The death of former Russian President Boris Yeltsin has called forth a range of appraisals of his contribution to the demise of the Soviet Union and the development of democracy in Russia. Monica Attard, who reported so memorably on the drama of the Stalinist coup against Gorbachev in August 1991, and Yeltsin’s role in defying it, has produced a critical appraisal in yesterday’s Australian. However much other commentary has been both far less critical and far less well informed, portraying Yeltsin as having single-handedly brought democracy and freedom to the former Soviet states, defending all his actions (including his unconstitutional and deadly dissolution of the Russian parliament in 1993) as consistent with this project, and exonerating him for setting in place the institutional conditions for Vladimir Putin’s erosion of democracy. One such hagiography is provided by David Boaz of the Cato Institute. Tuesday’s editorial in the Sydney Morning Herald also managed to descend into the fatuous cliche-mongering of post-Cold War liberal triumphalism. Consistent with this approach, the SMH refers to Mikhail Gorbachev’s glasnost and perestroika initiatives as “Tinkering with communist party control”, overlooking the fact that such “tinkering” had, amongst other things, enabled Yeltsin to be elected Russian President in the first place.
In this post I want to consider Yeltsin’s legacy in the light of the problem of replacing Russia’s centuries of autocratic and unaccountable executive dictatorship (whether in its Tsarist, Leninist-Stalinist or Putinist manifestations) with a framework of enduring democratic institutions including strong parliaments and other elected deliberative assemblies, the rule of law and constitutional guarantees of citizens’ rights, and the recurring phenomenon of the democratic project in Russia being railroaded by what can be termed Jacobin foundational projects which, whilst able to run in harness with the democratic project whilst in opposition to a decaying autocratic ancien regime, become objectively hostile to democratic institutions and practices when they place a brake on the foundational project.
In its last years the Tsarist feudal absolutist regime was challenged by a very diverse opposition movement comprising socialists, labour activists, feminists, liberals, national independence activists, anarchists, etc. The first peak of this movement was the revolution of 1905, in which the first soviets (workers’ councils) were formed on the initiative of the Mensheviks, and which extracted from the Tsarist regime the formation of a consultative parliament (the Duma). In the years following the defeat of the revolution the soviets were suppressed, and the Duma reduced to a shell by removal of what little powers it initially had and restriction of the franchise to ensure its domination by conservative elements. The second, highest, peak of the democratic movement was the “Glorious February” which culminated in the abdication of the Tsar and the formation of a provisional government, ruling in parallel with the soviets until a constituent assembly could be elected and convened.
I have previous presented Orlando Figes’ account of the February events here and here. Work commitments have prevented me from fulfilling my original promise of a full account of the democratic revolution, but the important point to be noted here was that its main institutional achievement and intention was the creation of a range of popular-democratic assemblies (the soviets) and the attempt to create a national elected assembly (the Constituent Assembly) to replace executive autocracy in its Tsarist incarnation. Figes argues persuasively that the most desirable (albeit difficult to achieve) outcome in revolutionary Russia would have been the consolidation, under the leadership of a democratic left coalition including Mensheviks, Socialist-Revolutionaries and moderate Bolsheviks such as Kamenev, of a system of popular democracy combining the soviets, the Constituent Assembly, and other assemblies such as the zemtsvos. Unfortunately this was not achieved.
This was partly due to the indecisiveness and timidity of the democratic socialist parties in the soviets. Figes argues (and I am persuaded) that the democratic left shirked their historic responsibility by failing to initiate a full-blown democratic seizure of power by the soviets, preferring to allow a liberal-conservative dominated provisional government (albeit with some socialist involvement) to continue ruling within limits set by the soviets. And of course the liberals, Mensheviks and SRs erred tragically by persisting with Russia’s hopeless involvement in World War I. This led to a bleeding of workers’, soldiers’ and sailors’ support to the Bolsheviks, with their Jacobin foundational agenda of communist revolution which owed less to Marx than it did to Russian chiliastics like Tkachev and Nechayev, and allowed them to seize the initiative as 1917 ground on. After the Bolsheviks played the key role in resisting the counter-revolutionary coup led by General Kornilov (who thought he was acting with the blessing of Provisional Government leader and pseudo-socialist dilletante Kerensky), their momentum was unstoppable.
Now, during 1917, the Bolsheviks, as part of the democratic opposition, had helped to create and lead the soviets and other organs of popular democracy. They were able to agree with the democratic socialists, liberals, anarchists, etc., in opposing the Tsarist autocracy and its revenants and creating popular-democratic bodies in opposition to the regime. However, their commitment to democratic institution-building evaporated when those fledgeling democratic institutions became an obstacle to the Bolshevik project. The Constituent Assembly was forcibly disbanded when the elections delivered a non-Bolshevik (mainly SR) majority. The soviets were vitiated by the suppression of the non-Bolshevik socialist parties and tendencies as “counter-revolutionaries”. Those Bolsheviks who had misgivings about the way things were heading were silenced by the ban on factions imposed at the 1921 party congress. When the Kronstadt workers and sailors (an erstwhile bulwark of Bolshevism) rose to demand a restoration of socialist democracy, they were shot “like ducks on a pond” at the behest of Trotsky and Tukhachevsky, with Lenin’s blessing. To cut a long, sad story short, the Bolsheviks completely reversed the February Revolution’s work of democratic institution-building and created a savage new executive autocracy headed, successively, by Lenin, Stalin, Khrushchev, Brezhnev, Andropov and Chernenko.
Fast forward to 1985-91. As Mikhail Gorbachev himself relates in his memoirs, a central task of glasnost and perestroika was the replacement of the Stalinist party-state executive autocracy with a political framework based on the rule of law and the existence of strong popular-democratic assemblies chosen through multi-candidate and ultimately multi-party elections. Yeltsin and the radical democratic forces which emerged to support him in this period were ardent champions of this process, and Yeltsin was the main beneficiary, being elected Russian President in 1991. It is now history that Gorbachev’s attempts, like the democratic leftists of 1917, to steer a reforming centre course between the conservative defenders of the ancien regime and the radicals led by Yeltsin came to grief in the August 1991 military coup and Yeltsin’s defiant and genuinely inspiring symbolic defence of the Russian parliament against Stalinist counter-revolutionary tanks. The Kornilov coup and the Bolshevik resistance redux!
As we now know, the similarities between the Yeltsin forces and the Bolsheviks did not end there. Like Lenin and Trotsky, Yeltsin had become the champion of a Jacobin foundational project – neo-liberal capitalist revolution and the “shock therapy” of ultra-rapid privatisation, marketisation, deregulation and de-welfarisation as prescribed by the western neo-liberal brains trust. And like his Bolshevik precursors, Yeltsin was not going to allow democratic parliaments and such to get in the way of his revolution. He procured extensive powers to rule by Presidential decree, and when a majority of the Russian parliament – conservatives and democratic reformers alike alarmed at the social havoc being wrought by “shock therapy” – objected, it set in train a confrontation which culminated in Yeltsin’s unconstitutional and forcible dissolution of parliament, with the loss of over 100 lives, in September 1993. And just as several generations of indifferently groomed young radicals in the west constituted themselves as a claque to exonerate the dissolution of the Constituent Assembly and the crushing of Kronstadt as necessary “emergency measures” against “counter-revolutionaries”, so a claque of besuited western journalists, politicians and right-wing intellectuals applauded Yeltsin’s crushing of the “communist hard-liners” in the parliament and his assumption of wide-ranging Presidential powers as necessary to advance the cause of “reform”. Late in 1993 a new constitution was adopted which replaced the parliament with a Duma with limited powers, and which concentrated immense powers in the presidency, despite warnings that these powers would be wide open to abuse by a future tyrant. As we now know, these powers have been, are being and will continue to be abused by Yeltsin’s hand-picked successor, Vladimir Putin, to once again entrench executive autocracy in Russia and to complete the project, begun by Yeltsin, of destroying the institutions of popular democracy and the rule of law which were the main fruits of glasnost and perestroika, and which Yeltsin and his followers were happy to support for as long as it suited them – and only as long as it suited them.
Of the many striking parallels between the two great democratic revolutions in Russia which were eventually betrayed by their Jacobin passengers, perhaps the most striking is the failure of the western barrackers for Lenin and Trotsky in 1917, and for Yeltsin and the shock therapists in the 1990s, to get what a democratic revolution is about. It is not about the triumph of goodies over baddies. It is certainly not about the triumph of a narrow circle of self-defined Jacobin goodies (Lenin, Yeltsin) over not just outright reactionaries who are undoubtedly baddies, but over anyone who, whatever their democratic revolutionary credentials (e.g. the Mensheviks, Gorbachev), is defined as being just as bad as the baddies because they’re not part of the Jacobin elect. A democratic revolution must be about the creation of institutions such as parliaments and other elected and popular-democratic deiberative bodies, independent courts, constitutions and laws which guarantee citizens rights and restrain the powers of rulers, etc., and the creation of the culture of democratic civility which goes with the institutional framework. And a democratic revolution must entail the acceptance by Jacobin utopians of whatever stripe (communist chiliastics, neo-liberal shock therapists, etc.) that however earnestly they believe in their foundational project, they must cop the constraints of democratic constitutionalism and democratic civility, and the compromises which will inevitably be forced on such projects as a result of the will of the people who are the intended laboratory rats of the Jacobin/Bolshevik/shocktherapy/whatever experiment.
It is ironic that neo-liberal apologists, like David Boaz, for Yeltsin’s revival of executive autocracy in the service of capitalism would doubtless be the first to condemn Hugo Chavez’s recent assumption of autocratic presidential powers in the service of Venezuelan socialism. Conversely, what there is of the Trotskyist and Stalinist left applauds the executive autocracy of Chavez whilst condemning the executive autocracy of Yeltsin and Putin. Consistent democrats are equally disturbed by both.