New period for Russia

Vladimir Putin's draconian anti-union legislation and attempts to stifle the opposition have made life for the left in Russia extremely difficult in one sense - but they have also helped it to rebuild. Boris Kagarlitsky of the Institute for Globalisation Studies spoke to Tina Becker about the emergence of a new Marxist left

Russia seems like a country without a viable left, and for years that was true. Formally, of course, we have two communist parties. One is the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (CPRF), which is represented in parliament. This is a deeply nationalist party, which is not only anti-Marxist, but should really be described as anti-communist. Its statements very often underline this by insisting on 'national values' and denying not only the importance of class, but the actual existence of class struggle.

The problem with the CPRF is not that it simply makes some incorrect statements (which could possibly be ignored for the sake of international solidarity). But its statements and politics are actually based on the defence of national capital.

It is still a very big party and undoubtedly there are some real communists remaining within it. After all, as the former state party, it inherited a lot of members - some were leftwing, some rightwing, many were nationalist and a few Marxist. However, I would not describe it as the continuation of the old CPSU. Putin's party, United Russia (Yedinaya Rossiya), better fits that label. The CPRF and Putin's United Russia could be described as representing two wings of the former CPSU.

The leadership of the CPRF is definitely not leftwing and it is not going to allow the party to ever become a leftwing organisation. But there are individual members and dissident factions who are trying to change the party's direction. Naturally, these are not official factions and they are suppressed by the leadership. Officially, the party still has 300,000 members. But we know from some of the dissidents that the real figure is closer to 100,000. In any case, it is still a mass organisation and there are many people involved in it who are worth talking to.

The other communist party is the RKRP, the Communist Workers Party. It used to be a very big organisation, much bigger than the CPRF. But the CPRF was granted the title of the 'official' communist party and inherited many of the CPSU members. Also, after the coup the CPRF was the only leftwing party that was allowed to stand in the 1993 elections - these things very much changed the balance of forces on the left and the RKRP is now down to about 10,000 members.

In Russia, every organisation that wants to stand in elections - be they local, regional or national - must now be part of a proper, nationally registered political party. Independent candidates are not allowed to run. In order to become a party, an organisation must hand over the names and addresses of 50,000 of its members. It used to be much easier to stand in elections, but Vladimir Putin has systematically changed the law to make it more and more difficult for any opposition to emerge.

The Communist Workers Party is currently trying to get registered and many people are signing up - not because they are real members, but because they want the party to be able to register.

This is quite a big risk for many people, because Russia has a great many of the characteristics of a police state (though I do not believe it is a dictatorship). So if you allow your name to be registered, there is a real chance that you might get into trouble with the police and the state, which makes it extremely difficult to get that many names.

The Communist Workers Party is quite an 'old' organisation - not only in the sense that it has an ageing membership, but in the sense that they are very much living in the past. Nevertheless, in my opinion this is a communist party. It recognises the need for class struggle and does not dismiss the Russian Revolution as some sort of disaster, as many people in today's Russia do. And it certainly does not think that Russian orthodox religion is the way forward for the country, as the Communist Party of the Russian Federation does. So on the ground, the 'new left' or 'independent left' has a much better relationship with members of the RKRP, but hardly ever works with members of the CPRF.

The new left

There have been a number of separate developments that have led to the re-emergence of the left. For a start, the 'official' communist youth is starting to rebel. The Young Communist League increasingly expresses definite discontent with the leadership of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation. There is a struggle going on between those who seek more independence from the party and those who want to follow the leadership's line. So the Young Communist League is deeply divided into different groups, some of which are engaging with our 'new left'.

There are also a number of small Trotskyist groups, some of which are extremely sectarian and dogmatic. For example, there was recently a split in the Russian section of the Committee for a Workers' International. So now there is the group called Socialist Resistance, which was actually the minority in the old organisation. However, they managed to expel the majority of their comrades, because - while they were a minority in Russia - they were with the majority in the CWI. The 150 or so comrades who were expelled have formed a group called Forward (Vpered). I would say that this is the only Trotskyist organisation that is capable of jointly working with others.

The Socialist Workers Party tried to set up a Russian branch, but soon expelled the few people they had recruited.

Plus, there are two institutes which are a mixture of think tank and NGO. The first is my own, the Institute for Globalisation Studies, the other is the Moscow-based Institute for Collective Action. This was formed by Carine Clément, who also writes for Le Monde Diplomatique. There are also a number of environmentalist groups involved.

Trade union fightback

More importantly, there are big opportunities for the Russian trade unions. All the official unions are state-controlled and with about 20 million members are still extremely big. But a number of alternative, new unions have emerged, which are increasingly threatening the official unions.

Therefore, three years ago, Putin introduced repressive legislation directed against those new unions. For example, it is now effectively impossible organise industrial action. If somebody wants to call a strike, they have to arrange a meeting of the 'labour collective' not only with the permission of the management, but also with their participation. So they can see who is turning up to meetings and who is leading the action.

Even if, despite all these restrictions, you manage to get a majority vote in favour of action, you still cannot call a strike. Previously, unions organised meetings pretending to be discussing something else in order to fool the management, which would give them permission to go ahead with the meeting. The collective would call a strike and the management could do nothing about it.

To prevent this from happening, a strike can no longer be called at the first meeting. According to the new legislation, after a majority vote there must be another meeting of the labour collective held within the next two weeks - and this must again be sanctioned by the management of the company. Management can simply refuse to allow this meeting to go ahead - which means there can be no legal industrial action. This is happening all over the country.

There has not been a legal strike in Russia in the last three years. But the official trade unions have not only obeyed this new law: they helped set it up in the first place.

However, the alternative unions have learned to circumvent the law through organising wildcat strikes. Basically, they are calling a strike without the involvement of the labour collective. The management goes to court to stop it and just before the court order comes through the strike is stopped. Then, a few days later, another strike is called - and stopped before the police get involved, and so forth. So there is a lot of 'stop and go' action going on - this is the only possible way. Of course, strike leaders get victimised - many are sacked and there have even been a few occasions where they have been killed on the picket line.

Despite all of this, the alternative unions have not only survived - they have grown dramatically. The official unions on the other hand have been losing a lot of members. Their reactionary nature as strike-breakers and state accomplices has been exposed precisely because of the new legislation.

The alternative unions are gaining in confidence and have been moving to the left. The biggest one is the All-Russian Federation of Labour (VKT), which at its last congress a few months ago elected Boris Kravchenko as its new leader, who openly claims to be on the left. Of course, there are limits and restrictions on what he will be able to do - some of them will undoubtedly be self-imposed - but it is a sign that things are changing.

So far, we have been very happy with the way he has been acting. For example, VKT has organised a big recruitment campaign and they are really fighting to organise in many workplaces. They have also been behind many of the illegal strike actions. Boris Kravchenko has also spoken out for the need to build political alliances with the social movements and the organised left.

The VKT might only have 100,000 members - which is small compared to the officials' 20 million. But these 100,000 are prepared to fight and organise and represent the most conscious elements of the working class.

Social movements

In 2005, there were mass protests against the so-called 'monetarisation of benefits', when some state benefits were replaced by a meagre cash sums. Some 2.5 million people all over Russia took to the streets against this law. The official trade unions were nowhere to be seen and the Communist Party of the Russian Federation and the Motherland Party only turned out at the very end.

We forced through some major changes to the original law and some of the worst elements had to be taken out. That was a real victory and gave many of the new social movements the confidence to carry on.

In April 2005, the first Russian Social Forum took place and there was a strong sense there that the social movements should organise on a higher, more coordinated level. Quickly the idea emerged that the left within the social movements must unite to create a political wing with a higher consciousness - made up mainly, but not exclusively, of Marxist groups and individuals. So we set about forming a political core of the social movements, which is called the Left Front.

This core might not develop into a proper political party, but it does possess a certain level of political consciousness and needs a long-term vision of what we are fighting for. We are not denying the need for a movement, we are not denying the need for spontaneity - but we are saying that spontaneity is not enough.

We organise seminars and meetings with local groups who want to be involved. And when they feel they are ready they set up local branches of the Left Front. They are plenty of areas where the Left Front has support but does not yet have the critical mass to build a proper branch.

The Left Front has a general declaration which all members support. It is quite a broad statement - after all, we have members from Stalinist, Trotskyist and non-political backgrounds. My problem with it is that it is too general. But of course it is an openly Marxist statement, otherwise there would be no point to it. It identifies the existence of the class struggle and clearly states our vision for a socialist future.

It also calls for the nationalisation of the means of productions, which is an important demand to distinguish us from liberals in the movement. Of course we are aware that nationalisation alone is not enough - the Soviet experience teaches us that quite clearly. However, I believe that the question of property must be addressed, because it is directly linked to the power of the bourgeois class.

Also, it is important to keep in mind that Putin has introduced legislation which makes it illegal to reverse any of the mass privatisations he has overseen. So the fight for nationalisation of the means of productions - as part of our struggle for socialism - has become a very important demand for the left in Russia.

Party or front?

The Left Front is not a dogmatic organisation that allows only one view. But neither are we some postmodern, meaningless collection of thinkers. We try to come to a consensus, but if there is none we vote. We have some basic Marxist principles, which must be retained. But there are different interpretations of some of them.

We are not a Marxist party, because some of the different interpretations go beyond what a Marxist party could contain. For example, we have some radical ecologists, who do not see themselves as Marxist. The question is: is a non-party organisation strong enough to challenge the Russian state and capitalism? To be honest, I am not yet sure about this.

There is now a debate going on about the need to organise a political party out of the Left Front. But this has more to do with the need to stand in the next elections and continue our struggle in parliament. Also, there are many people who are starting to leave both communist parties and there is talk about a section of social democratic members breaking away from the Liberal Party.

In reality, such a new formation would have the characteristics of quite a reformist and limited coalition - but would be dressed up as a party in order to collect the 50,000 signatories it needs to be able to register and stand in the elections. Later in the year, the Left Front will hold a conference where we will discuss the issue. Whatever the outcome, though, I believe the Left Front should be retained, because it can be far more radical and militant.

In reality, the Left Front is developing into a party project - whereas the 'party' we might form will be not much more than an electoral front. For example, the Left Front has currently got only local structures. However, the leadership of the Moscow Left Front operates de facto as a technical organising committee of the national organisation. At our congress in April, we will elect our first national leadership.

The problem is that we have a permanent lack of resources and money. We do not want to have to compromise our politics in order to get funding from this or that organisation. Unfortunately, that means that we often have to move more slowly than we would like.

Soviet Union

In my opinion, the question of the Soviet Union is the one that is not addressed properly in our statement. We all view it critically, that is for sure. Our Trotskyist friends believe it was a workers' state. Then there is a post-Stalinist critique, which, while agreeing with some aspects of the Trotskyist analysis, insists on emphasising the 'positive aspects' and which identifies the 1970s as the starting point of the degeneration of the USSR. The Marxist current, with which I identify, is somewhere in between. This believes that the degeneration started very soon after the revolution.

In 1918-19, the most serious contradictions were already starting to play themselves out: there was the failure of the German working class to make revolution, the narrow base of the Bolshevik revolution itself, etc. The history of the 1930s is in that sense a struggle between two different tendencies. The bureaucracy consolidated itself as a new leading elite, the new ruling class. But it could not become a proper ruling class without property, without capitalist institutions.

The restoration of capitalism grew organically out of the disintegration of the soviet experience in the early 1920s. The rise of Stalinism as a Bonapartist regime, coupled with the decline of the revolutionary impulse, led to the growth of the self-sustaining, bureaucratic structures. This created a system that could be compared to class society, but did not possess all the necessary elements. This is why they needed to restore capitalism.

Russian capitalism is peculiar, with strong state interventions but also an unregulated, wild character - but it is proper capitalism. I believe that Russia needs to go through this current capitalist stage in order to be able to clear the way for socialism. Capitalism was socially inevitable - though not morally or ideologically. Of course I do not welcome capitalism positively, but it is unavoidable in order to change the dynamic of the social process. I call it "a necessary reaction" in one of my books. This current stage followed on very logically from the previous period - it was the necessary conclusion.

This has created a tragic situation for the new left. Unlike liberals we have to reject capitalist restoration as reactionary. On the other hand, unlike dogmatic communists, we have to explain that this stage developed out of and is a continuation of the unique Soviet experience. We cannot reject restoration capitalism without also criticising the previous development that led to its creation.

The Russian state is not weak, but it is very unstable. It is weak in institutional terms and constitutes neither a democracy nor a dictatorship. But because of this weakness political crisis is inevitable.

We are the very beginning of a new historic period, in which the left can restart its fight for human liberation and rearticulate its vision for socialism. This might take a long time, but we are now making a real start. In a sense, we are still struggling for the completion of the glorious revolution of 1917.