An interview given by a historian and activist to the Egalite magazine about the radical left movement in Russia, its difficulties and prospects, the problem of alliances and difficult but much needed alternatives.
Question: What place do you think Russia and the CIS countries occupy in the system of world capitalism and how does this position determine the form of exercising the power of their states?
Answer: Well, you correctly pose the problem: what we observe in the former Soyuz, or, as I sometimes say, in 1/6, cannot be considered an exception in the world, although, of course, some phenomena and tendencies appear more sharply or prominently. Capitalism is really a “world-system” where there is its own “center” and its own “periphery”. The countries of the former “Union” undoubtedly belong to the “periphery” or to the “semi-periphery” from the point of view of their place in world capitalism. Their economic role is a raw material appendage and a location for production with cheap labor. But this does not exclude several additional points that complicate the picture.
First, corporations operating in these countries – primarily in Russia – can also act as transnational corporations, very active and sometimes influential not only in other countries of the “periphery”, but also in the countries of the capitalist “center”: take, for example, the same Russian gas and oil companies.
Second, within the region of the former Soyuz, a contender for the role of a regional superpower – the Russian state – is emerging. It is trying to establish itself in this capacity and is seeking recognition of this right from competitors in the world arena, including from the powers of the capitalist “center.” Nevertheless, his economic weakness and peripheral raw material role enable him to act only as a junior partner in the ongoing processes of the formation of new imperialist blocs or “centers of power” in the world, primarily in the confrontation between the North American United States and China.
Such a political and economic place of the “post-Soviet” region in the capitalist world undoubtedly leaves an imprint on the nature of power in its states. Another influencing factor can be considered the fact that, in fact, in all these countries, the ruling class largely grew out of the Soviet ruling nomenklatura and the technical bureaucracy. As a result, authoritarian or semi-authoritarian oligarchic regimes, pursuing an extreme neoliberal policy in the social sphere, have more or less clearly established themselves in all states of the “1 / 6th”.
Question: What ideological and practical evolution did the post-Soviet left movement undergo from the late 90s to the present day?
Answer: To begin with, I think, nevertheless, one should say that the left movement in the region initially suffered from congenital “wormholes.” The left opposition in the USSR has always been subjected to severe repression and was cut off from the main trends in the development of radical left thought in the world. Hence its initial … well, let’s just say: “provincial”, “home-grown”, or something, ideological mess and an attempt, as they say, to reinvent the wheel. Very many people have vestiges of the CPSU ideology, Leninism, authoritarian-state capitalist moments or sentiments. Another such “wormhole” dating back to Soviet times is the inability to formulate and take up one’s own principled position in the social struggle. Just like most of the “new left” acted during the perestroika period as appendages of the demonomenklatura-liberal opposition; even after the dissolution of the Union by the ruling nomenklatura class, the left most often becomes a kind of junior partner of one or another faction of the ruling class waging a struggle for power. For example – a de facto ally of the liberal opposition in the struggle for “fair elections” or “democracy”.
As for the changes over the past 20 years … I would put it harshly: the situation on the left has not improved, but worsened. New wormholes have been added to the old ones. Even in the 1990s, the left did not have ideological and cultural hegemony in society, but at least the then situation in society – the shock from the consequences of “market reforms”, on the one hand, and the still fresh memory of the undesirable effects of Soviet neo-Stalinism – opened , at least in theory, the opportunity and space to search for some kind of left alternative. Hence the significant interest in non-traditional left-wing and anarchist ideas among the youth of the 1990s. Now the situation is different. New generations of people have grown up who are already accustomed to private market capitalism and perceive it as the only reality that can be improved, in the spirit of an idealized, imaginary “West” but it is impossible, utopian to destroy. But the memory of the realities of Stalinism and state capitalism has been erased, young people have not experienced this and do not know. As a result, some young people attend Navalny’s events, while others join Leninist groups.
The consequences of the processes of constructing capitalist nations in the post-Soviet countries also affect – nationalism in one form or another has become almost a political consensus and has also spread to a significant part of the left. If in the 90s the “new left” and anarchists, unlike the Stalinists, shunned patriotic “troubles”, then in the 21st century some Marxists, “antifa” and anarchists began to declare that patriotism should not be left “at the mercy” of the ultra-right.
Politically, the non-independence of the role and actions of the post-Soviet left in Russia is reinforced by the very situation of the transition of political power from the liberal faction of the ruling class in the 90s to its now ruling conservative faction. In the new conditions, many leftists consider the main and direct enemy not to capitalism as such, but to the conservative regime, pinning naive hopes on changes for the better in the event of its removal from power.
And the last point, which cannot be ignored: due to the traditional “provinciality” of the post-Soviet left, they with zealous readiness and completely uncritically borrow from the world left movement what they think is the latest squeak of the left fashion, but which is often already questioned and revised in this movement. Thus, especially in recent decades, various identity, postcolonialist and other similar trends have penetrated into the Russian left milieu, inclined to consider the class problem, class struggle, socio-economic aspects of exploitation “outdated”, “unimportant” or “secondary”.
The unilateral orientation of many leftists on the preferential protection of the interests of one or another non-class “stratum”, segment, “oppressed nation”, “oppressed race” or hierarchical “community” within the framework of capitalism undermines the possibility of forming solidarity of the working class and awareness of its interest in the elimination of capitalism and the state , in the destruction of any hierarchy at all.
Question: Why does the “new left” in Russia and the CIS consider the conquest of Western-style democracy to be the first step on the road to socialism?
Answer: There are again many reasons here. The very first is the initial idealization of political democracy as a system of government. Let me remind you that this discussion dates back to the time of the split in the First International. For us anarchists, democracy is also a “cratia”; it is also a form of man’s power over man. And where there is power, there can be no freedom, no real equality (no hierarchy), no solidarity. In the ancient Greek polis, it was still possible to talk about the direct solution of all issues by everyone, at a general meeting. In modern society, democracy is a myth. Our ideal is universal self-government, in which people themselves directly resolve all issues of their lives and activities, collectively or individually. Any representation of the needs or desires of people by any political institution of power, elective or not,
Moreover, even the most “advanced” of modern democracies in the world does not hesitate to resort to the most brutal repression and trampling on freedoms and rights as soon as it feels threatened. In other words, democracy as a system of power is, in fact, a fiction. As Marcuse rightly said, the freedom to choose the master does not abolish the existence of masters and slaves, rulers and subordinates.
Meanwhile, the majority of the left, not rooted in the anarchist tradition, consider representative democracy to be quite possible. Moreover, they, unlike the anarchists, do not believe in the possibility of an immediate and real transition to a stateless and classless society. For them, since the time of the First International, the transition to a future free society is presented only in the form of a series of successive stages: first – the conquest of “democracy”, then – the conquest of political power, then the “first period” of the new society, as a kind of compromise with elements of the old , and only then – in foggy and almost unrealizable distances – “communism”.
The second reason is, in a way, a consequence of the substitution of concepts. For example, no one will deny that civil and human rights, the so-called “negative freedom”, create more favorable conditions for the activities of left-wing forces and social movements. In the history of anarcho-syndicalist trade unions in various countries, there are many examples when strikes were held against repressive laws, repression, the prohibition of trade union and workers’ organizations, etc. Fighting against all this is logical. But it is a dangerous illusion to believe that these “negative freedoms” are indeed guaranteed by an elected system of representative government. Perhaps she is less arrogant and cynical in her actions, and even then not always. But if she needs to drop or suspend such freedoms, she always finds a way to do it. That is why we say: freedom – yes, democracy as a system of government – no, because, as power, it is no better than a dictatorship. We are definitely for freedom of assembly, demonstration, unions, organizations, etc. But we will never support the campaign for “free elections” by the slaves of our masters. Illusions must be destroyed, not reinforced.
Question: What, apart from the nationalization of large companies and corporations, can the “new left” offer to post-Soviet society politically and economically?
Answer: First of all, they can and should offer an alternative to a society of universal self-government and coordination of actions “from below” – both politically and economically. This means that we should not advocate for nationalization, that is, nationalization of the economy, but for its socialization, real socialization. Enterprises and services belonging to society should be managed on its behalf not by the state, which can never be a real spokesman for the interests of society, but by those who work at these enterprises and in these services, in coordination with consumers and residents.
This requires universal self-organization from below, both at the place of work and at the place of residence. And it can only grow out of concrete and everyday social and economic struggles. It is precisely on such self-organization that the “new left” should be working. In the future, the very structures of “anti-power” could grow out of it, which would replace the state and capitalism.
Question: Can the anti-militarist, ecological and feminist agendas give a start for the development of the class struggle?
Answer: I do not think that they can really “give a start” if they are viewed as independent and self-valuable movements. Separated from more general social and socio-economic problems, they are able, on the contrary, to strengthen the illusion in the common interests of the exploited and exploiters affected by the same environmental or feminist problems, problems of equality of minorities, etc. It seems to me that it makes more sense, on the contrary, to weave such a “non-economic” theme into the socio-economic struggle, thereby expanding the formulation of the issue to a comprehensive opposition to any domination and any hierarchy.
Question: How do you assess the experience of grassroots protest activity in Russia and the CIS in recent years (environmental protest camps, strikes by precarious workers, the struggle for “fair elections”)?
Answer: Of course, it is good when society begins to wake up from hibernation. But, unfortunately, the scale of resistance lags far behind the real challenge, from the problems faced by the exploited and subordinate people. Opposition “from below” lags behind the class war “from above”.
An illustrative example is the fight against the pension reform in Russia in 2018. It, as in a mirror, reflected all the weaknesses of modern protest. Even the pro-government press admitted that if millions of people took to the streets, whose interests were affected by this reform, robbing them on a scale unseen since the early 90s, the government would be forced to retreat.
But this is a real shame when tens or hundreds of thousands of people go to actions for the right and the opportunity to choose their own lord, president or deputy, and pitiful hundreds of people fight in defense of their immediate everyday interests, say, affordable medicine and healthcare. at best, thousands.
As for the strikes, they do occur, but there are not many of them, and they are most often not too radical and not very long-lasting. To this should be added the absolutely deplorable state of the trade union movement … However, this is no longer a purely “post-Soviet” problem.
Question: Why are so many people in the post-Soviet space ready to support political, and not socio-economic, struggle?
Answer: On the one hand, this is a consequence of a naive and illusory belief in democracy as a system of government, and also in conjunction with belief in the coming of an “honest politician” – that is, a “good master”. Partly – and the result of the conviction that the choice is only between dictatorship and democracy, and the third is not given. In addition, the idea that everything should be changed “from above” and not “from below” plays a role. Many believe that some kind of “pure”, “honest”, “uncorrupted” and “civilized” capitalism is possible, as in the “West” invented by the inhabitants.
Well, and finally, there is one more reason – quite trivial. It is much easier and easier, in fact, to oppose the regime and the government than against the immediate boss or boss at the place of work. In a big “political” protest, the participant dissolves into the mass, risking only in case of great personal bad luck. In a socioeconomic protest at the workplace, a participant risks being fired and left without a livelihood.
Question: How can the modern post-Soviet left successfully fight an authoritarian state and comprador capital?
Answer: First of all, by developing the socio-economic struggle, the struggle for the daily needs and interests of working people, ordinary people, at the place of work, residence, study, etc. It will inevitably, sooner or later, confront the workers and the system as a whole, if it is conducted non-hierarchically and self-organized.
Question: Why does Lenin’s “step theory” in the modern context not satisfy anarchists?
Answer: To begin with, it has never satisfied the anarchists. The Great Russian Revolution of 1917-1921 began by no means according to Lenin – as supposedly two different revolutions, the February bourgeois-democratic and the October socialist. In fact, socialist elements in the revolution appeared already in February, in the form of proletarian and peasant self-government and the movement for socialization. The revolution was on the rise, at least until the spring of 1918, one of its stages continued the other, but socialist self-government did not follow from the structures of bourgeois democracy, but just waged a life or death struggle with them.
It is all the more incomprehensible how those who believe in the “bourgeois-democratic stage” of the future revolution in Russia are going to move from it to socialism. Perhaps they are observing some kind of alternative self-organization of workers, from which self-government and “anti-power” will grow, given their scheme of events? I wonder where they found it and what planet do they live on? How can an understanding develop from the movement for “fair elections” and the replacement of the first, second or third person in the state that one should not exchange an awl for soap and look for a “good master”? Or do the Leninists expect that after one or several “breakups” the “people” will be disappointed and will stop “stepping on a rake”? But where did they get it? After all, calling on to fight to strengthen the illusions of democracy and “
Question: What is the anarcho-syndicalist alternative to post-Soviet capitalism today?
Answer: Our alternative is still the same everywhere. It can be expressed by the formula “resistance – self-organization – self-government”. Everything can start small. An increasing number of people will begin to feel not only dissatisfaction with the existing order of things, but also a desire to resist the constant onslaught of capital and the state on their vital interests. It is possible and even quite likely that at first the workers – for the umpteenth time – will try to resort to the help of traditional methods of indirect action (appeals to the authorities, politicians, parties, deputies, courts, etc.) and the usual bureaucratic structures (bureaucratic trade unions, non-governmental organizations, etc.). But experience will quickly convince them that these methods and ways are already useless. Failures and defeats will motivate people to act independently. The situation will start here, then there we can get out of the control of parties and bureaucrats, and the course of the struggle will demonstrate that only where and when the working people act on the basis of sovereign general meetings and resort to methods of direct action, success can be achieved. So, in the process of struggle, self-organization structures will appear – general meetings and delegates responsible to them. Initially, such self-organization of people is unlikely to be long-term. However, sooner or later, people who are already accustomed to struggle can become convinced that a more stable and independent self-organization is needed – self-organization that becomes more systematic and long-lasting. succeeds. So, in the process of struggle, self-organization structures will appear – general meetings and delegates responsible to them. Initially, such self-organization of people is unlikely to be long-term. However, sooner or later, people who are already accustomed to struggle can become convinced that a more stable and independent self-organization is needed – self-organization that becomes more systematic and long-lasting. succeeds. So, in the process of struggle, self-organization structures will appear – general meetings and delegates responsible to them. Initially, such self-organization of people is unlikely to be long-term. However, sooner or later, people who are already accustomed to struggle can become convinced that a more stable and independent self-organization is needed – self-organization that becomes more systematic and long-lasting.
For example, general meetings of workers of an enterprise or residents of a microdistrict will not stop meeting after resolving or reducing the severity of a particular conflict, but will continue their meetings (for example, in order to independently control the further development of the situation, without entrusting this task to political “representatives”). An important role in the dissemination of such positions and initiatives can and should be made by activists who constantly campaign in favor of self-government in the struggle and expose the impotence and falsity of the system of representing interests on which all existing power is based. Only when people can put their self-organization, which periodically manifests itself in the course of the struggle, on an ever more stable basis, can it be seriously believed that the process of real recovery has begun.
At the same time, the task of social revolutionaries is not only to maintain the fire of hatred in people for the existing structures of power and capital, but also to insist that only constant self-organized activity, only the elimination of the state, power and property is able to solve the pressing problems of mankind, once and for all eradicate causes and preconditions for the torment, suffering, crises, wars and catastrophes we are experiencing today.
In other words, self-organized structures will have to agree not only on the “negative”, but also on the “constructive”, not only on what needs to be destroyed, but also on what and how to create and build. Only when the beginnings of self-organization and self-government spread sufficiently can a situation arise in which there will be a constant accumulation of experience, almost every strike, every protest will show an increasingly obvious tendency to go beyond the framework and limits of the existing system, revolutionary actions and general meetings will become more regular, systematic. Then the revolutionary forces will be able to throw a real challenge to the entire current order, creating structures of self-government that will eliminate the state and capitalism.
As you can see, nothing is predetermined here. We do not believe in the automatism of “iron-necessary” economic or social laws. It is only a question of an opportunity determined by the activity of the people themselves. But there is simply no other way.
Interviewed by Alexander Migursky
Published: “Egalite. Overcoming Capitalism”. 2021. February. S.108-117.