Praise Hayek and pass the ammunition

John Lloyd

  • The Fate of Marxism in Russia by Alexander Yakovlev, translated by Catherine Fitzpatrick
    Yale, 250 pp, £19.95, October 1993, ISBN 0 300 05365 7
  • Politics and Society in Russia by Richard Sakwa
    Routledge, 518 pp, £40.00, September 1993, ISBN 0 415 09540 9

Pessimism over Russia was not always as fashionable as it is now. Western commentators still refer automatically to the upheaval in the former Soviet Union as a ‘transition’, as though Russia and the former Soviet Republics were following a well defined and orderly course leading from one form of state to another. But in recent conversations with British, German and, above all, American policy planners, officials and scholars, I have found only a dogged determination to go on hoping for the best, while very much fearing the worst.

Until recently, Western policy, as set by Strobe Talbott, the former Time journalist (and Moscow correspondent), now Deputy Secretary of State-Designate in the Clinton Administration, was to shift attention away from the former Communist states and onto Russia alone, proclaiming the closeness of the US, and by extension the other major Western powers, to the Yeltsin Presidency and Government. But this policy has come under increasing attack, first from outside the Administration and now from within, in the aftermath of the Clinton-Yeltsin summit which saw Clinton trumpeting his belief in Yeltsin’s promise to ‘deepen reform’ even as the reformers were quietly departing from the Government.

There are profound economic and ‘national’ problems in the former Soviet Union, and most of them are getting worse. The question is whether the institutions – primarily, the political institutions – can take the strain. Is there enough inherent strength in ‘the sinews of the Russian state’, to use Peter Reddaway’s phrase, to sustain the free and democratic political life which its leaders advocate, and of which there are some signs? The answers Richard Sakwa and Alexander Yakovlev give to these questions are discouraging, even where they are not meant to be.

The shift in the politics of Russia which followed the December elections is very marked; it is also, as usual, murky. On one level, the result traumatised the liberal parties, especially the main grouping, Russia’s Choice, led by Yegor Gaidar, the man most strongly identified with radical reform. It has left only one prominent reformer, Anatoly Chubais, inside the Cabinet, ploughing a lonely furrow at the privatisation committee. Viktor Chernomyrdin, the Prime Minister and – as Yeltsin seems to retreat from the business of governing the country – de facto head of state, has declared his lack of interest in any further radical measures, and apparently wishes to boost industrial production without substantial industrial or economic reform. At the same time, he repeats his view that inflation remains the first enemy and that his cabinet must get it down to the kinds of level the IMF recommends by the end of the year.

The liberals are split, and eager to blame each other for the debacle which undid them all. But it is not clear that the new Parliament is dominated by reactionary forces, and it does seem clear that the country has not taken a lurch into fascism. As I write, the political process is suspended rather than set. But since no one expects the economy to improve this year or next, and since any effective remedy will deepen the short-term crisis, the strain can only get worse, and will perhaps become unbearable, I need hardly add that this is a very serious position to be in, since the next few months are likely to determine whether or not the conflict now evident at the perimeters of the former Soviet Union becomes more general, engulfing millions of people in civil and inter-state wars waged around nuclear bases.

In The Fate of Marxism in Russia we get one explanation of the reasons for the present disorder. Of all Mikhail Gorbachev’s associates, Alexander Yakovlev was the one most wedded to perestroika and glasnost. Yet he now presents a political landscape so blasted by Marxism-Leninism as to seem almost incapable of supporting healthy life in the next decade. In one of his many outbursts against the system in which he was a senior official and, finally, the guardian of the ideological flame, he says that Communism was

a system of social lunacy, which physically destroyed the peasantry, noble and merchant classes, a whole class of entrepreneurs along with the clergy, intellectuals and intelligentsia. It is a sower of crosses in graveyards, it is the ‘mole of history’, digging mass graves from Lvov to Magadan, from Norilsk to Kushka; it is an exploitation of human beings by all forms of oppression and ideological vandalism. Bolshevism is a land-mine of enormous power that almost blew up the world; it is an anti-human precept, hammered in with the ruthlessness of ideological fanaticism that conceals its intellectual and economic nullity. The old life (that is pre-1917 Revolution) was not all sweetness and light, but there were not a million prisoners and the word ‘concentration camp’ did not even exist in the Russian language. Bolshevism’s ideological monopolism guaranteed universal control over everything and everyone. Minds and hearts were in the same category as things. Society was politicised through and through; those who disagreed were destroyed or isolated. Freedom of labour, freedom of thought, freedom of speech were abolished. Science and art were bolshevised and became a ‘material force’. Plagiarism was called art and science.

The blame – and this is the book’s most insistent message – lies not with Stalin or Lenin, but, in the first place, with Marx. The Russian Bolsheviks strove to put a Marxist programme into place and their success, their fidelity to the spirit, if not always the letter, of Marx (who was in any case rarely programmatic), destroyed Russia: ‘The Marxist programme of eliminating the market and market relations proved in fact to be a programme to destroy the pillars of human civilisation.’ Yakovlev’s enemy is his own former belief; what he describes is the systematic desolation of Russia and its subject states, undertaken in the name of progress and human enlightenment.

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