Gorbachev Paved Way for Oligarchs – Aleksandr Buzgalin

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Yves here. I’ve stayed away from the topic of Gorbachev, mainly because the unseemly enthusiasm in Anglo-American circles for him was due to how he unwittingly allowed the West to take advantage of him when the USSR was weakening.

Even though the USSR’s administrative structures had apparently become too brittle to allow for, let alone promote, an economic restructuring, there were at least two clear Gorbachev fail that he could have remedied, since both took place in negotiations with the West. The first was the peaceful dissolution was what amounted to a free concession. The Russia and the former Warsaw Pact should have gotten something in return. Second and related is Gorbachev’s failure to get the US commitment that NATO would not move one inch to the east in writing.

This interview gives a badly-needed Russian view…which reactions to Gorbachev’s death make clear were pretty dim.

By Paul Jay. Originally published at theAnalysis.net</strong>

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 machines. 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 to 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 for me. 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. It was not clear for Gorbachev, and it was not clear for 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, 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, members of the political bureau. It was little more than ten persons. 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 lifes. He was not a young girl at all. He was s political leader. So I don’t know what kind of 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 there 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


Aleksandr Buzgalin 

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 which 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 he personally, but he did not fight against it’s 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 afterwards?

Aleksandr Buzgalin 

It was 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, criminal shadow business in 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 diirector of the enterprise, manager of the enterprise received power to be executive owner of the enterprise; to buy, to sell production, to reorganize production, to decrease production, to change production and so on. They became classy 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, democratic. Here was power of directors instead of 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 steps down and they start privatizing, supposedly, these public assets are 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], enterprise 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 enterprise, and then you must pay back because you have enterprise and you will pay back from the saving of the production 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 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 after 1991. Western money and big money, it was billions of dollars went to these goals. It was a lot of illegal privatization. It’s also important, there was enormous inflation. In one year, prices grew up 30 times, not 30%, 30 times. Every month it was growing up prices two, three, five times per month. So it was enormous.

In the beginning, it was 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 was a lot of these speculations which led to the privatization of enterprises by criminal leaders, by shadow economy leaders, and by some young Communist Party bureaucrats. Young, decisive, strong, and aggressive. I can say even aggressive. If you, let’s say, talent 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 Unions 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 puppet in the hands of the whole team of bureaucrats who really wanted these changes. They really wanted to change their power and to receive capital and private property. He was apuppet in these hands.

Why wasn’t he a leader and instead a puppet is another question. It’s a problem of 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 and to change bureaucratic so-called socialism and to create from below a democratic model of socialism. 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 which is working in the interests of the bureaucrats, not in the interests of the people. If you want to change the course of the boat, it’s not necessary to destroy the boat. Something like that. Some first intentions were very important and positive, as I said, in 1985-87. Then forces which led to the destruction of the 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 following. Socialism is like a bicycle. It’s necessary to move all the time and move forward. For moving forward, socialism must have a basic engine. Engine of socialism is not market. It’s not private activity, competition and so on. Engine of communism, socialism, as 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. In that period we had the spring. We had much more freedom for culture, for science, and for education. There was an enormous jump in technologies, 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 late ’60s.

There was a lot of decisions in culture, cinema, fundamental sides and it was another atmosphere in the country. Of course, it was bureaucracy, and had a lot of negative features. It was a one-party system and it was a growth of popularity of the Soviet Union in the world. Anti-colonial revolutions in all countries. In Africa, Asia, in Latin America struggle against 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 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 be if today in our country and in former Soviet republics, Ukraine, Belarus, Kazakhstan they have wonderful leaders with strong political forces who want to create a new Soviet Union with democracy, real grassroots democracy, with real self-management in the state enterprises, with free education, but with strong army based on the enthusiasm of the people, with development of high-tech and so on. Will the West applaud to 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. In Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan they want to create a new, peaceful, huge, big country with strong weapons, with 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. Socialist system with all the negative features, but socialist system was a real opposition to world capital.

There is one more important aspect which I want to stress. It was not only Gorbachev who led to the destruction of the, let’s say, mutant socialism, bureaucratic socialism. In former world, 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 more smart, some less, but everywhere it was this change. Why?

Let’s come back to the question of why the Soviet Union disappeared. Because the Soviet Union in Leonid Brezhnev period, not in Gorbachev, period. In the [Leonid] Brezhnev period, late ’60s, ’70s, the Soviet Union lost engine. The bicycle stopped and 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, but 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 in 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 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 not mass repression, but if you started a coup d’état, you will be in prison or killed. We had enormous enthusiasm because we had democracy on the grassroots level. Politically on the top, it was not pure democratic in bougeiouse sense. In the lower level of enterprises, opportunities to create different social initiatives in jewels and so on it was possible.

Paul Jay

You’re talking about the 1920s.

Aleksandr Buzgalin 

Yes, 1920s and early 1930s. Step-by-step there was growth of bureaucratization, of Stalin’s dictatorship and so on. Even in the period of 1930 when all these repressions started, when 100,000 people, even up to 2 million people were repressed, some of them were killed and so on. 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 new state, new economy, new society, new education, new culture for people from one hand, I don’t know left hand, 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 it was again a very strange model of enthusiasm. Not strange, I can say beautiful, but extremely tragic model of 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 beautiful article about a lot of new projects, forms of organization of management, technology and so on. 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. It was very rapid growth of laws, of science, and culture.

During the Brezhnev period it was stopped because it was a real threat for bureaucracy. This destruction of enthusiasm from below led to the transformation of leaders. In the beginning, leaders of the Soviet Union were a mixture of bureaucrats with communists. Khrushchev, Brezhnev, and all these people, they 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 such people like Brezhnev were killed in this war. That’s why they had bureaucrats and communists. Then because of absence of enthusiasm from below, absence of control from below, this bureaucratic party of head was growing 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 hundread leaders of communist party, 20 million communist party. They were not communist. They were not real, and to the creation of 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 growth of conformism from below and 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 was 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 relatively low level of culture, relatively low level of social creativity of masses when the revolution took place.

For socialism, the best way for a socialist revolution is when you have strong Left party with millions of people inside capitalist. 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 political party, political power, but you have all necessary prerequisites. Opposition is strong, democratic, educated, cultural, you have 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 high 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 with this famous book. In Britain. It’s published in Manchester University Press. It’s 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 pounds.

It’s important, we wrote that it is totalitarian market. The market is a totalitarian force, which controls every step and every idea of personality. It’s global hegemony of capital in all spheres, from the birth till 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 dictatorship, but there is no totalitarian power of market and capital.

In Latin America, they don’t have enough prerequesties. They are like Russia before 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 managed 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 very important aspects. It was impossible to make, let’s say, more market even with these elements of capitalism. A model of 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 with the domination of peasants. It was not a country with domination of uneducated people. It was a country with one half of the people with high education, and with a very high level of culture and so on. 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 socialist or better to say, people state over capital and market.

When I was in China, I said 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 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 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-kratias. Demos means people. Real people. Not the intelligence, who are saying something. Kratias means power. If we decided something, we must do this. 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 the more open market, shock therapy, and loot the 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 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 a lot of contradictions but democratic socialism.

Let’s make a fantastic story. If we have no United States-Germany, western Germany, and NATO is counterpartners of reforms and Soviet Union but strong really democratic socialist states. In the United States it is democratic socially. In western Germany, it is democratic socially. In Britain, it is democratic socially. I don’t think that in the Soviet Union we have this situation: Yeltsins 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 aspect 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 final defeat, but defeat of socialist project in 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 thousands, millions of people killed for six decades during these decades? Why? Because capitalism means militaries and wars. It’s law of capitalism. Inside former Soviet Union territory we had permanent wars. In Chechnya, in Moldova, in Georgia, and between Azerbaijan and Armania. There are 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 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, then it became part of Ukraine. There was a lot of such 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 for 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 in 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 abstained or do not support. 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 which we have in Russia with video reports, with figures, with data, with observers and so on, is absolutely not the same as 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, in Iraq, in 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 about prehistory and all these provocations, the enlargement of NATO when 2014 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 Soviet Union is the most deep reason of all these things. Military and nature of capitalism is the main fundamental reason of 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 just 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 is a basis for peace and negotiation of war.

It’s hard work, but let’s remember it was World War One. Why this war was 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 on the basis of one or another model of capitalism, more imperialistic, less imperialistic, it’s impossible to stop and maybe postcriptum.

I am afraid that now we have even a threat of regress capitalism from imperialism, regress from imperialism. Empires existed in 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 are all destructive.

Why does Pakistan and India have 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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  1. Old Sovietologist

    There is plenty of good Marxist analysis from comrade Buzgalin and most I agree with.

    The Russian political/military elites are one of the direct culprits. In the decade before Maidan, many of them shared neoliberal pro-Western values – tacitly sympathized with the Kiev regime, did business with it, and it was beneficial to them in many respects. This was the logic of corrupt post-perestroika power structures. After the 2014 coup they changed and stopped taking Russian money and distributing it to kindred Ukrainian “pro-Russian” oligarchs, but by then it was too late.

    The problem for Aleksandr Buzgalin and other Marxist historians who make comparisons with 1914 is that we no longer live in a 1914 world.

    He opposes the SMO but what’s his alternative?

    The position of some leftists who are “non-war” and for an immediate and unconditional cessation of hostilities by Russia is as naïve as Gorbachev. Yes, this war is an endless tragedy. It should never have happened. I think there is no disagreement on this. But this is a war with NATO, pure and simple.

    To save the world, Europe, Russia and what remains of the real Ukraine, the Kiev regime must be destroyed. It’s not going to happen by magic and it certainly isn’t going to happen by saying I’m anti-war.

    A Russian military victory guarantees absolutely nothing. However, the victory of the collective West over Russia will be a disaster not just for Russia but for the peoples of the world. After the war has ended then is the time for a civic discussion about creating a better and just world.

    1. Lex

      Leftist being “non-war” is so sticky. For one, pacifism is probably unrealistic but the larger issue is that leftists (it should probably get quotes) are pretty selective in how vigorously they actually oppose war. That is, it sure seems a lot more vigorous now that it’s not a western nation prosecuting a war. This is probably a result of many western leftists being liberals in reality with left-leaning tendencies rather than leftists existing in a liberal world order.

      I agree with you on how the outcome of Ukraine affects geopolitics. It’s a monumental moment in history. But it’s rather odd that western leadership is treating it as existential when you correctly point out that it is only existential for the west because the west is making it so.

      I haven’t read the transcript because I’m about to start an 8 hour drive so for a change I will listen rather than read.

      1. Daniil Adamov

        Of course, Buzgalin is not a Western leftist. There are Russian leftists who oppose this war, I suspect partly out of a similar logic to Chomsky’s focus on criticising the West – that is, because it is their country’s war. (Of course, many other Russian leftists support it, generally for the same reason.)

  2. Michael Hudson

    This is the best discussion that I’ve read since Gorbachev died.
    It’s also Buzgalin’s best formulation to date. Starting 30 years ago at the Socialist Scholars Conference (now the Left Forum) we gave a joint presentation almost every year on Russia.
    My focus was on the fact that already in the late 1980s, criminal money was being embezzled out of Russia via Latvia — where Russian oil was exported — by Gregory Lautchansky, who set up Nordex (Lautchansky was associate Dean of the university in Riga. He himself kept $1 billion and fled to Israel, but then paid some of it back so that he could continue dealing with Russia.)

    1. ChrisRUEcon

      > This is the best discussion that I’ve read since Gorbachev died.

      Indeed! Perfectly timed to my comment (via NC) about feeling that there was an as-yet-untold (and potentially salacious) tale about how all these bureaucrats supposedly steeped in communist/socialist ideology, so easily fell for the siren song of the West. Buzgalin fills in that gap. Things were already in flight, and plain ole greed together with falling for the social-democrat rope-a-dope was the USSR’s undoing. Amazing.

      1. Mikel

        As Paddy C. was trying to warn folks:

        “….What do you think the Russians talk about in their councils of state, Karl Marx? They get out their linear programming charts, statistical decision theories, minimax solutions, and compute the price-cost probabilities of their transactions and investments, just like we do. We no longer live in a world of nations and ideologies, Mr. Beale. The world is a college of corporations, inexorably determined by the immutable bylaws of business….”

        excerpt from Network 1976 (Ned Beatty as Arthur Jensen)

        1. deplorado

          Yes, they talked of prices and investments too. But, at least ostensibly, the purpose of those prices and investments was the well being and the edification of the common citizen. At least to some extent, things were not as cynical as this, albeit profound, but still imprecise, view.

          According to Fursov, as early as 1988, the CPSU Politburo was defunct, courtesy of Gorbachev, and power centers started forming around capitalist interests.

          There are videos on C-SPAN from 1989 I believe, of young Soviet bankers (the elite of the Komsomol, like Khodorkovsky was) meeting US bankers in the US, asking how to set up private banks in the USSR. The naiveté and thirst for knowledge of their questions was striking, but their intent and confidence that this is the right and good way to the future is also unmistakable. Many of those later became oligarch bankers. And this was done with the full approval and support of Gorbachev.

          I remember in the late 1980ies that Gorbachev couldnt open his mouth without saying “market economy”. So he paved the way, and before that he even cleared the forest.

  3. britzklieg

    Gorbachev may have paved the way for oligarchs but he also signed the INF treaty, perhaps the single most important act of international diplomacy in my lifetime.

    1. Michael Fiorillo

      The INF treaty was unilaterally abolished by Trump, to the sound of crickets by the war-loving #McResistance… so, despite being another Fail by Gorby, I guess we got a few decent decades out of it.

    2. digi_owl

      My impression there is that Reagan got rattled by the soviet response to Able Archer 83, and that opened the door for the treaty.

  4. Dave in Austin

    The relationship between democracy and capitalism is at the heart of this article. It is rarely discussed because the conclusions are disconcerting. A few points:

    1) The Soviet republics reverted to type. The Baltics looked north, the Islamics hoped to become Turkey, the Caucuses became… the Caucuses, and the Russia Federation was too big and too diverse to create a national vision like the smaller republics. As in Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia, the USSR’s end meant the constituent parts simply resumed their previous patterns. Culture and history matter more than ideology.

    2) The assumption that liberal democracy and capitalism are tightly linked failed. Liberal states have police, courts, administrative machinery, press and regulated markets that can’t easily be built from scratch. And our assumption that capitalism demanded liberalism turned out to be wrong. Corporatist states like pre-World War II Hungary, Portugal, Sweden (and dare I say it? National Socialist Germany) plus present-day Japan, Korea and China represent a mixed form which works in ethnically-based nations where public opinion and a nationalist ruling class feel “We are all in this together”. China had that nationalist mix; pre-Putin Russia didn’t. The term national socialism is so inextricably linked with Hitler and the Holocaust that the best term for this system combining nationalism, socialism and capitalism is unavailable.

    3) The American “big bang” advice for freeing the Soviet economy was either simplistic and wrong or intentionally bad and wrong. Jeff Sachs and his ilk should be looked at more closely.

    4) This might sound odd, but Putin may the FDR of Russia. FDR took over a system in crisis and disrepute during the depression and was neither the Communist the Republicans feared nor the great leftist reformer the populist branch of the Democratic party hoped for. He was opposed to corruption; he treated the economy the way a mechanic treats a poorly functioning car. His family didn’t turn into the self-perpetuating Bushes, Bidens, Kims and Saudis. He held real press conferences that said things. And he gave people hope, a hope that was justified by small but real results. The public came to trust that “He is doing his best” and “He cares about us”. And like FDR, Putin was fundamentally interested in domestic policy, but when war came they followed him.

    1. digi_owl

      “3) The American “big bang” advice for freeing the Soviet economy was either simplistic and wrong or intentionally bad and wrong. Jeff Sachs and his ilk should be looked at more closely.”

      May be both. In that the initial advice was naive in its simplicity, and then others exploited that naivety for their own gain.

      1. Polar Socialist

        As tempting as it is to fault Americans in this, it was mostly done by Gaidar and Chubais. They new their reforms were going to cause a lot of pain, and it was a real scare for these reformers that the angry citizens would bring the communists back to power. So they pushed the privatization trough to make sure that even if Zyuganov became president.
        Other factor was that besides the people, also the old guard industry opposed the reforms, and get going on just like in the old times – which was good for the horrible unemployment created by the reforms, but also made the reforms to appear non-reforms. So the reformers backed down and every time inflation went crazy since people got money again.

        Rinse and repeat, a few times and the reformers figured out that hasty privatization would rid them of the old guard, too.

        Or something like that. Anyway, I don’t think that too many Russians blame the West for causing the chaotic and miserable 90’s. Maybe being complicit, sure, but not as the cause.

        1. Daniil Adamov

          America is attacked more for its foreign policy than for our 90s economic policy. Most people did and do indeed blame Gaidar and Chubais.

    2. deplorado

      to add to this,
      >> 3) The American “big bang” advice for freeing the Soviet economy was either simplistic and wrong or intentionally bad and wrong.

      It always struck me (in later years, not at the time, as I was too green at the time) that in the West a whole lot of policy, entire election cycles, pensions and TONS of political emotions revolve around minor fluctuations of some economic indicators, like interest rates, unemployment, tax policy favoring some sectors – and society is often deeply impacted by those and things take decades to change —

      — while the advice we, the aspiring Westerners in the former Soviet block was, don’t worry, we are smart, RIP OUT EVERYTHING, and in a couple (literally I remember they were saying 2-3 years) you will have a functioning shiny new market economy, which will deliver better results than your doddering planned economy and will make you true peers to Westerners.

      It was called Shock Therapy and it was presented as a success and something that has to be completed ASAP, or else, we would fall back into the grip or our old doddering planned economy, and any government that doesnt implement it is reactionary right wing communist government.

      I remember the cool interviews with Lesek Balcerovicz, about how Shock Therapy in Poland was so successful, that we need to try it in Bulgaria too.

      Those were the times. Fool me once…

  5. Jake

    Pure Monday morning quarter back analysis. The fact is that, had Gorbachev presented a “democratic” transitional plan to the Politburo , he would’ve been killed on sight. Gorbachev created the best possible option (albeit, flawed) for a transition under the circumstances, but as the coup demonstrated, he couldn’t go beyond it. The real crime is how the US and the West reacted to corrupt Yeltsin and his cronies by basically assuming that the Soviet Union was gone and Russia was sort of irrelevant . The end. Advising the economic transition were Neoliberals like Jeffrey Sachs who had no expertise to guide such daunting reforms. His recommendation were privatize everything. Sachs made out quite well, personally, his clients, not so much. . He also advised Bolivia and other “emerging economies” that posted comparable results. Clinton and his merry band of neoliberal cronies were interested in personal gain, not advancing democratic principles or capitalism with rules. It’s not incidental that Russia and the US have so many oligarchs depleting global economies.

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