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Mike Haynes


View from on high

(June 1994)

From Socialist Review, No. 176, June 1994.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Eternal Russia: Yeltsin, Gorbachev and the Mirage of Democracy
Jonathan Steele
Faber and Faber £17.50

A Fourth Way? Privatisation and the Emergence of New Market Economies
Eds: Gregory Alexander and Grazyna Skapska
Routledge £14.99

Russia is an important placing for Western journalists and they usually produce a saleable book when they finish their stint. The work of these correspondents has played an important role in establishing the Western view of Russia. Before glasnost, because they had no access to the top, they could only report policy changes and official press briefings. But by weaving together pointed anecdotes, information gleaned from the press and the occasional nugget handed out at the top they were able to build up valuable pictures of Russian society below.

After 1985 more access to the top was available but, as in the writings of Martin Walker, it was the explosion of information from below that took centre stage.

Now all is different. Jonathan Steele went out to Russia to report the collapse of the USSR for the Guardian. He has had unrivalled access to the top, including getting to Gorbachev straight after the defeat of the 1991 coup. His book reflects this, drawing on indiscreet interviews with past and current players in the battles at the top of the USSR. The result is a book that anyone interested in Russia will have to read and can learn a lot from.

But there is also a sense in which Steele’s book is a less satisfactory one than those of his predecessors. They had no choice but to write from the bottom up. Steele has chosen to write from the top down.

But while the top is fascinating, what we really need is an analysis of the disintegration of the middle and bottom of Russian society. This is not only because the top does not operate in a vacuum but also because it is here that the future of Russia will be decided. Steele senses this but cannot deliver the analysis. Instead, as the title Eternal Russia suggests, he resorts to the old argument that Russia’s future is written in its past – centuries of authoritarianism mean there is no civil society, no democratic tradition.

It is not an argument Steele feels comfortable with, but it is all he offers. It contains an element of truth. Democratic traditions are important, but they do not hang in the air. What is needed to understand Russia in 1994 is an analysis of 1994 and not of 1894 or 1794.

Steele, like many, thought that Russia was different from the West and he is still to an extent paralysed in his thinking by a recognition that it was not.

This comes out clearly in his discussion of October 1993. Steele provides a valuable discussion of Yeltsin’s manipulation of the crisis but he is caught in a trap of his own making. He seems to sympathise with the old parliament who in a legalistic sense certainly had right on their side. But he cannot abandon Yeltsin as democracy’s hope. Because he looks from the top down it is the fissures in the ruling class that dominate the whole issue for him and suddenly Zhirinovsky rises like a rabbit out of a hat in the final pages.

If Steele cannot deliver, academia have no less difficulties. The Fourth Way illustrates this. As Eastern Europe collapsed there was much abstract talk about a third way between Stalinism and the unregulated market, but this was rhetorically swept aside by many new leaders with the demand for ‘markets without adjectives’. Steele points out that this was based on a fantasy view of ‘really existing capitalism’ but for a crucial period not only was the revolutionary left squeezed out of the discussion but so was social democracy.

The Fourth Way – the phrase is clutched out of the air to get an Eastern Europe audience – is an attempt to put a weak social democracy back into the discussion. The essays question the nature of privatisation west and east and provide some (occasionally) useful information, though more about Eastern Europe than Russia.

What is ironic is that a part of the left that generally believed this area to be different should now be trying to teach Eastern European reformers how to be real capitalists rather than fantasy ones.

When those at the bottom need a real alternative to the worst ravages of crisis, the disillusioned Western liberal and social democrat stands on the sidelines shouting – capitalism shouldn’t be quite like this.

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