David North
Perestroika versus Socialism: Stalinism and the Restoration of Capitalism in the USSR


This book consists of a series of articles which were originally published in the Bulletin, the weekly newspaper of the Workers League, between March and May of this year under the title, “Behind the Elections in the USSR.” The purpose of these articles was to explain the significance of perestroika and glasnost from the standpoint of the fundamental conflict between the Stalinist bureaucracy and the Soviet working class.

In direct contrast to the overwhelming mass of literature now being produced on the situation in the USSR, this book maintains that the policies of Gorbachev signify neither a break with Stalinism nor a new flowering of Soviet democracy. Rather, it contends that the present regime represents, in the most basic sense, the culmination of the Stalinist reaction against the revolutionary heritage of October 1917.

Leon Trotsky, on whose writings this book is based, explained more than a half-century ago that the destruction of the Bolshevik Party by the Stalinist bureaucracy and its usurpation of political power represented the first stage of the bourgeois counterrevolution in the USSR. However, to the extent that the nationalized property relations established in the aftermath of the October Revolution remained intact and the privileged bureaucratic caste remained unable to secure for itself the right to own property—i.e., to transform itself into a new “Soviet” bourgeoisie—this counterrevolution remained uncompleted. The USSR remained a degenerated workers’ state whose final destiny—its transformation into a socialist society or its regression back into capitalism—depended upon the outcome of the Soviet working class’s struggle against the bureaucracy and the fate of the class struggle on an international scale.

If, as Trotsky hoped, the Soviet workers proved able to overthrow the bureaucrats in a political revolution and if the international position of the workers’ state was qualitatively improved as a result of the victory of revolutionary struggles by the proletariat in the imperialist centers, then the USSR would rapidly liquidate the Stalinist deformations and develop as a socialist society.

On the other hand, Trotsky warned that the protracted survival of the bureaucracy would lead inevitably to its evermore open attempts to root its privileges in definite legally-sanctioned forms of private property—that is, to liquidate the remaining social conquests of the October Revolution and drag the USSR back to capitalism. The author holds that it is precisely this counterrevolutionary process that is finding its conscious expression in the policies of Gorbachev.

However, the reintroduction of capitalism into the USSR cannot be achieved merely on the basis of decrees issued by the Kremlin. Before the Soviet bureaucracy succeeds in transforming itself into a class, it must first physically crush, in a violent counterrevolution, the working class.

Therefore, these articles concluded with the prediction that it would not be long before the policies of Gorbachev encountered the resistance of the working class. The author pointed to the events in China, which were then unfolding, as an augur of the future in the USSR. Just as the Chinese workers and student youth were driven into struggle by the devastating impact of the Beijing Stalinists’ reintroduction of the capitalist market, this analysis anticipated that the Soviet proletariat would rebel against the essentially capitalist program of perestroika.

This prediction has since been dramatically vindicated, in the form of the historic strike of hundreds of thousands of Soviet coal miners, which in the space of a few days in July swept from Siberia through the Urals and into the Ukraine.

The emergence of the Soviet proletariat has abruptly exposed the decisive and unresolved class issues that underlie the political situation in the USSR today. Even the bourgeois press has now been compelled to acknowledge that the movement of the working class is an implicit challenge to the economic goals of Gorbachev. As Bill Keller, Moscow correspondent of the New York Times, wrote on July 26:

“Largely overlooked in the original manifesto of the Soviet coal miners, who are now returning to the pits in tentative triumph, was one demand that must have caused Mikhail S. Gorbachev a small shiver of disquiet.

“Along with soap rations and winter shoes, night bonuses and greater political power, many of the miners called for abolishing or sharply curtailing the freewheeling private entrepreneurs who have amassed wealth and huge resentment under the new economic order that Mr. Gorbachev is trying to build.”

Keller noted that Gorbachev has decided for the time being to present himself as the ally of the miners.

“But the awakening of the working class carries risks for Mr. Gorbachev as well.

“The immediate one is the danger of a toppling blow to a crippled economy. Another is the potent rage of party conservatives, who quake at disorder, especially when they are its target.

“And a third, less obvious one, is the workers themselves, raised in a shabby but familiar cradle of security, whose notion of perestroika is not necessarily the one held by Mr. Gorbachev’s economic brain trust.”

Keller warned that “it is not hard to imagine the newly mobilized workers someday using their power to resist the dislocations that are expected to come with perestroika.

“Mr. Gorbachev cannot count on blue-collar support for closing bankrupt industries, deregulating prices on consumer goods, laying off surplus workers—all measures that leading economists say are inevitable if the Soviet economy is to be revived.

“Moreover, public-opinion polls—and the bitter envy directed at the flourishing private sector—indicate that most workers believe the state has an obligation to prevent some citizens from prospering while others fall behind.

“Mr. Gorbachev has assailed this traditional ‘wage-leveling’ instinct as an impediment to the most productive workers, but the instinct is deeply ingrained in the Soviet workers who are now finding their political voice.”

The degree of anxiety felt within capitalist ruling circles over the threat posed by Soviet workers to the policies of Gorbachev found even more direct expression in the lead editorial in the July 27 edition of the New York Times. After pondering Keller’s dispatch, the Times published an editorial forthrightly entitled “America’s Stake in Gorbachev’s Fate,” insisting that US imperialism must do everything in its power to save the Soviet leader, whose “policies embody the highest Western goals in ways that have been unimaginable since World War II.”

The Times went so far as to assert that it should not be “unthinkable to help Mr. Gorbachev, if he wants help, to overcome the far-flung strikes that threaten his economic reforms.”

The Times’s anxiety is well founded. Gorbachev will not succeed in fobbing off the Soviet proletariat with pseudo- democratic platitudes. For the sake of getting the miners back to work, he cynically posed as the friend of the working class. But it will not be long before the miners learn that the pledges of Gorbachev and his emissaries—even those written down on paper—are worthless. Indeed, as these words are written, less than one week since the end of the miners’ rebellion, the press reports that the Soviet Union’s government-controlled official trade unions have tabled proposals for the outlawing of strikes which are not approved by their own committees. Thus, the stage is already being set for even more bitter and violent conflicts between the working class and the bureaucracy. Organized in defiance of the bureaucracy, future strikes will demand not guarantees from Gorbachev, but his overthrow.

The astonishing history of the Russian working class demonstrates that each great upsurge of industrial struggles led to an immense development of the revolutionary Marxist movement. The great strikes of 1896, with which the Russian proletariat announced its emergence as a world-historical force, set the stage for the founding of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party in 1898. The outbreak of strikes in 1911, after years of political reaction following the defeat of the 1905 revolution, provided the crucial social impulse for the transformation of Lenin’s faction into the Bolshevik Party and the establishment of its dominant position in the working class.

Now, after decades of Stalinist repression, the upsurge of the Soviet working class, heralded by the miners’ strike, will inevitably create new conditions for the revival of its great Marxist traditions. These traditions are represented today by the International Committee of the Fourth International, which is based upon the rich political and theoretical legacy of Leon Trotsky’s implacable struggle against the Stalinist bureaucracy.

In the new era of proletarian class struggle now unfolding in the USSR, the International Committee of the Fourth International will find the means to bring its program of political revolution against Stalinism—a vital component of its strategy of world socialist revolution—to the attention of the Soviet working class. This book is a contribution to that process.

Detroit, Michigan

July 28, 1989