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Mainstream, VOL XLIX, No 36, August 27, 2011

August 1991 Coup Against Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev : Analysis and Editorials by Nikhil Chakravartty

Friday 2 September 2011, by Nikhil Chakravartty

On August 19 this year was observed the twentieth anniversary of the coup against the then Soviet President and General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev, by the hardliners in the Soviet Communist Party, an event that engendered a massive popular backlash in Russia and the entire USSR and expedited the demise of first the CPSU and then the Soviet Union itself, notwithstanding the fact that due to remarkable mass resistance the coup failed by August 21 and Gorbachev returned from his summer vacation to Moscow fully restored to his posts (even as several of the coup leaders were either arrested or committed suicide). Analysing the events N.C. wrote three pieces (the first two as short editorials in Mainstream on August 31, 1991 and September 7, 1991 on the impact of the Soviet events on Indo-Soviet relations and the lesson New Delhi should draw from those, while the third was a detailed article on the overall effect of those events on the communist and socialist movements from the historical standpoint that appeared in Mainstream on September 21, 1991; a slighty abridged version of this third piece had been published in The Hindustan Times earlier). We are reproducing all the three here to mark the anniversary. —Editor

FROM N.C.’S WRITINGS

Refashioning Indo-Soviet Relations

The storm over Narasimha Rao and his government’s reaction to the swift Soviet developments does not seem to have ended. In fact, some of the Cabinet Ministers as also important Congressmen are believed to be insistent on the government coming out with a clear statement on its relations with Moscow.

One has, however, to take into account the fact that cataclysmic changes have been taking place in the Soviet Union and it may be wise for a government to wait and watch before rushing to make a policy-statement on the subject. Not a single item in the USSR can be regarded today as being sure of survival—neither personalities nor institutions. The rapid unfolding of developments have demonstrated the vulner-ability of Gorbachev and the sudden emergence of Yeltsin as a world leader, although at the same time one can hardly say that Yeltsin can do without Gorbachev. It is also quite possible that this balance will not prevail after some time.

As for institutions, who in the wide world could forecast that the all-powerful office of the Central Committee of the Soviet Communist Party would be put under lock and key by just a decree—without any resistance by its staff who were supposed to be the successors of the intrepid Bolsheviks in Lenin’s mould?

No doubt Narasimha Rao’s initial observation on Gorbachev’s ouster that it should serve as a warning to all those in a hurry to bring about reforms, created confusion and could have been interpreted with good reason as a positive gesture towards the coup regime. Yet one has to understand that in the Soviet history of the last seventy years, most of the leadership changes were brought about by some sort of coups, which were legitimised by stage-managed endorsement by the party’s Central Committee. There was therefore nothing frightfully wrong if Narasimha Rao had come to believe that the coup leaders had come to stay. As subsequent reports have revealed, the US Administration itself expected that the coup might succeed and it was careful not to slam the door in the face of the junta that overthrew Gorbachev.

But it was amazing that the Government of India at that time did not express any appreciation of Gorbachev’s role in cementing Indo-Soviet friendship, apart from the Soviet leader’s contri-bution to world peace.

However, New Delhi exercised caution by not sending any message of greetings to the new junta on the very morrow of the coup. What is worth nothing also is that after the collapse of the coup, the Prime Minister sent greetings not only to President Gorbachev but also to Boris Yeltsin, the elected President of the Russian Federation, one of the constituent republics of the USSR. This implied recognition of the new realities in the Soviet Union where Yeltsin’s stock has shot up by his prompt lead to the mass resistance against the coup.

In this context, one has to note the complex problem of diplomacy that faces New Delhi. On one hand, it has to continue dealing with the Soviet Government because formally that is in charge of the country’s foreign policy and defence. At the same time, the constituent republics have already secured a degree of autonomy even before the Union Treaty has been signed.

The cyclonic changes in the Soviet Union may soon end up with many of the constituent republics asserting their independence from Moscow. The process is not going to be confined to the Baltic states as is clear from the latest reports.

The turmoil in the Soviet Union has upset many of the contractual schedules in the multi-dimensional Indo-Soviet trade. Since the Soviet Union is reportedly responsible for 70 per cent of this country’s defence supplies, any disruption in the schedule of delivery will have a bearing on the security imperatives. Also, there are agreements for crude oil, fertiliser, newsprint, pharmaceuticals and coking coal supplies from the Soviet Union. How far these schedules are going to be kept in the midst of the turbulent situation in the Soviet Union today, is certainly a matter of concern in New Delhi. Finally, there is the vexed question of the rupee-rouble ratio artificially maintained at present. As India’s Foreign Secretary has publicly explained recently, this needs to be settled without delay at the political level as it has a direct bearing upon the balance of trade as also defence supplies in the past as well as the future.

While Indo-Soviet relations thus continue to occupy a very important place in India’s foreign policy framework, it is in India’s national interests that stability soon returns in the USSR, so that the present multifarious relationship between the two countries can be refashioned in the context of the emerging realities in the Soviet Union.

(Mainstream, August 31, 1991)

Lesson from Moscow

In the staggering drama of totally unprece-dented developments in the Soviet Union—a veritable mass upsurge of imponderable dimension —there are issues which have a special significance for us in this country.

Will the USSR remain intact, or fall apart? By and large, the world abroad would not welcome the total disintegration of the Soviet Union into a mosaic of conflicting principalities—as it was in the Middle Ages, long before Peter the Great came on the scene. It is not just a question of keeping safe the deadly nuclear arsenal of the Soviet Union. If all the nuclear weapons from the constituent republics are collected and kept in the safe custody of Moscow, even then there is every likelihood of tension persisting and conflicts breaking out among the constituent republics, and also between some of the republics and the states in their neighbourhood outside the Soviet Union.

It is in this background that one notices avid interest in our country—both in the ruling establishment and in the Opposition—at the latest moves in the Congress of People’s Deputies for bringing about an understanding between the Union Centre and the constituent republics, even as the three Baltic states go out of the Union. Even if the ultimate product is the emergence of a confederation with the Union as the coordinating centre and the republics as sovereign entities agreeing to it handling defence, foreign affairs, communication and overall economic strategy, it will ensure the continuity of the USSR though divested of the authoritarian powers of the past.

Outside the Soviet Union, there is no other country but India which has as its components so many regions with varied facets of culture and ethnic characteristics and different levels of development. For good historical reasons, our Indian Union could hold together so long as an extended momentum of the powerful freedom struggle which could force the British out of the country, and despite partition, could make considerable headway in nation-building and economic development.

However, in the last decade, new manifestations of regional crisis have been coming up which refuse to be solved by the well-tested traditional methods. The result has been bitter alienation of the common people from the central authority. Whether it is Kashmir, Punjab or Assam, the question of unity of India has come to the forefront. It can no longer be managed in the old way. For long, there has been going on a tussle between the Centre and the States, mainly centring round the demand for decentralisation of power. Side by side has developed a theory—mainly by the Congress—that the Centre must be strengthened, wielding more powers, if the country’s integrity has to be preserved. The fallacy of this theory has been clearly demonstrated in the USSR where the all-powerful Soviet Communist Party has been found to be incapable of keeping the country together.

What needs to be emphasised, here and now, is that the upheavals in the Soviet Union have a very relevant lesson for India. If we do not start redesigning our state structure immediately, we may be confronted with a crisis which may irreparably damage the fabric of India’s unity.

(Mainstream, September 7, 1991)

Journey beyond Marx

In the midst of the excitement over the dramatic developments taking place before our very eyes in the Soviet Union, we tend to miss their historic significance. In the presence of History, one is apt to miss its majesty.

Perhaps no other single event since the Second World War can match the current revolution in the Soviet Union in its far-reaching dimensions. Never before the crack-up of such a powerful state has taken place with so little of violence. Barring the Indian and Chinese revolutions, no other event in the contemporary world has seen such a vast number of people spread over such a far-flung country stirred to protracted political action as one witnesses in the Soviet Union today. Compared to what has been taking place in the entire Soviet Union now, the start of the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 was a relatively small affair though its cost in terms of human losses was far greater. And all this has been happening without conforming to text-book forecasts, and that’s the reason why its unpredictability has baffled both the Communists and anti-Communists all over the world. It’s not the End of History as some very learned scholars predicted in the United States, but the Beginning of a new period in the mankind’s march to freedom.

The highroads of history are never straight and smooth, but invariably tortuous, with its ups and downs. It is precisely in this context that one has to realise the untenability of the tenacious belief that Marxism is immutable as also of the equally aggressive ideology that Market decides the fate of mankind. It is worth noting that Karl Marx himself, though down-right emphatic to the point of being aggressive in stating his views, never tried to stamp them with a sense of finality. In course of his turbulent career, he changed his views over and over again. And yet the socio-political theory associated with his name has emerged as the most hidebound in modern times, invested with the authority of an oracle. Those who, in some form or other, have taken Marxism as a doctrine, a dogma, an article of faith are honestly baffled by the convulsions that are now taking place in the Soviet Union.

How and why has this happened? This can be understood only by referring to the history of socialist thought in the last two centuries, even if we leave out the early stirrings for social justice which in one form or other have been inscribed in human history. More specifically in the European traditions, from Spartacus to Thomas More with the Utopia, on to the Levellers, it is a remarkable saga of human urge for social justice. During the French Revolution with its banner proclaiming Liberty, Equality and Fraternity, there were thinkers who aspired to the vision of socialism. For instance, Babeuf’s Conspiracy of the Equals wanted to carry forward the principle of political equality to the sphere of private property. The stirrings for social equality that Babeuf represented failed because of “the absence of material conditions” at the time as Marx analysed. In fact, Babeuf was the precursor of Blanquism, and his ideas cropped up again and again in the revolutionary upheavals of nineteenth century France. In contemporary England, Godwin in his Enquiry concerning Political Justice propagated what can be considered as ethical communism, with an overdose of anarchist thinking.

With the Industrial Revolution bringing in unprecedented turbulence in the social, economic and political arena, one finds, on one hand, the phenomenon of the Luddites spontaneously breaking the new machines, followed by a programme of political action as exemplified by the Chartists. On the other hand, in the world of thought and social enquiry, one comes across the early pioneers like Robert Owen, and then a whole galaxy of thinkers who were absorbed in studying the unfolding of the Industrial Revolution and its social impact. Bentham, Hall, Thompson and Ricardo were all groping for some form of social justice in the new revolutionary context. In France appeared Saint-Simon, Fourier, Proudhon and Louis Blanc to name only a few, while in Germany appeared thinkers from Kant to Fichte to Feurbach and Rodbertus.

It is in this background of the remarkable intellectual churning up that Marx and Engels tried to assimilate different streams of thought from Hegel to Godwin, Fourier to Bakunin and Duhring. While Marx and Engels made assertive claims, they constantly tried to add up or revise their views. Engels, for instance, claimed: “Just as Darwin discovered the law of evolution in organic nature, so Marx discovered the law of evolution of human history.” At the same time, he acknowledged on another occasion the relative independence of spiritual forces in history. When the Paris Commune rose in 1871, Marx was ecstatic over this storming of heavens and hailed it as “the glorious harbinger of a new society”. At the same time, when it was ruthlessly suppressed, he and Engels did not hesitate to dissect it with clinical objectivity.

Throughout the nineteenth century, one notices this remarkable feature of constant rethinking on the part of the leaders of socialist thought. As the naked violence of the early phase of the Industrial Revolution gave place to a stable capitalist development, Marxist thinking also correspondingly moved. The strident call in the Communist Manifesto in 1848, reflecting the aggressive tone of the First International, was considerably modified when the Second International was formed in 1889. By this time, internationalism itself was tempered by the shift in the focus to the growth of socialist movements in different countries under different conditions.

In the camp of the German socialists who were then in the forefront with their Erfurt Programme, the Marxists found themselves to be a minority force. In England, the movement concentrated in the building of trade unionism, while the Fabian Society with a pragmatic outlook worked as a sort of a bridge between trade unionists and socialists and helped in the formation of the Labour Party by the turn of the century.

It is worth noting that just about this time, Bernstein came out with outspoken criticism of Marxism, pointing to the need for Marxists to take into account the changing realities of life, and demanded a critical revision of the entire Marxian system of thought and action. In a sense he pressed for a radical democratisation of the Marxist movement. The attack on Bernstein came from Karl Kautsky who represented the orthodox revolutionary school. Out of Bernstein’s demand for revision of Marxist thinking came the term, Revisionism, which continued to be a dirty word in Marxist vocabulary until Gorbachev.

The militant tenor of Russian Marxism is to be traced to the prevailing objective situation in that country where the ideology under the leadership of Plekhanov faced conditions of extreme underground functioning having to fight the black repression of Czarism. The first battle of the new Marxist trend was against the Narodnik revolutionaries who believed in the cult of individual terrorism as the principal means of overthrowing the Czarist regime. The focus of activity was among the working class and revolutionary youth, into which Lenin came. Within the newly-formed Russian Social Democratic Labour Party, the effort was to build an iron-clad underground revolutionary party under conditions of total repression.

The origin of the rigid tradition of the communist movement is to be traced to those early days in Russia when objective conditions kept no other opening. It was precisely on this point that the split in the party came in 1903, when the majority insisted on a highly centralised organisation with a militant programme, while the minority favoured a more cautious programme and a cooperative approach towards other revolutionary groups. The majority, the Bolsheviks, took over the party and threw out the minority, the Mensheviks, and thereby was established the principle that dissent could have no place in a Marxist party.

The parting of company within the Second International came with the outbreak of the War, when the leadership of socialists in most countries supported the War as a patriotic duty while the Bolsheviks under Lenin branded it as an imperialist war in which the working class had no interest in victory: there were intrepid revolutionaries in other countries taking the same position such as Rosa Luxemburg in Germany and even individuals in Britain and France.

The War brought disaster for Czarism and that led to its overthrow in February 1917. In that revolution the Bolsheviks had no role to play and the new government under Kerensky was a democratic government. When Lenin returned from exile, he promptly gave a call for strengthening democracy in what came to be known as his April Theses, and he regrouped the party under conditions of semi-legality. When the conservative pro-Czarist elements under General Kornilov tried to overthrow the much-harassed Kerensky Government in 1917, Lenin gave the call for the defeat of the Kornilov rising, and thereby moved into the centre-stage of Petrograd politics at the time. Then as the War brought more misery and mass discontent welled up with the government proving to be impotent, Lenin gave the call to strike, and the Winter Palace was captured and power came to the Bolsheviks. It was by no means a mass upsurge but a determined band of revolutionaries rousing the entire people that succeeded.

An outstanding feature of this November Revolution was that it was led by a whole cluster of outstanding political figures of whom Lenin was the leader—Trotsky, Bukharin, Zinoviev, Redek, Sverdlov and Stalin, to name only the more well-known. It was no doubt a party of iron discipline, but all these leaders exchanged views freely and sometimes in the open—with angry polemics but no intimidation. There was extraordinary political ferment and intellectual exchanges in the early days of the Revolution. That was how Lenin managed to switch from one set of policy-strategy to another very different without any difficulty. From War Communism to New Economic Policy was the most unorthodox switch-over and it emerged out of intense debate.

A streak of intolerance towards other parties is generally the feature of a revolutionary situation, but within the Bolshevik leadership under Lenin, there was uninhibited exchange of views. Side by side, in the newly-formed Communist International intensely divergent views were freely expressed as could be seen in the famous exchange between Lenin and M.N. Roy on assessing the national liberation movements.

All this was put down once Stalin managed to get control of the party leadership. He was unsparing in hounding out political opponents. Starting with Trotsky, his liquidation drive physically eliminated all the noted Bolsheviks. The bloody purge spread to the armed forces with the liquidation of Tukachevsky and Blucher among others. No doubt Stalin displayed tremendous drive in changing the face of the Soviet Union by his planned programme of industrialisation. The cost in terms of human losses was enormous as could be seen in the forced collectivisation of agriculture which took a ghastly toll of millions of peasant lives and their livestock. Even today the Soviet Union has to pay for this crippling of agriculture.

While it would be absurd to hold Stalin responsible for all the faults and shortcomings in the Soviet system, there is no doubt that Stalin behaved in the ruthless tradition of Peter the Great—a character emerging out of Russian history—rather than as a leader of an international movement. This could be seen most forcefully during the Second World War when the heroic feat of the Red Army was invoked in the name of Mother Russia, and it was called the Great Patriotic War—not the war in defence of the only socialist state, as the Communists the world over wanted to believe. This stamp of totalitarian authority was asserted with utmost ferocity within the party and the Soviet society when the slightest dissent led to banishment and terror, the labour camp and total subservience became part of Soviet life. It may be worth noting that anti-Semitism was widely prevalent in Czarist Russia, and out of that disgraceful legacy might have come down the openly discernible anti-Semitism in Stalin’s Russia.

The Communist International was frankly turned into an extended arm of Stalin’s foreign policy. No dissent or difference was possible—that was why Mao kept the Chinese Communist Party away from the Comintern, while Thaelman’s independent approach in Germany was frowned upon and Ulbricht became Stalin’s favourite. Rosa Luxemburg’s independent views within the framework of Marxism were banned from circulation and so were the reminiscences of Lenin’s widow, Krupskaya. Even Lenin’s will was suppressed.

Stalin’s approach towards the great powers—his negotiations with Nazi Germany leading to the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of 1939, and later his dealings with Churchill and Roosevelt—were all permeated with blatant cynical power-politics without any streak of ideological considerations, or susceptibilities towards smaller nations.

It was, therefore, nothing unusual that the change in the leadership of the Soviet Communist Party after Stalin was pulled off by a virtual coup—first by Malenkov and then by Khrushchev ousting Malenkov and killing Beria in the Central Committee meeting itself. Khrushchev’s exposure of Stalin’s misdeeds shook the communist world. While many of the fellow-travellers left, the communist monolith itself was shaken. The Hungarian uprising of 1956—undoubtedly a nationalist assertion against Moscow’s domination —was its direct result, while most of the Communist Parties in Europe were left in disarray. Within the world communist movement, conformity was broken. From Beijing to Rome to Prague to Warsaw—there were ample signs of the Moscow authoritarianism becoming a total misfit.

But Khrushchev while exposing Stalin did not question the system itself. This is where Gorbachev, preceded by Andropov, made the qualitative difference. Its impact is felt not merely in the Soviet Union but the whole world. The perestroika-glasnost revolution has literally changed the face of the world. There is a tendency nowadays to say that Gorbachev’s intervention in international affairs was beneficial, but he messed up at home. In a sense, this sounds true but can hardly be regarded as an assessment of his total revolutionary contribution.

Gorbachev has brought about the end of the Cold War and has made striking progress towards disarmament, both nuclear and conventional, so much so that the threat of instant nuclear annihilation has to a large measure disappeared. Within the Soviet Union the economic mishandling when shifting from the outworn command structures has resulted in dislocation and shortage; but the awakened people did not pray for the return of the old days of total control. Glasnost has stirred demands for independence by the constituent republics.

There is little doubt that despite Gorbachev’s efforts at accommodating the conservative elements in the party and correspondingly earning the annoyance of the radicals, the hard core within the Soviet Communist Party thought that they could take advantage of the prevailing discontent and thereby oust Gorbachev. It was this which led to the putsch of August 19-21.

Why did the coup fail? The miscalculation of the hardliners was that they thought they would be able to cash in on popular discontent to take over power. They little realised the new temper of the people whose disaffection was with the half-hearted nature of the reforms and not with the reforms themselves. Even the armed forces could not be summoned by the coup leaders to put down public resistance. How did these conservative leaders make such miscalculations and thereby fail to re-establish the hegemony of the once-all-powerful Soviet Communist Party?

The fact of the matter is that in the new world that has opened up with technological advance, the consciousness of the common man has also undergone considerable change. This could be seen in Eastern Europe where the all-powerful party establishments with the police and armed forces at their command, fell like a house of cards. Glasnost has changed the political climate in the Soviet world. And this enabled even a hastily set up popular resistance under Yeltsin to defeat the coup and bring back Gorbachev from detention. The amazing absence of violence in such a lightning political operation also testifies to the strength of the people’s consciousness.

Unless this point is understood in all its dimension, the Soviet developments are not possible to explain. The ignominous crumbling down of the mighty Soviet Communist Party has to be ascribed to the fact that such a huge organisation has been totally divorced from the new trend represented by the perestroika. Rather, it tried to act as a brake upon the reforms; obviously the winds of change initiated by Gorbachev’s New Thinking did not appear to have entered its musty corridors. No doubt there are individual Communists who are attuned to the new developments—Gorbachev himself is one—but the Leviathan that the CPSU had become, was found to be out of touch with the new realities.

From this overview of the communist movement, what emerges is that the movement started by Marx was born out of exciting discussions, high-pitched debates in which conformism was never imposed. The Bolshevik contingent having to move in conditions of repression developed its own rigidities, on which was imposed the qualities of the Russian tradition. Since it became successful in capturing power under extraordinary circumstances—rather defying Marx’s calculation that the revolution would come first in an industrially advanced country—that Revolution was held aloft as an irreplaceable model, making it almost impossible for the entire communist movement to move in cooperation and collaboration with other socialist forces. This very weakness of the movement had so long been tom-tomed as its strong point. The result was that it failed to absorb new ideas, new approaches. It is not just an accident that the communist movement did not throw up a counter-part of John Maynard Keynes. Perhaps there were quite a few who might have been, but were liquidated or spent their lives in Stalin’s labour camps.

Now that the mighty flood has swept off the old, outworn edifice, it is time for all socialist thinkers—in the Soviet Union as also all the world over—to invest the concept of socialism with new qualities—not only of democracy and social justice but other issues of social development (such as the serious problem of ecological preservation) as well. Humankind has reached a new crossroad—transiting from the Industrial Revolution to the Technological Revolution, demanding new and more adequate guarantees of social justice. The pioneers of socialist thought in the past were pathfinders to a new world of advanced productive forces. It is for their descendants today to discard old mores, and move on to new horizons—to strive, to seek, to build a brave new world of freedom, justice and equality. Marx was certainly an important milestone in the journey towards achieving a better life for all on earth but he would have been the first to resent being turned into a tribal totem for blind worshippers.

(Mainstream, September 21, 1991)

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