On Reality Asserts Itself, Prof. Aleksandr Buzgalin says that “market fetishism”, the hunger for commodities, became a major obstacle to building socialism – with host Paul Jay.
This is an episode of Reality Asserts Itself, produced July 13, 2018.
PAUL JAY: Welcome back to Reality Asserts Itself on The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay and we’re continuing our discussion with Alexander Buzgalin. Thanks for joining us again.
ALEXANDER BUZGALIN: Yes, I’m very glad.
PAUL JAY: So, one more time, Alexander Buzgalin is a Professor of Political Economy and Director of the Center for Modern Marxist Studies at the Moscow State University. So, we kind of talked in broadest strokes about why socialism in the Soviet Union became so bureaucratic. Then of course, you have the massive war, the killing of thirty million Russians, destruction of much of the country. You are born in 1954, this is as we said, about a year after the death of Stalin. You sort of, I guess, come to more political consciousness as such, at ten, eleven, twelve, fifteen years old. Talk about how you viewed the world at that time and how your view of the world changes.
ALEXANDER BUZGALIN: It’s very difficult when you’re sixty to talk about your vision of the world when you were twelve, thirteen, fourteen years old. I’ll try to be, more or less, exact. First of all, the world was divided, and we definitely knew that there is a progressive and a regressive part of the world. And we, Soviet Union, with all negative features of our bureaucrats, are part of the progressive movement of mankind. And communist fighters for liberation were our friends in this progressive movement.
When, in Chile, Allende came to power- it was a little later, I was already a student- it was happiness, then Pinochet organized this coup with the assistance of United States, and Allende and his friends were killed. And it was a personal tragedy for us- not for everybody in Russia. Again, like I said, majority were normal citizens, conformists, who wanted to have very simple things and for them, dream about supermarkets was more important than dream about communism. But for big minority, it was their case. I think absolute majority of people were that they are living in a progressive country which is trying to protect Vietnamese, to help to the left movement all over the world.
PAUL JAY: National liberation movements in Africa.
ALEXANDER BUZGALIN: National liberation movements in Africa and Latin America and so on. To help to the poor people in the United States, also. We had, by the way, not bad movies in our T.V., documentary movies about the United States, where it was shown both prosperity, Times Square, Wall Street and so on, and the poor regions of United States. And some Russian civilians didn’t believe that it’s true, said the idea that it was artificially created- pictures of poverty, it cannot be in the United States, so terrible a life. And I first time came to the U.S. in 1991 and went to these regions and understood that this is not propaganda, this is the reality of the most rich country in the world, yeah? This is the feelings of the life.
PAUL JAY: So, you grew up, television, in the culture, this sympathy for national liberation movements around the world, as you say, the election of Allende in Chile, this is all about liberation and freedom, but domestically, not so much liberation and freedom. There’s a contradiction there. And as you go through your teenage years, when do you start to become conscious that “this ain’t what it’s supposed to be?”
ALEXANDER BUZGALIN: It’s true. Let’s come to 1969 or 1970- I don’t remember exactly- when I was a schoolboy. It was the ninth year of education in school, we had ten years of education. And friends from Moscow State University- not friends, students from Moscow State University Economic Department came to our school and said they have a school special, seminars, lectures for schoolboys and schoolgirls who want to be students of Moscow State University, of course, for free. You can come in the evening. If you want to participate, you are welcome. So, I asked my mother and she said it’s very important and you must do this. First of all, I had a dream to be a journalist- by the way, now I am a journalist, I’m not only a professor, but this is maybe a joke of the life.
So, I came, and the first lecture, based on Das Kapital of Karl Marx, showed that Marxism explained what does it mean to have a market? It means that market fetishism, commodity fetishism will dominate. And I understood why people are looking for good commodity sinks, but not dreaming about communism. I understood what does it mean, exploitation, and why it is not just bad will of Bourgeoisie, but an objective flaw of the system. And this system is growing from market, from differences of kind of producers. So, I received a picture which with science, theory, explains the world, explains the reality. When I became student of Moscow State University, by the way, without any special preparations, just after ordinary school. I was not best student in the school, but it was not something special. No money, of course. And in university, these contradictions between bureaucratic, formalistic organization of social life, from one hand, and the content of Marxist theory and some romantic communist dreams from another side. These contradictions became very bright.
PAUL JAY: Let me just say again, because we discussed this a bit in the previous segment, but dreams of communism, not the Western version of what they think the dream-
ALEXANDER BUZGALIN: The Marxist version, yeah.
PAUL JAY: Which means from each according to their work, to each according to their need.
ALEXANDER BUZGALIN: Yeah, communism, for us, was society with- I will repeat it, it’s very important- society where you like your work because it is creative labor, labor of teacher, of doctor, of painter, of engineer, but you like your work.
PAUL JAY: And the product belongs to everybody.
ALEXANDER BUZGALIN: The problem is not simply that the product belongs to everybody, the problem is that you have not competitors, but comrades with whom you are creating a new city, a new idea, a new movie. You are working together as colleagues, as comrades, as co-producers of the future cultural values.
PAUL JAY: So, the contradiction between this vision and the reality you just said became very bright.
ALEXANDER BUZGALIN: Yeah, very bright and very evident. One interesting example, we had the obligatory course, History of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. And the majority of the students hated this course. And the first semester, we had a teacher, she was terribly bureaucratic and dogmatic, and it was absolutely impossible. It was necessary to learn, by heart, the resolutions of the congresses, or something like that. Very stupid. But then, for another two semesters, came another lady. I remember her family name, Kuzmich. Very strange family name. And she presented this history of the Communist Party as a most interesting detective story of the history of mankind. How twenty, thirty young persons- Lenin when he started was twenty-five years old- how they changed the world. And we were living in the world where thirty percent of mankind were moving in socialist direction in 1970s.
How could it be, less than one hundred years, and the world was changed? Why? Because it was good theory. It shows that direction. It’s like the airplane. People know that it’s impossible to fly. You cannot fly, you are man, you are not bird. What can be done? Nothing. Capitalism is forever, market is forever, inequality is forever. Nobody can be changed. But then, guys come in and say that there is a special theory which creates a potential to fly. Of course, first the airplanes were absolutely terrible, and it was a lot of catastrophes. But now we are flying, I hope, safely to the U.S. and back. The same with building of socialism. And the theory is that it is possible to fly, to move to the free society with free development of personalities, main goal. It was very important.
PAUL JAY: But now the general conception is that theory was wrong.
ALEXANDER BUZGALIN: So, now I am sure that it is right. And I mentioned in the second chapter, I think, of our talk- by the way, thank you very much. I didn’t think that it can be such interesting dialogue for people, who knew? Maybe it will be interesting for you who are listening to us. So, I said that history is moving not directly. It is a non-linear transformation from realm of necessity towards realm of freedom from feudal capitalist mode of production towards communism as a space of free positive freedom. And this is like a river which is going with zig-zags. And I said that Mississippi is from the North to the South, yeah, sometimes it’s going back to the North. The same with Volga, by the way, in Russia.
Now we are in the period of the history when historical time is going back. We are in the process of regress.
PAUL JAY: So, you lived through the ending phase of the Soviet Union, and you’ve come out of this process maybe more a Marxist than when you went into this process when you were young. But that’s not true for most of the people in Russia now. What about your life led you to this?
ALEXANDER BUZGALIN: First of all, I became, more or less, a theoretically well-prepared Marxist because I had practice of communist life. My parents, their friends, were working for the country, very hard. Of course, money was important. Of course, they had dream to buy new T.V. set, but it was not the key problem, not the main problem. I had very good relations in pioneer organizations. I had great teachers for whom also this romantic life was the goal of the life. They were teaching, and it was not a very well-paid job, but they were happy to spend all time with kids, even without big obligations. It was not ninety or one hundred percent life of Soviet Union. It was maybe thirty percent, maybe twenty percent. But I was lucky to be in this process.
And when I received theoretical proof that this is not something extraordinary, this is what must be, I became, let’s say, a critical communist, if I can say so. Because during my student years, I wrote, with my friends, a manuscript with strong critique of the Soviet system. And our PhD dissertation was very accurate, but behind was critique of Soviet system, of planning as a bureaucratic system with privileges of bureaucracy, with inequality, with alienation of people from real power, real property. And I had talks about this with my colleagues when I was defending my PhD dissertation, with problems, but I defended it. I was devoted to the contradictions of planification. The topic was provocative.
But after that, I started to teach in Moscow State University. I was lucky, all my life I spent at MSU. I organized a seminar about, devoted to the contradictions of real socialism- it was contradictions of developed socialism. And we had debates in a very specific language, very abstract, theoretical language, but about real contradictions of our life. And it was very important for me. When Gorbachev’s perestroika came, we were ready for it.
PAUL JAY: How old were you then?
ALEXANDER BUZGALIN: It was how much- I was thirty years old, thirty-one, thirty-two, something like that. Yeah, ’85.
PAUL JAY: And by this point, you’re already playing a very senior role in the Party?
ALEXANDER BUZGALIN: No, I was not member of the Party.
PAUL JAY: You were not a member at this point?
ALEXANDER BUZGALIN: I was not a member of the Party. I was teaching in the Economics Department of MSU, Moscow State University, but I was not a member of the Party.
PAUL JAY: Why didn’t you join the party?
ALEXANDER BUZGALIN: It was too bureaucratic at that period, I can say. And when we received the opportunity to talk more or less free, we started to write articles, a book, devoted to these contradictions, bureaucratization, organized different clubs, meetings. And informal social life, or better to say, informal civil society appeared in that period, in 1987, 1988. And in that period, I became a member of the Communist Party, when it became more free and with a position [inaudible].
PAUL JAY: In the United States, the Vietnam War helped shape and politicize millions of people. It shaped the whole character of a whole generation and how they looked at the world. Did the Afghan War play that role in Russia?
ALEXANDER BUZGALIN: Not at all, it was not significant. In fact, only after perestroika period, or during perestroika period, the last two years of the Soviet Union, 1989 and 1990, we received more information, and more, how you say, results of, understanding of this problem. But still, in consciousness of Soviet people, Afghan War is not associated with Vietnam War in the United States, mainly because, in Vietnam, it was visible opposition, which now created not a bad country, is creating not a bad country. In Afghanistan, it’s difficult to say. And still, there are a lot of people from Afghanistan who say that when Soviet Union left us, we received a lot of tragedies and few stabilization. And when we look now on countries in Central Asia, former republics of the Soviet Union, we see very few stabilization of life.
PAUL JAY: You know, Zbigniew Brzezinski, who helped engineer, when he was National Security Advisor for Carter, and they kind of bring this whole plan to arm the Jihadists in the countryside and wage a war against the Soviet Union. They see that as helping bring down the Soviet system. And they see that as a great victory, even though it led- I mean, I interviewed Brzezinski, and he’ll acknowledge it gave rise to Bin Laden and Al-Qaida, and even the 9/11 attacks. But he still thinks it was a great victory to be able to use the Afghan War to destroy the Soviet Union. Did it play that kind of role?
ALEXANDER BUZGALIN: I don’t think that the Afghan War was really an important factor for the destruction of the Soviet Union. It was not- main contradictions were inside. But of course, permanent pressure from outside was a very important factor, but not the most important factor. I can say, seventy, eighty percent internal contradictions, twenty, thirty percent influence from outside. And the Afghan War was maybe a few percent in this influence. Of course, this is very funny, to give percent for such factors, but, to make it simple.
PAUL JAY: But the internal bureaucratization, and such to the-
ALEXANDER BUZGALIN: Bureaucratization and consumerization. I want to stress, I think the main enemy of communism- in mine and Marx’s understanding of free society with free development of personality, main enemy is not even capital or private property. Main enemy is conformist life of people who are slaves of market, of money, of capital. To be a marionette puppet in the hands of market, not in the hands of big boss, or president, or dictator, even, but the puppets of the market.
PAUL JAY: Here we call that freedom.
ALEXANDER BUZGALIN: Yeah, freedom, yeah. But if there will be a chance, I will give more exact explanation, but in Soviet Union, even in Stalin’s period of dictatorship, it was impossible to force people to talk only about communism all weekend. But market can create, push can force everybody to go to megamall and spend all weekend buying or just looking for some commodities. Market is more totalitarian, more oppressive than any political system, with dictatorship. Ninety percent of people in China, in modern Russia, in the United States and India, are slaves of the market fetishism. And this is even more powerful and more oppressive force than any totalitarian ideology.
PAUL JAY: Okay, we’ll continue our discussion. Please join us for the next segment of Reality Asserts Itself with Alexander Buzgalin.