Since the Helsinki Conference (1975), the question of “civil rights” in Russia has become a football to be knocked about in the arena of international politics. Jimmy Carter pontificates on human rights, eternal verities and God-given etceteras. Brezhnev’s reply is that he should go count peanuts as the Helsinki Final Act emphatically says domestic matters are private. Which is true.It is the only treaty dealing with human “rights” which actually begins with a “get-out” clause, before it gets to poetic phrases. Its very first principle says: “The participating States will respect each other’s sovereign equality and individuality as well as all the rights inherent in and encompassed by its sovereignty . . . They will also respect each other’s right freely to choose and develop its political, social, economic and cultural systems as well as its right to determine its laws and regulations”.
Other Covenants do at least give you the fine phrases and sweet nothings first; for example, the UN Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (articles 1-3) guarantees that “under no circumstances may a people be deprived of its own means of subsistence”.
But along with these sweet nothings there are the “get-out” clauses. Article 12 says “the above- mentioned rights shall not be subject to any restrictions except those which are provided by law, are necessary to protect national security, public order, public health or morals or the rights and freedoms of others”.
For many years Soviet dissidents have, in the face of very real difficulties, been actively organizing, cooperating together, publishing news and views, communicating with the West and developing their analyses of the Soviet political and economic system. They have to contend with social and financial problems. Most lose their jobs as soon as they become actively dissident: many scrape by in casual labouring jobs or rely on their wives’ pay. In any capitalist country, the monopoly employer has a powerful weapon in the blacklist. Russia is no exception. Hardly surprising that so few in each generation have the courage to be actively critical of the Partocracy.
Governments do not operate on any principle save expediency. The Helsinki agreement came about because the Russian, American and European bosses found a common cause for concern in their heavy expenditures on defence systems, their self-interest in markets, and their growing need for international understanding on pollution, energy, space etc.
To achieve agreement on the issues involved meant horse trading. Western governments wanted more information to go into and come out of Russia, more journalists to work there. As a quid pro quo, the Russians are now sitting in on a lot of scientific seminars, including those dealing with genetic engineering — a sensitive subject, since it has terrifying “defence” possibilities. The West proposed a liberalization of Russia’s attitude to travel, emigration etc., and presumably the Russians agreed because the Helsinki Final Act so strongly emphasized the “sovereignty” of States and the principle of “non-intervention in internal affairs”.
The Helsinki document gave the Russian workers no “rights” they did not already have. Their constitution “guarantees” freedom of assembly and political opinion, also the freedom of the Press. But constitutions, like covenants, treaties and “final acts”, are merely scraps of paper. What is required is that working people should struggle, not for more paper rights, but for ownership and democratic control.
“It implies that the people are to have complete control of all social institutions, the ordering of all social activities, the domination of the whole social life. Such a condition of affairs presupposes at the very outset the ownership by the people of all the means of life . . . There can be no other foundation for democracy than this common ownership of all the means of life, for where these fall into private possession social distinctions at once spring up, the owners become dominators, and it becomes impossible for the people to control the social activities — because . . . they have not control of the means and instruments through which most important of those activities — those directed to the production of social wealth — are applied”, (Socialist Standard, Oct. 1913.)
The history of Russia since 1917 has emphatically proved our point. Abolition of Tsarism, the nationalization of land, factories, mines, railways, control by a small group of despots — all this has left the people, the working, wealth-producing people, as they were before. In Dostoyevsky’s words, “the insulted and injured”.
Government in Russia is a closed shop. The ruling party recruits almost exclusively among top management, among the nomenclatura, the apparatchiks. A party card is an essential qualification for many jobs. In terms of ideology it means nothing. In social terms, it means the possessor is a lackey, a hireling of the state. In economic terms, it provides him with money prizes, country estates, and privileges denied to mere workers. Only a tiny fraction of Russians are admitted to this exclusive club. The rest of the population keep their noses bravely to the grindstone. Only a few criticize and attack aspects of the system.
The dissidents today are not united. There are the religious, racial and ethnic groups — Christians, Jews, Ukrainians, Georgians, Crimean Tartars, often excluding members of other groups. There are writers and artists who want to do their own thing without bureaucratic hindrance or control. Among those who want a more liberal political system there is a tendency to analyze and criticize the social and economic systems as well as the political superstructure.
“What becomes of the ‘right’ to live if the means by which alone it is possible to live are in the hands of others?” (Socialist Standard, February 1911).