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Kagarlitsky the irrepressible

Patrick Bond’s foreword to Boris Kagarlitsky’s The Long Retreat, out in May from Pluto

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The following is an excerpt from the forthcoming book, The Long Retreat: Strategies to Reverse the Decline of the Left, by Russian Marxist theoretician and sociologist Boris Kagarlitsky. Published by Pluto 2024. Copyright © Pluto Press 2024. For more information, visit www.plutobooks.com. All links that appear in the text were added by the editors of Canadian Dimension and do not appear in the original.


Boris Yulyevich Kagarlitsky has had a torrid time with Russia’s notorious carceral regime—most recently on February 13, 2024 when prosecutors allied with one Kremlin faction had him re-imprisoned for a five-year term—albeit, he would insist, not nearly as severe as the systemic torture suffered by the late liberal opposition leader Alexei Navalny, killed on February 16 at the ‘Polar Wolf’ Artic Circle penal colony. Since the early 1980s, Boris has been repeatedly prosecuted for articulating left-wing ideals.

Boris was jailed in July 2023 on the way to fetch his wife from the airport, on charges of ‘justifying terrorism.’ He was sent to a prison in the north-western city of Syktyvkar, far from his Moscow base, once home to Soviet-era gulags. His crime, committed ten months earlier, was expressing a cheeky analysis of the Ukraine war via a (self-confessed) weak joke about Mostik, a stray cat who was the construction workers’ mascot for a recently built bridge linking the Russian mainland to Crimea.

But the bridge was bombed by Ukrainian or allied forces in October 2022. As he recalls, “Just on the eve of that attack, congratulatory wishes from Mostik the cat to President Putin were spread on Russian social networks […] I joked that he had acted as a provocateur with his congratulations.” As Boris knew so well, “Unfortunately, Leviathan has no sense of humour. I had to spend four and a half months in a prison cell.”

Nevertheless, after local and international pressure—and amidst incomprehensible gyrations within competing factions of Russia’s security bureaucracy—he was freed, having paid a fine of 600,000 roubles ($6,700; £5,250) raised within a day from his supporters via the Rabkor YouTube channel. The story is one he alone can tell, armed with his famous dry wit and optimism:

The prosecutor’s office stated that the joke about Mostik the cat was made “in order to destabilise the activities of government agencies and to press the authorities of the Russian federation to terminate the special military operation on the territory of Ukraine.” While I was behind bars, a solidarity campaign was unfolding outside, in which many people took part in Russia and around the world. Moreover, it seems that the Kremlin leadership was especially impressed by the fact that a significant part of the voices in my defense were coming from the Global South. In the context of confrontation with the West, Russian rulers are trying to establish themselves as fighters against American and European neo-colonialism, so criticism of them voiced in Brazil, South Africa, or India was received with vexation.


Along with so many others from the international left, there were indeed South Africans close to the SA Communist Party who added pressure, comrades with whom Boris will normally disagree on most matters of principle, analysis, strategies, tactics and alliances, since the Talk-Left, Walk-Right dance isn’t one he tolerates.

Still, what became evident from the episode was not only the ease with which he could proceed with sociological research on the situations facing fellow inmates. Also clear was an inexorable popularity stemming from his anti-war stance amongst both a new generation of Russian rebels and within an international independent left that for at least forty years has looked to Boris for socialist clarity at home and beyond.

But upon an extremely complicated political-ideological landscape, even where in some circuits of the left there is no critique of the Ukraine invasion, Boris attracted a broad scope of solidarity, e.g. when Manitoba-based geopolitical economist Radhika Desai made an in-person appeal to Vladimir Putin during a Valdai Club conference in October 2023:

We found ourselves also in a bit of a quandary because we do not agree with the position our dear friend [Boris] has taken. But we also remember how much we have learned from his formidable knowledge of Russia’s history and his formidable commitment to Russia. So, we just appeal to you that you take a personal interest in this case.


Putin’s reply: “You know, to be honest, I do not really know who this Kagarlitsky is—so my colleague here [Fyodor Lukyanov] even had to fill me in on that one. I will take the letter you have signed for me, I will read it and give you a response. I promise.”

In fact it was at least the second time that Putin was responding to questions about the Kagarlitsky case, and he still didn’t know what the issue was about. No response was given to Radhika Desai or other Valdai Club members who signed the letter. However, ten weeks later, when rumours about Putin’s supposed death were widely circulating around Russia, Boris was briefly released, albeit with restrictions on his freedom of expression.

Two months later, Kafkaesque bureaucratic manoeuvres led to his re-imprisonment. Remarkably, he retained an optimistic fighting spirit, posting to Telegram: “I continue to collect data and materials for new books, including descriptions of prison life—now in Moscow institutions. Anyway, see you soon! I am sure that everything will be fine eventually. We will see each other again both on the channel and in person. We just need to live a little longer and survive this dark period for our country.”

Awareness of his plight emerged around the world once again, and even if soon overshadowed by the killing of Navalny, International Director for Russia Natalia Zviagina reminded:

This conviction, and the closed nature of his trial, provide another stark example of the treatment of political dissenters in Russia. It is an overt attack on freedom of expression with the aim of silencing critical voices through fear and repression. This case is not an isolated incident but part of a broader, systematic effort to stifle opposition and control what can and cannot be said in Russia.

***

Boris has long directed the Institute of Globalisation Studies and Social Movements, whose fate also hung in the balance due to Putin’s periodic clampdowns and the Institute’s ‘foreign agent’ designation (thanks to grants mainly from the Rosa Luxemburg foundation). It was closed down in 2022 after failing to pay severe fines which were regularly showered on the organisation by hostile bureaucrats. Boris had earlier served on the faculties at Moscow State University, the Moscow School for Social and Economic Sciences, and the Institute of Sociology of the Russian Academy of Sciences.

But it was through global-justice activists, starting when he hosted a session in Moscow in 1999 parallel to the Seattle World Trade Organisation, that many more came to know of how broadly he could apply class analysis.

In South Africa, we’d hear of his courage in speaking truth to power dating back to the early 1980s. During his studies of theatre criticism at the State Institute of Theatrical Art, he was expelled as a dissident. He edited samizdat journals, which led to his 1982 arrest (and his longest spell in jail), followed by an official pardon in 1983.

Five years later, his book The Thinking Reed won the Deutscher Memorial Prize, the most prestigious of international progressive literary awards. During the early 1990s he was active in the Party of Labour (including having won a Moscow municipal electoral office), but in October 1993, Boris’s opposition to the Yeltsin regime’s unconstitutional power grab led to another arrest—and an immediate release after international protest.

Boris’s 1995 visit to a South Africa that was then hosting scores of left celebrities, after Nelson Mandela’s release from jail, left a major impression on many of us. We had many interactions in the subsequent years, especially when Boris began considering the global justice movement as his natural international home.

He published (often with Pluto Press) a variety of influential books on Russian and international politics. The latter included two co-edited works, Globalization and Its Discontents in 1997 and The Politics of Empire in 2004. Sole-authored books about the world situation included a 1999 trio—New Realism, New Barbarism; The Return of Radicalism; and The Twilight of Globalization—followed by From Empires to Imperialism in 2014, and Between Class and Discourse in 2020.

Boris benefitted from a long-running fellowship at the Transnational Institute in Amsterdam, starting in 2000. He played a leadership role in anti-Putin protests in 2011–2012, but a shift in perspective took place when the G20 was hosted in St. Petersburg in mid-2013. Many international allies (myself included) attended the counter-summit his institute organised, but funding contributed by a faction within Putin’s state may have deterred local attendees, for interest in the event was sparse.

***

This period, from 2013 to 2017, was one in which Boris was labelled a ‘pink Putinist,’ unfairly it seems to me, but not without contradictions worth recalling. After the popular 2014 Maidan uprising in Kiev against pro-Putin leader Viktor Yanukovych—albeit one that was Washington-facilitated with all manner of conservative features—Boris was fascinated by the opportunity of what he saw as a Donbas workers’ rebellion and breakaway from the Ukrainian state, for self-government and radical social policy.

However, hijacked by Putin’s Eastern Ukraine allies, the experiment ended soon enough. In the pages below, we learn that, “In supporting the people’s republics that were proclaimed in Donetsk and Lugansk, the Kremlin rulers were mainly interested in ensuring that the protests by dissatisfied citizens in south-eastern Ukraine against the new authorities in Kiev did not turn into a social revolution. The radical-minded leaders of the revolt were almost all killed or excluded from the leadership of the movement.”

Another force loomed, as Boris had acknowledged in Links in August 2014: “Over several weeks the entire leadership of the Donetsk and Lugansk republics has effectively been replaced. The most momentous, and unexpected, development has been the ousting of the military leader of the militias, Igor Strelkov […] an obvious act of revenge on the part of those very Kremlin forces on whom [Strelkov] had inflicted a serious political defeat in early July.”

Boris recognised Strelkov’s “sympathies for the pre-revolutionary monarchy and nostalgia for the Russian empire,” as he wrote at the time, but was more impressed by the mass base, e.g. “rank-and-file militia fighters demanding that the slogan of ‘social republics’ that had been proclaimed in Donetsk and Lugansk should be put into effect, that the property of oligarchs should be nationalised […] A law was adopted reversing the commercialisation of health care that had been initiated by the previous leaders.”

The Donbas worker uprising was soon repressed, but Boris was accused by progressive allies of unjustifiably supporting Russia’s Ukrainian land grabs, including Crimea. However, Kagarlitsky never sided with Strelkov, who later called Boris his most respected enemy. Boris and his comrades backed the left-leaning militia of Aleksey Mozgovoy (he was later killed, apparently by Putin’s special forces or by mercenaries from the Wagner Group).

For his part, Strelkov was an uncomfortable partner for the Kremlin. He was subsequently convicted by a Dutch court for shooting down the Malaysia Airlines plane above south-eastern Ukraine in mid-2014, killing all 298 passengers and crew. As the most prominent populist right-wing critic of Putin, Strelkov was arrested in mid-2023 just days before Boris, leading to suspicions that the Kremlin was attempting an incarceration balancing act.

The situation at that point was extremely fluid, with Putin obviously feeling more vulnerable than ever, having just been disinvited from the Brazil-Russia-India-China-South Africa (BRICS) annual summit by Cyril Ramaphosa due to the outstanding International Criminal Court arrest warrant for Ukrainian war crimes.

The prior month, Wagner Group leader Evgeny Prigozhin tried his own quasi-coup against Kremlin military elites. Then, just as the BRICS summit began in Johannesburg on 23 August, Prigozhin was (reportedly) killed when his airplane mysteriously exploded between Moscow and St Petersburg.

The extent to which Boris had distanced himself from Russian nationalism was clear through his role in both the Belarusian anti-Lukashenko revolt of 2020–2021 and pro-Navalny activism of early 2021. In early 2022 he immediately was one of the most vocal critics of the Ukraine invasion.

This we learned when Johannesburg hosted the August 2023 BRICS summit and Boris was invited to keynote the ‘BRICS from Below’ workshop at the University of Johannesburg Centre for Social Change. He agreed to speak on video link—but not come in person, out of concern he would not be re-admitted to his homeland. The lecture was prevented from happening, for a month before the BRICS convened, Boris was confined to a jail term some observers feared would last seven years.

What we had anticipated hearing from Boris, as occurred periodically at such sessions dating back to his own Moscow hosting of BRICS-country dissidents in 2012, was a sense of how weak we then found not only global capitalist managers but also the BRICS versions—including those in Moscow promoting Russia’s desired de-dollarisation agenda (foiled in Johannesburg by conservative forces within the BRICS financial elite). But what you will read in The Long Retreat is probably the most cogent explanation of why, alongside the empire of capital, it’s been our international and local left oppositions that have weakened far more rapidly since the 1970s.

***

The conditions in which Boris wrote, before his arrest, provided greater confidence in elite breakdown, dating back fifteen years to the world financial crisis catalysed by US home mortgage gambles gone sour in 2007, spreading quickly across speculative European real estate markets and then across the world, requiring a G20 financial fix. Since then, he insists, global capitalism “has been unable to restore its ‘normal’ process of reproduction,” given that all manner of money-printing gimmicks, artificially low interest rates and rising debts kept the capital-overaccumulation bubble from bursting, as all had feared would happen in early 2009. But, Boris warns, “Unfortunately, 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. If this is not true on the organisational plane, then it is certainly the case on the ideological and moral level.”

That weakness allows not only right-wing populist forces to fuse economic grievances and culturally reactionary politics, but at the same time, according to Boris, gives greater reign for corporate elites “to curtail, and if possible to end altogether, the participation of the masses in politics while preserving the formal institutions of parliamentarism, free elections and other conquests of liberal democracy. This task was achieved through combining market reforms with the technocratic adoption of decisions supposedly too complex to be understood by ordinary voters.”

The campaign to free Boris Kagarlitsky is in full swing in the East and West alike.

With this force emanating from corporate centres of power in New York, London, Paris, Frankfurt and Tokyo, resistance in these sites has been timid, and the mild-mannered Western intelligentsia continually disappoints. Work by one prominent Dutch historian reflects “the moral and methodological dead end in which the left movement in the early twenty-first century has finished up,” thanks in part to “the epoch of postmodernism, when an integrated worldview is replaced by an unsystematic pastiche of ideas, of fragmentary concepts and of arbitrarily assembled images.”

In contrast, you will find in The Long Retreat a systematic socialist analysis, including important auto-critiques of Soviet legacies: “after the collapse of the USSR, when the world communist movement no longer possessed any rallying point or shared guidelines (even if only negative), it was placed in a situation of “everyone for themself,” and rapidly fell apart. The organisational and political inflexibility had turned into an appalling fragility.”

That state of fragility degenerated yet further, leaving room for far-right populists to rise with critiques of ‘globalist’ elites. In Russia, Boris has been writing in a context in which, as he told Links’s Federico Fuentes in mid-2022, “All sorts of racist, fascist statements are made on state channels. It’s an absolutely incredible flood of aggression, xenophobia and hatred.”

Proving his point in late 2023, Sergey Lavrov offered this extraordinary statement to RT: “The goals declared by Israel for its ongoing operation against Hamas militants in Gaza seem nearly identical to those put forward by Moscow in its campaign against the Ukrainian government […] we need to be very careful about our common history with Israel and, above all, the history of the fight against Nazism. This is the main thing that unites us historically.” This comparison was “bizarre and greatly offensive, to say the least,” according to Palestinian analyst Ramzy Baroud—but offers a flavour of the ideologically surreal times we suffer.

Boris’s ‘Letter from Prison’ shortly after the July 2023 arrest was philosophical: “This is not the first time in my life. I was locked up under Brezhnev, beaten and threatened with death under Yeltsin.[…] In the 40-odd years since my first arrest, I have learned to be patient and to realize how fickle political fortune in Russia is.”

The re-arrest on February 13 drove home that point. Debates over his mid-2010s positioning within Russia aside, Boris’s international analysis has not been fickle, all these years. The humility needed today is summed up in this book’s advice: “in changed circumstances the left should learn to retreat, without succumbing to panic or losing its nerve, and should regroup its forces in order to prepare for new battles.”

We’re terribly fortunate Boris has updated his critique of political economy and politics with the grace and passion for which this great sociologist has long been respected, and look forward to his eventual release from another undeserved term in a Russian jail—with the greatest impatience.

Patrick Bond is Distinguished Professor at the University of Johannesburg Department of Sociology, where he directs the Centre for Social Change.

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