Prospects of Resistance by Workers to Capitalist Restoration in Russia

By DAVE HUDSON

Following is the conclusion of a document that is being submitted to the World Congress of the Fourth International, which will take place next year. Socialist Action is in general agreement with the views expressed in this document.

The author, Dave Hudson, is a British member of the International Executive Committee of the Fourth International.

The first part of the document, in our September issue, described the political circumstances of the working class under the Vladimir Putin regime.

 

The human cost of the IMF inspired “shock therapy” has been enormous and is seen by ordinary Russians as little more than “economic genocide.” In all the countries of the former Warsaw Pact, to a greater or lesser extent, women, children, the disabled, refugees, and pensioners have been especially devastated by the capitalist neo-liberal offensive.

A UN Development Program report (Summer 1999) confirms that the economic transition and upheavals of the 1990s “have been calamitous for a vast swathe of Eastern Europe and Central Asia- leading to widespread poverty, alarming falls in life expectancy, widening inequalities between the sexes, falling investment in education, the collapse of public health and the spread of disease, crime, nationalist violence and suicide.”

It shows how these countries have been pushed into a “Great Depression,” plunging “more than 100 million people into poverty, with many millions more hovering precariously above subsistence.” It cites World Bank figures showing that in 1989 about 14 million people in the former Communist Bloc lived on less than $4 a day. By the mid-1990s that number had risen to about 147 million.

After the Russian economic crash in August 1998, the numbers falling below the poverty line shot up to about 40 percent. Poverty is endemic while malnutrition affects millions. The UN report is scattered with facts such as that the number of pregnant Russian women suffering anemia trebled between 1989 and 1994. In Moldova, a survey showed that between 20 and 50 percent of children had rickets from a lack of Vitamin A.

The state’s inability to pay wages or benefits on a regular basis has been a major cause of poverty. In 1992 alone, after the first year of “shock therapy,” real wages fell, due mainly to wage cuts and inflation, by over one third, and average personal consumption fell by over 40 percent.

By 1998 wage arrears in Ukraine and Russia amounted to more than 4 percent of GDP. This is the good news, for in Kazakhstan they are estimated to amount to some 40 percent of GDP. This situation got much worse with inflation at the end of the 1990s, reaching about 2500 percent.

The UN report shows that there is a widening inequality in wealth and incomes. This is exacerbated by hyper-inflation, which tends especially to affect the price of food, a large item in the budgets of the very poor majority. Between 1991 and 1996, food prices in Armenia rose by 24,000 percent, whereas the prices of non-food items rose by only 7800 percent. The weakest in society-pensioners, the disabled, single mothers-have been exposed to the most acute financial difficulties by losing access to benefits.

There is also a devastating cost in human lives. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, there has been a decline in life expectancy almost across the whole region, with falls of at least four years in countries such as Russia, where the latest figures show that men are living only until the age of 58 on average! This means that several million people have not survived the 1990s who would have if the life expectancy levels had been maintained.

Also, between 1991 and 1994 infant mortality increased by nearly 15 percent, and things are much worse today. Accompanying these developments is a grim rise in suicide and disease; tuberculosis and other diseases have returned as big killers, especially in the former Soviet Union. AIDS and sexually transmitted diseases are also spreading rapidly.

Women have increasingly been pushed out of public life and out of the workplace. Consequently there is a growing inequality between the sexes. Violence against women has also risen, with physical abuse from spouses becoming more noticeable, and more women are falling victim to crime.

Women desperate to find employment have found themselves forced into prostitution both within their region and by organized crime networks in Western Europe.

There is a dramatic deterioration of education, due to sharp falls in spending on schools and universities. Almost everywhere enrollment and attendance rates, especially at pre-primary schools, have fallen. In the former Soviet Union, more than 30,000 pre-school facilities were closed between 1991 and 1995.

Overcrowding, dilapidation, lack of heating, underpaid teachers, and a lack of health checks have also taken their toll.

Underlying all this social deprivation is the economic melt-down caused by forced marketization. Trotsky predicted that if the bureaucracy was not overthrown by the workers and socialist democracy established then it would eventually lead a counterrevolutionary movement and restore capitalism, which he insisted could only result in the “emiseration” of the Russian masses.

Today, Russian Banker Petr Aven advises Putin that even more cuts in welfare and social provision are necessary if capitalism is to be restored. The specter of a most brutal and untrammeled capitalism haunts the region.

The class struggle.

There have been some big struggles beginning in the mid-1990s, such as the actions taken by miners and teachers among others, demanding back wages-or else. In the summer of 1996 (by then the economy was already in ruins) over 100,000 Ukrainian miners struck over the back-pay issue.

However, what is most notable about the situation is that, despite the number of strikes and social struggles that go unreported, the response of the working class to the counterrevolution and its terrible consequences for the masses has been relatively feeble and weak. (Nevertheless, struggles-as well as passive resistance-have been enough to maintain Yeltsin’s fear of a social explosion if he pursued the West’s policy too far and too fast.)

An explanation for the failure of the working class to make a political revolution [to overthrow the ruling bureaucratic clique and take power in its own name] is three-fold:

First and most obviously, the politicized generation that made the Russian Revolution of 1917 is now dead. Second, the new generations have lived through an oppressive Stalinist, national chauvinist, corporatist and de-politicizing system.

Third, the growing widespread hatred of this system (Stalinism, which is equated with socialism by the masses, particularly of the younger, post-1968 generation) have combined [with the first and second elements] in a negative way to confuse and disorient the Russian masses. It may take some years of the experience of struggle, and probably the new generation, before we see a revival of a new socialist politics.

Recently, some foreign buy-outs have faced resistance from the workers. An example is the large Vyborg Paper and Cellulose Mill, bought out by British investor Alcem UK in 1997.

The plant’s 2100 workers, fearing massive layoffs and saying they were owed more than $8 million in back wages, occupied the plant. They posted their own armed guards, organized a democratic strike committee to operate the plant, and fought for 18 months to keep out the new owners. They ran the plant under workers management and used the profits to maintain and feed their families.

The Vyborg workers gained wide support and active solidarity from local and regional working-class organizations, and even managed to block the highway running from Helsinki to St. Petersburg to attract attention to their struggle.

In the autumn of 1999, when the strike committee was planning to block the railway line, the authorities acted by organizing a dawn raid by special heavily armed riot police, which resulted in a shoot-out. The state won and occupied the plant, but the struggle continues. [This information came from an article on the web site called “International Solidarity with the Workers of Russia.” It has also been reported in various left papers.]

This struggle not only illustrates a high level of solidarity and combativity with advanced experiences of democratic workers control and management, but the use of special armed forces, the kind that Putin will need to carry forward the counterrevolution.

In December last year, Kusbass miners at the Chernigovets pit also saw their occupation violently smashed by armed police units. Many such struggles will be necessary to rebuild a new independent workers’ leadership.

Unfortunately, the existing trade unions are not the legitimate expression of the working class or class struggles. It is not just that they are massively bureaucratized; historically they are top-down state structures designed to organize workers for production. Today they are still mostly semi-corporate structures that bolster the power structure rather than fight for the interests of the workers.

Consequently, in the early 1990s a number of small independent unions were formed. Few have survived; some were dominated by chauvinist and reactionary politics. Some regional and local unions have been forced to take some actions in the interests of the workers.

However, the unions also enshrine some well established legal rights considered normal before 1989. There are employment laws that block factory closures, the firing of workers, and the imposition of certain kinds of shifts-all of which require by law the agreement of the union. Such rights in turn block the establishment of a capitalist free labor market. Similarly, wage levels are given some legal protection, including laws that block capitalist-style wage cuts.

Therefore, one of Putin’s early objectives as president has been to push forward a draconian new anti-union labor code (KZoT), which had originally been drafted by Prime Minister Primakov just before Yeltsin fired him.

The new code represents a wholesale removal of the workers’ rights mentioned above-including the right not to be made unemployed. It also introduces short-term contracts, abolishes the eight hour day (substituting a 12 hour day and a week of 56 hours) and makes the unions even more impotent to defend the workers. Also, the generous “rights to maternity leave that women have enjoyed for decades will be cut in half, and they will be forced to work night shifts while pregnant.

We should support the campaign to defend these gains while calling for independent unions to be formed to fight for arrears in wages, against the privatizations, and to stop the Chechen war.

Despite the horrors of capitalist restoration or the massive disillusionment with capitalist reforms, which (like the class struggle) largely goes unreported, the IMF/World bank today pursues its neo-liberal policy.

Meanwhile, Blair and Clinton, together with other Western leaders, have cynically endorsed the new strongman in the Kremlin, President Putin, despite the continuing brutalities of the Chechen war, with which he has been closely implicated from the beginning. This is because they suspect that the final act of the counterrevolution is approaching and he is “their man.”

Yeltsin had also been their man, but he finally proved to be a disappointment, because he had pulled back and played for time. The Yeltsin regime had encountered major objective and subjective difficulties in carrying through the restoration of capitalism. Not least of these difficulties was the traditional fear the bureaucracy has for the working class.

At the same time, we can say that the reason the process of restoration has made such advances is due to the political and organizational weakness of the working class (compared to the generation of 1917), which is being further debilitated by the social and economic crisis and is resulting in increasing social and political atomization.

Unlike in a capitalist society, the struggle of the workers nearly always becomes a directly political struggle. Despite this, there is no major political party representing the interests of the working class, while the far left is miniscule. The crisis of working-class leadership is profound.

The power of the working class lies in its continued, although much weakened, objective social existence-even if today it is degraded and weakened-and in the possibility of resistance. Resistance, even if it is not mainly expressed through collective action in the workplaces, on the streets, or in the corridors of power, is an objective fact that no bureaucracy, however apparently omnipotent, can ignore.

As Trotsky explained, a bureaucracy that is a caste does not have the same power as a hegemonic class. However, the social and economic crisis has softened up and fragmented the Russian proletariat, and war and reactionary Russian chauvinism can be, and has been, whipped up by Putin and the pro-capitalist elite as an added political weapon to further divide and defeat them.

The war is not just against the Chechen peoples fighting for self-determination, but is also a dagger pointed at the heart of the Russian working class itself.

The Communist Party

Once again, we can see how national chauvinism and racism can be whipped up for reactionary purposes. Nationalism in Russia today is clearly a powerful ideological force in the hands of the pro-capitalist political elite, which cuts across the underlying class polarization that is taking place, dividing and confusing the masses.

Unfortunately, many of those who claim to speak for the working class, such as the leadership of the so-called Communist Party of the Russian Federation (CPRF), have also played the nationalist card and have supported the slaughter in Chechnya.

The media in Russia frequently describes the CPRF as the left and the extreme left! Nothing could be further from the truth. The Zuganov leadership of the CPRF are Russian chauvinists and nationalists, anti-Semites, anti-Muslim and racist supporters of this war. Despite its mainly working-class vote, the Communist Party remains a Stalinist party with a pro-capitalist policy-but it is not a pro IMF/neo-liberal party. Like Putin himself, it demands a strong united Russia that can stand up to the West; but this is presented in purely nationalist terms.

However, the CPRF has spoken out against the corrupt theft of national assets and made other noises in support of workers; consequently important sections of the working class support it. Zuganov was the main opponent of Putin in the March 2000 presidential elections, achieving for the CPRF a significant increase in its vote (which reached 30 percent), despite a lackluster campaign. This makes it by far the largest party in the Duma.

Nonetheless, the CPRF is not the party of political revolution and socialism, which is the only fundamental choice open to the working class that is in their interests.

A new totalitarianism?

Putin will quickly have to address the issue of the state and building new capitalist institutions. One of Russia’s new capitalists, Petr Aven-a prominent Putin supporter, president of Alfa (Russia’s biggest and most successful private bank), esteemed economist, and a former Russian trade minister-understands this crucial issue. He supported Putin in the March presidential elections and publicly argues that the new president must now bring the chaos to an end by resorting to totalitarian methods.

First, Aven says, the new president must assemble a reliable military force out of the ruins of the old state apparatus. He suggests that Putin model his regime on that of Augusto Pinochet. In a recent interview he said: “Pinochet tried to enforce obedience to the law and sometimes that’s difficult for a country. Sometimes you need to use force. The only role of the state is to use force when needed.”

And again: “The only way ahead is for fast liberal reforms [more “shock therapy”], building public support for that path but also using totalitarian force to achieve that. Russia has no other choice” (The London Guardian, March 31, 2000).

Putin’s chief economic adviser, German Gref, also insists that they will make the transition to a normal market system, “in the shortest possible time.” Putin, Gref, and Aven understand that such a policy requires the closure of many hundreds of enterprises and the sacking of millions of workers on a scale that would make the Great Depression look small beer. It was why Yeltsin pulled back from the brink and looked foolish and compromised.

The bureaucracy fears that the working class would be kicked into violent resistance if such a brutal, counterrevolutionary policy were adopted. But can the former Red Army be relied upon to impose the will of the emergent, and still narrowly based capitalist class?

Putin will first have to construct a reliable military force that is entirely loyal to himself as the president. This is the symbolic meaning of his New Year’s Day visit to the army in Chechnya the day after Yeltsin resigned as president.

Putin is not just a puppet. He has a program that promises to make Russia powerful again-a country of which “the people and the army can be proud.” He lays emphasis on a powerful centralized state, on patriotism, and on “collectivism.” He told the assembled military at the New Year awards in Gudermes that the war “is not just about restoring honor and dignity to the country. No, this is about more serious things. This is about how to bring the end of the break-up of Russia. That is your fundamental goal.”

Putin has been reported as saying that “to the Russian a strong state is not an anomaly. … It is the source and guarantor of order, the initiator and main power behind all changes.”

Already, the Yeltsin regime had effectively ended the “partnership for peace” and begun to rebuild its alliance with China and other major Third World countries while increasingly adopting a confrontational stance towards NATO. In mid-January, a presidential decree (No. 24) effected a shift in Russia’s defense doctrine by placing the armed forces in a higher state of combat readiness and new more aggressive ground rules for the use of nuclear weapons and promising an increase in the defense budget of 60 percent.

It is clear that Putin is a pro-West, pro-market reformer like Yeltsin, i.e., a pro-capitalist neo-liberal. He is also the strongman who will pursue Russian national interests ruthlessly-albeit within a capitalist framework. Is he, however, quite prepared to clash with the USA, for example, over defense issues, and new U.S. missile deployments?

If he intends to construct a national capitalism that can survive and thrive, he will also have to rely heavily on the state apparatus and on resources taxed and robbed from the socialized “collectivist” sector. Some of the economic damage created by Yeltsin/IMF “shock therapy,” which failed to create a viable free market but has wrecked the command economy, may have to be reversed.

But a turn towards creating a national capitalism based primarily on internal resources will be a brutal business, requiring a strong centralized state based on a reliable army and a cohesive nationalist even xenophobic ideology. Such a course will of necessity be a harsh capitalist Bonapartism-an authoritarian regime able to smash working-class resistance, both passive and active, in order to finally carry through the bourgeois counterrevolution.

If such a regime became stabilized, it could in the future constitute a kind of fascistic state capitalism with imperialist aims in Eurasia. This will pose the danger of future wars-for example, in the scramble for oil in the Caucuses and the Caspian Sea regions.