Where red meets brown

Communist Party of the Russian Federation

Communism is dead. This, at any rate, is what we have been told. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, after Ceausescu was riddled with bullets in Romania, after the ‘Velvet Revolution’ took its course in a still united Czechoslovakia.

And, most of all, after the events of August 1991 in the Soviet Union. A section of the ruling bureaucracy in the USSR attempted a coup to stop the Union’s steady slide towards break-up. Instead, they and their State Committee for the State of Emergency were defeated, the Soviet Union collapsed and the once mighty Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) was banned, its public and workplace activities outlawed, its property sequestered and often privatised.

Some water has flowed under the bridge since then. A presidential election campaign is in progress in Russia. The ex-CPSU apparatchik turned gravedigger of the USSR, Boris Yeltsin, is still Russian president, despite heart attacks and a few bottles of vodka too many. However, he is being closely challenged by someone dressed in the mantle of the Communist Party, this time the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (CPRF).

However, this raises the question: what is the CPRF? And what is the nature of its leadership, especially the current presidential candidate, Gennady Zyuganov? Communists are internationalists. We cannot ignore events in other countries, especially when they concern our movement directly.

The period immediately after the collapse of the USSR was one of considerable confusion. The CPSU was already coming apart at the seams in the last year or two of Gorbachev’s perestroika, with unilateral declarations of independence by party organisations in non-Russian parts of the USSR like Lithuania, and with fragmentation on ideological lines beginning to develop even in Russia, in a situation where people could say what they thought, not what they were supposed to think.

When the CPSU was banned, it was as though an anthill had been kicked over. Leaving aside those many individuals who simply fell away, many groups arose laying claim to the CPSU mantle. A survey on Russian television in December 1991 sought to classify some of these groups. It found it easiest to do so by ranking them according to degrees of hostility to the ‘free market’. At that point, Nina Andreyeva’s All-Union Communist Party of Bolsheviks was rated most anti-market, followed closely by the Russian Communist Workers’ Party. This latter organisation, led by Viktor Anpilov and Viktor Tyulkin, was at that point probably the largest of the successor groups to the CPSU, with a reported membership of 70,000. It was, and still is, prominent on demonstrations in Russia, and contested the December 1995 parliamentary elections with some success.

But there were developments elsewhere. Towards the end of the USSR’s existence, a Communist Party of the Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic was set up, to provide a strictly Russian focus for political activity. This was broken up when the CPSU was banned, but it may be regarded as a parent organisation of the CPRF. The idea of organising in Russia was to prove valuable and indeed inevitable, once the USSR broke up and ‘Russia’, as the Soviet Union was inaccurately called in the west, became indeed only Russia.

The CPRF was founded in 1992. It has tended to present a more ‘moderate’ image than rival leftwing organisations like the Russian Communist Workers’ Party. If left organisations are classified according to their attitude to the market, the CPRF would not register very far on the hostility scale. There is admiration for the economic policies of the Chinese government on the part of at least some CPRF leaders such as Valentin Kuptsov, the deputy chairman of the party.

This does not separate these leaders from the CPRF’s prime opponent, Boris Yeltsin, who also expressed admiration for the policies of China during a visit to China at the end of April 1996.

The CPRF is far larger now than the other successor groups to the CPSU. In 1995 a membership figure of 500,000 was claimed; in 1996 membership of the CPRF was put at 560,000. This is far smaller than the CPSU’s membership of over 15 million before it collapsed, but the CPRF is by far the largest political organisation in the Russian Federation. It is efficient enough to be able to talk seriously about having observers at every polling station for the June 1996 presidential elections.

The CPRF’s growth came in large part from its ability to reactivate much of the CPSU membership left partyless after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The CPRF programme adopted in January 1995 (of which more below) stresses as one of the party’s aims the offering of “emotional and financial support to CPSU veterans”. True, many former members of the ruling party have either disappeared from politics altogether or they have joined other parties of overtly non-communist orientation.

Not surprisingly, the CPRF has been able to cash in on nostalgia for the Soviet Union - an emotion felt by wide sections of society in Russia and many of the other former Soviet republics. It has also managed to cultivate a relatively moderate image. As compared to its major competitors among CPSU successor groups like the Communist Workers’ Party, there is little talk of achieving political goals through upheaval. Some leading CPRF members have been only too quick to profit from the new commercial opportunities offered by Yeltsin’s Russia - most notably Vladimir Semago, who is both a CPRF deputy in the lower house of the Russian parliament, the State Duma, and the owner of at least one casino.

Some of the CPRF’s rivals for the mantle of communism have accused it of being a social democratic organisation. Undoubtedly the CPRF’s ‘moderation’ and surprising degree of acceptance of the status quo has helped its recruitment drives. It has also displayed tactical skill of a kind not often shown in Russian politics. For example, after the autumn 1993 fighting in and around the Russian parliament building in Moscow, many anti-Yeltsin groups - communist and nationalist - were opposed to contesting the December 1993 elections, deeming them to be illegal elections imposed by illegal authorities. The CPRF did contest them and won many seats, though this was somewhat overshadowed by the successes registered by the far right Liberal Democratic Party of Russia led by the notorious Vladimir Zhirinovsky. More recently, the CPRF did spectacularly well in the December 1995 elections to the State Duma, prompting Western media comment on an unexpected phenomenon - the ‘undead Red’.

The beliefs and public statements of the CPRF and its leader Gennady Zyuganov merit closer examination, though, before communists in other countries rush in to support this organisation. Let us first examine the CPRF programme adopted on January 22 1995. This was published in the daily Sovietskaya Rossiya on February 2 of that year. This stated that “the present ruling regime is using deception and violence in an attempt to return the people of our fatherland to a barbarous, primitive form of capitalism”. It went on to say: “Communists believe that the historical process takes evolutionary and revolutionary forms. They support those that truly correspond to the interests of the labouring public. In their efforts to accomplish socialist reforms, they insist on peaceful methods of attaining them. The party is opposed to the bourgeois and petty bourgeois extremism that obscures the colossal danger of civil war.”

On the basis of this, it is clear that the CPRF is not a revolutionary organisation, for no revolutionaries can rule out violence the way the CPRF is doing.

Let us examine the statements and actions of CPRF leader Zyuganov and see what they tell us. First of all, it should be stressed that Zyuganov’s election campaign for the Russian presidency is not a strictly CPRF affair. Zyuganov is at the head of the “popular patriotic bloc”. He has signed up well over 100 organisations to support his election bid. Some of them are rival organisations on the left of Russian politics, but quite a large number are of a Russian nationalist character. In view of this, it is hard to see how a president Zyuganov elected as head of such a bloc could actually implement even the ‘socialism’ contained in the CPRF programme.

This brings us to the question of how ‘communist’ the leader of the CPRF actually is. Amid talk of ‘undead Reds’, it is interesting to note that, in his book Derzhava (Power), Zyuganov suggested that there were two communist parties in Soviet history: one consisting of Russian patriots who won World War II and achieved great scientific and technological advances, and another consisting of “internationalists” who were solely interested in world revolution and who eventually destroyed the USSR. This is an echo of the Stalin-Trotsky divide, with Zyuganov firmly in the Stalin camp.

Furthermore, Zyuganov has cast doubt on the concept of “proletarian internationalism”, notably in Sovietskaya Rossiya of June 23 1994. He said workers in the Ukraine and Belarus, Germany and the USA did not make protests about growing unemployment in Russia. “The class approach is exceptionally important when analysing social phenomena, but in today’s conditions it must unfailingly be combined with a cultural-historical, a socio-psychological approach ... Many contemporary questions would be impossible to answer by applying only the class approach,” he continued.

Again and again in the 1996 election campaign, Zyuganov has stressed that if elected president, he would retain Russia’s mixed economy and would only nationalise certain strategic sectors of the economy like the military-industrial complex.

Brent East Labour MP Ken Living-stone wrote an article about Zyug-anov in The Guardian of May 21 1996. In suggesting that Zyuganov has affinities with Tony Blair, Livingstone is not far off the mark, though Zyuganov still wraps himself in socialism. When Livingstone says the west should start building bridges to Zyuganov, he forgets that the CPRF leader is deeply suspicious of the west. More than communism, this is an intrinsic part of his world view. For Zyuganov, the west has a vested interest in keeping Russia poor and weak. He sees the west as being crisis-ridden and needing to “latch onto the riches and valuables of Russia. And in this manner somehow to crawl out from under the global crisis that western civilisation is entering” (Pravda January 18 1995). This viewpoint is not socialist, though in fact suspicion of the west is justified. Zyuganov’s views are at the border where ‘reds’ and ‘browns’ (extreme nationalists) meet.

It is quite likely that Zyuganov will come into conflict with the west if he is elected president, whether or not Livingstone offers him a helping hand. He will not build socialism in any form that Marx or Lenin would have recognised.

What of the future? The CPRF seems at the moment to be following Zyuganov loyally, though undoubtedly some have a more ‘orthodox’ interpretation of Marxism than he has. If he is elected, Zyuganov may be caught between his desire for a mixed economy and his proclaimed willingness not to frighten off western investment, and, on the other hand, his real hostility to the west. His coalition of followers is so broad that he will have trouble keeping them all on side as president.

If he loses, he may well be challenged for the leadership. As for the party itself, its key organisational problem is its lack of young people, though it is trying to build its youth wing in an effort to address this problem. Unless it does this, its long-term prospects are not bright.

Andrew MacKay