Gorbachev Paved Way for Oligarchs - Aleksandr Buzgalin


By opposing deep democratic reforms from below, Gorbachev laid the groundwork for privatization and the looting of the 1990s. Buzgalin joins Paul Jay on theAnalysis.news.


Paul Jay

Hi. Welcome to theAnalysis.news. I’m Paul Jay. In just a few seconds, I’ll be joined by Aleksandr Buzgalin to talk about the significance of the life of Mikhail Gorbachev. Please don’t forget there’s a donate button on the website. If you support what we do, please go and click. If you already have, thank you. If you haven’t subscribed on YouTube, please do or on one of the various podcast platforms. Most importantly, sign up for the email list. Be back in just a few seconds.

On December 25, 1991, Mikhail Gorbachev resigned as the leader of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and dissolved the Soviet Union itself. With his death on August 30, Gorbachev has been mostly praised in the Western press for his vision of a social democratic Soviet Union within Europe, much like a Sweden or a Finland. Of course, that’s not what happened. What actually followed was a period of rapacious capitalism where public assets were looted by former leaders of the party and the bureaucracy.

Aleksandr Buzgalin was a member of the Central Committee of the CPSU in its last year and fought for quite a different vision of a reformed Soviet Union. Buzgalin is currently a professor and director of the Center of Modern Marxist Studies at Moscow State University. He joins us now from Moscow. Thanks for joining us again, Aleksandr.

Aleksandr Buzgalin 

I’m very glad to be with you and discuss very important questions, as you know.

Paul Jay

The death of Gorbachev is, in some ways, more about the end of the Soviet Union than it is about the figure of Gorbachev. I know you had a very direct experience in the days and months before the end of the Soviet Union. You once told me the story about this. Maybe you could start there, and then we can get into the bigger question. You were not in the party, am I correct? But you went to a party congress, and you were part of a reform group that proposed certain reforms. Gorbachev didn’t agree with your reforms. What was that about?

Aleksandr Buzgalin 

It’s not exactly the model of my life. The logic is as follows. In 1985 the Soviet Union started some reforms. The first was very mild, and then it became deeper. In 1989, it became a real opportunity to be in a position officially without [inaudible 00:02:46]. 

Paul Jay

By reforms, do you mean more openness in terms of how you could speak?

Aleksandr Buzgalin 

Different reforms. By the way, I want to talk about this a little later. Gorbachev is not only glasnost, freedom of speech, and political pluralism. It’s a much more complex problem in the economy and ideology. Later we will talk about this.

In 1988, I think I became a member of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union because it was possible to be in a position inside the Communist Party. In the winter of 1989-1990, we created a so-called Marxist platform. It was democratic, socialist, and, I can say, even communist opposition to both Stalinism and Bourgeoisie reforms. Gorbachev, in that period, was the leader of social democratic reforms, but in a very pro-western style. It was more western social democracy than, let’s say, a social democracy of [Georgi] Plekhanov or even [Karl] Kautsky. It was a very pro-western model of social democracy, the center or right-wing model of social democracy.

First and second, he was a leader of a huge bureaucratic machine, and he did not want to reform this bureaucratic machine. The Communist Party and Central Committee were organized very bureaucratically, and they could not react to very deep contradictions in the country. That’s why we established the Marxist platform.

Paul Jay

For people who don’t know too much about the period, what do you mean when you say organized very bureaucratically? What are some examples?

Aleksandr Buzgalin 

First of all, it was the same huge apparatus as the Central Committee. If you wanted to make any changes, it was necessary to go through different departments and sub-departments. In the region’s party, leaders could not make anything without permission from the center, and they didn’t have initiative. They were part of a machine, and they could not work without the machine. They could not work without the KGB. They could not work without the police, and it was very difficult to change this machine.

We were talking about the necessity to radically reorganize the party-state on an anti-bureaucratic basis. The main question was about the development of real, not formal, self-management in enterprises. Real economic democracy. Real democracy, grassroots democracy. Gorbachev was playing with bourgeois forms of democracy. It was possible to say blah, blah, blah for intelligence. Still, there was no voice for the ordinary people and people who became poor in the Soviet Union Gorbachev period because of the shortage of commodities. Many real forms of democracy were not developing grassroots democracy. We were doing a lot in this sphere. It’s important, by the way. It was a movement of self-management, organs of enterprises, big enterprises, and small enterprises.

In 1990 we had all of the Union, Soviet Union, Congress of the leaders of self-management. It was 1,000 people from all over the country. It was intelligent, very democratic people who wanted to have democratic socialism, but they didn’t have power. Real democratization– and the economy was not powered by workers or engineers. There was more power to the directors who started the underground privatization during the Soviet period. Workers and engineers were fighting against this, and they didn’t have support from the Communist party, and they didn’t have support from Gorbachev.

Paul Jay

Let me just highlight this. You said the privatization began underground even during the days of the Soviet Union. This is from higher-level party bureaucrats, am I correct? They were already trying to develop private ownership amongst that class.

Aleksandr Buzgalin 

They were not against it, I can say. If we are talking about party bureaucrats– it’s easier to explain. In the Gorbachev period, there appeared two wings of bureaucrats in the Communist party. One part was old-style bureaucrats who had communist, socialist illusions and formal socialist ideology in their brains. At the same time, they were very cynical. They were, let’s say, corrupt. Not because of bribes but because they wanted to go anywhere and have money. They were oriented on the transformation of their power to the property, to the capital, but not very radically. They were passive and not active, this whole generation of Communist party bureaucrats. We had young generations mainly in the Komsomol youth communist organization and also part of directors and leaders of formerly state enterprises. But because Gorbachev allowed so-called [inaudible 00:08:08] leasing, directors took enterprises in leasing. It was a strange situation when an enterprise with equipment for billion of dollars was in the leasing of a director who had, I don’t know, maybe a few thousand dollars. So it was a very unbeautiful story. I’m trying to find a polite way to say this.

Paul Jay

One, you don’t need to be polite. Two, what is the term you’re using?

Aleksandr Buzgalin 

Leasing. Rent.

Paul Jay

Oh, leasing.

Aleksandr Buzgalin 

I’m sorry for my pronunciation. Yes, leasing of enterprises. Also, it was the growth of separatism among regional leaders. It was not a liberation of people in different regions of the former Soviet Union in Ukraine. Not in Ukraine. In Ukraine, it was not very radical. In Baltic republics, Georgia, and in some regions of Caucasus, there were more attempts of bureaucrats and communist and non-communist leaders in these former Soviet republics. It was not for former Soviet republics to take power. It was not liberation from below. It was a struggle of bureaucrats for their power in former Soviet republics, which became independent states. We will regain this. We were for the support of recreation, rebirth, and renaissance of the Soviet Union as unity based on initiatives from below. We will support real self-management of enterprises and regional self-management for grassroots democracy, not for bureaucratic games in a multiparty system, definitely against Stalinism and definitely against bourgeois transformation.

Paul Jay

By bourgeois transformation, you mean the Western capitalist model. In fact, what actually happened in the ’90s?

Aleksandr Buzgalin 

It’s another story, which is also very important to understand why people don’t like Gorbachev now. Finally, it became terrible. I want to say terrible catastrophe in the economy, living standards, social life, geopolitics, ideology, and culture. In the early ’90s, our country had a decline in the gross national product by nearly 50%; one-half. There was a decline in real incomes for the poor population by one-half. There was enormous growth of social polarization during a few months, not even years. It was a criminal atmosphere.

The Gorbachev period was a period of discreditation of the police in all spheres, including the militia. Of course, it was not a very democratic organization. Without control, without the militia, without punishment of criminal elements, it’s impossible to live in society. Especially when primitive accumulation of capital leads to enormous violence everywhere. If you remember the primitive accumulation of capital in the United States, it was mass [inaudible 00:11:36], and you had all these western movies about the primitive accumulation of capital. The gun is the main tool for the accumulation of capital. Gorbachev is responsible for the decline of the real power of the police. I’m a very democratic person, but in some respects, it’s necessary to have police against organized bandits. It was all negative things.

Paul Jay

When Gorbachev is deciding, preparing to step down to dissolve the Soviet Union, he must know there’s going to be a free for all. Looting of publicly owned enterprises and wealth. He has to know that’s what’s coming.

Aleksandr Buzgalin 

It’s a story that is a miracle to hear. I cannot explain his personal behavior. In most public opinion in modern Russia, even from the 1990s, this is the case. In Russian, we have the word ‘baba’. It’s a woman who cannot make something herself. I’m sorry, it’s not anti-feminist; it’s just Russian content. So a woman who is under the oppression of men, who is not decisive, who cannot make real actions, and who cannot take responsibility. This is the main negative feeling to Gorbachev. Why I said I could not understand, I don’t think that he is ‘baba’. What I think is he started with a very good slogan in 1985 when he became the General Secretary of the Communist Party. He said the main factor of our rebirth, of our new epoch, is the social creativity of the masses. He made quotations from [Vladimir Ilʹich] Lenin. He said we must have an acceleration of economy, and we must use plans, strategic planning, socialist methods, and some forms of democracy in order to open the energy of the people. It was not bad words at all. Some steps in this direction really appeared. Until 1988, there was more democratization in the sphere of enterprise management. There were more opportunities for the self-organization of people in regions, the creation of new forms of green movements, and so on. There were some positive changes.

But then, step-by-step, he started moving in the direction of, firstly, Western-style social democracy. Then he did not support, but he did not criticize, he did not attack those who were for bourgeoisie restoration. It was direct, but maybe not subjective, of leaders like Yeltsin, like Gavriil Popov, leader of Moscow in the 1990s, like [Anatoly] Sobchak, the leader of St. Petersburg in the 1990s. All these so-called leaders of [inaudible 00:15:05] opposition.

They were speaking in the late ’80s about the necessity to have a Swedish model of socialism and even more socialism than in Sweden, more socialism than in Finland. They never talked about total privatization. They never talked about the primitive accumulation of capital. I don’t know, maybe they were really stupid or primitive not to understand what really would take place. For me, for my comrades, we were 30 years old, by the way, not very old people in that period. We were absolutely sure that it would not be social democracy. It would not be Sweden. It would be a third-world country with all criminal forms of capitalism in the periphery.

It was not the case for Gorbachev, for Communist Party bureaucrats, and for the opposition. That’s why we created this Marxist platform with all these critiques and predictions. Three of us became members of the Central Committee of the Communist Party. It is the main ruling organ. When there was a planned meeting of the Central Committee– the Central Committee was big, with nearly 300 people. It was one of the first meetings after [inaudible 00:16:25]. It was 1990, and they said if we continued the same politics, the Communist Party would collapse, and the Soviet Union would disappear.

By the way, when it was the case in 1992, some old leaders of the Communist Party said Aleksandr, you are responsible for the destruction of the Soviet Union. You are responsible for the destruction of the Communist Party. You said one year before that it would be destroyed, and it was destroyed. You son of a bitch, Sasha. It was not clear to Gorbachev, and it was not clear to Communist Party bureaucrats.

I want to stress another aspect if it’s possible to move from Gorbachev to real contradictions of the country.

Paul Jay

Well, before you do that, let me just explore this Gorbachev thing a little further. His vision, which is being praised now in the Western media that Russia / the Soviet Union would become a social democracy, part of Europe and part of the West essentially. It seems to me if Gorbachev really believed that it’s so naive and so delusional that western capital would ever allow Russia to become that kind of player in Europe. Given everything the Soviet Union had in terms of size, resources, and manpower, it wouldn’t have been long in that situation where the Soviet Union would have been equal to Germany. It would have been a powerful player in Europe. I can’t imagine the Germans and Americans ever allowing that.

Aleksandr Buzgalin 

So I don’t know if he was naive or he was not smart enough. I don’t know him personally. I only saw him in the Tribune or the Congress. We never met. I met some leaders of the party and members of the political bureau. It was little more than ten people. Some of them were not bad and did not support Gorbachev. Gorbachev, I didn’t meet myself closely. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, we met, but not in that period. I think that he was not smart enough. He was not decisive enough. I cannot say naive. Naive is a word for a young girl. A sixteen years old girl who dreams about romantic life. He was not a young girl at all. He was a political leader. So I don’t know what I can use here, but it’s not naive. It’s maybe blind, better to say.

Paul Jay

At some point before the coup in– what is it, August of 1990. He comes back for a few months, and then he steps down. At some point, is he more or less captured by the forces that are preparing for this big privatization and looting of the economy? In some ways, does he wind up being their tool?

Aleksandr Buzgalin 

It’s a complex question. I think Gorbachev was not the captain of the boat. He was in the boat, which was moving according to the streams. This boat didn’t have– I don’t know how to say it. Like in the car when you move.

Paul Jay

A steering wheel?

Aleksandr Buzgalin 

Steering wheel, yes. This car didn’t have an engine. It was like a piece of wood moving in the river. Gorbachev was not a captain. That’s why he is responsible for not being a captain. Is it clear?

Paul Jay

Yeah.

Aleksandr Buzgalin 

In the period of radical changes, when the streams are very different, and the dominant stream is negative or reactionary, the captain of the boat must be decisive, strong, and must create a team that will fight against this negative trend. Gorbachev destroyed the bureaucratic system of management. It was necessary to transfer this bureaucratic system, but not to completely destroy the system of governing, not management, governing in the country. He really destroyed governing. No change from bureaucratic governing to democratic governing, but he destroyed governing. Not him personally, but he did not fight against its destruction. That is what I can say.

Paul Jay

Did the privatization, the development of this class of oligarchs, does that begin while Gorbachev is still there, or it all happens afterward?

Aleksandr Buzgalin 

It was the underground genesis. When a tree is growing, first, the seed is in the land. The seed is growing, and then first, small green elements appear. So here it was not a tree; it was something ugly and terrible. It was a dragon growing from these seeds. The seeds of dragons were developing in the Gorbachev period. It was not a big huge dragon of oligarchs, but it was the beginning because of the so-called freedom, but it was really disorganization and not freedom. Because of the disorganization of governing, we had an enormous growth of shadow business and criminal shadow business in the late ’80s. We had the underground privatization with the leasing of enterprises by directors.

Paul Jay

Now, what does that mean? They’re charging outside forces to come in and use the enterprise. What does it mean, leasing? Renting.

Aleksandr Buzgalin 

The director of the enterprise, the manager of the enterprise, received the power to be the executive owner of the enterprise; to buy, to sell production, to reorganize production, to decrease production, and to change production. They became class owners, not formal owners, but real owners. They made the first accumulation of capital on this basis. Not all enterprises, but many big enterprises and small enterprises in the country.

Paul Jay

This was supposed to be done in the name of opposing bureaucracy?

Aleksandr Buzgalin 

Yes, it was the growth of democracy, economic democracy. It was not the growth of economic democracy. Democracy powers people, demos kratos. Here was the power of directors instead of the power of [inaudible 00:23:20]. I don’t know what is worst.

Paul Jay

Well, maybe this starts to answer my next question. After Gorbachev stepped down and they started privatizing, supposedly, these public assets were purchased. Where do these guys get the money to buy anything?

Aleksandr Buzgalin 

They did not buy anything. They steal everything. It’s not a joke, unfortunately. Future enterprises like [inaudible 00:23:48], enterprises with 40, 20, 50,000 workers. The metal in these enterprises is– just metal from the machines cost, I don’t know, billions of dollars. Not enterprise, but simply to sell the metal, they sold equipment, it will be billions of dollars. They bought these enterprises for 5-10 million dollars, which they accumulated during primitive, criminal shadow business in the Gorbachev period. Then it was a game. It was a so-called auction. When you pay very small money, you buy an enterprise, and then you must pay it back because you have an enterprise, and you will pay it back from the saving of the products produced in this enterprise.

Paul Jay

Somebody told me that, I think, it’s 1990 or 1991, there is a loan from the IMF. It was supposed to go to the Russian government to help pay the debt, but it was actually diverted into private hands and then used to buy public resources.

Aleksandr Buzgalin 

Yes, it was after the destruction of the Soviet Union in 1991. Western money and big money, it was billions of dollars that went to these goals. It was a lot of illegal privatization. It’s also important; there was enormous inflation. In one year, prices grew 30 times, not 30%, 30 times. Every month it was growing two, three, or five times per month. So it was enormous.

In the beginning, it was an official estimation of enterprise in rubles. After a few months, it was 100 times less or 50 times less than it was in the beginning. So there were a lot of these speculations which led to the privatization of enterprises by criminal leaders, shadow economy leaders, and some young Communist Party bureaucrats. Young, decisive, strong, and aggressive. I can say even aggressive. Let’s say a talented entrepreneur came to this game. Thousands of them were killed, but one, two, or three of them became big businessmen.

Paul Jay

They were killed because they were fighting each other over the wealth?

Aleksandr Buzgalin 

Yes, maybe not directly killed, but destroyed. Their capital was completely destroyed. They became absolutely poor. It was a very brutal period.

Paul Jay

So Gorbachev’s argument was, as I understand it, that the Soviet Union’s economy, politics had become so bureaucratic and the Soviet republics wanted out. He had no choice but to step down and do what he did. Otherwise, there would have been a civil war. Did he have a choice?

Aleksandr Buzgalin 

The problem is not him. The problem is the situation in general. He was his team. In some aspects, Gorbachev was a puppet in the hands of the whole team of bureaucrats who really wanted these changes. They really wanted to change their power and receive capital and private property. He was a puppet in these hands.

Why wasn’t he a leader and instead a puppet is another question. It’s a problem with his personal qualities. This team of leaders with Gorbachev did not prevent the destruction of socialism. It’s better to say it in another way. I want to repeat this. It was necessary to transform the bureaucratic system, change so-called bureaucratic socialism, and create a democratic model of socialism from below. Instead of that, it was the destruction of the system of governing. Not the destruction of bureaucratism, but the destruction of government. Bureaucratic governing is governing that works in the interests of the bureaucrats, not the people’s interests. If you want to change the boat’s course, it’s not necessary to destroy it. Something like that. Some first intentions were very important and positive, as I said, in 1985-87. Then forces that led to the destruction of socialism and the Soviet Union came to power step by step.

Here it’s important to explain why, in general, the Soviet Union collapsed or disappeared, better to say. There are different explanations, but my position is the following. Socialism is like a bicycle. It’s necessary to move all the time and move forward. To move forward, socialism must have a basic engine. The engine of socialism is not the market. It’s not private activity, competition, and so on. The engine of communism, socialism, as the first step is social creativity if you want enthusiasm.

In the beginning, it’s impossible to build a new society on the basis of only enthusiasm. Without enthusiasm, it’s impossible to move in the direction of socialism and further to communism. It’s necessary to have social creativity. When we had social creativity, there was very rapid development and positive developments even in bureaucratic systems. Even inside all these mutations, all these negative features, like in the [Nikita] Khrushchev period during the late ’50s and early ’60s.

By the way, I will make a small important remark. In the West, there are a lot of positive words about Gorbachev, but I never hear positive words about Khrushchev. During that period, we had the Spring. We had much more freedom for culture, science, and education. There was an enormous jump in technologies, the cosmos, nuclear power stations, new types of transportation, and automatic enterprises. We had our first automatic enterprise in the 1960s with robot productions. It was a so-called enterprise producing some elements for machines. It was an enterprise producing these elements of machines without men at all in the late ’60s.

There were a lot of decisions in culture, cinema, fundamental sides, and it was another atmosphere in the country. Of course, it was a bureaucracy and had a lot of negative features. It was a one-party system, and there was a growth in the popularity of the Soviet Union in the world. Anti-colonial revolutions in all countries. In Africa, Asia, in Latin America, they struggled to face this dictatorship. Everywhere supported the Soviet Union. There were millions of students in Russian-Soviet universities during this period. It was a wonderful country with wonderful development. Why didn’t the West like it? Because it was a strong country. When Gorbachev came to the United Nations, he took a shoe and boom, boom, and said you will have–

Paul Jay

You mean when Khrushchev came?

Aleksandr Buzgalin 

Khrushchev, yes. By the way, when you said do they like Gorbachev in the West, mainstream West, not Left. I want to propose another fantastic story. What would it be like if today in our country and in former Soviet republics (Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan) if they had wonderful leaders with strong political forces who wanted to create a new Soviet Union with democracy, real grassroots democracy, with real self-management in the state enterprises, with free education, but with a strong army based on the enthusiasm of the people, with development of high-tech and so on? Will the West applaud the leader? Look, he is for the freedom of speech. Look he’s for real democracy. Look, he’s building a just society with good people. Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan want to create a new, peaceful, huge, big country with strong weapons, strong technologies, and wonderful computer tech for all other countries in the world. Will they be happy? No. That’s why they liked Gorbachev. Not for democracy but for the destruction of the country. Destruction of the system. Not the country, but the destruction of the system. The socialist system with all the negative features, but the socialist system was a real opposition to world capital.

There is one more important aspect that I want to stress. It was not only Gorbachev who led to the destruction of the, let’s say, mutant socialism, bureaucratic socialism. In the former world, the socialist system, even earlier than the Soviet Union, in Czechoslovakia, in other west-east European countries, we had changes. These countries had different leaders. Some were more strong, some were less, some were smarter, some less, but everywhere it was this change. Why?

Let’s come back to the question of why the Soviet Union disappeared. The Soviet Union in the Leonid Brezhnev period– not in the Gorbachev period. In the Brezhnev period, the late ’60s and ’70s, the Soviet Union lost its engine. The bicycle stops, and the bicycle cannot stand; it must move. It was an attempt to add the market engine for socialism. It doesn’t work. It creates private business inside socialism. It’s possible to have markets as one of the tools to move, but not as the dominant force.

Paul Jay

To do what you say, to do what you’re recommending requires a real democratization of the politics. You can’t have any enthusiasm for self-management if you’re still dealing with the bureaucratic, more or less, police state.

Aleksandr Buzgalin 

It’s true, but not 100%. I will explain why. In the 1920s, even in the early 1930s, the Soviet Union was not a 100% democratic state. It was a one-party system. There was no freedom of speech for anti-socialist forces. There was no mass repression, but if you started a coup d’état, you would be imprisoned or killed. We had enormous enthusiasm because we had democracy on the grassroots level. Politically on the top, it was not pure democratic in a bourgeoise sense. In the lower level of enterprises, opportunities to create different social initiatives in jewels and so on were possible.

Paul Jay

You’re talking about the 1920s?

Aleksandr Buzgalin 

Yes, the 1920s and early 1930s. Step by step, there was a growth of bureaucratization, Stalin’s dictatorship, and so on. Even in the period of 1930, when all these repressions started, when 100,000 people to 2 million people were repressed, and some of them were killed. When the Gulag appeared– only in that period we had [inaudible 00:36:57] from below because it was a very contradictory mixture of the creation of a new state, new economy, new society, new education, a new culture for people, on the one hand, I don’t know left hand, and it was bureaucratic dictatorship from another.

Finally, it led to big enormous contradictions. When the Second World War started, for us, the Great Patriotic War, there was again a very strange model of enthusiasm. Not strange, I can say, beautiful but extremely tragic model of enthusiasm. People were dying for peace. We had millions of people who went to war voluntarily. They went and died. They were real heroes. Young boys and old men, like 60 years old, 70 years old when Hitler was near Moscow. Old people, 60-70 years old, nobody made the order to go and be killed. It was enthusiasm if you want.

There was a lot of enthusiasm in the production sphere. [inaudible 00:38:19] wrote a beautiful article about a lot of new projects, forms of organization of management, and technology. It was a dictatorship because it was war. So it’s a very contradictory process. Then after Stalin, it was Russo Spring, and there was less dictatorship, less oppression of people, and less ideological pressure. There was, but it was less. There was a very rapid growth of laws, science, and culture.

During the Brezhnev period, it was stopped because it was a real threat to bureaucracy. This destruction of enthusiasm from below led to the transformation of leaders. In the beginning, the leaders of the Soviet Union were a mixture of bureaucrats with communists. Khrushchev, Brezhnev, and all these people were bureaucrats. They were, in some aspects, brutal dictators, but they came from World War II, and many of them were heroes of this war. Brezhnev was not killed. He was wounded but not killed. Many people like Brezhnev were killed in this war. That’s why they had bureaucrats and communists. Then because of the absence of enthusiasm from below and the absence of control from below, this bureaucratic party grew and became the whole head, and communism disappeared.

When I was in the Central Committee– I don’t remember if I said this, or if I was just thinking about it, but it was no one communist, except maybe a few people. Three hundred leaders of the communist party, 20 million communist parties. They were not communists. They were not real, and to the creation of a new society, they were bureaucrats with some illusions. More or less cynical.

Paul Jay

For them, being a communist meant defending the party and the state. It didn’t have a lot to do with the social content of that.

Aleksandr Buzgalin 

Yes, and to receive different privileges. By the way, not very big, but still, it was privileges. So that’s why it was from both sides. It was a growth of conformism from below and the growth of bureaucratism from the top. Gorbachev was a result of this transformation.

Paul Jay

There’s still another level of why. Why does it become so bureaucratized? Is it partly because you can’t have central planning and such control of the economy when you’re using a pencil and paper? There were just the very beginnings of the computer. How could you possibly have such centralization with such primitive technology?

Aleksandr Buzgalin 

First of all, it was not necessary to have absolute centralization.

Paul Jay

But they did.

Aleksandr Buzgalin 

Yes, and that was one of the reasons. The key problem was not even centralization in the economy. The key problem was the relatively low level of culture and the relatively low level of social creativity of the masses when the revolution took place.

For socialism, the best way for a socialist revolution is when you have a strong Left party with millions of people inside capitalists. You have huge trade unions, not bureaucratic trade unions. You have real initiatives from below the sphere of a Green movement and other social movements. You have Left intelligence inside capitalism. You don’t have a political party or political power, but you have all the necessary prerequisites. Opposition is strong, democratic, educated, cultural, you have a salary, you have actors, you have experience, and then you have victory in the elections. It’s wonderful; we are moving in the direction of socialism. Step by step, from market to plan, from private property to social, from formal bourgeoisie democracy to grassroots democracy. Miscontradictions, but we are moving. It’s a wonderful picture. Really, when you have highly developed capitalism, you have enormous control of capital and bureaucracy over all spheres of life.

It’s another topic, but with Andrey Kolganov, we wrote our book Global Capital. By the way, it is published in English with a strange name, Twenty-First-Century Capital. It’s very similar to this famous book. In Britain, it’s published by Manchester University Press. I’m not advertising it; it’s too expensive to buy. So if anybody wants, I can say send the manuscript for free. I’m not asking you to buy it for $400.

It’s important; we wrote that it is a totalitarian market. The market is a totalitarian force that controls every step and every idea of personality. It’s global hegemony of capital in all spheres, from birth to death. In this situation, it’s very difficult to build a position. The position is growing mainly in this sphere, in the countries where there are very deep contradictions of capitalism but where there is no totalitarian power. Sometimes there is a dictatorship, but there is no totalitarian power of the market and capital.

In Latin America, they don’t have enough prerequisites. They are like Russia before the socialist revolution, and they cannot build new real socialism. They have these limits. So we move far from Gorbachev, but it’s an important question.

Paul Jay

Let’s get back to Gorbachev. Let me ask you another question, people are talking about. Even Putin has sort of suggested this in a way. Why couldn’t Gorbachev and the leadership done something more like what happened in China? Now, I’m not necessarily a big fan of the restoration of capitalism in China, but clearly, something had to be done. They say why couldn’t Gorbachev manage this process the way Deng Xiaoping did it in China?

Aleksandr Buzgalin 

First of all, he could. Not him personally, but it was possible from an objective point of view, except for very important aspects. It was impossible to make, let’s say, more markets even with these elements of capitalism. A model of the Soviet Union after, let’s say, Gorbachev or during.

I’m sorry, let’s start from the beginning. It was possible to move in the direction of the development of markets and even private property. The Soviet Union in the ’80s was not a country dominated by peasants. It was not a country dominated by uneducated people. It was a country with one-half of the people with high education and with a very high level of culture. To continue a bureaucratic dictatorship with market and capitalism, I think, was impossible. It was possible to move in the direction of socialism with more real grassroots democracy, market, and some elements of capitalism. At the same time, with strong control of socialism or, better to say, a people’s state over capital and market.

When I was in China, I said the market is not– you know, it’s a very famous quote by Deng Xiaoping. He said it doesn’t matter what the color of the cat is; it’s important that the cat catches the mouse.

Paul Jay

“No matter if it is a white cat or a black cat; as long as it can catch mice, it is a good cat.”

Aleksandr Buzgalin 

Red cat, black cat; it doesn’t matter. It does matter because the market is not a cat. It is a tiger, as I said in China. Tigers are very dangerous. Or lion if you want. It’s necessary to control. It’s necessary to restrict. It’s necessary to have strong power, democratic but strong. Gorbachev made some forms of democracy, but they didn’t make democracy power. Democracy means demos-kratia. Demos means people. Real people. Not the intelligence who is saying something. Kratia means power. If we decide something, we must do it. If you don’t support us, you will be punished. This is democracy. This is real power.

Paul Jay

This is clearly just the beginning of a series of conversations we need to have. Let me ask you one final question for today. I know you’re going on a trip, but when you come back, we’ll schedule another session, and we’ll keep going. So here’s the final question for today. During the period of the lead-up to the dissolving of the Soviet Union, Gorbachev’s resignation, what is the role, and how important is the role of the U.S. and the West in encouraging a more open market, shock therapy, and looting of public ownership? How important was the West in the demise of the Soviet Union?

Aleksandr Buzgalin 

It was not the main role, but it was an important and a very negative role. You know, sometimes when there is nearly balance, even small additional money, small additional power can change the equilibrium. So it was a very big struggle. By the way, it was not only one way– Gorbachev and then the destruction of the Soviet Union. We had another objectively possible scenario of development. One of them was real democratic socialism with many contradictions but democratic socialism.

Let’s make a fantastic story. If we have no United States-Germany, western Germany, and NATO is counter partners of reforms and the Soviet Union but strong, really democratic socialist states. In the United States, it is socially democratic. In western Germany, it is socially democratic. In Britain, it is socially democratic. I don’t think that in the Soviet Union, we have this situation– Yeltsin’s power, brutal shock therapy, and so on. Of course, again, it was not because the United States intervened in the Soviet Union. It was not because Gorbachev was a spy or an agent of the CIA. It is also typical for some Russians to say that he was an agent of the Central Intelligence Agency or, I don’t know, [inaudible 00:50:31], [inaudible 00:50:31] or something like that. It’s not true, of course, but it was very important additional pressure on our country in the direction of not even social democracy but in the direction of brutal primitive accumulation of capital in the form of liberal capitalism, but just form.

What is important, we did not discuss geopolitical or foreign policy aspects of Gorbachev relations. It was possible to have another model of transformation in this sphere, of course. Finally, I want to stress that this integration of the Soviet Union and collapse was not the end but defeat, not the final defeat, but the defeat of the socialist project in the late ’80s and 1991 led to enormous problems for the whole world.

After that, instead of peace, why wars? In Russia, capitalism. In the United States, capitalism. Everywhere capitalism. Why wars? Why were thousands, millions of people killed for six decades during these decades? Why? Because capitalism means militaries and wars. It’s the law of capitalism. Inside former Soviet Union territory, we had permanent wars. In Chechnya, Moldova, Georgia, and between Azerbaijan and Armenia. There are an enormous amount of victims. The modern situation in Ukraine is also a result of this destruction. In the Soviet Union, it didn’t matter if Crimea or Donbass was part of the Russian Federation or Ukrainian. Not that it was. Russian socialist federation or Soviet republic or Ukrainian republic. It was really one state.

Territories were moving from one formal republic to another formal republic. Donbass was part of Russia until the 1920s, and then it became part of Ukraine. Crimea was part of Russia, and then it became part of Ukraine. There were a lot of transformations. In Kazakhstan, with Russia between different– it was no problem. When this separation started, it became the basis for the wars.

We didn’t discuss this question, and maybe people know in the West that in Russia, we have a lot of restrictions on the discussion about the situation in Ukraine. In Russia, we have got a special military operation. It’s the only possible word in Russia for this event. I said before this operation and said to the Russian public at the beginning of this operation– it was February 25 or 26; I don’t remember exactly when the video appeared. I don’t support this. In Russia, we have a majority– 70-80% according to official opinion polls who support this operation. Other people abstain or do not support it. So I belong to a minority, as I said. In order to analyze this situation, it’s necessary to have a real opportunity to speak without restrictions, without self-restrictions and formal bureaucratic restrictions.

It is a big problem because the information we have in Russia with video reports, figures, data, and observers is absolutely not the same as the information in the West. Honestly, I cannot say that Western information is 100% truthful. At least I know that in the West, information about wars in Vietnam, Iraq, Syria, in Libya, there was a lot of, let’s say, falsifications. I cannot say that in Russia, it’s 100% facts. That’s why it’s very difficult to make real suggestions. It’s also necessary to remember prehistory and all these provocations, including the enlargement of NATO in 2014, which started the real war against Donbass. It is important prehistory, all this prehistory.

Finally, I said my position. I expressed my position. Simply, I ask people to remember that the destruction of the Soviet Union is the deepest reason for all these things. The military and nature of capitalism is the main fundamental reason for all these things. Now it’s possible, I think, in this form of capitalism which we have in the 21st century, it is very difficult to say how to make peace if we have such forms of capitalism everywhere. I think today it’s even more important than ever before to say that only socialist trends are a basis for peace and negotiation of war.

It’s hard work, but let’s remember it was World War One. Why this war really stopped was because of the revolution in the Russian Empire in Germany and mass Left movements everywhere. Now we are on the border of extremely deep and terrible conflicts. If we are not thinking about a socialist alternative, I’m afraid that based on one or another model of capitalism, more imperialistic, less imperialistic, it’s impossible to stop and maybe postscript.

I am afraid that now we have even a threat of regress capitalism from imperialism, regress from imperialism. Empires existed in the feudal epoch, with terrible wars, but wars for the territories, wars for the power of kings, and so on. So it was not imperialist these types of wars. Now we have different types of wars, forms of wars. They are all brutal and all destructive.

Why do Pakistan and India have an enormous conflict with thousands of victims? India was imperialist, no. Pakistan was imperialist, no. They are capitalist. So let’s remember this. I think it is very important.

Paul Jay

Alright, thank you, Aleksandr. When you come back from the trip, we’ll schedule the second part of what needs to be a long series. Thanks for joining us.

Aleksandr Buzgalin 

Thank you so much. Goodbye, Paul.

Paul Jay

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Aleksandr Buzgalin is a Russian Marxist. He is a professor at the Moscow State University and the coordinator of the Social Movement “Alternatives”. He is a member of the Organizing Committee of the Russian Social Forums.”

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4 Comments

  1. Privatizing Russia, MIT press
    by Maxim Boycko, Andrei Shleifer and Robert W. Vishny
    Is a book by the Vampires themselves.

  2. I have a few points that it would be great if Paul could raise with Professor Buzgalin.

    First of all if one applies Marxian analysis to the phenomenon of the USSR, at any stage of its existence, then it’s quite clear that the capitalist mode of production – in whatever distorted form (ie. differing from the ‘classic’ Western European/US model) it took – governed the relations of production at all levels. Otherwise there’s no way of explaining the proven existence of surplus value, labour as a commodity, and forms of class struggle adapted to the state’s peculiar character. This subject is exhaustively handled by Neil Fernandez’ (1997) ‘Capitalism and Class Struggle in the USSR’, that challenges the idea that the state was even socialist, and also dismisses the Trotskyist ‘deformed workers state’ cop-out as being ideologically contrived and non-Marxist. He finishes by proposing that the model of uneven development of capital can be applied to the ‘different’ form of capitalism that the USSR represented, arguing that the mass popularity of the revolutionary struggle in which it arose explains the fundamental contradictions of its character better than the rather weaker ones proposed here by Professor Buzgalin.

    For example, the professor claims – and I think correctly in a sense – that Gorbachev (or his class?) was responsible for unleashing a form of ‘primitive accumulation of capital’ on the rapidly dissolving USSR in 1990, but this was not for the first time. It had after all occurred previously under Stalin in the 1930s – otherwise what was the ‘collectivisation of agriculture’ and ‘rapid industrialisation of the USSR’ all about, if not the primitive accumulation of capital? If one ignores the Trotskyist ‘deformed/degenerate workers state’ distortions to fit the theory (and salvage the reputation of one of the USSR’s key founders), then it’s quite clear that the state was being operated by a new class – bureaucratic and managerial in form, who effectively ‘owned’ industries and formations of labour (namely the alienated labour of workers through its existence as a commodity) that could be wielded as ‘blat’ in a competitive (ie. inter-capitalist) manner by rival branches of the nomenklatura.

    This leads us inevitably to another conclusion, namely that there was something inherently flawed and non-Marxist in Leninism itself and that later problems in terms of the dissonance of theory and practice arose out of this fundamental error. Of course Rosa Luxemburg, the council communists and others developed stinging critiques as early as 1918, but an attempt to apply criticism of the USSR in a methodical Marxian manner is a relatively recent phenomenon and is of course still forbidden territory to anyone who describes themselves as ‘Marxist-Leninist’. Because Stalin, for all his maliciously perverse and crude methods, could legitimately claim to be ‘following in Lenin’s footsteps’, a point even conceded by his arch-rival Trotsky – who was forced to ‘commend’ his enemy’s efforts at state-induced collectivisation and industrialisation.

    So where did Lenin’s fundamental flaw originate? Part of this arises out of the uniquely underground/conspiratorial and police informer-ridden circumstances in which the Bolshevik party was forced to operate up to 1917, and where ‘normal’ bourgeois democratic access to state power was non-existent, but a larger part arises out the simplifications of Marx and the ‘stages’ theory/dogma established by the 2nd International (1889-1916), which emphasised structure in place of struggle as history’s driving force, implying the need for a ‘professional’ or technical elite to ‘manage’ the transition to socialism. So Lenin was hardly alone in his error, as it was a flawed and unwittingly class-based assumption that in fact pervaded the entire world Social Democratic movement at the turn of the century. It was just unfortunate that all these factors came together in the person of Lenin (with his personal idiosyncrasies), his party’s ideology-dominated and dogmatic/exclusivist character, and the circumstance of the collapsing (underdeveloped) Tsarist Empire.

    The stages theory demanded a transition to capitalism ‘before’ the transition to socialism, and naturally there was no capitalist class to speak of in the old Russian Empire/USSR of 1922. In a world of well-developed and hostile capitalist powers, and following the rather patronising and non-Marxist ‘logic’ that the Bolsheviks had embraced from the 2nd International, then they would be the ‘incorruptible vanguard’ to guide the Soviet Union’s workers passively into socialism through their state-managed form of capitalism. They could only do this by first systematically dismantling the organs of democratic control (factory committees and peasant communes) that the working class had already forged on its own initiative in the revolution – a repressive and often brutal series of measures developed between 1918 and 1922 under the cover of ‘war communism’.

    Therefore, when the USSR finally fell apart in 1990 the reasons as to why go right back all the way to mid-1918 and not to the late 1980s. If we accept that the Soviet Union was in fact another capitalist entity, as indeed strict Marxian analysis informs us, albeit one uniquely (up until 1945) characterised by all the contradictions of the circumstances in which it arose, then it’s easy to see how and why it fell apart – once the already existing bureaucratic capitalist class felt it no longer required the concealing cloak of ideological ‘socialism’ to develop further and could emerge into daylight as openly (neoliberal) capitalist – much like the parasitic wasp emerges from the carcass of the paralysed spider that its larva has consumed from inside.

    It would be very useful if Paul could put some of these points to Professor Buzgalin in the course of this three-part interview.

  3. Well, of course opening the country to capitalism will make it susceptible to oligarchs. That’s what capitalism does.

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