2000s >> 2008 >> no-1245-may-2008

Book reviews

Russia and the World

Empire of the Periphery: Russia and the World System. By Boris Kagarlitsky.
Translated by Renfrey Clarke. Pluto Press, 2008. £40 / $60.

This is a Marxian analysis of Russian history, from Kievan Rus (ninth century) up to the present day. The author is a prominent left-wing writer, currently director of the Institute of Globalisation and Social Movements in Moscow. 
It is not an easy book. Written originally for Russian readers, it assumes a basic knowledge of the facts of Russian history and concentrates on interpreting the most important of those facts. However, it is very stimulating and informative and well worth the effort that it demands.

The interpretation focuses on the evolution of economic interactions between Russia and other parts of the world. These interactions, according to Kagarlitsky, have been much more intensive and persistent than many historians have believed. Nor has Russia always been a backward country: Kievan Rus was far in advance of early medieval Western Europe. If Russia has been relatively underdeveloped in recent centuries, that is a product not of isolation but rather of the way it was integrated into the growing world capitalist system – as a dependent periphery, supplying raw materials to the world market. The “Soviet experiment” was a temporarily successful effort to break out of dependence and establish Russia as an independent industrial power. Now Russia has fallen back into its traditional niche in the world system.
One of the interesting points made is that the serfdom of the early capitalist period was quite different from feudal serfdom. Unlike the serfs of olden times, who lived in a natural economy, the serfs of the 18th and early 19th century were exploited in order to obtain grain for sale abroad. The author compares this semi-capitalist serfdom with slavery in the old American South, which was likewise oriented toward the world market, and also with the collective farm system under Stalin.

Kagarlitsky does not express a definite view regarding the nature of the Soviet socio-economic system. He clearly regards it as a functional substitute for private capitalism, which in Russian conditions was unable to industrialize and modernize the country. He does not claim it was socialism, but he seems to feel there was something socialist about it, especially at the start. The account of the early post-revolutionary period is perhaps the weakest section of the study.

Taken as a whole, however, this book is an impressive achievement. In contrast to many writers on Russia, Kagarlitsky knows not only Russian but also world history, and this enables him to view Russia in context as part of the world, not as a world apart. As socialists, we have no quarrel with his concluding sentences: “The fate of Russia is inseparable from the fate of humanity, and we can struggle for a better world for ourselves only through trying to build a better world for everyone. And this, of course, can also be said of any country.”


Controlling the Past

The Battle for China’s Past. By Mobo Gao. Pluto Press £18.99.

Whoever controls the past controls the future was one of Big Brother’s slogans in George Orwell’s 1984. This point is illustrated in this book on Chinese politics and recent history.

Gao’s theme is that the Cultural Revolution (1966–76) under the leadership of Mao Zedong was beneficial to most Chinese, even though it is now described in China as ‘ten years of catastrophe’. The official denigration of Mao and the Cultural Revolution serves the purposes of those who now govern China and wish to set themselves apart from the China of the 50s and 60s. Mao was right to describe Deng Xiaoping as a ‘capitalist roader’, as Deng’s views became dominant after Mao’s death and led to the present triumph of ‘neoliberalism’. In contrast, many Chinese — especially the poorest or those living outside the big cities — look back on the Cultural Revolution as the good old days. Numerous internet sites contain defences of Mao’s time as boss.

Along the way, Gao lays into the Chang and Halliday biography of Mao (see the Socialist Standard for September 2005), describing it as a disaster, full of dodgy references, mis-use of sources and complete representations. Equally, the memoir by Li Zhisui, who represented himself as Mao’s personal doctor, contains many fraudulent claims.

Beyond relatively easy targets such as these, however, Gao’s attempts to rehabilitate Mao and Maoist policies are not very convincing. The Great Leap Forward (1958–60) created a famine that led to large numbers of deaths. There seems to be little justification for the Chang-Halliday claim that Mao murdered 38 million people, but even the lowest estimates of the death toll put it at several million. And it is not much of an excuse to say that Mao was not the only government leader responsible for the disaster.

The Cultural Revolution itself is treated in a very rosy glow. Supposedly it was originally intended to teach ‘Communist’ Party officials an ideological lesson but got out of hand, with physical violence often being used against officials and their family members. It’s at best misleading to say that there was ‘unprecedented freedom of association and freedom of expression’ at the time without referring to those who suffered from exercising these so-called freedoms. For instance, Gao mentions Yang Xiguang of the Shengwulian organisation, but without mentioning that he spent ten years in prison from 1968 for ‘counter-revolutionary activity’.

In defending Mao and the Cultural Revolution against their present critics, Gao is also attacking developments in China since Mao died, especially since the ‘reforms’ began in 1978. He argues that China is, or is becoming, a capitalist country, on three grounds. One is the alleged deterioration of the position of workers and the undeniable growth of inequality. The second is the spread of privatisation, and the third is the extent to which the Chinese economy is run by transnational capitalist firms. But none of these relates to the mode of production: wage labour and commodity production have increased in scope since 1978, and indeed since 1949, but they are not new. China was state capitalist under Mao and is increasingly private capitalist now.

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