ISJ 2 Index | Main Newspaper Index

Encyclopedia of Trotskyism | Marxists’ Internet Archive

International Socialism, Winter 2002


Dave Crouch

The inevitability of radicalism


From International Socialism 2:97, Winter 2002.
Copyright © International Socialism.
Copied with thanks from the International Socialism Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Boris Kagarlitsky
Russia under Yeltsin and Putin: Neo-Liberal Autocracy
Pluto 2002, £16.99

Events in Russia over the last 15 years have produced some startling transformations in their protagonists. Lifelong Communists have become outspoken Thatcherites. Committed liberals have suddenly developed tastes for nationalism and militarism. Soviet dissidents have jettisoned their critical faculties and become cheerleaders for the very people who kept them in jail. Strike leaders have become champions of privatisation, socialists have swapped places with chauvinists, anarchists have become bureaucrats, and a few have even thrown in their lot with the Nazis.

At the top and middle levels of society there has been a certain consistency in these gyrations, as a divided ruling class scrabbled around for ideas that could help maintain its privileges. Lower down the social order, intellectual somersaults were usually the result of desperation and broken dreams. Everywhere financial calculation played a role, while for anyone with talent and ambition the temptation was to get out of Russia altogether.

In contrast, Boris Kagarlitsky has weathered this storm – in fact, he has come out of it even more confident in his socialism and optimistic about the future. [1] This is no mean feat. Moreover, he has maintained his vision thanks not to sectarian dogma or isolation in an ivory tower, but has consistently tested his ideas against experience. Imprisoned in 1982 for his oppositional work, he became a leader of the Moscow Popular Front during perestroika (‘restructuring’). In 1990 he was a founding member of the Socialist Party, on the basis of which he led a serious attempt in 1992 to build a Labour-style party based on the mass membership of the ‘official’ trade unions. In the same year he was elected to the Moscow city council, and in October 1993, after Yeltsin sent tanks against the parliament he was arrested for taking part in its defence. He has continued to actively support small left groups around the country, and in 2000 he joined the Russian contingent on the mass anti-capitalist protest in Prague. Recently he has found a new audience through journalism as political editor of the popular left-liberal Moscow newspaper Novaya Gazeta.

As a result, Kagarlitsky has friends and contacts across the opposition political spectrum. He is the eyes and ears in Russia for the global anti-capitalist movement. If only for this reason, his new book deserves attention. But events in Russia in the 1990s have had significance far beyond the country’s borders. As Kagarlitsky puts it:

Soviet perestroika and the fall of ‘communism’ in the USSR were among the consequences of a general crisis of state-oriented economic models, but it was these very events that ensured the success of neo-liberalism on a world scale. If the IMF had not triumphed in Russia, it would never have achieved its goals in Eastern Europe, Africa and Asia. By virtue of this, we have once again figured not on the periphery of history, but at its sharp end. [2]

The dust has yet to settle on the period of Boris Yeltsin’s rule, and Kagarlitsky’s book shows signs of his closeness to those events. That closeness, however, adds to its authenticity, both as a witness to those events and as a guide to shaping them in the future.


Russia under Yeltsin and Putin is a collection of reflective and analytical essays, interspersed with sharp and concise journalistic accounts of the main figures and events in 1990s Russia. [3] Kagarlitsky roots his discussion of recent history in the systemic problems facing the Soviet economy, which were apparent long before Gorbachev came on the scene:

In the USSR, the growth rate of the economy began declining as early as 1959, when the country’s post-war reconstruction was essentially complete. The first attempt to solve the problem was the economic reforms of the late 1960s. These proposed decentralisation of decision making. However, as events in Czechoslovakia in 1968 showed, such a decentralisation would inevitably be followed by a new stage of political democratisation, and a weakening of the positions of the ruling party-state bureaucracy. By the early 1970s, therefore, the reforms had been reversed (and in Czechoslovakia, suppressed by force of arms) ... Some changes, however, were made. The outcome, in an economy that was growing endlessly more complex, was bureaucratic decentralisation. The centre was becoming choked with information which it could not process effectively, but the people who controlled the centre refused to delegate powers to officials further down. [4]

As a result, parallel structures proliferated and people with real control of bits of the economy became more and more independent of the state. The bureaucratic machine was gradually disintegrating. A barter market arose hand in hand with corruption, making centralised supply even more difficult. It also ‘demoralised the elite circles, undermining their faith in the effectiveness of the system’. [5]

By the early 1980s the breakdown was obvious. Kagarlitsky barely mentions Gorbachev – a mark of just how unoriginal and hopeless perestroika was as a response to the situation the country found itself in. The USSR had increasingly become ‘part of the periphery of the Western world, its economy subject to the same logic of dependency as the economies of Asia, Africa and Latin America’. The neo-liberal reforms unleashed by Yeltsin in 1992 were therefore based on the dominant tendencies in Russia and elsewhere over the preceding years. ‘The events of 1989-1991 were not a turning point, but the culmination of a preceding process,’ Kagarlitsky remarks. [6]

But free market theory quickly clashed with reality. The Russian economy is highly monopolised; granting producers autonomy simply allowed them to jack up prices, and a price increase in any one enterprise led inevitably to proportional rises all the way along the chain from producer to consumer. The liberals’ preferred method of combating this process was to open up the economy to international competition, so that firms charging high prices would be undercut and bankrupted by more efficient producers. But in a monopolised economy, the bankruptcy of a few key firms could have a catastrophic knock-on effect throughout the economy, quite apart from condemning entire communities to unemployment: ‘Privatising the VAZ or KAMAZ [car and truck] factories is like trying to privatise Bristol or Frankfurt.’ [7]

In consequence, privatisation only served to further reinforce and consolidate monopolism. In its headlong rush to shift the economy into the private sector, Yeltsin’s government purposefully made it very simple for the existing controllers of enterprises to become owners of their most profitable parts. Entire industries were sold for a song, overwhelmingly to insiders who were members of the nomenklatura elite and therefore had the Kremlin’s ear. [8]

It is fashionable on both left and right in Russia to make analogies between the early 1990s and the period of ‘primitive accumulation of capital’ described by Marx in Capital. But Kagarlitsky argues:

To speak of the ‘accumulation of capital’ in the conditions of a declining economy is impossible in principle. This process has not even begun. All that is occurring is the redistribution of capital from state corporatist structures to private corporatist ones. [9]

Kagarlitsky also rubbishes the popular distinction between ‘primitive’ or ‘savage’ capitalism in Russia and the ‘civilised’ capitalism of the West:

To explain the processes occurring in the East on the basis of ‘backwardness’, ‘underdevelopment’ or the costs of ‘primitive accumulation’ is quite absurd, since the general principles of neo-liberal reform are applied in both Eastern and Western Europe, just as in the countries of the Third World and in the United States. In the 1990s, post-communist capitalism was not being ‘civilised’, but Western capitalism was turning savage. It was simply that the scale and consequences of the reforms on the periphery were far more striking than in the centre. [10]

The social inequalities that resulted from the reforms were immense. Research by a major Russian bank revealed:

The country’s inhabitants were divided, on the basis of their levels of consumption, into four categories. ‘New Russians’ made up 1 percent of the population; the ‘middle class’ accounted for 8 percent; the ‘working class’ made up 66 percent; and the remaining 26 percent were simply ‘the poor’. [11]

At the same time, the system of ideas that had dominated the Soviet period was turned inside out. The capitalist/socialist confrontation survived, only with the value signs reversed – ‘civilised’ capitalists were now opposed to ‘barbaric’ Bolsheviks. And in a delicious irony, the proponents of this new ideology confirmed everything that they had condemned in it before:

In sum, the monsters born of the fantasy of Stalinist ideologues materialised in practice. The liberals, social democrats and nationalists turned out to be exactly as they had been described in [Stalin’s] Short Course of the History of the Party – blinkered, unprincipled, greedy and socially irresponsible. [12]

Everything hideous in the new Russia was epitomised by the two wars in Chechnya. Kagarlitsky ends his discussion of Putin like this:

We can no longer doubt that there is a hell on earth. Every day we create it with our super-accurate Grad and Uragan rocket launchers. If there is a hell up in the sky, then in one of its secluded corners there must surely be a 6km field torn up by shells. Doomed to run across it forever will be Gaidar and Chubais with their charming wives. [13]


Kagarlitsky characterises the changes that society underwent in the 1990s as a ‘restoration’ of capitalism. His concept of restoration is based ultimately on a political analogy with the ‘long waves’ in the economy suggested by Menshevik economist Kondratiev. [14] But Kagarlitsky also borrows from Trotsky, who drew frequent parallels between the Soviet regime’s degeneration and the process of reaction in revolutionary France. So Kagarlitsky sees parallels between Soviet history and the restoration of the Bourbons:

The Stalinist Thermidor, like the French one, was in essence a counter-revolution that grew out of the revolution itself, and which, to a significant degree, represented a continuation and culmination of the revolution. For this reason, the attempts to separate Stalinism from Bolshevism and the efforts to reduce Bolshevism to the status of a preparation for Stalinism are both equally absurd. [15]

This analysis clearly colours Kagarlitsky’s understanding of the Soviet Union. The system was not socialist, he writes, but despite this it ‘unquestionably rested on a whole range of socialist ideas in its theory and practice... The Soviet system did not become, and could not become, socialist in the Marxist sense of the word. Nevertheless, for millions of people it fulfilled some of the promises of socialism.’ [16]

Kagarlitsky is fully aware of the brutality that accompanied the establishment of Soviet satellite states in Eastern Europe after the Second World War, but Soviet troops brought with them more than tanks and bayonets:

Like Napoleon’s expansion in 19th century Europe, however, the Soviet expansion in Eastern Europe was not simply an attempt to seize foreign territory for the sake of exploiting its resources and population. Along with the Soviet model of power came new social relations ... [Loss of freedom] was accompanied by real social progress. [17]

All this was swept away by Yeltsin:

’Reforms’ are normally understood as limited changes, aimed at preserving the state and the social system. In Russia, we have unquestionably undergone a change of system. As for the state, the Soviet Union ceased to exist in the first stage of the ‘reforms’. [18]

All the same, on several occasions Kagarlitsky qualifies his characterisation of what was taking place, stressing the ‘degree of continuity with Soviet times’ in Yeltsin’s Russia and the absence of genuine free market mechanisms. With regard to industrial relations, for example, he writes, ‘The events of 1992 did not represent a breach with Soviet history, but a continuation of it.’ Just as pre-revolutionary Tsarist Russia was not thoroughly capitalist, says Kagarlitsky, so the new Russia wasn’t all capitalist either, but was a confusion of different elements. He makes frequent reference to the ‘semi-feudal’ nature of social relations in today’s Russia, and talks about the ‘feudal-bureaucratic’ distribution of property under privatisation. [19]

For Kagarlitsky, ‘capitalism can arise only out of petty entrepreneurship’, yet the 1990s saw small business struggling, forced into semi-legal existence or snuffed out. He makes a distinction between the ‘Gaidar-Khasbulatov period’ of 1992-1993 – when the authorities, on the initiative of the economist Yegor Gaidar and with the assistance of the speaker in parliament, Ruslan Khasbulatov, implemented the first wave of market reforms – and the period 1994–1998, which he calls the ‘epoch of the complete victory of capitalism’. These distinctions and qualifications are significant in terms of the political conclusions that he draws, as we shall see below.


The restoration of capitalism naturally had implications for the class structure of society, and therefore for the consciousness of the different classes. Under the Soviet system, Kagarlitsky argues, society was ‘declassed’ – in other words, there were no classes like those in the capitalist West: ‘The ruling class was merged with the state to such a degree that it could no longer be called a class in the full sense.’ At the bottom of society:

… there was no working class: there were only consumers, standing in line to spend money they had earned in the factories ... The ‘communist’ system did not allow people to become conscious of their interests and to unite in order to defend them ... This is why in 1989, all over Eastern Europe, millions of people were so phenomenally naive, and allowed themselves to be manipulated so easily. [20]

The impact of the restoration on the creation of new social classes, Kagarlitsky argues, was drawn-out and contradictory. The early 1990s therefore saw a situation in which there was no bourgeoisie, in the capacity of a ruling class, in post-Soviet Russia, only rival groups which failed to become a real class in the sense of expressing a united class interest:

Our country could not form its own national bourgeoisie. Instead of a united, more or less structured ruling class, there were numerous groups, cliques, gangs and families.

At times Kagarlitsky is quite categorical:

Russia does not have a real bourgeoisie, and never will have ... It is not given to them to rise to the level of expressing a class interest. [21]

The main group or clique at the top of society were the ‘compradors’, whose interest was only in doing the bidding of the IMF and thereby serving the West. [22] These were ‘people who were consciously and cynically trying to turn their homeland into a raw materials colony of the "civilised world".’ In the years before the first Chechen war this group ‘for the benefit of the West had been destroying and humiliating their own army’. The result is that Russia has been integrated into the world economy as a ‘semi-colony’. [23]

Kagarlitsky is inclined to see other ruling groups or cliques as somewhat better than the compradors. He refers to Yevgeny Primakov – the former secret service chief brought in to head the government after the rouble collapsed in 1998 – as the ‘pink premier’, who appointed a leading Communist Party member, Yuri Maslyukov, as his deputy: ‘If he [Primakov] did not manage to pursue an independent foreign policy, he at least brought a measure of autonomy with regard to the US State Department’. [24] Kagarlitsky is wonderfully scathing, however, about Yeltsin’s replacement, Vladimir Putin. The crisis of 1998 demonstrated to the ruling groups that a ‘consolidation of the elites was necessary’ to ensure renewed investment in industry. Putin therefore tried to rein in the oligarchs and reduce their numbers, but in doing so he inevitably reproduced in even sharper form all the iniquities of the corrupt oligarchical system under Yeltsin.

As for the middle classes, one of the strongest chapters in the book is Kagarlitsky’s attack on the intelligentsia. What happened in Russia almost overnight was what had taken place in Britain over 20 years – the universities, science and the arts all had to be subordinated to the needs of business: ‘Fundamental science, philosophical quests for the meaning of life, art that stepped outside the sphere of simple entertainment, and the critical analysis of society – all this was anathema to neo-liberalism’. [25] But despite the impact this had on the standard of living of the bulk of the intelligentsia, they leaped to ‘rapturous love of the new leadership, displaying total amnesia with regard to their earlier values and motives’:

There are people who conduct themselves heroically at the front, but tremble at the shout of the boss. Now we find that many of the people who firmly and emphatically rejected the temptations of official recognition from the Soviet authorities have lost all their human dignity seeing their first wad of bucks ... In the 1990s the Soviet intelligentsia, which had prided itself on its traditions of independence and resistance, not only failed to take its place in the front ranks of opponents of the new regime, but, on the contrary, for an extended period considered this regime its own, and, later, was prepared to make its peace with the authorities for much longer than other layers of society. [26]

The lack of a genuine bourgeoisie was mirrored, Kagarlitsky says, in the absence of a working class. The country was crying out for a radical political alternative, but the traditional slogans of proletarian politics met with an obstacle in the form of ‘the absence of a proletariat. The great mass of hired workers behave in ways that are quite un-proletarian.’ Corrupted by consumerist ideology and incapable of acting as an independent force:

… the mass movement was inevitably transformed into the actions of a mob that was easily manipulated with the help of the mass media (as people began saying later, it could be ‘zombified’). A new class, capable of taking power from the old oligarchy and shaping a new model of society, did not exist. [27]

Kagarlitsky explains the absence of class-conscious workers in terms of the Soviet ‘corporatist-paternalist’ model of labour relations – housing, childcare, distribution of consumer goods were sorted out through work, and so workers tended to see their interests as identical to those of the firm they worked for.

Workers became hostages to this paternalism. In the early 1990s many strikes took place with the support of enterprise directors. Where the survival of the enterprise was at stake, workers often united with their management to keep a plant open. Fear of losing everything discouraged them from fighting their managers – the choice they faced seemed to them to be ‘either housing, childcare and leisure provisions supplied by the enterprise, or no chance of obtaining any of them’. [28] So in Ivanovo, for example, the director personally headed the strike committee that demanded wage rises from management. In general, Kagarlitsky says, relations between workers and management were ‘extremely contradictory and ambivalent’.

Kagarlitsky even goes so far as to suggest that the ‘organic character’ of the corporate solidarity of the early 1990s saw a unique ‘historic opportunity’ to bring about ‘democratic and collectivist change in the economy’, supported by the Supreme Soviet. [29] There are echoes here of the Narodniks’ argument that the old Russian peasant commune could become the basis for a socialist society, with no need for a period of capitalist development. [30]

But just as the restoration of capitalism was not a single event, so the 1990s saw a process by which workers and management fell out, and Kagarlitsky describes how the old corporatist solidarity gradually disintegrated. The miners’ strikes of 1989 marked ‘the first step towards the creation of an authentic labour movement’. After these strikes independent unions sprang up, and although their leaders quickly became corrupted, some of them, such as Sotsprof and the Independent Miners Union, have survived and flourished. Workers began to propose their own candidates for election to leading management positions, inciting opposition among managers. Some managers made fortunes from non-payment of wages – which in conditions of hyperinflation was a lucrative form of credit to enterprise directors – and thereby stoked workers’ discontent. Then there were the waves of autumn strikes that began in 1992. Strikers effectively took over the Siberian gas centre of Nadym in 1994. Miners started to put forward political demands, calling for early elections to get rid of Yeltsin.

In the summer of 1998 the class struggle broke out in a new and sharper form, when workers began blocking Russia’s most important rail transport arteries; it was extremely effective. Bank workers and others in the new private sector began joining trade unions. The Lomonosov plant won renationalisation after the workers struck. At the Vyborg cellulose plant the workers refused to allow representatives of the British company Alcem UK to enter the plant, fearing they would carry out mass sackings. They successfully ran the plant themselves for several months, appointing their own managers and raising profitability. In the end the authorities sent in armed police, who opened fire, wounding several workers. Kagarlitsky remarks, ‘The impact of these protests on Russian society has been comparable to that which the French strikes of December 1995 had on Western Europe’. [31]

The process of rising class consciousness from below took place in parallel with a growing unity and class consciousness at the top of society, Kagarlitsky argues: ‘Meanwhile, the ruling elite, having turned themselves into a class, are beginning to think strategically... In sum, we are seeing the appearance of a "real" bourgeoisie.’ The elite’s new-found nationalism, expressed in particular through Putin and the second war in Chechnya, was ‘a logical continuation of their earlier championing of everything Western. A new goal – holding on to what they have managed to grab – is now taking priority’. [32]

The 1990s therefore came to a close with greater unity at the top of Russian society, and signs of a growing combativity from below. Kagarlitsky’s analysis of class in Russia captures the splits and divisions in the ruling elite, and the weakness of working class organisation. But there are problems, I think, with his definition of class in terms of the subjective opinions of group members. Marx’s distinction between a class existing objectively ‘in itself’ in terms of its relation to the productive forces, and acting subjectively, consciously ‘for itself’ is a useful one, [33] in particular when looking at the political consequences of the atomisation of workers under the Soviet system. All the same, at times Soviet workers have behaved in a most exemplary proletarian manner – most notably in Hungary in 1956 and in Poland in 1981-1982. [34] And it would be wrong to suggest, as Kagarlitsky seems to, that the strength of trade unions in Western Europe shows that all workers here are conscious of themselves as a class with interests distinct from the bourgeoisie. Western workers’ attitudes to management can be ‘extremely contradictory and ambivalent’ – a fact constantly exploited by management.

Kagarlitsky’s approach to the ruling class is also problematic. Simply because our rulers are divided, it does not follow that they do not constitute a class. Indeed, splits in the ruling class are characteristic of capitalism in crisis. I believe there is more explanatory power in an approach which sees the Russian ruling class as highly conscious of its own national class interests, but deeply divided over how to pursue them. [35] The comprador argument, for example, does not stand up to critical examination: Russia became a raw materials exporter long ago under Brezhnev, and behind all Yeltsin’s propaganda for the West – aimed at attracting foreign investors and fooling Russians with fantasies about a wealthy future – his government pursued ruthlessly imperialist policies in the Balkans and the so called ‘near abroad’. [36] As for the dire condition of the Russian army, didn’t the defeat in Afghanistan have much more to do with it than any attempt to sell out to the West? How socialists approach these questions has important consequences for our understanding of how best we organise to fight back.

The left

In 1991, Kagarlitsky’s Socialist Party had paid staff and offices in the Hotel Rossiya right opposite the Kremlin. After the democrats took power and unleashed the ‘shock therapy’ of market reforms (all shock and no therapy), popular initiative weakened and died out as people became disillusioned with politics and preoccupied with finding enough to eat. The attempts by Kagarlitsky and others like him to create a broad left party from below encountered enormous difficulties. Kagarlitsky tells the story of the main trade union federation’s attempts to get a voice in parliament. These began with the establishment of the Party of Labour in 1992, and ended with the disastrous alliance with Arkady Volsky’s Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs, which received a derisory 1.5 percent of the vote at the December 1995 general elections. Minor independent trade unions gave their support to other small electoral blocs. [37]

Meanwhile, in Hungary, Lithuania and Poland the former Communist parties had been re-elected. Many now looked to the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (CPRF) – ‘the largest left force’ in the country – to do the same. The CPRF explained Soviet history in terms of two currents within the Soviet Communist Party – a good one and a bad one. The good one was supposedly responsible for all the positive things achieved by the USSR, while the bad one was responsible for repression, bureaucracy and ineptitude. This ‘two in one’ concept allowed the CPRF to distance itself from its past without totally condemning it.

Kagarlitsky, like other Russian political commentators on the left, characterises the CPRF as a ‘political centaur’, combining elements of left and right in its politics. So on the one hand ‘in its political essence it is a right wing nationalist, conservative formation, expressing the interests of the most hidebound layers of bureaucratic capital’. The CPRF leadership has included General Albert Makashov, who led the military crackdown in Yerevan in 1988 and made widely publicised anti-Semitic remarks after the collapse of the rouble in 1998. On the other hand, Kagarlitsky contends that ‘the CPRF has managed to draw behind itself a loyal mass of the "left" electorate, appropriating traditional symbols of the left while at the same time diverging radically from the left’s policies, ideology and even rhetoric’. The CPRF is therefore ‘at once both a conservative and a left party’. [38]

Kagarlitsky is highly critical of the extreme nationalist content of books, articles and speeches by the CPRF’s leader, Gennady Zyuganov, who does not hide his nostalgia for Tsarist Russia, let alone for the Stalin period. But he argues that there was a gap between the leader’s conservatism and the rest of the party. After 1995, however, Zyuganov succeeded in ‘crushing the internal opposition ... Socialist ideals were replaced by Great Power chauvinism’. [39] The consequence was a shift to the right in the party, so that now ‘to occupy a position to the right of the CPRF is scarcely possible for anyone – there is no such position’. [40] Kagarlitsky taunts the party for revering Lenin while hating his ideas: ‘CPRF leaders would undoubtedly have expelled someone like Lenin from their party, either for his links with the Jew Trotsky, or because of his defeatist position during the years of the First World War’. [41]

For Kagarlitsky, there is a parallel here between the CPRF and the ‘new realism’ of Western trade union leaderships and with New Labour in Britain:

In essence, the history of the CPRF is not unique. Is it not true that the same has happened with Western social democracy in the 1990s? [42]

This analogy with New Labour is doubtful. For New Labour to share key aspects of its history with the CPRF we would have to imagine something like a split in the Tory party, after which a large section of the most ageing and reactionary members leave to form a party based on flag-waving nostalgia for the Empire, Winston Churchill and the monarchy – but calling itself New Labour. The CPRF has never had any relationship whatsoever with any Russian trade unions, nor has it sought one. Many workers remember Communists as their class enemies from the Soviet period.

There is no doubting the reactionary nature of the New Labour and CPRF leaderships. The differences between them are crucial, however, in determining Marxists’ attitudes to the members of these organisations. Lenin’s characterisation of the British Labour Party – and of social democratic parties in general – was that it was ‘a thoroughly bourgeois party, although made up of workers’; it was not enough to look at the membership of a party to determine its true political nature, because you have to look at the people that lead it and their actions. [43] Kagarlitsky’s discussion of the CPRF, however, is almost entirely descriptive, not analytical. Why does its leader behave in the way he does? What is the class composition of its membership, and of its leadership? How was the party established and in whose interests? Answers to these questions, I believe, would reveal the inadequacy of the ‘left-right’ characterisation – the CPRF was a thoroughgoing right wing party from its inception. [44]

Kagarlitsky says that the decisive rightward shift in the CPRF since 1995 may be the first step towards the emergence of new organisations of the left that won’t hide behind nationalist rhetoric. But it seems to me that Kagarlitsky’s ambiguity towards the party is a sign of a more general weakness in the book, namely its consistent orientation on a political constituency that is far more inclined to suffer illusions in left-speaking chauvinists than Kagarlitsky himself. In 1992 Zyuganov became the leader of the National Salvation Front, which organised mass right wing demonstrations while mouthing slogans about a return to ‘socialism’. Ten years later Russia’s fledgeling anti-capitalist youth movement is split, with the fascist National Bolshevik Party (NBP) vying for leadership. In these circumstances, and given the recent Soviet past, young people can be pulled in behind the anti-capitalist rhetoric of the far right. Novaya Gazeta, for example, has reported sympathetically on the current trial for terrorism of NBP leader Eduard Limonov, comparing him favourably to Che Guevara. [45]

This is a reflection of the mood of widespread and genuine disgust with capitalism in Russia today, but also a worrying sign of the potential for the far right to seize the initiative. Large numbers of young people in Russia are quite rightly horrified by the CPRF and the NBP, but understandably still have illusions in the market and the West. The challenge for socialists is to find ways to reach this audience, rather than focusing on people who are nostalgic for the past.

The inevitability of radicalism

Faced by the victory of neo-liberalism and the weakness of workers’ resistance, the Moscow anarchist Andrei Isaev argued that the left’s main task was to maintain a ‘left conservatism’, defending little islands of socialism in the sea of capitalism. Born of desperation, Kagarlitsky retorts, this analysis is out of date. The market has been a resounding failure. Russia has entered the new century with the mass of its population impoverished, a united bourgeoisie and an increasingly combative working class that is breaking its corporatist ties with management. Attempts to form a moderate, social democratic left party have failed and are doomed to fail in these circumstances. The Communist Party is on the far right, while the ‘pink premier’ and his ilk have been a bitter disappointment. Capitalism is in full flight and riven with contradictions, so another deep crisis of the sort that broke out in 1998 is unavoidable. All avenues are therefore closed to the left, apart from the most radical:

In conditions of Russia in the 1990s the task of ‘maintaining existing conquests’ has increasingly given way to that of implementing a new process of radical transformation. The Yeltsin regime has quickly destroyed not only the social conquests of the working people, but has also undermined the elementary bases of civilised life for the bulk of the population. As a result, everything now has to be created anew. Logically, the concept of ‘left conservatism’ needs to be refashioned into a strategy for a social fightback. [46]

The ideological and social crisis of the restorationist regime is opening up new prospects for the left, and new political experience is accumulating among young people as a change of generations takes place. But Russia has exhausted all possible moderate alternatives, and Kagarlitsky therefore concludes, ‘An effort to create a new left movement in Russia cannot be successful if it is based on moderation. Leftists today are doomed to radicalism, if, of course, they seriously want to play a role in political life’. [47]

Kagarlitsky takes reassurance in the fact that, for at least another decade, the level of education among Russians will greatly exceed the needs of the economy, throwing masses of highly educated potential rebels onto the labour market. He anticipates the rise of ‘a new type of intellectual’ who ‘can only be born out of the experience of resistance’. [48]

His vision of socialism stops short of revolution, remaining faithful to the concept of ‘revolutionary reformism’ that he developed 12 years ago. [49] But now he is applying these same ideas in a situation in which the obvious avenues to reform have been closed off. Russian workers have shown signs of recovering from the defeats of the 1990s, and abroad there is an exciting rebirth of radicalism in the shape of the global anti-capitalist movement. [50]

If radicalism is inevitable, however, it does not follow that radical organisation will develop of its own accord. The other side of the coin of Kagarlitsky’s optimism is a certain fatalism with regard to socialists’ ability to influence events. He pulls together the threads of argument that run through his book as follows:

Once again, as in the late 19th century, Russia has reached a fork in the road, with both tracks leading in unknown directions. We have not matured enough for socialism, but life under capitalism is unbearable. We are unable to catch up with the West, but neither can we allow ourselves to remain in backwardness. We are not ready for democracy, and we do not want dictatorship. Foreign experience is quite unfitted to our situation, but without it development is inconceivable... Political life in today’s Russia is like a drama (a tragedy?) without a hero. It only remains to hope that this hero will appear as the action unfolds. [51]

Kagarlitsky seems to be suggesting, as at other points throughout the book, that the supposedly impure, undeveloped and incomplete nature of capitalist social relations in Russia relative to the West means that the prospects for socialism are correspondingly worse. Russians are still overly fond of the Stalinist cliché, ‘History has no place for the subjunctive mood’, which is often wheeled out to dismiss any discussion of historical alternatives and choices. But Kagarlitsky’s suggestion that Russia has no strong trade unions because it has ‘not matured enough’, or that democracy is weak because the country is ‘not ready’ for it seems to reflect the mechanical materialism of the Soviet period that lives on in popular consciousness.

In somewhat different circumstances, Trotsky also faced the argument that socialist revolution in Russia was premature. Results and Prospects was written in 1906, but its arguments remain highly pertinent. In particular, in a chapter entitled ‘The Prerequisites of Socialism’, Trotsky investigated the material and psychological conditions necessary for workers not just to struggle as a class, but to conquer state power. He wrote that Marxists:

… speak of the conquest of power as the conscious action of a revolutionary class. But many socialist ideologues speak of preparing the proletariat for socialism in the sense of it being morally regenerated. The proletariat, and even ‘humanity’ in general, must first of all cast out its old egotistical nature and altruism must become predominant in social life, etc. As we are as yet far from such a state of affairs, and ‘human nature’ changes very slowly, socialism is put off by several centuries ... Socialism does not aim at creating a socialist psychology as a prerequisite to socialism but at creating socialist conditions of life as a prerequisite to socialist psychology. [52]

Workers in Britain are as far away from having ‘matured’ for socialism as workers in Russia. The difference between the two countries is that in Britain generations of workers’ struggle have created a rudimentary class consciousness – the basis for trade union membership – while the best and most class conscious workers have been able to come together to form small but significant revolutionary socialist organisations. In Russia this process was interrupted by 60 years of dictatorship that allowed no room for workers to organise independently of the state. The collapse of that system means workers can organise once more; daily class struggles are changing consciousness and opening up possibilities for socialists to organise. But there is nothing inevitable about this process. Waiting for conditions to ripen will not do – building socialist organisation means getting stuck in right away. Kagarlitsky’s book poses this question very sharply, even if its answers are sometimes too hesitant.


1. Kagarlitsky first came to the attention of socialists in the West through the publication of The Thinking Reed: Intellectuals and the Soviet State from 1917 to the Present (London 1988), which won the Isaac Deutscher Memorial Prize. Most recently he has published a trilogy of books Recasting Marxism (London 1997–2000), in which he mounts a powerful defence of Marxism.

2. B. Kagarlitsky, Russia under Yeltsin and Putin: Neo-Liberal Autocracy (London 2002), p. 205.

3. Chapters 3, 4, 7, 8 and 9 could be read separately from the more analytical chapters, and stand out as a highly readable, insightful and entertaining introduction to the period. The book was clearly written for a Russian audience, which adds to its interest, although there are occasions when a judicious editor could have helped to make the translation more accessible to the foreign reader.

4. B. Kagarlitsky, Russia under Yeltsin and Putin, op. cit., pp. 21–2.

5. Ibid., p. 25.

6. Ibid., pp. 23, 27.

7. Ibid., p. 29.

8. Some of the detail of this process is vividly described in D. Hoffman, Oligarchs: Wealth and Power in the New Russia (Oxford 2002).

9. B. Kagarlitsky, Russia under Yeltsin and Putin, op. cit., p. 39. It would be a mistake, however, to argue that accumulation ceases to take place during a period of capitalist crisis. T. Cliff, All that Glitters is not Gold, in Neither Washington Nor Moscow: Essays on Revolutionary Socialism (London 1982).

10. Ibid., p. 61.

11. Ibid., p. 133.

12. Ibid., p. 58.

13. Ibid., p. 279.

14. Ibid., p. 290. For a brief discussion of Kondratiev, see for example C. Harman, Explaining the Crisis: A Marxist Re-appraisal (London 1987), pp. 131–136.

15. B. Kagarlitsky, Russia under Yeltsin and Putin, op. cit., p. 16.

16. Ibid., pp. 16, 23.

17. Ibid., p. 16. For an alternative view see On the Class Nature of the People’s Democracies in T. Cliff, op. cit.

18. Ibid., p. 1.

19. Ibid., pp. 136, 32.

20. Ibid., pp. 16–17, 59.

21. Ibid., pp. 213, 74.

22. This idea is widespread in Russia. On compradors, Trotsky writes, ‘This bourgeoisie of backward countries from the days of its milk teeth grows up as an agentry of foreign capital, and not withstanding its envious hatred of foreign capital, always does and always will in every decisive situation turn up in the same camp with it. Chinese compradorism is the classic form of the colonial bourgeoisie, and the Kuomintang is the classic party of compradorism.’ L. Trotsky, History of the Russian Revolution (London 1977), p. 908.

23. B. Kagarlitsky, Russia under Yeltsin and Putin, op. cit., pp. 84, 119, 286.

24. Ibid., p. 206. Masliukov’s first step was to announce a massive escalation in Russia’s programme for building nuclear intercontinental ballistic missiles.

25. Ibid., p. 52.

26. Ibid., pp. 51–52, 75.

27. Ibid., pp. 38, 27

28. Ibid., p. 142.

29. Ibid., p. 154.

30. This is an unexpected but logical conclusion if one believes that the Soviet Union could have been reformed. As Kagarlitsky puts it, ‘The tragedy of Soviet society lay in the fact that, by the late 1980s, reaction was the only way out of the stagnation. Alternative variants had unquestionably existed, but these chances had been squandered hopelessly in the 1960s, when the Soviet Union was still capable of dynamic development.’ Ibid., p. 14.

31. Ibid., p. 185.

32. Ibid., pp. 60, 42.

33. See, for example, C. Harman, Class Struggles in Eastern Europe 1945–83 (London 1988). On the Russian working class see M. Haynes, Russia: Class and Power 1917–2000 (London 2002), pp. 165–188, 212–219.

34. K. Marx, Poverty of Philosophy (Moscow 1975), p. 160.

35. See M. Haynes, op. cit.

36. See, for example, D. Crouch, The Crisis in Russia and the Rise of the Right, International Socialism 66 (Spring 1995), especially pp. 8–15.

37. It is a pity that Kagarlitsky’s book was written before the formation of a ‘Labour Party’ by the independent trade union Sotsprof, together with Oleg Stein, the radical Duma deputy and leader of the ‘left’ trade union Lashchita.

38. B. Kagarlitsky, Russia under Yeltsin and Putin, op. cit., pp. 173, 176, 181.

39. Ibid., p. 219.

40. Ibid., p. 221.

41. Ibid., p. 67.

42. Ibid., p. 182.

43. Quoted in T. Cliff and D. Gluckstein, The Labour Party: A Marxist Analysis (London 1988), pp. 1–2.

44. See D. Crouch, op. cit., pp. 25–38. The much cited little book by Duma deputy Oleg Shein, KPRF: Na Zapasnom Puti Rossiiskogo Kapitalizma (The CPRF: The Back-up Option for Russian Capitalism) (Astrakhan 1998), draws the same conclusion, although it is not much more than a list of Zyuganov’s ‘crimes’.

45. Novaya Gazeta, 16 September 2002. The article is also reproduced in full at, the website of Kagarlitsky’s new Institute of the Problems of Globalisation. Echoing his analysis of the Communist Party, Kagarlitsky says that the politics of the NBP ‘feature a strange combination of left and right wing radicalism’. B. Kagarlitsky, Russia under Yeltsin and Putin, op. cit., p. 186. On the NBP’s role in leading a violent breakaway during a 400-strong youth rally Anticapitalism-2002, built by the Stalinist left in Moscow this September, see reports at

46. B. Kagarlitsky, Russia under Yeltsin and Putin, op. cit., p. 166.

47. Ibid., p. 221.

48. Ibid., p. 76.

49. B. Kagarlitsky, The Dialectic of Change (London 1990). He develops his ideas about socialism more fully in the final section of B. Kagarlitsky, The Return of Radicalism: Reshaping the Left Institutions (London 2000).

50. Intriguingly, Boris is considering adding a fourth volume to his ‘trilogy’, so as to incorporate the experience of the anti-capitalist movement internationally.

51. B. Kagarlitsky, Russia under Yeltsin and Putin, op. cit., p. 48.

52. L. Trotsky, Permanent Revolution and Results and Prospects (New York, 1986), pp. 97–98. This book remains an excellent antidote to the mechanical materialism of the Soviet period. Oddly, in the first edition of Results and Prospects published in Russia since 1919, the chapter discussed here was left out. See L. Trotsky, K Istorii Russkoi Revoliutsii (Moscow 1990).

Top of page

ISJ 2 Index | Main Newspaper Index

Encyclopedia of Trotskyism | Marxists’ Internet Archive

Last updated on 1.7.2012