According to basic indicators of economic development, the all-embracing social crisis which Russia is experiencing has thrown the country back a quarter of a century; according to indicators of living standards, the period is at least thirty-five years.
In 1992 the volume of industrial production has fallen by more than a factor of two in comparison with 1989. In recent history not a single country has known economic decline on such a scale.
Never has peacetime witnessed such a relentless fall in the living standards of the people. According to the most modest calculations, the real income of the population has decreased threefold on the average in comparison with the beginning of 1991. If one takes into account the scope of the processes of redistribution in recent years, the living standards of 90 percent of the population have fallen much lower than these average figures.
The magnitude of the economic and social losses within the last year alone can be compared only with the results of forced collectivization from 1928-1933. But if those years saw the destruction of the productive forces in agriculture while heavy industry grew, thereby creating the basis for a general rise in the economy during the next five-year plan, the precipitous fall of production today has embraced all spheres of economic life. The policies of “price liberalization,” privatization and liquidation of the planned economy can justifiably be called “collectivization inside out.”
Like the more adventuristic and destructive actions of Stalinism, contemporary “market reforms” are characterized by vulgar empiricism and the absence of any scientific anticipation of the short-and long-term consequences of this “revolution from above,” aimed at radically changing property relations.
Why have these processes not been met by an effective rebuff from left social and political movements? To answer this question we must first of all turn to the history of such movements in the Soviet Union.
In the 1920s and 1930s, left movements which were opposed to the existing regime arose within the ruling party. In 1923 the ranks of the Bolshevik Party split into two irreconcilable political tendencies: Stalinism and the Left Opposition. An unbiased study of the history of the struggle of these tendencies destroys the Stalinist myth about the “monolithic” Bolshevik Party during the 1920s and 1930s, a myth which has dominated the consciousness of several generations of Soviet and foreign historians of the most variegated political orientations.
Although from 1927 the oppositionist, communist movements were relegated to the underground, resistance to Stalinism within the ruling party continued to grow, resulting in the appearance of ever newer, illegal opposition groups.
The great purge of 1936-1938 was not an irrational, senseless and pathological outburst of violence evoked by Stalin’s blind suspiciousness (as was claimed by Khrushchev and all post-Stalinist official historiography), or by the “satanic” character of Bolshevism (as claimed by anticommunist historiography, represented, for instance, by such authors as Conquest and Solzhenitsyn).
It was a political genocide against Soviet and foreign communists, a preventative civil war, the only political means which Stalin could use to retain his power and suppress that part of the Soviet and international communist movement which, potentially or in fact, was a political force presenting an alternative to his totalitarian regime.
In its turn, the development of Stalinist totalitarianism had profound social foundations. In a country which had gone through the October Revolution, in order to establish a new system of social inequality based on the privileges of a ruling bureaucracy and the elite groups attached to it, there had to be an absolutist-Bonapartist regime which relentlessly resorted to mass repression for suppressing the social protest which had accumulated in the party and broad layers of the population. Such repression prevented the protest from growing into a mass political movement.
The destruction during the Great Purge and Stalinism’s subsequent repressive activities against everyone who had any relationship to the anti-Stalinist communist oppositions made Soviet society amorphous in the political sense, incapable of producing mass social or political movements demanding the radical reform of the existing system. Genuine communist mentality was lost in society, despite the superficial dominance of Marxist phraseology in the official propaganda.
However, the absence of mass left-wing social movements in the post-Stalinist period cannot be explained by these factors alone. After Stalin’s death, the ruling bureaucracy was forced to renounce the previous totalitarian instruments of its rule (state terror), and resorted to new methods of forestalling the class struggle in society.
Guided not so much by political analysis as by social instinct, it sensed that the preservation and inviolability of the earlier systems of social inequality were fraught with the danger of serious political upheavals. Therefore, it chose to make serious preventative concessions to the egalitarianism of the masses, despite the absence in the latter of democratic instincts, and of mechanisms or procedures of defending their interests.
These concessions were expressed in the broadening of social programs, in the introduction of more egalitarian social legislation, and in the implementation of the policy of “pushing up” lower and middle incomes to higher levels.
Closing the enormous gaps which had formed toward the end of the Stalinist period in the material conditions of various social groups proceeded both “from below”—by means of systematically carrying out government measures to raise the incomes of poorly paid and meagerly provided for layers—and “from above”—by means of eliminating so-called excesses in the pay of the bureaucracy and other privileged groups tied to it by their material situation, which included first and foremost the upper-level intelligentsia.
The partocracy, managers, administrators and upper layers of the scientific and artistic intelligentsia preserved their privileged position in society, but the gap between their living standards and the way of life for the majority of the population steadily decreased.
Social policy was the most progressive aspect of domestic policy during the post-Stalinist period. Free health care and education of all types, the lowest relationship in the world between the level of average and minimum wages and prices for primary foodstuffs, social transport (municipal transport, railways and airlines), housing, medicine, children’s commodities, books, mass services—all this represented indisputable social achievements of the Soviet social structure.
The 1960s and the 1970s became the first period in the history of the country when the broad masses of Soviet society escaped from the burden of poverty, from a pitiful existence of semi-starvation, and received the chance to live in conditions of relative material comfort.
Governmental policy of this period in the area of prices and income was dictated first of all by considerations of maintaining the social and political stability of society, by fear of the ruling layer concerning the danger of social contradictions growing into social conflicts. This meant most of all not to allow the elimination or limitation of the social guarantees which had developed.
The raising of state retail prices by 30 percent in 1962 for just three types of commodities (meat, milk and butter) was enough to provoke an immediate reaction in the form of workers’ unrest in the city of Novocherkassk, which had to be put down by force. Frightened by these bloody events, the ruling bureaucracy never again dared to raise prices for basic foodstuffs.
Its special caution in conducting price policy was expressed by the fact that in the future, in order to restrict the flow of paper currency, prices were raised primarily for luxury items or for other items of consumption from predominantly high-income groups.
These aspects of social policy caused a relative lowering of the living standards of the bureaucracy, and, to a greater degree, of the upper-level intelligentsia. The profound, yet hidden, conflict between these social groups, the internal opposition of the upper-level intelligentsia towards the existing regime (dissidence being the extreme form of this opposition) was explained not only by its strong desire for greater intellectual freedom, but also by its painful reaction to the loss of the privileged material position it had attained under Stalin.
The ruling bureaucracy conducted a “second,” unspoken social policy, standing, as it were, behind the back of the first, which was proclaimed in official party and state documents. This second policy served to forestall the development of the class struggle and, consequently, the creation of social and political movements.
The simple essence of this “second” or “shadow” social policy, the consequences of which in its actual social scale has been revealed only in recent years, was expressed in one of Brezhnev’s confidential conversations with his retinue.
When one of them mentioned the material difficulties of the poorly paid layers, Brezhnev answered: “You don’t know life. No one lives on his pay. I remember when I was young, when I worked at a technical school, we earned extra by unloading train cars. And how did we do it? It was three sacks or boxes there, and one for ourselves. That’s how everybody lives in our country” (F. Burlatsky, Literaturnaia gazeta, October 14, 1988).
This bureaucratic “sociology” reflected not only the constant pressure of lumpen tendencies toward misappropriation, which arose as the population’s answer to poverty and as a reaction to inequality even in Stalinist times.
It served as a peculiar foundation for the specific course chosen by the Brezhnev leadership, which combined maintaining authoritarian prohibitions of political initiatives and ideological innovation with allowing people to get away with anything in everyday economic behavior.
It created a regime of virtual impunity for grand and petty thieves who were stealing public property. As a result, the social energy of great masses of people was switched over to a course of stealing public property, of speculating and embezzling public funds.
An “example” of such “economic activity” was given by the bureaucracy itself, which passed through a new stage of social, moral and political degeneration. It answered the decline of its “official” share of the national income with an as yet unprecedented scale of corruption. The lumpenization of significant layers of society affected the lower as well as the upper levels of the social structure. If, on the lower levels, the struggle of each against all proceeded for necessary items of consumption then, on the upper levels, this struggle developed for the opportunity to join the “precapitalist,” plutocratic layer which was being reconstructed by uniting the bureaucracy with smart operators of the “shadow economy” as it swiftly widened its sphere of activity.
While systematically carrying out acts of robbery, the bureaucracy was striking deals with “commercial” and other types of mafia, as well as producing mafia elements from its own ranks. Bureaucratic impunity and all forms of official decomposition and dissipation became a basic factor in the decay of economic life and the political regime.
The further satisfaction, however, of the predatory appetites of the plutocratic layer and the creation of opportunities to legally “utilize” the capital acquired through illegal means required a changing of the social structure.
It was precisely this plutocratic layer, along with the upper-level intelligentsia which yearned for the restoration of its privileged material position and for the attainment of the instruments of power, which exerted ever growing pressure on Gorbachev who had declared perestroika without having any well thought-out plan or conception of social changes.
This pressure resulted in a reorientation of perestroika from its original course of restoring the elementary foundations of civilization in society (the struggle against drunkenness and “unearned income”) to a course of “unrestrained capitalization” of the country.
The corrupted and “shadow” elements of the social structure became the very milieu out of which the new bourgeoisie was formed, criminal and comprador by its social nature.
Liberalization of the political system coincided with liberalization of economic life. The first steps toward a parliamentary structure showed that layers of the broad masses of society were least of all prepared for an active role in this process.
Among the People’s Deputies of the USSR elected in 1989, 21.2 percent were workers or peasants, whereas among the People’s Deputies of the RSFSR (Russian Soviet Federal Socialist Republic) elected in 1990, the number was 5.9 percent. The majority of the deputies were administrators or representatives of the upper-level intelligentsia.
On the surface, political life in the USSR from 1989 on is characterized by an abundance of social movements.
However, the parties, associations, and unions which continuously arise (with the exception of the national-separatist movements) have proven to be extremely unstable and have attracted few members. They are continuously tom by internal conflicts; they disintegrate, change their programs and demands, and so forth.
The most massive social and political movement of the first years of perestroika was the movement in support of Yeltsin, who was ostracized by Gorbachev and his retinue, including the future “democrats” Yakovlev and Shevardnadze, for his attempt to mildly criticize the eclecticism, unsystematic nature and lack of planning of perestroika and the continuing regime of personal rule.
In the rise of the “Yeltsin phenomenon,” an important role was played by the fact that during this period Yeltsin was the only major political figure who adopted positions which were more to the left than Gorbachev. Yeltsin’s first election campaign in 1989 was replete with egalitarian slogans and ended with his stunning victory. (He received more than 90 percent of the votes in Moscow.) In a speech at the First Congress of People’s Deputies of the USSR, Yeltsin stressed the inadmissibility of the existence of an elite layer “in our society, which is building socialism.”
He called for placing a high priority on defending the interests of the least well-to-do and the socially undefended layers and he asked the rhetorical question: “Why is it that in our country tens of millions of people live below any conceivable level of poverty, while others wallow in luxury?”
This speech corresponded with speeches at the congress by worker-deputies, who sharply protested against the growing social polarization and against the unearned wealth of the nouveau-riche cooperative owners, and so forth.
Yeltsin’s pre-election in 1991 was also filled with political rhetoric, criticism of social privileges and promises to orient his social-economic policies in the interests of those layers of the population who were not well-to-do. Yeltsin owed his election as president of the RSFSR in no small degree to his promise to “lie down on the rails” if retail prices were raised during his presidency.
However, neither Gorbachev nor Yeltsin, as true representatives of a bureaucracy trying to form a new propertied class, was inclined to assume the leadership of the growing workers movement, which had shown its strength and organization in the mass miners strikes coordinated on a nationwide scale in 1989. Lacking leadership from the scattered socialist movements, these strikes, which resumed periodically, assumed a narrowly economic character in the end.
The social antagonisms which had come to the surface had accumulated for long years under the pressure of the bureaucracy; finding no resolution by socialist means, these antagonisms increasingly were drawing society into a state of political instability. The effect of centrifugal forces—of “unrestrained capitalism” in economics and national separatist movements in politics—increased the social and national tensions, opening the way to spontaneously destructive processes in social life.
The only answer of the Gorbachev leadership to the social-economic demands of the workers, who were beginning to feel the sharp lowering of their living standards, was the uncontrolled release of paper money, fueling inflationary processes and leading to the full disorganization of the financial system and the collapse of the consumer market. However, even under these conditions, for a prolonged period Gorbachev and those around him did not decide to resort to administrative measures to raise retail prices in order to decrease the growing state budget deficit.
When, finally, in the summer of 1990, the Ryzhkov government proposed that parliament raise retail prices by a factor of two (with partial compensation of the population’s monetary losses), the Supreme Soviet not only rejected this proposal but also an even more modest proposal to raise by a factor of fifty the prices on grain products alone. This happened to a significant degree under the pressure of the “democratic” press, which accused the “communist government” of intending to “rob the population.” Only in April 1991 did the new Pavlov government double and treble prices. In my mind, this action was probably the main reason for the relative ease with which the “unusual putsch” of August 1991 was put down.
After this event, the social processes in the republics of the Soviet Union, which finally disintegrated in December 1991, acquired an absolutely irrational character. The worst tendencies mentioned above from the period of stagnation were supplemented by the transfer onto Russian soil of the worst sides of modern-day capitalism (porno- and narco-business, phony deals, speculative play in money market rates, transnational criminal ties, etc.).
What has developed is an active redistribution of power, influence and wealth among the four plutocratic forces which have evolved into a single conglomerate: the new official property owners, the corrupt bureaucracy, the heads of the shadow economy and the highly organized mafia.
Pro-capitalist elements rushed to proclaim the “August victory” of the “people’s revolution.” The most candid of them announced that a bourgeois revolution had taken place.
In the wake of this euphoria, Yeltsin sharply turned to the right and started to carry out his “economic reforms,” which amounted to a “liberalization of prices.” This liberalization turned out to be nothing more than the relentless administrative raising of prices.
The first result of this reform was the almost complete devaluation of the hard-earned savings of the population. Having eliminated the “delayed demand” of the workers for consumer items, hyperinflation intensified the processes of redistribution and multiplied the fortunes of the nouveaux riches, fortunes which were earmarked for acquiring the means of production as private property.
Up to the present, prices for items of primary necessity, from bread to salt to matches (as well as, by the way, for all other forms of commodities and services) have grown in relation to the beginning of 1991 by a factor of 100-200 or more, and continue to grow without restraint.
Under these conditions it is natural to expect a tempestuous upsurge in mass movements on the left, who would protest against the unprecedented fall in the living standards of the people.
It is not surprising that the theme of “social explosion” has not left the pages of the Russian press since the beginning of the year. Even the present government seems to be surprised by the fact that its “market reforms” have not been met by an explosive reaction from the population.
The majority of foreign observers of our life express bewilderment at the relatively tolerant attitude of the people toward the destructive social and economic processes unfolding in our country. Although the very concept of “social explosion” is not strictly scientific, it nevertheless implies the onset of sharper forms of class struggle. The absence of social explosions can hardly be explained by the population’s belief in the authorities’ promises to complete “the difficult transitional period” by autumn or, in any case, by the end of the present year.
In actual fact, the economic decline and misfortunes of the working class are growing from month to month. It is becoming ever more obvious how deceptive the exhortations are that one must “endure” the “transition to the market,” which inevitably will be painful for all. In reality, the “transitional period” is becoming ever more unbearable for approximately 90 percent of the population, whereas the remaining portion is deriving ever increasing benefit from the economic difficulties.
The privileges of today’s social elite, the comprador bourgeoisie and the “democratic” bureaucracy (primarily the product of these groups linking up with foreign capital, which is invading the Russian economy), is greatly surpassing the privileges of the partocracy during the Stalin or Brezhnev years.
Consequently, the sociological explanation for the continuing relative stability of society must be sought not in any confidence expressed by the public in today’s authorities, but in other social factors.
There are a number of such factors, which differ fundamentally, but which produce similar results. First of all, the relative social calm is being purchased at the expense of the colossal destruction of the productive forces. In their efforts to keep the workers from going out on strike or engaging in other forms of social protest, the administrators of enterprises are directing all the financial resources they have at their disposal toward raising wages, to the detriment of the modernization and reconstruction of the basic productive reserves.
The physical wear and tear, as well as the obsolescence of technology, is one of the reasons for the unceasing acceleration of the economic decline. However, for the time being, the results of this technological stagnation have not been directly felt by the workers. Although it is not far away, mass unemployment still looms indistinctly on the horizon, threatening to turn into a national calamity.
Secondly, the call which has been issued for the first time in the history of our nation—for the individual to survive at any cost, and the highly exacerbated struggle for individual existence under conditions of economic collapse and the ruination of the nation—are atomizing the workers and plunging no small part of them into a state of political apathy. Significant layers of the population are looking for a way out from the economic difficulties which have beset them by turning to primitive economic barter. This action is encouraged by the practice introduced under Brezhnev and widened under Gorbachev of providing city families with small plots of land or gardens.
Much like the years of the Civil War or World War II, or the less difficult years of the first five-year plan, millions of city dwellers are engaged in exhausting labor on these pitiful parcels of land to guarantee for themselves at least a few food products.
This is one way of turning the masses away from politics and active participation in social movements; it is a means of directing their social energy into channels which are not a threat to the regime. Intensive self-exploitation and the exploitation of the members of one’s family by physical overexertion and by substantial extensions of the normal workday and workweek are creating a sweatshop way of life which undermines people’s health and alienates them from social or political activity, from social and intellectual values.
Thirdly, the commercial and financial bourgeoisie have, in essence, monopolized the sphere of exchange, including foreign trade. They are reaping fantastic profits through speculative machinations and by playing the wide gaps between domestic and foreign prices, and have been able to feed an enormous army of retainers.
A certain part of the socially active population has changed professions in order to survive. They have turned away from interesting and substantive work and are being “sucked into” the ranks of traders, secondhand dealers, racketeers, bodyguards and other servants of the capitalist bosses.
Fourthly, a definite segment of the population is answering its rapid impoverishment and the swift growth of social differentiation by searching for extralegal means of supplementing income. The instinct for survival is pushing the majority of people in the direction of criminal forms of self-defense. This is made easier by the fact that many forms of economic behavior, such as speculation and contraband, have in fact been legalized by the new regime.
Insofar as the elemental nature of primitive capitalist accumulation unleashes the basest sides of human nature, the catastrophic collapse of the economy is accompanied by a catastrophic decline in culture and social morality, by an unprecedented outburst of common and everyday crime. “Creeping” and “unrestrained” privatization, as well as economic activity as a whole, unfolds by circumventing and violating even the most recently adopted “market” laws.
Despite the sharp decline in the struggle against economic crime, the number of reported crimes, according to official criminal statistics, is growing at a tempo never before observed in our country (for 1989-91, it grew by about one-third per annum and in the first quarter of 1992, by 20 percent).
Crime is becoming more openly mercenary in nature. Under conditions of the destruction of elementary law and order, of the virtual collapse of the struggle against massive stealing, bribe-taking and other forms of corruption, ever newer socially active elements are being lumpenized and drawn into the ranks of the mafia.
Finally, the social protest of the workers has not developed into organized forms of political struggle because the left social movements have grown much weaker and because the majority of them have lost any clear ideological orientation. The reason for this process includes the undermining of the attractiveness of socialist ideas and values, the deformation of the social and historical memory of the people as a result of widespread anticommunist propaganda.
The mass media is almost completely at the disposal of pro-capitalist forces and it tries to convince the population that all its present-day burdens and deprivations are a result not of the chaotic return in recent years to backward, semi-colonial capitalism but of the previous decades of “Bolshevik rule.”
Capitalist restoration demands continuous ideological nourishment in the form of a far-reaching reevaluation of the entire post-October history. The more deeply the country is plunged into a state of economic chaos and political confusion, the sharper the anticommunist hysteria becomes, and the louder become the cries about how the “communist experiment” has proved to be a complete disaster. All the past and present misfortunes of the Soviet people are explained by the inherent bankruptcy of the socialist idea and by the wrong choice made by the people in 1917.
Responsibility for Stalinism, Brezhnevite stagnation and today’s deepening social crisis is found in the fundamental values and “doctrinaire premises” of the Marxist world outlook which means, most of all, the ideas of social equality and social justice. The extreme shift in the assessment of the historical past is shown by the way Lenin and his comrades are declared to be the most odious figures in the nation’s history. All these ideological operations are accomplished, not on the basis of new historical research or the discovery of new historical documents, but on the basis of mechanically reproducing the historical versions of the first Russian emigration and the anticommunist wing of Western Sovietologists.
Gutter journalism has begun to flourish, and its polemics are directed at demolishing Marxist theory with the arbitrary and vulgarly tendentious interpretation of isolated quotations tom out of context.
In the avant-garde of this anticommunist crusade are scholars, journalists and public figures who made their careers as apologists for “developed socialism” in the “struggle against bourgeois ideology,” including several former high-ranking party officials such as A. Yakovlev.
They all strenuously try to convince the people that the only alternative to “market reforms” is a return to Stalinism or to other forms of reactionary dictatorship.
Along with the fabrication of historical myths which, in their arbitrary and fantastic nature exceed even the ideological products of the Stalinist school of falsification, everything possible is being done to conceal from the people the scale to which the country is being ravaged and its natural wealth is being sold off.
The publication of consolidated data from governmental statistics departments has been stopped. The rather disorganized statistics services have been commercialized, a phenomenon without precedent in the history of civilized governments. Even specialists can receive the data necessary for scientific analysis only by paying lavish sums to the statistics bureaus. In addition, the cloak of commercial secrecy conceals the real social and economic processes to a much greater extent than the previous party and governmental penchant for secrecy. As a result, the mechanisms of bureaucratic and private-enterprise gangsterism remain just as mysterious now as the mechanisms of state terror were in the thirties.
Opposition left movements are denied virtually any access to radio and television. Meanwhile, allowing them even an hour or so of broadcast time per day would make it possible to publicize the illegal and unrestrained behavior in today’s corridors of power. They could expose the innumerable economic crimes of the criminal bourgeoisie and corrupt bureaucracy which is so closely bound up with it.
The lack of such information impedes the transformation of the social protest of the masses into organized, conscious and purposeful channels; it hinders the formation of mass left movements.
However, all the above-named factors are purely temporary by nature; they may weaken the social tensions in society and postpone the growing crisis of confidence the people have in the government for a few months at the most. But they are preparing the return of this crisis on a wider basis, forcing it to develop into a social catastrophe.
Even now the tendencies holding back the development of left social movements stand counterposed to tendencies bound up with the transition of workers from a state of social apathy and the atomized struggle for individual survival to active forms of class struggle.
Lacking the political resources (in the form of strong parties and trade unions) needed to defend their interests, workers resort to massive strikes as a weapon of self-defense.
The weakening of the regime has found a tempestuous and chaotic echo in the countryside. The collective farm peasants, who suffer from the widening gap between prices for manufactured and agricultural goods and from the end of state aid to the village, are refusing to sell their products to the government at fixed prices, thereby threatening to subject the cities to a hunger blockade.
Physicians, teachers and other layers of the intelligentsia, who are finding themselves being turned into the pariahs of society, are discovering ever greater degrees of unity in the struggle for their social interests.
A strike wave is embracing ever newer branches of workers and employees who are demanding significant increases in pay and threatening, if the government rejects their demands, to “bottle things up,” to paralyze whole spheres of economic and social life (coal mining, city transport, railways, airlines, education, health care, and so forth). Not infrequently, these strike activities are coordinated on a nationwide scale.
Experience of the last months has shown that classes and class struggle have been abrogated neither by the widely propagandized pseudo-theoretical arguments about the “de-ideologization” of economic and all other social relations, nor by the recently adopted legislative acts in Russia introducing legal sanctions for “advocating social dissension.”
It seems that the initiators of the ideology of “market reforms” had themselves begun to believe in the myth they had created about how “out of date” the class struggle was. However in practice they were continuously forced to confront the class struggle which is developing out of the furious competition between social interests under conditions of a collapsing economy.
Because of these circumstances the Yeltsin-Gaidar government will always fluctuate between carrying out the demands dictated from abroad (reducing the budget deficit and government expenditures on social programs) and the demands of workers who are putting pressure on wage levels in order to defend themselves from irrepressible rises in the cost of living.
Of course, if the government were stronger and less dependent on other state structures (such as parliament, the State Bank, etc.), it would decide in favor of improving “macroeconomic” indicators, without worrying about the social and human costs of this choice.
However, the strikes and other forms of the class struggle force it to continuously violate its “macroeconomic” program by using the only material means at its disposal: speeding up the work of the printing presses, releasing an enormous sum of new paper money onto the market.
An authoritarian, but weak, political power must make economic concessions to pressure groups. The scale of these concessions, as a rule, is directly proportional to the power and organization of these groups. Thus, after the wave of strikes in winter 1991/1992, the wages of the miners were raised by a factor of ten through administrative decree, while the wages of teachers and doctors were raised by less than a factor of two.
The same laws apply to different regions of the country. For instance, in Kuzbass, where there was a high level of strike activity among all professions this winter, the wages are now two to three times higher than the corresponding average wages nationwide.
The administrative raising of wages, pensions, benefits, and so forth, despite the urgency of these measures, will lead to a further increase in the state budget deficit and to the new growth of retail prices, which, in its turn, will provoke a new spiral of social demands by the workers.
Naturally, the main question which concerns everyone who worries about Russia’s future is: “What will happen next?” In answer to this question, we will try to outline two possible scenarios for the further development of the crisis in today’s society.
The first scenario assumes that the atomization of the workers, who are now predominantly engaged in the difficult everyday struggle to survive, is replaced by their unification in a powerful social and political movement which acts against the transformation of Russia into a backward, semi-colonial country.
Such a unification of left forces on the basis of a program of the genuinely democratic and socialist renewal of society could have a powerful political effect without painful and bloody social upheavals. Let us recall that a few years ago, when political initiative was in the hands of the “democrats,” meetings of half a million in Moscow and Leningrad forced the partocracy to rescind the sixth article of the Constitution of the USSR, proclaiming the “leading role” of the Communist Party (or, to be more exact, of the party apparatus, which had long ago usurped the rights of its rank-and-file members), which signified a radical transformation of the political system.
After the “August revolution,” “the democrats” noisily celebrated their victory, but then soon went on the defensive. Rank-and-file communists, initially stunned by the series of presidential decrees banning the Communist Party, began to reforge their political structures and engage in a struggle for the renewal of their civil rights.
New left parties and movements came into being, fighting both against the return of bureaucratic rule and against the comprador bourgeoisie. The growth of these movements can be expected in the next few months, when hyperinflation will be accompanied by mass unemployment.
However, even in the case of extremely sharpened social and economic crises, the left movements might prove to be incapable of seizing the political initiative primarily because of their ideological disorganization, reflecting the difficulties surrounding the achievement of adequate social self-consciousness on the part of the workers.
In connection with this, it is not without interest to look for a moment at how public opinion evaluates the possible behavior of the population if there is a sharp worsening of its situation in the transition to the market. 11 In reply to the questions asked in a nationwide poll of4,000 people in 1991, 35 percent of the respondents answered that people will limit themselves to passive dissatisfaction (“they will express their protest in discussions among themselves”); 11 percent declared that people will confine themselves to expressing their protest to the press or to governing bodies.
About half considered that a likely reaction would take the form of organized political protest (“people will protest at meetings or demonstrations”—26 percent; “they will organize strikes”—20 percent).
Thirty-six percent were inclined to believe that social protest will take spontaneous, anarchic, and destructive forms (“massive disorder, and rebellions will begin”).
In another mass opinion poll taken at the very beginning of the “price liberalization” (January 1992), the question was asked: “What do you propose to do if prices are raised?” Forty-eight percent of the respondents answered: “Find additional income” (i.e., wage an individual struggle for survival by means of extending one’s labor), 22 percent—”tighten my belt” (a passive/adaptive reaction, bound up with limiting oneself even in the satisfaction of primary needs), 9 percent—”participate in protest actions” (organized forms of class struggle), and 5 percent—”smash up and destroy everything” (the destructive reaction of lumpen layers).
Today’s limitation of the forms of class struggle to the advancing of urgent economic demands is determined most of all by the weakness and fragmentation of the left-wing social and political movements. A new, mature interest in party politics has yet to develop in society.
Like the “democratic” movements, the social movements of a socialist orientation are suffering through a period of ideological and organizational disorder and vacillation. Their sterile and often scholastic or sectarian disputes with each other are combined with rotten compromises and blocs with reactionary elements, from Stalinists and chauvinists (“national patriots,” and sometimes even monarchists) to obvious political adventurists of the Zhirinovsky type.
Until such sectarian isolation and unprincipled “consolidation” are overcome, there still remains the possibility that events will develop according to a second scenario described below. This scenario is partially already being realized in Russia and in other republics of the former Soviet Union.
Times of severe social crises have their own historical forms of everyday life, since people must worry as before about satisfying their ordinary requirements for subsistence. During crisis-ridden epochs, the search for the means to satisfy these requirements runs into ever more tangible barriers; the suffering and misfortunes of the masses become much sharper than they usually are, and the path to a career and to enrichment becomes the province of only a select few.
In the absence of strong socio-political movements which are capable of presenting a solution to the crisis in a program that is understandable and close to the masses and of uniting them in struggle against the injustices of the social order, society witnesses the growth of massive social apathy, the retreat of people into private life, and their lack of faith in any politics.
The atomized population, alienated from taking part in resolving social matters, once again falls under the heel of the unrestrained bureaucracy for whom hypocrisy and the camouflaging of their parasitic essence with phrases about the social necessity of “competent” authorities serves as a life impulse and means of self-preservation.
The resolution of ever increasing social problems nevertheless cannot be avoided, but the path to this resolution might well pass through a spell of “reverse,” retrogressive movements, the collapse of economic life, and the profound disintegration and destabilization of society.
If the economic crisis and social decay proceed much further and if, as before, there are no political movements capable of arousing the masses to independent social activity, then the disunity of the workers will lead to the massive unleashing of egotistical, mercenary appetites and to the domination of elemental private interests. The worst elements of society will rise to the surface of social life.
Instead of uniting the masses in the struggle against the major and minor parasites, millions of people will be drawn into thieving and speculation. The destruction of the unity of social will, which is capable of healing society, gives rise to senseless mutual savagery.
Room opens up for the distortion of freedom and democracy by their ugly double, demagogy, which impedes the release of people’s bottled up social energy and inflates the darkest and most ingrained prejudices.
The predominant traits of social morality become cruelty and boorishness and society’s intellectual life becomes dominated by a rejection of culture and by retrograde ideological inclinations.
The lost historical possibilities have a negative effect on mass social energies. Despair over unfulfilled promises and unrealized hopes, the lack of the signs or symptoms of a change for the better accumulate among the masses in the form of explosives, the forces of “radical evil” (Kant) in human nature are unleashed.
Adventurists and demagogues take center stage in political life. The cliques which they lead in the struggle for power draw the masses into the orbit of their influence and they transform the people into a mob capable of trampling on the elementary conditions of human existence. People are seized by bouts of pointless malice, which turns into a rebellion of aggressive instincts against all moral prohibitions.
Under these conditions, the last resource of reactionary forces becomes the redirection of the social discontent of the masses outward, the inflammation of feelings of distrust, ignorant hostility and hatred toward other peoples.
In order to prevent the workers from consolidating in left social movements, these forces try to achieve a shift in social identification away from class and party to national identification. The vacuum in social self-consciousness is filled with distorted patriotic values, with the division of people into “us” and “them,” depending on which nationality one belongs to.
As the historical experience of the twentieth century has shown, processes of this type in crisis-ridden epochs, under conditions of the splintering and mutual weakening of left socio-political movements, can gather strength with amazing speed. Thus, after Hitler came to power, a shift took place in the consciousness of millions of Germans who had identified with the working class, with communists and social democrats, toward identifying with the “master race.” This process was one of the decisive factors in solidifying the fascist, totalitarian regime, which dragged the German people into the abyss.
In a multinational state such as the USSR, a similar shift in social identification encourages the transfer of social energy of whole peoples into channels of senseless national wars, which have already led to the deaths of tens of thousands of people. Such wars need a mass base and, to achieve this, there is a ceaseless whipping up of pseudopatriotic hysteria and nationalistic fanaticism.
The fracturing of people along national and religious lines gives birth to social movements which are traditionally called radical right-wing movements in the West. In Russia, they are the Black Hundred movements.
The activation of such forces, who are frequently led by unbridled fanatics and criminal elements, is especially dangerous in a country filled with atomic weapons and nuclear electropower stations.
The question about how the future development of events in this scenario will affect the fate of other countries, including those who celebrate the destruction of the “communist empire,” lies beyond the scope of this paper.
The political forces who are striving to restore capitalist relations cannot get by without social camouflage. This explains, in particular, the “inversion” of terminology used throughout the world to characterize social and political movements. It is well known that those who favor greater social equality in society are considered to be “left-wing,” and those who protect and defend social inequality are called “right-wing.” In the modern-day “democratic” Russian press, however, these concepts are used in exactly the opposite way. In this paper I use the corresponding terms in their traditional sense and meaning.
My book Was There an Alternative ? sheds light on the struggle of opposition communist movements against Stalinism. It is based on formerly unattainable research material in Soviet archives, on the memoirs of participants in the political life of those years and on many other historical sources. The first volume of this study (Was There an Alternative? Trotskyism: A Look Back Through the Years [M., Terra]) was published in Moscow in 1992. The second volume, Power and Opposition, will be published shortly.
By “upper-level intelligentsia,” I mean the most qualified layer of specialists in the economy and culture. This layer, dissolved in official statistics under the category of “employees” or “white collar workers,” is partially intertwined with the ruling bureaucracy (the bureaucracy directing the economy, the scientific bureaucracy, the bureaucracy of creative [artistic/cultural] unions, etc.).
I have analyzed these processes in detail in a number of monographs devoted to social policy, the last of which was written together with K.I. Mikulsky and S.S. Shatalin and published in 1987.
This raising of prices was, in my opinion, one of the main reasons for the relative ease in carrying out the bureaucratic “palace coup”—the overthrow of Khrushchev in 1964—which encountered no serious popular dissatisfaction.
In this extremely sharp social problem, a certain degree of caution was characteristic even for Stalin, who held the living standards of the overwhelming majority of the population at the edge of an “iron minimum.” In the extremely difficult economic conditions of the first five-year plan (1928-1932), Stalin made the choice between hyperinflation and the introduction of a ration card system in favor of the latter, which guaranteed that workers would obtain a definite minimum of items of consumption at low, rationed prices.
Dissidence during the period from the 1960s to the 1980s was a relatively narrow political movement which did not enjoy a mass social base.
The cooperatives of a new type, which arose after the adoption in 1987 of the Law on Cooperation, had nothing in common with the characteristics of the cooperative movement acknowledged throughout the world. They were the first legal form of the private enterprise structures which had also been granted the right to freely enter the world market.
How quickly monetary intervention leads to the devaluation of the ruble is shown by the fall of its exchange rate vis-a-vis the dollar by a factor of two in a two-month period in 1992.
The political shortsightedness of the government is shown by the way it has deprived itself of the social support from those layers which not long ago were particularly active supporters of “market relations.” This applies first and foremost to the most qualified layers of the intelligentsia who, for the first time in Russia’s history, have been thrown into the ranks of the most frustrated social groups. Scholars are forced to live on poverty-level wages which are much lower than the average wage nationwide. Writers must be satisfied with honoraria which are just as meager.
The Damoclean sword of unemployment hangs over the heads of the majority of journalists, insofar as the publishing houses are finding it more and more difficult to put out books and journals under present-day “market relations.” Actors, musicians and other cultural figures are in no better shape. The only exception is a small segment of the scientific and artistic intelligentsia who have become businessmen, placing themselves in the direct service of capitalist or governmental structures, or who have managed to find ways of fattening themselves up on money from abroad.
A significant section of the upper-level intelligentsia wants to emigrate. It is worth noting that almost none of the “dissidents” of the seventies and eighties who found themselves abroad for political reasons have returned to Russia even after the “August events.”
The second edition of Russian capitalism cannot be a simple continuation of prerevolutionary capitalism.
Insofar as world finance capital has become immeasurably more powerful and the world immeasurably more closely interlinked, Russian capitalism can only assume the characteristics of colonial-enslaved capitalism.
Even if more effective economic regulators and shock-absorbers are found than exist today (for instance, if the commanding heights of the Russian economy are seized by foreign capital), the halting of the economic decline and socio-political stability will not be achieved, because the greatly exacerbated social antagonisms will develop their own logic, without waiting for the fall of the productive forces to end.
During the poll, the respondents were given a choice between several variants of the opinions offered; the sum, therefore, of the answers exceeds 100 percent.
A reflection of these processes in social psychology is the change of people’s social feelings which is clearly discernible in public opinion. In a nationwide poll of 4,600 people conducted in 1991 by the Center for the Study of Public Opinion, the respondents were asked to sum up their observations about “what feelings were seen among people close to you during the last year?” (Since several proposed options could be chosen in reply, their total sum exceeds 100 percent.)
Among the positive feelings, first place was taken by the “personal” feeling of hope, 12 percent. Such social feelings as pride in one’s people, responsibility for what is taking place in one’s country, freedom from lying, the feeling of personal dignity, and certainty about tomorrow were named in 5-7 percent of the replies.
Significantly, they more frequently named various types of phobias and other emotional moods which have a negative effect on people, often leading to depression (exhaustion, indifference, 39 percent; fear, 32 percent; dismay, 23 percent; despair, 24 percent; feeling insulted, 16 percent). More than half of the respondents named destructive social feelings which threaten social stability and the integration of society (cruelty, aggressiveness, 42 percent; the feeling that everything is allowed, 16 percent).
Taken as a whole, we have the psychological portrait of a sick, demoralized society, developing aggressive instincts in one part of the population and plunging the other part into an emotional state of depression.