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Politics in Russia
An interview with Boris Kagarlitsky
Boris Kagarlitsky is a Moscow-based writer, academic, and democratic socialist political activist. He was a leader of the Party of Labor, which was outlawed by Boris Yeltsin in the aftermath of the 1993 presidential coup that resulted in the destruction of parliament. Since then he has served as an advisor to various trade unions and youth groups. He is the author of Recasting Marxism: New Realism, New Barbarism.
JIM SMITH: Politics in Russia seem to be very complicated these days. Is that your sense?
BORIS KAGARLITSKY: The political situation in Russia is becoming very simple in the sense that were moving very fast towards some kind of new dictatorship.
Whos going to lead it?
There is a kind of hidden consensus among the elite and, unfortunately, among the population that democracy will not survive. Its also important to say that today theres no democracy. Russia is a very peculiar system. On the one hand we have all the characteristics of democracy. We have elections, we have the parliament, we have political parties, and we have a free press. At the same time, everyone knows that the decision-making process is completely authoritarian. So all these democratic mechanisms have very little to do with the real decision making. Everyone knows that election fraud is becoming an increasing part of the political process. You have elections but the outcome doesnt depend on voters, it depends on the local power structure, the casiques. In Russia we started using that term Casique after the local strongmen, the local political powers in Mexico.
Will the presidential elections be held?
Theoretically well have presidential elections. My prediction is that we probably wont have presidential elections. The problem the leading elite has now is that they cannot keep things under control. This is the regime that has had power since the coup in 1993 up through the August 1998 crash of the ruble. This regime cannot survive for long because its economic and also its social base has eroded. That makes everyone certain that there will be a transition to something different. The question is, a transition to what?
The Russian oligarchy has created a system that is completely unproductive. It is consuming the resources of the country, including human resources, rather than reproducing the economy. As a result, the economy is shrinking. This means that there are less and less resources for the oligarchy. This increases the competition among different groups in the oligarchy for resources. After the rubles crash in 1998, everyone understood that we had too many oligarchs. So for one group of oligarchs to survive, they must expropriate the other group of oligarchs. We are approaching the stage when expropriation becomes inevitable. Unfortunately, its not the proletariat thats going to expropriate the capitalists, but one group of capitalists that will expropriate the other group of capitalists.
Another factor is that for the first time since 1989, the economy is growing. Its growing to such an extent that in the United States, they are now taking protectionist measures against Russian imports like steel. It is interesting that the American government teaches everyone about free trade but its one of the most protectionist markets, particularly against the third world and eastern Europe.
But today the economy is growing because the ruble collapsed and the price of labor is so cheap that the products become incredibly cheap. In the steel industry, a Russian worker will earn $500 a month, while an American worker might earn up to $5,000. The skills and education of the Russian would be the same as the American. But the Russian is working for third-world wages. Some would say thats not a fair competition but what is unfair is the small wage caused by the collapse of the domestic market in Russia. Thats why the Russian industry is so aggressively exporting.
This economic situation has created a crisis among the elite. There is growth with nearly zero investment. In recent years, in most industries production slowed down, but the capacity was still there. When the economy started growing, they started expanding production without new investment by recovering the old equipment. But this kind of expansion is very limited. For example, the equipment is falling apart. To produce quality products, you have to invest in new equipment. In Russia, there is a labor force, a market, everything is very cheap but there is no new equipment. The oligarchs do not want to invest. There is no structure for investment. There is no investment research, strategy, decision-making bodies. So their money is not used for capital. The money is used for buying real estate in the Bahamas. It will bring money back to them and it is safe. Its rational for them to export capital rather than invest in Russia. At the same time, the oligarchs want the economy to expand so it will bring them more money. This is the contradiction. They dont want to invest but they want economic growth. They want the state to invest for them. And they want to take the profits away. You privatize the profits and socialize the losses. The kind of state we have in Russia accepts this idea. But the state doesnt have the money. This increases the pressure from the oligarchs to have the state expropriate the wealth of the other groups of oligarchs.
Would the wealth of the expropriated oligarchs then become state property?
Not necessarily. The state is in debt as are the oligarchs. The money could be used to write off some of the debt or they could be forced to invest in state projects or state banks. This is what they have done already to ordinary people. Now they are going to do it to each other.
At least one-third of the population votes for the left and another third is center-left. It would seem to be an incredible prospect for the left. In reality its not. First of all, Gennady Zyuganovs Communist party leadership is shifting from left-wing positions to nationalist, nostalgic, Czarist, even anti-Semitic positions. The party is hijacked from its members by the leadership. In a certain sense its a very Stalinist way of doing things. The Stalinist method of organization enables the leadership to be almost completely independent from the mass of the members, with the members being passive and accepting almost anything the leadership does. However, in the past, the leadership had to accept continuity with the revolutionary tradition. While today the leadership of Zyuganov has broken with that tradition. With Zyuganov, there is a dramatic shift to the reactionary component of Stalinism with the elimination of everything Marxist or Leninist in the tradition. Its Stalinism purified from Leninism.
Is the Party leadership united on this?
The leadership is united, but the party is not. Because of this, they have had to systematically purge all the elements in the party not acceptable to the leadership. People of all different types and currents have been purged. Left-liberal types like Boris Slavin are out. Social democratic types like Vladimir Semago have been expelled. Even traditional Stalinists like Richard Kosolapov also have been expelled. Alexey Podberiozkin who was not even a party member, but a Zyuganovite is ostracized. The entire youth communist league, the Komsomol, led by Igor Maligrov was expelled. It had 30,000 members. They formed a new pro-Zyuganov youth alliance. Its not even a problem of right or left. If you have any independent thoughts, youre out. This has created an intellectual crisis in the party.
The party faction in the Duma is becoming increasingly corrupt. This has to do with the nature of Russian politics. In the Duma, its the norm for the majority of deputies to take money for every important vote. So for example, if there is legislation on advertising, the lobbyists come and bribe the deputies. They call it lobbying, but its really bribery. Its much worse than in America where they make contributions. In Russia they dont make contributions, they just give you money for a vote: from $1,000 up to $30,000 for a single vote.
The Duma is full of these people so its very tempting to the deputies. Not every single deputy takes bribes but it is a normal practice. Its not even denounced by the Communist Party leadership. There is no attempt by the leadership to fight against it. On the contrary, its seen as one of the main advantages of being in the Duma. The Party gains, in a more subtle way, from getting money for their needs from different interest groups: in a more American style, such as contributions. Its kept secret how many contributors there are. The Party leaders control that money. This creates a situation where they are politically and morally unable to keep their party members from becoming corrupt. Russia is a very poor country nowadays. Going into the parliament is a good way of becoming rich. These are people of lower middle class backgrounds who cannot join the right wing parties since they are only for the rich, so they join the left to become upwardly mobile.
This is very discouraging.
Its incredibly discouraging. There are two reasons why the movement is so weak at the grassroots level. The society has been through incredible turmoil and disorganization. People are unable to come together because they cant even formulate their collective interests. Imagine, there are people who work half-time as industrial workers and half-time as peddlers or they are engaged in buying and selling. If you produce china, you dont get paid a wage, you get paid in china, which then you have to go out and sell or exchange. After all this you dont know if youre a proletarian or a petty bourgeois merchant or even a peasant since you have to grow your potatoes and your orchard. So its very hard to formulate your own interest.
The second problem is that the economy has been in decline for nine years with constantly growing unemployment. From your own history, you know that the labor movement is usually stronger when the economy is on the rise. When the economy is declining, workers are afraid to lose their jobs and feel totally dependent on the administration of the enterprise. Since the Soviet times, enterprises have been industrial communities where the workers were dependent not just for their wages but for their housing, holidays, health care, and other things. This dependence on the enterprise management contributes to the weakness of the mass movement.
This year, for the first time, the economy grew. To give workers more confidence, we need at least two or three years of minimum economic growth at 2 or 3 percent. This is not much considering that we have lost about half of our economy. At this rate, it would take about 30 years to regain our earlier economic size. This small amount of growth is no solution to the problems of the country. But it is socially important because it can give a boost to the labor movement.
Union leadership today is also very corrupt. The old Teamsters union would be an accurate comparison for Russian unions today. But this corruption is not challenged from the bottom because the unions are weak at the grassroots. When they get stronger, theyll change the leadership.
If the economic growth continues it will present new possibilities for the left. But a second factor is the elections. If they take place, the Communist Party will face electoral disaster. Not because people wont vote for them. The problem is that this time the electoral system will work against the Communist Party to the same extent that it worked in their favor in the first election. This time, the parties that get more than 5 percent of the vote, which qualifies them to get into the Parliament, will win around 75 percent of the vote, not 50 percent. Therefore, the Communist Party with the same vote will get less seats. To make things worse, its not going to be the biggest party this time. So the Communist Party will benefit less than any other party. The other parties tend to make alliances against the Communist Party. Local governors already are forming these alliances and they are selecting who is going to win. Most governors are not Communists. As a result, the Communist Party will face an electoral disaster. I dont know what they are going to do with that. Theyve failed to create a system of alliances to broaden their appeal. On the contrary, they have alienated more people.
So the question is what is going to happen after the elections, if they take place. If there are elections, there will be a huge crisis inside the Communist Party after they are over. I do not exclude that there will be an attempt to remove Zyuganov from the leadership. I think that it would fail. Some people may leave and try to form a new broader left wing party, more or less based on the German PDS (Party of Democratic Socialism) model. Maybe it would be a little more social democratic. But you cannot have a social democratic party in Russia. The conditions will not allow it. Either you have to be more radical or you have to be just a liberal. Even in Europe its getting harder to be a Social Democrat. In any case, there will be a chance for the creation of a new party. I dont know if it will actually happen. Having faced many political defeats myself, I want to be careful about being too optimistic.
The other possibility is that there would be a coup detat. Everything will change if there is a dictatorship. To be honest, I dont think it would be that bad if this pseudo democracy was thrown out. It is so fake and so demoralizing and so corrupt that we wouldnt be losing much. At the same time, this would create a possibility for creating a new democratic movement formed by the left. Even if we have a dictatorship, I dont think it will be that cruel.
Dont you think political parties would be outlawed?
No, I dont think it would be like Chile or Argentina. I think the dictatorship would be weak. They dont have the capacity to impose a strong dictatorship. But the question will become how to resist this dictatorship. If left politics have to be based on resisting rather than using the parliament, then you have different sorts of people and a different type of organization. That will bring in new people.
What effect is the aggressiveness of NATO having on political thought in Russia?
First of all, Russia has become incredibly anti-American. The anti-Yankee attitude is dominant. Even the Right doesnt dare to be openly pro-American because there is such a strong popular hostility to U.S. hegemonistic policies. Its across the political spectrum.
Also, we have a new generation in Russia. That is the generation that the liberals expected to be theirs. But the new generation rejects neoliberalism completely. First of all, its extremely anti-American. These are teenagers who drink Coca-Cola, wear American jeans, listen to rock music, and speak English. They are computer freaks. They are very much like their American counterparts, so you imagine they are going to be pro-western. Not at all. They take for granted that there are bananas in the shops and coke to drink. It doesnt have any political meaning. For my generation, drinking coke or wearing jeans was a political statement, but not now.
During the Kosovo crisis, it shocked the Americans that the crowds rushing their Embassy and throwing stones and bottles were teenagers, not old Communists. And they were mainly middle-class teenagers. Moscow is a relatively rich city. The whole country is ruined, but there is wealth in Moscow. Its the only place in the country that has such a big middle class. During the bombing, I saw crowds of well dressed middle-class teenagers coming to the American Embassy shouting anti-American slogans. They were not shouting nationalist, or Slavic brotherhood slogans. They were anti-Imperialist and anti-IMF slogans. They carried solidarity posters with China when the Chinese embassy in Belgrade was bombed.
During the Kosovo war, Russian hackers conducted an attack on Pentagon Internet sites and computers. This was recognized by the Pentagon as a serious threat. They managed to block the White House website for half an hour. (Ed. Note: The massive Russian hacker assault was called moonlight maze by the U.S. security agencies and is still being investigated.) They replaced the American flag on the site with a Jolly Roger. These hacker communities are decentralized and, at the same time, very coordinated. After the war, the pirates who dominate the software market in Russia issued a CD-Rom entitled Anti-NATO. The CD was filled with hacker software that you can use for your own private attack on U.S. government sites. It was a big hit.
What do young people think about the fall of the Soviet Union?
Well, middle class youth know there were a lot of bad things about the Soviet Union so they are mainly anarchist and anti-capitalist but also anti-communist. On the other hand, working class kids mythologize the Soviet Union. They think it was a great country that we lost. So they are more pro Soviet. But both groups are anti-capitalist. Not all, but most. There is a constituency for progressive politics among the youth. Again, I dont want to be overly optimistic. Most of the kids are apolitical at the same time they are anti-capitalist and anti-American. Often their anti-communism is directed not against communist ideology but against the Communist Party of Zyuganov.
Whats your view of the major reasons why the Soviet Union fell?
Well, because the Stalinist system exhausted itself. My point of view is that there were two decisive movements. One was in 1968, when they crushed the Prague Spring which meant that they didnt want any change or democratic reform. The bureaucracy wanted to keep the system as is. The system was already exhausted. It had been a great success in terms of modernizing and industrializing the country and educating the people. But then the question was whether it was capable of continuing to manage the country with the same methods that had modernized it. It is one thing to be able to build factories and quite another to coordinate the production of thousands of products from hundreds of factories. All the centrist methods that worked in the 1930s and 1940s failed in the 1960s and 1970s. Thats why some sort of democratic change was absolutely necessary, not just from the humanist view. From the humanistic and moral point of view it was always necessary. From the managerial and technical point of view it was also necessary at this point. When they crushed the Prague Spring, it became clear that the political choice had been made to conserve the system as it used to be.
The second turning point was in 1973 when the oil shortage happened in the west. That provided the system with additional resources to consolidate itself on a conservative basis. By selling oil to the west, they started getting petrodollars in huge numbers, which compensated for the inefficiency of the system. That led to several consequences. The gap between what was needed and what was actually done was increasing, that is, the contradictions were increasing.
The second consequence was the Soviet Union became integrated into the capitalist world system as a supplier of raw materials. Eastern Europe began getting financial credits from the west which were guaranteed through Russian oil. So the Soviet Union became peripheralized through the structure of world trade and through debt. This caused growing corruption, not only in the bureaucracy but in the population, which was corrupted by the type of social contract provided by Brezhnev to the people of the Soviet Union: If you shut up, dont ask for more rights and accept the rule of the bureaucracy then we will supply you with consumer goods. That is why the population was so weak in resisting the liberalism in the late 1980s and early 1990s. All this happened from 1968-1973. In that sense, in 1989-1991, we had no choice in going the way we went. Of course, the left fought against it and we had a lot of illusions about being able to achieve some sort of self-management socialism. When we look back after ten years, we see that the balance of forces was such that we didnt have a chance. The bureaucracy was already oriented to integration with the west. We got the restoration of capitalism, dependence on the west and this old Russian state. So that is our return into the world civilization as they call it. We return, but as servants.
Are there any other formations on the left in Russia that show promise?
Well, there are lots of formations but the only serious one is the Communist Party of the Russian Federation. You have plenty of groups but they have little impact. If we have a transformation of the political landscape, then some of these groups can become important. They can provide cadre and experience, but only if there is a transformation.
In Russia, we have intellectual groups, left social democratic currents, and the Komsomol, which is still a big formation with about 15,000 members. There are also some very active Trotskyists. But all these groups are not strong enough to present a nationwide political force.
What do you see as good left-wing political models around the world?
PDS (Party of Democratic Socialism) in Germany and the Refoundation Communist Party in Italy are two. PDS is very well organized and is strong intellectually. Some in Germany complain that the intellectual debate in PDS is low, but that is only according to German standards. If you are in a country that produced Hegel, Marx, Rosa Luxemburg, you can look at PDS and say it has a low level of debate. But if you look at the rest of central and eastern Europe or even France, the level of debate is much higher in PDS.
France has become an intellectual desert. In Russia, we have a level of intellectual debate that is very high today, but it is disconnected from politics. If it were my choice, I would prefer the German model. I dont think that having sophisticated intellectual debates is as important as having more lively politics.
The Refoundation Party is not comparable to PDS in terms of success and forming an organization that will reproduce itself. They are still struggling to survive and form their own organizational and political model. In contrast, the PDS is a party with its own culture and tradition. You can be very critical of PDS by the way. I think they are becoming more social democratic. Their success in the east is causing them to move more to the right to fill the void left by the social democrats who have moved so far right as to be irrelevant. You cannot be a Tony Blair in eastern Germany, as you can in west Germany. The space for traditional social democracy became empty, and PDS is moving into it. They are the only real social democracy in town. They are being criticized for this by those on their left. But PDS and Refoundation are part of the same current.
Another example is the Workers Party (PT) of Brazil. Once again, we shouldnt be too idealistic about PT. In the last ten years they have developed their own reformists, yuppies, and post-modernists. Still it is a good example of a party that is a success. In Japan, the Communist Party is recovering in terms of circulation of their newspaper, in intellectual terms, and in relations with the trade unions. The Socialist Party went so far to the right that the Communist Party is picking up some of the space left by it. It doesnt mean that the left is stronger, because in Japan they had a very radical Socialist Party.
In France, the Communist Party is not doing really well, but the Trotskyists are. There are five Trotskyists in the European Parliament. Two Trotskyists groups have come together and managed to have a stable coalition. Theyve also managed to have good relations with the Communist Party. In France, they have a coalition, which is dominated organizationally by the old Communist Party and intellectually by the Trotskyists. They all cooperate very closely. So in a certain sense, the old debate, the old division is over. The left has to be reshaped so that people overcome old divisions.
What does your political work consist of today?
I do some educational work with Komsomol, the youth Communist league. I write for a quarterly journal, Alternatives, produced by Alexandr Buzgalin, who is the leading Marxist economist in Russia today. Fortunately hes not the only one. Courses in Marxism are now returning to Russian universities. I teach Marxism at the Moscow School for Social Sciences. Buzgalins journal is an attempt to bring together different currents on the left.
From 1993 to 1998 was the worst period for the left in Russia. There was no chance for an organized left outside the Communist Party and the Party didnt want us. People like Buzgalin and me were ready to work with the Communist Party. Komsomol wanted to work with us. Academic work is not just academic. It should be used to help form young cadre for the movement.
You have a new book coming out?
It just came out in London last week. They are publishing three books. One at a time but they are really three parts of the same book. Its called Recasting Marxism. Part One, which is already out, is called New Realism, New Barbarism. It is based on an old Rosa Luxemburg phase, Socialism or Barbarism. Now socialism has been defeated and barbarism is triumphant. I wanted to write a political study of this triumphant barbarism and how it is reflected within the left. There is a lot of barbarization of the left. For example, post modernism is a sophisticated form of barbarism. It is anti-universalist, anti-Marxist, and anti-enlightenment. The book is about the western left, not Russia. Its a critique of some sections of the left, including post modernism and the social democratic right, the Blairist right. We have to make the distinction that Blair and others are not left anymore. The division is not whether youre reformist or radical. Its whether you are left or ex-left. This is a historic divide, like in 1914.
The NATO bombing helped make that distinction clear.
Yes. I was very disappointed when Bernie Sanders supported the bombing. Also the Democratic Socialists of America supported it. It was human rights imperialism. But I dont think its very human to bomb people. Z
Jim Smith is a union activist and writer in Los Angeles.