Against the Current, No. 26, May/June 1990
Suzi Weissman interviews Boris Kagarlitsky
Susan Weissman, an editor of this journal and host of “Portraits of the USSR” on KPFK in Los Angeles, interviewed Boris Kagarlitsky during his recent visit.
Susan Weissman: What are the results of your running in the March 4 elections on the New Socialist Party ticket?
Boris Kagarlitsky: I came first with 45 percent of the total vote in my constituency, but according to a Soviet law I have to face a run-off with the second highest (out of a total of ten) candidate.
SW: How many people are in your constituency?
BK: Twelve thousand.
SW: Did the candidates represent different organizations
BK: I represented the so-called Democratic Coalition, which unites almost all of the official democratic groups in Moscow from left to right I represented the Socialist Party, the new reborn Socialist Party. The person who came in second represented Russian nationalists.
SW: Was this the first time there was a broad Spectrum of candidates outside of the Communist Party?
BK: One of the paradoxes is that the Communist Party (CPSIJ) didn’t have its own list during the elections. Nor did it in the last election, a year ago. Formally the Communist Party is the only political organization recognized as a political party. And yet, it is the only political organization that doesn’t field its own candidates.
SW: So in this election people organized in parties and coalitions, yet many candidates in non-CPS U coalitions were also members of the party?
BK: Of course when somebody is connected with the nomenklatura, the party bureaucracy, it is much easier to get nominated and they face no problems getting registered. Independent or opposition candidates face a number of problems in getting registered. And the left, the socialists, face more intense discrimination.
SW: How were you able to talk to people? Did you have town-hall meetings? Did you have access to the press and television?
BK: According to the electoral law, electoral commissions locally organize meetings between the citizens and the candidates. They are obliged to organize no less than one and no more than two – which exactly means two. They organized two meetings and we organized another meeting ourselves. In the Soviet Union there is no guaranteed access to the media or press.
SW: Were you covered in the more liberal Moscow papers?
BK: Liberal newspapers are very hostile to the left. The most liberal newspapers like Moscow News or Ogonyok or Literaturnaya Gazeta will never let any left-winger speak. Some journalists in Literaturnaya Gazeta and Moscow News solicited articles from me. I wrote articles for them and they were always removed from the prepared galley sheets—not by the censor, but by top editors who said, “We would never publish such stuff, we will never publish a socialist in the Soviet press.”
I got one article into Moskovskiye Komsomolets, a youth newspaper that is considered not so much liberal or radical as nonconformist. They managed to publish me although there was a real struggle between the journalists and the editor. But the editor just deleted any mention of socialism or democratic socialism.
SW: Even with these difficulties you managed to come in first of all the candidates in your district?
BK: Yes, because we have a lot of local support. It seems that socialists now, at least in Moscow, are the only political group trying to defend the real interests of the people in the practical sense—not just speaking about abstract ideologies or the radiant future, free-market capitalist society or something like that. We are defending local interests when housing problems arise and are finding ways to express the wishes of the people locally. That’s why we have support. SW: If you read the press here, you tend to get the idea that everyone in the Soviet Union is either in favor of free-market capitalism or they are on the extreme right. Yet you found a large constituency who are in favor of some sort of socialism?
BK: That’s not surprising. It’s the working class that is mostly socialist. I think it is quite normal that the left gets support from those who live on their wages.
Of course there are a lot of young intellectuals who are somehow suspicious of a free-market society, especially computer specialists and young scientists who see that if the country collapses into a laissez-faire attitude, the government will no longer invest in serious scientific research because it doesn’t bring profits. Without that research you can’t develop science. The upward mobility of the young scientists and researchers has become extremely slow, so this new proletariat is also becoming less and less enthusiastic about the free market, and we are getting some support from them.
SW: We are seeing the virtual collapse of the ideology that has been pervasive in your society since Stalin, and whereas it is true that there has never been such a space for the left, on the other hand, you have to overcome the ruling ideology to put forth your ideas. Do you do this by appealing to people on the basis of concrete issues or do you actually spell out your program for the future society that you want to see?
BK: The left is trying to become the main force defending democracy—just the elementary democratic rights in our country, which are not stable and not guaranteed. This gives us a real perspective. We stress that socialists are now the only political tendency representing not just ideas or ideologies but interests. Of course, one needs to have a program, some ideological perspective and some proposals for the future.
SW: Since the Soviet experience has been to equate socialism with Stalinism, which is just the opposite of democracy, do you find it difficult to reclaim democracy as part of socialism?
BK: There are short-term difficulties. What we are facing is a kind of bureaucratic, underdeveloped, statist capitalism, which is already not even really claiming to be socialist Of course, Gorbachev still tries to maintain those claims, but if you read the press and the official documents, you see that the word socialism is disappearing even from the official documents.
People want to have a more efficient economy and there is a kind of general idea that the market is necessary. On the other hand, everybody wants to have social guarantees, to keep cheap housing and transport, free education and free health care in the new situation. That is a contradiction.
That is why a lot of people are enthusiastic about the social-democratic model in Sweden, saying “The Swedes manage to have both market capitalism and some elements of a socialist society with social guarantees.” But the fact is that Swedes live in a specific situation. They have a different culture and different problems. Their remedies just don’t fit our problems.
We stress that the only real guarantee for the social conditions of the working people is the strength of the left itself. So one can speak as much as one likes about social guarantees and social welfare and a welfare state, but the welfare state will not emerge without a strong, organized and politically active labor movement.
SW: Do you think that the Swedish model is an illusion for the Soviet Union? With the backward level of economic development in the Soviet Union, are you more likely to get the situation that exists in Latin America?
BK: We always say that a capitalist or a reformed Russia would not be like Sweden but rather like Mexico or, in some parts [of the Soviet Union], rather like Bangladesh. This creates a space for the left, but that is not a very good price to pay for the advance of the left.
The Left, the Social Democrats, the Liberals
SW: How did different sectors of the left orient to the emergence of the Soviet working class with the miners’ strike?
BK: There is no serious fragmentation of the left because the main tendencies were socialists and ecologists. Most activists and leaders of the ecological movement now say that they don’t want to have a political party and probably will act through the Socialist Party to achieve their political Foals, There is also a growing social democracy but it is not a left-wing organization. In the Soviet condition social democracy is on the far right, advocating Thatcherite policies or even criticizing Thatcher for not being strong enough against workers.
SW: But they are still pluralists?
BK: Yes, but they are aggressively anti-labor, anti-socialist, anti-welfarist.
SW: Yet they still themselves social democrats?
BK: One of the leaders of the social democrats in the Soviet Union, who has gotten publicity here in the Los Angeles Times, is Igor Klyamkin, who along with Andranic Migranyan has said we need a Pinochet regime and a strong hand. That is a social democrat. The people who are to the right of social democrats will call themselves liberals, so imagine what they are.
Anyway, the labor movement in the beginning was very suspicious of intellectuals. They kicked out all of the intellectuals who came to the strike committees except the socialists. That, I think, is an interesting experience. Though they were suspicious, they accepted only the representatives of the New Socialists in Kuzbas and Karaganda. And only now are they becoming more open to dialogue with different intellectual currents.
Still there is a very strong feeling among the activists of the labor movement that the Socialist Party is going to become their party. And that’s why we have a lot of labor activists joining our ranks already. For example, one of the persons who founded the Committee for the Socialist Party was Vladimir Makhanov, the chairman of the Prokopyevsk Strike Committee, the strongest strike committee.
SW: So you’re become the magnet for the left and the workers’ organizations?
BK: I can quote Moscow News, which is a liberal newspaper that is hostile to us. Suddenly about a month ago it stated that the three parties it expects to be the main poles of attraction in the Soviet Union after the collapse of Communism are the Democratic Union, a right-wing, liberal organization; the social democrats; and the New Socialists. So our enemies recognize this fact after making an effort to marginalize us, to isolate us and even to hide our existence from the public.
SW: Can you characterize the political differences between the Democratic Union, social democrats and your group?
BK: I don’t see any serious difference between the Democratic Union and the social democrats—privatize everything, have private education and healthcare, commercialize housing.
I think the main difference is between the Socialists and the emerging liberal mainstream. Socialists say that the main illnesses of Soviet society cannot be healed by the market. We are not anti-market on principle—we see that some development of the market could be useful and necessary for the Soviet economy in its present state of development.
But the main problems of the Soviet Union are connected with infrastructure, daily communications, a crumbling system of research and scientific backwardness, problems in education, healthcare. These problems are just not solved by the market. To solve these problems one really needs a state that is economically active. But another state, and here we agree with the liberals when they say they want to dismantle the economic powers of this particular state, because it is still a totalitarian state that needs to be destroyed.
We are for the establishment of a new democratic state connected to the people, and this new democratic state should have a lot of economic power It should be decentralized, so state property should be decentralized and democratized. It must belong not to the government but to the Soviets of different levels. Each level should reflect the level of objective necessity, of the social necessity of those enterprises and branches of industry. For example, if something really belongs to the nation in the sense that the enterprises or branches serve the necessities of the whole nation, they should of course belong to the Supreme Soviet of Russia or Soviet Union. And so on down to the neighborhood level. One can have socialized property on different levels, reflecting different levels of social necessities.
We are in favor of workplace democracy, employee or staff participation in decision-making. We are in favor of self-management where it is possible; we don’t reject the idea of cooperative ownership by labor collectives.
We don’t reject even the existence of private businesses because we want to be realistic. But the problem is that one cannot expect efficient private businesses to emerge in the Soviet Union now. One of the problems now is that private investment will mostly be used to buy shares in state enterprises and to create some kind of parasitic capital. We must defend the state sector, because it offers the only possibility of having somewhat efficient, productive private-sector investment.
SW: When you speak of different levels of property and private businesses, are you talking about businesses mainly in the service sector, restaurants, repair shops, and that sort of thing or about large manufacturing concerns as well?
BK: As a socialist I am not in favor of private businesses at all. But the problem is that the economic situation is very critical. So if one can invest productively in establishing, for example, new services and not just in speculating, not just buying shares of state enterprises and becoming a rentier parasite, okay, let him do that.
SW: What about in agriculture?
BK: That’s the same situation, when somebody can invest and employ some people, when it really creates jobs and some kind of socially necessary production. We are in favor of such private investments although we think there should be legal and ecological controls. There also needs to be control over the level of exploitation of labor and a strong labor movement. We understand that allowing the private sector to exist means having some kind of opposition to the interests of labor. There is a conflict and it is quite clear which side we are on.
SW: Do you see any contradiction in a society having a plan alongside a market?
BK: Of course there is a contradiction between the plan and the market. In the long run the tendency of human development is to overcome the rule of the market. But that is a long-term tendency, which cannot be achieved right now. More than that, it could be dangerous to try to achieve it right now. And we all, I think, share the idea that administrative abolition of the market is no solution. To overcome the market one needs to go through a whole series of phases and probably a whole series of new battles within the socialist project.
SW: So you see the market as a temporary solution to overcome not simply backwardness and inefficiency, but the actual non-working nature of Soviet enterprise?
BK: It is a temporary solution. But, in fact, it could be a temporary solution for a few generations. What I mean is that one cannot just say when and how we see the withering away of the market. It is exactly the same thing Marx was speaking about with regard to the withering away of the state. It could be achieved. It will finally be achieved by humankind, but it has a long road to go and cannot be achieved, I am sure, on a national level. This is an international problem.
SW: In the Soviet Union a large proportion of your intelligentsia is in favor of the market, and yet you have a growing left and working-class sector that will concede aspects of the market but want to be in control of the society. Can you give us an idea of how you see this working in practice?
BK: As to the Socialists, first, we are in favor of a limited market, one that will not be allowed to operate in the sectors of healthcare, education, scientific research and soon. Second, our position is that the market shouldn’t control main investment tendencies. Investment must be controlled by democratic decision-making, formulating social priorities and main necessities. This of course means that there is some kind of direct intervention of society in the development of the economy. Then you can consider that the market could in some way control the efficiency of investment in the sense that there will be some pressure for enterprises to be more cost efficient and to deliver more quality goods.
There could even be some limited competition among the enterprises. I don’t share the view that all people are necessarily competitive but, on the other hand, I think that the idea of competition is not necessarily such a bad one, as it is sometimes seen on the left. The problem is to keep that competition limited. We have to create the conditions for a constructive competition instead of a destructive one—competition to better achieve socially necessary goals, rather than to destroy each other To create the conditions for such a competition one needs to create some kind of framework on the socialist project;, socialist development in the economy. SW: You mentioned the international aspect. You obviously feel that you just can’t go it alone and the rest of Eastern Europe is now apparently moving toward the market. Do you have a,-thinkers elsewhere is it part of your political project to actively look for co-thinkers and links?
BK: We have friends and political co-thinkers everywhere in Eastern Europe, although it seems that the left is really strong only in East Germany—I mean the United Left and some sections of the New Forum democratic movement In other countries it is much less developed, but it is still a very important factor that the left wing is in opposition to the free market since the marketization of society is now emerging without exception in all of the Eastern European societies.
Our friends include the Hungarian Left Alternative, the Czechoslovakian Left Alternative, and the Alternative Socialist Party in Bulgaria, which, by the way, is based mostly on our documents. We always have more ties in Bulgaria. In Romania the growing labor movement finds its supporters and sometimes even its leaders among the people of the Front for Nationalist Salvation.
SW: Is it difficult to distinguishing yourselves from the Stalinist system? This was certainly the case in East Germany when the left missed opportunities because it did not have an alternative; it began to sound very much like the old system.
BK: It is not difficult with the workers. Self-management is not an idea of the old system and mobilizing labor to defend its rights is not the idea of the old system.
SW: Are you actively seeking collaboration with leftists in the capitalist world as well?
BK: That is what l am here for.
Postscript: March 23
After the run-off elections on March 18, Weissman interviewed Kagarlitsky for an update. We include some of his reflections here from this interview, conducted March 23.
BK: I won my run-off election for Moscow City Council on March 18. Within the framework of the Democratic Russian Bloc, The New Socialists did quite well; in Voroshilski Rayon, for example, fifteen of our nineteen candidates were elected.
The ideological tensions inherent in the Bloc from the beginning—united as it was more by its opposition to Gorbachev than anything else—became apparent in the immediate aftermath of the electoral triumph The very next day, there was a split in Democratic Russia. Now there are several factions both in MosSoviet and among the deputies elected on the Democratic Russia ticket for the Congress of Russian Deputies.
We Socialists couldn’t travel very far with the liberals, who have very different ideas about the economy and even about political democracy. For instance, they are hostile to any form of direct democracy. But we expected this alliance to be continued at least for a few more months. So it seems that now things are getting worse. We have had trouble with the liberals, but now there are a lot of quarrels inside the liberal camp making things even worse.
Meanwhile, on the far right, the bloc of Russia’s Social Patriotic Movement and other nationalist, chauvinist and anti-Semitic elements fared very badly in terms of actually electing deputies. But in many cases they managed to come in second, getting about 30 percent of the vote in a number of constituencies.
So if people become frustrated with the liberals and the left doesn’t grow, some people will turn to the far right. That is one of the real dangers today. And that is why we think that a strong left is very important now. The left is growing. But we would prefer that it grow faster.
© 2020 Against the Current
May-June 1990, ATC 26