Academic journal article Capital & Class

Passive Revolution, Perestroika, and the Emergence of the New Russia

Academic journal article Capital & Class

Passive Revolution, Perestroika, and the Emergence of the New Russia

Article excerpt


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had convinced some political scientists either that the whole paradigm was redundant (see e.g. Carothers, 2002), or no longer applicable to Russia (see e.g. Balzer, 2003).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. …

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