Russia at the Crossroads - Between Two Elections

Alan Woods analysis the situation between the first and the second rounds of the 1996 presidential elections in Russia.

The Presidential elections usher in a turbulent period in Russia and on a world scale. From the beginning of the process, we have followed it carefully through all its twists and turns. The present situation provides us with new and important facts which enable us to conclude that we are approaching a denouement. Nothing has been solved by the result of the first round. Yeltsin got 34.8%; Zyuganov, 32.1%; Lebed, 14.7%; Yavlinsky, 7.4%; Zhirinovsky, 5.8%, and all the others put together, a mere 5.2%.

After five years of unprecedented disaster in the attempt to move towards capitalism, the Russian working class has drawn the necessary conclusions. In this, they are followed by broad layers of the population in the towns and villages who have rejected "market reform." This is reflected in the rapid increase in votes of the Communist Party of Gennady Zyuganov, which has terrified the bourgeois in Russia and internationally.

This fear is well founded. Given the social catastrophe, if Zyuganov had a genuinely Leninist policy, he would now be on the threshold of power. But in common with the other ex-Stalinist leaders of the CPs of Eastern Europe, Zyuganov has revealed the most complete lack of even the most elementary grasp of revolutionary class politics.

Because of the bankruptcy of the CP leaders, it now seems likely that Russia is moving in the direction of a new nightmare in the form of bourgeois bonapartism—a pro-capitalist dictatorship based on "rule by the sword." But even now this is not inevitable. The most far-sighted representatives of capital, even after the first round of voting on June 16th were cautioning investors not to celebrate victory too soon, and that Yeltsin could still lose. Their attitude leaves no room for doubt that they are still convinced that a Zyuganov victory would pose a serious threat to capitalism in Russia.

Zyuganov's election campaign showed just how far removed these ex-Stalinist leaders are from the traditions of Bolshevism. Not an atom of class content, not a mention of socialism, no perspective that could rouse and inspire the working class and the young generation. Instead, Zyuganov tied to wrap himself in the stinking rags of Russian nationalism, an abomination that Lenin condemned a thousand times. During and after the elections, he stated that he was willing to participate in a "government of all patriotic forces" (whatever that might be). In so doing, he actually added grist to the mill of the chauvinist bourgeois bonapartist Alexander Lebed, a man who represents a deadly threat to the working people of Russia, to whom Zyuganov was nevertheless prepared to offer a place in his "patriotic coalition." In the event, Lebed preferred ready cash in the form of Yeltsin's offer to become Secretary of the State Security Council.

By offering Lebed this key position, Yeltsin indicated that he realised that he could not win without the general's support. Initially the President offered him the ministry of Defence, a not inconsiderable portfolio, but not enough for this aspiring Bonaparte, who brusquely turned it down. Lebed demanded, and got, control of all the security forces, army and police, a victory made even sweeter by the sacking of his old rival Pavel Grachev.

However, it is not at all sure that Lebed's votes will be transferred to Yeltsin in the second round. According to the estimates of CP spokesmen, two thirds of Lebed's voters would support them. This may well be correct, rather than the calculation of Yeltsin that half of Lebed's votes will go to him. He is banking on this—and also winning the votes of Grigory Yavlinsky—to get a majority. In fact, it is not even sure that Yavlinsky's supporters will vote for Yeltsin. Yavlinsky obtained support by distancing himself from Yeltsin and the Reform programme. The entry of Lebed into Yeltsin's government may frighten Yavlinsky's voters into staying at home.

It is thus not ruled out that Zyuganov could still get a majority in the second round. But in that case, Yeltsin will certainly attempt to rig the result to stay in power. Already, Zyuganov has warned of electoral fraud. Yeltsin is no stranger to the gentle art of fixing elections. It is now generally accepted that he rigged the referendum on the constitution. There is a joke going round Moscow along the following lines: A man runs into Yeltsin's office after the election and says: "The bad news, Mr. President, is that Zyuganov won 55%. The good news is that you won 65%!"

The bourgeoisie cannot allow Zyuganov to win. Yeltsin will fix the vote, and Lebed will crack down hard. The "democrats" in the West will look the other way. But this will create an explosive situation. If the workers see that the CP has been cheated of victory by fraud, their anger will reach boiling point. What will Zyuganov do? Thus far, everything seems to indicate that he has foreseen nothing, understood nothing and prepared for nothing. But what happens in practice depends on many factors. The tensions in Russian society are extreme. It is not excluded that this situation could lead to civil war. If the CP leaders were Communists in fact as well as in name, they would have already organised the workers in action committees and prepared for a general strike. It would be possible to pass from the defensive to a revolutionary offensive.

It is still not excluded that Zyuganov can form a government. But this is only possible on the basis of a big movement off the working class, not otherwise. Zyuganov is a typical reformist and displays all the blindness of the reformists. He must know that Lebed is preparing to seize power, yet he actually offered him a place in his coalition. In the same way, Allende in Chile included the "democratic" general Pinochet in his Popular Unity government, from which position he prepared his bloody coup. These leaders, who imagine themselves to be great realists, have learned nothing and forgotten everything.

Zyuganov is afraid to rely on the workers, but it is to be supposed that he is not completely stupid. He must realise that Lebed is angling for a dictatorship, which would mean that the CP would be illegalised and Zyuganov would end up in gaol—on the most optimistic scenario. If the electoral fraud is too blatant, there can be a rebellion of the workers which Zyuganov, in spite off himself, may have to support. The nascent bourgeoisie might be prepared to fight to defend its ill-gotten gains. There are at least 600,000 armed "security guards" under the control of the mafia capitalists. But most of these are human rubbish—thieves, cut-throats and lumpenproletarians—who would run like rabbits when confronted with a determined movement of the proletariat.

Once we get to this point, everything will depend on the reaction of the masses. In the final analysis, serious questions are not decided by constitutional niceties, but by the class struggle. A key question is the army. A section of the soldiers and officers voted for Lebed out of disgust with the present situation. But if the workers put up a serious fight, the army would split. There have been reports of meetings between Zyuganov and army officers in recent months. If these are accurate, it seems that Yeltsin's base in the army is confined to a couple of special elite units. Many are sympathetic to the CP. The majority of the officer caste are waiting to see what happens. At the moment, they might incline towards Lebed, but ultimately they will come down on the side which seems to have the best chance of winning.

Zyuganov's fear of a big movement of the workers is well-founded. Once in action, the Russian workers will soon get an idea of their colossal power. Zyuganov will not be able to control them. Certain things flow from this. If Zyuganov comes to power on the basis of a mighty mass movement, it will not be possible to consolidate a neo-Stalinist regime. The best he could hope for would be a regime like that of 1923-29. Under such conditions, it would even be possible for the workers to take power by reform, without the need for a political revolution. That was precisely the perspective put forward by Trotsky from Lenin's death up to 1933. though this perspective also would depend on developments on a world scale.

This would be the most favourable variant, and one which would completely transform the situation internationally. But it is not the only possibility, or even the most likely one, above all given the character and conduct of the CP leaders. if there is a rebellion of the workers and the CP fails to take power, then the stage would be set for the most vicious reaction. Lebed would not hesitate to illegalise the CP and move towards the establishment of a bourgeois Bonapartist dictatorship.

Even if, as seems most likely at this moment in time, Yeltsin and Lebed take over the government, matters will not end there. The West, which has spent a lot of money trying to get Yeltsin elected, will pile on the pressure from day one, demanding that privatisation be stepped up. But that will not be so easy now. It would mean massive unemployment and social convulsions. Lebed is against it. Thus, conflict with the West is inevitable. The West is in a dilemma. On the one hand, they are sceptical about Yeltsin and worried about Lebed. On the other hand, they have no alternative but to back them for fear of a worse alternative under Zyuganov.

By going for the control of the army and police (incidentally, the same ministries that Hitler held in the government of Hindenberg, from which he later launched his coup d'état), Lebed has revealed his hand early on. This avowed admirer of Pinochet will not be satisfied with anything short of full power. Whatever happens after the elections one variant is ruled out. There is no room in Russia for a capitalist democracy. If the working class does not take power into its own hands, the only choice is between bourgeois or Stalinist bonapartism.

Prior to the elections, Lebed's politics were ambiguous in the extreme. Hostile to "Communism" and "Reform" in equal measure, raging against corruption and crime, while wrapping himself in the Russian flag and posing as defender of the armed forces (which soon brought him into collision with defence minister Grachev), he was all things to all men. But by accepting a position in Yeltsin's government, he has clearly come down on the side of bourgeois Bonapartism, and is its main proponent.

Lebed will bide his time and await a suitable moment to strike. The descent of Russia into chaos, the threat of the breakup of the Motherland, the death or incapacitation of Yeltsin—either of these, or a combination of all three, would serve as the pretext for a take-over. He already holds the threads of power in his hands as Secretary of the Council of State Security. When the time is ripe, the wires can be pulled. And the time may come sooner rather than later. Clearly, Lebed weighed up the situation carefully before accepting Yeltsin's offer. The proposition was a risky one. He would have to abandon his "neutrality" and come down on the side of the nascent bourgeoisie, which would clearly alienate a big section of his electorate.

Against this, he would be in a strategic position to carry out his Bonapartist plotting, at the heart of the state apparatus. Moreover, the state of Yeltin's health places a large question mark over his future. True, the President's health has shown a remarkable improvement since his advisers persuaded him of the merits of tea-drinking. But how long he can keep away from the vodka bottle under the emotional and nervous strains of office may be open to a modicum of doubt.

If Lebed seizes control, the whole equilibrium of forces in Russia would be altered. This would mark a very serious step in the victory of bourgeois Bonapartism. Unlike the weak Bonapartism of Yeltsin, this would be a vicious reactionary regime. Lebed's admiration for Pinochet gives us an idea of how his mind works. Lebed would not hesitate to crush all opposition. It is not ruled out that he might retain some semblance of a parliament as a sop to Western public opinion, but it would be an impotent talking-shop with all real power concentrated into the hands of the Strong Man, ruling by decree. in other words, what Yeltsin aimed at, but never quite succeeded in doing.

Such a regime would be a nightmare for the working class of Russia. How stable it would be is another question altogether. Lebed would inherit a ruined economy and a desperate people. in order to get things moving, he would inevitably be compelled to resort in the beginning to measures of recentralisation and even renationalisation of some key strategic sectors of the economy. A bourgeois Bonapartist regime in Russia would inevitably retain quite a large state sector, as did Brazil under the military dictatorship in the 1960s—probably the nearest analogy one can think of.

There is no doubt that Lebed's threat to take action against the mafia and corrupt elements is more than just words. Organised crime and corruption have reached unheard of levels and devour such a proportion of the surplus value that they threaten to undermine society completely. Any regime that seriously proposed to begin to get out of the mess would have to begin here. Lebed would not hesitate to shoot a few hundred, or a few thousand, speculators "to encourage the others" as the saying goes. Such a policy would have the additional merit of being very popular.

The problem is that in Russia no-one can say where the mafia ends and the capitalist class begins! The policy of recentralising and shooting speculators contains serious dangers from the West's point of view. While they have no choice but to support Yeltsin and Lebed against the Communist Party, they are worried by this military hard man whom they, not unreasonably, see as an unpredictable adventurer. If this coincides with an economic slump in the West, it is quite possible that Lebed will be compelled, in spite of himself, to eliminate the nascent bourgeoisie altogether, and lean on the working class to go back to some kind of neo-Stalinist regime. However, this could not have the same ferocious character as the old totalitarian state of Stalin or Brezhnev. The army of spies and informers no longer exists to act as a social base for such a regime. It would be more similar to the situation that existed in the period 1923-29, before the Stalinist Bureaucracy succeeded in consolidating itself.

However, even if Lebed takes measures against individual capitalists and speculators, that will not mean that he does not stand for capitalism. In The 18th Brumaire, Marx describes the drunken soldiery of Louis Bonaparte shooting down bourgeois in Paris after the coup d'état of December 1851. Louis Bonaparte and his gang of adventurers saved the bourgeois from revolution, but extracted a heavy price from their "employers." They took over the state and ruled on behalf of the bourgeois, but in exchange robbed and looted the state and the bourgeois to their heart's content.

In the same way, Lebed seeks personal power, raising himself above society as the personification of the Russian state, complete with general's uniform, medals and jackboots. By "taking out" the most corrupt and criminal elements of the mafia bourgeois, and even nationalising some of their ill-gotten gains, his intention is to make Russia "safe" for the capitalist class as a whole. But these services will not come cheap. Lebed and his gang of unscrupulous adventurers will stuff their pockets and loot society even more rapaciously than the mafia. All this is in the nature of Bonapartism in general, and bourgeois bonapartism in particular.

Even as a regime of bourgeois Bonapartism, a Lebed regime in Russia would be an uncomfortable sort of neighbour to live with also for other reasons. By its very nature, it would be an aggressively imperialist regime, asserting its dominant role in Eastern Europe and the Balkans and moving to reconstitute the former USSR, or, more correctly, the tsarist empire. Lebed would have to show some "successes" abroad to make up for the lack of bread at home. In this respect also, he would be acting in the authentic tradition of Bonapartism.

During the elections Lebed attempted to win popularity by opposing the war in Chechnya and even calling for a referendum on Chechen independence. In reality, Moscow will never permit the Chechens to break away from Russia. Such a step would put into question Russia's control of the rest of the Caucasus. Faced with the prospect of a real breakaway as opposed to a measure of autonomy, Lebed would, with many a sigh, be quite prepared to wage bloody war to stop it happening. The whole basis of his policy is Great Russian chauvinism. The very idea of permitting the breakup of the "Motherland" is anathema to him and the officer caste to which he appeals.

No society can live permanently in a state of chaos. If the working class of Russia does not move decisively to transform society, the stage will inevitably be set for some kind of bonapartist solution. Given the present situation, even a regime of bourgeois Bonapartism can seem like an improvement. In the short term it can even get some results. How long it can succeed in stabilising itself would depend above all on developments on a world scale. Despite a temporary and relative improvement in the economy (it is not very hard to improve on the present situation!) this would still be a regime of decline—a fact which would soon register on the consciousness of the masses.

A bonapartist regime is corrupt and unstable by its very nature. the masses would soon compare the demagogic speeches "against corruption" with the reality of a corrupt and degenerate clique of officers enriching themselves at the expense of the nation. Whatever popularity they might have had in the beginning would turn into hatred and contempt. When this stage is reached, the regime would be doomed. Trotsky explained that the army and police are not sufficient to keep the masses down in a modern industrial society, such as Russia now is.

Only the temporary inertia of the masses would allow them to stay in power for a time. Even then, they would be at the mercy of the capitalist world economy. A slump in world capitalism, which is likely in the next few years, would completely undermine the attempt to consolidate a capitalist regime in Russia. Just as the 1929 slump led to the collapse of the dictatorship of Primo de Rivera in Spain, the road would be open to revolutionary developments. The illusions in capitalism would be utterly destroyed, and the stage would be set for a New October, but on a qualitatively higher level.