Cats and Bears: Practicing Left Politics in the Soviet Union

By Cockburn, Alexander | The Nation, December 12, 1987 | Go to article overview

Cats and Bears: Practicing Left Politics in the Soviet Union


Cockburn, Alexander, The Nation


Cats and Bears: Practicing Left Politics in the Soviet Union

A very fine cat act in the Moscow Circus was followed by a clown thoroughly above himself, as clowns so often are. Hypnotized by their own mythopoeic contour as simple savants with tears beneath the greasepaint smile, they hog the spotlight mercilessly while strong men and tumblers chafe offstage. Amid his ludic schmaltz this one gave lengthy speeches about peace, and I wished he could get eaten by the brawny bear I had seen in the Leningrad zoo, who had missed our on peaceful coexistence and snarled tremendously at visitors, saliva flecking the bars of his cage, in a manner suggestive of some Heritage Foundation poster about the Soviet menace.

Back in the center of town I ate at the Aragbi restaurant while Georgian songs boomed through the speakers. With neoclassical columns and frescoes in early nineteenth-century romantic style, the place would have been on the cusp of fashion in Manhattan, establishing once again that socialist realism of the Stalin period and postmodern aesthetic sensibility have much in common. Half-drowned by the stentorian wails of a ballad that turned out to have been one of Dzhugashvili's favorites, conversation centered on the Yeltsin affair. It was three days before Yeltsin's dismissal as Moscow party leader, and I had watched earlier that day as students and socialist reformers prepared public petitions urging that the books be opened on the fracas and citizens be made privy to the debates sequestered in party minutes.

Those students were in the Obshchina group, associated with the Federation of Socialist Clubs. I met four of them and listened uncomprehendingly as they cheerfully discussed their plans in Russian with my companion, Boris Kagarlitsky, himself one of the guiding spirits of the federation and an articulate exponent of socialist renewal.

The federation came into being in August, after a conference of reform groups, the first such sanctioned moot in the Soviet Union in over half a century. "As convinced proponents of socialism,' so the federation's manifesto goes, "we support the goal of moving toward a classless society. . . . We see the formation of independent social groups and associations, and an increase in their influence, as one of the ways of developing a self-managed society and eliminating administrative and bureaucratic structures. . . . The success of the current reform movement depends on the level of mass support and participation that it encourages. The life and death of socialism in the U.S.S.R. hang on whether perestroika succeeds.'

Among other endeavors, the federation aims "to switch the economy to self-management; to guarantee an effective mechanism of controlling the administrative system from below; to lease the social means of production, such as factories and workshops, to collectives of self-managing enterprises; to democratize the planning system; and to create conditions for the free development of all forms of socialist ownership.' I spoke with Kagarlitsky about this project.

AC: There's a tendency in the West to read all recent Soviet developments in terms of Gorbachev's initiatives, which is surely a naive way of looking at events.

BK: Under Brezhnev there was already some kind of bureaucratic pluralism, and today the power struggle is not more intense than in Brezhnev's last years, but it is more visible, because now we have glasnost.

There are bureaucratic institutions and groupings that have different political concepts. It's rather more of an American than a Western European type of pluralism. We have a one-party and the Americans a two-party system, but in the sense that interest groups are more important than the formal political machinery, a certain similarity becomes evident. In that way the Soviet system is evolving toward an Americanized system, with much more weight attached to lobbies, political groupings inside the structure, which impose political constraints on the elite. …

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