The death of Yeltsin: the end of an epoch and the birth of a new one

Yeltsin was a symbol for the capitalist system that emerged following the capitalist counter-revolution he headed. The fact that his death yesterday was met with indifference in Moscow shows just how weak support for capitalism is in the capital, a city where unlike in the provinces a layer of the population is better off than in Soviet times.

Yeltsin was a symbol for the capitalist system that emerged following the capitalist counter-revolution he headed. The fact that his death yesterday was met with indifference in Moscow shows just how weak support for capitalism is in the capital, a city where unlike in the provinces a layer of the population is better off than in Soviet times.

As Yeltsin's successor and the new symbol of the capitalist system today, Putin praises Yeltsin. Naturally! Putin does not want to criticize the origins of his own leadership, which are tied with an umbilical cord to Yeltsin's patronage. This is why in speaking of Yeltsin Putin is actually speaking of himself, for example declaring that Yeltsin's "noble thoughts and words: ‘look after Russia' have always served as a moral and political point of reference."

Of course this is nothing other than stinking hypocrisy. Neither Putin nor Yeltsin ever cared about the people or Russia except in connection with their own careers. It is a question not of abstract noble thoughts or democracy but of class issues. If the Kremlin can control the votes of the people a vote is legitimate, if not, for example if a communist candidate won and moved to re-nationalise industry Putin and co. would say that the people can't be trusted etc. Putin considers his rule to be legitimate because Yeltsin handed power over to him, with presidential elections rubber stamping what had been decided in advance. It is not accidental that Putin is repeating Yeltsin's example in searching for a successor once his second term ends in spring 2008. For all that Russia has changed under his leadership the hand-over of power will be basically the same, and the next leader will owe his place to Putin, and thereby to Yeltsin too.

But you don't need to look further than Moscow to see what Yeltsin's - and Putin's - real legacy is. It is the playground for the rich, numbering more billionaires than any other city in the world, except maybe for New York. The rapidly rising incomes of the rich, the result of theft and plunder, and of high oil revenues flooding the real estate market, are fuelling inflation and ever greater inequality. Wages aren't rising, leaving workers to see the wealth they are creating be enjoyed by corrupt, degenerate upstarts. On the contrary, jobs and wages are being attacked as the rising rouble makes imports cheaper and Russian industry uncompetitive. Factories that could give work to thousands of workers are being bulldozed over to make way for new offices and shopping centres. In sectors that are thriving such as the building trade the local government and construction companies employ workers who come from outside of Moscow, either from Russia or other former Soviet Republics, to divide workers and keep wages down. Unfortunately this has had an effect, with racism widespread against migrant workers on the one hand while Moscovites themselves are disliked within Russia for being snobs on the other. You only have to travel for an hour outside of Moscow and you will see the poverty of the provinces. This is the reality of capitalism and its contradictions and parasitism.

Both Putin's professed admiration for Yeltsin and his similar economic policies demonstrate that there are no fundamental differences between them. The differences that do exist are based on personal factors. Indeed, the fact that both Yeltsin and Putin have individually been able to influence politics so much demonstrates how similar their reigns are. They are both bonapartist leaders, who are figureheads of a state apparatus that has become largely independent of society and uses this independence in its own interests.

The role of the state in recent Russian history requires some explanation since it is directly connected to the collapse of the USSR. Yeltsin did not create the conditions that he worked in during the 1980-90s. Far from it, these conditions themselves helped shape Yeltsin, who responded to events rather than working to a pre-conceived plan. The underlying origins of the movement to capitalist counter-revolution are not to be found in the birth of Boris Nikolaevich to the poor family of a builder in 1931 but the rise of the party bureaucracy in the USSR which sought to defend first and foremost its own caste interests and only in the second place those of the USSR. This party bureaucracy was able to establish a firm grip over society after playing the weak Soviet working class off against the peasantry in the 1920-30s, now attacking the working class and giving concessions to the kulaks, now the peasantry and liquidating the kulaks as a class. At the same time democratic rights were suppressed, and what remained of the Bolshevik Party and the independent labour movement was drowned in blood. But bonapartist regimes by their very nature are regimes of crisis, as the pre-war period shows. The rule of the party bureaucracy was only really stable after victory in the Second World War, when decades of stability appeared to be the norm rather than the exception. In this period fantastic results were achieved. The USSR sent the first man into space and became the second industrial power on the planet.

The death of Yeltsin: the end of an epoch and the birth of a new one
Yeltsin and Gorbachev in 1990

However, although the working class became stronger numerically and culturally, it did not automatically translate its bigger social weight into greater political influence. The extent to which factors such as political parties and classes can in turn affect economic development does not disprove Marxism, which has nothing in common with the formalistic, undialectical caricature of Marxism peddled in the Soviet Union by the CPSU that reduced social development simply to economics. This is something that conspiracy theorists on the left in the former Soviet Union should take into account when they lay the blame for the collapse of the USSR squarely on the shoulders of Gorbachev and Yeltsin, rather than tracing the deeper, longer-term causes of this process. But this doesn't mean that Marxists have a crystal ball with which we could predict the future exactly. The Marxist method could reveal the underlying crisis that the USSR found itself in but it could not define in advance what the results of the end of the bureaucratic control of the state and society would be. Ted Grant explained in the early 1970s, as soon as the growth rates in the USSR dipped to zero, that the regime could not last and would be overthrown, and predicted that the working class would wrestle control of the state apparatus and democratize the Union, injecting a new burst of life into the Soviet economy and into the world revolution. This was entirely possible.

It was by no means inevitable that the bureaucracy would successfully restore capitalism. In the end this was achieved largely due to the lack of organization on the part of the working class, which was not able to develop a programme or a party capable of taking power. During the process of capitalist counter-revolution therefore neither the working class, due to its lack of organization, or the capitalist class, which only existed in an embryonic form in the early 1990s, was able to control the state. Instead, the state under Yeltsin, despite its own internal weaknesses, had the final say in politics, as was apparent in the use of the army in smashing the opposition in parliament in 1993 and other examples. And within the state apparatus the President had huge clout as the arbiter in deciding the outcome of clashes between rival factions. For example, even when Yeltsin's rating dropped to 2% in the late 1990s he still had a lot of leverage through appointing and firing a string of Prime Ministers in quick succession.

In essence, the same applies to Putin's regime. It is true that in contrast to Yeltsin's reign capitalism has now been consolidated and the capitalist class is stronger. But, as with the working class in the USSR, this does not mean that the capitalist class has increased its grip over the state. On the contrary the state under Putin has been strengthened and further increased its leverage over the capitalist class. The hatred of capitalism and of capitalists has so far not undermined Putin's leadership as it did Yeltsin's. Instead Putin has leaned on the masses and exploited this discontent to strike blows against oligarchs such as Mikhail Khodorkovsky, while the commercial interests of the state have expanded in the auto sector, mining and defence. Just as the state has trampled over capitalist competition in industry, it managed to establish a monopoly in parliament with the re-creation of the party of power, called United Russia, whose origins, along with Putin's rule, lie in Yeltsin's time.

This re-division of property and power has come at the expense of former allies of Yeltsin, who have been elbowed out of Kremlin corridors by Putin's allies in the security forces. Those who backed Yeltsin out of their own personal and business interests, now claim that Putin is attacking the freedoms that Yeltsin defended without clarifying that they are talking about the freedom of oligarchs to enrich themselves rather than the rights of ordinary working people. It goes without saying that these same people in power backed Yeltsin when he made the Communist Party illegal and later brushed aside his own constitution in ordering tanks to fire on the White House in October 1993. Putin's regime is the natural further evolution of Yeltsin's regime. The only reason why Yeltsin tolerated opposition, in a period when the CPRF had a lot of power in parliament and among regional governors, is because he was weak. If he had been stronger he would not have acted fundamentally any differently from Putin.

The death of Yeltsin is an opportunity to emphasis again that Putin's regime is the continuation of his regime, and hammer home the fact that in society as a whole Yeltsin isn't mourned, that the regime that Putin is now the figurehead of has outlived itself. But unlike Yeltsin it will not die a natural death. It must be fought against and defeated.

Although the working class is still weak today, an upsurge in the class struggle is already showing signs of taking off. On the other hand, its class enemies within the elite are by no means as strong as they seem to be. Putin is popular as a leader in part because he is seen as being different from corrupt courts and squabbling politicians in the cabinet and the parliament. Without Putin the prospects for the system are not so reassuring. The stability that Putin's leadership has enjoyed is very superficial. The state is powerful against groups of capitalists and workers, students and pensioners etc. because the state is the law. But it is incapable of solving disagreements within the state in the same way. These can still only be decided by the President, which means the next President will have the power to usher in a new round of re-dividing property, reflecting the weakness of capitalist property relations that the capitalists are not able to defend from the state - because they themselves received them as a result of state patronage. The emergence of a second party of power in the shape of A Just Russia offers a glimpse of the potential the ruling class has to undermine its position through internal division. Instead of strengthening the system as a whole they are only interested in their own profits and prestige.

The stabilization that has taken place under Putin has strengthened the bargaining position of the working class. Workers and youth are beginning to think not only about the struggle to survive today but also what will happen in the future. With every day that passes it is becoming clearer to what is still a minority that the rule of capital, which is tied to the political rule of a rotten state bureaucracy, will only further impoverish the poor, exploit the exploited and enrich the rich. A new generation is beginning to look towards the working class to lead the students, intellectuals and pensioners against the capitalist class and the state apparatus. Such conclusions are being stimulated by the embryo of the labour movement, which has led to actions at Ford, Coca Cola and Heineken factories near St. Petersburg. In conditions of blatant state control of the law courts such a trade union struggle is organically tied to a political struggle against not only the bosses but the law courts and the parliament as well. Only armed with the method of Marxism and a clear socialist programme will this embryonic struggle grow into a politically conscious and well-organised class movement capable of overthrowing a regime that has very weak roots in society.

The fact remains that the working class, despite being numerically weaker than in the last days of the USSR, is still the vast majority of society. It only needs to be organized and to generalize its experience. So far, the main asset of the ruling elite has not been its own intrinsic strength of vision but precisely the lack of such organization and consciousness on the part of the workers. This will turn into its opposite, with the internal divisions and weak ideological position of the ruling class, that owes its position to bureaucrats who betrayed the USSR like Yeltsin, sharpening the will of the working class to fight back against capitalism and its belief in itself as the only class in society that can modernize Russia.

And what applies to Russia applies to the working class in every country. The defeat of the Soviet Union and the triumph of imperialism affected the whole world, not just the USSR. The rottenness of capitalism in Russia today is a reflection of the senility of capitalism globally. The new epoch we have entered of wars, revolutions and counter-revolutions will create many opportunities for the working class to take power. The victory of the working class in any strategic country will transform the situation. This is the potential of the Bolivarian revolution in Venezuela, which is being followed not only in South America but in Russia as well. It is not accidental that workers in Venezuela are, on the basis of their own experience, drawing the same conclusions as workers did in Russia 100 years ago. These are the lessons that workers in Russia today must learn and take inspiration from.

The Russian working class is powerful enough to keep in check bureaucratic tendencies within the state and is more integrated with the world working class than ever. A new edition of the Russian revolution in today's conditions would not be a mere repeat of 1917. It would be a new socialist revolution on a qualitatively higher level.

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