Revolution or Revolt – Ein Dialog zwischen Boris Kagarlitzki und Kai Ehlers

Dear Boris, now we know each other for roughly 30 years. We got to know each other, when M. Gorbatschow tried to reform Soviet socialism – and when we thought to build up a socialistic Alternative in Germany. You have tried hard to cause with friends a socialist turn of the perestroika. Our common book „25 years of talks with Kagarlitzki“[i] files of it a well-spoken report. We have tried ours here in the FRG. Today we know that there did not come a reform of socialism in Soviet Union, but a semi-capitalistic Russia and some Americanization of the so called social state in Germany and Europe, a neoliberal globalization all over the world. A revolution in Russia is hardly conceivable at the moment. People are fed up with Revolution. At best another neo-liberal pseudo revolution à la A. Nawalny against the ’system Putin could be imagined ‚,against it´s ‘peripheral capitalism’, as you call it, it´s ‘hybrid structures’, as I call it,. And Germany is far from any revolutionary movement. The world is moving towards a final crisis of capitalism in many respects, but revolutionary forces which would be comparable to the forces from the beginning of the previous century are not to be seen in in the centers of capitalism. There is no determined movement beyond capitalism, no alternative floating to revolution. The center of change has moved from greater Europe, let´s say from the ‘West’ into global dimensions. I think, the possible subject of future change is lying in the global Millions of  the worldwide increasing number of ‘Marginalisierten’, of  ’superfluous‘ in earlier 3. Aand 4. world, like I call them, although, of course, the process of precarisation is not restricted to the new world. However, do they have more perspective today than a restless, aimless and permanent revolt? Which could be the role of Europe and Russia in this oncoming worldwide evolution into a post-capitalistic future?


Dear Kai, there are all sorts of reasons to be upset about the past failures of the left and many more reasons to worry about the future. However I don’t agree with the way you see current situation in Russia or in Europe. The lack of formulated alternative has nothing to do with the question about possibility or impossibility of a revolution. It is produced by an objective process and conditions not by our political convictions. In 1980s there were no chances for socialism or revolution no matter what you or me or other people like us used to think. We were simply wrong thinking that having an ideologically conceived alternative was essential. Alternatives never produced revolutions in the past and never will produce them in the future. On the contrary, only ONGOING revolutions produce real (not false, utopian or imaginable) alternatives. And now the revolution is becoming a real or maybe even inevitable perspective, even if nobody on the left believes in it.

On the other hand, it is very strange that you call Russia “semi-capitalist”. What is wrong with Russian capitalism? Why do you think that Russian oligarch is so different compared to American, German or Peruvian one? The world-system is quite integrated and there are different niches in it for German economy of manufacturing and Russian, Latin American or Saudi extractionist economies providing global capitalism with raw materials and other resources. This makes these capitalisms quite specific. But this very model of division of labour which was created under neoliberalism is in crisis. And there is no way it can overcome this crisis unless we have wars and revolutions that will somehow lead us to a different society. To which extent this society will be socialist or will bring us close to socialism is another matter. But it will be radically different from the current one.

This economic disintegration is the deep cause of major event we see around us, including the crisis between Russia and the West which has very little to do with issues like democracy or nationalism. Crimea is no more important that the Austrian prince unfortunately assassinated in Sarajevo in 1914. Was First World War about it. Of course not! It was about the crisis of then existing model of imperialism.

Trump, BREXIT, Naval’ny, war in Donbass and the surrender of Siriza in Greece, unexpected successes of Jeremy Corbyn or Bernie Sanders are nothing more than just a few of the INITIAL symptoms of a massive upheaval, which is in its very beginning. Is it good news or bad news? A bit of both. But much will depend on how we act and what we do to use the emerging opportunities and resist the coming dangers.


Dear Boris, let’s first get clear in what we seem to agree. There is no doubt, that, as You call it, a massive upheaval against the current economic system and life order is in its very beginning. And I should add, that we are talking about a global dimension, of course, following out of the fundamental crisis of capitalism in its present neoliberal form. And of course revolutions result out of objective processes. And I agree, that today’s Russia is part of this world wide process, although in a specific way, which you call peripher, which I call semi-capitalistic or hybrid. This is a topic of it´s own, of course. I agree, too, that current political topics like Trump, Brexit, Nawalny, Donbass, even Syria etc. pp. are symptoms  of this upcoming development, and there can be no doubt, that this development, as you say, will lead us to a “somehow different society, but in any case radically different from the current type of society”. Definitely, yes!

But questions, which may be controversial, rise, when you are stating – virtually just by the way –, that this can happen by war or revolution and questions rise further on, when You finish Your statements with the sentence, that much would depend on how we act and what we do to use the emerging opportunities and resist the coming dangers. So what? Is the objective process, nevertheless, depending on subjective interfering?

These, I think, are just those questions, which should be set clear: If revolution is not roused by alternatives, but by objective processes, moreover, if alternatives are produced by the ongoing process, so how is this proceeding, what is our part in this process, and who are “we”?

Is revolution and war a necessary, provoking asked, a ‘как бы‘ (somehow) natural connection? Couldn’t it be, that revolution under today’s conditions of a strongly linked up world does not necessary mean war, more exactly said, that the global upheaval, which is to be expected, is not necessarily bound to a global war?

It seems to me, that this is the main question, if we won’t understand history and social processes as mere, quasi natural outbreak of spontaneous power, but ask for the historical subject on the historical level of evolution.

I think the outstanding global upraise is not comparable to French or Russian or any other earlier revolution, which spread out of one country into the world in each case. And I think, a global war is not leadable in the kind of the first and second world war today as side effect or maybe even prevention of radical social changes, without destroying both, capitalism, imperialism, neo-liberalism etc. and social freeing impulses in one big dirty washing-up.

Of course we have a growing readiness for violence today, local protest, local revolts, different sorts of terrorism, produced by the cruelty of the final crisis of capitalism. This is the ongoing process, about which You are talking. But as far as this process is not bursting out in one big bang, neither the one global revolution nor the one global war, but amplifying step by step, our part can’t be just heating up revolts by force or too provoke upraises, like tried by some lonely militants just now in Hamburg, to whom violence as violence was already a sufficient message. We have to look for, to find and to show ways and images, how another world could look like – if the power shall not only „blow up“.

And in this sense – to come back to this question here – I think it important, to see the contradictions and differences between the capitalistic states, between  developed and peripheral capitalism, between cultures, as far as different forms of opposition or possible alternatives with different people with a different social and historic background arising from them. This is valid also to the Russian society of today, which I called a hybrid capitalism, as it implies special Russian-Soviet history and structures of communitarism (общинность), even if at the moment in capitalistic covered form. You remember, we have been talking about this often as a specific Russian-Soviet heritage, wondering in what way it will change.

I agree with you again completely – alternatives are always concrete, but they need a leading idea; that does not mean a closed ideology, but ideas, images like life could be. To sharpen it on the title of our dialogue revolt or revolution: the possible revolution of today’s outcasts will stuck in revolts, or even in fascistic tendencies, if it does not rise from the bare clamour to the image of a more human future, based on the esteem of traditional values.


Dear Kai! It seems that we are still obsessed by the vision of revolution presented in Stalinist Краткий курс истории партии. (Kurze Geschichte der Partei) As if Bolsheviks were from an already existing popular force, say, in 1916. In fact, from the point of view of public opinion they didn’t exist. And alternatives that were actually visible “on the table” had very little to do with what actually happened. Jeremy Corbyn or Bernie Sanders politically didn’t exist a few weeks before they launched their campaign. And that was exactly the secret of their progress. In the current situation only a movement, a leader, an idea, coming from almost “nowhere” is going to have a chance. Everything that is present and visible is either discredited or going to be discredited. And not because of ideological reasons, but because nothing, that can and will be tried within current system would work. This is an objective process. I don’t care whether people like neoliberalism or not. In fact they never did. And no matter how much people subjectively disliked privatization or de-regulation, it happened because it was working – not for the majority but for the elites. Now it is the other way round. Even if they managed to establish neoliberal hegemony in many ways, that leads nowhere because the system exhausted its potential, it simply can’t reproduce itself, it can’t (in its practical results) satisfy even the ruling classes – and that’s where people like Trump or Naval’ny are coming from.

So what should we do, and who are “we”?

Political success depends on understanding the objective situation, opportunities, provided by it and on adequately using these opportunities to reach your goals. The irony is that we do not lack opportunities, but the left lack goals. The left became no more than a community of liberal intellectuals interested in animal rights, gays and feminism (but not interested in actually existing animals, single-sex couples or working class women). It completely abandoned class politics even if it reproduces class rhetoric without thinking of its content. Ironically, it is now some sectors of the Far Right in the West we really listen to what working class people say and try to represent their daily interests. However their represent these interests in confused and inadequate form.

It is interesting that at this moment Russian Far Right is very weak, so in many ways the task for the left is easier. What do we have to do: we have to create yet another new left. Which will be in many ways more like the original old one. Back to the pre-60th. Back to the 1920th. Seems a bit like Hegelian-Marxist Negation of Negation (Отрицание отрицания – I don’t know the original German term). Anyhow, let philosophers conceptualize this, we have to be very practical.

Who are “WE” now? We don’t exist yet – as a political force. We have to create ourselves politically. With very simple ideas – public sector, regulation, welfare state, democratic participation. Can we use Soviet heritage? Yes, why not. What we should do – we shouldn‘ try to bring back the Soviet Union. For the same reason, for which we can’t sustain a current system. It’s not because we like or dislike it. Simply because it is impossible.

There is a huge store of ideas and methods the left possessed for a long time. We should find there what is necessary. Actual configuration will depend on the situation and public needs.

Don’t even try to invent something new. It makes no sense. We don’t need new ideas. We spent half a century on ideas, most of which proved to be either wrong or dysfunctional. As an intellectual I’m fe up with discussing ideas or abstract alternatives. We need politics. Not just building an organization but rather educating people who will be able to build it very fast when there is an opportunity. This work is being done right now and not without success. Because the generation, that will bring about new politics, is already here. Politics will come when there is an opportunity. In a year, in a month, in a few weeks. Or never.  


Dear Boris! Very short, because place is finishing: Not to invent something. Yes! Education. Yes! But here the devil is lying in detail: what, how and when! I think, at first there is to show, as far as to talk about objective facts, that the one very objective fact, which has to be understood today, is this: The credo in mere efficiency and economic growth, based on priority of competition as principle is leading into an evolutionary crisis of mankind, which can only be overcome by a lifeserving (lebensdienlich) way aiming towards cooperation based on self-chosen communities orientated on cultural growth of any human being and any people., instead of every day war. Keyword: love, mutual help and solidarity. This, of course, is a very principle orientation, but this must be understood first of all, otherwise future upraises will be a repetition of what we have now, only on more extreme level. And as to the question how, we ought to find answers in, let’s say, social exercises – local and global, which means, in organization of work and everyday life, by searching and finding ways, how to help oneself and the growing number of outcasts to find themselves, physically and mentally, how to find oneself and themselves as individual person, who knows to say: I, and to find as a collective power, organizing itself in conflict with the existing conditions. No power with claim to future without individual consciousness! And here, dear Boris, I find the answer to the question ‘when’, too: Of course, now – always now, as any journey begins with the first step. Tomorrow would mean, never. Any exercise of this kind is sort of preparation, I think. Any revolution had some preparation of that kind in the people itself, in minorities, in some social fantasy and hope for the better, which helped channeling the inevitable violence – and so today, I hope. And with this extremely short summery I surrender the last round to You.  


Dear Kai! Of course we have to insist on the importance of love and solidarity, but we spent too much time on discussing and promoting values while the other side was practicing politics. We have to be very concrete. I think of Jeremy Corbyn’s campaign as an example of success not because he brought about a lot of enthusiasm and achieved a real progress electorally, but first of all because he did so on the basis of very concrete proposals.

In fact, most of these proposals are quite moderate but after 30 years of neoliberalism they seem radical or even revolutionary. Bring back railways into public ownership, relaunch public sector to provide necessary services to people and generate public investment to achieve economic growth in the situation when market incentives are exhausted. This is all very simple. Speaking about Russia, things are even more clear. There is a great majority demanding nationalization of oil, gas and other corporations that were stolen from the people by the oligarchs. At the same time there is no political force fighting for these demands no matter how popular they are. Why? Because the people themselves are passive and they are not fighting for their own interests and rights. The problem is not with the left. It is with the people. As long as masses are passive it doesn’t matter which values and ideas we spread. It all makes no sense except for a tiny group of activists and intellectuals which has to be sustained and reproduced. But he question is whether people will say passive forever? If so, we all deserve the kind of future, which is anything but bright. However I think that there will be a turning point, which seems to be very close. At this moment we must show that our ideas are relevant – not in abstract but in practical terms. Can they be transformed into a practical political program and transformative action HERE AND NOW? Then they will work and our existence makes sense…   

[i] Kai Ehlers, 25 Jahre Perestroika, Gespräche mit Boris Kagarlitzki, Band I und II, laika diskurs 2013/2014