Chris Harman


Unholy alliance

(November 1993)

Thinking It Through, Socialist Review, No.169, November 1993.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive at
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

‘The most fervent proponents of the market ... come from within the old state capitalist ruling classes’

A most amazing thing happened to the Labour left in Britain last month. A section of it nearly endorsed a putsch led by sections of out and out fascists.

I am referring, of course, to their attitudes to the armed clashes in the streets of Moscow. The line of the left for the two weeks before the fighting was that parliamentary leader Khasbulatov and vice-president Rutskoy stood for socialism and democracy and deserved unconditional support against Yeltsin.

Ken Livingstone, for instance, wrote that Khasbulatov combined ‘the manner of Dennis Skinner with the politics of Bryan Gould’.

A New Statesman editorial on 24 September claimed,

‘What we are witnessing in Russia is a clash between rampant free market capitalism ... and oppositional forces that seek to mitigate at least some of the consequences of that rush to the market ... It is a struggle for social welfare, a secure standard of living and democracy against those who believe the market must rule all’.

Yet those who took to the streets of Moscow on 3 October were certainly not motivated by any desire for democracy or to defend the living standards and welfare services of the mass of the people.

The correspondent of the Militant (a paper that used to show some sympathy for the ‘red’ component of the red-brown alliance) says:

‘Rutskoy welcomed some “strong upright young men” who came to support parliament. Half an hour later squads of over 200 of these “strong men” were drilling in military formation, with fascist insignia and giving the Nazi salute ...

‘This was a military adventure by discontented officers and others, many of them mercenaries in the civil wars now raging in the ex-republics of the USSR’.

Essentially the same account is given by the Guardian’s Jonathan Steele, who has usually been critical of Yeltsin, as well as by a Russian socialist writing elsewhere in this Review. Rutskoy and Khasbulatov were not fascists. But they saw fascist bands as a tool they could use to prompt a military takeover on their side.

How did so many of the left in Britain come to side with such men? The answer lies in residual illusions which still pervade so much of the left. They saw Yeltsin and Gaidar as seeking to subvert Russia through the introduction of capitalism at the behest of international big business, and Rutskoy, Khasbulatov and their allies as resisting this.

They were wrong on two counts. Rutskoy and Khasbulatov did not oppose the market, privatisation or foreign capital. They looked for support to the Directors’ Lobby, made up of the heads of state owned firms.

These want the market, but would like it to be introduced piecemeal by an authoritarian state which intervenes in the market on the ‘Chinese’ model, rather than by Gaidar’s shock treatment. They have no objection to privatisation – providing it is pushed under their own control. And they are only too happy to work with foreign capital – especially if it enables them to salt away large amounts of their profits in the safety of Western banks.

And what is happening is certainly not the imposition of capitalism from the outside on some different system. There are two defining features of capitalism – workers having to sell their labour power to those who control industry, and production being determined by competition, not need. Both have characterised Russia since Stalin in the late 1920s.

The state bureaucracy, far from doing away with the characteristically capitalist dynamic of ‘accumulation of wealth on the one side, of poverty on the other’, acted to impose it on the whole of society.

State direction of capitalist development was never something confined to the so called Communist countries. It was a general trend throughout the capitalist world for much of the present century, seen by all sorts of governments (fascist, liberal, social democrat and Stalinist) as the way to ward off economic crises from the 1930s to the 1970s.

But over the last 20 years the state led model of capitalism has become increasingly prone to crisis. This has led capitalist classes based on it everywhere to look for an alternative model – not just in Russia and Eastern Europe, but in countries as varied as Brazil and Argentina, China and Vietnam, Algeria and Egypt.

The most readily available model is that of the ‘free market’ that preceded the shift to state capitalism 60 and more years ago. The readoption of this, say its proponents, will lead to a reinvigorated capital accumulation and, with it, rising living standards for the majority of the population. The model is especially enticing since it is endorsed by the major bodies controlling the flow of international loans – the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. They tell national governments that if they don’t accept the model they don’t get the money.

This makes much of the left see the turn to the market as the result simply of a conspiracy in Western banking circles. But the most fervent proponents of the market model come from elements within the old state capitalist ruling classes themselves.

That is not the end of the story. The ‘free market’ model of capitalism cannot, in fact, work any better than the state capitalist one. The attempt to implement it causes deep divisions among those who undertake the task. That is why we have seen splits within governments and between presidents and parliaments in countries as different as Peru and the Ukraine, Venezuela and Guatemala, Brazil and Russia.

Sometimes tactics dictate that socialists have to stand alongside a lesser enemy against a greater one – for instance, when the very freedom to organise is at stake. But state capital is no more intrinsically favourable to us having that freedom than private capital. To believe otherwise can lead you to line up, as Ken Livingstone and the New Statesman nearly did, with those who would execute you.

The Russian generals chose, after much hesitation, to throw in their lot with Yeltsin and today are limiting democratic rights at his behest. But had they opted to back Rutskoy and Khasbulatov no one should believe that, working in alliance with fascist gangs, they would have been any less repressive. It is time for the left to learn the lessons of last month’s events and to lose all illusions.

Last updated on 17 December 2009