Interview with Boris Kagarlitsky


In this second part of an interview with Steve Painter and Jim Percy, Soviet Socialist Party member Boris Kagarlitsky discusses the role of democratic issues and demands in Soviet politics today.

Jim Percy: How do you use the terms right and left in the Soviet Union at present? In the British Guardian recently, Jonathan Steele discussed this problem: if you are very strongly for the market or if you say you are for democracy, is this to be on the right or the left?

Then there's the question of international policy. Some of Yeltsin's supporters in the Russian parliament recently moved for the creation of a Russian army that would then send troops to the Gulf to support the United States forces. Meanwhile, some of the conservatives from the past, the old hardliners, have begun criticising Gorbachev's policy in the Gulf conflict.

Boris Kagarlitsky: The international question is rather easy to explain. If you take an example from the United States: some sections of the right in American history were traditionally isolationists and other sectors, also on the right, were internationalists in the sense that they wanted to intervene in European politics and conflicts. This difference had nothing to do with right and left.

In the USSR as well I would say there could be some isolationist forces on the left and some more internationalist forces on the left, and the same divisions on the right.

Trying to define right and left in terms of positions on the market and democracy can be very misleading.

Everybody would like to say they're in favour of democracy. The left is in favour of democracy, and the right-wing liberals are also in favour of democracy. At least that's what they say, though in fact we're very suspicious of such claims when we see the practices of liberals such as the mayor of Moscow, Gavril Popov, which are fairly undemocratic. Nevertheless, Popov always claims that he's a democrat.

Deliberate confusion

The same with the market. It's a question of economic rationality, not a question of ideology. Whether you have a socialist economy or a capitalist economy or even a traditional Soviet-style statist economy, in each case you will have a certain type of market.

I don't mean forever, but today if someone says they want to abolish the market, it's just not interesting to discuss with them. It's just impossible to abolish the market today in any rationally organised economy, whether it's socialist or not.

The real problem is: which kind of democracy, which kind of market, which kind of isolationism or internationalism?

The liberal propaganda in the Soviet Union deliberately confuses the issue by using the terms right and left in some very strange ways. The terms right and left are sometimes used by the same people in sometimes use the term left to characterise Thatcherite policies, but the same people sometimes speak of the Western left in very negative terms.

I think in some cases this is very consciously done. In Soviet terminology, the "left" has a positive meaning and "right" has a negative meaning. It's exactly the opposite in Poland, where everyone tries to avoid the term left.

In the Soviet Union, even extreme right groups call themselves liberal left. The old ideology is collapsing, the society is in confusion, so the terms are confused.

Some people would like to use the confusion in their favour. Others, like us in the Socialist Party, are trying to bring more clarity. This is not so difficult if you have access to the resources. You need access to the media, and that's the main problem. The real left is cut off from the media.

In this situation, it is of course possible to develop alliances at different levels. For example, we want democracy, so we unite with other democrats.

Here, by the way, is one of our main differences with the official liberals like Gavril Popov and Anatoly Savchak, the Leningrad mayor. They, in fact, don't want democracy. Such people always insist on some kind of strong executive powers, and sometimes they speak about the dangers of democracy. That was the title of an article that Gavril Popov published in the New York Review of Books.

Popov's article explained that democracy presented a danger to the process of introducing capitalism. He also published a very interesting article in Ogonyok, and later he republished it as a booklet. This article declared that free-market capitalism was necessary, which is just absurd in terms of modern capitalism. He also said that this must be introduced by the same means as Stalinist Communism was introduced because the society is not ready to produce it organically.


We are basically democrats, and that means that we have to protect democracy even when it doesn't function exactly as we would like it to function. We and a lot of the other deputies in the Moscow Soviet could tell a lot of funny stories about how it doesn't function. But to replace this imperfect democracy with a perfect dictatorship would be very wrong.

So we have to make alliances with everyone who is serious about protecting democracy, with everyone who is serious about making the procedures better and more democratic, more rational, including liberals and people who are actually conservative in the Western sense, people who may even be right-wingers but who are honest democrats.

Secondly, we make alliances with other left-wing groups or with groups and movements that are politically undecided, which don't have any identification with left or right. This is the case with the majority hat are emerging, such as the Union of Labour Collectives, or even some organisations of management such as the Union of Civil Enterprises, which could split later, but which has never thought in terms of left or right and which is mainly concerned with solving some immediate problems.

We need greater political and social clarity to get support from the parts of such movements that are objectively our social base, in whose interests we conduct our activities. Of course, cooperation among the left groups is important, but if we just bring together three or four small left-wing groups in a slightly bigger Socialist Party, that will not solve the main problems.

These problems will be solved only on the basis of broader social movements, and we are quite ready to compromise in the process of creating broader movements. We are ready also to compromise politically with particular groups, but our compromises will be with the social base, not with small groups.

Since the social base is not ready to accept our ideas, at least for now, we either have to modify the ideas or change the presentation and present them in a way that they are acceptable to public opinion, not general public opinion, but public opinion within our social base.

Communist Party

Jim Percy: Is there any hope that the new left will be strengthened by larger forces coming from the old political structures, the Communist Party or the old Komsomol? Are there forces that began by accepting the language of reform communism and that might now move further?

Boris Kagarlitsky: I'm sceptical about that. And here I think we have to make a bit of self-criticism. I think we had illusions about huge sectors of the official structures splitting and helping us to build new structures.

Now, I think, people in the old structures are mainly interested in commercial issues rather than in politics, or they stay in the old structures just because it's sometimes safer or easier. Some people find it easier or safer to be, for example, a member of the Communist Party Central Committee and not follow the party line and sometimes speak as an oppositionist within the party. The party has 12 million members. It sounds good, but it's completely ineffective politically.

The leftist in the Socialist Party probably has much more real influence than the leftist in the party Central Committee.

Jim Percy: If Gorbachev falls and someone like Yeltsin comes to power, mightn't it no longer be so attractive to be in the Communist Party? Is it likely then that the Communist Party might begin to break up as has happened in Eastern Europe?

And if that happens, do you think that anything better might emerge to fill the space left by the Communist Party? For instance, in Hungary there is a greatly reduced Socialist Workers Party that claims to be working towards a more democratic socialism. In Germany the Party of Democratic Socialism has inherited part of the space formerly occupied by the Communist Party, and it seems to have made some progress rn socialist party. It takes good positions on most of the important social issues and has stood up against the Gulf War hysteria.

Boris Kagarlitsky: The situation in the former German Democratic Republic is very specific. I don't expect any sort of post-Communist party to emerge in the USSR. It's more likely that the party will continue to disintegrate and most of the people will not join any new party but will try to avoid any politics at all.

The party's 12 million members are only members on paper. The political people among them probably would not number more than a few thousand.

Currents that developed in the party milieu, such as the United Workers' Front, are disintegrating very fast. It's interesting that such currents disintegrate in all possible directions. It shows that the whole project was, from the very beginning, like the Communist project, somehow artificial. It drew people not on a political or ideological basis, but on some strange basis of trying to carve out some influence or power, and nothing else.

I think the Communist Party will continue to disintegrate, probably for a long time. There are some genuine socialist currents and individuals still in it: Marxism 21, the Democratic Movement of Communists (an umbrella group), and some so-called Marxist platforms and communist reformers. But they are all very small.

Some of these genuine socialists are members of the Central Committee, but, from the point of view of public activity, they are less capable of achieving anything than we are. It damages their reputation to be members of the Communist Party, and it limits their activities.

They get almost nothing from this situation, because the apparatus won't give them access even to something like a photocopier. They have to come and ask us to help them.

The situation is not yet ripe for the emergence of a mass party of any kind. It will take some time for a mass party of the left to emerge. But if it emerges, it will probably be the first and only democratic political party. It will be the only modern party. If there is to be such a party at all, it will be a left party.

At present, socialist ideas are discredited by Stalinism and democracy is rapidly becoming discredited by the process of perestroika. All the political terms are becoming discredited so fast that the next stage will be the discrediting of politics altogether, whether left wing, right wing, socialist or capitalist.

This process is already beginning. People are not against socialism and in favour of capitalism, but against any isms and against politics and against politicians and against the deputies, against the dictators, against democracy. They would like to kill anybody who has anything to do with politics.

Jim Percy: Is this what explains the growth of fascist gangs and obscurantist religious ideas?

Boris Kagarlitsky: Yes, in such an environment these forces a is the only country I know where the weather forecast after the nightly television news is followed by an astrological forecast.

Objective interests

On the other hand, there are objective interests, and the main thing is not that the term socialism is discredited. This is a minor problem if we can get access to television and reach our social base and change our terminology and get some words accepted.

We have a lot of experience like that. People often start out rejecting the term socialism, but after working with us for some time, that's no longer a problem.

The problem is that people are unaware of their interests; but, more than that, they just don't have any crystallised, systematically organised interests. So, if some kind of marketisation process helps us to go through the process of interest creation, that's positive.

In confronting privatisation, the new proprietors, market forces, people will become more aware of their interests: that's positive and creates the basis for socialist politics.

This doesn't mean that we support neo-liberal politics. To create the alternative tomorrow, we must work against them now. We must work against them constructively, begin to build the elements of the alternative now.

We must explain to people that the neo-liberals don't have any solutions. The most they can do is to create new problems, which are probably more resolvable and more natural and will open the door to socialist solutions.

At the same time, that is why we are very sceptical of any kind of demagogic Stalinist slogans of the fundamentalist groups, such as "Defend the social property". We also say defend the social property, but we also say "which way?" Defend to restructure, or just defend?

We are not ready to defend the state property only because it's not private. We want to defend it to restructure it, to change the nature of the state, to change the methods of functioning of the public sector.

It's probably better to privatise and later renationalise some enterprises than to keep them as they are. We can say, "Okay, you try to make this enterprise work as a private operation. If you can't, we'll take it back from you, but now you have your chance. Try it."
[Next week: the Yeltsin challenge.]