Boris Kagarlitsky was imprisoned by the Russian state

Although he languishes in a Russian jail for opposing Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine, Boris Kagarlitsky refuses to be silenced. Amid the flood of analyses he has been able to produce from prison, The Long Retreat stands out as a more strategic intervention. 

It’s one of several recent books by left intellectuals that seek to take the measure of the frightening situation that has developed with Covid and the Ukraine war. As Kagarlitsky rightly says, “Covid and the war were simply manifestations of one and the same global crisis.” Others are my own The New Age of Catastrophe, Ben Ware’s On Extinction and—in a larger arena—Naomi Klein’s Doppelganger.

Kagarlitsky’s assessment is bracing. On the one hand, “Left to its own devices after coping with external challenges and overcoming the danger of socialist revolution, capital in a strikingly brief time-span [i.e. since the 2007-8 financial crash] has pushed all its own contradictions to the limit, creating the conditions for the multitude of crises—social, environmental, economic and so forth—that are now heaped one upon the other.” 

On the other, “At the same time as public dissatisfaction with capitalism around the planet has reached an unprecedented scale, the left movement has finished up at the lowest point in its entire history.”

The Long Retreat is devoted to diagnosing this contradiction. Kagarlitsky brings to this task considerable intellectual resources—formidable historical knowledge and a very wide range of reference. They range from the classics of Marxism to major bourgeois thinkers such as Max Weber and Joseph Schumpeter. Not surprisingly some of the best parts of the book concern his native Russia. 

I was particularly impressed by a brilliant sketch of how under Leonid Brezhnev, the Soviet leader from 1964 to 82, economic power was devolved to sectoral ministries. These functioned as quasi-corporations while the Soviet Union became increasingly integrated into the world market as an energy supplier. 

“As a result, a transition to an open economy of a capitalist type seemed already to many of the enterprises linked to the raw materials sector not just to be perfectly possible, but also an attractive prospect,” he writes. “In essence, the trajectory of development that Russia would follow right through to the end of the Vladimir Putin epoch was already fully formed in the late Soviet years.”

The chapter on the Ukraine War is also full of insights. Kagarlitsky argues that the Putin regime isn’t a mere authoritarian aberration. It “represented a marked or even extreme manifestation of the general tendency” towards what the Marxist political economist William Robinson calls “militarised accumulation”. 

As for the invasion itself, “The actions of the Russian leadership, though completely irrational and criminal, were provoked by a rapidly deepening internal crisis within Russia”. This crisis was “in turn was linked closely to the crisis of the world-system of neoliberal capitalism into which Russia was tightly integrated”. 

Kagarlitsky is scathing about the pasteboard authoritarianism of the Putin regime. Appeals to the Tsarist era and fascist motifs can’t conceal that “the president himself and the elite circles around him are products of the social and cultural degradation of late Soviet society, together with the degradation of late capitalism”. “In this sense, too, Russia is not a tragic exception but on the contrary, part of the general current of ideological evolution of modern bourgeois society,” he writes. 

Fascinating though this analysis is, it has its limitations. Kagarlitsky makes a detailed comparison between the Ukrainian catastrophe and the First World War. He draws on the writings of the revolutionary wing of the Second International of socialist parties, led by Rosa Luxemburg and Vladimir Lenin. 

But they were very clear that the war was an inter-imperialist struggle in which rival blocs of Great Powers fought for global domination. In an earlier book, Kagarlitsky portrays Tsarist Russia as a “peripheral empire”. Russia “both served the interests of the nascent global centre”—indeed, he argues, it was economically a stake in the struggle between French and German imperialism—“and competed with it”. But this dimension of inter-imperialist rivalry—today involving the US, Nato, and China—is quite missing from his discussion of the Ukraine war.

There are other weaknesses. Kagarlitsky has no difficulty in documenting the faults of a damaged left and the fragmenting of working class solidarity over the past generation. On the left, there’s the renunciation of serious reforms by social democracy and the descent into abstract dogmatism of many revolutionary groups. 

But he doesn’t really give us a historical account of how this decline developed. This would mean returning to the great class confrontations of the 1970s and 1980s between ruling classes. They embraced neoliberalism as a means of humbling labour and combative workers’ movements. And those movements proved unable to break out of the confines of reformist ideologies that eventually disarmed them. 

As he does also in his earlier writings, Kagarlitsky tends to duck the choice between reform and revolution. He takes a long-term historical perspective, in which both contribute to the goal of replacing capitalism with socialism. “The defeats and victories along this path, the reforms and revolutions, have to an equal degree though in different forms and on different scales been stages of one and the same global historical process,” he writes. 

This is in many ways a helpful approach, but it is contradicted by a persistent tendency to blame the left’s plight on its own subjective weaknesses. He criticises them notably for putting “minority” causes—by which Kagarlitsky means different movements against oppression—ahead of the plight of the working class majority. 

This shows a surprisingly undialectical failure to see how racial and gender oppression in particular are built into the functioning of capitalism. It is, I think, encouraged by a much longer-standing propensity to try to find positive features in political movements where class bitterness is captured by different forms of reactionary politics. In the past this was expressed, for example, in Kagarlitsky’s very ill-judged support for the pro-Russian separatist risings in southeastern Ukraine in 2013-14 as somehow “revolutionary”. 

In The Long Retreat, he shows a strange sympathy for anti-vax campaigners, notably the far right dominated “Truckers for Freedom” convoy. It blockaded the border between Canada and the US in early 2022 to reverse the Canadian government’s vaccine requirements. He describes the convoy as “a genuine popular protest”. 

Naomi Klein, herself Canadian, has a much more informed and convincing analysis, not just of the convoy. She looks at how people’s authentically critical impulses have been transmuted into outright reaction in recent years. 

The advance of the far right globally is one trend that helps to make the present situation so alarming. There are, of course, cross-cutting developments—above all the extraordinary global explosion of solidarity with Palestine and its success, if not in defeating, certainly in isolating Israel. 

We need hard thinking to grasp the present in all its complexity. For all the weaknesses that I have mentioned, Kagarlitsky offers a wide-ranging and sophisticated analysis on a whole range of issues that I haven’t been able to address. He, for example, discusses the question of socialist planning. 

The Long Retreat gives us access to the richness and the range of thinking of one of the leading contemporary Marxists. Kagarlitsky has an enormous amount to offer. He himself needs above all freedom— and our solidarity to help win it.

The Long Retreat: Strategies to Reverse the Decline of the Left, Boris Kagarlitsky (London: Pluto Press, 2024)

Support the international campaign to free Boris Kagarlitsky and all antiwar Russian political prisoners. Sign the petition here  https://chng.it/8pXDcTcJkN 

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