On Being a Marxist in the Soviet Union

Against the Current, No. 25, March/April 1990

Boris Kagarlitsky

AT THE END of the 1970s, the “crisis of Marxism” theme had become a fad in the Western press. The Parisian “new philosophers” solemnly proclaimed “Marx is dead.” The Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party, anticipating victory at the polls, hastened to delete that outdated term—Marxism—from its statutes. Soviet emigres flatly declared that Marxists no longer existed in the USSR Meanwhile, Western leftists lamented that Stalin had “assassinated Marx.”

In truth, after innumerable crimes committed under the cover of pseudo-Marxist slogans, socialist ideologists had become very defensive. In order to criticize a hopeless situation dominating the contemporary world, leftists morally and politically felt duty bound to first condemn the Stalinist terror of 1937, the excesses of the Chinese “cultural revolution” and the “normalization” of Czechoslovakia.

Nonetheless, public opinion often did not sufficiently appreciate the fact that Marxists were first to fall victim to repression and that, whatever the slogans Marxists may have used, the revolutionary and socialist tradition has always played a most important role in the struggle against totalitarianism. Our entire socio-cultural experience, as well as the entire history of Central and Eastern Europe, bears witness to this fact.

The haste with which Parisian “new philosophers” and Soviet emigres wanted to bury Marx is highly revealing. When a symposium entitled “What is alive in Kierkegaard? was organized at the time, Jean Paul Sartre ironically observed of the symposium’s title that the death of Kierkegaard was implied. In Marx’s case, it is the opposite. The constant death notices, the “farewells to Marx’ and so forth, attest to the vitality of the Marxist tradition. In the history of philosophy only the living are buried.

In any case, when V. Bukovsky, A. Zinoviev, V. Maximov and many other emigres were talking about the disappearance of Marxism in the USSR, they had no intention of misleading Western public opinion. In the mid-1970s it was actually very difficult to find avowed Marxists among the Moscow intelligentsia. After the defeat of the “Prague Spring” socialist ideas seemed to many to have been discredited for good.

Typical was the evolution of many dissidents. Starting out as communist-democrats, they adopted ever more right-wing positions. By the early 1980s they had become either admirers of Reagan or, in the best of cases, pure and simple “rights-defenders,” utterly indifferent to any social problem beyond human rights (in the narrow sense).

When we met in secret in Moscow in the late ’70s to discuss problems of Marxist theory and prospects for a socialist renewal of the country, the situation seemed hopeless. Apathy and cynicism were widespread. The dogmatic world-view of bureaucrats, monopolizing the only “true understanding” of revolutionary ideas, openly opposed itself to ever-diminishing groups of politically isolated dissidents who, given the increasingly intolerable circumstances, were inclined to curse anyone who uttered the word “socialism.”

Still another ideological tendency formed in these years, Pamyat (Memory). Pamyat’s interest in history and tradition was a cover to disseminate nationalist and chauvinist propaganda. These people excellently understood the gravity of existing social problems, but they blamed everything on “foreigners,” “western influence,” and Jews. They mixed Stalinist slogans with monarchist appeals. They talked about “world imperialism” and at the same time echoed reactionary white-guard ideology, holding Jews responsible for “ruining Russia in 1917.” Such “reasoning” did not suit us at all. What was necessary in those years was to build a constructive alternative, even if it meant a purely theoretical one.

The Legacy of Defeats

In any epoch and in any society the sense of belonging to a definite generation plays a very important role. Such a generation not only belongs to the same age group, but undergoes similar social experiences. For my generation Khrushchev was as much a part of history as Stalin had been. We drew parallels between the destruction of the “Prague Spring” and the defeat of the Popular Unity government and the death of Allende in Chile. We protested the aggressive dogmatism of anticommunist dissidents no less than we protested the lib-end Stalinism of the Brezhnev administration in the period of detente.

The Brezhnev era is now called the “era of stagnation” in our country. For people who grew up in those years it was a period characterized above all by shallowness and small-mindednessi. Nothing happened. The content of daily newspapers varied little from day to day, or even from year to year. No one read articles about domestic affairs because they always said the same thing. On TV, identical newscasts were, on occasion, shown twice daily.

We had no history. In lieu of history, the country went from Party Congress to Party Congress; at each Congress we saw the same face occupying the same podium and delivering the same speech. Consumerist ideology dovetailed nicely with corruption. Social progress was defined exclusively in terms of the growth in consumption under a “stable political leadership.” In school we were told such progress would go on forever. But why?

Moral survival was unthinkable without radical protest. And yet, lone protests against Brezhnevism were clearly inadequate. The experience of “traditional” dissent had amply borne out this conclusion. To avoid treading this path once more, it became necessary for us to develop an analysis and a concrete program. A moral alternative was transformed into a political alternative. It was here that Marx came to our assistance.

To tell the truth, I read Marx only after I had read Marcuse and Fromm, for Western Marxism was like a forbidden fruit to us: it tempted us more. This was the time of Euro-Communism, when the speeches of Berlinguer, occasionally published in the Soviet press or in Western Communist journals, were reaching the Moscow reader. The contrast between the lively discussions among Western leftists, and the then thoughtless incantations of our official ideologists, was stark.

The experience of the Western left, relayed to us via the relative accessibility of Western Marxist literature, clearly demonstrated the incompatibility of critical Marxist theory with Stalinist dogma. It was precisely in this revolutionary and socialist tradition that we were able to find an ideological support and elements of a new democratic political culture.

The capitalist crisis of the 1970s and the worsening condition of Third World countries gave us additional material for reflection. In the twentieth century socialist self-consciousness necessarily embodies a tragic element. This is its strong point Nineteenth-century socialists, Marx included, firmly believed in the necessity of social progress. Humanity was moving from slavery to freedom, from ignorance to enlightenment.

But Marx and Engels—and other socialists including, it seems, Bakunin had also warned about the dangers of “barracks communism” and about the possibility of a revolution in a backward country degenerating. Even so, never in their worst nightmares could they have imagined the advent of Stalinist camps and the “model communes” of Pol Pot.

This truth is evident for the liberal as well as for the socialist. The difference is that liberals limit themselves to a moral condemnation of terror (and the liberal communist excludes the moral dimension entirely), while the Marxist tries simultaneously to understand the social mechanism of the tragedy and to think about the social mechanism of liberation.

Most young Moscow radicals of the late ’70s came to Marxism precisely because they found in Marxism a remarkable synthesis of the analytical and the practical. Gramsci called Marxism the philosophy of practice. For us this was no vacuous expression; through the study of theory we began the practice of internal liberation.

Toward the end of the Brezhnev period the few dozen young people organized in underground Marxist and socialist circles could not seriously influence the political life of the country or, more precisely, the complete absence of political life. Nevertheless, the breakdown of the Brezhnev model for running the country was becoming clear to the overwhelming majority of us, and we basically discussed the prospects of a left movement developing in the post-Brezhnev period. Many conceptions and ideas debated then, now greatly influence the thinking of legal socialist club members simply because many activists belonging to them went through the school of underground Marxist circles under Brezhnev.

The Soviet New Left

It was natural that the first upsurge of the Soviet new left should take place in 1979-80. In those years the crisis of the Brezhnev model was becoming clear to all and could not be concealed, no matter how much official statistics were embellished. But, it was also the most difficult period for traditional dissent Repression had virtually paralyzed the activities of many political rights committees. The “Chronicle of Current Events,” long considered to be the indestructible organ of the dissident movement, ceased publication. Some dissidents emigrated; others were compelled to keep silent.

Repression had struck. This was not the first time, and replacements had always been available to take the place of those removed. At the end of the 70s, however, we came to realize that this was no longer so. The ranks of the movement were thinning out and the movement itself was grinding to a halt, bereft of a vision of the future. There were quite a few people, especially the youth, who were still willing to take risks for the sake of their political convictions, only now they did not follow the example of the dissidents, but joined Marxist circles.

The rise of left activism naturally attracted the attention of the Brezhnev administration. Arrests, interrogations, expulsions from institutes and dismissals from jobs followed. We took small comfort in the knowledge that in Chile, El Salvador and South Africa our co-thinkers were faring much worse.

Lefortovo prison, where the young Marxists were interned, had a fairly good library, but the works of Marx and Lenin were not to be found there. The study of the “classics” seemed to be a privilege reserved for the oppressor. I laughed at this state of affairs at first, but my cellmate (arrested for speculating in blue jeans) subsequently told me that my predecessor, a religious dissident, had asked for, and obtained, a copy of the Bible. I had no alternative but to do likewise and request Capital. One week later my request was honored. Meanwhile, Brezhnev’s funeral had just taken place in Red Square. My release was less than one month away.

It seems that it is less dangerous to be a Marxist in the USSR than in Colombia, but slightly more complicated than in Italy. When I meet friends from Latin America they talk about arrests and searches, while Western left-wing intellectuals lament the dullness of political life in their country­–“it isn’t 1968!” they cry. Everyone has their own experiences, education, problems and opponents. But it is indubitable that we understand one another, finding common themes for discussion and seeking to arrive at common views. I am interested in their successes and failures. They, in turn, live through our difficulties as if these were their own. We speak a common language, even when we have to resort to the services of a translator. The international culture of Marxism binds us together.

In the 1960s theoreticians spent much time discussing the nature of Marxism. Is it a theory, an ideology, an analytical method or a political conception? Later, we once again had these discussions, only to once again come away convinced of the uselessness of such polemics. The Marxist heritage may be interpreted differently, criticized and rethought. The point is, it works.

The impetuous growth of socialist dubs in the past two years of perestroika, the keen interest in the ideas of past Marxist thinkers—Bukharin, Gramsci, Marcuse—all prove how mistaken the Paris emigres were. Their anti-Marxism was but a reflection of the growing spiritual crisis of the Brezhnev era, and one of its manifestations.

People who were writing in the pages of the Russian press abroad about throwing Marx out the window may be discouraged by the turn of events in the Soviet Union. They sincerely dreamed about the revival of social life and about democratization, but no sooner did this transformation begin to happen, no sooner had Brezhnev “stability” given way to open social struggle than Marxist ideas once again came to the fore.

For many this was unexpected indeed, even among leftists. It seemed as if Marxist culture would never recover from the moral catastrophe of Stalinism and the discrediting of revolutionary slogans and socialist terminology under Brezhnev.

But the renewal of interest in Marxism that is to be observed in the USSR today is absolutely natural. In transitional epochs, when our people begin seriously to hope for the establishment of a more just and democratic order, when everyone becomes conscious of his responsibility for the fate of the country and the world, when the power to influence political life is within our reach, Marxism becomes essential to us. Philosophical problems become tied to practical, current goals. To change our relationship to the world is to change the world around us.

What is Marxism for us, the Soviet left, as the twentieth century comes to a close? Theory? Philosophy? It is that—and more. Above all, it is a worldview and—a way of life.

March-April 1990, ATC 25

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