Latest in a series of interviews with communists from the former eastern bloc upon the twentieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Can you briefly introduce yourself/organisation?
My name is Borys Chervonyy. I’m a member of the executive committee of the “Zakhyst Pratsi” (Defence of Labour) independent trade union, a member of the “New Left” movement and a member of the organisational committee of the Ukrainian Left Party (ULP). The ULP is supposed to be an international revolutionary organisation; the program of the ULP will be based on the principles of communism and social liberation in all its forms; and will stand, in particular, on the traditions of Ukrainian left thought.
It is said that the declaration of independence by the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic in 1991 marked the end of USSR. How do you evaluate the events of 1989-1991 in the Ukrainian SSR in light of aspirations at the time? Was it a victory or a defeat?
The events of 1989-1991 represented a mass movement, the main aims of which were, apart with fight for democratic rights, destruction of the USSR and a struggle for Ukrainian independence. As long as these aims were, at least in a formal way, achieved, in this sense it was a victory. At the same time, bourgeois forces succeeded in leading the movement and intruding into the movement with “traditional capitalist” values and aims; at that time a very typical opinion was that after achievement of the aims of the movement “Ukrainians will live happily and richly, like the civilised people in the West”.
How would you characterise the society that existed before 1989-91 and Ukrainian society today? Is there any continuity between them?
The society that existed before 1989-91 was a dictatorship, calling themselves “communist”. In my opinion, it was a state-capitalist system. Ukrainian society today is a capitalist society, which some people describe as “traditional capitalism”. Presently Ukraine plays the role of a third-world country in the framework of this “traditional capitalism” dominating the world. Continuity between these two systems means that both systems represent capitalist society, while different in stages. And, correspondingly, both systems have all the features of capitalism – the operation of the law of value, alienation of labour etc.
Do you think the events of twenty years ago represent the historic triumph of capitalism and the defeat of communism?
Surely, no. It was a defeat; but it was the defeat of Stalinism and the dictatorial system represented by it. It was a triumph, but it was a triumph of one part of the world capitalist system over the other.
Many people considered that western style capitalism would be progressive compared to the USSR, is that still the case?
Not at the moment. The first blow to these ideas was “shock therapy” in the early 1990s, resulting in huge continuing growth of prices and unemployment. The economic crisis of 1998 and especially the present one successfully undermined illusions in western style capitalism. Apart from that, a lot of people know about life in Western European countries via the Internet and/or satellite TV and even taking into account the fact that this information is provided by the bourgeois media, and in this way is distorted, it is clear even from these sources, that the West, to put it simply, is not a paradise, as it was presented by perestroika ideologists. The current mainstream feeling, at least in a considerable part of society, apart from left-wing thought, is paternalistic and even nostalgic ideas.
Before 1989 there were dissident communists, such as Leonid Plyushch and Ivan Dzyuba and there was a long tradition of Marxists who envisioned national liberation as a far more radical social transformation. What happened to this tradition, why did it not re-emerge?
This tradition is still alive, while still quite weak. The main problem is that the defeat of Stalinism in 1989-1991 is still viewed by a lot of people as the defeat of Marxist ideas itself. At the same time, facing all the problems connected with capitalism, quite a lot of people have nostalgic ideas like “back to the USSR”, including great-Russian chauvinist attitude to any national liberation ideas as “anti-Soviet” and “counterrevolutionary” “Banderism”. Under this pressure from both sides even such people as Leonid Plyushch, Ivan Dzyuba and Yuriy Badzyo moved to the right, into the “broad democratic camp”, considering their early Marxist views to be “honest mistakes of their youth”. At the moment, there are some attempts to re-vitalise this tradition by some small groups; I’m the member of one such nucleus – the organisation committee of the ULP. However, these attempts presently are at a very incipient stage.
Did the ‘Orange Revolution’ represent the continuation of the struggles of 1989-91?
To a certain degree, yes. As during the struggles of 1989-1991, among the main declared goals of the ‘Orange Revolution’ was the struggle for democratic rights, in particular, freedom of meetings and speeches, as well as achievement of real political and economic independence of Ukraine from Russia. In the both cases, the movement was led by bourgeois forces; and the masses were quickly disappointed with results of their “victory”.
Russia has been reviving as a state power and asserting itself, how is this viewed in Ukraine today?
A lot of people in Ukraine view Russian imperialism as a danger to Ukrainian independence; attempts of Russian imperialism to increase its influence, including in a military way, as it was in Chechnya and quite recently in Georgia, are viewed by a lot of people as a big threat both to the political and economic independence of Ukraine. At the same time, a lot of politicians are making use of nostalgic and/or pan-Slavic ideas; and in these cases Russia is seen as a power, which should smash separatists, which, in turn, are viewed as the obstacles for returning to the Soviet Union or Great Russian Empire. Such ideas have some influence, in particular in Eastern and Southern Ukraine.
Many on the western left view America as the main imperialist power to be opposed, do you think Russia is also imperialist? How do you think the left in the West should relate to Russia?
Surely, Russia is also an imperialist power. I think that the present Russian state completely corresponds to Lenin’s definition of imperialism. In my opinion, the relation to Russia of the left in the West should not be differ from the relation of the left in other parts of the world – Russia is a growing imperialism, which is trying, quite successfully, to re-emerge as one of the main world imperialist powers. War in Georgia, continuing occupation of Chechnya and the recent series of “gas wars” are just a few examples of this. Any attempts to support “good” Russian imperialism against “bad” US or whatever imperialism, as is done by a lot of leftists not only in the West, but also in Ukraine and Russia, are absolutely unacceptable for real communists.
What is the current situation of the Ukrainian working class and the prospects for the labour movement?
The Ukrainian working class, as anywhere in the world, is presently in a very difficult situation. The Ukrainian bourgeoisie is trying to force the working class to pay for the crisis. A huge growth of direct and hidden unemployment rates, salary cuts as a result of inflation and sharp increases in the prices for public services and public transport are only a few among the features of the present situation in Ukraine. As long as “official” left parties are not interested in the workers’ and trade union movement at all and the “radical left” in fact are very small dogmatic grouplets, in my opinion, the main prospects for the labour movement are in the development of trade unions and an independent workers’ movement. Trade unions have considerably accelerated during last few years and their influence is constantly growing. I think that one of the main tasks of the left in Ukraine is to intervene actively in trade unions. The recent case of the occupation of the Kherson Mechanical Plant is a good example both of the high level of working class preparedness for action given the present situation, and the necessity of workers’ organisation in trade unions, and all the disadvantages of the absence of such organisations.
What do you think the legacy of official and dissident communism is in Ukraine?
The legacy of official communism is the works of Marx, Engels and Lenin, which were easily available in Soviet Union. Apart from them books by such philosophers as Lifshits, Ilyenkov and Bosenko were more or less available. After 1986 the works by Trotsky and other left oppositionists, democratic centralists and workers’ oppositionists also became relatively available. The legacy of dissident communism in Ukraine is in works by Roman Rozdolskyy, Lev Rybalka (Yurkevych), UKPists, Borotbists and a lot of others. Works by Leonid Plushch, Ivan Dzyuba and Yuriy Badzyo written in the 1960s-1990s are also of great importance. But it’s necessary to note that the legacy of dissident communism is known to an insignificant number of people in the present Ukraine. The academics, which serve the present bourgeois power in Ukraine, are trying to popularize the idea that all national liberation opposition in Ukraine consisted from “integral nationalists” inspired with Mykola Dontsov’s ideas, leaded by Bandera, by doing so cleverly hiding the real history.
What do you think the prospects are for the post-Stalinist left today? How do you think genuine communists should organise and operate?
Hard-line Stalinist organisations, such as Union of Marxists, VKPB, PKBU and some others are continuing to be marginalized. The members of these organisations are getting older; the recruitment of new members, especially young people, is almost absent. On the level of ideology their slogans are limited to the need to return to the Soviet Union, punishment of all those who are guilty in its destruction and a “happy life in the family of Slavic people”. In some cases these ideas are expanded with anti-Semitism, sexism and homophobia. At the moment the best possible position for hard-line Stalinists is the role of junior partners in the numerous temporary local electoral blocs. “Big” post-Stalinist organisations, such the parliamentary and ex-parliamentary parties like the CPU, SPU, PSPU, SDPU (o), “Spravedlyvist” and Union of Left Forces (SLS) have only two ways to avoid marginalisation – a movement toward social-democracy or becoming open Peronist-type paternalist parties. It looks like the recent establishment and self-promotion of the Block of Left Forces, which consists of the CPU, SDPU (o), “Spravedlyvists” and SLS, proves that they prefer the first course of action. It is clear that genuine communists have nothing in common with all these organisations and efforts: our task is to build our own organisations, most probably in the form of a network of nuclei and individuals, both in Ukraine and internationally, which should in a pluralist way discuss and decide on the best form of self-organisation, programme and operation of this network. I think that in doing so it’s absolutely necessary to take into account the negative experience of the “radical left” and its “traditions” since at least the second half of last century; and avoid their vanguardism, dogmatism and sectarianism.
What would you say are the main influences on left thought in Ukraine today?
One of the main influences on left thought in Ukraine today is the recent occupation of Kherson Mechanical Plant by the workers protesting against closing the plant. This occupation provoked very serious discussion regarding such points as nationalisation, unionisation, the role of trade unions and revolutionary organisations and, consequently, imperialism and the present state and role of the bourgeoisie and bureaucracy etc. Almost all left organisations, not only in Ukraine, in particular, New Left, the Organisation of Marxists, Vpered and a lot of others actively intervened in such discussions. The great importance of this discussion is determined by the fact that it is the result not of pure abstraction, but of direct mass working class action.
What do you think real communism means today?
I think real communism means a classless and stateless self-managed society based on the principles of collective ownership of the means of production and distribution, and an economy which oriented not for the market, but for real human needs. Communism will abolish all forms of oppression; and will see the realisation of the idea of liberation in all its forms. Communism can come only from below, via diverse forms of workers’ self-organisation.