Globalization and Post-Soviet Russia

Dar Zhutayev

Keynote speech delivered at the Communities Confronting Capitalist Globalization Conference, University of California at Santa Barbara, April 15, 2000

1. Globalization What?

Clobalization is an extremely controversial notion, widely used both in academic and nonacademic discourse, up to and including speeches by the UN Secretary General and Zapatista texts. It describes a series of recent interrelated processes on a world scale that began in the economic sphere but immediately transformed every other aspect of social existence, including the political and the cultural. There is a multitude of conflicting definitions of, and approaches to, globalization, reflecting their authors’ different outlooks. As there are many conflicting definitions, so there is a very broad range of attitudes towards globalization.

In this presentation I will work from a definition of globalization as the recent dramatic (and qualitative) increase in the scale of world trade and other processes of international exchange, such as currency flows, capitals movements, exchange of technologies and information, movements of people — all this in the context of the world economy becoming more and more integrated and the borders and sovereignty of nation-states becoming more and more ephemeral. Globalization is a phenomenon qualitatively different from traditional international trade in goods and services. This is, I believe, the more or less traditional definition of globalization, accepted by bourgeois scholars, such as, for example, Michael D. Intrilligator, professor of the University of California at Los Angeles.

From an ex-Soviet perspective, it is extremely important that one of the key factors that helped globalization spring into being, besides the revolution in information technologies, international agreements liberalizing world trade etc., was the collapse of the so-called “Socialist camp”, i.e. the USSR and its satellites. The same Professor Intrilligator cites “achievement of global consensus in attitudes towards market economy and the system of free trade” — i.e. the adoption of Western-style capitalism as the model by practically all the countries in the world — as one of the most important causes of globalization. This does not mean, as we shall see in a moment, that the system of “real socialism”, when it existed, presented any sort of real alternative to modern capitalism and imperialism; this only means that it was a rival power to the u.$.-dominated imperialist world, maybe no less keen on promoting globalization, but a globalization on its own terms. The “Socialist camp” would not fit into the patterns of integration going on in the traditional capitalist, West-dominated, world; for globalization in the modern sense of the word to start happening, this camp had to go. So 1991 marks not only the beginning of Russia and other ex-“Socialist” countries being affected by globalization — in my belief, it also marks the beginning of (and the partial cause of) globalization itself.

Some important things must be pointed out about globalization. The world being dominated by Western imperialism, primarily Amerikan imperialism, the integration of economic, social, political, cultural processes in the various countries is happening on Western imperialism’s terms, globalization effectively means the adoption — sometimes voluntary, in many cases involuntary — of the models of Western capitalism by all other countries plus the restructuring of the world market and of the political conjuncture on the world arena in the interests of Western capital. In other words, globalization as we see it happening equals capitalization equals Westernization equals Amerikanization. It is a process with a pronounced center (the u.$.) and several concentric peripheral circles, including the European countries and Japan (often complaining of the political and cultural effects of globalization), the “Second World” semi-imperialist countries (the ex-USSR and satellites plus some others) and the Third World.

Second, despite sweeping statements both from advocates of the status quo and many would-be “anti-imperialists”, the progressive or otherwise role (or roles) of globalization is an extremely complicated matter. As a process taking place according to rules established in several most developed imperialist countries and in the latter’s interests, with the Third World being on the receiving end, it is a reactionary process, increasing and Amerika’s and the West’s domination of the rest of the world — basically, a new and more sophisticated incarnation of neocolonialism. The Zapatista leader, subcomandante Marcos, has called globalization the “The Fourth World War” (the Third one, according to him, was the Cold War, won by the West). Its effect on the Third World countries is almost entirely destructive — for their economies, their ecology, the standard of living of their people, their political sovereignty, their distinctive cultures. A very eloquent example is that of various international “free-trade” agreements, such as the Agreement on Agriculture (AOA), WTO and earlier GATT, forcing Third World countries to remove protective tariffs against Amerikan foodstuffs, primarily grain, and compelling them to reorient their agriculture towards growing and increasing amount of specialty cash crops, to be sold in the First World, instead of food for their own people. Both mainstream politicians and guerrillas waging armed struggle in the Third World who put forward anti-globalization slogans are entirely right.

Things, however, are not as simple as that. Not all protests against globalization voiced in the second and especially in the First World are genuine anti-imperialist ones. Many are tinged with reactionary nationalism, chauvinism and fascism. Take the Seattle anti-WTO marches last December, with slogans “People First, Not China First”, or much of the anti-NATO and anti-Western craze in Russia during the Kosovo bombings. Globalization has certainly some positive concomitant effects, like the facilitation of the spread of information, including dissident information — a popular slogan among leftists in Russia now is “The Web is a weapon of the proletariat”, etc. As a semi-imperialist country, belonging neither to the “chosen few” of the “developed” Western nations nor to the exploited Third World, a country with a unique history and a pattern of social contradictions not to be found anywhere else in the world, Russia may prove especially fruitful for investigating the evils and goods of globalization from an anti-imperialist point of view.

2. Yeltsin’s Russia (1991-1999): Restoration of Western-Style Capitalism in the Context of Globalization

2.1. 1991: No Restoration of Capitalism in the Strict Sense of the Word

Two important points should be made, about which misconceptions are common both inside Russia and in the West. The first one may be trivial, but is still of tremendous importance. The society supplanted by the Russia of Boris Yeltsin and by the other newly independent states of the former Soviet Union was by no standards a socialist one. The rift in 1991 was not between two, using Marxist terminology, “socio-economic formations” (socialism and capitalism); though certainly reactionary, it was not a counter-revolution in the strict sense of the word. Rather, it was a series of very far-reaching and deep-going structural changes within a definite type of society, touching upon its every sphere: the economy, the class relations, the sphere of social values, the culture, the ecology, the national question, gender issues, etc., radically transforming them all and eventually creating an entirely different social framework — without, however, changing the nature of the society. The situation around 1991 was certainly not what Louis Althusser termed a “ruptural unity”. Historical parallels where the face of a society is radically transformed and where tremendous changes take place for the good or for the evil of the people, without affecting the society’s fundamental class nature, might include Hitler’s Germany — certainly a far cry from the bourgeois-democratic Weimar Republic, but essentially still a modern Western capitalist society — and Iran after the Islamic revolution.

The exact nature of the post-Stalin and pre-perestroika Soviet Union is a subject of controversy, both in academic circles and among various Leftist political trends. Basically, it boils down to the question whether the Brezhnevite empire may be classed as a capitalist country (with or without qualifications) or if it represents a new, special type of society, non-socialist and non-capitalist. The latter point of view is upheld, for example, by the modern Russian post-Marxist scholar Alexander Tarasov, maintaining that “real socialism” was a separate socio-economic system which he terms “super-etatism”, a system coexisting with capitalism with the framework of one and the same mode of production, the industrial one. From a somewhat different — and paradoxical — angle, philosopher Alexander Zinovyev says that the Brezhnevite society, the actual Soviet society of the 60s and 70s, represented nothing less than… communism, “communism as a reality”, as he called it, a very coherent, self-contained and self-sufficient type of socio-political structure. There can be no other communism than this, Zinovyev claims. He gives a very accurate and scathing sociological description of Soviet “communism” in an 80s book called Communism as a Reality. Zinovyev denies the reality and viability of communism and socialism in the traditional Marxist sense of the word and the general context of his work leaves one in no doubt that he used the term “communism” as a — somewhat ironic — label for what he thought was a society fundamentally different from capitalism, but hardly less repressive and reactionary.

For my own part, however, I agree with the definition of the post-Stalin Soviet Union as a genuine capitalist society. There is a tremendous amount of literature upholding that viewpoint, both academic and nonacademic, and this is also the official viewpoint of a trend that I hold to be the most advanced development of Marxism to date — Marxism-Leninism-Maoism. Arguing in favor of this point of view is quite outside the scope of this presentation, so I will confine myself to saying that this was capitalism of a special kind: a state capitalist society and a social-imperialist power. State capitalist, as the State, being the private property of the Party nomenklatura and virtually uncontrolled by the masses, constituted the joint capitalist (although private enterprise, in the form of “shadow”, criminal capital, did play a substantial part too), exploiting the working masses. Social-imperialist, socialist in words and imperialist in deed, as the Empire used the rhetoric of Marxism, socialism, struggle for peace and support of the oppressed peoples’ liberation struggle, on the one hand, but struggled with u.$. imperialism for world domination accepting the usual imperialist rules of the game, maintained a plethora of satellite and dependent states and from time to time resorted to armed aggression to subjugate nations within its orbit striving to achieve national independence (Czechoslovakia, 1968) or even to curb genuine revolutionary struggles (Afganistan, 1979, where one of the principal enemies of the Soviet aggressors was a revolutionary Maoist party, the Afganistan Liberation Organisation).

Capitalist and imperialist of a special kind, with qualifications — but nevertheless precisely that. As early as 1964, Mao Zedong said: “The Soviet Union today is a dictatorship of the grand bourgeoisie, and a Hitlerite dictatorship. They are a bunch of rascals worse than De Gaulle”. In the early 70s, deciding which of the two imperialist superpowers was the more dangerous for world Socialism, Mao stated that the principal enemy was the USSR.

There was no need to restore capitalism in 1991 — that had already been accomplished in the mid-1950s. An Indian historian of the Soviet Union, Vijay Singh, has shown in a number of papers how the socialist (or nascent socialist) framework of society began to be systematically dismantled immediately after the death of Stalin — beginning with the economic sphere. The process was furthered by the Alexei Kosygin economic reform of 1965. There was no socialism to renounce. Therefore we cannot define the events of 1991 and after as “restoration of capitalism, period”. What happened was the adoption of a new model of capitalism. Since this new model heavily relied on Western patterns — including the establishment of private property in the classic sense of the word, free enterprise, bourgeois representative democracy (of sorts) — and this process was endorsed and aided by the West, we may call it the “restoration” or maybe “establishment of Western-style capitalism”.

There is much continuity between Brezhnevism and post-Soviet Russian capitalism — a fact that is becoming especially evident today, as well be seen later in the paper.

2.2. Post-Soviet Russia a Direct Product of Soviet Contradictions. Pre-History and Early History.

Another misconception current both in Russia and among ill-informed sympathizers of Russia is that the collapse of the Soviet Union had been engineered by the West, that the Soviet bloc suffered a defeat in the Cold War.  Certainly, the West had wished for such an outcome and had done everything in its power to achieve a victory over the Soviet Union — by nonmilitary means. Still, one cannot speak of a real defeat or a real victory here. The fall of the Soviet system and its replacement with a capitalist society of a new type — an event that both opened the door for large-scale Western penetration of the country and triggered the formation of the phenomenon of globalization as we know it today — was a direct consequence of the internal contradictions of the late Soviet Union that by the late 80s had entered a profound structural crisis.

The role played by the West in that process was not so much a direct one — diplomacy, subversive operations, agents of influence in the top echelons of power, propaganda of the “free market” and “democratic” values — as an indirect one. For decades, it had been the rival power — much the stronger one in terms of material, humyn and technological resources — and the logic of fierce competition with it to a large extent shaped the policies of the Soviet leadership, the priorities set for the country’s development, the very structure of society and of social contradictions. With Nikita Khrushchev, who co-opted and corrupted the Leninist idea of “peaceful coexistence’, the USSR had effectively accepted, in competing with the West, the rules of the game dictated by the latter.

Let us see how this is all reflected in the causes of the crisis of the Soviet Union. The armaments race, begun in the 50s, was sucking the country dry. According to varying estimates, 25 to 50 per cent of the GDP was spent on national defense. Much of the industry more or less belonged to the military-industrial complex: vast, hi-tech, enterprises totally incapable of surviving within a changed economic context. Nowadays these factories have to a large extent switched to producing low-tech consumer products (such as buckets or alarm clocks), with their workers going without salaries for years. This also resulted in the state setting up a plethora of scientific institutions doing almost exclusively defense research and in a superabundance of scientists. In the early 1980s, the Soviet Union had the largest army of scientific researchers in the world — 11 million. They became a more or less privileged, or at least sheltered, group of the population, clearly considering themselves the elite and harboring technocratic illusions. It was this so-called “scientific-technical intelligentsia” that formed the mass backbone of the “democratic” (i.e. pro-Western, pro-free-market) opposition in the late eighties and was largely responsible for electing Boris Yeltsin and his “reformer” team to power. Today, much like the factories of the military-industrial complex, these physical and engineering institutes are on the verge of starvation. My wife, a young physicist working at one such institute, earns the equivalent of $35 per month.

Another consequence of competition with imperialism on imperialism’s own terms was the creation of the Soviet counterpart of a consumer society. In what came to be termed as “goulash Communism”, every adult was guaranteed (and even obliged to take) a job and received a salary covering h[er/his] basic subsistence needs — irrespective of how much s/he worked at all. In a book called Homo Soveticus, the above-mentioned philosopher, Alexander Zinovyev, describes the way he worked in the late 70s at a research institute. On workdays, his virtually only obligation was reporting to work in the morning, signing his name in a special register and the signing off after an appropriate interval. Naturally, he had two days off a week (the weekend) plus two other days called “library days”, on which he was supposed to be sitting in the library and did not have to come to his institute and sign the register. Which amounted to four days off a week! Still he was paid a normal salary and enjoyed a high prestige as an intellectual. The situation with industrial workers and the productivity of their labor was not much better. Practically, despite the Brezhnevite declarations that full employment had been reached in the country, there was a lot of hidden unemployment — the “hidden-unemployed” being paid full salaries!

Besides being a tremendous strain on the country’s resources economically, the phenomenon of “goulash Communism” was creating a sense of social parasitism in the population. This reflected especially heavily on the class consciousness of the Russian working class when it had to confront capitalism in its more traditional, Western-style, forms.

One of the most salient features of the social-imperialist system — once again, partly caused by the necessity to compete with the West on the West’s terms with inferior resources — was tight control of the population. The Brezhnevite society was a rigid hierarchy with the top Party apparatchiks at the summit. There was little social mobility. A persyn starting on a job was more or less expected to stay in the same social niche throughout his career. This reflected in the educational system, for example. Working-class children were largely expected to enter vocational schools and then become workers, like their parents. Children of white-collar workers or intellectuals normally went to college (“institute” in Russian) or university and continued as persyns of intellectual labor. Certain privileged jobs, like that of a diplomat, were accessible almost exclusively to children of ranking Party workers. Locked up in their fixed social positions, unable to change their vocation or destiny, the Soviet citizens were becoming increasingly frustrated and desperate.

One of the most powerful tools of control over the masses, the main repressive ideological mechanism of late Soviet society was its official pseudo-Marxist ideology. This system — on the one hand, thoroughly revisionist, having little in common with genuine Marxism except the terminology, full of talk about “humanism”, “peaceful coexistence”, the “developed Socialism” allegedly achieved in the USSR; and on the other, no less thoroughly ossified, dead, dull, cast into meaningless mantras to be unthinkingly repeated — was hammered home to every Soviet citizen by a huge and terribly expensive apparatus of “ideological workers”. All dissent and much of unofficial culture was relentlessly repressed. One should make a distinction here, however. Rightist dissidents, like Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Andrei Sakharov, Alexander Ginzburg and other famous public figures of the 60s — 70s, enjoyed strong support from the West, both materially and in terms of media publicity, and, in order to appease world “public opinion”, the USSR authorities were treating them comparatively leniently. Leftist dissident of various hues had no such foreign support and, probably because the pseudo-Leftist regime sensed it was more dangerous, was suppressed much more ruthlessly. Examples would be veteran libertarian socialist Pyotr Abovin-Yegides; the Fetisov group in the late 60s, vehemently Stalinist and taking the side of Peking in the Sino-Soviet debate; the Neo-Communist Party of the USSR in the late 70s. The stranglehold of the official ideology on the masses was breeding cynicism, distrust of all politics, especially Leftist.

The one exercising this control was the Party nomenklatura elite — the owner of the means of production in all but name. As a group, the nomenklatura was increasingly in favor of becoming the owners of the means of production in name too — in favor, as modern Russian saying goes, of “exchanging power for property”. This process has been explained in detail by W.B. Bland in his book The Restoration of Capitalism in the Soviet Union.

Another major contradiction of the late Soviet era was the national question. The Center was treating many of the national republics as virtual colonies. This is especially true of the republics of Central Asia, like Uzbekistan, made to grow cotton to the detriment of virtually all other agricultural products — much in the same way the WTO now makes Third World countries grow cash crops instead of basic foodstuffs. The regime practiced state anti-Semitism, with official (unpublished) restrictive quotas of Jews to be enrolled at universities, given certain jobs, etc. As a result, many politically disoriented Jews embraced Zionism and came to look to Israel as their savior. The restoration of capitalism had brought back many of the old, pre-1917, national animosities which later culminated in the open violent conflicts between ethnic groups in the Gorbachev era.

By the mid-80s, all these contradictions were tearing the country apart. There were the legitimate democratic and libertarian aspirations of the broad popular masses, no longer wishing to live in a closed, corrupt and repressive society. There were the legitimate demands of the non-Russian nationalities for national sovereignty. There was the Party and government bureaucracy, especially its younger and/or more Westernized strata, yearning to become the legal owners of what they already controlled, to be Western-style capitalists. There was the criminal bourgeoisie, the black market barons, wishing to launder their swag and emerge as respectable businesspeople. Sociologically, there was the new generation of young people (ca. 30 in 1985) who could not find a place for themselves in the fixed social order and wanted change, the most vocal stratum of this generation being the “scientific-technical intelligentsia”. And … there certainly was the pressure from the West.

Mikhail Gorbachev’s leadership sensed the country was in trouble and launched reforms intended to save the social-imperialist system. However, the ruling group was unable to grasp the real reasons behind the crisis and the “reforms” turned out to be a series of haphazard measures only aggravating the situation. Initiated under the slogan of “More Socialism” (as if there had been any left!), the so-called “perestroika” (“restructuring”) was progressively drawing more and more on traditional Western recipes and models, opening the door for the massive economic, political and cultural penetration of the country by the West in the early 90s. In these conditions there arose the “democratic” opposition.

It is a fact little known in the West that there was actually a sizeable Leftist component in the opposition, campaigning for socialist democracy, although none of these forces had a deep enough understanding of the situation at that time to call for a revolutionary overthrow of the social-imperialist system that was gradually shedding the prefix “social”. This primarily refers to the Marxist Platform within the CPSU, launched in 1990 by Alexei Prigarin and Alexander Buzgalin. Supported by hundreds of thousands of CPSU members, the Platform denounced the Party bureaucracy and strongly came out in favor of worker’s self-government and control of the Party by the masses. Although marred by ideological vagueness and Social-Democratic illusions, the line of the Marxist Platform contained elements of what could be described as a proto-Maoist (or quasi-Maoist) approach: calling upon the rank and file Party members and the general masses to attack “capitalist-roaders” in top positions of the bureaucracy. There were some other Leftist components in the opposition, like Anarchist and Trotskyite groups.

However, the overwhelming majority of the opposition saw Western capitalist values as the only freedom and democracy possible. “Living like the rest of the civilized mankind” was the battle-cry of these forces, rallying round Boris Yeltsin. Two remarkable facts about the bourgeois-democratic opposition of the early 1990s are worth pointing out to a Western audience. First, the suprisinly small part played by the famous dissidents of the 60s — 70s, many of whom actually repented of their former pro-Western positions; the leading spirits behind the restoration of Western-style capitalism for the most part came from Party nomenklatura circles, beginning with Boris Yeltsin himself (formerly First Secretary of the Sverdlovsk Region Party Committee and Moscow State Party Committee, a candidate member of the CPSU Political Bureau) and many of his closest associates, like Anatoly Chubais or Yegor Gaidar. Second, the seemingly amazing fact that substantial portions of the working class became involved in the pro-“democracy” pro-capitalism movement and actively engaged in protest that was objectively against their own class interests. Thus, in 1990-91 the miners of Kemerovo Region in Siberia launched a powerful wave of pro-Yeltsin political strikes that contributed a lot to the triumph of the “democratic” and “free-market” forces.

Apart from the vague slogans of “democracy” and “free-market”, there was little unity among these forces as they emerged victorious in August, 1991. The early history of post-Soviet Russia (up to the shelling of Parliament in October, 1993) is largely a history of the demarcation of class interests and the emergence of distinctive political forces representing the interests of different class groups. By 1993, the three major players in the game were as follows.

First, the pro-Western, or comprador, bourgeoisie. Economically, much of the domestic manufacturing industry of the Soviet era had become largely irrelevant. The mainstays of post-Soviet Russia’s economy became deliveries of raw materials to the West: natural gas, crude oil, electrical power, metals. There arose huge monopolies, each controlling — Gaprom (gas), RAO UESR (electrical power), several large oil companies (such as Lukoil, Sibneft or Yukos), Sibirsky Aluminy (aluminium), etc.