? What ideas were they defending? The silence of the eyewitness is most eloquent. Clearly, one cannot say what one does not know! (We are confident that if the facts were known, they would have been provided down to the last detail).

The next issue of the paper adds nothing substantially to the first. Again the Kirovsky plant is mentioned, adding that it represents "a workforce 40,000 strong" (the clear implication is that all 40,000 went on strike). The eyewitness from Leningrad stated that dockers had "taken action" on the first day without saying what that consisted of, and that "many workers had simply left work for a couple of hours". Again, one searches in vain for any precise account of the number of factories in Leningrad which actually answered the call for a general strike.

The report from Leningrad on 13/9/91 sheds little light on this question, but does someqhat clarify the assertions made earlier that the Leningrad dockers had "taken action". We quote the words of the president of an independent dockers' union in Leningrad, reproduced in the article: "At the port on the first day we had a meeting to discuss taking action. But the manager asked us not to strike. Only a few of us went to the big meeting (demo in the Winter Palace). But if the putschists had not given up the ghost, we would not have given up the ghost, we would have taken action." (13.9/91)

So here we have it. On 30/8/91, it is confidently stated that the Leningrad dockers "took action on the first day" (implying that they went on strike.) This was on the central pages. By the 13/9/91. in a brief report tucked away at the bottom of page 13, it appears that the dockers did not take action, but only discussed taking action, and in the end did not do anything, on the advice of Sobchak, the pro-capitalist mayor of Leningrad. This is the way the "eyewitness" reports "inform" the readers of the paper!

Finally on 18/10/91, a month and a half after the coup, the paper published a centre page spread entitled "How we beat the coup", quoting an eyewitness account from Leningrad, including a very interesting item signed by leaders of the unofficial workers' committee of the Kirov factory, frequently cited by the comrades in earlier articles. He describes the real response of the workers to the call to participate in a demonstration to the Winter Palace, led by Sobchak, the pro-capitalist mayor: "There were workers who stayed in some because departments like the forge cannot be closed down easily, others because they didn't feel strongly either way and still others because they thought a coup wouldn't be a bad thing. Probably a third of the workforce of 30,000 went out on the processions."

These lines are highly significant. They clearly show that the prevailing mood in the working class was one of enormous confusion, with a minority supporting the coup, another minority opposed, and another section, by far the biggest, didn't feel strongly either way for the very good reasons that they saw no fundamental difference between the hardliners and the pro-capitalist counter-revolutionaries around Yeltsin.





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