Boris Kagarlitsky: We have to develop a new class consciousness through new practice and organization to mobilize these social groups for struggle

Photo: INRU


Posted on November 24, 2018 by Il Grido del Popolo©


Boris Y. Kagarlitsky (1958) is a Russian Marxist theoretician and sociologist who has been a political dissident in the Soviet Union and post-Soviet Russia. He is coordinator of the Transnational Institute Global Crisis Project and director of the Institute of Globalization and social Movements in Moscow, that also runs Rabkor.
Kagarlitsky’s books include: “From Empires to Imperialism: The state and the Rise of Bourgeoise Civilization” (2014)  ,  “Empire of Periphery: Russia and the World System” (2008) , “Russia under Yeltsin and Putin: Neo-Liberal Autocracy” (2002) , “New Realism, New Barbarism: The Crisis of Capitalism” (1999) , “The Return of Radicalism: Reshaping the Left Institutions” (1999) , “The Twilight of Globalization: Property State and Capitalism” (1999) , “ Restoration in Russia: Why Capitalism Failed” (1995) , “Square Wheels: How Russian Democracy Got Derailed” (1994) , “The Disintegration of the Monolith” (1993) , “Thinking Reed, The: Intellectuals and the Soviet State 1917 to the Present” (1989).


Boris, tell me first of all about your political activism and dissidence during the ’80s?


BK: My political views were initially formed by the experience of my parents’ generation. In the 1950s and early 1960s there was a lot of enthusiasm about destalinisation and democratic change initiated by XX Congress of the Communist Party of Soviet Union. It was clearly seen as a confirmation of moral strength of communist ideas and Soviet system that was capable to correct itself. These expectations suffered a great defeat with Soviet invasion in Czechslovakia in 1968. At that point most of the elite intelligentsia changed their views starting to look at Western liberal democracy as a solution, at least in ideological and moral terms. But quire a few remained committed to socialist principles. Much of that was discussed at home with my parents, I grew up listening to these debates. It became clear to me that intervention of 1968 which was the defeat for democratic socialism also was the evidence of the strength of these ideas. They were not defeated through debates, so the only way to defeat them was to use tanks. Than came 1973, the coup in Chile. Which proved the same conclusion. Socialist democracy can’t be defeated as a principle, it can only be crashed by force.

In 1978 I joined a small underground group of young marxists who were involved in producing samizdat material critically analysing Soviet reality and discussing the crisis which the system was facing. We also spent much time reading and discussing Marxist theoretical and historical texts which were not published, not recommended or banned in the USSR (from Trotsky to Marcuse, from Gramsci to Wallerstein).

In 1982 we were arrested and spent 13 months in jail, but then Brezhnev died and we were released. Later in 1990 when perestroika was already under way I was elected to Moscow City Soviet. When Yeltsin launched a coup in 1993, I was among those who resisted and was arrested again but released 2 days later. By the way last time I faced repressive force of the state already under Putin. In 2013 my flat was searched.


In your political essay: “Russia 1917 and the global Revolution” you ask the question; ‘why Russia’, and I ask you why Russia, but not England or Germany?


BK: It was Gramsci who initally described Russian revolution as a revolution against «The Capital» stressin that it happened contrary to the theories of orthodox Marxists. However I think that there is not much to be added to what Lenin said and write. Capitalist crisis was global but revolution took place in the weakest link of the system. Lenin didn’t know yet about world-system theory which understands capitalism as a global phenomenon. But he understood the logic of the process. And by the way, though world-system theory as we know it emerged only in 1970s, Rosa Luxemburg and Mikhail Pokrovsky in 1900s came to conclusions very similar to those later formulated by Immanuel Wallerstein and Samir Amin. It is no accident that both Rosa Luxemburg and Mikhail Pokrovsky were born in Russian Empire. Pokrovsky was later almost completely forgotten because his works were publically denounced under Stalin in 1930s. But one should note that in November 1917 he was considered by some Bolsheviks as a candidate to replace Lenin if they were to form a coalition with Mensheviks. Of course Lenin was not a kind of political figure to be replaced. But it is interesting to note that in the Bolshevik party Pokrovsky was seen as a leading theorist next to Lenin.


Is today’s world precariat aware of its power and its labor rights?


BK: I don’t like the word «precariat» it represents the frustration of Western middle classes with deteriorated social conditions and re-proletarisation. In fact, there is nothing in the condition of so called «precariat» that was not characteristic for the proletariat in classical marxist terms. But exploited members of European decaying middle class don’t want to be called intellectual or skilled proletarians, so they involve a new term.

Of course we see that much of the society is now becoming declasse, people are socially lumpenised even when their actual material condition is not so catastrophic. Of course, we have to develop a new class consciousness through new practice and organisation to mobilise these social groups for struggle.


Are globalization and capitalism in crisis today?


BK: Of course they are. Neoliberal model is in crisis. This model presupposed the use of cheap labour and deconstruction of Welfare state going on together with growing consumption. However together with Welfare state they undermined the consumer society as well. This could continue as long as one had unlimited resources of cheap labour in the Far East. But this is over now. China’s labour resources are also limited. Workers demand higher wages in China as well as in other countries. Class struggle is becoming reality in new industrial countries. And decline of Western working class turned into a global demand crisis. Capitalism can’t solve these contradictions without re-industrialising old industrial countries (on the basis of new technologies, of course). But that means recreating conditions for strong unions, and for a strong and militant left fighting to rebuild the Welfare state. Will this fight lead further to bring about new socialist revolutions? Quite possible.


How do the Left and Labour in Russia under Putin survive today?


BK: The main problem is not Putin or repressions. In fact Russian authoritarian state is rather soft compared to almost every other post-Soviet regimes including Ukraine which is so positively described by Western press. The main problem is the demoralisation and apathy of the masses after the shock of «terrible 1990s».

However the situation is changing. Mass protests against the pension reform and protest vote in many regions where people elected whatever candidate just to kick out representatives of Kremlin show us that the mood is up again. So the struggle continues.


In the book “Russia under Yeltsin and Putin: Neo-liberal Autocracy” you talk about the period of authoritarian rule in the country, how many things have changed today after two decades of Vladimir Vladimirovich’s rule?


BK: Things got worse in political terms. But in 2000-2008 there was a real recovery of living standards. Throughout the period of 2008-2016 these standards we stagnating and now we are back into the situation of falling wages and rapidly deteriorating living conditions. Not surprisingly that generates protest.

About 90% of the population opposed pension reforms. The Kremlin disregarded this position of citizens. But that led to a massive change in public opinion when Putin’s rating collapsed.


Tell me how the pension reforms will affect the Russian economy and the standard of citizens?


BK: Russian pension law allows you to get pension without leaving your job. So when pension age is increased it doesn’t mean you are going to continue working for longer (most people here work till they are 67-70 years old) but that only means you are going to have less money. To make things worse, average male life expectancy is about 64-65 in Russia. That means that most men simply will not get pensions at all.


Russia has for years been giving back its Siberian forest fund to mining Chinese companies, how do you look at this exploitation?


BK: Chinese capital has very bad reputation in Russia, and even worse in Siberia. But within neoliberal system there is no way one can protect forest or other resources effectively. The problem is not only with the Chinese, Russian companies are not much better.

In Irkutsk province, where so far we have the only progressive regional government under Serguey Levchenko (elected on KPRF ticket in 2015) they managed to introduce an ecological standards much more tough than elsewhere in Siberia. For a year private companies were boycotting this region. Now they are coming back accepting these conditions, but the question is whether Levchenko administration will survive. It is under constant attack. At the same time it proves that things can be done differently on a provincial level. Why not on the national level then?


Why was the KPRF “thrown out” in this year’s presidential election for its candidate, neoliberal Grudinin, and not Zyuganov, is that part of the deal with Putin?


BK: Putin’s popularity was declining for years but most people were not really negative about the president. They simply didn’t care and had no opinion about him. Society is totally depoliticised. Elections in 2018 had to legitimise the regime to prepare ground for a new set of anti-social neoliberal reforms. KPRF leader Gennadiy Ziuganov is not interesting for anyone and his presence in the race was going to increase absenteeism. So the Kremlin needed a new face to generate some interest but a person without any chance of winning or even attracting enough support to change electoral statistics. A billionaire Pavel Grudinin looked like a good option. He is not a neoliberal but rather represent the section of business elite not very happy with current economic policies. However the calculation made by the administration was correct. Grudinin somewhat increased electoral participation without changing the outcome. As for the left, most groups called for boycott. The only serious exception was Left Front that unconditionally supported Gridinin and KPRF.


Can we call Russia imperialist power today after interventionism in Chechnya, Moldova, Georgia, Crimea, Ukraine, Syria…?


BK: Let’s be clear: post-Soviet states represent no more than pieces of a larger society which was destroyed and split by capitalist restoration. In that sense we can speak about Russia intervening in Ukraine or Crimea no more than we could speak about the Duke of Milano intervening in the affairs of Florence or Garibaldi backed by Piemontese imperialism illegally taking over Sicily from legitimate Kingdom of Naples. This doesn’t mean that Russia has the right to intervene or that it is doing something positive. It only means that this situation can’t be discussed without understanding that these states are not nation states in the traditional sense. Neither is Russia by the way. Sooner or later the whole post-Soviet state system will collapse. It may bring about quite a lot of new violence.

Destruction of Austro-Hungatian political and social space in 1918 was essential part of pan-European effort of the ruling classes to stop and prevent revolution in Central Europe. Capitalist restoration led to the destruction of Soviet Union, Yugoslavia and even Czechoslovakia. Do you think it is an accident? Splitting larger societies into smaller ones is part of the neoliberal project, part of the general logic of fragmentation. And when the left supports the logic of fragmentation it works against the logic of social change. This is something that Rosa Luxemburg noted critically to Lenin. And in practice he had to follow her advise even without recognising it.

This is the dilemma which Lenin was facing. On the one hand you have to respect the rights of all peoples and ethnic groups, but on the other hand without bringing back together the social and economic space of the former Empire, there is no way to guarantee the survival of a socialist republic.

The solution, of course, is not expansion of current Russian state, but social change within all these «new countries». We have to do our work inside today’s Russia because this is the biggest and most important piece. Today’s Russia has a reactionary government but this may change. And it will happen probably much sooner than you expect.


What do you think of the Russian influence in the Balkans, and does the Kremlin slowly give up its interest in that area after Montenegro joins NATO and diplomatic pressure on the West to Macedonia to change its name in order to join NATO?


BK: Russian government is on the retreat globally. No matter what they say, their aim is deal with the West. Accumulation process of Russian capitalism is externally oriented. In the long run capitalist regime in Russia makes no sense if it is not part of global capitalist system. It is a country that survives on the export of raw materials. One can move export to China but Western financial and real estates markets are crucial for the reproduction of Russian capitalist elite. So they are not fighting to defeat the West, they are trying to get a better deal. However the West is in crisis itself and can’t afford concessions to Russian oligarchs either. This is a dead end situation, but Russian elites are weaker. So they are gradually pulling back.

They will scale down their presence in the Balkans and even in Syria. This war is unpopular with the people and even with some sections of the bourgeoisie.


And finally, how/where you see Russia after Putin’s rule?


BK: There is a big difference between what we want and what really comes out. Russian people want change and there is a popular consensus for a so called «left turn» — restoration of Welfare state, nationalisation of big corporations controlled by the oligarchy, increasing social mobility. I guess this is a popular mood more or less everywhere. But the state and the elites are determined not to let it happen. And without serious struggle this will not happen (even though we are speaking about a very moderate reformist programme). The question is whether people are ready for a serious fight after so many years of apathy and depolitisation. However I’m optimistic. People will learn in the process of struggle.




The interview was prepared and made by Gordan Stošević