Lair Of A Squirrel Red

With all due respect, it’s not Putin’s Russia. by korakious
December 15, 2007, 12:07 am
Filed under: AWL watch, Russia | Tags: ,

I am surprised, somewhat, that our vibrant blogosphere did not pick up the news of Putin finally breaking his silence over the question of his succession as Tsar President of Russia. You see, for years we’ve had analyst upon analyst coming up with elaborate, almost phantastical, scenarios about how Putin would outflank the constitution and remain in the Kremlin, working his way towards absolute power and reintroducing (lol) totalitarianism in Russia. The most popular of those was that Putin would amend the constitution to allow him to stand again; myself, I quite liked a more amusing variation of this, according to which Putin would finally go through with the decade old plan of a Russo-Belorussian union, and become president under a new constitution. Then, when this became increasingly unlikely as the end of the term approached, the established wisdom was that Putin would manage to transfer authority from the presidency to to the prime minister’s office and go for that. Another scenario was that Putin would put up a powerless yesman for the presidency and run again after four years, as he is constitutionally allowed to. Zubkov who was made PM earlier this year was a perfect candidate for this job. Almost 70 year old, a former security officer who knows how to follow orders and virtually unknown before he became head of the cabinet by the grace of Vladimir Vladimirovich.

And then…. Well then Putin (and his inner circle presumably) decided to nominate Dmitry Medvedev, deputy PM, head of the state monopoly giant Gazprom, supervisor of many a government programme, member of Putin’s St Petersburg circle and without any background in the security services. Medvedev is also only 42 and will thus not be out of the political landscape any time soon. Granted, he is a Putinist, whatever that means and his personal relationship with the Judo President is very close, but he does have his own experience in handling state affairs. There is no doubt that he will provide continuity with the Putin administration, in fact he has said so himself and his invitation to Putin to become PM under his presidency pretty much confirms it. The question is, what is so strange, or alarming about this? Why does RFE/RL see this as a confirmation of Putin’s conviction to stay in power forever? Why the talk of princes, heirs and regents? Of course, you will correctly think that this is because RFE/RL is a US imperialism mouthpiece, but the terms of coverage/debate are more or less similar in all western media outlets.

The answer lies in the rather perverted prism through which Russian politics is viewed by the west. “Putin’s Russia” has become a rather common description of a situation that is far more complex than the Putin-the-puppetmaster paradigm. It is of course impossible to ignore Putin’s personal weight when analysing Russian politics. Putin is perhaps the sole legitimating element of the regime. His popularity, at the end of his mandate, is touching 80% while in the “democratic” West, leaders at the end of their term are about as popular as emokids are amongst metalheads. At the same time, the percentage of Russians who appreciate the political “right to choose” barely reaches double digits while more than half think that elections are little more than a show. This is hardly surprising given the fact that the reintroduction of capitalism in Russia – of which the neo-Kautskyite AWL was and is very supportive – resulted in the greatest AIDS epidemic outside of Africa, more orphans than WWII, a fall in life expectancy only seen in war zones and some 3/4 of Russians falling under the poverty line.

It was addressing and to an extent remedying these problems that has gained Putin his immense popularity and has made him indispensable to the regime. It is for the same reason that the mouthpieces of Western imperialism speak of a rollback of democracy in “Putin’s Russia”. Is Russia authoritarian? Certainly. The presidency has far-reaching executive powers, its decrees are almost impossible to overturn, impeachment is nearly impossible and it can dissolve the Duma should it thrice reject the appointed PM. But has Russia become any more authoritarian under Putin? Not really. If anything, the centralisation of power Putin has undertaken has if anything made politics more institutional, concentrating under an elected office, rather than letting policy be decided through informal deal brokering at all levels of the state. There has been much ado about the fact that regional governors are no longer elected but appointed by the presidency, but given that we are talking about elections that often returned majority “against all candidates” votes and despite that, ended up propelling corrupt bureaucrats to power who would run the regions as their private fiefdoms, embezzling state funds and casually threatening to secede, this is hardly lamentable. If one wishes to find the institutional roots of authoritarianism in Russia, it is to Yeltsin that they should look. It is he who established the hegemonic power of the presidency and notwithstanding the silencing of charlatan opposition leaders like Gasparov, Putin has not resorted to fraud and selling off of state assets to win an election, nor has he ordered tanks to shell the legislature.

There is nothing really enigmatic or unprecedented about Putin’s rule. He is a quintessential Bonapartist leader (like his predecessor), an individual holding exceptional authority mediating a fragile historical situation, maintaining a fragile balance between the fragmented ruling class and the dormant but gradually awakening proletariat. The reason the intellectual vanguard of Western imperialism – liberals – can’t deal with it is because Putin’s (contrary to Yeltsin’s) successful handling of numerous and very dangerous contradictions of Russia, has allowed Russian capitalism to increasingly assert its imperialist interests. It is the emergence of a new competitor on the international arena that the West is so hyped up about, not the “reemergence” of authoritarianism in Russia.

It’s testament to the feeblemindedness of the bourgeoisie that they would even conceive of a situation where capitalism was successfully reintroduced in Russia without turning to bite its collective arse. On our part, lefties of all stripes have more to fear by the resonance of Putin’s policies with the Russian working class, rather than by any supposed scheme of his to become dictator for life.

Bonapartism, basic concepts and Chavez by korakious
June 14, 2007, 12:23 pm
Filed under: AWL watch, Chavez, First World Left, Theory, Trotskyists, Venezuela

Jim Denham (of the Alliance for War and Liberalism) has been crticial of Hugo Chavez and his government, calling them ‘a bonapartist formation, with nothing to do with socialism (assuming that by “socialism” you mean the rule of the working class)’. When I posted a Gramsci quote which says that perhaps calling a formation ‘Bonapartist’ is not the be all and end all of the matter Jim responded with ‘[s]o much for basic Marxist concepts’.

I think that position Jim takes here is an interesting one, and worthy of further exploration, especially as it exposes a real weakness in the approach of the British left in general. The Gramsci quote I posted only suggested that establishing something is Bonapartist is not the end of the matter, as it does not stop the need for further enquiry. Denham seems to be insisting that ‘Bonapartist formations’ are a basic concept of Marxist thought, and they tell us that the regime can have ‘nothing to do with socialism’.

The first point to note is that I am not a Trotskyist and I don’t really know that much about the Trotskyist position. This made it hard for me to even think of Bonapartism as a ‘basic concept’ of Marxist thought (I know it gets mentioned in the 18th Brumaire but still). But even if it is a basic element in Marxist thought, calling it a concept really doesn’t seem to help anyone, in fact Jim seems to have become an ideologist, for whom:

[R]elations become concepts; since they do not go beyond these relations, the concepts of the relations also become fixed concepts in their mind.

So, against Jim I raise Lenin, who refuses to acknowledge that Marxism is about ‘basic concepts’ that allow us to pre-judge a given situation. Against such positions Lenin insisted that the ‘very gist, the living soul, of Marxism [is] a concrete analysis of a concrete situation’. So in this respect I think that Gramsci is right and Jim is wrong, just establishing that a given social formation is Bonapartist tells us nothing about its relation to socialism or the emancipation of the working class – instead we have to ask the Marxist question – who benefits?

The Old man himself

The thing is, it seems to me that Trotsky himself realised this when he did his work on Bonapartism. I just randomly skimmed Trotsky’s article The Workers State, Thermidor and Bonapartism and came up with the following extracts:

The overturn of the Ninth Thermidor did not liquidate the basic conquests of the bourgeois revolution, but it did transfer the power into the hands of the more moderate and conservative Jacobins, the better-to-do elements of bourgeois society.

In France, the prolonged stabilization of the Thermidorean-Bonapartist regime was made possible only thanks to the development of the productive forces that had been freed from the fetters of feudalism.

And perhaps the kicker is:

Without historical analogies we cannot learn from history. But the analogy must be concrete; behind the traits of resemblance, we must not overlook the traits of dissimilarity.

Essentially what these quotes tell us is that although Napoleon was not the most advanced representative of the bourgeois revolution, he nonetheless preserved and stabilised the growth of the bourgeois revolution in France. What isn’t written here, but perhaps is more to the point, is that Napoleon spread the bourgeois revolution (and you’d think the AWL would love that) to the rest of Europe, as is evidenced by the fact that the Civil Code dominates the continent.

So, even for the paradigm case of Bonapartism, Napoleon himself, it is possible to say that he served a progressive role, in consolidating the gains of the bourgeois revolution, spreading it, and generally not liking feudalism. Of course, Louis didn’t play such a role, but this shouldn’t blind us to the fact that it is entirely possible that Bonapartism can play a historically progressive role.

Cui Bono?

But of course this is all well and good when we’re talking about bourgeois revolutions (although I seem to remember hear some Trots talking about spreading the gains of October etc.) but the typical response to what I have said is – ‘the emancipation of the working must be the act of the working class itself’ or ‘socialism from below’(!!!). Now, although I think these slogans themselves have to properly put into context, I do agree that the proletarian revolution is always one that will be qualitatively different from every revolution that has preceded it.

So, agreeing with Jim here, I still don’t think it’s the end of the matter. At the very least we need to ask – has Chavez opened a space for the emancipation of the working class? So, rather than just shout ‘Bonapartist (!!!!)’ we need to ask ‘who benefits’ from the Bolivarian revolution, and we need to enquire if it has benefited the working class.

And surely on this level we can say (at the very least) ‘yes’. Chavez has firstly put socialism and the working class on the agenda in Venezuela and indeed the world stage. This must be a good thing for the perspective of the working class. I think the work of Mike Lebotwitz has been instructive here. Even if we disregard Chavez’ concrete policies relating to the economy it is pretty clear he has opened up a space for the working class in a way that has never happened in Venezuela.

He has opened up the political process to the working class, and indigenous people so that it does not lie solely with the oligarchs and its representatives. The ideas of co-management, no matter how limited their application, help smash the myth that the workers cannot do without he bourgeoisie. The barrio healthcare initiatives are helping the Venezuelan workers get back their confidence and dignity.

I think the confidence and dignity argument is and important one, which ought not to be overlooked. In Venezuela the workers may not rule, capitalism may still not be overthrown, the old state machine may not have been smashed, but the working class and its organisations have grown, they are taken seriously, they are confident and organised. Surely this sort of empowerment is the key to any successful self-emancipation.

It is Jim’s prerogative to disagree with my characterisation of Chavez (which was obviously provisional and sketchy), but I hope I have at least shown how a Bonapartist regime might be characterised as ‘progressive’. Hopefully this will at least stop the pointless screams of “Bonapartist!!!!!!!!!” at the mention of Chavez’ name.