Russia and the Left: From Statism to Civil Society

by Adam Blanden

Where does Russia belong in the hierarchy of geopolitics, and where does the future of its left movements lie?

First published: 18 November, 2013 | Category: Activism, Civil Liberties, International, Politics

My poor, long-suffering country [is being] mercilessly torn to pieces by greedy, dishonest, unbelieving people. My Russia is a beggar. My Russia cannot help her elderly and orphans.

                                    - Natalie Pereverzena, aka Russian Miss Earth


The Image of the Bear

As Russia has become 'simpler' in its understanding of its own sovereignty, no longer burdened by its semi-peripheries and the nature of its jurisdiction over smaller countries (despite its attitude to Georgia and Chechnya), it has become harder to construct convincing theories of its future development. More than at any other time in its history, the contemporary Russian Federation resembles the nation states of European tradition. Yet the diminished extent to which its legal and civil institutions harbour western practices is evidenced in numerous juridical howlers (with the terrible treatment of gay people a particularly noticeable trend). Though it sports all the constitutional regalia of the nation state, it remains determinedly illiberal. Where does Russia belong in the hierarchy of geopolitics? With Chavez and Ahmadinejad and other 'enemies of the free-world'? In the gang of young bucks who are the perceived threat to American economic hegemony (the BRICS)? With the oil and chaos of central Asia? Or even with the stagnation and inflexibility of the Eurozone?

In its failure to adhere to the norms of western nation-statism, Russia continues to defy liberal expectations. The Economist recently regretted that Putin - whose boiling temperature is so often taken as the barometer of the country as a whole - is "on an explicitly anti-Western course." (Oddly, nobody ever accused his chum George Bush of the same thing over Iraq). The New Statesman ponders Russia's over-long political adolescence. The danger, it's felt, is that Great Russian nationalism, bloated and dyspeptic beyond the bounds of technocracy's tolerance, might hinder the much-vaunted march of liberal order in Europe. Yet so many diatribes-as-projected-emendations (a sort of plea for a more European, cultivated nationalism) miss the point.   

No nation in the West, except perhaps the USA, can compete with Russia's deeply felt nationalism.  To prove this one need only look at the opposition. The Communist Party, the largest opposition force in Russia and the only organised public defender of constitutional norms and legality (an inescapable irony there), still advances bold claims about Russian exceptionalism. Its program, in true Stalinist manner, speaks of our Motherland, the "fundamental values" of which are "communalism, collectivism and patriotism and close interconnection of the individual, society and state". On comes the inevitable conflict with the decadent capitalist West. History, it seems, has set Russian society this mission, arming it for the task with the tools of socialism.

In an inversion of the role of messianic Healer played by the United States (building democracy in the clearing smoke of its own bombs) Russian nationalism is constantly engaged in the contemplation of its own Passion: like Christ, the body of the Russian people is tortured and defamed. Like Christ it will rise again. The Communist Party, as much as Putin's United Russia, is the carrier of a very European conviction in the Messianic character of the nation. Though this national conviction eschews the popular liberalism of its French variety, it should not be mistaken for anti-modernism: it is in fact an inheritance of the progressivism of the Soviet Union. Its battle with Fascism is conceived on both patriotic and modernist grounds, without apparent contradiction. 

Dirigiste it may have been, but one could make the case that the Soviet Union's economy reflected structural trends in the world economy in successive expansionary and destabilizing ways. Post-War it surged, in line with the generally productivist, corporatising trends that defined the Keynesian settlement. Latterly it sputtered and tottered, its built-in rigidities incapable of the financialising, pro-capital reforms of the west. It armoured itself with so many capital controls, only to fall victim to renewed global competition. How, then, was this a departure from generalizable post-war patterns in the world market? After the Soviet Union's collapse the western faction of the radical Left (barring numerous defectors) shed the burden of 'really existing socialism' like an old skin. In this they resembled capitalism itself. The sense of relief was almost palpable. In the 80s Chomsky had already insisted on a radical contradiction between socialism and the statist gerontocracy of the USSR. By making socialism incommensurable with the Soviet Union, however, one made the latter all the less  conceptually distinct from capitalism. Was the Soviet Union merely another, more poorly designed capitalism? At the cultural, economic (and even, to some extent, the social, as witnessed in increased rates of divorce) levels, the Soviet Union can be conceived as a particularly volatile, tempestuous fulcrum of the world economy as a whole.    

The question of whether 'really existing socialism' was really socialism or a veiled capitalism is without answer. In reality it was neither, or partly both. In a book largely devoted to exploring systemic alternatives to capitalism, Erik Olin Wright uses the term "hybrid" to describe actually existing states.[1] There is and can be no such thing as a purely capitalist or a purely socialist state. Not only this but there are multiple, complementary ways of conceiving of socialism. This theory of hybridity leaves politics in a peculiar bind: without a unified theory of what maintains the dominance of a single element (say, capitalist accumulation or state management) within a given social whole, it is difficult to conceive of a practical way out. If we don't know how capitalism stays capitalist (or to use the Marxian term, reproduces itself) then we'll find it difficult to cut out the bits that keep it that way.

Passages of Civil Society

Some time after the collapse of communism, Giovanni Arrighi speculated that, as capital became more "flexible" (i.e. gained increased mobility across borders and multiplied its speculative forms) so too might labour organisations. Would we see "the revival in entirely new forms of the more flexible and informal organisational structures typical of the labour movement of the 19th century"?[2] There was, after all, a major flourishing of that old liberal concept of Civil Society during the 1989 regime changes. Charities, churches, independent political pressure groups, informal parties, breakaway unions, and of course student organisations, all hit the streets. Yet depressingly the very informal structures that sustained the revolutionary energy of 1989 collapsed under the weight of parliamentarism. Formalisation took hold as the West nominated new governing parties for the new proto-western states then emergent. Even Solidarnosc  (Solidarity), which in organisation and activity (a big labour membership in the core industries; an intellectual leadership) resembled an old-fashioned Leninist Party, quickly collapsed when it came to day-to-day politics.

Yet the "informal" qualities of political organisation remain the most universally celebrated: from the think-tanks of Washington, to community organising in Chicago, to Occupy and the indignados more globally. Unions are sclerotic and complacent, their memberships haemorrhaging. Civil society groups are freer and embody democracy in more direct, consultative fashion. One can thus set up a simple set of heuristic oppositions based around the two umbrella terms "formal" and "informal" modes of organisation and types of discourse. The informal have, certainly since the 60s and the high point of the New Left, won the vast majority of western sympathies. Informal civil society movements - charities, rock bands, pressure groups - have the benefit of a very liberal predisposition towards the individual. Those said to be in the vanguard of change were profoundly voluntarist in their conceptions of political subjectivity. The big "dinosaurs" of the old left - those 19th century political innovations, the Union and the Party - were rigid, old fashioned, unrepresentative, and worse, concerned with collective destiny, "totalizing" political space in the name of a single set of interests.

This is not to say that informal movements were unified in their outlook. In fact, the very point of their informality was to demobilize or de-emphasise ideology in the name of so called pure "humanism". Some, like the Czech dissident leader Vaclav Havel and the Charter 77 movement, were drawn to a sort of mystical aestheticism bordering on conservatism: for Havel politics was not a space of rational order, but one whose truth was only to be glimpsed through aesthetic production. On the other hand, as many groups formed under the anti-systemic impulses of Situationism and, at a different tone of register, the critique of Enlightenment of the Frankfurt School. At a certain point, the concept of Civil Society became as analytically loose as its supposed enemy, totalitarianism.

But as Ellen Meiksins Wood has pointed out, it was Gramsci - formulating an idea of the dispersal of capitalist power throughout the cultural and intellectual institutions of modern society - that relaunched the opposition between State and Civil Society as a distinctive way of combating capitalist ideological hegemony. Civil Society, therefore, cannot be freely accepted as it is found (i.e. where presented as the realm of human autonomy from the coercive state), but must critiqued. Wood observes that, for the believers in Civil Society 'the market' becomes one among many autonomous areas of human interaction. It is decentralised, pluralist, open to dissent, impossible to totalize, and so on. Advocates of Civil Society juxtapose the Marxist emphasis on the capitalist mode of production with other, neglected civil institutions, such as the household, the church and so on. Capitalism as such is thus dissolved into an "unstructured and undifferentiated plurality of social relations and institutions" in which political and personal identities can be freely adopted.

The space of freedom - the space of democracy - is thus made commensurate with the separation of Civil Society from the State. The de-emphasising of capitalism, and its crucial role in the development of democracy in the West, leaves this view open to various unhistorical assumptions about Eastern despotism. In the East, they failed to adequately separate Civil Society from the State and got totalitarianism. The West was successful in this process and got democracy. Now it is up to the East to more properly emulate the West. (In their History of Eastern Europe Robert Bideleux and Ian Jeffries inherit this idea almost uncritically). Yet as we have seen, the USSR did not evolve out of distinctively autocratic Russian traditions but a profoundly western conception of progress. Not only this, but its Statism was a reaction to both external and internal pressures of social reproduction. Which is to say, the Soviet Union formed a link in the capitalist mode of production, despite its distinctive opposition to it.         

Pussy Riot, the punk protest group, are particularly representative. They prioritise no single ideology, with members subscribing to a broad variety of leftish positions, from anarchism to Trotskyism to left liberalism. Preferring to attack specific targets (the crooked judiciary and so on) rather than the capitalist system as such, they've had great propaganda successes. Their limitation is one built into the form: that is, the a priori exclusion of anything resembling a popular platform. Although articulate on a range of subjects, this telling statement (from the trial of Maria Alyokhina,  Yekaterina Samutsevich and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova) states baldly their exasperation with Russian society on the specific grounds of its rigid, statist dismissal of the concerns of the individual as citizen in civil society:

Our schooling, which is where the personality begins to form in a social context, effectively ignores any particularities of the individual. There is no “individual approach,” no study of culture, of philosophy, of basic knowledge about civic society. Officially, these subjects do exist, but they are still taught according to the Soviet model. And as a result, we see the marginalization of contemporary art in the public consciousness, a lack of motivation for philosophical thought, and gender stereotyping. The concept of the human being as a citizen gets swept away into a distant corner. 

Today’s educational institutions teach people, from childhood, to live as automatons. Not to pose the crucial questions consistent with their age. They inculcate cruelty and intolerance of nonconformity. Beginning in childhood, we forget our freedom. (Taken from the closing statements of the Pussy Riot trial, full text available here)

The question of the protection of human rights is a vital one for socialists, who have often neglected it in favour of immediate concerns about political praxis. However, it is becoming increasingly clear that the focus of dissident, nominally Left groups on the informal, anti-statist, and fluid (at both the objective, oganizational level and at that of discourse) will require a reformed public space in which  it can make its demands. That will require, in the end, some degree of state command.  


The USSR suffered from what Wright calls the Marxist "historical trajectory" thesis: that with time, the conditions for socialism would, either through rupture or modification, appear and be seized by the proletariat (or proletarian Party). Subsequently, the pieces that made up the bigger picture of socialism would fall into place. Though fatally limited, this teleology at least had the benefit of naming fundamental faultlines in the capitalist system (i.e. internal contradictions the accumulation of capital could not overcome). It totalized a conception of capitalism by describing its central, unconquerable weaknesses. Without this, the possibility of leftist movements coalescing around a single set of demands grows distant, and we risk a conception of the social order which simply slips amorphously through the grip of political actors concerned with trying to seize it.

The Communist Party of the Russian Federation remains explicitly committed to the old, abominable teleology - though adjusted for Motherland-ish ends. Just last year young activists within the Left bloc in Russia proposed a "mega-party" of leftist opposition forces. "The Left front and I personally have been calling for all leftist organisations, parties, and movements to unite into a new leftist mega-party," Left Front opposition leader Sergei Udaltsov said. In the mega-party, he promised, "There would be a place for everyone." This was a deliberate invitation to the Communists, one that remains, a year later, unanswered. One would have to bet that, given it still commands 92 seats in the Duma, the CP is untroubled by thoughts of social democratic coalition (A Just Russia, another Left social democratic party, has just 64; they both tail Putin's United Russia with 238). Still, the cool headed might want to warn the tiny Leftist sprigs off the old beast anyway: one cannot have one's communist cake and eat it. History shows that Stalinism doesn't really do coalitions. 

Wright advances a concept of socialism rooted in the social power of civil society,[3] though he departs from informality and explores instead the possibilities of direct political empowerment of civil society groups over politics and the economy. The best and most logically consistent proposal for this kind of exercise of social power (as opposed to either state or market power) is Michael Albert's parecon (participatory economy). Organised through worker and consumer councils, parecon would take political power away from the state and economic power away from the market. One possibility here is that the interests of industrial (historically, often male) workers would be counter-balanced by the historically under-represented interests of female and other groups.

It remains to be seen, however, what novel forms of popular participation might emerge out of the confluence of new Left parties, informal civil society groups and the organisational and popular base of the Russian Communists. This will involve a deep search for what the German Left call Ankommen (literally: arrival, or more appropriately: involvement) - that is, a permanent abandonment of old Party tropes about revolutionary vanguardism, and a movement towards creating real socialist affects in the immediate social environment. It will require working within existing state and civic institutions as well as organising critically outside them. Again the German Left, in its early post-Communist incarnation as the PDF, called this type of work Einstiegesprojekte: transformative projects built into the fabric of people's daily lives. Publicly-funded employment sectors and campaigns for participatory budgets defined an attitude to social transformation in the given socio-economic environment. What can be achieved in the considerably more restricted, centralised polity and society of Russia, however, remains in question.

Adam Blanden is a regular contributor to the Prague Revue, a blogger on politics and history in Central and Eastern Europe, and EFL teacher. He lives and works in Prague. 

[1]    See: Wright, Envisioning Real Utopias, p.123-28

[2]    Arrighi, 'Workers of the World at Century's End'

[3]    See: Wright, Envisioning Real Utopias, 145-148: "Civil society is the site of a form of power with emancipatory potential - "social power"... Socialism can then be defined as an economic structure in which social power in its multiple forms plays the dominant role in organizing economic activity." (145)

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