Statement on the War in Chechnya

From Russia

IBRP Introduction

Behind the conflict in Chechnya lies the external competition with the imperialist powers of the west. In particular the US and Europe are each competing to gain a foothold in Central Asia. Azerbaijan’s government has recently agreed to start shipping Caspian Oil via the Baku-Novorossisk pipeline. It is this oil that is to be shipped over the Black Sea to Turkey and then to the west. Russian tariffs are regarded as all too high by the west. It is the US that seeks to build a pipeline from Baku to Ceyhan through over a thousand miles of mountainous earthquake prone territory. The main ally of the US in the region is Turkey, which the US sees as playing the role of a stabilizing mini-power. One of the desires of US imperialism is that Kazakhstan will be a major source for the petroleum needed to justify the building of such a pipeline. So far the US finds countries like Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan difficult to deal with. They are still playing the game of trying to play one set of imperialist bandits against the others and are thus not ready to completely submit to the US. Russian imperialism must maintain influence over these regions by any means necessary even if it means the intentional destabilizing of the entire region just to keep out its predatory rivals.

Thus the Russian bourgeoisie is forced by geopolitical circumstance to maintain some 50,000 troops in Chechnya. The results of the spring call up of draftees succeeded in getting only a fraction of young workers into obligatory military service. Only thirteen percent of those called actually signed up. Most manage to avoid military service by getting medical deferments, education deferments or by obtaining permission to do some alternate form of service. In lieu of creating a regular professional army, as in any other bourgeois state, the Putin government has decided simply to limit the numbers actually called up and to reduce the size of the armed forces by some 350,000 out of 1.2 million. Then at least they will be spared some of the embarrassment of millions evading military service. The current Russian defense budget stands at about 5.1 billion US dollars, in comparison with a US military budget of about 290 billion dollars. Highlighting the inability to maintain a huge military apparatus, the collapse of the submarine Kursk shows just how much trouble the Russian bourgeoisie is faced with in an environment where it is becoming all the more necessary to appear to be strong in the face of competing imperialist powers.

Even so, competition between factions of the bourgeoisie within Russia is fierce, to put it mildly. This was dramatically illustrated by the events at Moscow’s most important vodka distillery where factions of the management divided the factory into two armed camps this summer. This is not an aberration. It is how the bourgeoisie reacts in time of severe crisis. In fact, the election of Yeltsin clique’s chosen successor, Putin, indicates just how desperate the bourgeoisie is in the face of the divisive effects of the continuing economic crisis. By placing the “man of action” into the seat of power they hope to claw back some of what remains of the USSR’s previous imperialist might. It means clamping down even more harshly on any recalcitrant political forces and stepping up nationalist rhetoric domestically whilst having no choice on the wider global stage but to tow the US line economically and politically.

Workers Continue to Pay for Economic Crisis

The ideology of capitalism proclaims that markets will always reach equilibrium, that supply will meet demand and that prices will rise and fall accordingly. Few more startling contradictions to this ideology can be seen in the severe problems in the supply of energy. United Energy Systems is owed more than $5 billion US. This is compounded in part by the inability or unwillingness of the state to collect taxes. The crisis exists at a time when the demand for electricity is increasing and yet the availability of electrical power is decreasing and workers are left to deal with blackouts. Ultimately the big energy monopoly will be stripped of its assets and split up into smaller formations that will be no more able to provide electricity than the United Energy Systems monopoly.

Russian capitalism is still in dire economic straits even though the economic collapse of 1997-1998 appears to have eased. The standard of living of the working class is appalling, despite the economic growth currently enjoyed by the ruling parasites. Between 1991-1998 average monthly wages dropped from about $120 US to about $42. Average pensions, the “reward” for a lifetime of service to capitalism, fell from $54 per month to about $18 per month. Health care has been cut to the bone and with it access to affordable medicine. Tuberculosis doubled in the few years between 1994 to 1999. Drinking water is unsafe everywhere. There is still no functioning taxation system, which in any case would require a tax base. The sick irony is that in an environment where the bourgeoisie is extracting every last drop of wealth from its subject class of citizen-workers, national chauvinism thrives.

If a society can be judged by the state of its prisons, it certainly reflects rather poorly on both Russia and the US, the two countries that have the largest per capita prison populations in the world. In Russia a prisoner is afforded an average living space of 60 square centimeters. About half of the prisoners in Russia are in for theft, one half of those are in for stealing necessities like food. The Putin government proposes a series of overhauls to the state punishment apparatus. Such proposed reforms include limiting pre-trial detentions to less than a year. The Putin government has also proposed further “reforms” to the country’s labor code. The new labor code would cut paid maternity leave in half. It would also give management the right to introduce part-time labor in the place of full-time labor without notification. It would make it easier to fire workers for “revealing company secrets”, meaning anything from sharing information about wages and salaries to the contents of labor contracts. This new code would also make it easier for employers to resort to temporary labor in allowing short-term work contracts with anyone, for any length of time to be renewed indefinitely. The obvious object of these reforms is to further lower the standards under which the working class is legally allowed to labor by the ruling class. One of the major targets of this labor code will radically alter the relationship that the unions have with the bourgeoisie bringing the unions more into line with unions in the west. Ultimately the unions will accept this new role which is to be much less integral in the management of business enterprises than it was in the past. The ruling class has to alter the role of the unions because the needs of the Russian bourgeoisie have changed. Despite the noises made about “human rights violations” in Chechnya by the governments of the west, the US and the World Bank are in full support of this continuing restructuring of the working class in Russia and has made loans available to carry out these measures.

A bomb went off in a Moscow subway underpass this last August. The tragedy was made worse by the sheer number of people packed into such a small area that was already packed with kiosks selling piles of worthless rubbish. Such vending of junk is lauded as “entrepreneurial activity” by the cheerleaders of capital but it merely underlines the growth of the “black economy” where, instead of producing useful goods, workers find themselves selling junk in the street. It is a scene that is repeated everywhere, from Bogota to Moscow to Mexico City, anywhere that the crisis of capitalism is more open. It does not signify the destruction of the working class but rather the forced removal of a growing part of it towards the bottom end of the distribution side of the economy.

Yet workers are not simply passive players in this tragedy. They have attempted to act in their own defense and assert their own unique interests. Their defensive struggles will always be hamstrung by unions and political organisms of the “left hand” of capitalism that serve as antigens aiding in the success and survival of the rule of the bourgeoisie. It is these same political organisms that claim to be defending workers. Some of these organisms appeal to nationalism. Still others disarm workers politically by only emphasising economic struggle in the workplace and dismissing any discussion of even attempting to work towards the creation of a revolutionary party. Thus politically strangled on the one side, workers are disarmed on the other.

The weight of bourgeois ideology forces workers to accept as necessary and inevitable the constant attacks on their wages and living standards by a ruling class that robs them of their very identity as a class. Nationalism, elections and unions are the main obstacles to an organized response by workers. Elections are but referendums meant to get a stamp of approval from the worker-citizens before the rulers pursue the course of action they most desire. Unions are tools of the ruling class to control workers to vent their anger in the most harmless and legal way possible. Nationalism and war, as the statement here reminds us, serve “to get workers off the road of class struggle and onto the road of cross class unity”. But this is a dangerous game for the Russian capitalist class. In many ways workers in Russia are still more combative than their counterparts in the west. Despite the negative impact of the most powerful of all capitalism’s ideological weapons - the myth that the collapse of Stalinist state capitalism signalled the failure of communism - there is considerable political questioning and awakening amongst political elements of the working class.

Hunt for Political Clarity

Since the collapse of the USSR new groups have emerged, disappeared and reappeared in new formation. We, of course, only see part of this kaleidoscope but the International Bureau is doing its best to contribute to the process of political clarification amongst political elements who are searching for a revolutionary perspective. One such element is the Committee for Workers’ Democracy (CWD) which first established contact with us in 1996 (1) and which has evolved from Trotskyism towards what we can broadly call the Italian Left. As yet we have been unable to translate their article, “Social Chauvinism Under the Mask of Internationalism” - a criticism of the defence of Yugoslavia in the last Balkan war by one of the Russian Trotskyist groups. (2)

More recently they have criticised the opportunism of the so-called Movement for a Workers’ Party and groups who were attracted to it during the recent presidential elections. (3)

Here, however, we are publishing their statement on the war in Chechnya which we received earlier this year.

[It was] sent first of all to small revolutionary internationalist groups in different towns of Russia and Ukraine .... which disapprove of the Trotskyist theory of deformed workers’ state.

So far it is the only full statement we have seen from Russia on how the working class stands with regard to this war. In broad outline we agree with it. Our only misgivings are regarding the comparison with the 1st World War and 1917 (4) and over the stipulation that Russian soldiers should “view the defeat of the Russian army as a lesser evil compared to its victory”. This is true, but it could give the idea that it is less important for Chechen soldiers to work for the defeat of their state. (The leaflet states that workers are not part of the present Chechen “national liberation” army, but the ambiguity remains since we are told that in the war of 1994-96 there were “proletarian groups which to a great degree were uncontrolled by the Chechen bourgeoisie”.) However, there is no question here of support for Chechen nationalism and it seems that the experience of the 94-96 Chechen war has helped the CWD conclude that “bourgeois national liberation movements have lost their progressive character”. We agree. But we don’t think capitalism has just reached this situation at the “end of the 20th century”. It is rather a consequence of the world being dominated by imperialist relations since the turn of the last century. Here though, we come to an area which needs to be explored more deeply as we continue the discussions, which will undoubtedly embrace other key questions, such as the whole issue of political organisation and the need to work towards an international party of a new type. For we can only agree that,

Only by organizing itself into an independent class power, hostile toward all fractions of the bourgeoisie, only by dethroning the power of capital and establishing its own dictatorship worldwide can the proletariat once and for all put an end to wars and their reason - capitalism.

We look forward to closer dialogue and present this statement on the bloody war in Chechnya to our readers to show that revolutionary marxism is not dead in the Russia of today.

(1) Contact was initially established with the CWO which published a “Proposal for an International Policy of Workers’ Self-Government”, emanating from the CWD, in Revolutionary Perspectives 12.

(2) Committee for a Marxist International, linked to T. Grant, former entryist ideologue of the British Militant group.

(3) One such group was the MLP [Marxist Labour Party], a move which apparently has caused division within its ranks. The MLP has declared itself sympathetic to “left wing communism” and is discussing and translating material of various groups in Europe, IBRP included. See “Correspondence with the south Russian Bureau of the Marxist Labour Party” in IC 17.

(4) The 1st World War was not only an experience of the international working class, in 1917 there was a revolutionary party in Russia.