Yeltsin Becoming Dictatorial With Western Approval (1993)

Reform Or Revolution In Russia?

Brendan Clifford examines the conflict between Parliament and President

Mid-March 1993 marked an epoch in political history. Boris Yeltsin, the President of Russia, declared, as another Russian Boris did about four hundred years ago, that he had achieved the highest power. He issued a decree, on television of course, that henceforth he would rule by personal decree, and take no heed of any laws made by the Legislature or any judgments handed down by the Courts. He personified the will of the people. At some date in the future he would ask the people to recognise this fact in a referendum. But, for the time being, it would be a fact accomplished by his own will, which he recognised as having a unique part to play in the sequence of historical causation.

But Boris Yeltsin’ s personal political television broadcast was not the epoch-making event. It remains to be seen what his weight in Russian society is, and whether his assumption of the highest power will earn him a place in history equal to that of the usurping Tsar, Boris Godunov. The appearance at the moment is that he relinquished his claim to the highest power within about ten days of making it, having done nothing of any consequence in those ten days.

The epoch-making event is that the Prime Minister of Great Britain congratulated Yeltsin on his television decree, describing him as an upholder of democracy and the rule of law.

Yeltsin made no claim to have acted in accordance with the law. He and his spokesmen declared their contempt for the law. The law was a remnant of the old rotten regime which it was their purpose to root out, therefore they despised it.

Yeltsin set aside the law in the name of democracy. But the decay of British public life has now gone so far that the Prime Minister could only understand a plain statement setting aside the law in the name of democracy as a statement upholding the rule of law. Law and democracy – two quite distinct things – have been fused into a single blurred concept which leaves one with a definite idea neither of law nor of democracy. And that can be fairly described as an epoch-making event.

(President Clinton did much better. He hailed Yeltsin as a supporter of “democracy and free markets”.)

Britain has prided itself for many centuries as being the source of Parliamentary government and the rule of law. The former claim is justified: the latter is not. France, not Britain, is the source of law for the modem world. British law is feudal law adapted to the needs of an aristocratic ruling class, and is particularly unsuitable for the democratic era. But that is all the more reason why a British Prime Minister should know that law and democracy are different things.

The present law of England was established long before there was Parliamentary government. And Parliamentary government was established long before there was democracy. The body of law developed before the establishment of Parliamentary sovereignty in 1688 was not taken as being invalidated by the Revolution of 1688. And the democratisation of Parliament (substantially in 1832 and formal! y in 1918) was not taken as invalidating the Acts of the undemocratic Parliaments.

Yeltsin acts on the assumption that, because he was elected President in a freer atmosphere (though not on a wider franchise) than the Parliament, all that was done before his election falls away as invalid, and that the only valid legislative and judicial functions arc those latent in his will.

It is not surprising that he should have that attitude. He is a man with a blurred sense of mission and the accidents of fortune have favoured him so far. He is aware of himself as an exceptional individual. His sense of mission is to realise his own impulses in a form of state and society. If he believed in God he would believe that God had singled him out for great things. He became one of the top functionaries in the Communist Party. Then, acting on impulse, he put himself out of joint with the Party. Gorbachev told him his political career was finished. But, within a couple of years, it was Gorbachev’s career that was finished. Yeltsin (along with his present Parliamentary opponents) took a public stand on the streets of Moscow against the most half-hearted military coup ever attempted. Gorbachev was publicly humiliated by him. The Party was banned, and was declared to have been illegal throughout its entire period in power. So how could he not believe that he was a man of destiny, that all the bastions of power would crumble before his television appearances like the walls of Jericho before Joshua’s trumpet, and that society would melt itself down and remould itself in the form of market molecules because it was his wish that it should do so?

There is nothing surprising about what Yeltsin has said and tried to do–although that is an unreal distinction where he is concerned because thus far his deeds have been words.

What is surprising is that Western liberalism, having deluged Leninism with ridicule, should out of unreflecting admiration for Yeltsin have given new life to the concept of democratic dictatorship. Fora week and a half our governors and legislators and their media told us a hundred times a day that Yeltsin rule by personal decree, in defiance of the law and the legislature, and with the Russian media shackled, was the necessary form of capitalist democracy in Russia.

Douglas Hurd did utter a muted reservation. But he did so only a fortnight after the event, when Yeltsin’ s bid for dictatorial democracy had failed. So it doesn’t count. When it counted he was a silent member of the chorus.

The BBC depicted the conflict as a “struggle for power” between Yeltsin, the reformer, and the “hardliners”: No effort was made to discover and explain the actual issues of policy or orientation between the two. The public was left to understand that the ‘hardliners’ were diehard Brezhnevites who wanted to restore “the period of stagnation”. We were not told that Khasbulatov, the Speaker of Parliament, was a reformer, and that he had acted with Yeltsin in the days of the attempted coup two years ago. And we were not told that one of the matters at issue was the form of the state–whether it was to be a Parliamentary democracy acting on the basis of law or a Presidential dictatorship ratified by referendum.

The Constitutional Court wanted the text of Yeltsin’s decree, which established government by personal fiat, in order to judge its legality. Yeltsin wouldn’t release the text to the Court. The BBC thought that was very clever of him. A few days later he made a decree public, the Court having ruled on the basis of the television statement that it was illegal. But this decree did not say the things which the Court had judged to be illegal. And the BBC thought that that was remarkably clever. He had put one over on the reactionary Court and made it look foolish.

But it was Yeltsin that suddenly looked foolish. The Constitutional Court and the Parliament were taking themselves in earnest and were trying to work out functional accommodations between the elements of the new state and Yeltsin was playing the buffoon. The thought suddenly occurred that he did not hand over his decree to the Court, because there was no decree-only a television appearance.

What sense is there in issuing a decree establishing rule by personal decree and then keeping it secret? Did Napoleon behave like that? Or did Louis Napoleon?

Hegel’s maxim is in need. of extension: first as tragedy, then as farce, and finally as plain silliness.

It was when Yeltsin, despite the best efforts of the media in Britain, began to appear silly, that we got an occasional snippet of an interview with a ‘hardliner’. They were asked why they opposed the reforms, and they replied: What reforms?

The ‘reform’ was an ideological phrase, with as little basis in reality as any that Brezhnev had ever uttered. The ‘hardliners’ said they approved of reform and had come to oppose Yeltsin because he could not distinguish between reform and mere destruction.

There was a time when Tories would have understood what those ‘hardliners’ were saying. Toryism got its second life from the pamphlets of the Whig reformer, Edmund Burke. (Even Mrs. Thatcher knew that Burke was one of the Tory greats, even though she didn’t know why, and she thought his name was Edward.) But nothing is more alien to the spirit of contemporary Toryism than the political philosophy of Burke.

One of the classic statements about reform was made by Burke in his venomous Letter To A Noble Lord (1796):

“It was my aim to give the People the substance of what I knew they desired, and what I thought was right, whether they desired it or not, before it had been modified for them by senseless petitions … I knew that there is a manifest distinction … between Change and Reformation. The former alters the substance of the objects themselves; and gets rid of all their essential good, as well as of the accidental evil annexed to them. Change is novelty; and whet her it is to operate anyone of the effects of reformation at all, or whether it may not contradict the very principle upon which reformation is desired, cannot be certainly known beforehand. Reform is, not a change in the substance, or in the primary modification of the object, but a direct application of a remedy to the grievance complained of So far as that is removed, all is sure. It stops there; and if it fails, the substance which underwent the operation, at the very worst, is but where it was …

“I proceeded upon principles of research to put me in possession of my matter; on principles of method to regulate it; and on principles in the human mind and in civil affairs to secure and perpetuate the operation. I conceived nothing arbitrarily… I have ever abhorred… all the operations of opinion, fancy, inclination, and will, in the affairs of Government, where only a sovereign reason … should dictate. Government is made for the very purpose of opposing that reason to will and caprice, in the reformers or in the reformed, in the governors or in the governed, in Kings, in Senates, or in Peoples.”

Burke pitted his immense powers of reason and persuasiveness against the French Revolution because the French National Assembly, instead of attempting to remedy, by particular reforms, particular features of the French state, scored out the old state and set about constructing a new state from scratch according to a doctrine.

Burke’s criticism of the French Revolution was the spiritual source of the Tory revival and it remained the core of Tory philosophy down to the 1970s. It was assimilated by the Liberals around the middle of the 19th century. And it became a philosophical consensus underlying party conflict. His Liberal biographer, John Morley, summed it up in these words:

“Revolutionary politics have one of their sources in the idea that societies are capable of infinite and immediate modifications, without reference to the deep-rooted conditions that have worked themselves into every part of the social structure”.

The Labour Party inherited from its Liberal ancestry the pragmatic habits, if not the originating reason, of Burke’s political philosophy, and its decline started when, in the era of Michael Foot, it began to overcome those habits.

But, in her ten years as Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher erased inherited wisdom across the entire spectrum of the British body politic. We are all revolutionaries now. All thought is doctrine, even though we have no doctrine half as sensible as the French doctrine criticised by Burke. The public mind sloshes around in a welter of “opinion, fancy, inclination and will”.

With the media, and a Parliament which has become part of the media, forming a barrier against information about Russian affairs, it is hard to be sure of anything. But, judging by bits of information that seep through, it seems as if the Speaker of the Russian Parliament opposes Yeltsin on the same ground that Burke opposed the French National Assembly – i.e., that Yeltsin is not a reformer but a destructive revolutionary. He has reformed nothing. But in his misconceived plan to change everything he has left nothing intact.

A reform, says Burke, is the direct application of a remedy to a grievance, so that “if it fails the substance which underwent the operation, at the very worst, is but where it was”. But in Russia today nothing is where it was, and at the same time nothing has been established in place of what used to be.

The plan to change everything in Five Hundred Days was a feasible plan of market reform. But it was feasible only on the condition that it was put into effect by the old state.

The term “privatisation” as applied to Russia is inappropriate. In England, socialist institutions were hewn out of the market, like clearings in a forest, and the market existed all about them. Those institutions might therefore be relinquished to the market through ‘privatisation’. But that was not the case in Russia. The market was marginal to Russian economic life. Human nature there had not been hammered into commercial forms. The spontaneous flow of Russian culture did not tend to produce economic egoism. Lenin and Stalin did not so much suppress the market as take advantage of the fact that Russian society was shy of the market.

What was required for ‘economic reform’ of the kind half-envisaged by Gorbachev and Yeltsin was not ‘privatisation’, but what might be called “marketisation”; The problem was not how to privatise state institutions, but how to establish the skeleton of a national market. ‘Privatisation’ of institutions into a market which did not exist was not reform but disintegration. The jungle needed to be constructed simultaneously with the tigers which would flourish in it.

The skeleton of a national market might conceivably have been formed by a crash programme of reconstruction put into effect by the state in five hundred days. Collectivisation was accomplished in something like that period of time. But purposeful activity by a strong state was the indispensable condition of that reform, both in the sense of making the change possible to enact and of keeping it within the category of a reform-the state being both the effective means of change and the element of continuity.

“I had a state to preserve as well as a state to reform” -that was how Burke saw it. A process of change which does not preserve the state cannot by any stretch of the imagination be seen as a reform.

The Russian state might have enacted drastic economic changes in a short period as a reform. The establishment of a national market could only have been done by the state-and because it was done by the state it would have been a reform. But the dissolution of the state makes reform impossible.

It is an axiom of contemporary Toryism that the market forms itself spontaneously out of qualities innate in human nature. On this view it is absurd to think of the state forming the market. The state and the market are seen as opposites. But that view is the outcome of profound historical unawareness. Prolonged and extensive state interference was needed to reform Merrie England into a national market economy. Without the interference of a strong national state from the 16th to the 19th centuries, it is highly improbable that anything like an English national economy would have been formed. And the idea that the British economy has been freewheeling since the repeal of the Corn Laws arises from the blindness of familiarity. The market economy was formed by the state and it could not survive if the constant activity of the state to maintain it ceased.

Thatcher, who had little experience of the world, really and truly believed that the market was the economic form which corresponded most closely with innate impulse in human nature. In fact, it is the most artificial of all economic forms, and the one least compatible with whatever innate impulses there are in human nature. It was not a Marxist but a Tory (Carlyle) who said that the market relationship dissolved all human connections leaving only “the nexus of callous cash payment”.

Perhaps it is the destiny of humanity to be forged into a thousand million economic molecules engaged in a perfect competition of each against all. Mrs. Thatcher has convinced the leadership of the Labour Party that it is so, and it was the original vision of the Liberal Party. But, if itis so, strong states are needed for the reconstruction of humanity into economic automatons.

Russian humanity is malleable to a considerable extent by the state. But Yeltsin’s state, which is little more than a figure of speech, is not moulding it. And the habits of the people seem to be no more conducive to the development of capitalism now than they were when Stolypin was the Tsar’s Minister for Capitalism.

Western capitalists, with Thatcherite conceptions of human nature, who have invested in Russia have been disappointed and are in danger of being demoralised. Japanese capitalists, having a more realistic conception of the relationship of state and economy, have been reluctant to put any investment into a political vacuum.

Thatcherite ideology – that is, Utopian illusion about the real conditions of existence of the capitalist system – prevents Western capitalist enthusiasts from understanding why their Russian ventures are not as successful as they expected. They see the cause of their failure as a persistence of the old regime, rather than the absence of a powerful ideological state which would re-jig human souls to their requirements. They have therefore proposed that companies investing in Russia should be given legal exemption from whatever survives in the way of law and administration in the various parts of Russia. They do not appear to realise what is implied in this proposal-which is that each multi- I national should be authorised to construct its own state-apparatus as the political framework of its business activity in Russia.

There is of course a precedent for this mode of capitalist development. The East India Company was a commercial venture authorised to construct its own apparatus of state, including an army. The East India Company had many successors. The last, and most successful, of them was the West Africa Company in the late 19th century, which laid the basis of modem Nigeria. And China was for a generation a mere geographical expression-the name of a Territory within which four or five capitalist states established political enclaves. But it is unlikely that this mode of capitalist development will occur in Russia, because it requires the complete disintegration of Russia. And, though it is not impossible that the process of fragmentation should continue until all sense of national cohesion evaporates and it becomes as open to outside interference as West Africa was around 1900, it is improbable.

The choice then seems to lie between Yeltsin becoming an effective fascist, and the Parliament and Courts becoming the nucleus of a representative government. And either course seems to require that government should free itself from Thatcherite Utopianism and base itself on “the deep-rooted conditions that have worked themselves into every part of the social structure” .

There· is a responsible Parliament and a responsible judiciary. (The Russian Parliament has behaved much more prudently this year than the English Parliament did in rather similar circum-stances in 1641.) The main obstacle to the establishment of representative government lies in the unstable character of the Executive-e-i.e., Yeltsin. Western democracy has been encouraging him into fascist ways, while the Russian Parliament and Court have been countering his fascist impulse.


[What actually happened was Yeltsin recognising he had messed up, and handing over power to Putin.  Putin gradually restores a Russian economy badly damaged by Yeltsin’s blunders.]

This article appeared in May 1993, in Issue 35 of Labour and Trade Union Review, now Labour Affairs.  You can find more from the era at and