Home > News from Abroad > “…or systems into ruins hurl’d…”

“…or systems into ruins hurl’d…”

Tsarist GuardsThough it has been some time since new Russian President, Dmitri Medvedev, was sworn into office, I am only now glancing over some of the pictures of the pomp and circumstance with which the event was staged. I must confess to seeing some bitter ironies in certain elements of the proceedings, which are pictured on the right.

I have read Leon Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution and its evocation of the period in Russia during World War One and immediately prior to the revolutions of 1917. It is a profound work which rails against the corruption and autocracy of the government, the connivance of the established church and the utter hypocrisy of the ‘pro-democracy’ liberal party. How fitting that, sixteen years after the Soviet Union ceased to exist, the Russian state should find itself almost back where it started all those many years ago.Pomp

The guards in Tsarist-era uniform bearing the trappings of power along with the Constitution, kissing an icon held by two Orthodox priests and all of it in the palatial surroundings of the Kremlin Palace and Assumption Cathedral. The only way things could possibly get more symbolic would be if they decided to stage all these events in Tsar Nicholas’ Winter Palace in St. Petersburg. Yet even then, the completeness of Capital’s victory would reveal itself by the very fact that the Tsar was not present!

Modern Russia even has its own Black Hundreds and a new Komsomol besides. The worst of both worlds. Though absolute poverty is declining (down to 15% from 30%), wealth disparity is widening. Of course laissez faire economists would tell us that this is a function of the system and that we shouldn’t mind it since ultimately their rational investments will allow for a more efficient allocation of resources and risk. IconThe rest of us know that however small the figure in absolute poverty reaches, it never zeroes.

While the Khodorkovskys, Berezovskys and the Abramovichs wax wealthy from their ill-gotten gains, Russia’s GDP only managed to reach 1990 levels in 2006. The state represses freedoms of expression and its police force openly discriminates against homosexuals, up to and including physically attacking Gay Pride marchers.

Meanwhile the corporations most synonymous with de-industrialization in the west move into to capitalize upon workers who they can pay 3 Euros per hour, such as General Motors. In order to increase wages, hunger strikes aren’t uncommon, but unemployment and under-employment are rife. The bureaucratic class of the Soviet Union has fully realised its earlier ambitions of marketisation of the economy and has made the transition to become a senior part of Russian capitalism.

Of the gains of the October Revolution, perhaps only free education and free health care remain, enshrined by the Constitution of the Russian Federation, but one wonders for how long each of these will remain independent of the ‘free’ market? Or perhaps their pride of place in the new Great Russian nationalism, sustained by the vast mineral resources of the country, is the ultimate mockery of an ideal which compelled a people to take government into their own hands for however short a time.

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  1. Pete
    May 28, 2008 at 5:59 pm

    I don’t want to sound trite, but doesn’t it make you wish that the October Revolution had never happened? Or that it had put into power a western style capitalist government? Maybe then Russia would not be in such a miserable position (even discounting the absence from history of gulags and Soviet repression, etc).

    I don’t deny that Soviet ‘communism’ was a distortion of Marx’s teachings. But it seems to be what happens when fallible humans are put in charge of them. A lot of support for Communism has been lost not because of lack of sympathy for its goals, but because people have seen what happens when people try to put it into effect. Russia and other communist countries have become chilling warnings of why it does not work in practice.

    Progress has slowly and surely been made within the capitalist system, with no real hope of a sustainably benevolent communist one. Would it not be better for all if no-one had attempted to create Marxist states?

  2. May 28, 2008 at 6:03 pm

    Er, you misunderstand the alternatives Peter. The choice was not between the October Revolution and some gradualist vision of western-style capitalism. The choice was between the October Revolution and Kornilov, or the October Revolution and Kornilov and some form of peasant war such as occurred during the upheavals in China. Personally I’d take my chances with the October Revolution.

    Incidentally, though I expect it from a liberal such as yourself, you are correct when you call ‘trite’ any response advocating individual fallibility as the reason for the failure of the October Revolution.

  3. May 28, 2008 at 6:14 pm

    I have to agree with Dave.

    Had there not been a Bolshevik Revolution in October 1917, there would have been something, and I don’t know if it would have better.

    Realistically, the Provisional Government had no effective means of controlling the country. Had they managed to stay in power, had there been in October, I don’t know if there would be a Russia anymore. It was simply a monstrosity of an Empire, and without peasant support, which they did not have, I don’t know how the Provisional Government, or any other government, could have maintained the integrity of the Russian Empire in light of the huge peasant unrest.

    A lot of peasant Russia in 1917 didn’t look that different than Russian in 1417. I’d hate to think how they could fall even *further* back.

  4. Pete
    May 28, 2008 at 6:32 pm

    “Personally I’d take my chances with the October Revolution.”

    They’d have to be pretty damn awful alternatives to be better that the long, long term pain and damage caused by the October Revolution.

    “Incidentally, though I expect it from a liberal such as yourself, you are correct when you call ‘trite’ any response advocating individual fallibility as the reason for the failure of the October Revolution.”

    Are you denying the overwhelming corruption of the ruling class (the ones who purported to be implementing Marxism)? What would you blame the failure on?

  5. Pete
    May 28, 2008 at 6:34 pm

    “It was simply a monstrosity of an Empire, and without peasant support, which they did not have, I don’t know how the Provisional Government, or any other government, could have maintained the integrity of the Russian Empire in light of the huge peasant unrest.”

    It sounds like a far better response then would be to allow the empire to fall apart into self-governing regions…

  6. May 28, 2008 at 6:42 pm

    Peter, I don’t know how much Russian, or indeed general revolutionary, history you are familiar with but the level of counterfactualism being levelled here is quite appalling. Are you suggesting that allowing Kornilov to take power, or one of his cohorts like Denikin, would have been better than the October overthrow of the provisional government? Really?

    And as for the corruption jibe, what ‘ruling class’ are we talking about? The ones who lived on shoelaces and string, with several dozen families occupying rooms in the Kremlin previously only owned by the Czar? There’s no denying that there was corruption – Stalin achieved his power through corruption. But unless you are adducing corruption, human nature or power as transhistorical phenomena, which they aren’t, then you should really be looking for the cause of the corruption.

  7. May 28, 2008 at 6:50 pm

    I don’t know that letting Russian devolve into different regions would have been any better. It just would have Tsarist Russia ruled by dozens of Strongman or would-be Tsar.

    Peasant life in 1917 wasn’t much different than peasant life in 1417. The biggest difference was probably cigarette lighters and then railroads, in that order, for the average peasant. While Russia had the most concentrated area of an urban proletariat in the world, in the St. Petersburg, Moscow areas and a few other areas, the overwhelming majority of Russia remained peasant. I don’t know how or on what basis subdivisions filled mostly with poor peasants would Russia would be governed, but I don’t think it would have been good.

  8. Pete
    May 28, 2008 at 7:01 pm

    My knowledge of Russian history is indeed very rusty, so allow me to take this as a learning experience. Let me reduce my claim to the following: It is a tragedy of Russian history that it has taken so long to transition towards becoming a western democracy, and went down the lamentable Soviet route. Its options were not great, and this contributed to this tragedy.

    Yes, the ceremony sounds sickening. But Russia is crawling out from the rubble of an odious regime, so perhaps some leeway is necessary? The return to ‘traditional’ Russian icons is lamentable, but understandable in light of the justified anger over Soviet actions.

    As for corruption, let me put it like this: There have been a number of Communist regimes which have lasted a decent time (long enough to outlive the original flourish of enthusiasm). How many of them have not succumbed to a ghoulish level of corruption? I’m certainly not saying that capitalist societies avoid corruption, but it is at least tempered by checks and balances and limits on powers (even though these can on occasion fail).

  9. May 28, 2008 at 7:40 pm

    There have been zero communist regimes. Neither Lenin nor Trotsky believed that the RSFSR was communist…they believed it fitted into the Marxist phase known as the dictatorship of the proletariat. That it didn’t transition to the next phase is a political problem, not a moral problem. That political problem has less to do with human agency (though not nothing) than it does to do with greater objective failures.

    To give an example, Mao’s regime was built not of communist theories, but on their corpse. The Stalinist intervention in subordinating the genuinely proletarian communist movement in China served to emasculate it, allowing Chiang Kai Shek to kill it. The result was that instead of a proletarian revolution, there was a peasant revolution. That’s the sort of thing you’d have seen in Russia if you killed the October Revolution.

    Anyway, what do you make of the thesis that Russia today bears many of the hallmarks of fascism and what we’re praising is the same sort of thing as people praised Mussolini for?

  10. Pete
    May 28, 2008 at 8:34 pm

    “There have been zero communist regimes.”

    Despite many, many attempts. All, as you say, great failures. Fine, substitute Marxist for Communist.

    “Anyway, what do you make of the thesis that Russia today bears many of the hallmarks of fascism and what we’re praising is the same sort of thing as people praised Mussolini for?”

    I’d say that’s a good arguments for getting some hard and fast controls on government, and quick. And for the rest of the world thinking twice before cosying up to it. But then, I haven’t heard any arguments for the thesis. Conservatism doesn’t necessarily lead to fascism…

  11. May 28, 2008 at 8:39 pm

    My previous reply still stands, to the first part of your question.

    As for modern Russia…

    What do you define as fascism? People parading around as part of a disciplined youth movement and beating up opponents? They’ve got that. Government control of the media? They’ve got that. Corporatism. Check. What else shall we add to the traditional characteristics of a Fascist state? I imagine most of it can be found amidst the grandeur of the noveau riche and the wreckage of the working class in Russia.

  12. May 30, 2008 at 1:29 am

    Peter, it sounds as if your knowledge of recent Russian history is very rusty indeed. As for “western democracy” in the UK in 1917 there wasn’t full universal suffrage as women were not permitted to vote.

    Interestingly, the only real opposition party in Russia today is the Communist Party…

  13. May 30, 2008 at 1:31 am

    Which, we should be clear, is a bunch of the Stalinist era bureaucrats and far from any sort of genuine alternative.

  14. May 31, 2008 at 3:24 am

    Though undoubtedly Stalinist, I doubt there are many from the Stalin era who have survived the collapse of Russia’s healthcare system in the 90s. My point was that there are a substantial number of people who vote for an anti-capitalist party, rather than the pro-capitalist parties that the US/UK/EU would like to consider the opposition.

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