The Chechen wars through the Western bourgeois prism

by Joseph Green
(from Communist Voice #24, June 14, 2000)

. The last issue of Communist Voice contained a chronology of Russian-Chechen relations. It focused on the period between the half-century long Caucasian war of the 19th century, in which Chechnya and the surrounding regions were devastated and the main resistance to Russian annexation broken, to the Russo-Chechen wars of the present with which Russia is attempting to reannex Chechnya and obliterate the independence won by the "Chechen revolution" of 1991. (The first Chechen war was November 1994 to November 1996, and Russia lost it. The second Chechen war is proceeding today.) In this issue, we review several books inspired by the first Chechen war in order to provide further background material.

. Why bother to look into the background of the Chechen crisis? For one thing, it shows that the Chechen struggle for sovereignty isn't the result of a few adventurers or criminal gangs or the concoction of Western intelligence agents seeking to destabilize Russia. Extreme Russian nationalists present the events in the Caucasus as outside interference in Russia, reminiscent of how American segregationists in the South presented the civil rights movement as simply "outside agitators" stirring up otherwise contented black people. (For that matter, Chechens and other Caucasian peoples are called "blacks" by Russian racists, who regard the word "black" as an insult.) But the Chechen struggle for their rights is actually rooted in long decades of oppression under Russian domination.

. The books that are reviewed here provide some information about this, but they are books by pro-capitalist scholars and journalists. This doesn't just affect their conclusions, although of course they share the biases of the present capitalist ruling classes of the West. It also limits the very questions they ask and the material they look into. There is, for example, a lot of detail about various personalities, the precise bureaucratic maneuvers taken by the government, and the ebbs and flows of political events, but little interest in tracing the major class changes and developments in Russia and Chechnya. And yet the story of Russo-Chechen relations spans a period of immense change: at the time of the Caucasian war, there were no Chechen workers or capitalists, while Chechnya developed a more modern class structure in Soviet days; and Russia itself saw the development of an immense working class and of several different types of capitalist exploiting classes.

. Most surprising, perhaps, is that these authors can write at length about the Chechen revolt, and express sympathy with the Chechen people, and not express any opinion about what a democratic solution to the national issue in Chechnya would be. Indeed, Gall and de Waal even denounce "the rash project of defying Moscow" (i.e. declaring independence) as bearing responsibility for the first Chechen war, even if Yeltsin was more responsible as Russia was "the bigger party" to the war.(1) None of these books make any attempt to judge what the Chechen revolt shows about the relevance of the right of self-determination of nations to today's world.

. This doesn't just reflect an indecision in these authors about what to say about Chechnya. It reflects the Western bourgeois attitude that, the Western industrial countries having won the Cold War, Western capitalism has (in their eyes) proved itself to be the end point of human social and political evolution. This is the supposed perfection beyond which no advance is possible, and all that is left is perpetual minor tinkering. The world has supposedly moved beyond the days where some principles might be at stake in human conflicts (other than the principle of maintaining and extending the free market). Instead everyone but madmen are supposed to be fundamentally agreed, and reasonable world politics is supposed to be simply the realm of pragmatic adjustments to allow the market to conquer all. This was expressed theoretically by Francis Fukuyama in his famous article and book about The End of History. He asked,

"Have we in fact reached the end of history? Are there, in other words, any fundamental 'contradictions' in the human life that cannot be resolved in the context of modern liberalism, that would be resolvable by an alternative political-economic structure?"(2)

His answer is that there are not: so all that is left is, basically, "the endless solving of technical problems".(3) He himself wouldn't necessarily regard that either Chechnya or "the vast bulk of the Third World" had yet reached this capitalist nirvana. But then again, we are concerned not so much with his precise formulations (in the books reviewed here, only Anatol Lieven's even mentions Fukuyama briefly), but with the general intellectual atmosphere now current among journalists and historians writing books on Chechnya.

. Thus, even though these books about the Chechen war deal with a national revolt, there is no concern with major principles such as the right to self-determination or with understanding the major trends underlying historical development. For them, these are obsolete concerns. All that is left is a view of world events that divides people into reasonable ones, and unreasonable ones. The books are more about who the bourgeoisie should support and who to condemn, and not about what solution to the national question makes sense. Tsarist crimes can be condemned; and the Stalinist state capitalist system (wrongly called "communism") is denounced by all of these authors as the highest evil. But since the installation of a regime of privatization in Russia, the problems facing Russia and Chechnya must be laid on individuals and on remnants of the old system, and never on the rise of Western-style capitalism. Massacres and wars can be condemned, but the alternative is simply that leaders should come to better and more humane pragmatic decisions. Foreign to these authors is any thought that the continuing massacres and wars might have something to do with the present economic and social system, and not with the foibles of individual leaders or their willful refusal to follow the latest prescriptions of Western capitalism.(4)

. Thus while these books provide information about the events that have taken place in Chechnya, they ignore some of the most important questions that should be asked. They don't even try to investigate the major class and economic trends that lead to crises and great clashes. The reviews of these books don't attempt to summarize the useful material they do contain. Instead they seek to fill in a few of the gaps left by these books, illustrate some shortcomings in their method, and show how their conclusions are often in contradiction even with their own description of the situation. In so doing, these reviews also dwell on certain issues which are controversial in the left as well. For example, the reviews point to the importance, for the working class, of recognizing the right to national self-determination. And the example of Lieven's book shows that denial of the existence of Russian imperialism isn't necessarily a proof of anti-U.S. imperialist fervor, Lieven simply being an advocate of an alliance between the Western and Russian bourgeoisies. A true internationalist stand is that which helps unite the Russian, Chechen and Western working masses and inspire their class struggle, not that which unites the bourgeoisies of all the major powers at the expense of the Chechens and other victims of national oppression.


(1) Carlotta Gall and Thomas de Waal, Chechnya: Calamity in the Caucasus," Introduction", page x. (Return to text)

(2) "The End of History?" in The National Interest, issue of Summer 1989, p. 8. (Text)

(3) Ibid., p. 18. He also includes, among future tasks, "economic calculation, . . . , environmental concerns, and the satisfaction of sophisticated consumer demands". Studying and cleaning up the environment may be an exciting prospect to some people, such as myself, and so also would be eliminating the material deprivation that afflicts so many people around the world. But it is clear that, for Fukuyama, these are merely additional examples of technical problems, just a lot of calculations to be left to experts, or commercial deals to be carried out by the businessmen. (This is aside from the question of whether market capitalism can actually accomplish such goals.) So he worries about the prospect of "centuries of boredom". He writes that there will be nothing that could call forth "daring, courage, imagination, and idealism" and "there will be neither art nor philosophy, just the perpetual caretaking of the museum of human history."

. By way of contrast, Marxism holds that the achievement of a classless society would not be the "end of history", but the end of "the prehistory of human society" (Marx, Preface to a Contribution to the 'Critique of Political Economy'). A truly human history would then begin. Human ingenuity and courage could then be devoted in full to a wide range of fascinating pursuits, other than money-grubbing or fratricidal war. The protection of the environment, for example, is not simply be a technical problem, but requires imagination, idealism, and inspiration. Under capitalism, the majority of people around the world are submerged in daily sacrifices just to ensure that their families eat and survive. In what Marx envisions for the future, more and more people will see the connection between their work, and the major social, environmental, scientific and other goals and projects of the epoch. The dramatic increase in mass participation in major social goals such as protecting the environment is, in fact, a condition for obtaining these goals. Far from art dying under such conditions, it is likely to experience a renaissance. (Text)

(4) Lieven is a bit of an exception in that he raises that Russia's current economic misery is not something abnormal for capitalism. This appears, on the surface, different from the ordinary Western view that the Russian leaders have simply bungled privatization. But the exception is more apparent than real. Lieven's view is only that most capitalist countries can't simply duplicate Western capitalist conditions, and so Russia's economic mess isn't due to a willful refusal of its leaders to follow Western economic prescriptions. He has no intention of carrying out any class analysis of what is going on in Russia, and insists that one can't really even talk of a Russian bourgeoisie. He ends up with the same concern of the other authors that the only issue is whether this or that leader is reasonable. So, seeking to reassure the Western bourgeoisie that they should accept post-Soviet Russia as a partner, he argues that its leaders are likely to be "pragmatic" people, even if they turn out to be dictators. He writes that, in the future, "both a Russian 'democracy' and a Russian 'dictatorship' would desire to restore Russian hegemony over the other states of the former Soviet Union, but both would be headed by pragmatists (this is clear from the present line-up of potential future leaders--Lebed, Chernomyrdin and Luzhkov may be personally disagreeable, but they are all in their different ways rational and sensible men, and certainly not fanatics) . . ." (Lieven, Chechnya: Tombstone of Russian Power, pp. 10-11) The bottom line for Lieven is simply pragmatism versus fanaticism. (Text)

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