I started writing this farewell to my friend Aleksandr Buzgalin (*), whom I had known since the perestroika times, while I was working as a foreign correspondent in Moscow, when I realised that it was impossible for me to discuss his role, his work and his importance without also discussing the context in which he acted, the context of the dramatic events that his country experienced and that affected the whole world from the 1980s and 1990s onwards. This is what I have tried to do here, hoping to at least do him some justice, and, if I can, show something of the man he was. In the process of doing it I realized it was impossible to write about all that in one article and thus this was extended to a series of articles, of which you will find here the first one. After all, these dramatic events that defined not only Russia but our entire world, closing Hobsbawm’s “Short 20th Century”, still remain incompletely known and incompletely analysed and understood, both in Russia and internationally.
The last time I saw Aleksandr was last June, in the nice café where he often used to make his appointments, on the former Gorky Avenue (which the recent “Restoration” renamed Tverskaya, as if to assure us that Money is the enemy of Culture), near Pushkin Square and a little further away from the Mayakovski metro station. Just hearing these names gives one the impression of receiving shreds of light from the golden Russian century (I place it between 1825 and 1932), one of the very few “privileged moments” of History, the relatively short “pregnancies” that gave birth to our civilization and keep giving some permanent meaning to human history, for as long at least as any civilization survives. Other such moments include the 50 years of the heyday of the Athenian Democracy, or the Renaissance, the Lumières (Enlightenment) and the Great French Revolution.
I was in the Russian capital in June for the annual conference of the Moscow Economic Forum, of which Aleksandr (Sasha) Buzgalin himself was vice-president. During our discussion, I thought I would ask him to do an English summary of the proceedings, edited by him, of a congress on the New Economic Policy (NEP); we would indeed be glad to publish it (**). He looked at me wearily and asked, “Who cares?” Tired he couldn’t help but be. His whole life had been devoted to academic, theoretical, and to practical political and organizational work. I remember thinking he seemed frustrated. After all, what man, who does not want to fool himself and is conscious of the state of our world, of the deep decline of our civilization, can avoid being frustrated?
I insisted, because I consider the question of the NEP and the debates it provoked in the USSR in the 1920s, and which remain largely unknown today in both Russia and the West, as absolutely central to anyone interested today in the transition to a different system of economic organisation. As our world plunges into a kind of “Great Confusion”, on the one hand due to a “garbage over-information” and on the other hand as a result of the abandonment of any demand for a radically new reorganization of society, new generations will eventually have to do archaeological excavation works to discover what was self-evident a few decades ago. It is our obligation to leave them whatever knowledge we have already acquired within the scope of our thought and experience.
As I was telling him this, I started my usual nagging about things that I should but haven’t written and keep putting off. Suddenly I saw him change and in a very imperative tone, which I was not used to, say to me: “I want you to select and bring me your thirty best articles by July 1η so that we can publish them. If you don’t, I won’t talk to you again.” And when I in turn wondered who needed them, he replied with some very moving words.
I didn’t understand what had gotten into him, but it looked as if he was suddenly confronted with eternity, it was clear that he was not joking anymore. He then spoke to me about his first book, full of ideas about communist society, about the six PhDs he still supervised, and he continued unabated, giving me advice I probably needed but hadn’t asked for: “We do what is possible, not what is necessary.” I tried writing it down on a piece of paper to remember it later. I was astonished to find that I had written the opposite: ‘We do what is necessary, not what is possible’. Nobody escapes his nature, the ancient Greeks would probably say.
I had to postpone for September and was finally preparing to meet him to discuss the matter last October when I was back in Moscow. Unfortunately, I was unable to see him on the day of our appointment. He was already in hospital.
His death leaves an unfillable void, for many reasons. One of them is that he was a constant point of reference for Marxist critical intellectuals in Russia, where he had organised a number of very important conferences—he was very good at that—trying to bring together the best of Russian Marxist thinkers and notable international Marxist intellectuals. He was trying to get from all of them whatever each one had and could give him. He did not close the door to anyone, he did not stop the dialogue, he did not assume, as so many leftist leaders and petty leaders, intellectuals and organizations do, that he was the holder of absolute truth.
This work of bringing together people and ideas from the field of Marxist and social science was no mean feat in a country that went sharply from a theological “Marxism” to an extremely primitive and furious anti-communism, to remain always in a very great confusion, a country sometimes even ignorant of its history, or at least greatly embarrassed by it. After all, what distinguished Buzgalin from many others was the seriousness he showed in everything he undertook, something rare in our times, both in Russia and internationally. Of his intellectual production one has to mention, in addition to his many books, the theoretical journal Alternativi. He was one of the main interlocutors bridging gaps between the Western radical left, Western Marxists and the former Soviet world, a world unknown and “forbidden” to us for decades. He spoke the language of Marxism and he spoke English; both made communication much easier. For those of us interested in Gorbachev’s “Soviet experiment” and subsequently in the development of post-communist Russia, he was always an invaluable source of information and assessments, given also his in-depth understanding of the political and economic forces that dominated the country.
One could object at this point that all this is of secondary importance, that Marxism has died after the collapse of the USSR and that references to it are of historical importance.
We will discuss this question in our next article.
(*) For a biography look here Alexander Buzgalin—Wikipedia. Buzgalin has played also a leading role in the workers movement developed in USSR at the period of perestroika, propagating the ideas of self—management. He was elected member of the CC of the CPSU at its last congress and he struggled from various leftist parties after its dismissal. He opposed the 1993 U.S.—supported coup d’ etat by Boris Yeltsin. His latest book in English with Andrei Kolganov is “Twenty-first-century capital: Critical post-Soviet Marxist reflections (Geopolitical Economy) https://www.amazon.com/Twenty-
(**) The New Economic Policy (NEP) was adopted by the 10th Congress of the Communist Party in 1921 and replaced the “war communism” practised by the Bolsheviks after the Revolution and during the Civil War and foreign intervention in Soviet Russia. It involved the return of most of agriculture, retail trade and small-scale light industry to private ownership and management. The state retained control of heavy industry, transport, banking and foreign trade. The use of money in the economy was also reintroduced and grain confiscation was stopped, replaced by a system of taxation of farmers. According to Lenin, who recommended its implementation, it was a necessary ‘retreat to a centrally supervised market-influenced programme of state capitalism’. Stalin never liked it and the NEP was abandoned in 1928, with the violent collectivisation of agriculture and the shift to an almost military central planning and management of the economy. During the decade that followed, almost the entire historic leadership of the Bolsheviks, who carried out the October Revolution and ran the Soviet state during its first decade of existence, was eliminated, as was the leadership of the Red Army.