The Evolution of Post-Soviet Ideology
From pro-western "liberalism" to anti-liberal imperialism
Translated by Dan Erdman
Unfortunately, for a long time there has been a belief among the left that ideology is secondary, that it “does not have its own history,” and mechanically reflects the developments of the economic basis. Marx and Engels objected to such a simplified view in their later works, as did Lenin, and Gramsci, and Lukacs, and Lifshitz, but there’s still life in the old dog of economic reductionism!
In fact, ideology certainly has its own relatively autonomous history and its own relatively autonomous logic of development. And it’s no less important to understand this than it is to understand the logic of the development of material production. For example, an economically developed country could have not so significant philosophical schools of thought, while a fragmented, semi-patriarchal country - such as Germany at the turn of the 18th-19th centuries - could become the birthplace of the deepest philosophical tradition, one which conquered the minds of the intellectuals of the leading countries of the world.
People are not guided in their activities only by selfish interests, and this even more so applies to the best, advanced people of each class, those who move society forward. “Sycophants were, of course, always and everywhere,” writes G.V. Plekhanov in his classic work “On the Development of the Monistic View of History.” He continues: “But they did not move the human mind forward. Those who really did so cared about the truth, and not about the interests of the powerful of this world. So, people who move the human mind live by ideals (albeit not always true ones), care for the truth, and not only do not want to profit, but often risk their well-being, and are willing to sacrifice. Moreover, ideas often take possession of people and force them to do what they may not want, but what the very logic of these ideas requires (according to the principle “having said A, you need to say B”)...”
This does not mean that ideology as a whole is not connected with the interests of any class. But the relationship between the economic and ideological spheres of social life is far from straightforward, but is rather bizarre, complex, dialectical. The presence of this dialectic allows space for the freedom of an individual human personality, and therefore for creativity, both political and artistic, philosophical, scientific, for “free spiritual production,” about which M.A. Lifshits wrote so much about.
Today in Russia we see the “amazing transformations” of yesterday’s liberals and Westernizers into today’s “ultrapatriots.” Sometimes this has a comical feel, like a former iPhone fan’s regular swearing on Telegram. Sometimes we reasonably suspect that a lot of money is behind such a transformation. But it would be wrong to take all the words of our political opponents as lies and hypocrisy. Marxist analysis shows that the capitalism that was established in Russia in 1991 has objectively evolved to political-military imperialism, and that the inevitable monopolization and expansion of Russian capital could lead to nothing else (which of course does not exclude the possibility that different variations of the end result were possible). But the ideology of the ruling regime also experienced exactly the same objective evolution.
This is the ideology that was adopted by the creators of Russian capitalism - Gaidar, Burbulis, Chubais - and which was promoted in the 90s by NTV, Moscow Echo and Moskovsky Komsomolets. I would define it as a peripheral quasi-liberalism. It should not be confused with classical Western liberalism, which grew out of the ideas of the social contract, the popular movements of the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance, and the Protestant model of the relationship between God and the human person. Such an exotic ideological flower as that simply does not take root in our latitudes. Our quasi-liberalism grew out of the official Soviet vulgarized Marxism - “Istmatism”. And it is no coincidence that the ideologues and innovators of our quasi-liberalism were not dissidents, but teachers, graduates of party schools, and members of the editorial boards of semi-official party journals (Burbulis is an example of the former, Gaidar the latter).
What are the main provisions of this ideology?
The first and most important are extreme economic centrism combined with militant anti-humanism and cultural nihilism. Our quasi-liberals (they are also former vulgar Marxists) believed in economic development above all, as expressed in the growth of capital, GDP, and markets, but also, and most importantly, in the growth of profits for the capitalists themselves. Our quasi-liberals did not know pity for the humiliated and offended, who could not withstand tough economic competition, nor respect for culture and its institutions, nor reverence for the values of humanism. I remember, that Gaidar did not spare any verbal poison against “Swedish socialism,” which, he said, created obstacles for the economic activity of “successful businessmen,” and took away a significant part of their profits through taxes and redistribution to “economic losers.” The ideal of our quasi-liberals is Western capitalism of the 18th century, without old-age pensions, without unemployment benefits, without maternity leave, without affordable education or medical services or anything else that was brought to the West through the struggle of workers and their political representatives; that is, socialists and communists. The fate of Russian culture - to say nothing of other cultures of the periphery - did not bother them either, and so the liberal reformers of the 90s destroyed the Soviet institutions of culture and education with the same indifference as they did the institutions of social assistance.
From economic centrism flowed the second characteristic feature of our quasi-liberalism - anti-democratism. Our “liberals” have claimed the label of “democrats” ever since perestroika, because they opposed the power of the CPSU and supported the transfer of external forms of bourgeois democracy to Russia, but they were no democrats at all. After all, democrats stand for broad popular representation, for the participation of the masses of the people in politics. Our “liberals” of the 90s were supporters of all this only to the extent that it helped to eliminate the power of the Communist Party. But when democracy and civil liberties began to interfere with the development of capitalist markets, when the people robbed as a result of capitalist reforms began to meaningfully oppose the oligarchy, they immediately came out against democracy and for authoritarianism.
This was logical on their part, because, as I have already said, the economic element is more important for them than are political, cultural, humanistic or other elements. In order to maintain the “free market,” they believe, it is necessary to deprive the people of political freedoms. The most radical among them began to advocate for a pro-American capitalist dictatorship in the spirit of Pinochet; others, like Moscow Echo star Yulia Latynina, saw a way out in establishing a property qualification for the franchise, so that only the rich could take part in the vote. It did not occur to Latynina that in this case she would have to somehow deprive the majority of its rights, requiring enforcement by the police and National Guard. That is, the “liberal ideal” also assumed a military-police dictatorship as the entourage of democracy, which, in fact, is what we got.
It is interesting to note that such anti-democratic liberalism, alas, also had its origins in the official, Soviet, strongly deformed “vulgar Marxism.” Despite the glorification of the popular masses, the “istmat” promoted a vision of history in which an active minority (i.e., the party and its leaders) were the natural leaders of the masses, who only need to obey this minority.
Finally, the third characteristic of our quasi-liberalism was extreme Westernism, usually in the form of enthusiastic Americanism. The liberals who came to power in the 90s presented history (again, exactly in accordance with the textbooks on “historical mathematics!”) as an iron replacement for the primitively depicted “economic formations.” Only this time the highest stage of history established not socialism, but capitalism, because it is “the most economically successful” mode, or in any case “more successful than state socialism,” which had ceased to be the most progressive and was now regarded as a historical dead end. That is to say, the liberals of the 90s were Westerners because they were economic centrists. The main criterion for progress was not affordable medicine, education, social achievements, the spread of enlightenment; had that been so, the USSR, even with empty store shelves, would have appeared as the most progressive society! Not even military and industrial power (and in this case the USSR looked good!) counted for anything, but only the notorious GDP, the abundance of consumer goods, the consumer society and, as we said, the superprofits of the capitalists themselves.
Here then are the three whales of Russian quasi-liberalism, which was our dominant ideology under Yeltsin:
1) Economic centrism and cultural nihilism
3) Enthusiastic admiration for the West, and above all the United States
From quasi-liberalism to imperialism
It is generally accepted that Putin and his team abandoned this ideology due to the aggressive foreign policy of the West, which continued to push NATO eastward to the borders of Russia, and which did not want to reckon with the interests of oligarchic Russia, including its claims to be a regional superpower in Northern Eurasia and in the territories of the former USSR. There is some truth in this, but this is the political motives. They are, of course, important, as are the economic motives (which, let me remind you, was the transition of Russian capitalism into the stage of imperialism). But we intend here to trace the inner logic of the evolution of post-Soviet Russian ideology, which has led us to the current anti-Americanism and the pathos of a “war against the West.” The logic behind is quite simple. As I said, Gaidar, and Chubais, and Latynina admired the English capitalism of the 18th century, with its lack of social guarantees, unemployment benefits, and with its presence of a property qualification. But the more the Russian elite got to know the modern West (inevitably, since among its representatives are many citizens of Western countries, since all of them have property in the West, since their children and grandchildren live and study in the West), the more they realized how little it resembles their ideal society. In the modern West, there are elements of real democracy; the presidential elections in France and the United States, despite the imperfection of their political mechanisms, still promise some intrigue. Western capitalists are forced to pay large taxes to their states, which go to social programs. Of course, recently, even in the traditionally social democratic north of Europe, neo-liberals have become stronger, and there is renewed attack on the rights of workers and the unemployed, but compared to Russia, and even more so to the countries on the periphery of the planet, the position of the lower classes of the West is still very prosperous.
This has caused sincere bewilderment among the Russian elite. After all, Gaidar taught them that the state, which “takes away” money from businessmen and to give to the unemployed, not only hinders the “effective development of capitalism,” but in general is “unfair” (of course, from their specific point of view). Let us remember with what pride our president always boasted of the low personal income tax in Russia (without mentioning that this is one of the main reasons for the degradation of domestic medicine and education), with what pomp we welcomed the French actor Gerard Depardieu, who acquired Russian citizenship in order to avoid high taxation of his homeland.
But the greatest hostility and even frenzy among Russian officials is reserved for the fact that left-wing liberals in the West have achieved some (very limited!) protections for marginalized social groups - migrants, or racial and sexual minorities. Their ire here is not strictly speaking about homosexuals or “cosmopolitans” (both of which, in general, are quite a few among the Russian elite), but more broadly against those whom this elite regards as losers who “should know their place.”
The disappointment of Putin and his friends in America and the European Union is because, from their point of view, the leading Western powers have begun to resemble some kind of “socialism” (which, of course, is a very strong exaggeration!), that too much money is spent there to support “freaks” and “losers,” making life too uncomfortable for billionaires there.
The current Russian government, of course, is waging a “battle with the West,” but not for the interests of the Russian people, as the social chauvinists from the Communist Party of the Russian Federation inform us, and not even for Russia’s status as a world power (objectively, Russia has become much weaker in the international arena than it was before February 24), but for the interests of the international club of billionaires. That is why he finds such sympathy from Berlusconi and Trump (the last has also speculated that America has become “practically communist”).
The Kremlin wishes to change the world order, to turn it against Western values. But what order and what values does it offer in return? More social rights, more democracy, more freedom? Far from it. The West, according to the Russian elites, must be defeated because it has too much democracy, too much equality.
When Western “partners” explain to Putin and his friends that the poor and “African-Americans” have to be supported because victory in elections depends on this, Russian leaders are sincerely perplexed: why are elections needed? Is it not possible to create one party that will carry out the will of the presidential administration (for example, the Republican-Democratic Party of the USA)? In this sincere anti-democratism, the “Putinites” are also the heirs of the quasi-liberals of the 90s, of Akhidzhakova, who shouted: “finally rid us of this constitution!”, of Shenderovich, who dreamed of a “Russian Pinochet.”
Hence the nostalgia for the authoritarian and totalitarian regimes of the West, expressed in popular TV presenter Solovyov’s praise for Mussolini, and top officials’ fondness for Ilyin, who spoke kindly about Hitler.
So, we see with our own eyes that there is no dividing line between the Russian “quasi-liberals” of the 90s and the ideology of Russian imperialism today. They are aligned both politically and economically, the first easily spilling over over into the second, and bleeding over into the space of ideology. Putin and Solovyov have often been accused of changing the ideals they held thirty years ago, but this is not so. On the contrary, they developed them logically. From this, by the way, follows a very important conclusion about our future. If we allow modern liberals to come to power, who promise that they will “return to democracy” and save us from the prospect of dictatorship, in about 30 years, “all will return the same as it was,” as Aleksandr Blok wrote. Of this there can be no doubt.
Make no mistake. The USA is governed by the ruling elite. The ruling elite goes after dissenting voices with never-ending investigations and unlawful imprisonment. You are correct in recognizing that “all will return to the same as it was”.
Arseniy is correct that Putin's project, while dressed up in nationalistic language and notions of a mythical Russian past, has little to do with the interests of either the Russian people or the Russian state. Of course there is rivalry between the imperialists, but the article clearly shows that NATO expansion is not the root cause of Russian aggression against Ukraine. It is not defensive. To the contrary, Arseniy shows that it stems from the internal logic of liberalism. To the extent that the Chicago market liberals encouraged the likes of Yeltsin, the West are indeed to blame. (And to be sure, the oligarchs' disdain for the masses, their racism and homophobia, are part and parcel of the regressive, antidemocratic, ideological turn of US and European elites.)