By Boris Kagarlitsky
MOSCOW — More than six months have passed since members and supporters of Russia's leading left groups — the Socialist Party, the Confederation of Anarcho-Syndicalists and a section of the former Communist Party's Marxist Platform tendency — joined with leading figures from the Moscow Federation of Trade Unions in proclaiming the need to establish a Party of Labour. However, the party's founding conference still has not taken place.
The Organising Committee for the Party of Labour was formed at about the time when the trade unions organised the first large demonstrations against the economic policies of the Russian government. For some time thereafter, the Party of Labour forces lost the political initiative to various neo-communist organisations.
These organisations began appearing late in the autumn of 1991. The most influential of them, the Russian Communist Workers Party (RCWP), quickly won supporters and began calling protest meetings. The largest of these took place on February 9, when the RCWP and allied bodies drew about 20,000 people to the Manezh Square.
In the view of many Party of Labour activists, the party's Organising Committee made a serious error in deciding not to participate in these actions. On the other hand, public opinion surveys show that most of the population support neither the policies of the government nor the demonstrations by neo-communists against these policies.
The Organising Committee's wait-and-see position, like the vacillation by the trade union leadership, is due ultimately to the relative passivity of the layers that in future are likely to form the social base of the non-communist left. In contrast to unskilled workers, unemployed and pensioners, who have often responded enthusiastically to the RCWP's calls, people with reasonable jobs and a measure of education have been in no hurry to come out onto the streets. But their patience is running out, and as new social layers join in the anti-government demonstrations, the Party of Labour will grow as well.
As has been noted by one of the Party of Labour leaders, the economist Andrei Kolganov, the party is perhaps the only one in Russia which has neither arisen on the basis of already existing structures nor coalesced around one or a number of popular leaders. Instead, the Party of Labour has been growing "organically", through strengthening the links with its social base. This is the party's main strength, but it has not made for rapid growth.
After several months during which the Party of Labour figured as a real political force only in Moscow, its position has begun to strengthen rapidly in other regions. This has been true above all of St Petersburg and Irkutsk, cities where the non-communist left has traditionally been strong.
On February 21 the Moscow organisation of the party held a meeting to defend child-care centres. Party activists have also gone to the aid of large families who have occupied vacant apartments designated for employees of the state security services. These actions have strengthened its image as a party of the real interests of ordinary people — a party for which the important thing is not the colour of the flag above the Kremlin, but concrete social reality.
The Party of Labour has also increased its presence in the trade unions. Many provincial trade union leaders have spoken out in support of the party, and recent recruits have included the deputy president of the General Confederation of Trade Unions, Vladimir Kuzmenok.
The founding congress will be held in the near future. The Organising Committee has not hurried with this congress, preferring to give the local party organisations a chance to mature first.
On the other hand, the leadership has moved swiftly into the struggle for concrete goals. This has aroused disquiet in some party activists, who are concerned that the "pragmatism" of the leaders may transform the party into "Social Democracy with a Russian face". This concern has been heightened by the fact that the Social Democratic Party of the Russian Federation, which has existed since 1990, has evolved into one of the country's more right-wing parties, openly hostile to the trade unions and criticising the government for insufficient radicalism in its privatisation plans.
However, the example of the Social Democratic Party shows that there is little reason to fear that the Party of Labour will become "
Social Democratised". At a time when political life in Russia is becoming increasingly polarised, when the majority of workers are living in dire poverty and when social conflicts are intensifying, there is no real future for centrist politics. Even the most moderate leaders of the party recognise this.
Despite certain Social Democratic elements in its policies, the Party of Labour is shaping up as a radical force fighting against the Yeltsin government's drive toward capitalist restoration.