New Internationalist

Re-inventing Russian socialism

Issue 366

Boris Kagarlitsky has been a consistent voice of democratic and Left opposition – first to autocratic state socialism and now to the oligarchic corruption of Yeltsin and Putin. His books include The Thinking Reed and Russia Under Yeltsin and Putin. He talked to the NI from his home in Moscow.

Boris Kagarlitsky

We in the West often complain that our political class is beholden to the corporate agenda but in Russia it seems that business people with economic power seek to get into politics directly.

Most political parties in Russia simply sell positions on party lists to wealthy business people. Everyone does this – even the Communists. It’s like any other commodity. It used to be that business people wanted this to get immunity from prosecution but today it is more about lobbying. Russia does not have a consolidated capitalist class. Instead we have corporate leaders and oligarchs [small cliques of individuals exerting a strong influence on government] that are linked to the bureaucracy. It is a kind of bureaucratic bourgeoisie. The relative strength of business groups is dependent on the connections they have in the bureaucracy. But now bureaucracy is trying to take over more and more business groups and subordinate them to particular bureaucratic clans. This has nothing to do with public control. It is about the absence of public control over either the business or the bureaucracy.

So this is what happened to Mikhail Khodorkovsky of Yukos Oil?

The funny thing is that he was trying to make the system more open in order to make business less dependent on the bureaucracy. And the answer of the system was very simple – put him in prison. Some Russians have sympathy for him because he was honest enough to admit that; ‘What we were doing before was just plundering the country, but now that is over and we should start behaving like decent people.’ But you should not forget that what he did before was exactly what he said. He plundered.

So this is a move from an oligarchy of mavericks to a more bureaucratic kind of oligarchy?

You see the same system in Kazakhstan now and in most central Asian republics and in the Ukraine. It is the system that is emerging all over the post-Soviet space because after 10 years they failed to develop an autonomous and efficient bourgeois class not dependent on the state. Every time the state moves out of some area of the economy these oligarchs fail to run things efficiently. It is a complete failure of the liberal experiment in capitalism that leads to bureaucracy actually winning. And for the bureaucracy bribes are no longer enough. They want their de facto economic power transformed into real property and bourgeois privilege.

So would you agree with those on the Western Left who see the collapse of the Soviet Union as a victory for capitalism?

Of course it was a victory for capitalism. But the Soviet system collapsed because of its own internal contradictions. In the long term it also opens up some new opportunities for the Left and gives us some useful historical experiences. We shouldn’t call the Soviet Union socialist, although there were elements of socialism here. [And] I don’t accept this idea of calling the Soviet Union state capitalist as do British Trotskyist theorist Tony Cliff and the others. You can say the same thing about Swedish social democracy – it is not a socialist society but there are certain socialist institutions there even if they were never dominant. Gradually the Soviet experience is becoming part of history here. Russians are coming to a more balanced view of the past – the whole new generation of the Left is quite Westernized and critical of Stalinism but at the same time no longer traumatized by it.

In your work you talk about the necessity of a democratic façade, and something people are now talking about after the last election [in December 2003] is a kind of ‘managed democracy’.

Yes but the problem is becoming more and more managed and less and less democratic. Under Yeltsin it was a kind of chaotic management, but now it is becoming a kind of micro-management where they want everything to be predictable. You are allowed to have political competition between parties but the idea is to compete not for the votes of the people but for the sympathy of the President. It empowers not the people but the autocrat. According to the constitution, the parliament [or Duma] has the right to vote no confidence in the government. But if they do this a number of times they dissolve not the government but themselves – the Duma. So new elections have to be held to elect a parliament that agrees with the government. And of course it is not a democratic election. It is completely rigged. They stuff ballot boxes. They falsify results. And you get independent observers from the different political parties who come up with results different from the official results. The democratic side of it is that these results are also published so we know how many votes were stolen down to quite minute details. And then this is openly discussed in the press.

It is commonplace in the Western press that Vladimir Putin is very popular. Is this true?

No. But he doesn’t allow any serious contender to emerge. It has now reached an absurd level where everyone has become so cynical and angry that the Government fears that no-one will bother to vote. They are afraid of some kind of spontaneous boycott of the election. Here is an opportunity for the Left. Because of the fraud there is no chance of winning but at least a serious candidate could explain what the real issues are. We could campaign about the lack of democracy, electoral fraud and social conditions like the marketization of housing that could result in people losing their flats or a good part of their income. The offi cial Communist Party now faces a total electoral demise after the last election where they lost over half their vote, finishing with just 12.6 per cent. So an open crisis has erupted in this party, which is the only real opposition party remaining in the Duma. It is not a Left party but a kind of nationalist party that brings together a number of different groups with completely different politics. So people are trying to take over what remains of the party or form a new Left party to replace it.

Political parties in Russia simply sell positions on party lists to wealthy business people

The big debate at the moment is who will be the Presidential candidate – a very right-wing banker, Gennadiy Semigin, or a labour leader, Valery Melnikov from Norilsk, whom the Left is supporting. In an open contest there would be no doubt that Melnikov would win because the candidacy of the banker is a complete scandal, but it is all backroom-manoeuvring and buying votes.* Unlike most Labour leaders Melnikov is not demoralized or corrupt. He became mayor of Norilsk after a confrontation with a major transnational corporation that lasted over a year. Norilsk is a metallurgy town of about 200,000 above the Arctic Circle. The company there is emerging as a large Russian transnational with control of a good part of the world market in nickel, platinum and other precious metals, and now they are expanding and buying up companies in the US. Melnikov had to overcome opposition from this company and won a second [mayoral term] with a massive mandate despite electoral fraud. It is the only place in Russia where you can say that the Left is in power.

So you see this collapse of the Communists as a key to the re-emergence of the Left in Russia?

Well at least it is very important. Space is opening up. Over the last three or four years there has been an emergence of a new Left in Russia, particularly in the big cities. This does not help the Communist Party because the Communists are not seen as part of the Left. They are no longer able to control this part of the political spectrum.

In what other ways do you see this process expressed?

You see it everywhere. I experience it personally in the debates on university campuses and in the sale of my books. It used to be very hard for me to get published in Russia but now it is no problem as it is profi table to sell such things. The wave of working class self-activity (blocking railroads, mass strikes) you saw back in 1998 was demobilized when they achieved some of their goals under the Primakov Government. But as soon as they demobilized, that Government was thrown out. Now Norilsk is one of the places where this tendency has started to resurface. The Labour movement needs some tangible victories to regain its confi dence. Many of the unions have been re-integrated as part of the state system. The problem is that if you get these corporatist forms as part of a capitalist economy it can lead to fascism. This is exactly what fascism is – a capitalist economy with collectivist and totalitarian forms of control and organization.

What kind of economy do you think would work best in post-communist society?

I don’t know of any perfect model, but it is clear what people want. They want the big companies in heavy industry, resource extraction and high-tech to be returned to the control of the state, but worry about a return to the old days of centralized management. They want big companies organized in a more democratic and participatory way. They want big privatized firms returned to public control. They would also say that there should be room for small business: in restaurants, barber shops and retail outlets for example. They want a mixed economy but they don’t want everything to be private. If you speak to more radical people they talk about socialized production networks, community enterprises and high-tech co-operatives that are connected to some public sector investment process that’s transparent and designed to meet certain public goals.

Russians – and not just from Moscow – are regularly attending the European Social Summit. But this is not yet a strong movement here. There are certain poles of attraction. Something is cooking. It’s exciting, but it’s not that easy.

  • Since this interview the Communist hierarchy imposed a presidential candidate Nokolai Kharitonof, further alienating the youth wing of the party who supported Melnikov.

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