Socialist Equality Party (United States)
The Historical and International Foundations of the Socialist Equality Party (United States)

Perestroika and Glasnost in the USSR

The struggle within the International Committee between 1982 and 1986 took place against the backdrop of a deepening crisis in the Soviet Union and its Stalinist regime. The development of this crisis arose, paradoxically, from the immense growth of the Soviet economy in the aftermath of World War II. This expansion further eroded the viability of the national autarkic economic policies based on the Stalinist perspective of “socialism in one country.” The increasing complexity of the Soviet economy posed with ever-greater urgency the need for access to the world economy and its international division of labor. The mounting economic problems of the USSR, particularly as the rate of world economic growth began to decline from the generally high levels of the first two decades after 1945, were exacerbated by the gross inefficiencies of the bureaucratically-managed system, which made a mockery of the claims to scientific planning. As Trotsky had insisted in 1936, quality in a planned economy “demands democracy of producers and consumers, freedom of criticism and initiative—conditions incompatible with a totalitarian regime of fear, lies and flattery.”[1] Trotsky had also noted in 1935, “The more complex the economic tasks become, the greater the demands and interests of the population become, all the more sharp becomes the contradiction between the bureaucratic regime and the demands of socialist development.”[2] The contradiction between the political and social interests of the bureaucracy and the objective requirements of economic development found particularly grotesque expression in the regime’s morbid fear of computer technology. In a country whose citizens were required to register all typewriters and mimeograph machines, the Stalinist authorities were terrified by the political implications of the widespread use of computers.

Opposition to the Stalinist regimes in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe rose steadily throughout the 1960s and 1970s. There were reports of major strikes in the Soviet industrial city of Novocherkassk that were suppressed violently by the army in June 1962. The sudden removal of Khrushchev from power in October 1964, his replacement by Leonid Brezhnev, and the clamp-down on the post-1953 de-Stalinization campaigns were a desperate attempt to uphold the political legitimacy of the regime. The trial and imprisonment of the writers Yuli Daniel and Andrei Sinyavsky, aimed at intimidating the growing dissident movement, served to discredit the regime, as did the later exile of Alexander Solzhenitsyn. The coming to power of Alexander Dubcek in Czechoslovakia in January 1968, the so-called “Prague Spring,” further frightened the Soviet bureaucracy. The subsequent invasion of Czechoslovakia in August 1968 and Dubcek’s removal from power deepened the alienation of significant sections of the working class and intelligentsia in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe who had believed in the possibility of reforms of a democratic and socialistic character. In 1970, mass strikes in Poland brought down the regime of Gomulka—who had himself risen to power amidst mass protests in 1956. In the face of these challenges, Brezhnev sought to assert a Stalinist orthodoxy that imparted to his regime an utterly sclerotic character. Significantly, this period was also one that saw the flowering of “détente” between the Soviet Union and the United States—a process that came to an end in the late 1970s when the Carter administration shifted toward a more confrontational policy, which was further developed by the Reagan administration.

By the time Brezhnev died in November 1982, the regime could no longer conceal the signs of serious economic crisis and general social stagnation. Significant sections of the Soviet bureaucracy saw the emergence of the mass Solidarity movement in Poland in 1980 as a warning that a revolutionary explosion was possible within the USSR itself. Brezhnev’s replacement, the KGB director Yuri Andropov, sought to implement various anti-corruption reforms to rebuild the credibility of the regime. He also instituted a crackdown on alcoholism with the hope that this would increase the productivity of Soviet industry. But these measures were mere palliatives. The basic problem remained the nationally shut-in character of the Soviet economy. At any rate, Andropov, who was seriously ill when he came to power, died of kidney disease in February 1984, just 15 months after assuming office. His replacement, Konstantin Chernenko, was another terminally ill Soviet bureaucrat. He lasted only 13 months. Chernenko was succeeded by Mikhail Gorbachev, whose crisis-ridden regime ended with the dissolution of the USSR.

Gorbachev initiated a twin policy of limited expansion of domestic freedoms (glasnost) and economic reforms (perestroika). The central aim of the section of the bureaucracy led by Gorbachev was to channel the mass opposition that existed within the Soviet population behind policies that would restore capitalism. Gorbachev was relying on the disorientation of workers produced by decades of Stalinist rule. He also counted on political support from the petty-bourgeois radical left. This was the only political calculation in which Gorbachev demonstrated an appreciable degree of astuteness. Nowhere did the phenomenon, which the bourgeois press dubbed “Gorbymania,” find such unrestrained expression as it did within the milieu of the left petty bourgeoisie. Ernest Mandel, seeing in Gorbachev the apotheosis of the Pabloite perspective of bureaucratic self-reform, proclaimed him to be “a remarkable political leader,” a Soviet version of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.[3] Peering into the future through rose-tinged spectacles, Mandel outlined four plausible scenarios of Soviet development. Not one of these included the possibility of the dissolution of the USSR—an extraordinary oversight for an author writing only two years before its final collapse!

Mandel’s disciple, Tariq Ali, the leader of the Pabloite organization in Britain, could not contain his enthusiasm for perestroika and its initiators. He dedicated his book, Revolution From Above: Where Is the Soviet Union Going?, published in 1988, to Boris Yeltsin. His moving tribute declared that Yeltsin’s “political courage has made him an important symbol throughout the country.”[4] Ali, describing his visits to the Soviet Union, informed his readers that “I felt really at home.”[5] The policies of Gorbachev had initiated the revolutionary transformation of Russian society from above, Ali asserted. There were those, he noted cynically, who “would have preferred (me too!) if the changes in the Soviet Union had been brought about by a gigantic movement of the Soviet working class and revived the old organs of political power—the soviets—with new blood. That would have been very nice, but it didn’t happen that way.”[6] Ali then offered a succinct summary of the Pabloite perspective, which combined in equal measures political impressionism, naiveté, and personal stupidity:

Revolution From Above argues that Gorbachev represents a progressive, reformist current within the Soviet elite, whose programme, if successful, would represent an enormous gain for socialists and democrats on a world scale. The scale of Gorbachev’s operation is, in fact, reminiscent of the efforts of an American President of the nineteenth century: Abraham Lincoln.[7]

The appraisal of the Gorbachev regime by the ex-Trotskyists of the Workers Revolutionary Party was no less uncritical. Healy declared that Gorbachev was leading the political revolution in the Soviet Union. For Banda, the accession of Gorbachev represented the final refutation of Trotskyism. “If restoration didn’t exist,” he declared, ” it would be absolutely necessary for Trotsky to invent it! The whole of Soviet history—during and after Stalin—testifies against this infantile leftist speculation and points in the opposite direction.”[8]

In opposition to these conceptions, the ICFI explained, as early as 1986, the fundamentally reactionary character of Gorbachev’s economic policies. In its 1988 perspectives document, it wrote:

As he seeks to implement his reactionary perestroika, Gorbachev implicitly concedes the failure of all the economic premises upon which Stalinism was based, i.e., that socialism could be built in a single county. The very real crisis of the Soviet economy is rooted in its enforced isolation from the resources of the world market and the international division of labor. There are only two ways this crisis can be tackled. The way proposed by Gorbachev involves the dismantling of state industry, the renunciation of the planning principle, and the abandonment of the state monopoly on foreign trade, i.e., the reintegration of the Soviet Union into the structure of world imperialism. The alternative to this reactionary solution requires the smashing of imperialism’s domination over the world economy by linking up the Soviet and international working class in a revolutionary offensive aimed at extending the planned economy into the European, North American and Asian citadels of capitalism.[9]

The glasnost reforms and the loosening of restrictions on censorship opened the floodgates for discussion in the Soviet Union on political and historical questions. The bureaucracy retroactively “rehabilitated” many of the old Bolsheviks, including Bukharin, Zinoviev and Kamenev, and was forced to acknowledge that the Moscow trials were based on lies. However, the bureaucracy could never rehabilitate Trotsky, since his criticisms attacked the social interests of the bureaucracy as a whole. If these ideas were to achieve a wide hearing in the Soviet working class, it would severely threaten the plans of capitalist restoration. In 1987, Gorbachev insisted that Trotsky’s ideas were “essentially an attack on Leninism all down the line.”

The ICFI sought to bring the perspective of Trotskyism to the Soviet population, publishing a theoretical journal in Russian and organizing several trips to the Soviet Union between 1989 and 1991. Its work focused on clarifying the place of Trotsky in the October Revolution, the origins and significance of Trotsky’s struggle against Stalinism, the political program of the Fourth International, and the nature of the crisis confronting the Soviet Union. The ICFI repeatedly warned that the liquidation of the USSR and the restoration of capitalism would have catastrophic consequences for the Soviet working class. Speaking in Kiev in October 1991, David North explained:

...In this country, capitalist restoration can only take place on the basis of the widespread destruction of the already-existing productive forces and the social-cultural institutions that depend upon them. In other words, the integration of the USSR into the structure of the world imperialist economy on a capitalist basis, means not the slow development of a backward national economy, but the rapid destruction of one which has sustained living conditions that are, at least for the working class, far closer to those which exist in the advanced countries than in the third world. When one examines the various schemes hatched by the proponents of capitalist restoration, one cannot but conclude that they are no less ignorant than Stalin of the real workings of the world capitalist economy. And they are preparing the ground for a social tragedy that will eclipse that produced by the pragmatic and nationalistic policies of Stalin.

This is not a theoretical projection: rather the future which threatens the USSR is the present reality in much of Eastern Europe. In all the countries where capitalism has been or is in the process of being restored, the result has been a catastrophic collapse of the national economy.[10]

These warnings were completely vindicated by the actual course of events following the dissolution of the Soviet Union in December 1991.


Leon Trotsky, Revolution Betrayed, p. 235.


“The Workers' State, Thermidor, and Bonapartism” in Writings of Leon Trotsky 1934-35 (New York: Pathfinder, 2002) p. 246.


Beyond Perestroika: The Future of Gorbachev’s USSR (London: Verso, 1989), p. xi.


Tariq Ali, Revolution From Above: Where Is the Soviet Union Going? (London: Hutchinson, 1988), p. vi.


Ibid., p. xi.


Ibid., p. xii.


Ibid., p. xiii.


Cited in The Heritage We Defend, p. 498.


The World Capitalist Crisis and the Tasks of the Fourth International, pp. 30-31.


“After the August Putsch: Soviet Union at the Crossroads” in The Fourth International, Volume 19, No. 1 [Fall-Winter 1992], p. 109.