[Home] [Publications in English]

The original see at http://www.internationalen.se/sp/iv66.htm

Russia: Five years of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation

By Boris Kagarlitsky

In February 1998 the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (KPRF) celebrated its fifth anniversary. Moscow's right- wing newspapers were strikingly unanimous: full of praise for party leader Gennady Zyuganov and his close associates. According to Segodnya, the KPRF under Zyuganov had ceased to be communist and had become a normal social democratic organisation, respecting the new social order and devoted to private property. The official government organ Rossiyskaya Gazeta, made a similar evaluation.

Trusting in the liberal press is not a good idea, especially when the question concerns processes within the communist movement. But such unanimity forces one to stop and think. The KPRF no longer has to battle against an information blockade or propagandist red-baiting. It has the funds to establish its own press; its party newspaper Pravda, reflecting the views of the KPRF leadership, has again appeared on the news-stands. The official television rewards the loyal work carried out by the KPRF's Duma fraction by treating the party with tolerance. [ ]

Russia is now a country on the periphery of the world capitalist system. For this reason, efforts to construct Western-style social democracy here have been doomed to failure from the very beginning. So, if the Communist Party is not being social-democratised, what is happening to it?

When Zyuganov was elected leader of the resurrected  KPRF in 1993, most observers were inclined to think that the party would shift abruptly to conservative and nationalist positions. But the congress delegates who voted for Zyuganov saw him as a decisive, combative leader, capable of doing what the other candidate - the moderate, sober-minded Valentin Kuptsov - was not. The rank and file party members wanted action and struggle.

The degree to which they were themselves ready to take part in struggle was another question - most of the registered party members were of pensionable age.

One way or another, Zyuganov and Kuptsov during the process of revival managed not only to restore the party's organisational apparatus throughout the country, but also to sideline rivals who stood to their right and left. The main victims of the reconstruction process were the radical Russian Communist Workers Party (RKRP) of Viktor Anpilov, and Lyudmila Vartazarova's moderate Socialist Party of Workers (SPT). The RKRP lost many of its activists, and the SPTa mass of passive pensioners.

Zyuganov was able to offer something to both these categories, inducing them to make a sharp change of orientation. The KPRF immediately became a force capable of waging a real struggle for power. The RKRP with its revolutionary rhetoric and Stalinist ideology was clearly isolated within society despite remaining a major opposition force. The SPT, meanwhile, repelled people with its inactivity. Its supporters were themselves incapable of struggling for power, and waited in vain for their leaders to make any move in this direction.

Zyuganov's strength was thus - to use a Nietzschean term - his "will to power". It was this that united the fragments of the communist movement around him. But this was also the KPRF's main weakness from the day the party came into being. Behind the striving for power there was neither a clear program, nor theory, nor even a mass movement capable of taking power and of effecting change spontaneously. In 1993 this did not matter; the Supreme Soviet was still intact, and there was a situation of dual power in the country. The neo-liberal program had not been fully implemented, and the illusion persisted that the "point of no return" had not yet been reached. Consequently, nostalgia for the Soviet Union, combined with a desire to "do better", "not to repeat mistakes", etc., proved to be enough.

For radicalism the will to power is a fellow-traveller,but it is also a natural accompaniment of opportunism. Everything depends on the circumstances. After the bombarding of the Supreme Soviet, the people around Yeltsin had a keen understanding of this point. Zyuganov, perhaps sincerely believing that he was saving the party, took his distance from the armed defenders of the Supreme Soviet building. To be sure, he saved the party. But what he saved it for was another question.

While the authorities stopped short of forcing the Communist Party underground, they made quite clear that it would have to respect the new rules of the game. The party was under constant threat of being banned, but it was not directly persecuted. Other left organisations were subjected to much more serious victimisation. The communist radicals were forced out of legal politics, but lacked the boldness, the cadres and the resources for illegal struggle. Not only did armed struggle fail to erupt, but there were not even serious acts of civil disobedience following the Moscow bombardment of 4 October 1993. The leaders of the radical opposition saved their lives and freedom, but at the price of political death.

The new left organisations, failing to win seats in the State Duma, and losing their positions in the trade unions and the shattered organs of local self-government, effectively finished up out of the game. Zyuganov's fraction voted for the government's 1994 budget, showed no particular interest in the miners' strikes that broke out around the country in the spring of 1994, and in short, acted as a loyal "His Majesty's opposition". The authorities in turn, convinced they had made the right choice, relaxed their pressure.

At a time when most of the workers in Russia are socially disorganised and dependent on management, and when many of them have been sent off on forced leave to engage in petty trade and dig their garden plots, speaking of a labour movement and even of a "working class" in the Marxist sense is possible only with serious reservations. The social base of the Communist Party consists not of workers, but of pensioners; of  the agrarian bureaucracy, which retains strong corporative links with the countryside; and of bureaucrats who have been "dispossessed" in the course of liberalisation.

While all these social groups are in one or another degree hostile to the authorities, they cannot solve their problems through social and economic change, but only through the redistribution of resources via the state budget. Here we do not have masses of people placing pressure on the party, demanding their rights and seeking to control their representatives, but "clients" who in the Soviet tradition are ready to put up with substandard treatment in the hope of obtaining promised services.

If a change of regime is beyond the capabilities of the KPRF, the demand for structural reforms is not being pursued either. The problem does not lie in theoretical weakness, but in the party's specific "clientele". The only way the wants of such a social base can be satisfied is through lobbying. This requires good relations with the government.

Zyuganov's party is thus once again close to power, but close in a sense quite different from that in 1993.

Since the spring of 1994 a solid working relationship has grown up between the KPRF and Chernomyrdin's cabinet (all this, of course, is justified on the basis of the need to support the "best" elements in the government against the "worst"). The right-wing press has hailed this policy as the "social democratisation" of the party, but the departure from a communist orientation has at the same time meant an equally clear break with social democratic ideas. Social democracy is oriented toward structural reforms, while the KPRF has not had - and cannot have - a reformist strategy.

The KPRF's actions might be excused on the basis that the parties in the West that call themselves social democratic have made a clear break with reformism and the workers' movement, going over to a strategy of pure lobbying. In this sense Zyuganov is indeed very close to politicians such as Tony Blair in Britain or Massimo D'Alema in Italy. If Zyuganov is no longer a communist, Blair and D'Alema are no longer social democrats. All three, or course, share a desire to retain the remnants of the traditional working-class electorate, even though their orientation is now remote from the interests of these voters.

Since the ideology of communism can no longer serve as a practical guide to action, while social democracy is not a real alternative, Zyuganov has been compelled to offer a third option. This has turned out to be the "ideology of state patriotism". The slogan of patriotism is used to justify a rapprochement with the authorities, while at the same time making it possible to maintain a stance of opposition with respect to the West.

From being a social phenomenon, capitalism has been transformed into a geographical one. Continuity with the Soviet past has been maintained, but at the same time it has been possible to stress the KPRF's loyalty to "national entrepreneurs".

By the middle of 1994 the KPRF was not only the sole left party in the parliament, but thanks to the complete absence of an organised extra-parliamentary opposition, was the only serious party in the country.

Paradoxically, this had the effect of radicalising the KPRF. In the lead-up to the 1995 parliamentary elections, the feeling began to appear in society that however bad Zyuganov's party might be, there was no alternative to it.

As a result, support for the KPRF rose dramatically, and people with more radical views continued to cross over into its ranks. In by-elections for the Duma and for local assemblies, the communists scored regular victories. These successes encouraged party leaders in the illusion that it was possible for them to win power through the electoral process. The KPRF voted against the 1995 budget.

The party's Third Congress, held not long before the parliamentary elections, was supposed to show that Russians had before them a revivified left party. There was less talk of state patriotism, and more of Marx and Lenin. A program was adopted that included many direct borrowings from Soviet and Russian new leftists of the period from 1989 to 1993. In the party leadership, people appeared who were clearly inclined toward struggle.

The 1995 elections were a triumph for the KPRF, but they nevertheless showed that the hopes linked to the renewal of the party were ill-founded. The preparations for the elections and the drawing up of lists were conducted using pure "apparatus" methods. Against a background of general triumph for the party, deputies who were suspected of disloyalty to Zyuganov and his circle lost their mandates. In many instances the KPRF conducted its campaign so as to ensure that independent leftists would not be elected, even at the price of guaranteeing that supporters of Yeltsin and Chernomyrdin would be victorious in the districts concerned.

During the presidential elections, Yeltsin in turn clearly showed that democracy was permitted only within certain limits. A parliamentary opposition in a powerless Duma was one thing, but a fight over the presidency was something else entirely. A wave of aggressive propaganda crashed onto Zyuganov and the KPRF. The party came under massive pressure of a kind to which it was no longer accustomed. The propaganda assault, combined with ballot-rigging at the local level and numerous "technical" breaches of the law, not only guaranteed victory to Yeltsin, but also showed the KPRF leaders once and for all that standing up to the government was simply not allowed.

After the summer of 1996 the "will to power" found its only permitted expression: rapprochement with the authorities. The struggle for power was replaced by a search for ways of becoming integrated into the apparatus of rule. Once again the party began voting for the budget and supporting "good" ministers against  "bad" ones. The only problem was that at a time when the country was ruined and plundered, such an approach had little to offer the party's social "clients".

Still more obviously, the party could no longer provide anything to the masses of workers and of members of the intelligentsia who had supported it in 1995. Nor could it provide much help to "its" governors, who were doomed to a humiliating mendicant role in the corridors of the central power. A crisis was ripening within the party.

As a result, the KPRF's turn to the right provides no grounds for talking of social-democratisation. What is really occurring is far worse. Every compromise has its limits, and there are certain bounds beyond which left  politicians cease to be leftists. The KPRF is becoming part of the regime, one of the props of the existing order. But in fulfilling this new role, it is fated to meet with serious opposition from the very social groups and individuals whom it has summoned to its banner.

March 19 1998

[Home] [Publications in English]
Hosted by uCoz