A Russian Marxist Perspective on Current Affairs
99 ZU EINS
May 16, 2022
A Russian Marxist Perspective on Current Affairs 99 ZU EINS June 20, 2022 The Ukraine crisis and the connected repression of dissidents, make it difficult to talk to Russian Leftist Activists. Germany-based Podcast 99 ZU EINS reached out to a Marxist Writers collective, which, for reasons of safety, will remain anonymous here. In this interview, they examine the situation of the Left in Russia and provide their analysis of the conflict. This transcript is slightly edited for the sake of clarity. You can watch the full interview here . Tell us about the historical development of the communist left in Russia since the fall of the USSR? What is the current state of the communist movement in Russia? And, without compromising your anonymity, where do you place yourself within the present landscape of the left? Let’s start with the second question. As in all other countries of the former USSR, the Communist movement in Russia is at a study-group level. We have no genuine communist parties in our country now. There haven’t been any since the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) collapsed. As for the first question about the evolution of the communist movement in post-Soviet Russia, after the CPSU’s demise only an empty cocoon was left, the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (CPRF). Over the next thirty years, the CRPF completely discredited itself by serving as the “left” hand of the ruling regime. But though the Communist Party is gone, the demand for justice did not simply disappear. It takes many strange and schizophrenic forms, starting from red patriotic role-players and National-Bolsheviks to the social movements known as the “Essence of Time,” “For a New Socialism,” and “The National Liberation Movement.” And organizations other than the CPRF have emerged on the debris of the CPSU—for instance, the so-called Russian Communist Workers' Party (RCWP). Of all the CPSU’s successors, it has probably been the most critical of post-Soviet authorities. Back in the 90s and early 2000s, the RCWP led massive strikes. but once the so-called “stability period” began those tailed off significantly. Indeed, the very impulse toward the organization of the masses diminished. Alongside the CPSU’s successors, there were also minor organizations that emerged during the perestroika such as the Revolutionary Workers' Party (RWP). Roughly speaking, most of them appealed to activism. They handed out flyers at factories, repeating the practices of a century before. They largely neglected theoretical and ideological work. But these are all relics of the past, ghosts haunting an abandoned house, so to speak. The genuine progress of communist thought and the preparation of future intellectuals takes place either in political clubs and circles or through individual self-education. At the turn of the previous decade, the Russian recognized that Marxist clubs were what was needed. But even here there is a great deal of disagreement. Lots of people just read well-known theoreticians and study basic ideas. They are not trying to update the theory. Only a few groups approach education consciously and develop deliberate courses of study. We might name two or three of them, including us. We consider ourselves as an intellectual journal in the end. There is no strong workers’ movement in Russia right now. The labor unions are still unfledged. So, since there are no objective conditions for political agitation among the masses, we need to work on subjective factors. Theory might help us to shape adequate tactics and strategies.
Something that isn’t well known in Germany is that there is a nominally communist party in Russia that is even represented in the government. What is your position on this party? How should we understand it, given that Putin’s government is notoriously anti-communist? As you have probably noticed, we don’t think highly of the parliamentary communist party, i.e., the СPRF. Yes, there is a “communist” party in Russia, which has a lot of followers. Indeed, its membership is rising year by year, but it is still a bourgeois party. Don’t misunderstand, we do not want to accuse all of its members of inaction and parasitism. Many in that party help citizens to defend against illegal takeovers, violations of civil rights and social guarantees, and so on. Sometimes they succeed, but this success is always limited and has nothing to do with the fundamental problem of private ownership. They refuse to discuss that at all. They avoid speaking of class struggle publicly. At most, they label the actions of the authorities “hostile to the people.” They might tell you that some particular oligarch is to blame, but the CPRF will never identify the problem as being rooted in the nature of the society that created said oligarch. That said, some young communists consider the CPRF as a vehicle for political activism, a means by which to resist the ruling class’s unlawful policies. However, these people are a minority within the party. Most use it in a bourgeois way, i.e., to make money. By the way, the richest MP in 2021 was a CPRF representative. Anti-communist views of Putin face only verbal resistance from the CPRF. And even the words eventually turn into silent, or even not-so-silent, agreement with the ruling class’s rhetoric. The very fact that the CPRF is represented at the highest public level reveals the ambivalence of modern Russia’s ideology. Russia is a legal successor of the USSR, and this is why the government has to both curse the bloody Bolshevik past as a bourgeois state and acknowledge the achievements of the Soviet people the Russian economy takes advantage of. It would be unfavorable for the authorities to completely cut ties with the communists’ legacy now. Then they might lose the legitimacy of ordinary people and the international community. We can even say that if there was a proper communist party alongside the CPRF, this structure could have been used sporadically as a part of legal struggle. But it is more of an open question right now. In the long run we obviously have to build an independent organization. There were controversial incidents when the CPRF tried to channel mass protests by convincing people ‘not to rock the boat’. We have to take that into account. Let’s talk about Russia in general. While it is impossible to cover everything here it would be interesting to have your perspective on contemporary Russian society and government. A narrative ubiquitous in Germany is that Russia is, basically, an oligarchic dictatorship, with its democracy being nothing more than a farce. Putin appears as a Hitler-like fascist, a homophobic, racist, egomaniac dictator that enriches himself and his friends, while the population lives in increasingly precarious circumstances and a far-right Nationalist ideology grips society at large. How accurate is this view? How would you complicate this western judgment on Russia? Such an assertion is a sheer demonization. Since your enemy comes from hell, any atrocity against him is justified. It is the same thing we have heard in recent years about Ukraine and Europe. Russian oligarchs had been trying to secure their own power in recent decades; the current authority is a mere compromise between them and the state. Classes make history, not personalities. That said, Putin has become an important symbol in Russia. With his rise to power, the Russian oligarchs developed class consciousness. The comprador bourgeoisie wants to crack down on all hostile attempts to redistribute property and to protect themselves from the competition of foreign capital. Trade union activity is limited, while big business benefits from low taxation. No doubt, Russia differs from Europe and the USA in this sense. It has unique features, including how both public and non-public institutions work. Every country has its own features and historical context. Russia has experienced the fall of socialism after having built early forms of socialism which evolved in the direst of circumstances. Our society is a result of a socialist state’s collapse. We are not Europe, which accumulated its wealth during the colonial era. We are not the USA, which profited from two world wars and neocolonialism. But, despite these facts, our society is still capitalist. Western and Russian propaganda are not very different. The Kremlin, too, talks about human rights and freedom, though it understands them differently. The authorities rely on conservative ideas: preserving Russian culture, language, and traditional values. This is the elites’ main argument. It is drawn from the old counterrevolutionary White movement, and they keep pushing it down Russians’ throats. And, it actually works. Of course, we can’t say that the Russian government appeals only to the Whites’ legacy. But, evidently, they look to that and seek to expand the political influence of traditional values. European tolerance has become a bugbear. It is mocked and interpreted one-sidedly as phony and unnatural. It’s essential to ideologically confront the “potential foe.” Russian TV occasionally portrays homosexuals and immigrants as a threat, but Ukraine and the US are targeted more frequently. People are involved in this theater as observers and do not necessarily take it seriously. Overall, ideology is constructed in a way it does not concern the common person, even as it provides the bare minimum ideological basis for the functioning of the state. Since the Special Military Operation (SMO) began, the population's political involvement has grown alongside the mounting crackdown on all critics of the state. The latter also demoralizes people, preventing them from expressing and organizing themselves to influence the situation. The masses have little understanding of what is going on. They are disorganized. In these circumstances, when the political involvement of the public is at best rudimentary, the emergence of widespread support of either an extreme right or extreme left seems doubtful. As for democracy, many in Europe pride themselves on the fact that they live in a “democratic society.” Yet, Soviet society, at least at certain historical periods, was considerably more democratic than is Europe today. This was true until Soviet democracy disintegrated. We claim that the “level of democracy” is a dynamic factor. The same goes for “traditionalism” and “tolerance” towards the so-called minorities. In the 1920s, there were polygamous families in the USSR. The rejection of old patriarchal family was encouraged. This, however, was never stable and never will be. Why do we stress this? Because we are not so different from each other. Democracy and authoritarianism, corruption and freedom have nothing to do with nationality. Yet, the people of the West still regard Russia as a “different world”—a world of mad dictators, oligarchs, and homophobes. We will expose a great mystery: There are more gay people in Russia than you may think, even among those in power. They just don’t flaunt their homosexuality. The whole idea of Russia being some kind of “Mordor” is, first and foremost, hypocritical. It only divides the workers of different countries. Some leftists claim that Russia is not imperialist, that only the US hegemony is. The argument is that Russian productivity is low and that financial capital influence is insufficiently powerful to meet Lenin’s definition of imperialism. What is your view? What is imperialism? How helpful is it as a concept and how does Russia fit within this framework? Low productivity and a weak financial sector, at least as compared to the US, does not mean that Russia is not imperialist. The main factors are mostly those you already mentioned. Quantitative differences are common for contemporary capitalism, since unequal development is one of its key features. Russian Marxist analysts define Russia as either a country of the capitalist periphery or one with a transitional economy. Rarely do we find Russia described as imperialist. That is because most analyses were written before the mid-2010s. There are few up-to-date analyses. It is an open question when Russia became truly imperialist. Was the early 2000s a milestone? Or was it in the mid-2000s or the 2010s? It’s not important now. Certainly, nowadays Russia displays the features of imperialism. We are witnessing the establishment of a regional economic bloc in which the Russian bourgeoisie is dominant. The largest Russian bank, SBER, has already transformed into a diversified network of enterprises, including some manufacturing firms. Russian businesses extract capital from Latin America and Africa. Then we have the aggressive rhetoric of the past ten years, the attempts to interfere into the internal affairs of neighboring countries such as Kazakhstan, and the territorial claims of the well-known fellow republic. There are plenty of reasons to regard Russia as imperialist. However, at present, there is no in-depth analyses of the imperialist character of the Russian economy, only those of some non-academic Marxists online. Those have only appeared in the past five years. A comprehensive study of the nature of Russian capitalism and imperialism has yet to be carried out. Let’s delve deeper into the far right. Many western journalists and commentators ignore or downplay the role and significance of right-wing, hyper-nationalist, and fascist elements within Ukraine. They often resort to whataboutism and point to the supposedly fascist nature of Russia. An example they give is the fascist influence of the Wagner group. What role does nationalism and/or fascism play in Russia today? What are its material bases? Nationalism is an inherent feature of any bourgeois state. It is a product of a national economy. Fascism is an extreme form of capitalism targeted at suppressing the workers’ movement. Although there are some indications of an emerging fascism in Russia, it’s premature to label the country genuinely fascist. Nationalist sentiments are certainly strong in Russia. They were in crisis before the invasion of the Crimea and the Donbas events, but the threat of a direct military confrontation with NATO has given them great impetus. Unfortunately, the policy of the government enjoys mass support. Most Russian citizens harbor paternalistic views; they dream of a state as powerful as the Russian Empire or the Soviet Union. Many have an eclectic view on history and hence equate the Empire and the USSR. Both states are considered as a single entity, the empire. In order to spread the concept of the “Russian world,” the state actively exploits Soviet achievements, stripping them of their socialist substance. Today ultra-right-wing ideas are most widespread among paramilitary structures such as mercenary bodies. Those who would kill and die for money defending the interests of the capital are susceptible to blind loyalty to it. Hence they are more prone to fascist ideas. Historical parallels are drawn to the Viking culture and its warrior cult. About the conflict in Ukraine, you were one of the few who predicted the invasion before it happened. What is your analysis of the conflict now? How should we understand the different parties to it? What is the ultimate goal of Russia’s so-called special military operation? Many Russian Marxists rejected the notion that the SMO would happen. They supposed that it would be disastrous for Russian capital and it might jeopardize the position of the ruling class. It was convenient to assume that the devious bourgeois state would make a rational cost-benefit analysis and shy away from the risk involved in deepening the conflict. In fact, the contours of economic alliances between imperialist countries had already taken shape. The confrontation was developing for more than a year, and only now arrived at its logical endgame, armed conflict. We wrote about this as soon as the Donbas republics were recognized by Russia. It was important for us to respond to those who hoped for ‘the bloodshed to stop at last’ or for the “lingering conflict to finally come to an end,” We had to show them that another future was more probable, the one we are currently living in. A comprehensive understanding of the aims and causes of the conflict between Russia and Ukraine requires a more detailed analysis than any we have produced in print so far. That said, we can already discern the main outlines of the issue. In terms of external factors, Ukraine has many natural resources and an industrial complex left over from the USSR. Russian oligarchs have tried to take over these assets since the 2000s, and they are not the only ones intent upon them. That is why Russia faces such fierce opposition from the US and Europe, and why Western countries directly supply and train the Ukrainian army. In addition, Russia and Ukraine produce 60% of the world's neon which is essential for microchip production. We cannot say for certain whether the Russian leadership took this into account beforehand. But it would be a good card to play, as it puts pressure on Western politicians. Moreover, the capitalist center of the world system would rather deal with a “banana republic” than a country with a self-sufficient economy and aggressive ruling class. This conflict is a perfect way to destabilize Russia from the inside and to bring a puppet government to power. That is why the West so eagerly supplies the Ukrainian army with technical equipment and instructors. The fun fact is that the Russian government was probably aware of it as far back as 2014–15 and tried to postpone the military solution in Donbas. One can only assume why this has begun just now. As for internal factors, the Russian government has been destroying the social sphere, public education, and science for a long time. This obviously had an impact on the authorities’ approval ratings inside Russia. Wars are often used to boost political approval, tighten domestic politics “on a legal basis,” and limit civil rights. No time to criticize and complain when we are fighting a tough war. It might have worked if the conflict had ended victoriously in February, but whether it’s working now is less clear. A professed goal of the Russian invasion of Ukraine is “denazification.” What is your perspective on that? As Engels said: ‘No nation can be free if it oppresses other nations.” It would be reasonable to begin with denazification of Russia before implementing it in Ukraine. We have already said that the official Russian ideology is quite ambivalent. Anti-nazi public image inherited from the Soviet Union, which is unfair, is just a part of this ideology. No doubt, both Russia and Ukraine have shown signs of fascism and decommunization. But fascism in its terminal form, which is an extreme form of the bourgeois political order, is possible only when there is a threat to the actual bourgeois system, an organized workers’ movement powerful enough to overthrow that system. That is not the case in either country. We ought to mention that fascization has gone further in Ukraine. We avoid communicating and cooperating with Ukrainian Marxists or publicly revealing our contacts with them, as they might become an easy target for right-wing activists. The Ukrainian government turns a blind eye to the attacks on communists. Kyiv bans communist symbols and books and it persecutes communists. Anti-communist bias may be found in every post-Soviet country. But in contrast with Russia, Ukrainian anti-communism is not driven simply by the desire to suppress anti-capitalist movements. It is also mixed with a tendency to distance themselves from Russia. Russia is considered the successor of the USSR, which is now described as a “prison house of nations.” This narrative discourages the growth of pro-communist sentiment in these countries. While Russia points a finger at NATO and the West and portrays its operation as a “defensive” movement, NATO and the West downplay their role and point to Putin as being motivated by a megalomaniac urge to power, fascism, hate, or some ever dark and wicked ideology that led to this war. What is your position on such propaganda? The demonization of the enemy, the rise of nationalism, and the integration of the prevailing order via the slogans of “freedom,” “democracy,” and “tolerance”– are just so many forms of false consciousness, as Engels said. The situation stems from the political incapacity of the majority of people. Why? Well, there are certain reasons. Most crucial is that people need simple answers, which is convenient for the ruling class. “Why am I not rich?’ asks a German, French, Russian, or Ukrainian citizen. Someone responds, “The Russians, French or Germans are to blame.” This answer implies that the problem might be resolved if we get rid of some bad people. Such false consciousness requires no mental or moral effort. You might be a scoundrel, but if you prove that your enemy is even worse, you aren’t so bad. There is some truth in this, but it's only part of the picture. Since the socialist bloc collapsed, NATO has been expanding further to the East. Similarly, the stance of the Russian leadership was steadily changing. At first, Russia had high hopes for mutually beneficial cooperation with the West. Russian capital wanted to become a part of the neoliberal world. However, the more confident Russian business felt, the more critical of the Western world Putin’s speeches became. You may remember the Munich conference of 2007. Putin appealed, at that time, to international law, mutual respect, etc. He delicately expressed his discontent with the policy of the West; it was rather like “don't bother us.” In Valday in 2014, Putin openly declared that international law is phony, that there is nothing behind it but the military power of the US and NATO. For many people, this escalation in Putin’s rhetoric seemed to signal that Russia had become great again. But the brave rhetoric didn’t keep pace with the real economic situation. The Russian economy has been degrading, becoming more natural-resource-based while other sectors, like education and science, are increasingly neglected. This stems not only from the place Russia holds in the global division of labor but also from the character of Russian authorities. They are not interested in long-term investment and developing industry. And now even the profitable natural sector might lose Western markets. Of course, the US is pushing for this. Some claim that the invasion could not have been avoided, that the events and conflicts of the last decade are largely irrelevant, and that there was nothing that the West could have done (and nothing it can do today) to deescalate the situation. We are dealing with mad King Putin, and no diplomacy can improve the situation. Russia’s operation can only be stopped by force. How would you respond to that? Russian imperialism currently delineates a zone of interests that overlaps with the zone delineated by NATO. The Russian ruling class is now divided, and one part of it wants to stop the military conflict. Probably the same is true in Western countries. The outcome of this conflict will be the further militarization of both NATO countries and Russia. In addition, the argument sounds one-sided. It is as if NATO was forced to operate, from a position of strength. Look at the rhetoric of Western leaders. It almost doesn’t react to the statements by the Ukrainian and Russian sides about potential ceasefire negotiations. NATO just continues to increase supplies to the war zone uninterruptedly, while breaking off the relations with Russia in various domains. This suggests that the interest in the conflict is mutual. Each day the conflict continues, Russian social and economic stability declines. That works in favor of NATO, of course: If it comes to the crunch, it will be possible to establish here a rule pleasing to the West. We have witnessed in Ukraine an unprecedented crackdown on communist groups since 2015. Since the invasion, even left-liberal parties and groups have been forbidden. What has the current conflict meant for communists in Russia? Our president made clear that he was ready to show Ukraine what true decommunization looks like, and he was not lying. “Decommunization” has been going on in Russia for many years. Big media companies associated with oil and gas companies shoot videos, write articles and books about the “evil and bloody Soviet Union.” Streets are being renamed and museums closed, while Marxists are being persecuted in the universities. Prominent television figures call for monuments to Nazi collaborators to be erected. Nonetheless, Soviet symbols are still being exploited. As we said before, Russia cannot deny its Soviet past. It would be like shooting one’s own leg. But Communists must be careful. Trade union agitation is no longer prosecuted as an administrative offense but as a criminal one. Recently the label of “foreign agent” has come into daily use. The legal definition of such “agents” is blurry. Even a simple journal may be classified as a “foreign agent.” The field for legal activity is shrinking. Western media never tires of displaying the many peace demonstrations that have been held in Russia as well as the Russian police crackdown on the protesters. What role does this apparent peace movement play in Russia? What are their demands and what is your position towards them? Anti-war demonstrations are not common. Protesting people are not united. So, we cannot talk about a united anti-war movement. There are people drawn from different liberal and leftist persuasions who explain that they want to express their solidarity with Ukrainian bomb victims. It is moral support. Take, for instance, the “Socialist Alternative” movement, the Russian office of “International Socialist Alternative”: They tried to make a well-organized demonstration, but what was the point given that it lacked broad support among the working people? Nothing but ass kicks, fines, and jail. So, communists keep being generals with no army. Not to mention that the generals themselves are marginalized and separated.
Please summarize how you understand the current conflict and what an internationalist communist position towards it should look like. Looking at their international rhetoric and the local conflicts, arising mainly from the redistribution of property, since the fall of the USSR Russia and Ukraine have been preparing for conflict for a long time. Ukraine, or Donbas to be precise, became a Pandora’s Box, and not simply due to regional imperialism. Rather, it appears to be just the beginning of a sequence of bloody conflicts, spreading far beyond the post-soviet world. First, we must immunize the workers against the dominant nationalist agenda and the demonization of either side in imperialist struggles. We must show them that, in the end, these conflicts will bring no good. Under such circumstances, close international ties with our comrades are vital. We hope that our short conversation will contribute, however modestly, to building such ties. What is your prediction as to how this will play out in the short, middle, and long term and what should a communist movement prepare for in the future? Exact predictions are not of much use. What is needed is a close study of the current situation and that is the focus of our work now. But it is possible to outline some current trends. The conflict is dragging on, which the Russian government seems to not have taken into account. The offense has halted. Should it fail to resume soon, the social situation in the country will significantly worsen. The government appears to be aware of this and has chosen to persecute all opposition. There are signs of a lack of unity in European policy towards Russia. Countries most dependent on gas imports have to swing between a pro-American and a “pro-Russian” stance. Whether these internal contradictions will develop further, or whether the countries of Europe will adopt a more decisive approach towards Russia, is as of now unclear, as is the resilience of Russian society. In any case, as long as the communist movement stands weak and divided, no positive developments are to be expected. The communists will hardly be aided in their work. Hence organizational consolidation, theoretical training, and achievement of ideological unity with other Marxist groups are of utmost relevance. Time is working against us.