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Proletarian issue 76 (February 2017)
What did the collapse of the USSR mean to us?
In this centenary year of the Great October Socialist Revolution, it is timely not only to look at the great achievements of the Soviet people and their ramifications for workers everywhere, but also to examine the consequences of the defeat that our movement suffered when Soviet socialism collapsed.
It is often explained by members of our party that the destruction of independent Russia or China (whose resources and people are to some extent protected from rampant superexploitation by imperialism and whose existence offers the possibility of an alternative to economic and military domination for small and weak nations) would give a new lease of life to the failing imperialist system and would therefore set back the movement to overthrow the senile rule of British capital by decades.

For proof of this argument, one has only to look at the shot in the arm that was given to the imperialist system in general and to US imperialism in particular by the collapse of the east and central European people’s democracies and of the Soviet Union in the period 1989-91. A huge territory whose labour and resources had previously been off limits to the world’s superexploiters suddenly fell into their laps, and the result was that the post-WW2 overproduction crisis that had already taken a firm hold on the capitalist world economy was temporarily offset by the opening up of vast new markets and of immense opportunities for plunder and exploitation, all of which were eagerly pounced on.

Economic crisis put on hold ... for a while

That the economic crisis of overproduction was already well advanced in 1990 was evidenced by the tearing up of the Keynesian consensus (whereby the ruling class agreed to the provision of a welfare state to pacify the working class and stave off the spread of revolution to Britain after WW2) in the late 1970s. This period of concessions to British workers was replaced by a new, far more confrontational approach to class contradictions, in which a determination to make sure that workers should carry the brunt of the crisis so that their capitalist masters could weather the storm took precedence. This new era was characterised by the cuts, privatisations and mass industrial lay-offs that have (in Britain, at least) become synonymous with the name of Margaret Thatcher, the ruling class’s chosen front (axe) woman of the time.

Alongside the industrial and social unrest that accompanied this wholesale attack on the jobs, homes, pay and living conditions of the working class, the crisis was also evident in Britain in the property bubble of the late-1980s (speculation in the housing market becoming rampant with the sell-off of social housing), in economic shocks such as 1987’s Black Monday (which wiped a record £50bn off the value of the London stock exchange), and in the dramatic deregulation of the financial sector, which facilitated the ruling class’s turn to gambling and speculation as productive avenues for investing capital were drying up. Following deregulation, hard-pressed British workers were galled to witness the rise of the ‘city boys’, whose brashly individualistic attitudes became a byword for the times as they gaily creamed off huge commissions for their role in facilitating the global casino of imperialist loot that is hosted in the City of London’s infamous banking ‘square mile’.

The imperialists were temporarily rescued from the predicament of the deepening and insoluble crisis of their system by the opportunities for profit-taking that opened up to them when the USSR and the European socialist countries collapsed. More than that: the US found itself in the much longed-for position of being the world’s only superpower, and lost no time in doing what it could to extend its military hegemony to every corner of the globe, in the hopes that it could thus shore up its flagging economic power.

Accelerated drive for domination

The first Iraq war was launched as soon as it was evident that the Soviet Union was tottering, and was followed by a bloody succession of direct wars and occupations and indirect proxy invasions all over the world. The Project for the New American Century (PNAC), a US think tank formed in 1997, expressed this new belligerence with chilling clarity, stressing its belief in the need for US imperialism to concentrate on using overwhelmingly military means in order to extend its control over the world.

The PNAC claimed with supreme arrogance that ‘American leadership [ie, domination] is good both for America and for the world’, and said that it was now the US’s main task to ‘shape a new century favourable to American principles and interests’ – that is, to obliterate any and all opposition to the onward march of free-market fundamentalism as espoused by the US imperialist ruling class. Main movers behind the push for regime-change wars in the middle east and Africa such as Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz, Donald Rumsfeld and John Bolton were core members of the PNAC.

Moreover, backed up by their newfound economic and military strength, and with socialism apparently failing, the imperialists felt emboldened to go on a huge propaganda offensive. As bourgeois ideologists like Francis Fukuyama proclaimed the ‘end of history’ and crowed that, after all, capitalism and not communism was mankind’s final destination, the undefended working-class and nation-liberation movements were forced onto the defensive.

Already ideologically disarmed by decades of Khrushchevite revisionism, and dwindling in numbers and determination as a result, the communists in most parts of the world simply did not have the strength to mount a serious opposition to the bourgeoisie’s seeming victory on all fronts. Hence the notorious decision of Britain’s once-proud (but by that time totally degenerate) communist party (CPGB) to dissolve itself in 1991, having proclaimed the October Revolution of 1917 to have been a ‘mistake of historic proportions’! (This remark has been attributed to Chris Myant, international secretary of the CPGB at the time, in connection with the occasion of its dissolution.)

Of course, it was no such thing, and it is the Fukuyamas and the revisionist cowards and renegades who have egg on their faces now, as the temporary respite that was granted to the global capitalist system has run its course, and humanity finds itself once more mired in a capitalist overproduction crisis that is deeper and more profound even than that which preceded the second world war.

The human cost

In the meantime, the working class and oppressed peoples of the world have suffered immeasurably in the 26 years since the Soviet Union collapsed. The world has been quite literally drenched in blood and flooded with desperate refugees as a result of the rampant warmongering that was let loose in 1991, with casualties in unnumbered millions globally and with many millions more lives destroyed in the wake of sanctions, bombings and other such means of bringing what the PNAC termed ‘political and economic freedoms’.

In this context, the countries and movements around the world that still held on to an anti-imperialist or socialist orientation were forced to adjust their tactics to the new reality. These were the conditions that gave rise to the ‘truth and reconciliation’ process in South Africa (as opposed to trials for the criminals who had run the Apartheid system and routinely repressed and massacred the country’s black population) and in which the ANC felt compelled to step back from the demands of its own freedom charter for nationalisation of the land and of the country’s major industries.

This was the situation in which Libya felt compelled to ‘accept responsibility’ for the Lockerbie bombing and to pay compensation, despite it being well known to all that the Libyan state had no involvement in that attack. The Good Friday Agreement in Ireland, too, was a product of this time – the best that could be achieved in the circumstances.

And these were the conditions in which tiny Cuba was forced to open its doors to mass western tourism and in which the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea decided to set up special economic areas – in both cases aimed primarily at bringing in hard currency to pay for imports that their peoples desperately needed following the loss of their Soviet trading partner.

The masses of ordinary workers in the former socialist countries suffered the loss of their previously secure and socially necessary occupations, alongside the disappearance of their much-prized high-quality housing and healthcare, the collapse of their education systems and social services, the destruction of their cultural provision and the precipitous decline in their living standards as a whole, not to mention the cohesion of their communities and the loss of the dignity and self-respect that living and working in freedom from exploitation had brought to them.

Plummeting birth rates and life expectancies, alongside astronomical rises in the rates of alcoholism, drug abuse, prostitution and gangsterism – hand in hand with the rise of national chauvinism and internecine warfare between peoples who coexisted perfectly happily under socialism – are eloquent testimony to the joys that have been brought to the once proud peoples of the USSR and its socialist allies by the restoration of the unfettered capitalist market.

With much of the socialist movement globally retreating in chaos both ideologically and organisationally, the slow demoralisation of working-class forces that had been set in train by Khrushchev’s attack on Stalin and his leadership of socialist construction became a full-scale rout. Many workers in Britain stopped believing they could even win a local skirmish over pay and conditions, never mind the battle for socialism itself, and the trade unions in the main gave up trying to mount anything like a serious opposition to the continued assaults of the employers.

The result was that whole communities were devastated and left to rot by the destruction of industries and services, and that resistance since the heroic miners of the NUM made their stand for all workers in 1984-5 has generally been tokenistic at best and non-existent at worst. In a nutshell, the working class has been increasingly disorganised and demoralised, abandoned to its fate by those who should have been providing it with leadership.

The crescendo of bourgeois triumphalism, meanwhile, was accompanied by a rise in prominence of Trotskyite parties like the SWP, which stepped eagerly into the breach, claiming to be the true representatives of ‘real’ socialism and alienating the masses still further with their crass combination of ultra-revolutionary phrasemongering and Labour party electioneering. ‘Socialism’ became a short-lived pose for students, and a concept on which the masses increasingly turned their backs.

And so, when the ruling class continued to tighten the screws – whether by exporting capital (and thus jobs) to where it could be more profitably employed or by slashing pay and conditions at home in the name of making British workers more ‘competitive’ – its vicious assault on working-class living standards was virtually unopposed. Millions of British workers now live in dire poverty, with no hope of escape for themselves or their children. A return to the free-market capitalism of the Dickensian era (‘Victorian values’) is well underway, with ever greater numbers of people becoming dependent on food banks and charitable hand-outs to eke out the barest existence in dirty, overcrowded, insecure accommodation, while the gap between rich and poor widens at an ever-accelerating pace.

And, despite all its best efforts, no amount of austerity, privatisation or warmongering has succeeded in stabilising the world capitalist system. Quite the reverse. It is well known in bourgeois circles that another crash, even bigger than that triggered by the collapse of Lehman Brothers in 2008, is imminent, and that nothing can be done to stop it arriving. Nor does the ruling class have any reliable or coherent plan for what to do when that calamity lands, as it surely must in the very near future, beyond a bail-in (appropriating savings to pay the banks’ bad debts) and more wars of plunder.

A costly lesson

All this has provided anyone who cares to look with ample proof that capitalism is incapable of solving its own contradictions and that workers have no choice but to carry through the struggle for socialism, but this lesson has been most dearly bought. The best tribute we can pay to the hundreds of millions who have suffered in the process of furnishing the proof is to lose no delay in organising ourselves to act upon it.

The working class must shake itself out of the torpor that has overtaken it, rescue those who have fallen for the hollow consolations offered by right-wing demagogues and social-democratic charlatans, re-arm itself with the revolutionary science of Marxism Leninism, rebuild its fighting organisations and reawaken those class instincts that will enable it to fight back, and to fight this time to the finish.

As our Cuban comrades succinctly express it, we have two alternatives: socialismo o muerte (socialism or death)!
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