Russia : The Incompetent Capitalist Revolution
Yeltsin’s failures, accurately described in January 1994, when many in the West still admired him. And reminding people that it was Yeltsin who established the autocratic Presidency that he later passed on to Putin. That when he seemed to be serving Western interests, this was fine.
Kenneth Baker MP, having recently been pensioned off from a position of leadership in the Mother of Parliaments, went to Russia to ensure that President Yeltsin’s election was conducted according to the highest democratic standards. (It will be recalled that the reason the Russian Parliament, recently subjected to artillery fire, was held to be worthy of destruction by our Parliamentary leaders and our academic experts in democratisation, was that the Russian election of 1990, though not faulted at the time, was seen in retrospect to have Failed to meet the highest standard of the Parliamentary art.)
Mr. Baker appeared on Newsnight on December 10th and reported that everything was being done properly. It was suggested to him that the fact that he was himself an enthusiastic supporter of Yeltsin’s Constitution, which was one of the matters being put to the electorate, might cause some people to doubt his impartiality. Nonsense, he said: Russia needs stability under a good Constitution in order to develop as a democracy and that is what Yeltsin’s Constitution gives it. Look, he said, flicking through the latest daily edition of that rapidly evolving document, here you’ve got separation of the powers, a free Parliament, and an independent judiciary – what’s wrong with that?
All that we can find wrong with it is that the free Parliament and independent judiciary, which were functioning organs of state a few months ago, have now been reduced to paper. And that even on paper they have been placed under strict curbs to help them resist the temptation to reassert themselves as active institutions of state. If Yeltsin could not tolerate the actual separation of powers established in the Courts and in Parliament by people who had been his colleagues in the opposition to the 1991 coup, is he now likely to restore what he destroyed?
The relationship between the Executive and the legislature is the most difficult of all relationships to establish when setting up a system of representative government. The Executive often feels a natural urge to strike off the head of the Legislature. What Yeltsin did to the independent Parliament was nothing unusual. All that was unusual was the wholehearted support given to him, even before the event, by the Anglo/American founders of the system of representative government. And we did not notice any dissent from the Labour Front Bench when Major declared support for the shelling of Parliament and the suspension of the Courts in order to ‘safeguard democracy and the rule of law’.
A few generations back an informal institution known as the Fourth Estate was considered necessary to liberal democracy. The Fourth Estate was the newspapers conducted by editors and journalists with critical faculties, and some independent knowledge of the world. But nowadays we only have the media. And any resemblance between the media and the Fourth Estate is illusory.
At crucial moments (as determined by the state) the media-creature must have the mentality of a serf. At less important times he is permitted to mimic a journalist of the Fourth Estate, but not when it counts. And we have noticed that amongst those to whom servility comes most naturally are some who not very long ago were active in the revolutionary vanguard. They have a similar political, or at least ideological, history to Yeltsin, and are therefore more attuned to him than the common or garden liberals of the Guardian variety because, like him, they are merely counterfeit liberals.
John Lloyd, the Moscow man for the Financial Times, formerly of the Communist Party, reported the shelling of Parliament under the headline: “Hellish battle spells ignominious end for instigators of revolt”. He informed the world that “For the instigators of the revolt, Mr. Ruslan Khasbulatov and Mr. Alexander Rutstkoy … the end was ignominious. Witnesses who met them as the troops entered the building spoke of men breathless with fear, desperately pleading for their lives.” (We quote from Mr. Lloyds article in the Irish Times, October 5th.)
Khasbulatov, as Speaker of Parliament, had been on the barricades with Yeltsin in August 1991. He was anxious to make functional compromises between Parliament and the Executive, but was not prepared to collaborate in reducing Parliament to a Presidential rubber stamp. Yeltsin had majority support in Parliament to start with. He lost that majority by a blend of arrogance and incompetence. He was given extraordinary powers by Parliament for a year to improve the economy and the system of government. When he failed to do either, Parliament refused to renew his emergency powers. But he held on to them anyway in defiance of Parliament. Then he declared Parliament to be dissolved though he had no Constitutional authority for doing so.
When the Executive revolted against Parliament, Parliament responded by appointing a new Executive – which is in fact how Parliamentary government in England got established – as our Parliamentarians ought to know since every Autumn they go through the ritual of locking out Black Rod, commemorating the event by which Charles I was prevented from doing to Westminster what Yeltsin did to the White House.
(That the skirmishing which ‘preceded the shelling of the White House had been contrived by Yeltsin as an excuse for doing what he did always seemed probable. The detail of it has now been given by Jonathan Steele in the Guardian of November 13th, 1993.)
Yeltsin was not as squeamish as Charles I and so Khasbulatov is in jail instead of being Russia’s John Hampden. And because he lost he is, from a certain point of view, contemptible. But from another point of view it is the journalist, with liberal pretensions, who sought to make Khasbulatov despicable in his moment of defeat who is contemptible.
Sometime later Mr. Lloyd reported on Yeltsin’s new draft constitution (the first draft of many drafts of the draft which was being redrafted up to the moment of voting). The headline was “Firm stand by Yeltsin for a new legal order”. Maintaining every appearance of solemnity, Mr. Lloyd reported in the new legal order the President can strike down laws passed by Parliament; that though Parliament can impeach the President “for treachery or very serious crimes, these do not include breaching the constitution”; and that the President may dissolve a Parliament which passes a vote of no confidence in him.
If only Charles I had known that this was democracy and law, how different the course of English history might have been!
If Yeltsin’s Constitution had been introduced six or seven years ago as a limited measure of liberalisation and guided democracy within the old state, perhaps it would have been progressive. But it is being introduced after the destruction not only of the old state but also of the framework of a liberal state functioning through a separation of the power which came into being after the 1991 coup attempt – and also after the dissolution of social order by the elements which Yeltsin fosters and represents. In these circumstances it is as liable to be a prelude to fascism as anything else. (In our comment on the events of last Christmas, we said Yeltsin seemed to be a sort of buffoon. That needs amending: he is a buffoon with artillery.)
The fascism of the twenties and thirties developed in the unstable condition of Europe brought about by Prime Minister Asquith’s World War. That war had the effect of subverting what the British Government when declaring war said it was its intention to safeguard: the civilised order of Europe. In the post-war situation revolutionary socialist movements. made government on the old lines impossible but were unable to dominate the chaos and produce a new political order. The various elements of society separated off from each other and tried to take off in opposing directions. The fascist movements in Italy and Germany took in elements from both right and left and restored a kind of national political life in the states in which the stalemate between left and right had broken it.
The great novelty in the Russian situation is that it is an incompetent capitalist revolutionary movement that has broken society up into its elements.
The voting in Russia, in which the democracy gave the first place to a party which we are told is fascist, has put the wind up the propagandists in Parliament and the press who, without sufficient reason. made an equation between the market, human nature, liberalism and democracy. Whether Zhirinovsky is or is not fascist we have no means of knowing. The fact that the Yeltsin enthusiasts declare him to be fascist is in itself sufficient reason to doubt it. The Western media creatures in Russia – Yeltsinites all – made propaganda instead of reporting, so we lack the information to judge what has happened.
Until now it has always been assumed that one of the prime objects of fascism was to destroy Parliament. But when Yeltsin destroyed the Russian Parliament that assumption was promptly discarded.
To soothe Western liberal sensibilities Yeltsin decided to supply it with the fig leaf of a pseudo-Parliament – a Parliament whose function was to be a rubber stamp, as the Reichstag was from 1933 onwards. The. referendum on the new Constitution dreamed up by Yeltsin. and voted on simultaneously with the election of the pseudo-Parliament, was designed to enable the President to rule by decree, as Hitler did while formally remaining Chancellor. (The Weimar Constitution was not repealed in Nazi Germany.)
Constitutionally, so to speak, Yeltsin may do what he pleases, without regard for the result of the “Parliamentary” election. There are substantial reasons, in the narrow ground of politics, for classifying him as a fascist, although an incompetent one. But on the broader ground of social relations he appears as an incompetent capitalist revolutionary who, by breaking society ‘into its elements, has prepared the ground for fascism.
We are now in the third year of the capitalist revolution in Russia. The effect of the socialist Revolution on the outside world three years. or thirty years. after the event was stimulating. The effect of the capitalist revolution three years on is depressing. and threatens to be catastrophic.
This was the second of three editorials appeared in January 1994, in Issue 39 of Labour and Trade Union Review, now Labour Affairs. You can find more from the era at https://labouraffairsmagazine.com/very-old-issues-images/ and https://labouraffairsmagazine.com/very-old-issues-images/m-articles-by-topic/.