Socialist Politics and the End of Depoliticisation: Against Academism
We live in historic times. Historians have long noted that in some periods time seems to thicken, and social contradictions which had previously unfolded gradually are now aggravated and can no longer find room for further coexistence. Current leaders might assure the masses that they are in control of the situation, but if the system goes haywire, this very attempt at mistimed control only worsens the conditions. Gigantic underlying processes are grinding at the superstructural mechanisms, and rulers do not realise the moment that in the long run will make them ex-rulers.
Marxists call this moment a revolutionary situation. As it well known, Lenin wrote about its three qualitative features: 1) the inability of the ruling classes to maintain their power with the old methods; 2) harsh and excessive exacerbation of the needs of the oppressed classes; 3) a significant increase in the activity and creative energy of the masses. We still do not live in a revolutionary situation; but this is precisely the final destination of the crisis into which the aggressive war with Ukraine plunged us. The first and second signs are evident; attentive observers will note the gradual unfolding of the third.
The acceleration of history means a qualitative increase in social uncertainty. Local trends are superimposed on previous major historical processes, their conflicts lead to a decoupling of economic and political structures, which in turn triggers new entropic processes — all of these are close to impossible to grasp as a single picture. Traditionally, the strength of any Marxist political analysis has been the ability to present the specific political struggle of specific parties as a part and consequence of the socio-economic structure of a particular society. But any analysis is good when the observed processes have ended or are at least divorced in time or space. The plunging of modern Russia into the abyss requires not so much academic analysis as political intuition and responsibility.
The kind of political statement we need
War blows up the world order and creates a huge expanse of fear and pain. Civilians are dying, soldiers are dying, an insane amount of human labour is being destroyed. And even though the question of who exactly suffers most from the war is the basis for determining a political position, it is impossible to build your political strategy solely on this. It is important to understand where the most vulnerable point of a political regime in crisis is — the point that can become the source of a new state of affairs and new prospects.
The first step in any radical program is to be honest about who we are and what we want. We are Russian socialists and communists, ready to join forces with any sincere democrats — people who, like us, want to end the shameful period in national history that began in 1993 with the shooting of the White House. The end of the war — however terrible it may be — is not our only political goal. In this, we differ tactically with our leftist comrades around the world and in Ukraine. An imperialist war against their fatherland, which is at the same time a conflict that threatens to escalate into a great European and then a world war, is a terrifying enough prospect for both Ukrainians and socialists around the world to make every effort to achieve a Russian military defeat. But for us, the Russian left, the prospect of ending up in the same situation as the progressive parties of Iraq found themselves after the humiliating failure of Saddam Hussein's adventure to annex Kuwait in 1991 is also terrifying. The impoverished regime of the defeated dictator opened the hunt for oppositionists of all stripes, lost control of its own military and resumed ethnic cleansing of the Kurds. As citizens of Russia and as Russian politicians, we want the re-establishment of the Russian state and the creation of a new political regime in the country, not to be locked in a cage with mercenaries and bandits brutalized by their own historical impotence.
If a historical analogy is needed for the political step required today, then it is Plekhanov's formula, put forward by him in 1905 — march separately, strike together. The entire Russian opposition must understand who its real enemy is today, and what immediate political goals we would like to achieve within a year or two. Despite the degradation of systemic, and the collapse of non-systemic opposition in Russia, now is the time to write political programs. Programs to be understood not as electoral platforms for all that is good and against all that is bad, but as a concise statement of the principles and fundamental solutions that we stand for. Aleksei Navalny, once again confirming that he is a leading anti-Putin politician, was the first to publish such a program — he published it exactly one day before Vladimir Putin delivered his empty message to the Russian parliament on the one-year anniversary of the war. It is obvious that Navalny has a political flair, since even from prison he monitors and uses such moments. The Russian socialists need their own similar program, which would bypass Navalny, if not in the speed of reaction, then at least in the fundamental nature of the proposed changes. This is all the more important because, unlike the liberal opposition, we cannot expect that at ‘moment X’, weary of Putin, the most perspicacious part of the Russian ruling classes along with part of the police and the army, will come over to our side.
The most sensitive and honest-natured people may object to political programs, when new waves of Russian and Ukrainian offensives are about to overwhelm the front, and after them, thousands of new conscripts and mobilized troops will be sent to correct the next mistakes of the generals incapable of learning. This fair objection requires clarification: how is practical and committed politics possible in the modern world? Politics that cannot be reduced to corruption, cronyism and momentary conspiracies of bourgeois clans on the distribution of public goods?
As is well known, Marxists see politics in two ways: 1) as state policy in the interests of the ruling class (bourgeoisie); 2) as practical politics of class struggle on the scale of the whole society. The latter, which is more in line with the actual practice of historical socialist and communist parties, consists primarily in exposing the government and the ruling classes, in order, through this, to direct the spontaneous processes of consolidation of the working classes. In the textbook "What is to be done?" Lenin eloquently displays this vision of politics, distinguishing between the activities of the influential British trade union leader Robert Knight and the Social Democratic German MP Wilhelm Liebknecht. For him Knight, with his organizational work, embodies the exact spontaneous process of union formation, while Liebknecht, who denounces German capitalism in the press and parliament, is pursuing a socialist program in all classes and strata of Germany — and thus, according to Lenin, is an example for Russian Marxists. Denunciation and propaganda are the core functions of practical socialist politics before political power is taken.
In this, the socialists join the intellectual tradition of republicanism, dating back to the ancient Greeks, and of which Hannah Arendt can be named as a relatively recent theorist. From the point of view of republicanism, politics is what exists in the people's assembly, where the people discuss important collective issues. Since, in our reality, the people can never be fully present, and popular gatherings on such a scale are generally impossible, we must consider any social life as a people's assembly, and any group of people who are not endowed with political power to be “the people” (or part of it). That is, we are again returning to the Leninist idea of denunciation and propaganda against the backdrop of spontaneous processes of organization and self-organization of people. We cannot stop the war here and now, we cannot change the regime, but we must promote our program where people will spontaneously escape the Kremlin's influence.
Opportunities of our time
This formula of socialist politics is well known to any activist of any of the numerous groups and parties of the Russian left spectrum. And yet, along with this formula, we have found ourselves in a strategic impasse over the 20 years of Putin's rule. The name of this dead end is depoliticization. Depoliticization is the main weapon of the Russian ruling class of officials and oligarchs, the Koschei’s egg of the Russian bourgeoisie, the Ruling Ring of post-Soviet capitalism. Wherever the germs of public life sprouted, where a public space threatened to form in which the socialist program could succeed, agents of the Russian state appeared everywhere and turned public life into private, divided society into a mass of atomized individuals with targeted social payments. All the local successes of trade unions, social movements and grassroots urban politics were shattered by a huge technocratic government and the impersonal power of experts with hidden United Russia membership cards.
Even the war at first did not change this feature of the Russian regime. The state of emergency, the black-and-white division into friends and enemies, political repressions — the authorities do their best to pretend that this concerns either only the territories along the front line, or some marginal foreign agents, rather than hundreds of thousands and millions of Russian citizens. Putin delayed the mobilization necessary for the needs of the front to the very last moment, because what followed was not an ephemeral drop in ratings, but the collapse of the regime of depoliticization of Russians, so carefully guarded by him and his administration. Nevertheless, by the summer/autumn of 2022, the Rubicon was crossed: Ukraine and its people managed to impose an all-out war on Putin, and the front turned into a bloody and incessant source of politicization. The Kremlin’s simple and uncontrollable contradiction has taken shape: not only the Russian peacetime army is incapable of defeating the Ukrainians supported by the economies of the West on the battlefield, but even in order not to lose, it simply needs to be constantly fed with people and resources. Hundreds of thousands of reservists and mobilized went to the battlefields and, together with the deserters of the first months of the war, conveyed to a part of Russian society the degree of unpreparedness of the army and the inadequacy of the military leadership. And now the Kremlin has found itself in a zugzwang situation, when every next step promises it a catastrophe: if everything remains as it is, then it will lose the war, and if it plays all-in, declares martial law, puts the economy on war footing and calls, say, 3- 5 million people into the army to achieve a decisive victory, the consequences of such a move are impossible to predict. One thing will be clear for sure — the depoliticization of Russians will end with a bang.
Through his own military adventure, Putin is creating the most powerful institution for organizing and politicizing the Russian working people — the wartime draft army. The state pulls a person out of the familiar environment and institutions carefully tuned to private life — family, friends, small businesses, organized jobs in large enterprises — connects them with the same comrades in misfortune, organizes them into detachments and gives them weapons. Until now, military registration and enlistment offices, on orders from above, have pursued an openly class policy of mobilization, calling on soldiers from the countryside of the poorest remote or ethnic minority regions, carefully guarding the core of the Russian working class from million-plus cities. But the worse things go at the front, the less relevant these restrictions will become. One way or another, the soldiers of the Russian army and their commanders will be forced to become politicized, since their own lives depend on decisions at the front and in the rear. This politicization is unlikely to be oppositional in itself; on the contrary, they will be fed with patriotic propaganda and urged to go on suicidal assaults for new stars on the uniforms of the generals. But even conscious loyalist politicization in our conditions is already a failure of the Kremlin's long-term strategy. In addition, mobilized soldiers and junior army commanders will be disappointed in the first place with the promises of Putin's politicians. The longer, harder and more unsuccessfully the war goes on, the greater will be their disappointment. The military fraternity should not become the only alternative to Putin's imperial kleptocracy in the eyes of soldiers and their relatives.
The unfolding of the third sign of a revolutionary situation today — the increase in the creativity of the masses — is connected almost exclusively with mobilized soldiers. Training bases have been set up near large cities, in videos from which we have observed conflicts with officers and demands for payments and equipment. After the battalions of mobilized soldiers hit the front line, collective video messages went to the governors with requests to influence the fate of the units — to provide allowances, withdraw from dangerous areas, and criticize the command. These appeals probably appear on the social media through the conscripts’ relatives. The most surprising thing is that the governors sometimes even react, and this or that unit receives some kind of support. In other situations, the repressive machine is triggered — the spontaneous leaders of such groups are isolated, arrested, receive long prison terms under the latest repressive legislation (like the Omsk soldier who threatened his commander and received 6 years in prison), and the units themselves can be disbanded or sent to the most dangerous areas. But it is unlikely that such measures can suppress discontent, especially if the first hundreds of thousands of mobilized soldiers are followed by subsequent waves of conscription.
The authorities are afraid of protests at the front, but they cannot stop them. Over time, soldiers will learn not to betray their leaders, they will realize what power is in their hands. It is crucial that this politically important (there are many of them, they are organized, they are armed) part of modern Russian society should not be left to the mercy of the authorities, and the influence of various disgruntled Russian nationalists from the former armies of the LDNR. Russian socialists need their own channels of communication with the army which is heating with discontent. Channels, that cannot be reduced to pro-government "military correspondents" and sporadic video messages from the front line. Of course, like any army, it is guilty of many crimes, but like any draft army, it is at the same time a reflection of society. And just like 105 years ago, it may happen that soldiers will become the most politicized section of the Russian people, the part that will put an end to this bloody theater of madness.
This brings us back to the discussion about the principles of the socialist program and the party that will promote this program. The current Russian leftist organizations are largely crushed and disorganized. They will need to re-rally and find new forms. We need an organization that would unite both the emigration and those who remained, and those who were sent to an unnecessary war. We cannot stop the war here and now, but we can prepare for its end — and prepare for what happens after the guns fall silent.