Categories
#19: Experience of Perestroika

Boris Kagarlitsky & Artemy Magun // The Lessons of Perestroika

Artemy Magun: I think it is important that you and I talk about perestroika. First, because you were an active participant in perestroika and, from the viewpoint of our group, you are one of the few activists who have remained faithful to its emancipatory content. Second, because you and I both basically subscribe to the same assessment of the current conjuncture in Russia, although we part ways when it comes to perestroika. I have argued that it was a kind of revolution; while in your groundbreaking book you call it a restoration.

Artemy Magun: I think it is important that you and I talk about perestroika. First, because you were an active participant in perestroika and, from the viewpoint of our group, you are one of the few activists who have remained faithful to its emancipatory content. Second, because you and I both basically subscribe to the same assessment of the current conjuncture in Russia, although we part ways when it comes to perestroika. I have argued that it was a kind of revolution; while in your groundbreaking book you call it a restoration.

Twenty years separate us from the events of perestroika. That is a fairly long time historically: it is the same amount of time as separated perestroika itself from the end of the Thaw, in the Soviet Union, and the events of 1968, in Western Europe. However, the specificity of these serious historical events rests in the fact that they don’t contain their own meaning. Rather, this meaning is determined gradually and post factum, depending on how history unfolds after the events. Thus, as it fades gradually into the historical past, perestroika appears different today than it did twenty years ago. Its destructive, catastrophic import (something that only hardcore retrogrades insisted on during perestroika itself) has become obvious, as well as the fact that, although they actively helped Russia in the nineties, the western powers had an egoistic stake in weakening the country and returning it to the international “semi-periphery.” In their assessment of perestroika, your own works vigorously employ the broader historical context-both the internal history of the October Revolution, which perestroika consummated, and the history of Russia as a “peripheral empire” whose historical legacy was continued by the Soviet Union in its later phase.

Nevertheless, a wholly outside viewpoint on an event would also be incorrect: an event manages to inscribe for the ages its own eventality and the subjectivity associated with the event. The subject subsequently undergoes a number of alterations, but it remains the same subject. In our case-post-Soviet Russia-this subject is the post-Soviet citizen of the Russian Federation, who has rejected faithfulness to Soviet communism and whose expectations of western prosperity have been disappointed. Perestroika effected a subjectivization that briefly activated and mobilized the subject politically, but subsequently left it with both a taste for freedom and contempt for ideology, a sense of cynicism and alienation from other people. Subjectivity is a significant factor in politics: it is a complement to all socioeconomic transformations. In particular, a socialist or communist society can be built only on the revolutionary subjectivity of the masses, on their will to self-government.

I will briefly reprise my thesis about perestroika’s revolutionary nature, which I developed in detail in my recently published book (“Negative Revolution: Towards a Deconstruction of the Political Subject”). All the evidence points to the fact that perestroika and the after-effects it generated in the nineties were revolutionary. As the result of a serious democratic mobilization (albeit launched by the elites) and the opposition’s taking power, an existing state was abolished and destroyed. More important, a socioeconomic structure was destroyed and radically altered. This did not happen overnight, of course, but it was nevertheless irreversible. The socioeconomic relations between people changed: they became each other’s competitors, and many people entered into relations of mutual exploitation. The state ceased to perform its function as a paternalistic redistributor of wealth, and material inequality grew. Simultaneously, as is the case during revolutionary periods, the level of social mobility sharply increased: some people had dizzying career success and made fortunes. There was not even the hint of ideological consensus, and so diametrically opposed ideas and opinions clashed in the mass media. The predominant style of political commentary was cynical, ironic, and hypercritical towards the authorities, and so society was much more “open” than in the western “democracies.” But no less-perhaps, even more-important was what happened on the subjective level: the implosion of political identification. At first it was emancipatory in character: it was directed against the dogmatism and political theology of late socialism. In the nineties, this gave way to political apathy, a negative attitude to politics, and the view that all public activity was a political con game (“political technologies”). It seems to me that the situation of the nineties-which was provoked by the disenchantment and frustration of “revolutionary” subjects-was a peculiar psycho-ideological sequel to the perestroika revolution. While remaining a revolution as such, it was primarily destructive in nature, not futuristic and utopian.

Perestroika and its aftermath are in many ways reminiscent of the French Revolution. In both cases, a newly enlightened intelligentsia, armed with a mixture of the rationalism of experts and idealistic utopianism (“the rule of law” and “universal human values”), got the people behind it and achieved an amazing unity amongst the most various social groups. After the victory of the revolution, however, this unity quickly collapsed, and social confrontation with the Third Estate itself emerged into the foreground. The Thermidor had already triumphed by 1794: it rejected revolutionary idealism in favor of the classist, egoistic dictatorship of the haute bourgeoisie.

I am, however, also aware of your position. You view perestroika as the culmination of a historical cycle that began in 1917 (which in turn traces its origins to 1789). Perestroika marks the defeat of the leftist project and the defeatist adoption of the old, liberal model of society and ideology. It really is the case that these events coincided with a wave of conservatism in the west itself (Thatcher, Reagan, Pope John Paul II). This wave used these events to crush leftist forces and ideas, and to establish the hegemony of liberal conservatism a là Fukuyama and Huntington. But this “macroview” doesn’t take into account (I repeat) the internal, subjective significance of perestroika and the revolutions in Eastern Europe. They clearly were much too emancipatory to be termed a “restoration”: they were accompanied by popular utopian enthusiasm, albeit short-lived. And in Russia itself they brought about the emergence of the chaotic, anarchic society of the nineties. They became a “restoration-for-itself” only under Putin. Moreover, this was also a restoration vis-à-vis perestroika qua revolution, and not only vis-à-vis the international socialist movement. It was only then (that is, now) that the regime became openly conservative and restorationist in its rhetoric. During the previous fifteen years, however, this had not been the case.

Could you explain and elaborate your take on this issue as you see it now, more than ten years after the publication of Restoration in Russia? How do the revolutionary and restorationist elements in the history of perestroika and the nineties relate to each other?

Boris Kagarlitsky: Let’s begin with the fact that the objective meaning of a process is nonetheless more important than the subjective experiences of its participants. Even if the masses are sincerely deceived about their own role and the meaning of their own actions, we can still say that they are deceived. On the other hand, however, it is worth asking why the masses have such illusions. All the usual talk about “manipulation” doesn’t explain anything: it merely enables us to avoid discussing the problem. However, it is fundamentally important that mass deception or self-deception doesn’t have anything to do with emancipation however you look at it. In fact, the reverse is the case: this is the direct opposite of emancipation. If we see here a transition from one scheme of control (external, based on coercion) to another scheme (internal, based on manipulation), then that means we have gone from bad to worse. The “appearance” of outward freedom is achieved through the effective suppression of inner freedom. It would be inaccurate to speak of this as a phenomenon that is inevitably inherent in bourgeois democracy. At certain stages in its development, bourgeois democracy presumed precisely the conscious (albeit limited) participation of the masses. It is based on a conscious class compromise, but in our case whichever end we come at it we don’t see class politics and a conscious playing with this politics.

Why, however, were the masses deceived? Or why did they let themselves be deceived? In the final analysis, it is not that important which of these happened. (We’re discussing the motivations of the deceived, not the moral responsibility of the ones who did the deceiving.) I have already written that the events of 1989-92 were an inevitable reaction. This process was objectively reactionary, but at the same time it was historically necessary, including from the viewpoint of future progress. There is only way out of a dead end-backwards. This reverse motion is absolutely necessary if you want to move forwards. But it is still a movement backwards-a regression, a reaction.

Soviet society was in a historical dead end from which there was no progressive way out. I am not talking about theoretical models, which we can draft-in the guise of beautiful utopias-at every given moment (we ourselves enthusiastically drafted such models back then), but about practical political decisions that are underwritten by popular support, resources, and objective “external” conditions.

The only such possibility was a restoration of capitalism. Moreover, this had to be a restoration in synch with the general world trend of the global reaction-i.e., neoliberalism, the liquidation of the gains made by the workers movement in the west, the collapse and rebirth of the national liberation movements of the so-called third world, and the total moral capitulation of social democracy. Perestroika was an organic and extremely vital component of this process. It gave the process a new impulse and ensured the triumph of capital on a previously unprecedented scale. Moreover, this triumph of capital took place in an age when the progressive role of the bourgeoisie had been completely exhausted. During the Victorian Age, the civilizing mission was (like it or not) a reality. Marx, who wasn’t infected by the virus of political correctness, took a sober view of this. There is no such civilizing mission nowadays.

The view held by you and Alexander Shubin (as argued in his book “Democracy Betrayed”) is that the perestroika movement contained a revolutionary potential that was subsequently crushed by the old and new elites. But the objective historical conjuncture and the sociocultural balance of forces in Russia made this result inevitable from the outset. We might not have understood this in 1988-89. I understood it only in 1990. This, however, doesn’t change the state of affairs. The only thing that changes is our assessment of our own role.

It was then that I also came to understand the tragic nature of Marxist political struggle under the given circumstances. We couldn’t oppose a process that was objectively necessary (including for the future success of our own cause), but neither could we support it, because it was objectively reactionary: it led to catastrophic short-term consequences for the majority of the people. All that remained for us was to fight on two fronts and to explain the political and social significance of what was happening in conditions where the level of control (which had been relaxed in 1988-89) once again began to rise precipitously. In 1990-94, control of the mass media was incomparably greater than it is today. The liberals strictly filtered every word that was pronounced on air. We couldn’t even dream of getting coverage in the serious mass media. In this sense, the Putin regime is much more liberal than the Yeltsin regime.

What typically happens in revolutions is that the elites launch a process which they then lose control over. New forces emerge, and they seize the initiative with the support of the masses. It is telling that Shubin complains precisely about the seizure of the initiative by the elites vis-à-vis the masses. In other words, something happened that doesn’t happen during a revolution, something quite the opposite. Imagine that something of the sort had happened in eighteenth-century France or in England. Instead of Cromwell and Robespierre, we would have had a change of dynasties, followed by an attempt to restore the feudal orders destroyed by absolutism. Would we call this (despite the participation of the masses during the early stage) a revolution? Of course not. It wouldn’t occur to anyone to call this a revolution.

The movement backwards overdetermined the confusion that was typical of the late eighties and early nineties-right-wingers were called leftists, and vice versa. But the significance of what happened is fairly simple. Liberals fought to secure the reactionary, reverse movement (the “return to the mainstream of history”), and we fought to make it possible to turn around and move forward again as early as we could, at the first opportunity. By the way, notice how the word “return” also implies moving backwards! This struggle continues to this day, only the situation has changed. The balance of forces is different.

Of course, each person finds his own place in this confrontation. By supporting the liberals in their reactionary mission, the intelligentsia adopted an ideologically anti-democratic stance and signed its own death sentence: it rejected the tradition of the Narodniks (Populists) and ceased being an intelligentsia.

ÀM: I think that in your “Althusserian” reading of perestroika there is an element of the dismissiveness of the expert. You oppose the spontaneous political struggle of people who find themselves in an open-ended, unpredictable situation to a linear vision of history (“the way forwards,” “the way backwards”), and this vision comes with a hefty portion of historical determinism. What I find lacking here is a sense of history’s openness and the task of creating free institutions on the socioeconomic base that exists at the given moment.

BK:
On the contrary, I argue that leftists should have fought the capitalist restoration while being aware (or unaware) that this struggle was doomed from the outset. As a participant in the event, this is exactly how I acted myself. By 1991 it had become clear to me that the resistance was doomed. (Although there were moments when it seemed that we had a chance.) On the other hand, the struggle is fought not for victory today, but for victory tomorrow. That is normal. We’re often forced to take on a fight knowing beforehand that we cannot win it.

Boris Kagarlitsky (b.  1958) sociologist, journalist, Director of the  Institute of Globalization Studies (IPROG), lives in Moscow
Artiom Magun (b. 1974), philosopher, lives in Petersburg

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *