By Renfrey Clarke
MOSCOW — Russia's major "new left" political formation, the Party of Labour, held its founding congress here on October 9 and 10.
The party was established in the form of an organising committee at the end of August last year. With the adoption of a constitution and other founding documents, it can now apply for official registration, in order to run election candidates in its own name.
Even by the standards of Russian politics, with its swarm of small groupings, the Party of Labour is not a large organisation. At the height of the congress, the hall contained about 70 people, and the party's total membership is probably no more than 400. However, the party occupies a strategically important political space, and is almost unique in having a leadership with a real grasp of international political and economic thought.
In a Programmatic Declaration adopted at the congress, party members stressed their opposition to the government's neo-liberal "reforms", which include the privatisation of state assets throughout most of the economy. Instead, the declaration called for a large state sector to be retained and modernised to serve as the "locomotive" required to haul the Russian economy out of depression.
This is a position which Party of Labour shares with large sections of the main anti-Yeltsin bloc in Russian politics — the so-called "right-left opposition", based on an alliance of Russian nationalists with old-style Stalinists. However, the new party in fact has little in common with these forces.
As a central element in its plans to rebuild the shattered Russian economy, the Party of Labour urges the development of organs of workers' self-management. These concepts are quite incompatible with the "command-administer" system to which the neo-communist parties want to return.
Also, the Party of Labour — unlike the great majority of political groups — refuses to make cheap gains by adapting to Russian nationalism. One of the main challenges before the congress was to choose formulations which would make this position clear, while stressing the need for workers of different nationalities to develop their economic and political collaboration. After lengthy discussion, a section of the party
constitution endorsing the concept of a "new federalism" was adopted, with the proviso that debate on the issue would continue.
The Party of Labour thus rejects both the "barracks socialism" of the past and the capitalism of the neo-liberal future, while condemning the nationalist thuggery that has been an ugly feature of Russian states for hundreds of years. These general positions are shared by scores of millions of Russians, so there can be no doubt that the territory which has opened up for the "civilised left" is exceptionally fertile.
However, the traumas of history have left this political space thinly populated. Throughout most of the period since independent organising became possible in the late 1980s, the democratic left has been represented by small and isolated political groups; by cells of worker militants within the heavily bureaucratised trade unions; by a largely stillborn movement of labour collectives; and by the still small environmental and women's movements.
If the democratic left is to become the massive force it ought logically to be, these groups need to develop the habit of collaboration. A key task which the Party of Labour has set itself is to provide a framework within which the political groups, at least, can combine their efforts. The list of currents which have joined the Party of Labor process is already considerable, and reflects the talent of party leaders for intelligent compromise.
The new organisation contains veterans of the Socialist Party, formed in 1990 by left-wing opponents of Communist Party rule, and of an anarcho-syndicalist current with roots in the student movement. Also present are people who worked within the Communist Party to recruit activists to the struggle for democratic socialism and workers' control. There is a socialist-populist element, made up of people who look to the traditions of the Social Revolutionaries of the first decades of the century. Finally, there are individuals whose positions could be described as left Social Democratic.
Combining people from these backgrounds into an effective campaigning unit will not be easy. However, the diverse origins of party members have meant that debates within the party have been exceptionally rich. Members tend to be much more familiar with the thinking of the international non-Stalinist left than Russian leftists whose main experience has been within the Communist Party, and they also have a far keener grasp than most Russian liberals of the realities of Western capitalism. As a result, the Party of Labour is well placed to join in the debates of educated Russians as these layers lose faith in the neo-liberal utopia.
However, the party has no intention of remaining a discussion group for the intelligentsia. As speakers at the congress stressed, the party seeks to act as a bridge between progressive movements and political action. Much of the work of party activists consists of building contacts with the environmental, women's and, above all, labour movements, and of trying to defend the interests of these movements in the political sphere.
While useful contacts have been forged, the party's influence in broader progressive circles has so far been slight; Russian activist groups which have arisen outside established structures are almost always suspicious of political parties. Consequently, the Party of Labour has developed a strategy of building itself as a "party-movement". For a long time, leaders expect, the party's increasing strength will be reflected not so much in increased membership, as in the spread of collaborative relations with numerous movements and organisations.
Speakers at the congress were nevertheless able to report progress in joining members in a number of provincial industrial centres where the party did not have an implantation in the past. In all, delegates were present from eight cities.
If the congress could not be described as a great triumph, party economic strategist Andrei Kolganov observed, members had nevertheless gained a sense that despite their differences they could work together.
"There won't be rapid successes, and there are many years of struggle ahead", Kolganov concluded. "But we're not going to sit with our arms folded."