The Soviet Crisis Today

Against the Current, No. 26, May/June 1990

Boris Kagarlitsky

BORIS KAGARLITSKY, a leader of the New Socialists in the Soviet Union, spoke in March 1990 at an educational conference sponsored by Solidarity in Los Angeles. Introducing Kagarlitsky, Susan Weissman commented:

“Victor Serge, a Left Oppositionist, on the eve of his arrest in Moscow in 1933 wrote that the left did not pay sufficient attention to the question of liberty, to the defense of truth and the defense of thought—and he called for institutional guarantees for basic rights: the rights of every human being including ‘class enemies.’ He wrote that socialism can only win ‘not through imposing itself, but by showing itself superior to capitalism, not in the fabrication of tanks but in the organization of social life: if it offers to man a condition better than capitalism: more material well-being, more justice, more liberty and a higher dignity.’ In other words Serge echoed the sentiments of revolutionary Marxism which held that socialism without liberty and democracy is not and cannot be socialism; that socialism is a superior system that cannot be more retrograde than bourgeois society in terms of the rights of individuals to freely think, speak, and organize.

“The socialist project, so soiled and so diseased by Stalinism, is in need of renewal. In this respect, I’d like to repeat Boris Kagarlitsky’s words to me last year in Moscow: he said that he and his comrades feel a particular burden and duly to the international left—since they are part of a history and tradition that produced Stalinism, distorted Marxism and discredited the socialist idea. Thus they felt it incumbent upon them now to cleanse the concept of socialism of its Stalinist stains and rescue socialism for the international struggle.

“So the ball’s in your court, Boris.”

THE SITUATION IN the Soviet Union right now is so volatile that we can expect drastic political changes almost every day. Gorbachev is really afraid that the Communist Party could collapse this summer, which is why he has been so interested in creating the post of president of the Soviet Union. There is a real possibility that within a few months we will have a coalition government incorporating representatives from the so-called liberal-progressive opposition.

But the problem for the left is that this kind of coalition government would probably not be much better for the majority of the population. There is a real fear on the left that if this coalition comes to power it will probably be more interested and more psychologically prepared to repress the opposition than the government of today.

There is already now a strange system that combines the elements of the old censorship and repression with what you know quite well as repressive tolerance The Stalinists and market liberals in the Soviet Union share control of the mass media, not allowing anybody else to step in. Though at least formally something similar to the structures of the Western political democracy is emerging, it is very superficial. Moreover, the structure of so-called representative democracy in the Soviet Union doesn’t reflect the real social interests within our society; sometimes it actually impedes their expression. So the situation is really worrying.

I can give you just one example that is probably not typical but is quite revealing. I was once invited to the British Embassy in Moscow where one Tory MP said,

“You know these Soviet official economic advisors, they are so right wing. It’s just astonishing.” And I asked, “Who are the guys you talked to?” He named some of them. I said, “Oh, those are considered to be very soft. They are criticized for not understanding the necessity of the free market.”

What the so-called social democrats in the Soviet Union have to say about capitalism may indeed be “soft” in the Soviet context, but it is also absolutely out of touch with reality. For example, people really don’t understand that there is capitalism not only in the United States or Sweden but also in Mexico and Brazil. They think that capitalism can exist only in the West [developed countries—ed.] and they don’t understand that there is some connection between the things that are happening in Brazil and the things that are happening in the United States. “No,” they say, “there is no connection. Real capitalism exists in the United States. So if we are to introduce good capitalist relations, they will be like Sweden, or maybe even better.”

This is nothing but a kind of ideological, propagandistic preparation for the onslaught on the working class. The main slogan for perestroika now would be something like “We don’t need illegal privilege. We need legal privilege.” And to make privilege legal the new so-called educated or enlightened bureaucracies want to convert their power into money and capital. But I don’t think they are trying to create a real capitalist state. What they are going to create is a Third World state, one which might not even be capitalist, but semi-capitalist, semi-feudal. They say all forms of property must be equal. And we ask them: what about slavery?

That is not an exaggeration because working conditions—for people of Central Asia, for example—are so bad that one can really speak about slavery. How, in such a context, do the elites see privatization? They say they do not want to privatize state companies, but rather to sell shares of state companies to private owners, keeping some element of the state property to guarantee those enterprises against bankruptcy when they are inefficient and to funnel profits to private shareholders.

That is the kind of “efficiency” they want. That, and not free markets, is what Soviet free marketeers consider really important. They just want to get their money fast. This free-market ideology is now becoming some kind of official ideology of the system.

So I cannot foresee any genuinely capitalist perspective for Russia or the Soviet Republics. If there is any capitalist perspective or even any semi-capitalist perspective, I would not even take Argentina as an example. I would rather think about Mexico. As in Mexico, the role of the state is still very important, and there is a kind of parasitic semi-comprador bureaucratic capital emerging around the state structures. That new parasitic layer, which is already growing very fast, is characterized by tremendous social irresponsibility.  And that is why the situation is becoming really dangerous.

Now what is the left’s answer to that challenge? Most importantly, we have something they don’t have and that they will never have. We have access to the working class. During the miners’ strike there were a lot of discussions among the miners and the documents finally produced were strikingly similar to the documents produced by the Moscow left-wing intellectuals. During the miners’ strike we managed to establish direct links with the strike committees and now, for example, some activists on the Moscow New Socialist Committee are officially recognized by the strike committees as their representatives in Moscow.

I spent some time in Karaganda in one of the centers of the miners’ strike movement working with the strike committee. I am impressed by how fast people learn. They are passing through almost all of the stages which the Western working class movement passed through. But it is very fast. They are eager to learn and they want to be organized politically.

When we first came to the centers of the miners’ strike we thought that it was probably the time for some independent unions to be created, and we thought we were probably capable of giving some advice on those issues. And when we began talking of these things the answer was, “Independent trade union? That’s a good idea. But what we need is a political party.”

On December 24 last year in Moscow, there was a meeting of representatives of the leading socialist or left-wing socialist groups from different parts of the country, as well as some prominent members of the strike committee. The most important person among them was Vladimir Makhanov, the chairman of the Prokopvyesk Strike Committee, which was the strongest strike committee during the miners’ strike. There were also representatives or prominent members from Karaganda and Vorkuta. Together we formed the All-Russian Committee for the Socialist Party. And it is very important that it was not some kind of intellectual idea developed in Moscow, but rather the result of the pressure from labor activists themselves who wanted a political vehicle to protect their interests.

So what can we see now on the left? On the one hand, there is the All-Russian Committee for the Socialist Party; on the other hand, there is a so-called democratic platform faction of the CPSU, inside the official Communist Party. That deserves some more detailed analysis. The Communist Party of the Soviet Union, like all the Communist parties in the Eastern bloc countries, is less a political party in the Western European sense than a mechanism of power. Hence people enter it with very different ideas. Free-market liberals, fascists, monarchists, extreme anti-Communists—all of them are card-carrying Communist Party members.

But there are a lot of people on the left there too. So this January in Moscow the opposition inside the Party held a conference that brought together representatives of all different trends of opposition outside Gorbachev’s group with the exception of the Stalinists. Together they formed this “democratic platform” of the CPSU, which is not united by anything except the fact that its members are in some kind of opposition to the leadership. So now the main demand is to have free elections to the Party Congress and to have the right to form platforms. But if they get this right there will immediately be not one platform but several platforms.

Within this democratic platform of the CPSU, it is really the left that is emerging. Their program is to work with the rank and file of the CPSU for the establishment of the New Socialist Party together with all the other left-wing tendencies outside the old party. Their slogan is that the CPSU is irreparable and that we have to finish with it and build a new party defending the interests of labor They are gaining ground, especially among the workers who do carry CPSU cards and the official Communist Youth Organization.

What can the left propose politically? That is the main problem. We are quite good at criticizing the free-market liberals or Stalinists. But what can we propose positively? Where is our positive program?

We reject both centralized state ownership and private ownership. It means that the enterprises must belong to the democratically elected bodies, like parliaments or councils of different levels. One cannot democratically control from the top every single enterprise; while such an approach could differ from bureaucratic centralist control, centralizing everything will produce bureaucracy anyway.

But a rejection of centralization is not a rejection of planning a1toethet A system of democratic control cannot exist without some kind of planning—without a society both setting its own priorities and establishing the means for their realization. While we are not reject-mg the market in principle, we are rejecting the idea that the market has any values in itself. Modern society, which still has commodity production, needs some elements of the market. But we can neither allow nor support the market as the main or the only regulator.

What are the main weaknesses of the market? From what I have seen in this country, the market cannot help expand infrastructure. The first thing that struck me in New York was a crumbling infrastructure. Research and development, fundamental sciences, education and healthcare cannot be left to the market Telecommunications and social security can’t be left to the market.

Infrastructure is crumbling not only in the United States, but also in the Soviet Union. We have a lot of problems with research and development, education and healthcare. A free market means adding more problems. Not only will those main problems of the Soviet Union not be solved, but the situation will become worse. So that is why we always stress the necessity of planned development, the necessity of restructuring—the need to set priorities through democratic planning and democratic bodies.

Another problem is ecology. The Soviet Union has one of the worst ecological crises in the world. So, we stress the necessity for ecologically oriented development as opposed to the development being proposed by the free marketeers.

But there is one principal weakness in the strategies of the left in the Soviet Union. We cannot solve our problems just on the national level. Modern global development cannot be just national development Our attempts to restructure the economy, to create democratic incentives for the people, and to liberate them from state bureaucracy cannot be isolated, lest our experiment become just one more effort to create socialism in one country. We know what’s happened in such cases. So that is why we are internationalist in this case—these are the things we have to do together.

May-June 1990, ATC 26

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