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Alex Callinicos

A third road?

(February 1990)

From Socialist Worker Review, No. 128, February 1990.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The Dialectic of Change
Boris Kagarlitsky
Verso £10.95

BORIS KAGARLITSKY is undoubtedly the best known socialist in the USSR today. (By “socialist” I mean, of course, someone fighting for a democratically and collectively run society, not a defender of the Stalinist regimes.)

This is illustrated by the fact that the current issues of both International Socialism and New Left Review carry articles by him, and by the appearance of this, his latest book, following closely on the heels of The Thinking Reed. The core of The Dialectic of Change was written in 1983–5 with what I hope were quite slight subsequent amendments.

I say “I hope” because the few but welcome occasions on which I met Kagarlitsky made me both like and respect him. It therefore gives me no pleasure to say that some of the key sections of his book are, to put it bluntly, pretty awful. So I hope that The Dialectic of Change represents only a stage in his development as a Marxist which may perhaps be in the process of being overcome.

I don’t want to give a misleading impression. The second half of the book, on Russia and Eastern Europe, is of much greater value than the first, on socialist strategy. The best single chapter is a fascinating analysis of the so-called “period of stagnation” under Brezhnev (1964–1982), “a period of major social and social-psychological shifts which will have far reaching consequences for Soviet society”.

Kagarlitsky shows how the transformations of these years – above all the growth of a settled, urban, increasingly educated and skilled working class-built up pressures for change which only reached the surface under Gorbachev.

Moreover, the entire book is most impressive in the knowledge it displays of a large body of literature in half a dozen European languages.

The Dialectic of Change is, nevertheless, fatally flawed in its very conception. Kagarlitsky’s aim is to overcome the opposition between reform and revolution. Social democracy has failed to transform capitalism. Equally, however, “the opportunities for revolutionary transformation remain limited”. Consequently, “the transition to the revolutionary stage of struggle by the Left in our epoch is only feasible on the basis of successful reformist activity.”

What Kagarlitsky means by “successful reformist strategy” becomes clearer when he endorses the strategies of “structural reform” adopted by the revived Socialist Parties of France and Southern Europe in the 1970s. What distinguished these strategies from traditional social democracy is that they seek “irreversible reforms”, i.e. “changes ... that cannot be liquidated by the bourgeoisie even if the Left is removed from power”.

Kagarlitsky acknowledges that in general such reforms were not carried out when their advocates came to office in the early 1980s. In Spain and Greece the reality was instead “reformists without reform’’. He tries to make out a better case for the Mitterrand regime as “the sole laboratory of revolutionary reformism in the Western world’’, even attempting to justify the government’s 1982–3 U-turn and retreat to Thatcherite austerity measures as “logical and necessary”.

The naivete of Kagarlitsky’s arguments is indicated by his praise for Mitterrand’s introduction of proportional representation as “an important guarantee against irresponsible counter-reformism by the Right”. In fact this change was a cynical manoeuvre to give the fascist National Front enough seats in the 1986 legislative elections to deny the parliamentary Right under Chirac a majority, at the price of helping to legitimize the first mass Nazi movement in Europe since 1945.

The odd thing is that Kagarlitsky understands perfectly well why the “Eurosocialists” abandoned their programmes in office.

“The closer the advocates of change get to the point which distinguishes revolution from reform, the more intense the social conflict becomes. Having upset the system’s equilibrium, the changes destabilise the economy and jeopardise the government implementing them.”

Bourgeois resistance – investment strikes, flight of capital, etc. – shattered Mitterrand’s reforms just as it had Wilson’s much more modest ones in the 1960s and 1970s. “Thus revolutionary reformism encounters the same problems as the social democratic variety.”

A similar contradiction pervades Kagarlitsky’s discussion of Solidarnosc during the revolutionary situation of 1980–1. He endorses the strategy of “self-limiting revolution” pursued by Lech Walesa, Jacek Kuron and others: Solidarnosc should have sought a compromise with the regime which would have permitted the achievement of “structural reform”. But he also notes that the ruling class “did not wish to make concessions” and lucidly analyses how in the lead-up to the December 1981 military coup the workers’ movement was disabled by the absence of “a strategic vanguard”.

Kagarlitsky argues that “Poland’s geo-political situation” – i.e. the proximity of a hostile Brezhnev regime-meant that “the Polish revolution could survive only as a limited revolution”. In fact, however, the Russian influence merely served to bolster the Polish bureaucracy’s refusal to countenance any compromise with Solidarnosc and certainly not the kind of “structural reform” envisaged by Kagarlitsky.

This highlights the general problem with “structural reform”. Kagarlitsky seems to regard “irreversible reforms” as those which in some way limit the power of capital – for example, workers’ self-management of the factories. But it is precisely this kind of change which is most threatening to bourgeois domination and which therefore not simply can, but must, be reversed if capitalist rule is to be secure.

If the question of power cannot be resolved through any kind of compromise between labour and capital but through revolution or counter-revolution, then the state becomes a central issue. Unfortunately, the opening chapter, which explores this issue, is the worst part of The Dialectic of Change. It is marred by a frivolous tone and often superficial style of argument. This reaches its nadir in Kagarlitsky’s resort to “national-cultural specificities” in explaining differences particularly between French and German socialists within the Second International before 1914.

The real issue, however, is a fundamental theoretical one. Kagarlitsky takes his cue from Jean Jaurès, who sought to balance between the revolutionary left and opportunist right within the Second International, and argued that “reform and revolution, far from being mutually exclusive, augment and are conditioned by one another.”

Kagarlitsky rejects the revolutionaries – Lenin, Luxemburg, Trotsky – because of their alleged failure properly to appreciate “democracy”. But he fails to give any account of the nature of democracy. He surely can’t regard it as a set of abstract principles, operative equally in the slave societies of classical Greece, the advanced capitalist societies of the twentieth century, and the socialist world of the future.

But if the term “democracy” refers to different forms of class rule, what are the specific characteristics of socialist democracy? Instead of exploring this question, Kagarlitsky tends to identify democracy with civil liberties, and attacks Lenin for failing to respect them.

But this surely can’t be right. Freedom of speech, assembly, etc., developed prior to the establishment of capitalist democracy, during the era of the struggle of the liberal bourgeoisie against absolutism. Parliamentary democracies have been perfectly ready to infringe on them when the survival of the state is threatened. Why should a workers’ state deny itself the same right of self-defence?

These confusions are indicative of a more pervasive eclecticism. All sorts of thinkers are invoked – Lenin and Jaurès, Luxemburg and Mitterrand, Sartre and Jung, Chris Harman and Eric Hobsbawm – in order to back up specific claims. This strange medley is indicative of the extent to which the Russian left have been cut off from the revolutionary Marxist tradition.

Kagarlitsky’s current position is best described as centrist, in the sense that he seeks to avoid choosing between reform and revolution. This indicates the limits of his politics, but also the possibilities of change. For centrists can move to the left.

Indeed, all the signs are that Kagarlitsky has shifted leftwards since writing The Dialectic of Change. There is a notable distance even between the two interviews with which the book concludes. Between the beginning of April and the end of June 1989, the respective dates of the interviews, Kagarlitsky’s position notably hardens. Thus he becomes much more critical of Boris Yeltsin and much more insistent on the need for socialist political organisation.

Time will tell how much further this evolution will go. The task of socialists in the West is to combine forms of practical solidarity – for example, support for the Sotsprof trade union with which Kagarlitsky is involved – with friendly but, where necessary, sharp criticism. The resulting dialogue (there’s no reason to suppose the criticism will be all one way) could be enormously important. Above all, for the first time since the 1930s there is a Russian left with which to argue.

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