On August 30, Mikhail Gorbachev, the last leader of the Soviet Union and the man who presided over its unraveling, died. The Soviet Union (Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, or USSR) had existed for over 70 years. The Soviet Union was founded after a revolution and five-year civil war that began in Russia and spread to what was then the Russian empire. The Soviet Union was the first socialist state in the world. But beset by enemies from without and within, by the mid-1950s the Soviet Union had become a “revisionist” power—that is, a power which still claimed to be socialist but in fact had instituted a form of capitalist rule within a “socialist” shell. In short, they did not change the name of the state or some forms of rule, but what commanded the economy and set the terms for everything was the capitalist dictums of profit in command and expand or die.
Gorbachev had been a reformer who came to power in 1985, at a time when the Soviet Union and the U.S. had been very close to an all-out and civilization-ending nuclear war. Gorbachev saw no way for the Soviets to prevail in such a war—whatever that would mean—and undertook a series of reforms to strengthen the Soviet Union. He also made arms agreements with the United States to stave off the war threat while he could lead the USSR to strengthen itself. But Gorbachev’s reforms unleashed a process within the Soviet Union that led first to an attempted military coup against Gorbachev, then to a defeat of that coup by an openly capitalist faction within the Soviet ruling class, and finally to the utter collapse and end of the Soviet state and Gorbachev’s own political demise.
Over the past week, commentators and significant bourgeois figures have given their summations of Gorbachev. All of these, from one vantage point or another, have distorted, covered up and/or flat-out lied about important elements of Gorbachev’s rise and fall. Lenin, the great communist who led the Russian Revolution more than once made the point that it takes 10 pages of truth to unravel a paragraph of lies. And this holds here, as well.
Lenny Wolff on The RNL Show:
The Rise and Fall of Mikhail Gorbachev... And One Surprising Lesson For Revolution Today
Lie Number One: “The 1917 Revolution in Russia and the founding of the Soviet Union were terrible disasters for the people there.”
In fact, the Soviet Union was the world’s first socialist state and it persevered for nearly 40 years, up against truly unprecedented opposition. In that time, they accomplished wonders that had never been seen before—an entire people were mobilized to throw off the yokes of exploitation, illiteracy and ignorance, and the oppression of women and of minority nationalities.
The Soviet Union set up the world’s first socialist economy and organs of proletarian power in a country that had been devastated first by World War I and then by four years of civil war. Millions had perished. But something truly new and wonderful emerged: a state power that was oriented toward taking the first steps to abolishing exploitation and oppression!
This new power worked to uproot the oppression of women and minority nationalities, passing radical laws that gave leadership to and enabled the masses to make radical social transformations. They inspired and dispatched people to the countryside and urban slums to bring literacy to tens of million. They began to develop a new socialist economy, based on meeting people’s needs and supporting the world revolution. And they did all of this in the face of constant attacks and threats by capitalist-imperialist powers and by those the revolution had overthrown.
The surrounding and dominant imperialist world did not look kindly upon this. From the very outset, 14 imperialist invaders intervened militarily on the side of the Russian reactionary forces in waging a five-year civil war in a failed but bloody attempt to overthrow socialism. After that, the imperialists then isolated the Soviet Union and largely tried to starve it out, while threatening it for years.
This relentless counterattack came to a head in World War II. In 1941, Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union. Facing the main forces of the German army, the Soviet Union lost more than 26 million people, and suffered tremendous destruction of almost all they had built in the first 20 years of revolution. Nonetheless, they won—and played the main role in defeating the Nazis.
The Soviet leadership was up against tremendous pressures during this period. The key leader of the revolution—V.I. Lenin—had died several years after the seizure of power. Lenin had been a tremendous pathbreaker in the science of communism, the science of revolution. Those who came after him—in particular Joseph Stalin, who succeeded Lenin in leadership—still fought for socialism, but had significant shortcomings in the methods of thinking they used to understand what they faced and the corresponding means they chose to fight it.
This was especially so during the years before World War II, when the Soviets were facing the likelihood of the German onslaught. They had to figure out how to correctly handle the contradiction between preparing for everything that would be involved in defending the socialist state against a powerful and relentless enemy, on the one hand, in relation to other critical tasks that were essential to the whole point of socialism—for instance, the further transformation of the society (including people’s thinking and the relations between different groups of people) in a revolutionary direction, as well as the crucial need to support revolutions in other countries. Up against these and other contradictions, the shortcomings in the method they used to understand reality led to serious and even grievous errors in how they handled things.
It is beyond the scope of this article to go into all of this, but for a fuller account of the achievements and shortcomings of the Soviet Union, and the real lessons to draw from this, important works include: Phony Communism Is Dead, Long Live Real Communism!, by Bob Avakian (BA); and the interview with Raymond Lotta, “You Don’t Know What You Think You ‘Know’ About… The Communist Revolution and the REAL Path to Emancipation: Its History and Our Future.” To get more into Stalin in specific—what he was up against, what he did, what lessons to draw from this—see BA’s interview on The Michael Slate Show, “On Communism, Leadership, Stalin, and the Experience of Socialist Society.”
Lie Number Two: The Soviet Union That Faced Off Against the U.S. from the 1950s through 1991 Was a Socialist Country
In fact, well before the time Gorbachev came to power, the Soviet Union had been transformed into a capitalist-imperialist empire, rivaling and directly contending with the United States.
Due in part to the tremendous pressure from without and in part to the errors made in dealing with that, socialism became tremendously weakened through World War II. At the same time, the prestige and influence of the Soviet Union rose to new heights due to its role in defeating fascism. Revisionists—those who claim the mantle of Marxism but “revise” the heart out of it—increasingly gained influence.
With the death of Stalin, a revisionist clique rose to power. They maintained some of the trappings of socialism: state ownership of the factories and natural resources, the socialist name, and the political leadership of the communist party. But they moved to put the economy itself on the capitalist basis of what could accumulate the most profit and turned the structures of the state and party to serving that. Internationally, this found expression in moving to challenge the U.S. for world domination on an imperialist basis.
Instead of supporting revolution around the world, these revisionists promoted peaceful coexistence with the imperialist world. They put profit essentially in control of the economic planning and exchange in society. They promoted the notion that socialism could be instituted in the capitalist countries through a “peaceful transition”—that is, without defeating and dismantling the organs of violent repression through revolution. They established a network of unequal and oppressive trade and economic relations with countries in the Third World.1
The Soviet Union built on its reputation in defeating fascism in World War II along with its early record of having supported the liberation of oppressed nations and oppressed nationalities both within the Soviet Union itself and around the world. The new Soviet rulers used this prestige among the oppressed and enlightened as part of becoming a socialist-imperialist power—that is, socialist in words but imperialist in deeds and in essence.
By the mid-1960s, the Soviet Union rivaled the imperialist U.S. across the world for influence and domination, in what people commonly know and call the “Cold War,” with rival spheres of influences, and proxy conflicts and “hot wars” playing out throughout the Third World from Southern Africa to South Asia. By the mid- to late-1970s, this increasingly heated up, and the prospect of a possible (and potentially catastrophic) world war between the two superpowers became a driving factor in world politics.
In attempting to contend with the still much more powerful U.S., the Soviets increasingly came up against limitations—in the strain that military spending put on their economy relative to the U.S. and in their ability to actually match the U.S. as it went into an unprecedented program of “peacetime” militarization. This laid the basis for the entrance of Gorbachev.
Lie Number Three: The Unraveling of the Soviet Union Due to Gorbachev’s “Reforms” Shows That Socialist State Power Cannot Exist if Dissent and Diversity of Views Are Allowed
In fact, as we’ve shown, the Soviet Union by the time Gorbachev took office had “morphed into” an imperialist power. Like all such powers, it was driven by the capitalist need to expand or die. They ran up against a far superior power in the U.S. and instituted major economic and political reforms in a desperate hope to actually fit the Soviet Union to the challenge of militarily prevailing in this sharpening imperialist rivalry, should it come to world war. In doing so, the system became destabilized and major change and upheaval went down in what had been the Soviet Union.
Gorbachev came to power at a crucial time for the revisionist system. They faced a much more powerful imperialist rival in the U.S., along with growing discontent and demoralization of its people due to economic breakdown. On top of this, they had experienced a devastating military and political defeat in Afghanistan, at the hands of the U.S.-armed Islamic fundamentalists, and were “over-extended” as empire. They had trouble translating other geopolitical advances in the Third World into corresponding economic power.
Meanwhile, the U.S. forced them into a competition in military spending on a weak economic foundation: for example, 60 percent of capital investment had gone to production of fuel and raw materials, with another 20 percent to the military. Only 20 percent was allocated to consumer goods. This meant tremendous hardship for ordinary people.
Gorbachev launched major initiatives to deal with this. Perestroika, or restructuring, was a program of “reforms” in the functioning of the Soviet economy, aiming to deal with some of the fetters on capital accumulation. Glasnost, or openness, aimed at revitalizing mechanisms of governance through allowing more dissent and initiative, with the goal of strengthening the legitimacy of the ruling class and the structures of democracy as practiced in the Soviet Union.
Gorbachev thought he could carry out these economic reforms without undermining the fundamental position of the revisionist state and party in the economy, and the overall legitimacy of the Soviet system of “state capitalism.” But these economic reforms proved increasingly unsuccessful and the situation was such that by the late 1980s the Soviet rulers couldn't go to war with any hope of winning. Meanwhile, the failure of perestroika (restructuring) actually accelerated economic decline and political disorder.
Centrifugal forces were pulling things apart. Regional leaders increasingly fought for advantage within the Soviet Union. The Soviet influence over the Eastern bloc countries started collapsing with Poland and the rise of the U.S.-supported Solidarity movement, then with the fall of the Berlin Wall, followed by the other national republics coming apart, etc.
This brought things to a head—a section of the ruling class, located in the army, attempted to oust Gorbachev by arresting him, with the aim of thereby ending perestroika and glasnost. Another section, headed by Boris Yeltsin, moved against those fighting for the old order—but with the aim of doing away with any pretense to socialism altogether and instead putting Russia on a fully and openly capitalist foundation. Yeltsin prevailed—and in the process carried through the fate of Gorbachev by first rendering him irrelevant and then retiring him from public life.
In the immediate aftermath of the dissolution of the Soviet Union, and with China’s evermore blatant turning to capitalist methods and morality, and suppression of the masses, bourgeois figures around the world crowed about the “death of communism.” In the midst of this bourgeois celebration, Bob Avakian made a decisive intervention with the book Phony Communism Is Dead, Long Live Real Communism. This book goes head to head with the bourgeoisie and goes deeply into the real experience of communism and the real lessons to draw. BA has gone further in all this since then, but this book stands as a remarkable document.
Especially in light of the bourgeois commentators’ claim both then and now that communism was a drab and dull society, the following from BA in that book stands out:
There is nothing more uplifting than communism—nothing which gives greater scope to human imagination and creativity, to the vision of a vastly different world, and to the initiative of the masses in creating such a world. That the rulers of the Soviet Union could not inspire people with this ideal is a condemnation of them. But more than that, it is a reflection of the fact they had abandoned and betrayed the principles of communism and become but another group of enforcers of the old order.
As part of the current offensive, many of the commentators on Gorbachev’s life and death claim that this experience shows that diversity of opinion and dissent are incompatible with socialism. In fact, as part of Bob Avakian’s ongoing summation of the contradictions involved moving to a fully communist world, he has developed a much more scientific understanding of the sources and dynamics of the contradictions of socialist society and the pathways through which to deal with them. This has been part of a much larger process through which BA has put communism on a much more scientific foundation and developed a whole new framework for human emancipation.
This decades-long process, as it applies to socialist society, is distilled and concentrated in the Constitution for the New Socialist Republic in North America, which Bob Avakian authored. The provisions for dissent, diversity and democratic forms of many different types that are found in this constitution are not window dressing or “add-ons,” but are essential to moving to the communist vision of a world beyond exploiter and exploited, oppressor and oppressed and all antagonistic social divisions between human beings.
Here is how BA put it, in the New Year’s Statement of January 2021, “A New Year, The Urgent Need For A Radically New World—For The Emancipation Of All Humanity”:
It is a fact that, nowhere else, in any actual or proposed founding or guiding document of any government, is there anything like not only the protection but the provision for dissent and intellectual and cultural ferment that is embodied in this Constitution, while this has, as its solid core, a grounding in the socialist transformation of the economy, with the goal of abolishing all exploitation, and the corresponding transformation of the social relations and political institutions, to uproot all oppression, and the promotion, through the educational system and in society as a whole, of an approach that will “enable people to pursue the truth wherever it leads, with a spirit of critical thinking and scientific curiosity, and in this way to continually learn about the world and be better able to contribute to changing it in accordance with the fundamental interests of humanity.” All this will unchain and unleash a tremendous productive and social force of human beings enabled and inspired to work and struggle together to meet the fundamental needs of the people—transforming society in a fundamental way and supporting and aiding revolutionary struggle throughout the world—aiming for the final goal of a communist world, free from all exploitation and oppression, while at the same time addressing the truly existential environmental and ecological crisis, in a meaningful and comprehensive way, which is impossible under the system of capitalism-imperialism.
A Final Irony: One Thing They Are NOT Talking About
In summing up Gorbachev, the politicos and pundits of the bourgeoisie are going on about other things as well, including “democracy vs. autocracy,” “seeking peace and cooperation vs. expansionism,” in ways that promote the interests of whichever section of the ruling class the commentator in question may owe allegiance to.
But one thing few if any are touching is something extremely relevant to the U.S. today. Bob Avakian, in writing about the possible emergence of a revolutionary situation in today’s United States, drew important lessons from a broad range of historical experience—and this included the experience of the Soviet Union in the Gorbachev era. In Something Terrible, OR Something Truly Emancipating: Profound Crisis, Deepening Divisions, The Looming Possibility Of Civil War—And The Revolution That Is Urgently Needed, A Necessary Foundation, A Basic Roadmap For This Revolution, BA wrote:
There is some important historical experience to learn from—situations where a ruling class was no longer able to rule in the “normal way” that people had been conditioned to accept, and a real possibility arose of putting an end to the existing system, even one which had been so powerfully entrenched that such a profound change had long seemed impossible. This has happened especially when the ruling class, or a section of the ruling class, of that system no longer believes in, and more or less openly abandons, what had been the “cohering norms”—the regulating set of beliefs and processes—of that system.
An example of this kind of thing—which involved a significant change, even though it was not brought about by a real revolution—is the collapse of the Soviet Union in the years 1989-91. The Soviet Union was the world’s first socialist state, brought into being through the Russian Revolution of 1917. The truth, however, is that capitalism had actually been restored in the Soviet Union, in the mid-1950s—even as it continued for some time to maintain the façade of “socialism.” But then, in the 1980s, “reforms” were instituted that began to unravel this whole thing, and finally sections of the ruling class abandoned the pretense of socialism, and the country underwent a transformation to an openly capitalist society, dropping even its outward identity as the “USSR” (Union of Soviet Socialist Republics). The same kind of thing happened in some Eastern European countries that had been under the effective domination of the Soviet Union—countries where there were massive uprisings, the ruling structures split apart, and the result was a change from disguised capitalism to open capitalism—a major change, even if not a real revolution.
This, again, is part of a more general phenomenon where major change, and even a real revolution, can become possible (or more possible) not simply when there is a deep crisis in society, and not just when the ruling forces are seriously divided, but when they actually split apart, and the old way of ruling can no longer hold.
Think about that. The great irony of the celebration of Gorbachev may end up being the omission of what proves to be the most directly relevant to the U.S. situation today: what it portends for the legitimacy crisis looming for that system, and what must replace it.
There is, in “Something Terrible Or Something Truly Emancipating” not only a foundation for understanding, but a roadmap to seize on that legitimacy crisis—not merely to replace one form of bourgeois rule with another (as happened in the fall of Gorbachev), but to wage a revolutionary struggle of millions and tens of millions, to actually take a giant step to ending all systems of exploitation and oppression. And there is in the work done over decades by BA the key to making that revolution one worth fighting… one truly leading to a whole new world.
Where to Go to Learn More:
Phony Communism Is Dead...Long Live Real Communism! (RCP Publications, 1992; Second Edition with Appendix Democracy: More Than Ever We Can and Must Do Better Than That, 2004). Available online: Appendix - Democracy: More Than Ever We Can and Must Do Better Than That.
· Part II Socialism and the Advance to Communism: A Radically Different Way the World Could Be, A Road to Real Emancipation
· Part IV The Leadership We Need
Constitution for the New Socialist Republic in North America, authored by Bob Avakian
Conquer the World? The International Proletariat Must and Will, by Bob Avakian
Bob Avakian interview on the Michael Slate Show, “On Communism, Leadership, Stalin, and the Experience of Socialist Society”