Social Democracy in Russia: a nomenklatura mirage


By Boris Kagarlitsky

MOSCOW — In the spring of this year, social democratic ideas started coming back into fashion in Russia. Former Central Committee apparatchiks — people who had played more than a few roles over the years — recalled the "third path", the "centre-left", and similar notions which they had compromised before abandoning them in favour of universal privatisation.

At a theoretical conference in April organised by the German Friedrich Ebert Foundation, liberal ideologue Alexander Yakovlev and former Yeltsin crony Gennady Burbulis surprised everyone by talking about social democracy. This topic then began to be floated at almost every gathering of Duma deputies, sometime activists in the "informal" movement, failed politicians and veterans of the nomenklatura.

Statements by leaders of the liberal "centre" Grigory Yavlinsky and Sergei Shakhrai also took on social democratic overtones. A group within the party headed by former vice-president Alexander Rutskoi managed to have the organisation officially renamed as "social democratic". Finally, Mikhail Gorbachev came onto the scene.

It is no accident that these people have been seized by a passion for social-democratic transvestism. Their new attire has already seen service in Russia, at the beginning of the "epoch of reforms". At that time, it was used as a disguise by the party-state nomenklatura, that was trying to free itself painlessly from its past and from the obligations connected with communist ideology.

No-one at that time asked whether it was possible in Russia to use the methods of "market regulation" employed in Sweden or Austria. The truth was that no-one had any serious intention of basing their actions on the experience of social democracy. If this experience was impossible to apply in practice, so much the better; it would then be easier to take the next step, in the direction of openly capitalist ideology and politics.

The rebirth of interest in social democracy during 1994 is linked to the obvious failure of the reforms. Now that discontent is growing, and the futility of the present course has become clear to any thinking person, the ruling circles are looking for a way out of the crisis, but again only on the level of a change of slogans.

In 1991 social democratic rhetoric was used to cover the beginning of the neo-liberal course. Now that this course has led to disaster, liberal slogans are having to be replaced with social democratic ones. In this way, the people in power hope to create the illusion of change while avoiding a critical review of economic policy, continuing to dupe the population and saving particular politicians and their clienteles.

In both the first case and the second, the impossibility of implementing social democratic ideas on Russian soil has made these ideas especially attractive. The slogan "social democracy with specifically Russian characteristics" is utopian through and through. This is not just for the reason that conditions analogous to those which gave birth to social democracy in the West do not exist in Russia. Much more important is the fact that the conditions which do exist in Russia are directly contrary to those which created Western social democracy, and make such a strategy pointless in principle.

Social democracy is based on the regulation and redistribution of incomes within an efficiently functioning market economy — which to say the least, is not in prospect in Russia. Also, the social democratic strategies adopted in Western Europe during the post-war epoch were only made possible by the revolutionary advances and other shocks suffered by capitalism during the previous years. An essential element in any social democratic project is a bourgeoisie that is ready for compromise. Otherwise, any attempt at "soft" regulation and redistribution will be thwarted by acute social conflict.

Our ruling layers are in no mood for compromise. However much our "new Russians" might try to depict themselves as civilised entrepreneurs, they are in fact a typical barbarian oligarchy. Their "business" is parasitical and usurious. Our elite was formed over a long period on a basis of unnatural selection, "survival of the unfittest". Contacts took the place of competence, loyalty to the boss replaced honesty and conformism served instead of principles. The reforms have simply made this worse.

In their cultural and intellectual development as in their moral level, the "new Russians" are a whole historical epoch behind the majority of the hired workers whom they contemptuously call "lumpens". The politics of the "new Russians" are based on shameless careerism and on hopelessly narrow thinking. Their economic practice is inspired not so much by the principles of the market as by those of banditry.

Under the pretext of "primitive accumulation", the "new Russians" have expropriated both the assets of the state and the savings of ordinary citizens. As a result, they have not only doomed the majority of the population to poverty, but have also undermined the country's scientific and technological potential. This means that so long as they remain in power, they are depriving not only the present generation but also subsequent ones of any future.

The political regime created for the benefit of the "new Russians" has no right to call itself a democracy. Under this regime, parliamentary institutions are no more than window-dressing. Power lies with a narrow circle of members of the old and new nomenklaturas, who have no intention of sharing it with the masses.

With "elites" such as this, there cannot be any "historic compromise" or "golden mean". In conditions of economic catastrophe, radical measures are needed, not half-hearted appeals for "indirect regulation".

This does not mean that we are compelled to copy the methods used by the Bolsheviks in 1917. We now understand a great deal which people did not understand in the early years of the century. The workers' movement since that time has accumulated a rich experience, which is the common property of social democrats, socialists, communists and of the new left. We have to use this experience in order to create a modern left movement in our country. This is a real task which has nothing in common with respectable speechifying about the "Swedish model", in a country whose rate of infant mortality is fast catching up with that of Bangladesh.

There are, in fact, people in Russia who are genuinely motivated by social democratic ideas. But they have been and will probably remain small groups of intellectuals. These groups can play an important role in the development of the labour movement due to their international contacts and political experience, and to their sincere commitment to the cause of working people, which distinguishes them sharply from the nomenklatura "social democrats". But the mass movement in Russia will never be social democratic, even "with specifically Russian features".

If leftists in our country really set out to become an influential political force, they are condemned to radicalism.