Thursday, April 9, 2020

Russia and the Long Transition: a review

Samîr ’Amîn

The late, great and much-lamented Coptic Ægyptian world-system theorist and Third World activist Samîr ’Amîn put out the book Russia and the Long Transition from Capitalism to Socialism through Monthly Review in 2016, two years before his repose. A collection of his essays written between 1990 and 2015 and arranged with an eye to the era of hybrid war, they offer a critical look at both Tsarist Russia and the Soviet Union through the eyes of both global class struggle and regional and world gæopolitics. In Dr ’Amîn’s view, despite the failures of the Soviet Union to achieve its promise of radically-participatory politics, despite the grossly irresponsible cupidity and callousness of Russia’s ‘Jurassic Park capitalist’ nomenklatura during the Eltsin years, and despite a few of the missteps Vladimir Putin has taken in accommodating these new oligarchs, the particular history and gæography of Russia taken together have potentially placed it on a uniquely-informative long path towards a more just order.

Though far from a fervent supporter of any of the stages of Russian political development – ’Amîn offers critical words of all of Russia’s political leaders: the Tsars, Lenin, Stalin, Brezhnev, Gorbachev, Eltsin and Putin – ’Amîn treats the situation of Russia’s people and nation with a remarkable degree of sympathy. Though he calls himself, with somewhat misleading self-effacement, a ‘reader of history’ rather than a historian proper, it’s clear that his knowledge of history – and Russian history in particular – is quite extensive. The extent and care he demonstrates in that reading is clear also from his knowledge of Russian thought. He shows us a few of the cards in his hand in the first essay of the book, when he cites with approval the thought of left-wing religious philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev and linguist and Eurasianist pioneer Prince Nikolai Trubetskoi.

One theme that runs through this collection of essays is the sense that Russia has had privileged access to building a truly participatory politics, but has missed the mark on several occasions. As familiar as Dr ’Amîn seems to be with the history of Russian thought, this does not seem to be an accidental præoccupation. The call to a more just world order and a more participatory politics can be found in the thinking of both authors mentioned above, Berdyaev and Trubetskoi. In the thought of the latter two authors, this is mediated through the Slavophile emphasis on the rural peasant commune, the obshchina, as a living model of the spiritual sobornost’ that ought to define the ideal politic. In Berdyaev’s thought, sobornost’ refers a total togetherness and active mutuality that nonetheless does not override the personhood or the creative powers of its participants. ’Amîn does not make explicit reference to this ideal, but his references to the ‘messianic’ tendencies in Russian political thought show that he is aware of it and has been influenced by it to an extent.

These essays having been written over a period of fifteen years, they do vary quite a bit in terms of their scope and preoccupation. However, ’Amîn returns to many of the same themes in these essays. He probes the tension between gæography and history at the beating heart of Russian thought during Soviet times – a remnant, in fact, of the debates in the early nineteenth century between the Russian populist Aleksandr Herzen and his conservative Slavophile interlocutors Aleksei Khomyakov and Ivan Kireevsky. He notes the ahistorical and obfuscating usages of the terminologies of ‘empire’ and the Arendtian ‘totalitarianism’ discourse when it comes to discussing both Tsarist Russia and its successor Soviet state. He undertakes several cutting (but measured) critiques of Soviet and post-Soviet rule in Eurasia. And finally, ’Amîn assesses the resuscitation of fascism in world politics. Though that assessment has a certain emphasis on its rôle in the Maidan movement in the Ukraine, it also extends to the troubling resurgence of fascist politics in places like India, Brazil and the Middle East.

Gæography versus history: a Eurasian correction of Lenin

Samîr ’Amîn opens this collection of essays with what we might call a historiosophical critique of Lenin in relation to Russian history. In ’Amîn’s reading, Lenin adhered to a certain historical view, popular among German and French Marxists of the time, that the progression toward socialism was determined and linear through a series of discrete historical phases. The fact that Russia in 1917, and later China in 1949, were the first countries to implement explicitly-socialist revolutions posed something of a problem for this historical model. Lenin theorised that these countries revolted when they did because they were ‘weak links’ in world capitalism. ’Amîn takes partial exception to this view, and advances along a line of critique which is characteristic of the left Eurasianists, but which does not go as far as the particularist views of historian Andrei Fursov.

’Amîn begins his analysis of the divergence of Russia from Europe with the Crusades. In his view, the Crusades were a concerted effort on the part of Western Europe to ‘break into’ the world system of trade, by exploiting the weaknesses of an Eastern Roman Empire which was warring against the Arab Caliphate. Whatever the individual motivations of the Crusaders were, the people who financed them – based in Italian city-states like Venice and Florence – were mostly interested in gaining access to trade goods from India and China. The wealth which the Crusaders subsequently plundered from Constantinople, Damascus and Jerusalem subsequently went to finance Italian mercantile and colonialist expeditions in the other direction: out across the Atlantic. The northern ‘tea road’ was largely irrelevant to these gæopolitical struggles when the Crusades began; it rose to relevance only with the Mongols. Russia was, for a brief time, integrated into the mainstream of the world system through the Mongol horde. However, this integration would not last: the Mongol polity collapsed, and Western Europe bypassed Eurasia by using its colonial ventures in the Atlantic to muscle in onto trade in the maritime route.

Thus, the motives of the Tsars to expand Moscow’s power eastward were simply not comparable with the motives for the mercantile powers of Western Europe to expand westward. Peter the Great was looking to strengthen the state, but he was not motivated by the same population or financial pressures as the Western monarchs. As a result, Tsarist Russia neither systematically massacred nor systematically exploited the Central Asian peoples on its eastward march: the Tsarist state was content to merely exercise political sovereignty over the land. ’Amîn agrees with Berdyaev when he states that the history of Russia between 1500 and 1900 was no organic or linear progression, but riven by contradicting forces that pulled it both westward and eastward by turns. Although he dismisses the idea of Russia as an Asian or ‘half-Asian’ power, he also gives voice to the view that Russia’s brief, ‘Asian’ window of engagement with the mediæval world system offered it a unique vantage point for articulating an alternative politics. Here he comes very close to Eurasianists like Trubetskoi and Il’ya Fondaminskii.

He elucidates this further by comparing and contrasting the political formation of the United Kingdom – and its treatment in subsequent popular history – with that of the ‘gathering of the Russian lands’. ’Amîn notes that while the various Celtic peoples of Great Britain – to say nothing of those in Ireland – had been largely subjugated by English force and integrated into a ‘Greater England’ by less-than-peaceful means, in general the portrayal of this process in popular media is positive. That is very different from the grim tone that popular Anglophone media take when discussing Russia’s relationships with its neighbours. This, ’Amîn argues, despite the fact that the Tsarists treated the people in their Baltic, Caucasian and Central Asian acquisitions, not to mention the Belarusians and Ukrainians, no worse than they treated the people in Russia. That is to say: serfdom, brutal though it was, was the same everywhere no matter where you went in the Tsarist polity. The Russian Orthodox did not, as a rule, evangelise by the sword: Muslim, Buddhist, Tengriist and Shamanic minorities in Russia still exist. The Tsars – and later the Soviets – even allowed for differences in language: the Baltic, Finnic, Caucasian and Central Asian languages in the CIS are all still alive; while Gælic is no longer spoken in Scotland and rarely in Ireland, and Welsh was revived only by a minor miracle.

Here it is necessary to note that ’Amîn agrees, albeit in a rather roundabout way, with dissident critics of the Soviet Union like Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. In Solzhenitsyn’s Letter to the Soviet Leaders, he castigates the Soviet leadership for siphoning the wealth away from the Russian heartland to subsidise the national minorities. ’Amîn notes this critique, though not ascribing it to Solzhenitsyn by name, as an example of how the Soviet Union cannot and should not be classified in an œconomic sense as an ‘empire’ in the same way that the colonialist powers of the West were (and are). The latter utilised their colonial holdings for extracting wealth from the periphery to enrich the core. The former did not.

At the same time, ’Amîn is quite far from being a particularist or an advocate of a Russian Sonderweg. As he himself puts it:
Capitalism introduced a new challenge to the whole of humanity, to the peoples of its advanced centres, and to those of its backward peripheries. By this I mean that capitalism cannot continue indefinitely as permanent accumulation and the exponential growth that it entails will end up in certain death for humanity. The question that the Russians posed in 1917 is neither artificial nor is it the odd product of their so-called messianic impulses or the particular circumstances of their country. It is a question that is now posed to the whole of humankind.
Russia is not exempt from the processes or from the deadly logic of capitalism. However, ’Amîn is critical of the lacuna in Lenin’s formula about Russia’s status as a ‘weak link’ in world capitalism, and offers an alternative explanation rooted in world-system theory.

Eurasia under Soviet rule: a mixed legacy

Samîr ’Amîn dedicates a significant part of this volume to a careful, nuanced critique of the Soviet leadership, which goes thus: the early bureaucratisation and centralisation of the Soviet experiment created structural flaws in the state system; split apart the early worker-peasant alliance; encouraged the growth of a state-aligned bourgeoisie which then promptly abandoned the Soviet experiment when opportunity offered; and barred the masses from participation in decision-making, depoliticising them and rendering them apathetic when the collapse finally happened. ’Amîn is emphatic that the dissolution of the Soviet Union was neither inevitable nor necessary – nor even desirable, from a Central Asian perspective! – but that there were warning signs dating at least to the 1950s if not the 1930s which signalled these structural weaknesses.

In so doing, he takes aim at two misguided notions in popular historiography of the Soviet Union. First: the idea that the Soviet Union was ‘totalitarian’. In ’Amîn’s view, this is a descriptor which yokes it unjustly to fascist dictatorships. ’Amîn, much like the modern day Russian historiosophist and cultural critic Aleksandr Shchipkov, himself not much enamoured of Soviet ideology, also has little patience for what Shchipkov calls the ‘binary theory of totalitarianism’ in part because it has so little explanatory power for how Soviet government actually functioned (or failed), and is unable (whether by oversight or by design) to theorise the necessary distinctions between Soviet corporatism and fascism.

The second notion he critiques is the loaded dispute over whether the œconomics of the Soviet Union was ‘really-existing socialism’ or ‘state capitalism’. ’Amîn finds both terms obfuscating in different ways, being ideologically-oriented toward a particular understanding of socialism as inherently yoked to the Soviet project, even after the soviet councils themselves were rendered powerless. Though he does not want to overlook the early potentiality of these councils for participatory politics, he believes it is wrong to ascribe that politics to the system that replaced them. At the same time, he has no desire to legitimate an ideological narrative that damns the Soviet Union for having posed an alternative to capitalism in the first place. ’Amîn therefore refers instead Soviet autocracy and corporatism, or the more neutral ‘Soviet mode of production’, in which vertically-integrated blocks consisting of workers and management in state-owned enterprises formed alliances and competed for political power within the bureaucracy.

The standard historiography in the West purports to show that the Soviet Union under Stalin was bent on taking over the world, or becoming the sole revolutionary superpower. ’Amîn disputes this as well. He demonstrates that the same centrifugal forces which during the Tsarist period pulled the government at various times both toward Europe (i.e., the reforms of Peter, Catherine and Alexander II) and toward Asia (i.e. the Slavophile-inspired movements of Paul and Alexander III) were also at work in the Soviet government: the Soviet leadership tried by turns to forge alliances with the powers of Western Europe, and only later to make common cause with China. The same statecraft problems of building up a modern œconomy from an agrarian base on the one hand, and defending themselves against imperialist aggression – mostly by Germany – on the other, presented themselves to Lenin, Stalin and Bukharin as they had to the Tsars. ’Amîn does not blame them for taking the same ‘realist’ route that the Tsars had to with foreign affairs, and indeed castigates the ‘academic Marxists’ in the Trotskyist vein for living in ivory towers and not dealing honestly or responsibly with the conundrums of actually trying to build and protect an alternative politics on the ground.

The Soviet Union’s biggest error, in ’Amîn’s view, was to force collectivisation on the peasantry and the indigenous peoples of Asia. This alienated the peasantry – who were so vital to Lenin’s success in 1917 – from the urban workers, and began the process of corporatist bureaucratisation and depoliticisation of the working masses. ’Amîn shows a preference instead for the Chinese solution of land nationalisation and smallholder tenancy. He hereby shows his indebtedness not only to Mao Zedong, but also to post-Maoist theorists on the Chinese Left like Wang Hui, who also explained the depoliticisation of the masses in a Chinese context.

The dynamics of fascism, from 1930 to the present

Samîr ’Amîn does not mince words: the Maidan movement in Ukraine in 2014 was ‘a real “Euro-Nazi” putsch’, motivated by the exact same political forces that promoted fascism in Eastern Europe in the 1930s, as a response to a putative ‘Judæo-Bolshevism’ on the part of Russia – and the narrative which refers to any sort of ‘revolution of dignity’ or restoration of democracy in this event, ‘is purely and simply lying’. However, the proper understanding of these historical forces is blurred by a discourse that deliberately misunderstands what fascism is and why it arises. ’Amîn here takes to task the other side of the binary Arendtian discourse. First: he manages to convincingly delineate the differences between fascism and the Soviet mode of production. Second: he produces a convincing schema of how fascism operates in different œconomic environments.

Firstly, ’Amîn is clear that fascism is not merely any governmental system with an authoritarian police state. Instead, it is always a managerial strategy undertaken by capitalist countries in crisis. It rejects democracy categorically. However, despite its polemical rhetoric to the contrary, the fascist strategy rejects neither modern industrialism, nor monopoly power, nor the hierarchical relationship between capital and labour. ’Amîn appeals to the tragic experiences of labour movements in Germany under Hitler, Italy under Mussolini and Spain under Franco to demonstrate the commitment of fascist movements to the principles of capitalism. Fascism, for all its posturing, is not an alternative to capitalism. It is the last-ditch attempt of capitalism to stave off alternatives.

However, it is not sufficient to stop here. ’Amîn is sensitive to the diverse ways in which fascist strategies are deployed, and divides the historical emergence of fascism into four categories, depending on how fascism in a particular nation responded to its nation’s place in the world system. Fascism varied tremendously depending on whether a nation’s œconomy was ‘developed’ or ‘developing’, or whether they were in a dominant or submissive position militarily. The fascism of Germany and Japan was aggressively-expansionist and based in notions of race superiority; whereas the fascisms of semi-peripheral capitalist nations like Spain, Portugal and Italy were neither expansionist nor race-based, but instead focussed on rooting out democratic and trade-unionist dissent at home. The fascisms of defeated and dependent nations tended to be subject to the whims of their industrial and military patrons.

’Amîn intimates that to understand the modern resurgence of fascism, it’s necessary to understand that capitalism has morphed from its original position as a servant to the nation-state – mercantilist policies designed to enrich a particular nation at the expense of others – to having a truly global logic accountable to no government’s interests and yet dependent upon governmental structures. For the sake of convenience, ’Amîn refers to the Triad. The Triad are governmental and quasi-governmental agencies based in the United States, Europe and Japan – the historical imperialist powers – which serve to promote the forces of global capital; siphon wealth away from Asia, Africa and Latin America in particular; and enrich a globalised haute bourgeoisie which are no longer loyal to or accountable to any single government entity.

The most recent wave of fascism – including not only Ukrainian and Eastern European but also Indian, Latin American and Islâmist forms – ’Amîn attributes to a crisis in this formation. Since around 2006, Russia and China, the peripheral and semi-peripheral nations in which capitalism was never fully completed, have begun gradually, but with increasing insistence, refusing to accept their designated place in a world dominated by the Triad. The resurgence of fascism has therefore been deliberately inculcated and weaponised against Russia, China and the assorted Non-Aligned nations that have begun signing onto their initiatives.

The grandchild must carry on the task of the ancestors

Though his assessments of the current standing and prospects of leftist politics are bracing, to say the least, ’Amîn has not relinquished hope that an alternative politics to capitalism can yet take form. ’Amîn rejects the socialism of the First and Second Internationals – what he calls ‘Socialism I’ – because this form largely capitulated to the imperialistic demands of capital in the core, and its adherents relegated themselves to tinkering with parliamentary and welfare-state patch-ups of core-nation capitalism. The socialism of the Comintern – ‘Socialism II’ – attached itself to the Soviet mode of production and has no route to a return to power. ’Amîn’s diagnosis of the post-Communist parties in ex-Communist states is quite a bit bleaker than mine: he says that by and large they have resigned themselves to appropriating the vocabulary and worldview of nationalism.

But, as ’Amîn puts it, ‘The death of a child does not bring the parent back to life. The grandchild must carry on the task of the ancestors.’ He promotes what he calls ‘Socialism III’, for which he sketches out the broad contours. At the national level Socialism III would, on the surface, look suspiciously like a ‘mixed œconomy’. That is to say: there would be a central development policy, ‘with teeth’, implemented by the state, but plenty of room for non-government actors to promote their own initiatives on a market. Participatory democracy would be promoted in both the political and œconomic spheres simultaneously. Key sectors of the œconomy would be nationalised and firms would be reorganised on a cooperative basis between workers and management, with the state acting as a mediator.

Given the hostility of the world-system to any such alternative, three immediate steps need to be taken for this grandchild to begin his chores. The first is that building the alternative must take precedence over catching up. The second is that œconomies need to delink from the Triad. And the third is that a multipolar world order must emerge. ’Amîn seems to believe that both the Tsarist and the Soviet legacy best equip Russia as the site where this new synthesis will emerge, though he insists that his analysis is not focussed on renovating a lost past, but instead ‘reading history’ to inform the roads currently open in the present for a political realignment.


The above being the general contours of ’Amîn’s essays, speaking as a reader I can’t help but notice a few connexions hinted at in the text. Though he belongs firmly and self-avowedly to a Third World vantage-point, Samîr ’Amîn’s discourse taps into and harmonises with a long and powerful vein of religious leftist thought in Russian émigré circles: a vein to which Nikolai Berdyaev, Sergei Bulgakov, Maria Skobtsova, Il’ya Fondaminskii, Nikolai Trubetskoi, Nikolai Lossky and Georges Florovsky all contributed. He draws from this vein specifically to enrich world-system theory with regard to Russia’s unique position on a historical axis of trade, rendered semi-peripheral by the ‘westward’ process of the European colonial powers. Though he gives little credit to the messianic aspirations of the radical Russian intelligentia, he nonetheless has a significant degree of respect for the conditions upon which they surfaced.

’Amîn is therefore emphatic about Russia’s difference – a vast state which did not comport itself the way the colonial empires of the West did. His ambivalence about Russian leadership, both historical and present, thus has a creative edge to it. Russia’s current contested position in a world order dominated by the Triad positions it well to begin experimenting with real, personalist alternatives to that order. Speaking for myself, this is an argument I have made with respect to China for a long time, as well. And I tend to agree with him that a multipolar world allows for a greater degree of political and œconomic experimentation, without (as much) worry of the instruments of global finance sticking their thumbs on the scales. This series of essays is short, but remarkably substantive; I highly recommend it.

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