November marks twenty years since the fall of the Berlin wall. This event represented one of the high points of a great mass struggle against the tyrannical order in the Eastern Bloc, and led to the downfall of the Soviet Union. But with the defeats of movements opposed to both these statist régimes and the free market, the popular movements of 1989 are now used to prove there is no alternative to capitalism.
Here we present sections of a series of interviews with communists from the former Eastern Bloc focussing on the struggles of the time, what system really existed in the “communist” countries and what has happened to the working class over the last twenty years.
How do you evaluate the events of 1989-1991 in the USSR and Eastern Europe in light of the aspirations of the time?
Goran Markovic, Workers’ Communist Party of Bosnia (GM): These were revolutions against the corrupt system of the Soviet Union and its satellites which saw itself collapse because of its economic inefficiency and the inability of its ruling class to adapt to people’s needs and aspirations. The revolutions fought for more human rights, especially in the political sphere, and for better living conditions. Unfortunately, in many people’s minds, these revolutions were understood as anti-communist revolutions, which they objectively were not. They caused great damage to the communist idea, that is for sure, but they were not revolutions against a communist or socialist society, which never existed in Eastern Europe. However, it is quite sure that people who were drawn into these revolutions didn’t expect to achieve what happened later and what is still going on — crude neoliberal capitalism.
Roman, Vpered, Ukraine (RV): As far as ‘aspirations’ are concerned, I would not misrepresent facts and feelings if I said that people had been expecting a lot from independence and the ‘market economy’. They were enthusiastic and though it was a victory. They couldn’t imagine capitalism was so horrific. Many believe that the capitalism we have in Ukraine is ‘false’, ‘deformed’, and there is a ‘right’, ‘true’ capitalism awaiting us out there, which ‘we will build’ some lucky day. The financial crisis, economic depression and capitalism’s inability to make it good ought to sober them up.
Marxist Labour Party, Russia (MLP): It was an objective historical process, and, as this often happens, a dialectically contradictory one. It led to the destruction of much of the productive forces of the USSR, to the impoverishment of a large segment of the population of the country. At the same time, it destroyed the “Iron Curtain” and thus provided the inclusion of Russian and other post-Soviet economies into the mechanism of global productive forces. The events in the USSR of the late 80s and early 90s of the last century, up to the liquidation of the Soviet Union itself, signified the completion of the Russian bourgeois revolution “in the broad sense”. This revolution lasted for almost 100 years – 1905-1991/93.
Volodymyr Ischenko, c0-editor of Commons, Ukraine (VI): Was revolutionary action necessary or was it possible to push the Soviet nomenklatura to some progressive reforms? The answer to this question largely determines our attitude to the 1989 protests. With hindsight we can say that the 1990s neoliberal reforms were disastrous for the Ukrainian economy, culture and society in general. But should we consider the 1989 mass protests as just legitimating cover for privatising property by the part of the old Soviet elite? I would say no. Many people in Ukraine and in the USSR in general genuinely aspired towards some kind of democratic socialism with a “human face”, some even for a self-governing, libertarian socialism.
The Confederation of Anarcho-syndicalists was not a small organisation in the late 1980s and the first title of the People’s Movement of Ukraine (Narodnyi Rukh Ukrainy) was People’s Movement of Ukraine for Perestroika [restructuring]. It was a strategic mistake by this popular wing of the 1989 events that they were closely allied with the so called “democratic” part of the split nomenklatura.
But many — even great — revolutions were defeated because of the lack of independent revolutionary organisations and we cannot disdain them for this. 1989 was a victory and a defeat at the same time: the victory of the emerging elite of a peripheral capitalist society and a defeat of the movement for genuine socialism. It would be absurd to call what we have now in Ukraine “western-style capitalism”. It is not “western-style” but it is becoming more and more similar to colonial-style, Third World capitalism with huge inequalities, the predominance of low surplus-value export production and mass migration from impoverished regions to wealthier countries. But we should also understand that the basis for this was laid down much earlier in the Brezhnev period when the USSR integrated to the world economy primarily as a supplier of natural resources.
How would you characterise the society that existed before 1989-91, and is there any continuity between then and today?
MLP: In the USSR there existed a catch-up model of state capitalism. The temporarily nationalised property allowed the Soviet Union (Russia) and many other countries of the “socialist camp” to successfully overtake the developed countries, as well as to quickly eliminate vestiges of feudalism. Indeed, in the USSR there existed commodity-money relations, wage labour, classes and other attributes characteristic of the capitalist mode of production. The classics of Marxism maintained: where there is hired labour, it generates capital.
These notions are inseparably linked. The “socialist state” making investments in certain sectors of the national economy, like other capitalist countries, was in fact a capitalist society, in which the functions of private capitalists were performed by the bureaucratic bourgeoisie. This wasn’t, of course, a traditional capitalist society in the superstructure, but its basis was certainly a capitalist one.
It should be noted that Marx and Engels criticised the petty-bourgeois, bourgeois, state, etc. “socialisms”, which had no relation to the Marxist socialism. For all this the “state socialism” is a state capitalism in its essence. Today there exists in Russia a “normal” private-ownership capitalism, and Russia itself is an imperialist country of, so to speak, second order in contrast with the leading imperialist powers.
The continuity between the USSR and modern Russia is, first of all, in an enormous influence of the state bureaucracy on society, and in the absence of traditions of organised class struggle among Russian workers. The point is that in the Soviet Union this struggle, on the one hand, was forestalled by a wide range of social benefits and guarantees, and, on the other hand, if it occurred, it was severely suppressed by the repressive organs. The continuity also shows itself in the personal composition of the elite of society: many of the former party functionaries now occupy prominent positions in business and in the government bureaucracy.
Valeriy Predtechenskiy, Russia, (VP): Following the victory of Soviet Russia in the Civil War Lenin himself practically organised, and Stalin subsequently totalised, under the name of “socialism”, a state-capitalist phase in Russian capitalist development. .
A society with domination of state monopoly of the material means of production, the Soviet Union, represented the highest level of capitalist concentration of public material means of production in hands of the state – the state as a unitary capitalist, represented by the Politburo. There was a unitary system of forming the productive forces. All the sectors of the national economy were subordinated to a unitary state management. The population of the country was universally proletarianised in a unitary system of wage-labour.
When the USSR collapsed, the mode of production sharply fell down to small-scale commodity capitalism. Predatory types quickly embarked on looting, selling out and squandering the material wealth accumulated over the whole Soviet period.
At present, Russia is struggling to raise itself to the level of “civilised” sectoral monopolism (imperialism). However, this “rise” is again due to squandering its mineral wealth and in no way due to the development of the means of production. So Russia’s oligarchs, the richest billionaires are not a patch, as the saying goes, on their Western competitors as regards productivity levels.
Do you think the events of twenty years ago represent the historic triumph of capitalism and the defeat of communism?
GM: The events of twenty years ago cannot represent the historic defeat of communism because communism or socialism did not exist as a society in Eastern and Central Europe. It could be said that it was a historic defeat of bureaucratic collectivism in its Stalinist variant. On the other hand, these events were not the historic triumph of capitalism because one social system does not triumph if it overbears its alternative but if it is unable to solve contradictions on its own terrain. Capitalism proved unable to do that and that is why it cannot be seen as eternal social system.
Myroslav, Vpered, Ukraine (MV): Absolutely, There’s no doubt about it. We don’t think that the Soviet Union was communist but at the same there’s no doubt that the path we chose twenty years ago has turned out the worst social and economic scenario. The so-called ‘civilised world’ doesn’t need us. Our role is to be a buffer zone between Russia and the West, to supply cheap labour force and brains, and to be a sump for migrants. That’s it.
Borys Chervonyy, Ukrainian Left Party (BC): Surely, no. It was a defeat; but it was the defeat of Stalinism and the dictatorial system represented by it. It was a triumph, but it was a triumph of one part of the world capitalist system over the other.
What do you think the legacy of official and dissident communism is?
GM: Experiences of so-called communist regimes, on the one hand, and of communist movements which tended to liberate themselves from so-called official communism, on the other hand, give us plenty of useful conclusions. First of all, socialism cannot rest on the state, but on self-organised workers and citizens who govern the economy and the state by themselves, directly and through democratically elected delegates. Secondly, as each society, even a socialist one, is divided into different groups, with different interests and opinions, ideas of human rights, especially political liberties and political pluralism, are inseparably connected to socialism. Thirdly, there is no one group, even the communist party, that could claim to have a historic or any other right to be an a priori avant-garde and to have a special or privileged position in process of decision-making. The communist party is only one of many political and social organisations which is trying to persuade people in the correctness of its ideology, proposals and ultimate goals. Fourthly, the struggle for new, socialist society is in the first place struggle against the bourgeoisie and against the bureaucracy that has already been formed in the framework of the workers’ movement while still in opposition. There are two main means against the bureaucratisation of the workers’ movement and hence of socialist society: new forms of organisation and reliance on extra-parliamentary forms of activity
MLP:In the USSR this tradition was practically destroyed or it existed in the deep underground with no real influence upon social processes. Today there exist in Russia radical-communist organisations. But they have no serious influence due to the fact that the historical stage the country is experiencing is still far from the struggle for communism. Russia’s society is too consumer-bourgeois; there are almost no more or less large-scale sprouts of communist relations. Accordingly, there is no “demand” for communist activities…
VP: The legacy of official “communism” manifests itself in the propaganda for returning to the socialist system of the USSR. This is the common sin of all the present “communist” parties headed by the openly pro-bourgeois Communist Party of the Russian Federation. Dissident communists (of the left) define the socialist system of the USSR as a bourgeois one, state capitalism. However, there prevails the view of “backward state capitalism”. This opinion accentuates the fact that the USSR state monopolism used feudal forms of governing agriculture (restricting the possibility of persons to move) as well as the fact that the total state-capitalist neglected to provide the population with domestic appliances. I, personally, treat the USSR as an advanced state capitalism. After all, despite adverse natural conditions, it competed with the sectoral monopolies of the West, having been able to entirely control all branches of industry with the state. Even Hitler had never dreamt of that in Nazi Germany. And with us it was implemented relatively easily in the course of Stalinisation merely due to people’s hopes for the communism later to come. Today’s sectoral monopolism could not hope to generate such expectations.
Since the collapse of the USSR some in the left view America as the main imperialist power to be opposed, but do you think Russia is also imperialist?
GM: Russia is trying to recuperate from heavy economic, political and military blows it received during capitalist restoration. That is why it still cannot play the role of imperialist state it would like to. However, it is an imperialist state in its intentions and goals and therefore communists should not have any hopes in its role in international relations.
VI: Of course, instances of anti-American and “patriotic” rhetoric should not deceive the left. Definitely Putin’s Russia cannot be viewed as any kind of progressive or anti-imperialist regime even of the Chávez or Morales type. The Russian oligarchic elite is quite well embedded in transnational ruling class networks whilst revenues from natural resources export are not spent on education, public health or any kind of social infrastructure. Instead, Putin continued with neoliberal reforms reducing labour rights in the new Labour Code, privatising housing and the public sector. But at the same time Russia should not be demonised. In the same way as nationalist rhetoric is used in Russia for ruling class legitimacy, an opposing nationalist rhetoric is used in Ukraine shifting responsibility for all problems to Russia’s hostile policies and its “fifth column” in Ukraine. Appeals to Russian imperialism as the most dangerous threat for the Ukrainian nation has become a common way to justify even neofascist movements. It became clear when ultra-right activist Maksim Chaika was killed in Odessa this spring. Many mainstream journalists and even president Yushchenko himself presented him just as a “patriot”. Antifascists at the same time were deceitfully presented as “pro-Russian paramilitaries”
What is the current situation of the working class?
MLP: In general, the Russian workers are not yet organised into a class. The class’s trade unions are being created, but this is the exception rather than the rule. There is an understanding of their oppressed position. But the struggle against capitalists is mostly led spontaneously and individually — through courts, changing places of employment, primitive forms of sabotage. As for prospects for a way ahead, we see them in the interaction of the organised Russian workers, first of all, with the organised Western proletarians.
MV: The situation in Ukraine is extremely difficult. Firstly, the working class is not extant as a political subject. It can be explained by the fact that it exists as a ‘class in itself’. Secondly, the existent division of labour erodes the term and makes it uneconomic to organisationally revitalise it in the future. Thirdly, the mass media propaganda promoted by the ruling class (mostly by oligarchs) leaves no chance to produce an acceptable image of a worker, a producer who stands up to defend their rights. The consumer has taken over, a subject whose sense of life is determined by their ability to consume various goods of status, services, etc. Workers’ sporadic attempts to self-organise around trade unions and actions of disobedience return no results. The labour movement is not even in a preparatory stage.
How do you think genuine communists should organise and operate?
MLP: We hold that the development of the left is directly connected with the development of the proletarian movement. They are like a political superstructure over this movement. Accordingly, a reliable basis for the organisation of communists can be only in proletarian class organisations. And their formation and growth occur in the real class struggle, in which communists must occupy an important place as well. As for the organisation of the current work of communists, we believe that one must proceed from the real present-day situation. Today we are in need of an all-left information network based on the new advanced technologies, as well as joint actions. We try to work in these directions.
MV: The Communist Party of Ukraine represents the Ukrainian post-Stalinist left today. Chinese-type state capitalism is their ideological orientation point. That is why Stalinist views are nothing but part of their history and aesthetics. In fact, they try to follow the line of revisionists such as Deng Xiaoping.
It seems to me that most important is to revitalise class and ecological discourse in all forms, first of all in organisational forms. We must build an organisation that could start the holy class war. And there is an enemy: according to the statistics, 2% of the population own 90% of the national wealth in Ukraine. So it is pointless to talk consensus, rapport, national solidarity and other bourgeois lies. We have two options: the closing of channels of vertical mobility and solidification of the existing asymmetric social structure, similarly to what they have done in Latin America, or the gradual building of class muscles for the struggle in the future.
VI: We can take some important insights from Ukrainian Marxists about the past but we cannot copy their analysis, rhetoric and action if we are striking for mass working class support not limited to certain regions and subcultures.
This is true not only for the Ukrainian Marxist tradition but for other more internationally recognised left-wing schools of thought. The left has to reconstruct and develop its theory in close connection with emerging grassroots movements: working-class, urban, environmental… The left’s theory should be once again re-connected to practical mass struggle. The problems of grassroots movements’ strategy, organisation and mobilisation should be the primary issues for the left. Only in discussing and solving practical problems of progressive social change can we develop our theory further, making it more adequate to the task of changing objective reality. Another problem is that the Ukrainian left should be more aware and connected to debates and struggles in global anticapitalist movements, learning its lessons and taking on inspiring examples and models of organisation.
What do you think real communism means today?
GM: For most people, communism means concentration camps, lack of democracy, inefficient economy, ideological indoctrination, even hunger, like in North Korea, etc. However, real communism does not have anything to do with these features and with societies where these things happened. Real communism means an end of economic exploitation and political domination. It means an end to the division of society into elite and masses. It means self-organisation and self-activity of all members of society who wish to be active participants of processes of decision-making, with almost limitless pluralism of organisations, opinions and activities of different subjects who do not oppress each other. It is a society based on social ownership and self-management, economically self-sustainable so that it guarantees free and universal health care, education, access to culture, without unemployment and with possibilities to its members to cultivate themselves as full persons.
VI: I do not dare to give exhaustive definitions of what real communism could mean today. But what is most important is that real communism now must be with the masses and for the masses. It is definitely not another subculture or chat room for a handful of freaks pretending to be a “real vanguard” just because they have read a few more 100 or 150-year-old books.
VP: Today the concept of “real communism” is interpreted by many as Stalinist socialism, but in a philistine manner — “with a human face”. i.e. meaning state monopolism without totalitarian repression i.e. utopia. Moreover, the versions of such utopian constructions are as numerous as their authors: you cannot count them. Whereas the real (true) concept of the real (true) communism, even according to the most simple and primitive logic, should be determined as the highest scientific achievement of humanity in its social structure.
Real communism represents primitive communism, but at the highest level of social development, using all the best in the achievements of humanity. The modern, social notion of “gens” is objectively, economically represented by the work collective of an enterprise. If the ownership of the workforce and production technologies is transferred into the hands of this collective body, then we get a self-reproducing, and self-governing collectivity — a gens — of a new, civilised generation, i.e., using modern language, a commune, a production and reproduction social cell.
BC: I think real communism means a classless and stateless self-managed society based on the principles of collective ownership of the means of production and distribution, and an economy which is oriented not for the market, but for real human needs. Communism will abolish all forms of oppression; and will see the realisation of the idea of liberation in all its forms. Communism can come only from below, via diverse forms of workers’ self organisation.