Russia's New and Old System

— John Marot interviews Boris Kagarlitsky

John Marot, a history teacher and a member of Solidarity in Los Angeles, conducted this interview with Boris Kagarlitsky in Moscow in August, 1994.

Marot: What are the historical origins of the present crisis? What was Gorbachev trying to accomplish?

Kagarlitsky: Gorbachev and the elite wanted to consolidate the system, to make it more manageable and more attuned to new technologies, to new developments in the world, capable of absorbing some new elements, sociologically, economically, politically. This was the first goal.

Becoming part of a respectable world elite was the second goal. They consciously wanted to become bourgeois in their lifestyles, in their behavior, in their methods; they wanted to become accepted by the world ruling class, the world bourgeoisie, as legitimate counterparts, as normal respectable counterparts.

Marot: Just as a regular, ordinary, ruling class.

Kagarlitsky: Exactly. That was the idea. That was the whole thing behind Gorbachev's “general human values” demagogy.

Marot: The other side of this was a distancing from the ideals of the October Revolution, from Marxism, from Leninism.

Kagarlitsky: This was a consequence rather than the original, fundamental thing. These people always think in terms of very concrete rules, not in terms of a project such as achieving some kind of new society, new social conditions, but really in terms of achieving very practical, very concrete things.

In that sense it was not something like “Well, let's drop Marxism-Leninism step by step, gradually.” On the contrary, I think the original intention was to keep as much of Marxist-Leninist ideology, and as much of the legacy of the October Revolution as possible, and at the same time becoming as bourgeois as possible.

Marot: A very difficult, perhaps impossible, thing to do.

Kagarlitsky: Exactly, it was impossible. On the one hand the elite wanted to be part of western capitalism; on the other hand their raison d'etre, their legitimization as a ruling elite, as the state, as leaders of the country, came from the October Revolution, on the traditions derived from the Revolution. Becoming totally embourgeoisee was undermining their own legitimacy and undermining their potential to control the population. So this was a contradiction.

Marot: They have resolved this contradiction now, it seems, by severing all historical linkages to 1917.

Kagarlitsky: Yes. That is why the transition for the bureaucracy was so painful. They resolved the contradiction by destroying the Soviet Union, destroying the original state, and restructuring the state at a lower, more limited level.

Marot: At a lower level of political aggregation.

Kagarlitsky: Yes. They have a weaker state now, which was probably not their intention. And though they have some kind of integration in the world capitalist elite, it is not as an equal partner, but as a dependent, subordinate, weaker partner.

The second goal, integration, was achieved but the first goal, modernization, was not achieved. Here you have a degeneration, a decomposition of the elite which has actually collapsed into some kind of semifeudal, primitive bureaucracy, running a kind of dependent patriarchal, in a way precapitalist, system.

Marot: In the West there is much talk about how the ex-Soviet Union is, with great difficulty, zig-zagging towards capitalism, toward a capitalist economy. What you are saying is that, in fact, there is no such thing taking place.

Kagarlitsky: That is the point. Instead of getting a modern capitalist economy, which for social, economic, technical, organizational, cultural, etc. reasons we will never get, what we have is the collapse of the original Soviet system and its degeneration in a kind of semifeudal, semipatriarchal, primitive, dependent, third world type of economy. The problem is what we define as capitalism.

Marot: We can discuss terms but one could say that while a few years ago there was one Soviet Union now there are fifteen, in the sense that you still have bureaucratic class and property relations [in the fifteen former republics of the Soviet Union]. The difference is at the level of political aggregation at which these relations were coordinated. This coordination now exists at a lower level of aggregation. In this fundamental sense there is a very strong continuity between the Soviet Union and what exists now, in terms of property and class relations, leaving aside ideology.

Kagarlitsky: This is undeniable. Even taking the ideological, symbolic side of it, the break was much weaker here then in, say, Poland or Czechoslovakia. Just to give you an example, in Hungary there was a real break. There was a change in government, the ex-communist party lost the election, the new party moved in. New people at the top.

But, in Russia, the August events of 1991 only influenced some people in Moscow. If you don't live in Moscow and you live in a provincial place, and that means most of the country, there nothing really changed, even at the symbolic level.

You have the same structures, the same people. They just renamed obkom partii to government administration. And that was it. They abolished the local Soviets, which were the only democratically elected bodies. So at the ground level, at the local level, the system became much more authoritarian, more traditional than it had been during the earlier years of perestroika.

Marot: Outside of Moscow.

Kagarlitsky: That is right. They eliminated the only elected bodies. The new bodies are even weaker than the original Soviets. The system had been based on the party and the Soviets, representative bodies which were not freely elected but which represented certain social interests. Now we have exactly the same system represented through the state administration and the Duma.

Marot: A material continuity.

Kagarlitsky: Absolutely. Same people, same buildings, same files.

Marot: Different signboards.

Kagarlitsky: Yes, sometimes.

Marot: Looking more closely at the ideological, symbolic, moral level if you will: There is no sense whatsoever of civic duty, of broader social responsibility in the mass media. There is, instead, the most extreme individualism imaginable. On TV you have a barrage of commercials that promise millions if you invest in such and such a firm.

Kagarlitsky: Without working.

Marot: Without working. From the mass media, and television in particular, any notion of equality, of civic responsibility, of some broader perspective on society, is totally absent.

Kagarlitsky: This is what the nomenklatura has brought. In a way we have had some kind of “cultural revolution,” a moral revolution, inside the nomenklatura. Dimitrina Petrova, a deputy in the first “post-communist” government of Bulgaria, summed it up best: “The only revolution which ever occurred in the Eastern Europe was the nomenklatura revolution, in which the nomenklatura freed itself from moral responsibility.”

Marot: To paraphrase Marx, “the nomenklatura dares to appear as it really is” -- narrow, grasping, selfish. There is now a correspondence, a connection, between material life and these new ideological forms. Some critics have long argued that Marxist-Leninist ideology was just an empty shell, that there was no social content whatsoever to its notions of internationalism, egalitarianism and democracy. Some left-wingers responded to this view by asking, as Isaac Deutscher did in 1967: How can an ideological form that is devoid of any content possibly exist, even as a form? The answer, I think, has now been given: The forms themselves have collapsed.

Kagarlitsky: I will partly disagree. We have to distinguish between 1967 or 1977 or even 1987, and today. The bureaucracy in the soviet system always had not only some kind of moral obligation, which has now been dropped, but had some functional obligations which were inherited from the post-revolutionary period and which limited their ability to become a real, dominant class.

At the same time, this made their social situation safer because they had things to deliver: They delivered, and thus earned the right to rule the country. There was a system of mutual obligations.

Marot: A kind of social contract?

Kagarlitsky: We use the term “obligatory social contract” or “asymmetrical social contract,” meaning that the population was forced into this social contract. The social contract was definitely not free.

On the other hand, if you lived in the country you understood that, though the population was forced into this contract, it was accepted, not just because there was no other way, but because people liked certain aspects of the contract.

Well, it is a very complicated issue. But we must be very objective. It was a way of life not only for the elite but for generations of Soviet people, who really accepted the existence of bureaucracy and did not even think of rebelling, at least until the 1962 Novocherkassk revolt.

There was a way of changing the contract without breaking it. The terms were rigid but there were ways to modify the contract, partially from below, through passive resistance. Passive resistance was part of the rules of the game. Sometimes the elite surrendered on certain issues.

The problem is that the regime has dropped its social responsibility; it -- and not the population -- has canceled the social contract. Today, passive resistance is not enough.

Marot: Experience of active resistance has been gained. I am thinking of the miners' strike of 1989, a tremendous example of working class self-organization, potentially posing an alternative to the bureaucracy for the first time since the 1920s.

Kagarlitsky: This was the very first lesson. But one must not exaggerate the importance of this lesson. The leadership of the first generation of the workers' movement was very much like the leadership in the rest of the world: politically incompetent, very easy to corrupt, lacking any culture, tradition and experience. And lacking a system of recruitment of cadres.

So in that sense the first leadership of the working class movement which emerged in 1989 was totally co-opted by Yeltsinists. What happened between 1989 and 1993 was in a sense a tragedy. The miners lost almost everything they had gained in that period.

In October of 1993 we entered a new stage. A national pact of agreement was signed by Yeltsin and opposition leaders of the Duma and the Trade Unions. It was an agreement by all the elites, including the trade union elite, not to fight each other and to consolidate their position against the rest of the population.

Marot: This is a corporatist agreement.

Kagarlitsky: Yes. There were different elites fighting each other before 1989 and after 1989. Though technically, in military terms, Yeltsin won this fight, he understood that unless he and his opponents reached some kind of agreement they were going to lose.

So Yeltsin followed up his victory by coming to terms with all the elites opposing him. Certainly there was an old elite which did not fit into the new system, for several reasons. They tried to regain momentum by opposing the reforms, sometimes even claiming to be radical just to attract social support.

This helped them to negotiate terms with the Yeltsin regime because the regime said, “in the long run you don't fit into the picture but, OK, we don't care, we will give you anything you want. You don't want to be part of the system; fine, we will give you all the privileges you want even though these are extra privileges, not generated by the system.”

Marot: Pensioning them off. Is this so much different from the past?

Kagarlitsky: Yes, pensioning off the old communist nomenklatura through the system of parliamentary sinecures -- an enormous system of sinecures, of public or state foundations which serve no purpose<197>is now a system of conscious incorporation of everyone who did not fit into the picture, of the opposition first of all.

If you are an oppositionist you have incredibly numerous possibilities to obtain sinecures at the moment. If you are in the government you have far fewer, at the moment; you just take your bribes and shut up. You have your position, you have your bribes, you are OK and we don't worry about you. If you are in the opposition then you need some kind of special protection so we will invent especially for you some useless position, and you will get some kind of public advisory council in the present administration.

Marot: Kormlenie (literally “feedings,” or income derived from holding a position in the state during the Tsarist era)?

Kagarlitsky: Kormlenie, especially for the ones who are oppositionists. And you don't even have to drop your opposition to the government!

Marot: So opposition is formally recognized, legitimized in a sense.

Kagarlisky: Yes. Just a week ago I received an analytical paper prepared for Shumeiko, chair of the upper chamber of the Council of the (Russian) Federation. It is very cynical. It says the opposition now remains oppositional only in terms of the personal composition of the government, but not in terms of the government's policies.

Marot: So these are personal, not principled rivalries?

Kagarlitsky: There were principled rivalries but now, when the opposition has been bought, all that remains are personal rivalries. The trade union leadership became part of this corporation, of this system of legal bribes.

Until the signing of the agreement there was intra-elite fighting going on, and certain sections of the laboring masses, the peasantry in particular, started to wager on certain segments of the elite, to take advantage of their divisions, to pit one against the other, and in this way to achieve their goals. Behind the events of October 1993 there was real popular support for the supreme Soviet, not because it was so good or so democratic...

Marot: Or representative of the people's interests.

Kagarlitsky: Well, it was representative to some extent, just as the old nomenklatura was socially responsible. So the Supreme Soviet represented the socially responsible part of the elite, that part which still retained certain connections, certain corporate ties to the population. This is very clear. So the corporatist “socially responsible” elite fought against the irresponsible elite represented by Gaidar, Yeltsin.

Marot: In that conflict Gaidar and Yeltsin formally won.

Kagarlitsky: Yes. They won. But the price the losers had to pay was not that they were actually killed but that they had to dramatically weaken their corporatist ties to the population. That was Yeltsin's greatest victory. If you cut these ties you will be rewarded, with sinecures, Duma positions etc.

Marot: Yeltsin and Gaidar had no corporatist ties to the working class? But how did they get to where they were, how did they get to such a high position?

Kagarlitsky: They had ties to the population. But they were first to cut these ties and to establish other ties, to the Mafia, to speculators, the “new Russians,” the shadow elite. This shadow elite had very weak connections to the official elite.

Marot: If corporate ties to the general population are being cut, what other ties to the direct producers are replacing those ties?

Kagarlitsky: They need more and more coercion. There are two ways of coercing the population. Either you use physical violence or you coerce the population through the market, through the system of price and wage controls, etc. In certain cases they continue to use traditional corporate ties. The population faces a new situation. The elite has consolidated.

Marot: What exactly has the elite won?

Kagarlitsky: They have won the long-term prospect of third-worldization. Our society faces a very crucial change. Our social structure, our place in the world capitalist system, our political institutions are already those of a third world country, like Nigeria, for example.

On the other hand the educational and professional structure of the population, the skills people have, the level of urbanization, and the technology, which is physically there but is not being replaced, correspond to a country with a relatively high level of development.

The fundamental things are in the first list. So if the pattern of investment continues as it is then the features of the second list will be undermined.

Marot: De-industrialization?

Kagarlitsky: De-industrialization, de-modernization, more unemployed peo<->ple, fewer skilled people to produce modern things, collapse of the educational system and rise of illiteracy, decline of the modern health care system and the rise of disease. We will collapse into a sort of European Nigeria.

There is a tremendous gap between the political community, which is almost totally integrated into the system, and the masses, who are almost totally alienated from the political community, from the political class, from the so-called civil society, that tiny civil society for the elite.

Marot: Isn't that the ultimate goal of this elite?

Kagarlitsky: Yes. They have achieved this. The civil society that we have now is turning against society, destroying it, not expressing it. It is the civil society of the elite. Should the masses create their own civil society it would be to fight against the civil society of the elite.

Marot: On this point of the elite having its civil society and the masses being alienated from it, it seems to me that the appeal of “capitalism” lies precisely in the fact that, in the West, you do have party-political competition, free elections, a whole sphere where it appears that the masses are masters of their destiny but, in reality, are not. Capitalist social relationships can seamlessly combine a ruling class with democracy, while removing working people from mastery over the society, the economy and so forth.

Kagarlitsky: Sure. (But) to achieve this you have to be part of the (world capitalist) center, not of the periphery; and we are on the periphery. Capitalist democracy, in the global sense, remains exactly the same. Russia's problem is that we cannot get integrated into the center.

In this situation the masses must develop their counter-culture, a second civil society, and counterpose that to the political culture of the capitalists -- or to be more precise, not necessarily of the capitalists, but of the elites. In Russia the very existence of a separate political culture is a threat. That is why the ruling elites do everything to prevent this culture from emerging.

Marot: Can we say that the elite, by presenting its own civil society as the only one possible, in effect is working to prevent the formation of this other civil society? And that it does so by claiming that its own civil society is all-inclusive, that its elections are truly free, that the choice is truly wide and varied, in others words, that its own agenda is everyone's agenda?

Kagarlitsky: That is exactly the point. Opinion polls have been taken on social attitudes toward politics. About sixty percent of the population considers that it not represented by any political party in elections. This is comparable to the United States.

Marot: For the elite this is a tremendous success, to achieve this level of non-participation in elections.

Kagarlitsky: In Russia, twenty percent participation. Much lower than in the United States. In particular districts participation in last spring's elections was three to five percent. People could not identify with any of the candidates.

Even if you have a very progressive social agenda, it's hard to get identified by the masses unless you are identified with grassroots struggles. The left lost its capacity to fight grassroots struggles in the last few years.

Marot: To conclude, one could say that the so-called transition to capitalism is taking place, but in only one specific aspect: What the ruling elite here wants is to imitate bourgeois democracy without necessarily wanting capitalist property relationships, to graft bourgeois democracy onto already existing bureaucratic property relationships.

Kagarlitsky: Private property does not mean capitalist property. It is absolutely crucial to understand this point.

ATC 55, March-April 1995

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