International Committee of the Fourth International
Fourth International 1991: Oppose imperialist war and colonialism!

Behind the Election of Boris Yeltsin

This “Bulletin” editorial originally appeared in the June 21, 1991 issue

The arrival in Washington of Boris Yeltsin, the newly elected president of the Russian Republic of the Soviet Union, has been the occasion for celebration in the capitalist media and among the political representatives of the American ruling class. Yeltsin’s victory is hailed as the triumph of democracy or even a “new revolution” in the Soviet Union, and he is routinely described as the “elected anticommunist leader of Russia.”

Yeltsin’s election by a 57 percent majority last week was a clear expression of the hatred and contempt of the masses for the ruling Stalinist bureaucracy, which they hold responsible for the devastation of living standards and increasing sabotage of the Soviet economy. At the same time, it underscores the acute dangers which face the Soviet working class in the absence of a revolutionary proletarian leadership.

The claim that this election represents a revival of Soviet democracy is a patent fraud. Few of the bourgeois commentators bother themselves with the fact that Yeltsin engineered the vote, creating the office of a Russian presidency, precisely in order to assume Bonapartist powers in his own hands enabling him to rule by decree and to turn the Russian parliament into a powerless talkshop.

As for his being an “anticommunist,” this is certainly true in the same sense that the term applies to every representative of the privileged bureaucratic caste which emerged under the leadership of Stalin in the 1920s, usurped the political power of the working class, smashed Soviet democracy and ruthlessly exterminated the generation of Bolsheviks who had led the 1917 October Revolution.

Yeltsin was a high-ranking member of the ruling bureaucracy for many decades. He was personally appointed as the Stalinist boss of the key military-industrial region of Sverdlovsk by Leonid Brezhnev. For two years after Gorbachev’s rise to the position of secretary general of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, Yeltsin served as one of his principal advisers and a member of the Politburo.

Only after his removal from the Politburo in October 1987, following a clash within the Kremlin hierarchy, did Yeltsin reemerge as a “radical” opponent of “bureaucracy,” or, more precisely, an advocate of rapidly smashing up what remains of central planning and nationalized economy and subordinating the USSR directly to the dictates of the world capitalist market.

Yeltsin’s conversion from Stalinist party boss to a champion of the “free market” represents not so much a break with the past as the logical culmination of the counterrevolutionary policy of Stalinism, which emerged as a political reaction to the October Revolution of 1917.

In reality, the differences between Yeltsin and Gorbachev or, for that matter, Nikolai Ryzhkov, his main opponent in the Russian presidential election, are insignificant. They all agree on the need to establish a “free market” economy. Their dispute is purely a tactical one, centered on the question of tempo and on how the spoils to be created through the looting of the state property are to be divided up. All of them are driven by their fear of the Soviet working class.

The only “democratic” credentials which the spokesmen of the imperialist bourgeoisie concern themselves with in evaluating Boris Yeltsin is his program for the wholesale privatization of state enterprises, the selling off of vital resources for Western bank credits and the transformation of the Russian Republic into one giant free enterprise zone for foreign capital.

The conception that such a transformation will be carried out democratically or will give rise to a flowering of democratic rights for the masses of Soviet workers is utterly fraudulent. In Eastern Europe, where the drive to capitalist restoration is far more advanced, even the bourgeois media is having to acknowledge that this has meant a drastic attack on the living standards and conditions of the masses of workers. The results have been the continuing destruction of the industrial infrastructure and the systematic dismantling of the social and cultural benefits which the working class won in struggle against the bureaucracy.

In Hungary, for example, the inflation rate is running at 35 percent, and more than 300,000 workers are expected to be jobless by the end of the year as one enterprise after another collapses. Following the program of the International Monetary Fund, the government has slashed subsidies and allowed prices to soar, making it impossible for many to live, while a thin layer of ex-bureaucrats and aspiring bourgeois enrich themselves off the destruction of the planned economy. The Associated Press graphically described this social polarization in a report from Hungary last week:

“In Budapest, for example, pensioners scavenge garbage for empty bottles worth a few forints if returned to the store. Hungarian unemployment is 3.4 percent and rising fast, and prices are jumping more than a third each year.

“Yet ownership of luxury cars like German BMWs is visibly up and Western products are sold in 24-hour stores. The chic Hungarians who crowded the recent opening of Budapest’s Christian Dior could make any Westerner feel frumpy.”

Likewise in Poland prices are soaring and there has been a 40 percent drop in industrial production reported in the first quarter of 1991 compared with last year. In response to the growing opposition of the working class, Polish President Lech Walesa has demanded the power to rule by decree and declared that he will require “authoritarian” means to impose his government’s program.

The drive to capitalist restoration in the Soviet Union, whether it is led by Mikhail Gorbachev, Boris Yeltsin or some other counterrevolutionary representative of the bureaucracy, will be carried out on the backs of the workers. It can only be realized by means of civil war and dictatorship. Yeltsin’s trip to Washington, just as the planned talks between Gorbachev and the Group of Seven in London next month, is aimed at mobilizing imperialist support for such a transformation. Above all, they seek world imperialism’s collaboration in suppressing what they know will be massive opposition within the Soviet working class to what can only be a horrific decline in its social conditions.

Genuine democratic control over the economy and state and their reorganization to serve the interests of the vast majority of the Soviet population—rather than the privileged bureaucratic caste and the grasping layer of aspiring capitalists which it has spawned—will be achieved not through the machinations of demagogues like Yeltsin, but only through the independent mobilization of the working class against the bureaucracy as a whole. This must take the form of creating genuine workers soviets, like those set up by the working class in 1905 and 1917, to mobilize the masses in a political revolution, based on an international socialist program, to overthrow the bureaucracy.

For this struggle, the Soviet working class requires above all a new revolutionary leadership, based on the continuity of the struggle for the genuine international Marxism of Lenin and Trotsky. Such a party must be built as the Soviet section of the International Committee of the Fourth International.