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Philipp Casula

Discourses on Democracy and the Nation in Russia.
An Alternative Interpretation of the “Democratic Revolution”


From 1917 to 1989

Ever since, revolutions have been extremely appealing to both academics and to practioners. The deep societal change, the radical engineering of society strikes all observers. Under these conditions, it is hard for science to keep a detached, neutral and sober stance, particularly because it can be both subject and object of revolutionary change. This applies also to a classic in the analysis of revolutionary change, Pitrim A. Sorokin, who was forced into emigration in 1922. He describes revolutions as sudden and deep change affecting all layers of society. There are striking analogies in the theoretical discussion of the Russian Revolution and the “Democratic Revolutions” 70 years later:

• Both events were seen as sudden, rapid, all-encompassing and deep changes on all levels. Actually, they were only departure points of a slow change of unclear direction;

• Both “revolutions” were interpreted as necessary apex of a predetermined historical development. However, both led to preliminary results that astoundingly deviated from Marxism and Modernization theory respectively;

• Both “1917” and “1989” symbolised the transition from one form of society to another, from a presumably defective to a presumably optimal one. In point of fact, they caused disillusion due to the far from perfect societies they created.

Hence, it could be interesting to take a closer look at these analogies and to transfer some of the consequences drawn from the misinterpretations of “1917” to “1989”.

All aspects of the old regime seemed to have vanished in 1989/90. This particularly applies to the political and economic system. But the collapse of the old is not yet the establishment of something new. What becomes clear here is that there is a basic, politically motivated, mistake, when Western observers predicted the establishment of democracy and market economy following the Western model. “The End of History” is the clearest instance for such an interpretation of the world moving to a form of society based on the Western twin principles . Both democracy and capitalism were seen as he highest and ultimate forms of organising politics as well as the production and the exchange of commodities. To underpin this assertion all instruments of Modernization Theory were revived.

This is not to say that all theoreticians of the “Transitions to Democracy” adhered to such a simple and teleological view. However, they all shared the conviction that what was taking place was a revolution, a sudden, teleological change, a transition to democracy. The Transitologists saw the need to explain it and to deliver interpretations to politically work with. However, a good theory was missing at first and so they drew on the results achieved in the analysis of the transitions in Latin America and Southern Europe leading to various comparative works. All these analyses concluded, more or less, a convergence of the countries under scrutiny, thus confirming the convergence thesis.

What happened instead was strong divergence, since the “transitions” often led not to democracy and market economy. Rather, as Nodia succinctly pointed out, “being ‘in democratic transition’ has become a more or less permanent condition for many countries” . The different, preliminary results made it increasingly impossible to speak of a linear, unidirectional change. Carothers was one of the first observers who proclaimed “The End of the Transition Paradigm” and falsified it core assumptions, inter alia: that any country moving away from dictatorial rule can be considered a country in transition toward democracy, that democratization tends to unfold in a set sequence of stages, and that the underlying conditions in transitional countries, such as their "structural" features will not be major factors in determining the transition process; Carothers also criticised that “even the deviations from the assumed sequence (…) are defined in terms of the path itself” .

However, with the old terminology it is difficult to grasp the “failure” of a country to transit to democracy. Still, some authors try to adopt the terms used in Latin American studies, e.g. when Russia is defined as a “bureaucratic-authoritarian state” ; or they turn their back on the countries previously thought of becoming democracies and say that due to culture or tradition , democratic change is impossible. At this point the question arises why the development in parts of Eastern Europe and especially in Russia are interpreted either as revolutionary change and transition or as continuation of a certain antidemocratic tradition.

Culture, political identities, hegemony and transformation

These ambivalent positions seem to allow for only two alternatives: either revolution or stagnation. In the latter stance, any possibility of change, also cultural change is precluded. But just a brief look at the societies of Eastern Europe clearly shows that they undergo a period of change. Neither a “democratic revolution” took place, nor persistence in past patterns. Rather, and here the Russian example provides good evidence, also societal change does not exclude moments of stability. In these moments, not conflict is the determining force but consensus.

It is especially one thinker who comes to our mind, since he was the one of the first Marxists to state that in 1917 a revolution “against Capital” took place and because he is the most important theoretician of social stability and consensus: Antonio Gramsci. The failure of Marxist revolution in practice, its non-appearance in the advanced Western European countries, inspired him to develop the theory of hegemony. For the Sardinian, the proletarian revolution was not inherent to the historical process, but only on of many possible outcomes. Furthermore, revolution can assume the shape of a sudden destruction (“war of manoeuvre”) or of a gradual dissolution (“war of position”) of an existing order. It is this latter strategy that Gramsci postulates for those societies in which industrialization did not increase class antagonism but reinforced integration and stability instead. This kind of integration particularly takes place at the cultural level and it is here, where the war of position should take place, where the “civil hegemony” is to be achieved. Only in this way, the working class can achieve a non-revolutionary transition to communism, an expansive hegemony and an active consensus through a genuine adoption of the interests of all classes. “A class is hegemonic when it has managed to articulate to its discourse the overwhelming majority of ideological elements characteristic of a given social formation” , i.e.: not by imposing its ideology on society.

Adopting the concept of hegemony helps to understand the endurance, stability and permanence of the capitalist system. A general Gramscian definition thus conceives hegemony as a moral and intellectual leadership, that transforms personal convictions into copies of prevailing norms; hegemony therefore is the predominance of a certain group over another obtained by consent, conscious attachment and agreement, and not only by coercion. Within existing power-relations, there always is a certain balance between coercion (provided by the state) and voluntary agreement or consent (residing in civil society). The organization of consent defines the cultural aspect of political projects.

Already this understanding of hegemony allows for two important interpretations of the developments after 1989/90: firstly, there is no historical need for a “democratic revolution” – thus opening the theoretically underpinned possibility to talk of open-ended “transformations” instead of teleological “transitions” – and secondly, presumably transitory periods can have a high degree of stability despite strong contradictions.

A new approach to hegemony

The aforementioned conception of hegemony is a good starting point for a “new political sociology” approach, which analyses power in all social relations and which is concerned with “cultural politics” . However, is not applicable to contemporary societies, as Laclau und Mouffe point out. A central problem is its adherence to certain pillars of Marxism. Gramsci presupposes a single, two-tier political space. While this can be the result of hegemonic struggle, it hardly is its point of departure. For Gramsci, only a “fundamental class” can become hegemonic. Thus, the class-concept and the economy retain their role as central source of political identity. Laclau and Mouffe now elaborate a post-Marxist interpretation of hegemony. Their theory also draws on Althusser (theory of ideology), Lacan (theory of the subject) and Foucault (discourse theory). In their view, any objectivity is created through power and antagonism. In an unstable society, i.e. where no identity is fixed, hegemonic discourses create meaning and significance. Hegemony is hence a process of articulation establishing a relation among elements such that their identity is modified. Reality is a social product, which comes into being through the competition of hegemonic (and counter-hegemonic) discourses for defining floating signifiers, as “democracy” or “the nation”. Counter-hegemonic discourses try to disarticulate hegemonic discourses, to disorganize a certain consensus, and create an alternative one. Reality thus comes into being through the competition of hegemonic and counter-hegemonic discourses. However, they represent an insoluble unity, since they need each other to define themselves. Hegemony hence is „a political type of relation, a form (…) of politics” . The hegemonic struggle for defining values is an everyday aspect of politics and hegemony represents a preliminary fixation, a preliminary consensus. Accordingly, hegemony is a value-free concept, allowing to hegemonically articulatinge both democratic and antidemocratic demands. With this approach, Laclau and Mouffe dismiss essentialism, determinism, and economism in Marxism.

Discourse Theory and the Research in Transformations

How can this understanding of hegemony contribute to the analysis of Eastern European Transformations? This approach allows for a change of perspective: The collapse of Communism as it existed in Eastern Europe is not primarily a “democratic revolution” but rather a social crisis of uncertainty concerning values, norms, meanings and identities. Transformation means a slow shift in hegemony, the crippling of an old hegemony and the outbreak of hegemonic struggles – in order to restore societal stability.

Russia provides good evidence for supporting these theses. In the case of Russia, especially two meanings showed a particular crisis and appeared to be especially contested. Uncertainty firstly regarded the political and economic system. The one-party rule and planned economy broke away and were replaced by “democracy” and “capitalism”. Many people associated with these terms a better life. This applied especially to “democracy”. The economic downturn until 1998, however, destroyed these hopes and discredited “democracy” as well as “market economy”, and triggered uncertainty about their superiority over other, authoritarian models. Hence, it becomes clear that there was a strong association between “democracy” and “prosperity”. But what arose instead of prosperity, there was a decline in living standard, instead “Soviet clarity” on the political level, there was a “democratic chaos”, instead of one political party, there were many different parties with unclear programmes.

The second dimension of uncertainty applies to the national identity and the “loss of the home country” Yet in 1994, 81 percent of the Russian identified the Soviet Union and not Russia as their home. The USSR was seen as a proud super-power, which zones of influence covered half the world, which defeated fascism and which sent humans to space. Russia, on the other hand did not even have a “real” national anthem: its lack of words reflected the Russian identity crisis. Even the last bastions of the Russian pride as the army and the social security crippled. Already in 1988, the confusion concerning identity was that marked that all examinations in history were suspended.

Lukin’s inquiry gives a first glance on the different conceptions of democracy that contributed to the democratic discourse in Russia at the end of the 1980s. He analyses the different ideas of democracy of the Russian “democrats”. It becomes more than clear that these ideas were pretty heterogeneous. Democracy was seen as:

• “Freedom from state control”, i.e. as anti-thesis to the totalitarian control of the Soviet State, as negative freedom, secured by majority rule;

• “Social justice”, i.e. an elimination of the privileges of the leading party officials and social equality;

• “Prosperity”, i.e. as better living standards and higher levels of consumption;

• “Road to perfection”, i.e. as a universal remedy, a panacea to reach a higher spiritual and moral level, a life without lies and vice.

Additionally, the political culture of the Russian “democrats” is characterised by thinking in polarities, and by a persistence of Marxist and Soviet categories. Revealing is the longing for a maximal negative freedom and for a maximal social equality. Different, even mutual contradictory positions coexisted. This could be interpreted as a competition of meanings to occupy the floating signifier of “democracy” , more precisely: this is only a fragment of the whole discourse. The competition of positions is also reflected by the shifts in the stance of the most prominent “democrat”, Boris Yeltsin: while he advocated a conception of democracy closer to the social-justice-type between 1988 and 1991, he joined radical market liberalisers like Burbulis and Gaydar, afterwards. But this tier of the Russian “democrats” , with its demand for “democratisation here and now” failed to achieve a social consensus, and their approach to democracy and the market had to be withdrawn. Lukin summarises that the unclear and diversified political culture of the “democrats” “had to retreat under pressure from the dominant culture of the population” . This is a rather disappointing conclusion since it resembles the argument put forward by Pipes . Rather, one could argue that the discourse on democracy shifted towards an interpretation that differed from the heterogeneous conception of the “democrats”, that an interpretation advanced by other social forces prevailed for the moment and provided a preliminary fixation.

This becomes evident in the case of the regime under Putin, which further consolidated and expanded this fixation. During the Putin presidency, the “state forces” , skilfully took up the aforementioned uncertainties and compensated them: they contribute to fixing the meanings of democracy and the nation. Putin and its aides proclaimed a Russian path to democracy, proclaimed the implementation of a “managed democracy”. While there is no regime in Russia that propagates a clear-cut ideology, there are strong efforts to foster “patriotic formation” and to revitalise an authoritarian nationalism, including the Soviet imagery. The unity of the Russian history, under explicit inclusion of the Soviet period, obviously is an important issue for the “state forces” in the framework of a revived “Russian Idea” : this Idea will continue to contribute to the construction of an illiberal state ideology. The question arises, whether “managed democracy” and the “Russian Idea” are linked to each other. It could be argued that the Russian nationalism negatively influences the development of a democracy of the Western type.

Some data can confirm this trend towards a new “certainty”: the population’s approval to the president, who represents the rearticulations of democracy and the nation, for instance, reached 81 percent, in January 2004; nowadays, support is stable at around 70 percent . There is also a strong support for the policies of the “state forces” towards politically, ideologically or economically deviant groups such as the “oligarchs” or the “liberal and social-democratic forces” . They are perceived as representing particular interests. 42 percent of the respondents think, for instance, that all those who call themselves “democrats” are “enemies of the state” . Such positions are even to find among the younger generation: 39 percent of the respondents aged between 18 and 34 years would agree to cuts in democracy and freedom of assembly if this would contribute “to restore the power of Russia” . These are views also spread by the Russian mass media, over which the Kremlin has tightened its grip since 2001. Thus, the space for a genuine competition of discourses became narrower. The harassment and cooptation of the Russian civil society confirms this analysis; especially the legislation in force since April 2006 has further eroded the basis for alternatives, since it is precisely the role of such “political associations” to advance alternative political concepts, i.e. counter-hegemonic positions.

Transformation as Hegemonic Competition

Instead of using the terminology used to describe revolutions or transitions, the hegemonic approach offers clear advances:

• it is free of teleology;

• it does not imply a sudden and overall societal change;

• it is not overburdened with a normative, Eurocentric content;

• it allows to examine the real potential for “democratisation”, since it takes explicitly into account the local perception of democracy.



1 This concerns, by the way, the Russian Revolution as well, which reached a first major conclusion in 1928/29.
2 Fukuyama, Francis (1992) The End of History and the Last Man. New York: The Free Press.
3 Nodia, Ghia (2002) “The Democratic Path”, in Journal of Democracy 13 (3): 13-19, p. 14.
4 Carothers, Thomas (2002) “The End of the Transition Paradigm”, in Journal of Democracy 13 (1): 5-21.
6 Ibid 7f.
7 Shevtsova, Lilia (2006) “Garantiert ohne Garantie. Russland unter Putin”, in Osteuropa 56 (3): 3-18.
8 Pipes, Richard (2004) “Flight From Freedom. What Russians Think and Want”, in Foreign Affairs 83 (3): 9-15.
9 Shevtsova, op. cit., p. 5.
10 Mouffe, Chantal (1979) “Hegemony and Ideology in Gramsci”, 168-204 in Mouffe, Chantal: Gramsci and Marxist Theory. London: Routledge, p. 182f.
11 Ibid.195.
12 Femia, Joseph V. (1981) Gramsci’s Political Thought. Oxford: Clarendon.
13 Nash, Kate (2000) Contemporary Political Sociology. Malden: Blackwell.
14 Laclau, Ernesto, Mouffe, Chantal (2001 [1985]) Hegemony and Socialist Strategy. New York: Verso, p. 137ff.
15 Ibid. 139.
16 Service, Robert (1998) A History of Twentieth-Century Russia. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, p. 532f.
17 Dunlop, John B. (1996) „Orthodoxy and National Identity in Russia“, 117-128 in Bonnel, Victoria E. (Hrsg.): Identities in Transition: Eastern Europe and Russia after the Collapse of Communism. Berkeley: University of California.
18 Lukin, Alexander (2000) The Political Culture of the Russian ‘Democrats’. Oxford: Oxford UP, p. 192ff.
19 “This led to a unique situation: belief in a Nozickian minimal state and an Rawlsian ‘justice as fairness’, in a liberal Rechtsstaat (…) and a gerechte Staat (…)“, ibid. 263f.
20 Ibid. 298.
21 Nevertheless, thes interpretations of democracy kept some degree of relevance: “In a broader sense it can be said that the notions of the ‚democratic’ subculture greatly influenced the whole language of Russian politics and to a considerable extent became an integral part of it“, Ibid. 299.
22 Pipes, op. cit.
23 Zaslavskaja, Tatjana I. (2002). Moskau: Delo, p. 497f.
24 Concerning the „Russian Idea“, see Scherrer, Jutta (2004) “Ideologie, Identität und Erinnerung. Eine neue Russische Idee für Russland?“, in Osteuropa 54 (8): 27-41.
25 Ibid. 41.
26 www.levada.ru/prezident.htm
27 Another term coined by Zaslavskaja, op. cit.
28 Poliakov, Dimitry (2005) “A Question of Value”, in Russia Profile 8 (11): 17-22, p. 17
29 Poliakov, Dimitry (2006) “Russia’s Youth. Myths and Realities”, in Russia Profile 3 (3): 18-22, p. 18.
30 For the concept of “political associations” see: Young, Iris. M. (2000) Inclusion and Democracy. Oxford: Oxford UP.