The crisis in the Russian left

Monday, 20 November 2006
The collapse of the Soviet Union was not the end of Marxism. On the contrary it confirmed what the Marxists had stated long ago, that the bureaucracy was a threat to the very survival of the planned economy. But there was no Marxist party on the scene that could offer the workers an alternative. Thus the whole system imploded with devastating effects on industry and with it the working class, which was thrown back decades, divided and atomised. It became a passive force, which explains the impasse facing today’s Russian left. But now we can see the first signs of the working class beginning to come together again as a class.

The weakness of the left wing

In the good old days in Moscow on November 7th there was a big parade on Red Square, with a military procession, and huge crowds holding flowers and balloons, having a nice day out in the centre. Even in Yeltsin's time and Putin's first term the anniversary of the October Revolution was a public holiday (but called by a different name), and the demonstration had patriotic Soviet songs, former Soviet officers in uniforms, a handful of young activists in different groups swearing at the President and no connection whatsoever with the labour movement or the working class. The same people who turned up on the demo would turn up at work the next day or, if they were pensioners (the majority), would stay at home, as if nothing had changed. There was no result from the demonstrations and every year the number of people dwindled lower and lower.

Last year was the first year when November 4 was celebrated as a state holiday instead although no one knows what happened on this date to merit such reverence from Putin's administration. In 2005 there was a demonstration of the right wing to celebrate the new national holiday. Hundreds of neo-Nazis marched round Moscow saluting and chanting "Russia for Russians" and "Heil Hitler". This year the Moscow local government said it was determined to prevent this from happening again and banned various meetings, such as the one organized by the Movement against illegal immigration. Instead the far right gathered in a meeting organized by the right wing party "Narodnaya Volya" led by Sergey Baburin on Devichee Field. The whole force that the far right could gather was 1,500-2,000 people, with fascist and Orthodox patriots mingling peacefully together, with small groups of people hanging around outside the park waiting for something to happen. Although the police ended up detaining everybody who happened to pass through a nearby metro station at the meeting itself, opposite a statue of the great novelist Lev Tolstoy, the police were not very active, standing in line at the fast food kiosk and swearing when they ran out of cigarettes at shops that were shut in case of trouble. Hardly groundbreaking news.

The response of the left was divided. The CPRF was not active in organizing a counter-demonstration, while its youth organization, the SKM, criticized the neo-Nazis but did not try to mobilize its members, quite a number of whom are openly sympathetic on internet forums to far right groups. Other groups decided not to participate officially in the counter-demonstration that was eventually organized on Bolotnaya Square because it was organized jointly with the liberals. The uneasy alliance with the liberals was reflected in the presence of blue and red banners being held by different sections of the 300 odd crowd, as well as by chants interrupting the liberal speakers, who said stupid things like "the sincerest patriots are the people gathered in this meeting" and "we'd like to combat the scourge of neo-Nazism so that we can say glory to Russia without sounding like right wingers." The police did not have a noticeable presence at the meeting, standing further off as they encircled the meeting from possible attack from the far-right, who were idly observing it. One policeman perhaps made a joke. He told late arrivals who wanted to pass through the metal detectors to come back tomorrow. When they asked if he was joking he denied it and still didn't let them through. Some activists went home while others approached other policemen who couldn't be bothered to speak to them. The only incident occurred when a dozen riot police raced over the bridge leading to the Tretyakov Gallery. Although they detained 150 or so fascists all we saw after a while was a group of journalists coming back over the bridge, which provoked a few ironic chants against violent journalists who wanted to break through the police cordon and gatecrash the meeting.

In itself this day sums up the main feature of Russian politics: passivity. The working class is by far and away the overwhelming majority of the population. The fact that it is not actively involved in the Communist Party or the trade unions means that the far right can seem to be stronger than it actually is, while the so-called left movement exists in its own world, without an anchor linking it to the real world. Both left and right groups exist on the periphery of society and politics. But because the Kremlin controls politics so tightly from above without organized grassroots support in society the slightest expression of organization beyond their control is exaggerated.

The poison of racism illustrates this. Racially motivated killings are a common occurrence. When a young Armenian youth was stabbed to death on the platform of one of the busiest stations in Moscow on a Saturday afternoon the trains kept running, passengers kept on getting on and off trains, most unaware of what had happened. Cold-blooded murder was made to seem ordinary. And the murderer managed to get away as though no one had seen him, although the police later arrested a schoolboy. Another example was the unrest in Kondopogi after two people were killed in a case of mistaken identity by Chechen mafia (SEE ARTICLE - one of the latest chants of the extreme right is "Kon-do-po-ga!"). But though extreme right wing groups exist in Russia they are more a result of the prejudices and aggression that already exist and are at the moment still small in numbers. On the other hand the left is powerless to fight the poison of racism. Unfortunately many workers are not sufficiently class conscious. Without a mass movement we don't have the collective power to smash extreme right wing groups. Moreover, the aim of socialists is to organize the working class and raise its consciousness. Trying to defeat the neo-Nazis without a movement of the working class suggests that we can change society without the workers, who become mere spectators in politics. In this we see an element of the mix of heroism and impatience of the Russian narodniks. And this allusion is not accidental since it reflects the isolation and frustration that activists are prone to in periods of passivity.


In the confusion and uneasy coalition of what passes for a left wing movement the CPRF is doing everything in its power to do nothing. The leadership is not offering any honest assessment of the reasons for how we ended up in this situation, or a perspective of how the situation is going to change. A random selection of articles on the CP website (which does not even advertise the demonstration that will take place in Moscow on November 7) illustrates this. An article by the historian Rashitov (3/11/06) questioned the historical grounds for making November 4 a holiday. Criticism of the Putin regime's use of history contained the following conclusion:

"In new historical conditions the situation at the state of the 17th century in many ways was repeated (in 1917 M.S.), when the people organized in a militia saved the country and the state from decline and death. This is why, if we think objectively, the October events of 1612 and 1917 are of the same order. In both the first and the second case we are dealing with the emergence of the living creation of the people in the name of rescuing Russia, for national and social survival."

The rotten, really scandalous calumny that the author perpetrates against the October Revolution would be shocking if it was not so commonplace. Apart from being completely contemptuous of the working class' achievement in 1917 it also reveals ignorance: if these wholly different events, both in content and in scale, were so similar and patriotic, why does the Putin elite ban one and promote the other? Even the author is forced to see the contradiction here, noting that the bourgeoisie does not like to be reminded of 1917. At least Yegor Ligachev was more consistent in his article on "Historical truth and political speculation" (November 3) when he explained that the Russian people were not saved by defeating foreign invaders. On the contrary, the 17th century was one of peasant rebellions against Russian landlords.

But, as a patriot, Ligachev continues "we Communists are aware of the role that the Orthodox Church played in creating and maintaining the Russian state." Moreover, he then quotes church leaders who heaped praises on Stalin, such as Christopher, patriarch of Alexandriysky, who said "Stalin is one of the greatest people of our epoch. He encourages trust towards the church and has a favourable attitude towards the church." He concluded his touching history of relations between Communists and the Orthodox Church in the following way:

"Unfortunately, as GA Ziuganov noted in his speech at the 10th party congress of the CPRF ‘a definite part of the church organization, of the hierarchs remains demonstratively deaf to our appeals to unite our efforts in the struggle for the country, for national traditions and spirituality, for the sake of the future of Russia'."

To repeat the point, such statements are not only scandalous but downright stupid, contradicting the parts of his own article in which he explains the church's excommunication of Leo Tolstoy, its support of the counter-revolution in 1905 and 1917 and its support of private property today. And in arguing that Stalin helped defend the church and Russian statehood the question arises as to whether in repressing the church before the Great Patriotic War (as World War Two is called here), was JV Stalin also repressing Russian statehood? Of course for Ligachev this question does not arise because he selectively passes over in silence the contradictions and u-turns in Stalin's rule. But this didn't stop him from unblushingly beginning his article by railing against the "tricks and falsifications" of bourgeois historians who re-wrote history in explaining why November 4th is such a special day. He began another article on the same day ("We bow before those great years") by making exactly the same denunciations of bourgeois historians, this time those who slander Brezhnev's rule.

The legacy of Stalinism

You'd be forgiven for thinking that the main theme on the CPRF site was exposing lying bourgeois historians but the likes of Ligachev are no less inclined to propaganda, except that they repeat official Soviet propaganda which doesn't sound very convincing without the USSR to back it up. You could also be confused into concluding that the main aim of the CPRF's material is to sing the praises of Russian statehood. But this is a secondary point that is only fitted in when it is convenient in eulogising Stalin, around which all other ideas are orientated. This is very bluntly expressed in A. Trubytsin's article of November 4th "Let's drink ‘to the motherland, to Stalin!'" For the sake of not being accused of selectively (mis)interpreting our apologist for Stalinist we'll let him speak for himself. After making valid points about the disaster of alcoholism in Russia and denouncing Gorbachev's anti-drinking campaign, he justified every decision of the great leader. He continued by saying that in tackling the causes of drunkenness: "all possibilities for making the conduct of leisure-time interesting and meaningful were made available." Then the reader is confronted with the following passage describing these possibilities:


"Childhood memories... A little military town, the junction of three railway lines, a light blue beer stall, whose trader was Hassin (I even remember his surname!) And ‘going to Hassin' became a local idiom, a gibe and a reference. But in the town there were also volleyball courts and gorodki [similar to skittles, M.S.] a stadium, a shooting range. And in the evenings sports battles took place, we had our own teams, our own experts and champions. And I remember tables laden with food for festivals and birthdays, when the adults drank alcohol without me remembering anyone being drunk. The adults became merry, joking, singing songs and thinking up all sorts of games and practical jokes."

And the lyrical reminiscences flow on and on. But we'll leave Trubytsin to his memories of the girls doing ballet and the boys building models of planes and ships. The whole tone of this is sentimental. The point here is not that individual self-expression was inhibited in the Soviet Union since today it is more inhibited for the vast majority. The point is that people, collectively as well as individually, had to be content with their own little worlds while the big decisions were made for them. Outside of this picture of happy everyday lives (which is true) people were passive observers, incapable of controlling their own lives and making entertainment for themselves - whether to build another stadium or do something completely different.

Of course Marxists defend the planned economy from the mud thrown at it by the bourgeois. But this doesn't mean talking about the recreational facilities and better living standards in exactly the same way that American Republicans talk about the American Dream. This is not for a second to doubt the progressive advances made on the basis of the planned economy, which did raise the cultural level which has fallen dramatically under capitalism at the same time that alcoholism has got much worse. But even Hollywood films that don't question capitalism can be critical of the limited, philistine outlook on life of dull, suburban America - just as there were Soviet films that were instinctively critical of the bureaucracy without being pro-capitalist. But Trubytsin's philistine outlook has no place for critical thoughts, as he succinctly succeeds himself in saying that sports complexes were built (again using the passive) because:

"It was necessary to teach people, to inculcate the skills of culture, to provide the opportunity to use this resource [of greater free time and material means M.S.] intelligently and correctly. It was necessary to form the mentality of the people, to create the correct outlook in our attitudes to life.]

We see here how alien independent thinking and initiative are to those who even now subserviently identify themselves with Stalin, as they were told to in the past (when it was necessary to form the mentality of the people), rather than with the working class. Their views about the USSR were formed purely empirically, without any attempt to study dialectically the processes at work in society beneath the surface.

All this has nothing in common with Marxism and will never develop the communist movement in the future. It is simply childish to see only the form of society (USSR good, capitalism bad) rather than the content, which is more complex and interconnected. One-sided praise does not explain how "traitors" like Gorbachev were able single-handedly to destroy the USSR from within. A standard example of such gushing praise comes from Rashitov who talked with rose-tinted spectacles about a society of equality and social justice "when power belonged to the labourers, the whole people [not the workers as a class, M.S.] and not a bourgeois ‘elite'." You'd think the new generation of leaders wasn't groomed in the very system he is singing the praises of! At the same time one-sided criticism of Putin's Russia fails to find in existing society the contradictions that shape its development and the forces that can create a new social order. If such people are incapable of seeing in the class struggle and the organization of the working class the future emancipation of humanity then the logical conclusion to come to is that the collapse of the USSR means the end of socialism.

Nevertheless, however you look at it, it is astonishing that the left movement is in such a state when Lenin, in the footsteps of Marx and Engels, had already led a proletarian revolution which defeated capitalism and transformed Russia and the socialist movement internationally. It is necessary to ask why the traditions and methods that Lenin developed are a book sealed with seven seals to the Russian Communist leaders of today, as well as to workers who associate the ideas of Marxism with the caricature of socialism that was official propaganda in the Soviet period. Although the figure of Lenin is still popular because he is associated with the conquests of the October Revolution, the ideas that he developed are not widely studied, including in the CP itself.

Pablo Picasso pointed out that, "computers are useless - they only give us answers." Lenin's writings do not possess any magical power that enables them to raise the consciousness of the working class without workers organizing and studying independently themselves. The existence of books by Lenin in practically every home in the USSR did not defeat capitalist counter-revolution. Lenin warned comrades over and again not to repeat outdated formulas and slogans without basing themselves on the many-sidedness of our experience. He liked to say if you ask the right question invariably you'll get the right answer since asking the right question involves recognizing change in reality trying to understand and generalize it in thought. Without this connection between the world around us and consciousness Marxism is barren and abstract, incapable both of understanding the world and of changing it. Lenin's writings contain a host of valuable lessons for today but only when activists on the basis of their own experience set themselves the aim of studying Marxism will the ideas and methods of Lenin be applied to the movement, becoming a source of clarity and firmness.

Socialism: utopian...

Clearly it is not the case that the collapse of the USSR heralded the defeat of socialism. On the occasion of the 89th anniversary of the October Revolution a serious speaker from the tribune could make the following points if he or she wanted to honestly draw up a balance sheet of the past 15 years:

"When the Soviet Union was overthrown and ‘free' capitalist society appeared on God's earth - it was immediately obvious that this freedom signifies a new system of oppression and exploitation of the workers. Diverse socialist teachings quickly emerged as a reflection of this yoke and a protest against it. But this first wave of socialism is utopian. It can only criticize capitalist society, judge and curse it, dream of destroying it, fantasizing about a better social system and trying to persuade the rich out of immoral exploitation."

Of course it is possible to question the degree to which you can call radical opposition currents, such as the National Bolshevik Party, "socialist." They substitute impatience for political ideas and perspectives, preferring to engage in publicity stunts, such as occupying the minister of health's office or fighting with the police. In fact there are anarchist, even narodnik, elements, as well as nationalist prejudices, in the opposition left movement. But leaving aside their ideas (everyone else does), the point that we are interested in here is that they share the same impotency and vagueness of utopian socialists. If we look at another quote, which comes not from a Communist leader today but from VI Lenin, we find that the conclusion is the same:

"... utopian socialism is not able to provide a real solution. It is not able to explain the essence of wage slavery under capitalism and reveal the secrets of capitalism's development or find a social force able to become the creator of a new society."

Of course Lenin was talking about the birth of capitalism in Europe, when "serfdom" was overthrown, rather than the catastrophe of capitalist restoration from above in the 1990s here. These are very different things. Lenin himself explained that utopian socialism in France was inevitable in a period of social convulsions before the working class had stamped its influence on society. But given that a massive working class existed in the USSR following the economic advances of the planned economy it is astonishing that we should be talking about utopian socialism at all, especially in the case of the working class that developed the traditions of Bolshevism in its struggle with tsarism and remains the only example in history of the working class consciously taking power and defeating capitalism.

But, as Plekhanov said after the ancient Greeks, astonishment is the mother of philosophy, forcing us to look more closely at things we thought we were familiar with, in this case the working class. On the surface a worker who is now working at the same factory as in the 1980s finds that his position has not changed. This isn't how the worker feels about things though, now that his paid holidays have gone, now that the enterprise no longer provides decent insurance or schooling, or wages that go up in line with inflation (and, if he has changed flat, with rent). In other words the Soviet Union was more complex than some would like to think. Although the working class was exploited, and produced surplus value that was increasingly devoured by the cancer of the bureaucracy, it was still objectively the ruling class. This is what nationalized property relations means, with industry owned collectively by the working class which provided for massive improvement in living standards. On the other hand the bureaucracy, despite its many points of comparison with the bourgeoisie in the west, whose manners and fashions it aped, was not a class. It was a caste of managers and officials, not a capitalist class of owners. This is easy to prove by looking at the former Communist party managers who are now the owners of the enterprises they privatised on the inside to themselves. These people are much more interested in extracting every last ounce of surplus value out of the workers, and not at all interested in investing seriously in new plant and machinery, which they used to be able to do when they were working according to the planned economy and not for profit.

Unlike in China in the 1990s when new capitalist enterprises emerged alongside old state enterprises, with elements of the old and the new existing simultaneously, in Russia the disastrous effects of the collapse in industry destroyed the ties that existed between factories and among workers at the same enterprises. The rapid implosion of the economy destroyed the necessary material ties that formed the working class out of its numerous individual members in the USSR, without creating a new capitalist working class. As a result, instead of being a conscious, organized working class for itself, with a history that goes back to 1917 and beyond, it is a politically disorientated, atomised mass of workers whose experience in today's capitalist conditions only goes back to the collapse of Stalinism. What we are looking at here is therefore not only the relations of production and the level of investment in new technology but social relations. These are shaped by the degree of a given society's productive forces but can also shape the development of society in periods of social revolution, and counter-revolution, as the collapse of the USSR shows with the resulting emergence of capitalist property relations.

Even bourgeois academics have grasped the obvious effects this has had on society. Of course bourgeois social scientists are rarely reliable but such is the acuteness of a counter-revolution in social relations that it is worth briefly looking at what they say.

Sociologist Leonid Blekher, in an interview in the 2005 October edition of the journal Veshch explained that the 1990s saw "the disappearance of a normative sphere - both one supported by the government and one accepted by society. This was very abnormal." This means that for the generation of Trubytsin it is very difficult to adjust to a new set of social relations and attitudes which flow from them, such as greater greed and egotism. People still joke and play sport - it is not these things themselves that Trubytsin is missing, but the sense of order and firm, familiar connection with the external world that people possessed in the Soviet period, which was visible in their routine of recreational activities. Blekher also underlined the importance of this connection to the external world, arguing that without what he called a "normative sphere" it is difficult to understand other people. More generally, it was more difficult to understand political and economic processes since once the old rules no longer work it seems that anything can happen, that there is no relationship between cause and effect, between theory and practice. This leads to a new relationship between the individual and society, which in the short term makes acts of solidarity extremely difficult. A worker is aware of himself as an isolated individual in his relationship with the bosses, without the support of his (or her) class. This counter-revolution in social relations was made worse among the working class by the instability in production in the 1990s which undermined the ability of the workers to establish new relations among themselves and generalize from their own individual position to their collective position. More generally, without working class solidarity or confidence that ideas correspond to reality it is not difficult to see that the idea of socialism not only seemed like a fantasy but, given the lack of class identity among the workers, actually was a fantasy during the 1990s. It did not correspond to the experience of workers and could not be an alternative, no matter how much they hated capitalism.

The crisis in the labour movement is therefore not just the result of bad, betraying leadership on the part of the CPRF or the trade union structures. If this was the case then such betraying leadership would always be able to control the movement. Leaders themselves do not create the conditions they work in, but work within the limits objective conditions place before them. Once the working class had been defeated politically in 1993 there wasn't a movement to lead. This is why, though we must be cautious not to overexaggerate, there are similarities with 140 years ago, with the narodniks in Russia, and France 200 years ago. The peripheral role of the socialists and (although there are signs that this is changing) the lack of an organized labour movement reflects the dawn of capitalism, and the (re)emergence of the working class in new capitalist conditions. The paradox therefore consists in the fact that Russia had a working class before capitalism was re-introduced. On the one hand capitalism did not materially create today's working class since much of the industry already existed, and yet on the other hand it has created the new social relations that the working class must adapt to in order to fight in the class struggle in a way that it did not do in the USSR.

... and scientific

The logic here is that capitalism as a material social system did not begin to function in the 1990s. This sounds strange to many on the left in Russia who with good reason argue that after the defeat of the defence of the White House in October 1993 it was inevitable that capitalism would be restored. But if capitalism has existed since 1993 why should things be different now? It would mean that the 1990s were a normal period and that the crisis in the labour movement is what we should come to expect. But this is not the case. It is true that a movement back to the planned economy after 1993 was ruled out but it is one thing to draw the conclusion that capitalism will therefore establish itself, and quite another thing for capitalist economic and social relations to gel materially. Now that they have it is not accidental that we are seeing the beginnings of a normal trade union movement, especially in sectors that are integrated with the world market and western capital such as the oil and gas sector and car production.

It will come as quite a shock to some "experts" to discover that the working class is very much alive and still capable of fighting. The Soviet Union collapsed at a time when capitalism itself was entering a period of tremendous instability. In fact the growing impasse in the capitalist world was disguised for much of the 1990s by the defeat of the USSR and the disillusionment in socialism internationally. And now, just when intellectuals and former CP stooges in Russia and elsewhere have empirically concluded that the working class is dead and offered the perspective of "social movements", such as the anti-globalisation movement that lacks a clear working class composition and clear aims and methods, the working class is entering the road of struggle, particularly in South America but also in North America and Europe.

The sharpening of the class struggle internationally is translating into the present day the point that Lenin made in the same work (the pamphlet The Three Component parts of Marxism). In contrast to the schemas of the utopian socialists who were fuming against capitalism:

"stormy revolutions, which accompanied the fall of feudalism and serfdom throughout Europe, especially in France, all the more glaringly demonstrated both the basis of all development and its driving force: the struggle of social classes."

We don't have to re-invent the wheel. We must analyse and work in different conditions to Lenin, but the conclusions he came to are more relevant than ever before. Instead of shouting loud phrases about the multitude, as opposed to the organized working class, it is sufficient to return to the tradition of Lenin and the Bolsheviks in our struggle against capitalism in which:

"There is only one way out: to find, educate and organize such forces in the society around us that can - and by their social position are compelled - to make up a force capable of removing the old order and creating a new one."

For this it is necessary to encourage as much as we possibly can the development of the trade union struggle, which is clearly becoming the front line of the movement, and set the record straight regarding the genuine ideas and traditions of Marx and Lenin.

The current so-called left wing movement in Russia is not up to this task. It is a reaction to events rather than a conscious movement capable of intervening in society and changing it. Since it is politically incapable of steeling itself ideologically and self-critically developing its own cadres, it will be brushed aside by the working class when it moves. Followers of Lenin who developed their consciousness in school are not ahead of the consciousness of the working class, they are in another world. For them socialism and Lenin are associated with the past, particularly with the old Soviet Communist Party and the figure of Stalin. Since the CP in this period suppressed the political rights of the working class it is not surprising therefore that they are unable to orientate themselves in the perspectives of independent working class struggle. The crisis in the communist movement reflects the crisis of Stalinism. It is paving the way for a new movement which will not meet every year to mark public holidays with songs and flowers as was the case in the USSR but will be based in the class struggle which will rediscover the traditions of Bolshevism. These traditions have nothing in common with the period when the CPSU was the dominant party and suppressed the political rights of the workers. On the contrary, they arose in the most difficult conditions of persecution and illegality in the pre-revolutionary period, a period which is increasingly corresponding to the experience of trade unionists. But in rediscovering these traditions the working class will not merely repeat the lessons of the past. On the contrary with the best technology and the higher number and better education of workers the potential exists for a new 1917 on a higher level.

It is impossible to say when the working class will definitively stamp its character on society. But we can repeat an old phrase - it is impossible to stop an idea whose time has come. Now is the time, albeit in difficult conditions, for a new generation of working class pioneers to take the movement forward. Once the inertia of passivity is broken, workers and Marxists will find tremendous reserves of support among the population as a whole, which is vehemently opposed to capitalism, a degenerate, parasitic system that has thrown society backwards especially outside the metropolitan centres.

The ideas of Marxism will be found rooted in the development of the class struggle, corresponding to the life experience of millions of workers. The growth of these ideas is inevitable. With the necessary preparation so is victory.

November 2006