On February 2, 2000, a statement by Oleg Shein (Sheyin), co-chairman of the Interregional Association of Workers’ Unions “Zashchita Truda” (“Defense of Labor”) and a representative in Russia’s State Duma, about the situation in and around Chechnya was published in Zashchita’s information bulletin. (see below for translation) We as revolutionary Marxists must examine such a statement of his seriously and critically, and state our views on it before the working class, for several reasons: (1) O. Shein is the only representative in the Duma who does not belong to either a right-wing party or an ex-CPSU party; (2) Shein and Zashchita have for quite some time now been playing a significant role in a number of important working-class battles, including the struggle against the Russian government’s draft of a new anti-worker Labor Code as well as the recent successful struggle against the Russian gas monopoly Gazprom by the workers at its facility near Astrakhan; (3) Many workers consider Shein a workers’ leader; (4) Shein presents himself as a Marxist.
In our view, this statement essentially constitutes an apology for Russian imperialism. One is reminded of Lenin’s comment that as soon as you scratch some “Marxists,” their great-power Russian chauvinism immediately comes to the surface.
Let’s turn to the text of the statement. At the beginning of the document Shein quite correctly points out that “in examining any conflict from a class viewpoint it is necessary to understand the social basis of the conflict and its prospects.” But how does Shein express his class approach? From his point 1, which consists of an arbitrary list of states freed from the colonial yoke (Afghanistan, Iran, Algeria, etc.), Shein implies that the coming to power of reactionary feudal and bourgeois forces was inevitable. It follows that because of this danger, the imperialist occupation of these countries is itself virtually justified. It is a small step from this to arguments made by imperialists about their so-called “civilizing mission” in “third world” countries, which Engels sharply attacked in his work, “British Dominion in India.” We likewise reject Shein’s conclusions, and we maintain that what happened in these countries was not inevitable, if the leadership of the reactionary nationalists had been challenged by proletarian forces with an internationalist perspective. We take the same view about the situation in Chechnya today.
Shein’s points 2 and 3 are an attempt to explain the reasons and conditions of the Russian-Chechen conflict, not in light of social, class, and imperialist contradictions both world-wide and regional, but based solely on a subjective analysis of the interactions of the Chechen tribal formations (teips). Thus Shein writes: “The death in 1996 of Dudayev, the head of a very powerful teip who had the reputation of an all-national leader, halted the process of the further formation of the Chechen people as a nation.” A basic Marxist analysis connects the problem of forming nations, not with the birth or death of one or another “tribal chieftain,” but with processes of forming a single integrated national market and social-economic processes based on that. The point is that the economy in Chechnya has been completely capitalist for ages, despite the backward forms of social organization there.
In point 5 Shein writes: “Examples of kidnapping people, stealing cattle, slavery and genocide against the Russian-speaking population and the opposition in general in Chechnya, are generally known and inarguable facts in Russia. These were not exceptions, but a rule of life in Chechnya.” In this section of the document he assiduously passes over in silence the numerous atrocities of the Russian imperialist military against the civilian population. He sounds like an American racist who inflates the number of crimes committed by Blacks against white people without mentioning either the crimes whites commit against Blacks or the blood-stained anti-Black racism that dominates American society. Moreover, later in his statement (in point 9) Shein writes: “After tens of thousands of people were killed under the bombardments of the Russian army, and those remaining will have neither work nor places to live for years if not decades, the basis is laid for hatred toward Russia as a state and probably toward Russians as a people.” Even here, where he does cite Russian atrocities, Shein shows as much sympathy for the reputation of the imperialist Russian state as for its victims.
The victims of carpet bombing and artillery fire were not just Chechens but also other peoples of the multi-ethnic population of Chechen and Dagestani towns and villages. In his analysis of the events in Dagestan, Shein echoes the semi-official Russian bourgeois propaganda, which tries to portray the events as primitive aggression by Chechen bandits. In reality what took place was a complicated and dramatic conflict between the official power in Dagestan and forces for self-determination for regions with a mostly Wahabbit population, where Basayev and Khattab’s (Chechen military commanders) detachments were nothing more than forces which came out in support of one of the contending sides, as had happened before in Abkhazia, Northern Ossetia and elsewhere.
Points 7, 8 and 9 of Shein’s statement contain his explanation of the reasons for Russia’s aggression against Chechnya. Shein believes that the operation was conducted “with the aim of gaining popularity for Putin’s government and assuring victory for Yeltsin’s successor in the presidential elections.” Another reason, in Shein’s opinion, was defense of the Russian-speaking population of Chechnya. From our point of view, such an interpretation does not stand up to a serious Marxist critique: gaining popularity for Putin was of course a surface goal of the invasion, while defense of the Russian population was a 100 percent government lie.
We believe that the fundamental reasons for any imperialist slaughter can be found on the level of a clash of economic interests. In our view, the global reason for Russia’s invasion of Chechnya is the competition between imperialists for control over the transportation of oil and gas from the Caspian Sea through the Caucasus, which promises fabulous profits. In connection with this Shein is of course correct in pointing out in point 10 that the American imperialists and their Turkish junior partners have their own serious interests in the Caucasus region. Russia’s regional imperialism, however, with its position already seriously weakened in Central Asia, the Transcaucasian region, the Baltic region and elsewhere, will hold on to Chechnya as long as possible to defend its strategic pipeline through Chechnya and oppose various attempts to transport Caspian oil and gas which bypass Russian control.
In addition it must be noted that as a rule NATO supports any and all imperialist oppression, including Russia’s, and only as an exception, under extreme conditions of inter-imperialist rivalry (which is not yet the case in the Caucasus), does NATO support independence for an oppressed nation like Chechnya. That is why Clinton’s criticisms of the attacks by Yeltsin, Putin, et al. have been so muted.
In our view, Shein’s overall political error is his narrow, nationally limited, and therefore false analysis. In a Marxist analysis, the point of departure must be the context of the worldwide political situation and the inter-imperialist struggle for spheres of influence – not an isolated analysis of the situation in Chechnya alone. Following the Leninist method, one must start from the fact that the United States is the dominant imperialist power in the world, and Russia is a regional imperialist power, the oppressor of many peoples, one of which are the Chechens. Here like never before the words of Lenin about the Russian empire as a “prisonhouse of nations” are vitally important. And the only correct position for Marxists in the situation which has arisen must be, not indirect support for the Russian bourgeoisie, as Shein does, but support for genuine independence for Chechnya as a pre-condition for building a socialist society.
What sort of conclusion does Shein reach from his “analysis”? In his final point 12 he writes: “Left organizations in Russia, in my view, must explain to the workers that in Chechnya there is simply a process of imperialist re-division taking place, the hostages of which are simple people, and that the Chechen problem does not have a military solution.” For us, such a position is a complete break from revolutionary Marxism and a capitulation before imperialism. The point is that the process that is taking place has nothing to do with imperialist re-division, rather it is a direct expression of the struggle between imperialism itself and liberation from it.
The basic interests of Maskhadov, Basayev and Khattab undoubtedly have nothing in common with the real interests of Chechen workers. The task of the proletariat, led by its vanguard, is to take the banner of the national-liberation struggle of the Chechen people out of the hands of these bourgeois-fundamentalist figures and to set the struggle on a revolutionary proletarian course. For this to happen, Chechen workers must reach the understanding that their enemy is not Russians as a nation, but imperialist capitalism; that their ally is not the Chechen comprador ruling class, but the working class of Russia and the whole world. But this means that the Russian working class must play a leading role in accomplishing these critical tasks: organizing mass actions to protest the invasion and in defense of Chechnya, uniting with the proletarian and oppressed layers of the Chechen masses, fighting for leadership of the anti-imperialist struggle against the Putins, Maskhadovs and Basayevs, and the armed defense of Chechnya. The proletariat of Ukraine, Kazakhstan and other countries of the region can and must play an invaluable role in achieving these tasks.
We recognize that the majority of workers in Russia today go along with the national chauvinism of Putin and Zyuganov. But that layer of the working class in Russia, in Ukraine, in Kazakhstan, that is the most class-conscious must make sure that its anti-imperialist, internationalist, revolutionary socialist views are heard by all workers – and it must fight for these views now. Only thus will we be able to win more and more workers, in Russia and in Chechnya, away from nationalism and over to our side as the class struggle deepens.
And to succeed in all this requires a revolutionary party of the vanguard of the working class. That is the reason we see the formation of such a party as absolutely necessary. The party has to fight for internationalism and socialist revolution – against the nationalism which exists today inside both the Chechen and especially, as the “Marxist” Shein has shown us, the Russian proletariat.
We therefore resolutely call for:
In connection with the discussion on the Net of ISWOR’s [International Solidarity with Workers of Russia] report about the pacifist picket in Moscow against the war in Chechnya, and with V. Bilenkin’s letter, I would like to communicate the following to interested parties:
In my own name here is my personal position on the given question: