Wednesday, 20 November 2013

Russia and the Left: From Statism to Civil Society Part II

The following is a partner piece, written to accompany and deepen the argument made in an essay recently published by New Left Project. That text is available here:

Legacy of Statism

Though commentators turn their eyes to autocrats past, no period is so influential and yet so difficult to integrate into a general narrative as that of the Russian Federation's immediate predecessor, the Soviet Union. As Soviet life grows historically more distant, so it appears incommensurably simpler. One manifestation of this is nostalgia for the bygone era. Another, of western descent, is a feeling that the nationalist behemoth of the Putin era bears little relation to the progressive rationalism of, say, the Khrushchev years. Yet even this apparently straightforward rationalism is prone to misinterpretation.

The deformation of the USSR had both structural and voluntarist causes, both rooted in the initial phase of the post-revolutionary era (from roughly 1917 to, say, Trotsky's expulsion). On the voluntarist side can be put the philosophical and doctrinal composition of the Bolshevik Party, the rapid development of which, during 1917, led almost inexorably away from revolutionary principle and towards something like "pure practice" (or in other words, "what Lenin says goes"). Though extraordinarily strategically adaptable, Bolshevism became increasingly narrowly focused on securing the Party's interest within the Russian domestic sphere. Paradoxically, their political flexibility and skill came at the cost of theoretical myopia. On the other hand were the efforts of the Allied Powers to "strangle the Bolshevik baby in its crib" (according to Churchill), by the singular means of invasion. No matter that the Bolsheviks, in line with their declared opposition to the war, had already withdrawn.

At the structural level the Russian economy was deeply unsuited to the strain of social transformation needed to further the goals of the Revolution. Russia was broke from the War and deeply in need of modernisation anyway. Add to this a profound nationalist reaction and ever increasing global economic instability and you have the makings of a catastrophe.

This instability not only created the conditions for the October Revolution, but also drove its protagonists in the harshest of directions, distorting the project of socialist transformation from the outset. Bolshevik ideology always contained the seeds of grotesque distortions of socialist practice; the situation of the world economy, and of Russia in particular, after the end of the First World War practically guaranteed them. In the long run Churchill's desire was met. Shorn of the ability to experiment with new economic and social institutions by global instability, and finding it necessary to impose harsh labour controls in the face of continuing unrest, the Soviet Union became just another, particularly volatile reflection of tendencies within global capitalism.

A Fulcrum of Volatility

Take this description of the capitalist world economy in the 1980s:

...the technologies and operating procedures of most modern corporations; the forms of labour-market control defended by many labour movements; the instruments of macroeconomic control developed by bureaucrats and economists in the welfare states; and the rules of international monetary and trading systems established immediately after World War II - all must be modified, even discarded, if the chronic economic diseases of our times are to be cured.1

If we except the reference to independent labour movement activities (and, initially perhaps, to global financial governance) it's quite possible to extend this description to the post-War USSR and the whole of the Socialist bloc. In many ways these were the most radical expressions of the meeting of administered capitalism (the Taylorist division of labour; 'scientific' managerialism; macroeconomic controls overseen by centralized bureaucracy, and so on) with welfare state redistributive government. It was this set of characteristics that eventually made the USSR so vulnerable when the post-War Golden Age came to an end and the new regime of "flexible specialisation" kicked in.

Following the oil shocks of the 1970s, which were themselves partly the result of the breakdown of the old monetary order of the Gold Standard through which the dollar bankrolled Europe and Japan and managed prices, western Europe cut its oil consumption by 40%. The USSR only managed cutbacks of 20%.2 Continuing to rely on increasingly volatile markets where other, more adaptable economies could drive demand in different directions, the institutional rigidities built into the Bloc economies meant they amplified the contradictions of the world market. "By the early 1980s Eastern Europe was in an acute energy crisis. This in turn produced shortages of food and manufactured goods."3 The only exceptions were those, like Hungary, who plunged further into debt to sustain domestic consumption.

Incapable of political reform, and being prised open by the increasingly volatile global economy, the USSR and the rest of the Soviet bloc began to regionalise, fragment, and slowly to combust. Capital shrugged off its Post-War baggage, and was in the process of shrugging off 'really existing socialism'.


The weekend that Gorbachev resigned as party leader, and plumes of smoke began rising from party archives across the country, I was at a conference about anti-corporate environmental strategies in Los Angeles... I didn't hear the Soviet Union or the collapse of communism mentioned once... The Soviet Union's disintegration, the end to what electrified it all three quarters of a century ago, didn't seize the imagination of those conference-goers and, suffocated by the ecstasies of the corporate press, they wanted to talk about anything else.
Alexander Cockburn, 'Radical as Reality'4

Socialism is a living creature which can live without coercion or distortion.
Communist Party official, 19895

In Russia today around 100 billionaires own 30 per cent of all assets.
Washington Times, 22/11/12

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, and after nearly forty years of energetic denunciations of Stalinism, the western contingent of the radical Left (or what remained of it barring defectors) fell somewhat quiet on the topic of communism. 'Goodbye to All That' was Eric Hobsbawm's dismissal. Two of America's most prominent Marxist economists, Leo Panitch and Sam Gindin, confessed their impatience with the old guard's persistent apologism. The feeling of shaking off old burdens - in this they resembled capitalism itself - was almost audible.

In the mid-80s Noam Chomsky insisted on a radical contradiction between the Soviet Union and socialism. The association of one with the other was a simple coup of propaganda (for both sides). Old Trots like Ernest Mandel permitted the description "deformed worker's state" and, a la the old man, insisted that backwards countries never could have produced socialism anyway.6 Susan Woodward suggested that, beneath the surface, communist and non-communist systems shared a common inheritance: they were attempted "rational approaches to the material world and its development."7

Even as some former dissidents have moved to the Left (realizing the rosiness of Europe's welfare states was only ever for the few and has been buckling of late), it is rare to find a satisfactory account of what 'really existing socialism' was and how it got that way. The Hungarian dissident and philosopher G.M.Tamas offers this description: "A system of state capitalism" in which "commodity production, wage labour, money and the separation of the producers from the means of production" still predominated. In other words, it was just another, more poorly designed capitalism.

On their 1990 visit to the Soviet Union Leo Panitch and Sam Gindin reported on the flourishing, for the first time since the early 1920s, of genuine soviet democracy. A civil society group called the Popular Front, having secured a 20% presence in the Soviets, was organising the restoration of churches in the industrial city of Yaroslavl. This loose compendium of social movements, a sort of hastily assembled Big Society thrusting itself into the socialist state apparatus, operated, as the authors say, entirely "in the spirit of Perestroika". While in Moscow laws overriding the Soviets and reducing the newly-acquired powers of the independent unions were being quietly passed, workers in the industrial hinterlands were creating a novel form of freedom. As the state turned towards the interests of capital, however, this novelty became increasingly restricted.

At the time of Panitch and Gindin's visit, Yeltsin had already been elected President of the Supreme Soviet of the Russian Federation. Gorbachev's, and by extension the Soviet Union's, days were numbered. The streak of liberalism introduced by Gorbachev's cadre of reformers was about to be overwhelmed by decentralizing, nationalist forces far beyond their control. In the absence of a state concerned with regulating the atmosphere in which worker's democratic freedoms were explored, the whole experiment was to be quickly stubbed out. The story of mass unemployment and impoverishment that followed is by now a familiar one. To conclude, then, with the reflections of female auto plant workers in Yaroslavl in 1990, on the recent pro-union changes, shortlived though they were, and the swelling optimism of the newly assertive worker's movement:

Woman I: Before the change, almost all decisions were made by the administration. Now there must be consultation with the trade union committee and the workers have a much greater say.

Woman 4: Control by [Government] Ministries is still there, and this limits managers' power and workers' collectives' power. So the enterprises must become free of the Ministries first of all, and then the workers' collective councils will really become strong. 8

1Piore and Sable, The Second Industrial Divide, 4-5
2Hobsbawm, Age of Extremes, 473-4
3Hobsbawm, Age of Extremes, 474
4Available in, Blackburn ed., After the Fall
5Quoted in Panitch and Gindin, 'Perestroika and the Proletariat', Socialist Register 27
6See: Mandel, Trotsky: A Study in the Dynamic of his Thought
7Woodward, 'Soviet Rehearsal in Yugoslavia?' in Socialist Register 27
8See: Panitch and Gindin, 'Perestroika and the Proletariat', in Socialist Register 27