Economic Transition under Collapsed Government: Russian Development in the Context of European Revolutions

Vladimir Mau, December 2009


  • economic transition
  • collapsed government
  • revolution
  • state power
  • development
  • State
  • Russia

This article looks at revolution as a means of transforming a socio-economic system. It takes the example of Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union and analyses it in the context of European revolutions. The author is a renown Russian economist.

Revolution as a means of transforming a socio-economic system is characterised by the following key factors. First, the system nature of transformations, their profoundness and radicalism. Revolutionary changes invariably entail deep-penetrating shifts in proprietary relations, let alone a global renovation of the social and political structure of a given society. However, far from all system changes in the history of individual nations may be viewed as revolutions. A strong government can apply radical transformations with far-reaching, undoubtedly, revolutionary implications, but still amounting to nothing else but reforms in their essence (these reforms are sometimes called ‘revolutions from the top’). The examples of such revolutions are the Meiji Restoration in Japan and Bismarck’s reforms in Germany. Radical system changes may also result from defeats in wars and foreign occupations (e.g., in Prussia after the Napoleonic wars or in Japan and Germany after the Second World War).

Yet, one should not overestimate the profundity of changes occurring in the course of a revolution. As a rule, only descendants perceive its outcomes as radical. As for the majority of its contemporaries, a society departing from revolutionary cataclysms is seen by them as a parody of the old regime, rather than as a completely new stage in the development of a given country. Several researchers underline that a revolution fulfils tasks that can be carried out without it, but does it at much higher costs . In some cases a radical replacement of elites is treated as a criterion of revolutionary transformations. However, close scrutiny of the past revolutions reveals that their radicalness was too exaggerated in social consciousness of the next generations.

Second, a revolutionary transformation is preconditioned by the internal crisis processes unfolding in a country. It cannot be imposed from the outside, for it implies a certain political and ideological background for a revolution when the downfall of a State is attended by the disintegration of values previously seemed unshakeable (be it the devotion to monarchy, the unity of a nation or the messianic mission of world communism). Therefore, national liberation movements are, as a rule, not viewed as revolutions, for their ideological and political underpinnings serve as the prime factor in uniting the uncoordinated forces of a nation. (Although the tasks of a national liberation movement can also be tackled within the framework of certain revolutions.)

Third, the weakness of a State power. A revolution is characterised by the lack of a strong political power capable of controlling the course of system reforms. It is the weakness of the State power that predetermines the spontaneous intensification of socio-economic processes, on the one hand, and the eventual emergence of certain regularities in revolutionary transformations, on the other hand .

The latter factor is of critical importance. Indeed, the crisis and the following collapse of State power make it virtually inevitable to transform a society by using revolutionary methods, rather than reforms. The radical revolutionary alterations are gaining momentum, becoming spontaneous in character whenever the State power appears incapable of controlling and directing the course of events. Moreover, one can outline two key factors conducive to the sharp decline of State authority on the eve and in the course of a revolution.

One of these factors is a deep financial crisis arising whenever those in power for one reason or another lose conventional sources of State revenues and/or have to sharply increase the budget expenditures. The former may be due to the fact that the revenues get concentrated in new sectors of the national economy while the tax system fails to promptly adapt itself to the changing conditions. The latter takes place under the stronger pressure of external and internal factors exerted on the current regime and the substantial growth of expenditures, which is an indispensable attribute to keep up the image of a strong State during such periods. However, a financial crisis weakening the State power is not yet enough to make a revolution inevitable. When the government proves capable of coping with it, the matter is ordinarily confined to certain reforms of varying scope and depth .

Another factor conducive to the weakening of a State is the fragmentation of the pre revolutionary social structure, making the government incapable of forming and maintaining stable coalitions of social forces to back up its policies, first and foremost, a policy aimed at overcoming a financial crisis (in this case, it is irrelevant whether this policy is reformist or reactionary in character). The social structure of a pre-revolutionary society gets noticeably intricate, dividing the traditional classes and interest groups into numerous groupings sharing polar views, along with new social phenomena and processes overlapping the traditional social structure.

Historical analysis shows that the transformation of society into a ‘patch-work quilt’ is typical of a pre-revolutionary situation in any country. As a result, the State power loses its political orientations and what used until recently to uphold the regime now weakens it. Any attempt at reforms and transformations only intensifies the discontent with the existing regime since under the fragmentation of society the coalition of forces ‘against’ is usually more numerous than the coalition ‘for’ such reforms. Gradually but steadily, it becomes impossible to reach a consensus as regards the basic values and principles of development in the given country. Losing its social underpinnings, the powers that be start ‘dashing around,’ all the more undermining their authority. The society splits into a multitude of opposing and simultaneously intercrossing groupings (social, territorial, ethnic) with their own political and economic interests, and no government is then capable of formulating a policy that would secure the consolidation and eventual support on the part of a significant majority .

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The full article can be found in the publication “Rethinking these Foundations of the State” (forthcoming 2010)