Link to this page: https://secure.socialistparty.org.uk/issue/1144/32901
August 1991 - The aborted military coup in the 'Soviet Union'
How the defeated putsch opened the floodgates to capitalist restoration
30 years ago, an ill-fated military coup against Mikhail Gorbachev, head of what was still known as the Soviet Union (USSR), was launched. By the end of 1991, the USSR no longer existed and its state-owned, bureaucratically planned economy was on the road of capitalism through a massive privatisation programme. Clare Doyle, who was working for the CWI in Russia during this turbulent period, explains the historical significance of this event.
From early morning on 19 August 1991, as was the tradition during times of trouble, TV channels across all the USSR's six time zones, carried nothing but classical music and endless performances of the Swan Lake ballet.
At 5pm the 'gang of eight' - top military and civilian leaders - held a press conference chaired by a visibly shaking vice-president Gennady Yanayev.
He explained that Gorbachev was ill and they had to maintain order. They were pre-empting the signing of a 'New Union Agreement' which would decentralise power to the 15 republics of the USSR. They would not be halting the move towards full-scale privatisation, they maintained, but simply slowing it down.
The very sight of troops on the streets, and threats to the fragile elements of democracy that had grown up in the late 1980s under Mikhail Gorbachev angered the mass of the population.
Strikes broke out across the country. Barricades were thrown up to block the path of tanks and soldiers in Moscow, where three were killed, and in Leningrad. On 21 August a huge crowd filled Winter Palace Square, where the mayor, Anatoly Sobchak, declared the local military command was already on the side of 'democracy'.
In Moscow, the then popular politician, Boris Yeltsin, famously stood on a tank outside Russia's White House among workers, soldiers and police who had refused to support the old guard's attempted coup. He was the elected head of the newly established parliament in Russia - the biggest and most populous republic in the Soviet Union.
Yeltsin dispatched armed men by plane to Crimea to rescue Gorbachev, who had been put under house arrest in his holiday home with all communications cut off under orders from the coup leaders. The head of government in the USSR returned to Moscow - a man who knew his days in office were numbered.
Within the space of three days, the coup attempt was over. The leaders were arrested apart from Interior Minister Boris Pugo, who had already committed suicide! The ruling Communist Party was banned and the door was thrown open for the speeding up of the re-establishment of capitalism in Russia and across all the republics of the USSR.
By 25 December 1991, Gorbachev was announcing his resignation and the dissolution of the 'Soviet Union'. He was accepting the reality that most republics had already declared independence - the Baltic States before the coup and the rest in quick succession in the following four months.
The defeat of the 1991 August coup raised the hopes of working people after Gorbachev's experiments with Glasnost ('Opening-up') and Perestroika ('Restructuring') had failed to breathe new life into the vast bureaucratically run economy.
By the end of the 1980s workers and their families were suffering severe hardship. Queues of people with ration tokens stood for hours outside 'supermarkets' whose shelves were all but empty. A 20 million-strong bureaucracy, mostly card-carrying members of the ruling 'Communist' Party, continued to live in luxury.
Gorbachev was General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union from 1985 until 1991. From 1988 he was also at the head of the USSR - the 'Union of Soviet Socialist Republics'.
This body had not been run democratically by elected Soviets or workers' councils since the mid-1920s when Josef Stalin and the nascent ruling bureaucracy carried through a political counter-revolution after the death of the Communist Party's leader, Vladimir Lenin, in 1924.
The failure of subsequent revolutions in developed industrialised countries and later the active sabotage by Stalin and the ruling bureaucratic clique of attempts in France, Spain and elsewhere to carry them through, meant the rapid degeneration of the workers' state in the 'Soviet Union'.
Stalin held onto power through the suppression of democratic control and, increasingly, a brutal reign of terror - forced collectivisation of agriculture, the extermination of all opposition through purge trials of leading Bolsheviks and others, gulags (concentration camps), and the assassination in Mexico of Leon Trotsky - the co-leader with Lenin of the 1917 socialist revolution, who politically led the Marxist opposition to Stalinism.
What had developed in the Soviet Union was a one-party dictatorship; it bore no resemblance to socialism or communism, but officially ruled in the name of the working class.
The impressive economic growth figures achieved in the USSR - 250% increase in industrial production between 1929 and 1935 - were due entirely to the planning of a state-owned economy, however bureaucratically run, and by the enormous sacrifices imposed on the working class. The 20 million-strong bureaucracy continued to live off the backs of the working class in considerable luxury.
As Leon Trotsky argued in his marvellous book 'Revolution Betrayed' (1936), without the necessary oxygen of democratic workers' control and management, the vast planned economy would begin to slow down as it became more complex.
An 'either/or' situation would be starkly posed. Trotsky wrote of "two opposite tendencies ... growing up". The log-jam could be broken in one of two ways. Either the working class would move to reclaim control and management in society by carrying through a political revolution against Stalin and his clique.
Alternatively, elements within the bureaucratic elite would move to carry through a social counter-revolution - establishing capitalism beginning with taking the banks and major industries into their own hands, possibly using co-operatives as a "transitional form of property" to provide initial cover for stealing the state owned assets.
In 'The Rise of Militant', Peter Taaffe - political secretary of the Socialist Party - cites a speech by Terry Fields, the late Labour MP and supporter of Militant (forerunner of the Socialist), who addressed a meeting of 600 workers from across Russia, including many striking coal-miners, in Novokuznetsk in the spring of 1990.
Terry was warmly received by the conference as he expressed the widespread solidarity of the international working class. He turned to the question of the market, with the aim of dispelling illusions that capitalism for them would be like that in Britain, Sweden or the US.
Terry explained it would be more like that in Latin America bringing mass unemployment, hyperinflation and dictatorship. Then he was interrupted by a worker saying, "We've had enough!" Many miners in the new independent union at that time had the idea that selling their coal on the world market would be more profitable for them than providing the party bosses in Moscow with a good life.
Many compared their dire straits with that of workers in an apparently still booming Europe. They compared the indecisive Gorbachev with the 'Iron Lady' Thatcher, without knowing what she was inflicting on the working class in Britain.
Thatcher had defeated Britain's miners using massed forces of the state against their year-long strike (and assisted by the refusal of the right-wing Labour Party and trade union tops to provide effective solidarity).
She had also got the courts to defeat the supremely popular socialist councillors in Liverpool who had refused to accept her orders to cut jobs and services, and she had engaged in battle with 18 million working class people (organised by the Militant-led All Britain Anti-Poll Tax Union campaign) who refused to pay her iniquitous poll tax - and lost!
Thatcher had also given her backing to right-wing former dissident Lech Walesa in Poland who, in the absence of a working-class alternative, was proceeding apace with establishing a market economy after the eventual failure of General Jaruzelski's 1981 Stalinist coup.
In the 'Soviet Union' of 1990, a few hard-line Stalinists had been arguing for a return to the military-police methods of the past. A certain Colonel Alksnis advocated a 'Committee of National Salvation' to replace Gorbachev but also block the path of Boris Yeltsin. But those already well in the ascendancy were the proponents of the 'transition to the market'.
The Friedmanites (disciples of American right-wing 'monetarist' Milton Friedman) around Yegor Gaidar, Anatoly Chubais and Grigory Yavlinsky, who advocated capitalist 'shock therapy', were understandably not popular.
But the hopes of many were now invested in the Secretary of the Moscow Communist Party, Boris Yeltsin. He broke the mould, riding on public transport rather than in the limousines of the party bureaucracy, and campaigning in support of the abolition of 'article 6' of the USSR constitution that allowed only one party to operate.
Thousands packed into meeting halls to hear him speak and thousands more would listen on loudspeakers in overflow gatherings outside.
By summer 1991, cooperatives had long been breaking into the monopoly of state enterprises. Groups of independent trade unionists were discussing how shares in industry could be 'held fairly'.
Commercial banks and joint ventures were tolerated by the regime of Gorbachev and his prime minister, Nikolai Ryzhkov. But the days of Gorbachev and the Soviet 'Communist Party' were numbered.
Meaning of the coup
The idea that the eight party and army veterans who announced an 'emergency situation' in August 1991 did so in order to prevent capitalist counter-revolution in the 'USSR' is totally mistaken.
They admitted as much when they said they only wanted a more managed capitalist restoration, perhaps along the lines that the Chinese 'Communist Party' leadership would later follow, creating a state capitalist economy.
However, a few members of the leadership of the CWI who parted company with the majority in the course of 1991, did not recognise this.
Those members who lived in Russia had made perfectly clear their opposition to capitalist restoration and to its leading proponents such as Boris Yeltsin. We had been on the barricades in Moscow and in what was known as Leningrad (now St Petersburg).
We had witnessed workers overturning buses to block the way of the tanks in Moscow, the fraternisation of soldiers, the building of barricades in Leningrad and the massing of thousands in Winter Palace Square and at the White House in Moscow.
The approach of the CWI socialists at the time was 'Down with the coup!' 'No to the capitalist market', 'Yes to workers' democracy and genuine socialism!'
We warned of the dangers that, as already seen in central and eastern Europe, pro-capitalist elements would try to exploit workers' anger and demands in order to open the way to capitalist restoration.
Eyewitness reports were carried in Militant and other publications, and we maintained our warnings of what capitalism would mean. We also pointed to the inevitable re-eruption of national conflicts, as very soon witnessed in Chechnya, Georgia, Ukraine, the Caucasus.
Within three years of the attempted coup of 1991, the warnings of the CWI, voiced by Terry Fields in Novokuznetsk, had proved correct.
As the commanding heights of the economy, including the major banks, were marauded by former party bureaucrats now transformed into gangster-capitalists, unemployment rocketed. Inflation reached 2,400% in 1992-93 and, in autumn 1993, Boris Yeltsin was sending tanks against the White House to bombard his own parliament.
After the bloody weeks' long battles that followed that attack in Moscow, at least 147 people, including members of the armed forces, were dead. Anger and shock at these dramatic events were expressed at a public meeting of over 100 people in St Petersburg with Tony Saunois, Secretary of the CWI, speaking.
Tony pointed to the rapid collapse in the economy that was taking place, the dramatic fall in life expectancy and the rise in general poverty. These were what had followed the 1991 'August Putsch', not a rosy future of democracy and plenty for all.
The collapse of the Soviet Union, despite it having become a grotesque caricature of socialism, was accompanied by triumphalism on the part of capitalist representatives arguing that there was now no alternative to their system.
It had a profound effect on the workers' movement as the right-wing leaders of the unions and the social democratic and 'communist' parties abandoned any talk of socialist alternatives, in some cases dissolving themselves.
There was a sharp decline in the idea that socialism was a realistic goal. In the 1990s, demands for nationalisation or even state intervention on behalf of workers fell out of favour. However, the ideas of struggle and democratic socialism, as tenaciously fought for by the Socialist Party and the CWI, have been rekindled, especially by the crisis of capitalism of 2008-09 and today.
Today's autocratic ruler of Russia, Vladimir Putin, who first came to power in 2000, is a direct political descendent of the latter-day dictator, Boris Yeltsin. Last year Putin manipulated a change in the constitution to be able to remain in power almost indefinitely.
He and the handful of super-rich oligarchs around him have too much to lose if they are forced out. Putin's vicious treatment of bourgeois opposition politician, Alexei Navalny, brought an explosion of anger, especially of young people, in towns and cities across Russia in January of this year.
This September will see a new, rigged parliamentary election and nothing resolved for the long-suffering people of Russia. A struggle for basic democratic rights - freedom of speech, assembly, organisation and protest - must be engaged. Truly democratic trade unions are vital for renewing workers' struggles - free from interference by the state or by the oligarch owner-thieves.
The re-birth, after generations, of a genuinely socialist mass workers' party in Russia, and in all the former republics of the USSR, must be fought for. Only then, through struggle against capitalism and all the misery brought with it, can the prospect of a new confederation of genuinely socialist republics open up.
In The Socialist 11 August 2021: