Passive revolution, perestroika, and the emergence of the new Russia.

Author:Simon, Rick


The democratic transition literature provided the dominant framework for discussions of Russia's evolution during the 1980s and 1990s. The general assumption of this copious body of literature was that Russia would ultimately move from liberalisation during perestroika, through a transition to democracy under Yeltsin, to eventual consolidation of a liberal democratic polity. Proponents of this approach argued that Russia was moving in essentially the right direction even when tanks shelled the Russian parliament building in October 1993, aircraft and artillery reduced Grozny to a smoking ruin during 1995, and patent manipulation of state finances and the media ensured Yeltsin's presidential victory in 1996. This approach had early critics, such as Valerie Bunce (2001) and Claus Offe (1991), who pointed to the complexity of Russia's transformation and the significant differences compared to other transitions. By the early 2000s, the experiences of the Putin regime and other troubled transitions had convinced some political scientists either that the whole paradigm was redundant (see e.g. Carothers, 2002), or no longer applicable to Russia (see e.g. Balzer, 2003). Richard Sakwa (2008: 494) argues, 'the contemporary system certainly remains a work in progress', while dividing analysts of Russia broadly into two camps: advocates of either failed democratisation or a more optimistic democratic evolutionism.

This article falls into neither camp. I argue that perestroika, the disintegration of the Soviet Union and Russia's subsequent evolution can be understood as a form of passive revolution, a conceptual framework developed by the Italian Marxist, Antonio Gramsci. Gramscian concepts have been applied to Russia by other scholars. Jeremy Lester (1995) provided a groundbreaking discussion of the applicability of Gramsci's concept of hegemony to Yeltsin's Russia, but did not deal explicitly with either the concept of passive revolution or the perestroika period. Pinar Bedirhanoglu (2004) and Owen Worth (2005) deal explicitly with the application of passive revolution to Russia but, in common with Lester, focus on the period after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The argument presented in this article differs from those of Lester, Bedirhanoglu and Worth in locating the origins of passive revolution in the perestroika period and in its assessment of the motor forces of change: Bedirhanoglu's argument that the nomenklatura was the motive force of change is, in my opinion, only partially correct. The perestroika and post-Soviet periods should be viewed more as a single process punctuated by crucial turning points. The goal of perestroika was what I term a 'type II' passive revolution, designed to modify the relations of production and prevent social upheaval, but it laid the foundations for a more profound type I passive revolution by opening the door to the influence of global capitalism, fragmenting the heterogeneous Soviet elite, and enabling an opposition linked to global neoliberalism to emerge which utilised the nascent Russian state as a mechanism for advancing systemic transformation.

The article is organised in the following way. First, I discuss the major components of the concept of passive revolution; second, I discuss the inter-relationship between Soviet domestic economic and political processes and global capitalism; third, I consider perestroika as a type II passive revolution and look at how it transformed into a type I; and finally I examine the Yeltsin era as a phase in the development of Russia's passive revolution.

What is passive revolution?

Gramsci utilised the concept of passive revolution in two distinct ways. The first usage (type I) derived from an analysis of Italian unification (the Risorgimento) in the 1860s. In the 1920s and 1930s, the second usage (type II) was applied to Fordism and the New Deal in the USA and to Italian fascism. In both types, ruling elites respond to the threat of social upheaval, prompted by domestic crisis and/or revolutionary transformation elsewhere, by enhancing the role of the state and modifying the relations of production, the basis of class rule, and its ideological foundation. The 'passive' character of the revolution derives from the exclusion of the masses from real participation in the process of change while opposition leaders and groups are gradually incorporated into the ruling bloc (trasformismo). A type I passive revolution involves, ultimately, the supercession of feudal by capitalist relations of production, but at the cost of the development of an alliance between the bourgeoisie and the old feudal ruling class ('revolution/restoration') which hampers this transition and restricts the capacity of the bourgeoisie to exercise its hegemony. In a type II passive revolution, capitalism remains in place, albeit with significant modifications. The concept of passive revolution is thus not a phenomenon specific to Italy, but is applicable to 'every epoch characterised by complex historical upheavals' (Gramsci, 1971: 114, Q15 [section] 62).

In his analysis of Italian unification, Gramsci noted that, instead of provoking a wave of 'copycat' revolutions, the French Revolution had engendered a profound reaction amongst the ruling classes of Europe's absolutist states, who realised the threat posed to their continued existence. This did not mean, however, that the impetus to change had disappeared, but that it had assumed new forms: reaction did not entail simply repression of potentially dangerous opponents but adaptation to them. As van der Pijl (1993: 240) points out, 'the very need to contain the revolutionary force (combining states and a given mode of production) compels the counter-revolution to anticipate the changes it seeks to resist politically.' Thus, Gramsci (1971:119, Q10I [section] 9) argues that the French Revolution gave:

the old regimes a powerful shove .... resulting not in their immediate collapse as in France but in the 'reformist' corrosion of them which lasted up to 1870... the demands which in France found a Jacobin-Napoleonic expression were satisfied by small doses, legally, in a reformist manner in such a way that it was possible to preserve the political and economic position of the old feudal classes, to avoid agrarian reform, and, especially, to avoid the popular masses going through a period of political experience such as occurred in France in the years of Jacobinism. Thus, in their desire to maintain their dominance and avoid revolution, the feudal elites inadvertently prepared the ground for their own supersession. Concessions to the emerging bourgeoisie enhanced its capacity for action and enabled a 'molecular' transformation of production relations and the balance of forces between social classes (Gramsci, 1971: 109, Q15 [section] 11).

Gramsci argued that passive revolution represented a 'war of position', an avoidance of direct confrontation with the old order, by the bourgeoisie in its struggle for political and economic dominance. Moreover, according to Gramsci, during the Risorgimento Cavour, the prime minister of the north-west region of Piedmont and an 'exponent of the passive revolution/war of position', demonstrated decisive leadership, being far more aware of his role than his major rival, Mazzini, an exponent of the 'popular initiative/ war of manoeuvre', and was thus able to outmanoeuvre him (Gramsci, 1971: 108, Q15 [section] 11). Cavour was at an advantage in being the key figure in an established state and, in the absence of a unified bourgeoisie, he utilised the Piedmontese state as the motor for the peninsulas unification and subsequent development, superimposing its institutions (especially the monarchy) onto a unified Italy. Piedmont thus acted, Gramsci (1971:105-6, Q15 [section] 59) argued, in the manner of a political party, providing leadership for the unification struggle, with the added advantage of having an army and other state resources at its disposal.

The weakness of the bourgeoisie and its fear that any extended struggle against the old order could potentially be transformed into a struggle against capitalism itself had a profound impact on the regime that emerged in the 1860s. Rather than forming an alliance with popular forces, the bourgeoisie preferred to compromise with the feudal classes (an alliance that became known as the blocco agrario) in pursuit of a less confrontational and more gradual path to the attainment of political power. Gramsci (1971: 106-14, Q15 [section] 11, [section] 15, [section] 17, [section] 25, [section] 62) encapsulated this dialectical combination of progressive and reactionary processes in the expression 'revolution/restoration'. The price of these compromises with the old order was, however, that the bourgeoisie failed to establish a historical bloc of social forces essential to its hegemony over society as a whole, i.e. the consensual foundations of a stable polity. It created instead 'the hegemony of only a part of a class over the rest of that class', producing a 'bastard' rather than a thoroughgoing bourgeois regime (Sassoon, 1987: 207). Thus, while the state was extended, occupying powers defeated and the nation unified (at least in name), the old feudal structures, especially in the south of the country, were left intact. This 'revolution/restoration' created a major impediment to the bourgeoisie's efforts to develop capitalist social relations across Italy, leaving the South comparatively underdeveloped. With weak political unity, therefore, came weak economic transformation.

Despite its weaknesses, the bourgeoisie, in alliance with the old elite and in control of the state, still proved stronger in Italy than its opponents, enabling it gradually to absorb opposition into the ruling bloc. Through a process that Gramsci (1971 : 109) identified as trasformismo, leading opposition figures and then entire movements were drawn over a...

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