Nick Beams, national secretary of the Socialist Labour League, Australian section of the International Committee of the Fourth International, visited the Soviet Union for two weeks in October 1990. He spoke to workers, youth and students in Moscow, Lvov and Kiev. This report consists of a lecture given by Beams to first-year education students studying English at the Pedagogical Foreign Language Institute in Kiev.
I would like to thank you for organizing this meeting.
It is a historic occasion that a member of the world Trotskyist movement can address a meeting of Soviet youth. It is indeed a bitter irony of history that in no country has revolutionary Marxism been more suppressed than in this one.
But, as Trotsky always explained, the laws of history are stronger than the bureaucratic apparatus.
So despite all the efforts of the bureaucracy at suppressing the ideas and program of Trotskyism, they are cutting a path for themselves to the Soviet workers and youth.
I want to speak today on how our party views the crisis in the Soviet Union and the program we put forward to resolve it.
But in order to discuss the present and the future, we have to discuss and analyze the past.
That is, any perspective must be based on a historical perspective.
Furthermore, the fate of the Soviet Union will not be decided in these borders alone. On the contrary, as our movement has always insisted, the fate of the Soviet Union is bound up with the struggles of the international working class.
We cannot understand any of the issues in the Soviet Union today unless we understand the great event which gave birth to her—the October Revolution of 1917.
This was not a purely Russian event. It represented, as Lenin and Trotsky explained, the opening shot of the world revolution. The revolution could not be completed within the national borders of the Soviet Union, but only through its extension on an international scale.
In fact, the revolution itself arose from the revolt of the productive forces developed under capitalism against not only bourgeois property, but also against the nation-state system. This historic crisis is what lay at the basis of World War I—a war fought by the imperialist powers for the redivision of the world market.
The first imperialist war signified the end of the progressive period of capitalist development—that period of history stretching from the peasants revolt of 1381 through to the Reformation, the English Revolution of 1640-49, the French Revolution of 1789-94 and the formation of the capitalist nation-states in the nineteenth century had come to an end. A new historical epoch had opened up: the period of imperialism and world socialist revolution.
The war represented the beginning of the death agony of capitalism; the October Revolution, the first step on the next stage of historical development.
Lenin and Trotsky based their entire perspective on the world socialist revolution.
The Mensheviks proclaimed the taking of power in October 1917 to be a putsch by the Bolsheviks at the head of rabble.
It was not possible to take power, they maintained, because Russia was not ripe for socialism.
This was true. But while Russia was not ripe for socialism, the world capitalist system as a whole certainly was—that was the historical significance of the war.
The productive forces of capitalism had outgrown the nation-state framework. Their further development lay in the establishment of socialism.
Furthermore, as far as Russia was concerned, the path of capitalist development which had been taken by Britain, France and the other European powers was closed off. Arriving too late on the scene of the bourgeois revolution, she had to go over to the socialist revolution—the conquest of power by the proletariat.
So far were they from the perspective of socialism in one country that Lenin and all the Bolshevik leaders, including Joseph Stalin, insisted that without the extension of the revolution on an international scale, the Soviet Union would perish.
It failed to do so—above all, because of the betrayals by the social democratic leaders of the working class.
In January, the social democrats in Germany, thrust into power by the proletariat in the November 1918 revolution, handed power back to the bourgeoisie and then caused the murder of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht.
Be aware that all those today who call themselves social democrats are placing themselves in this reactionary tradition.
The state which issued from the October Revolution was of a contradictory character. It was socialist to the extent that it defended the property relations established by the October Revolution. But while the legal framework for socialism had been established—the foundations for socialism had been set in place—the state which was established was far from socialist.
Indeed, because of the poverty and backwardness of the productive forces, the state which issued from the revolution defended bourgeois forms of distribution.
Distribution of the goods of society was not carried out according to a socialist norm, but by means of the wage system—according to a capitalist measure of value. There is no sense of condemnation in this analysis—it was an inevitable consequence of the low level of the development of the productive forces.
Here we come to a crucial point in the analysis of the bureaucracy. It arose as a bourgeois organ within the workers state, as a policeman of inequality.
This bureaucracy decided on the distribution of the goods produced by the nationalized means of production. And it took care to ensure that a larger portion went on to its own plate.
We have revealed here the social origins of the bureaucracy arising from the contradictions of the first workers state.
But it would be very wrong to conclude from this that the usurpation of political power by this bureaucracy was somehow an inevitable process. It was not. It was a product of the defeats suffered by the working class on an international scale. The defeat of the German revolution, coming as it did after six years of the most desperate struggle by the Soviet proletariat, struck a cruel blow.
The prospects of international socialist revolution faded into the more distant future. The setbacks to the proletariat on an international scale were the chief causes of the backsliding in the Soviet Union.
In 1924—a year after the defeat of the German proletariat—Stalin unveiled his theory of “socialism in one country.”
Four years later this perspective, which broke completely from the program of revolutionary Marxism, was to become mandatory for all the sections of the Communist International.
“Socialism in one country” had its material roots in the rising bureaucracy.
Before the perspective had been, “Everything for the world revolution.” Now the bureaucracy decided, “Not everything for the world revolution, something for me too.”
Here we have a profound process of cause and effect. In the first place, the rise of the bureaucracy came about from the isolation of the first workers state. Now its policies were strengthening that isolation, producing defeats in Britain, Spain and France.
At first, these policies were mistakes, but by the 1930s counterrevolution was the conscious policy of the bureaucracy. It feared the extension of the revolution and new conquests by the international proletariat because it understood only too well that such a development would lead to the revival of the Soviet working class.
If the workers of the West overthrew the bourgeoisie, then the Soviet workers would overturn the rising parasite which sat on their shoulders.
The development of the bureaucracy and ultimately its monopolization of political power began to change the nature of the Soviet state.
The means of production were still owned by the state and the state itself was more and more owned by the bureaucracy. Trotsky explained in The Revolution Betrayed that this constituted the greatest danger for the Soviet regime.
The bureaucracy would be compelled to develop new property forms, to transform itself from a parasitic ruling caste into a fully fledged property-owning ruling class.
This is what is taking place. The various plans of Ryzhkov, Gorbachev, Yeltsin and Shatalin are all aimed at the restoration of capitalism in the USSR and the overturn of the gains of the October Revolution.
This does not represent some break from Stalinism, but is its logical outcome. The emergence of the bureaucracy, and its usurpation of political power from the working class, was the first step on the road to capitalist restoration. More than 50 years ago in the Transitional Program, Trotsky wrote that the Stalinist bureaucracy, functioning more and more openly as the agent of the world bourgeoisie, would move to overturn nationalized property in the name of “Western civilization.” This is exactly the course being taken under Gorbachev.
In order to carry this out, the bureaucracy is attempting to create a panic aimed at convincing people that there is no alternative but to turn to the market.
All sorts of reasons are advanced for the crisis in the Soviet economy—it is the failure of centralized planning, state ownership of property means, according to Gorbachev, that the people are alienated, the development of human personality is inseparable from capitalist property, only with private ownership can technology be developed.
And of course, there is a continuous campaign to present capitalism in the West as providing thriving democracies in which the working class enjoys a continuous rise in living standards.
What is the real reason for the crisis in the Soviet Union? It lies in its isolation from the international division of labor. The crisis of the Soviet economy resides in the fact that it is denied access to the resources of the world economy.
To a certain extent it was possible to make developments in the economy in the 1930s and in the period of postwar reconstruction. The enormous gains are testimony to the superiority of nationalized property. But the more developed the economy has become, the more it can only develop as an integrated component of world economy.
This gap between the productivity of labor in the Soviet Union and the West has been widened by revolutionary developments in computerized methods of production over the past 15 years.
This development has now brought about a truly international manufacturing system, in which processes which formerly were perhaps concentrated under one roof are now carried out in different countries and on different continents. The effect of this specialization has been to raise the productivity of labor.
Here lies the reason for the crisis of the Soviet Union—the crisis signifies not the collapse of socialism, but the complete bankruptcy of the reactionary nationalist theory of “socialism in one country.”
The economy of the Soviet Union must be integrated into the world economy. This can take place in one of two ways: either through the restoration of capitalism in the USSR or through the extension of the revolution to the West.
Let us take the first perspective. The proponents of the various plans try to put forward that the market means the path to prosperity and democracy, with some possible problems at the beginning.
These people try to cover up the fact that the market is not some mutual benefit society, but the arena for the most vicious struggle between capitalist owners. The aim and the logic of competition is to force your rival out of business and establish a monopoly.
Where does this leave the Soviet Union? Vast areas of industry opened up to the market will be devastated. Already, according to the Shatalin plan, as many as 40 million people will be made unemployed. Such a regime of misery cannot in any way be imposed peacefully. The introduction of the market will not lead to some kind of garden of Eden of democracy, but to the most brutal regimes. If you want some idea of what is coming, look back to what was in the past.
What then are the prospects for the second alternative, socialist revolution—the extension of the October Revolution? If you were to believe the propaganda pouring from the ideologists of the market, then the prospects would indeed appear to be quite hopeless.
But the drive to capitalist restoration coincides with a deepening crisis of world capitalism. We have said that the crisis of the Soviet Union is rooted in the gap between the productivity of labor in the USSR and that of the West.
But the development of the productive forces in the West—the internationalization of all aspects of production—has once again run into the historical barrier of the nation-state system. Twice in this century, the major imperialist powers have gone to war to re-divide the world market.
Now the postwar order has collapsed and the conflicts between the imperialist powers have intensified. On October 3 there took place the German reunification. Bush was markedly absent. Rivalry between the US and Japan is deepening. The world is splitting along the lines of the last war, Germany versus the United States versus Japan.
Far from the end of the cold war bringing some new era of peace and prosperity, it has seen the eruption of all the conflicts.
This is the meaning of the US intervention against Iraq. Far from representing a “new world order,” it signifies a return to the old world order.
The imperialist powers rush to the Middle East to try to ensure their interest in a new carve-up of the region.
US imperialism has exerted its military might to try to reassert its dominance over its rivals. Having lost its economic hegemony, it seeks to retain its position through the exercise of military strength.
That is the relation between the imperialist powers. What of the relations between the classes? Contrary to the picture painted here of a social peace in the West, there is in fact an intensification of the class struggle.
The past 10 years in every capitalist country have seen intensified attacks on the workers movement.
The old programs of social reformism promoted by the labor bureaucracies—like the program of “socialism in one country” in the USSR—have collapsed. In every country workers’ living standards are being forced down, social gains smashed up on the basis that only in this way can “international competitiveness” be maintained.
In other words, the struggle of the market reaches its highest expression in imperialist war on the one hand, and class war against the working class on the other.
Let me give you a couple of examples. In Australia we now have a situation where the right to strike has virtually been wiped out. Ordinary workers face the prospect of being sued for millions of dollars in damages if they take strike action.
In the US, real wages for workers in the 1980s have declined by 12 percent. Since the smashing of the air traffic controllers strike, one strike after another has been smashed, with the AFL-CIO bureaucracy working hand in glove with the government and its employers.
Far from some capitalist stability, what we are about to see in the West is a new period of struggles.
I want to stress this. There is a profound connection between the crisis in the Soviet Union and the crisis in the labor movement in the West.
The contradiction between the world economy as a whole and the outmoded nation-state system is expressed above all in the collapse of all those programs based on nationalism.
The only way forward is the unification of the struggle of the working class in the world socialist revolution.
This by no means implies that nothing can be done in the Soviet Union until the world revolution arrives. On the contrary, the most active struggle must be pursued. The way to the resolution of the economic crisis is the overthrow of the Stalinist bureaucracy.
The ideologists for the bureaucracy maintain there is no alternative to the market. There is. What is required is a revolutionary struggle to overthrow the bureaucracy by means of apolitical revolution.
We are told that planning has failed. Examine this assertion. Planning, the conscious control of the economy, requires the provision of accurate information. This is completely incompatible with the existence of a bureaucratic regime, which works to hide how much it is taking from the economy.
Planning requires the widest democracy of producers and consumers to check the plan, to criticize it, to modify it, to devise new plans if necessary. Again, all this is completely incompatible with a bureaucratic regime.
Soviet democracy—the overthrow of the bureaucracy—this is the political precondition for a scientific accounting of the real resources of the country and the development of scientific planning.
In conclusion, I want to say that the most decisive question of all is the building of an international revolutionary party.
That party is the Fourth International, led today by the International Committee.
It has withstood the test of time, its analysis has been vindicated by events. The next period, we firmly believe, will be the era of the Fourth International and we look forward to the construction of a Soviet section.