When Russia's rulers attempt to prove how up-to-date and pluralistic they are, they usually cite an abundance of civic movements: there are the communists, the nationalists, the liberal reformers and the national Bolsheviks, the left- and the right-wingers. But there’s no explanation of the meaning behind the names, their significance or any changes in it. There’s not only no materialist understanding of history, but no historical understanding of social material either. No memory of what life was like a quarter of a century ago. Putin, our National Leader declared the collapse of the Soviet Union the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century. What he didn’t explain was how this great power, ranked second in the world, melted away in one evening. Jiggery pokery? Treason? Whose?
Left and right: the origins
The words ‘left’ and ‘right’ derive their political meaning from the time of the French Revolution, according to whether parties sat on the left or the right in the Legislative Assembly. But since that time the meanings have become confused. The left wanted freedom and the right wouldn’t allow it. The bourgeoisie strove for economic freedom – and subsequently for political freedom too, so as to withstand any non-economic attempts at getting even.
Then movements for the defence of the interests and rights of the workers as members of the bourgeois economy appeared on the left. Russian Social Democracy was left-wing, too. Even the Bolshevik October Revolution was still left-wing: the majority of its decrees, starting with the Decree on Land and the Declaration of the Rights of the Peoples of Russia, cut through feudal knots. The Bolsheviks, as the party of freedom, initially described themselves as a caretaker government and held elections for the Constituent Assembly. When they won less than a quarter of the seats, they dissolved the Assembly and stopped talking about being a caretaker government. They were no longer bothered about what people in Russia wanted and their power allowed no room for freedom.
Can Russia avoid catastrophy by achieving more freedom and marginalizing the right wing ideas and values promoted by the present Russian power elite?
The dissolution of the Constituent Assembly on 19 (Old Style 6) January 1918 set a bad example, and not only for Russia. It was the first time in history that a left-wing party had trampled on the freedom and the will of the people. Once they came to power, many workers, socialist or other, changed their colours from left-wing to become extremely right-wing, while continuing to chant the left-wing slogans they had failed to put into practice. A new social structure was born. Lenin had planned it while still in his hut at Razliv, but it didn't happen immediately because first the new government had to put up with the freedoms it had granted during the Revolution. The state owned the means of production: this and the enforced collectivisation of the countryside revealed the neo-feudal nature of the totalitarian system established in 1918. The meaning of the word 'left' changed too: the concept of freedom was omitted from it and the left started embracing fighters for totalitarianism, dictators and terrorists who took away the freedom, and often the lives, from others, millions of others.
The USSR is dead. Long live the nomenklatura!
And so it went on for 74 years. The communists (helped by the Allies) were victorious in WWII; then they embarked on the arms race against those same Allies. More than 80% of Soviet scientists and most of the factories were working in one way or another for a new war, although the USSR had acquired nuclear weapons and faced no significant threat from any other country. In this social structure making ends meet was impossible and in 1991 the Soviet Union came to an end.
'By 1929 the communists had changed from being a left-wing party to a party of feudal reaction, while continuing to portray themselves as left-wing.'
However, in Russia, the chief heir and legal successor of the USSR, the previous ruling class i.e. the nomenklatura was still in power. Its members were not concerned to recognise the failings of the social structure which had so let the country down. To improve the situation they handed the larger enterprises over, apparently into the private ownership of 'oligarchs' who were dependent on the state, allowing them a degree of operational freedom. There was no real privatisation, apart from housing and there were no other oppportunities for the masses to own any private property. SMEs didn't flourish, any more than farming or trades. The laws and courts to protect them from lawlessness failed to materialise. In 1993 Yeltsin disbanded the Supreme Soviet, which was still inclined to try and get its own back, and then openly set about creating a system very like the previous one, granting the President powers akin to those of the Politburo in the past. He embarked on a Chechen war to stop Russia's autonomous republics from seizing independence, as the Soviet republics had done, and to ensure that Russia remained an empire.
But even before that, the new government, while permitting some political forces to speak out, had not itself been prepared to denounce the experience of the last 70 years. During that time the communists, who before October had called for freedom, had replaced it with GULAG; equal rights for all peoples were replaced with deportations; and workers' rights with the privileges of the nomenklatura. By 1929 the communists had changed from being a left-wing party to a party of feudal reaction, which is why they had to kill off the majority of their comrades who had set up the Communist Party, while continuing to portray themselves as left-wing. In 1991 their comrades who had recanted from the previous ideology verbally, but held on to it in their minds, described their own, very similar, party as right wing, claiming it was building not socialism, but capitalism.
Post-Soviet economic reform: from one non-ideal to another
When Gaidar and the others, who originally dreamed just of improving the efficiency of the Soviet economy, embarked on the Yeltsin reforms, they were obliged nonetheless to permit greater freedom than the Soviet authorities had. Viewed in this context, their actions were really left-wing, but compared to European capitalism they were actually right-wing. Not only because the limited civic freedoms they offered encompassed only being able to say and read what you wanted and to travel abroad, but because after the 90s the freedom of the press, its distribution and the freedom of assembly disappeared once more in Russia. But the government was right-wing in a deeper sense as well: it retained, albeit in less rigid form, the Soviet feudal system. The tragedy is that even the collapse of the extreme right-wing, Soviet, totalitarian system failed to move Russia to the left, towards freedom, or to push it from feudal socialism to capitalism.
'After 1991 there was a sudden stirring of movements that were motley, but ineluctably right-wing: voluntarists, neo-bolsheviks, chauvinists and others. There was no room for the traditional left-wing advocates of economic and political freedom, who rejected every kind of totalitarianism, not just Stalin’s. ‘Yabloko’, the social-liberal party, was attacked by everyone.'
Russia has not actually made that transition. In comparing the real, rather than mythological, capitalism and socialism (communism), neither of them should be idealised. Our socialism was certainly not a more advanced stage of history. Both emerge out of feudalism, but which of the two will appear is determined by whether feudal absolutism allowed individual businesses any autonomy, or had managed to crack down on them. A system flourishes not through its declarations, but because its economy is productive and this depends on its reserves of freedom, especially when dealing with advanced technology. So, if all other things are equal, capitalism has outstripped socialism, which is why the builders of socialism were always so attracted to it, as Lenin was to NEP or, more recently, Dèng Xiăopíng.
Our reformers kept telling us that this was the direction they were taking too, but they simply dressed up the market economy as capitalism. The market is, of course, the most superior form of exchange, which enabled us to move beyond a subsistence economy. But the ancient and medieval markets were supported by forced labour. Exchanging a centralized economy for the market does not mean that its goods have been created by free hired labour. The fact that the supplier to the world, and the recently created domestic, market was not the Soviet state, but an individual company, does not mean the goods have been produced in capitalist market conditions i.e. by paying for a free workforce and intellectual property, which is what leads to technical progress.
The very existence of such a market is directly dependent on political conditions, the degree of freedom enjoyed by citizens and the extent to which the authorities play by the rules. The process of returning totalitarianism to Russia, which has already begun, cannot be explained simply by the fact that Putin was in the KGB. It’s more that after 1991 the extreme right-wing communist ideology was merely cast aside, not fully understood: the communists continued active operations, both directly and in the guise of reformers. The Yeltsin reforms were right wing: the savings of the population were devalued, the ‘oligarchs’ became monopolists, and officials had to rely on the largesse of corruption for their daily bread.
After 1991 there was a sudden stirring of movements that were motley, but ineluctably right-wing: voluntarists, neo-bolsheviks, chauvinists and others. There was no room for the traditional left-wing advocates of economic and political freedom, who rejected every kind of totalitarianism, not just Stalin’s. Even ‘Yabloko’, the social-liberal party, which by Western standards is slightly left of centre, was attacked by everyone. The sum total of all this was turning Russia back to her past, which is why Yeltsin chose as his successor a man from the KGB, who was quite young and not set in party ways. Yeltsin hoped that he would get the hang of new forms of hypocrisy, and Putin didn’t disappoint him.
It’s not only thinking and artistic creativity that are stifled by political despotism. Rigid politics have a palpable effect on the economy too. Peter [the Great] was the father of technical modernisation and his approach to it involved tightening the screws of serfdom. His modernisation helped to achieve victories in the 18th and early 19th centuries, but, hobbled by serfdom, it fell behind the West’s organic development and was of no use in the Crimean War. Long before that Pushkin had hoped that the tsar would not only show the Decembrists mercy in the style of his predecessor Peter, but be like his ancestor in every way. Nicholas I was not like Peter and, in the existing system (which he was making even more severe), he couldn’t raise Russia up. For the economy to be successful, he would have had to change that system.
'The current government is afraid to permit internal freedom and, like the Soviets after the Tsars, wants a ready-made, borrowed modernisation to implement. But thievery, bribery and Soviet-style opposition to the demands of the economy will make this impossible. If we don’t develop a free economy, it will all end badly.'
His son [Alexander II] emancipated the serfs and established regular courts, but didn’t introduce a constitutional monarchy, or a parliament – even if it had been unequal to start with – and he didn’t give the peasants any land. A quarter of a century after he was assassinated the economy had clearly improved, but conflicts still raged and Russia lost the war with Japan as well. After that, it was just a question of time.
The current government is afraid to permit internal freedom and, like the Soviets after the Tsars, wants a ready-made, borrowed modernisation to implement. But thievery, bribery and Soviet-style opposition to the demands of the economy will make this impossible. If we don’t develop a free economy, it will all end badly. Instead of grandiose projects and commands from above, we need hundreds of thousands of competing individual initiatives and for them to flourish we have to have a new structure and a new government – but for real this time, not like in 1991. The unconquered Soviet vertical and the inability to introduce any other form of relations brought back cruelty and increased cynicism. It’s no more to do with Putin’s personal qualities, than it was with Stalin’s. What is personal to them is only a readiness not shared by many to do what has to be done to save their class.
The Soviet ways are attractive not only to Putin, but to his harshest critics too. Navalny maintains that the communists are now quite different from what they were; he is upset that they didn’t get back into power in 1996. The former dissident Skobov is seeking an alliance with the communists, complaining only that Zyuganov is anti-semitic and hoping he’ll be able to get round that. Limonov’s young Bolsheviks call for revolution. Radzikhovsky’s reply is that, united, the ruling class will stand. But the Soviet leadership’s post-Stalin disagreements arose from the fact that none of them knew how to get out of the corner into which they and the great helmsman (and subsequently without him) had painted the country.
Shelling the alledgedly conservative and reactionary Russian parliament in 1993 Boris Yeltsin succeeded in building a system with great presidential powers, not different from those of the Politburo in the past.
Putin doesn’t know what’s wrong either, which is why he is very nervous as he leads Russia into the abyss. Yavlinsky is possibly the only person with even a partial understanding. But he can’t get enough votes even in an honest election. Unless, that is, the bosses of the various unfriendly young ladies on some of the TV channels give him air space, even if only in the quantities available during Gorbachev’s glasnost [openness]. This would allow him to give regular explanations of how to get off the false path on to which Russia was propelled in 1918, 1929, 1937 and, if not in 1991, then in 1993 and 1994. The people are often criticized for keeping silent. Their silence is interpreted as belief in Putin, but people disillusioned by Gaidar and Chubais and, earlier, Khrushchev and Brezhnev, don’t believe in Putin and can’t believe in his opponents either. They accept life as it is and will change if it does.
Those who believe that the regime will manage to hang on as long as it's united forget that it is leading Russia towards catastrophe. This will result in either impotence or madness, but in disaster of whatever kind, not just for us, but for the regime itself. This kind of ending, over which we have no control, is ever more likely. We've already had the economic catastrophe of the 80s, which spewed out perestroika, but old left-wingers like me, who are anti-communist, anti-imperial, anti-voluntarist and anti-totalitarian don't want Russia to go through a new catastrophe, even one that might save her. We are convinced that only by achieving freedom will Russia continue to be counted among the movers and shakers of civilisation. Only if we can knock down the Moscow wall, which may just be an image, but is more frightening than the Berlin wall. What I mean by this image of a wall is the phalanx of right-wing ideas trumpeted by Zyuganov, Zhirinovsky, Yeltsin, Gaidar, Putin-Medvedev, Limonov and Demushkin.
Get our weekly email