By Renfrey Clarke
MOSCOW — On April 18, the Russian Communist League of Youth (RKSM) held its fourth national congress here — and survived as the largest, best organised force on the Russian far left. For the RKSM — often known by the contraction "Komsomol" — simply to have come out of the congress with its main forces intact was a remarkable achievement.
For years, the organisation has had to fight to preserve its independence in the face of attempts by the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (KPRF) to take it over. The recent congress appears to mark the success of this struggle.
The Komsomol will now be able to continue developing its own political positions and organisational methods. Characteristically, these have been much more militant and democratic than those of the KPRF.
But the congress also left the RKSM bruised and counting its losses. The final cost of self-determination may include the departure of as many as a quarter of the members. Out of almost 60 regional sections, at least six will have to be rebuilt, in some cases almost from scratch.
The intensity of the fight around the Komsomol is a measure of the organisation's potential as a force in Russian politics. For the KPRF, however, this potential is not as a force helping to lead militant campaigns by students and young workers and recruit masses of young people to the fight for socialism. Rather, the KPRF sets out to subordinate young people to its own, strictly electoralist and bureaucratic vision for the Russian left.
In the next two years there will be elections for the lower house of the Russian parliament and the presidency. When elections are drawing near, said Komsomol general secretary Igor Malyarov during the RKSM congress, young people take on a much enhanced importance for the KPRF.
They can be drafted to stuff letterboxes and ring doorbells, and, mingling in public meetings with the pensioners who make up most of the party's voter base, they give the KPRF at least some image of youth and vigour. Consequently, the party in election years is anxious to mobilise young people, organise them and, above all, control them.
The KPRF's efforts to control the Komsomol have often been strikingly crass.
Komsomol members from the city of Novosibirsk in Siberia relate how KPRF officials years ago tried to insist that the leaders of the local RKSM organisation should all be members of the KPRF. The Novosibirsk "Komsomoltsy" met this challenge by making a thorough political break with the KPRF. But in other regions, RKSM members have often lacked the political experience — or conviction — to move so resolutely.
Part of the problem has lain in the fact that in provincial Russia, young leftists often depend heavily on the KPRF for their ability to act politically, and at times for their livelihoods as well. Especially in the so-called red belt of central Russia, the KPRF wields extensive influence within local administrations.
It is often able to decide who will have facilities, premises and employment. In regions where work for young people is scarce, even temporary jobs as election campaign organisers are avidly sought.
As late as 1996, relations between the KPRF and the Komsomol were harmonious enough for the latter to have a deputy, Daria Mitina, elected to the Russian parliament on the KPRF's candidate list.
But especially in the past year or so, disagreements between the two organisations have grown steadily sharper. Failing to inspire Komsomol members politically, the KPRF leadership has called increasingly on its real strengths: organisational manoeuvring and dirty tricks.
At a congress in February, the KPRF summoned a group of its younger members to establish the "League of Communist Youth of Russia", which the party-linked press quickly took to describing as "the Komsomol". Meanwhile, says Mitina, local leaders of the real Komsomol were told by regional KPRF chiefs that they faced eviction and the loss of facilities unless they backed the KPRF's perspectives. In some cases, Komsomol members with KPRF-linked jobs were threatened bluntly with the sack.
Slander evidently played a role as well. Mitina told Green Left Weekly of a rumour to the effect that Malyarov had accepted a large sum of money from Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov to support Luzhkov's "Fatherland" electoral bloc. Though groundless, this story suddenly acquired wide currency in many parts of Russia.
Meanwhile, the newspaper Sovetskaya Rossiya, which is close to the KPRF, carried persistent attacks on Malyarov and the RKSM.
Within the Komsomol, opponents of the leadership launched a number of hair-raising factional manoeuvres. For example, a letter was circulated calling for the setting up of an alternative organising committee for the fourth congress.
Under this siege, the nerve of the RKSM leaders apparently cracked. On the evening before the congress was to open, a meeting of the Komsomol's executive bureau voted to dissolve six regional RKSM organisations, mostly in districts where support for the KPRF's line was strong. The delegates who had been elected from these regions were disenfranchised, and a pro-leadership majority at the congress was guaranteed.
Asked later why the leadership had chosen this tactic, Komsomol Siberian coordinator Yevgenia Polinovskaya pointed out that the issue of whether the RKSM should be an independent organisation had already been debated exhaustively. None of the delegates, she said, remained to be convinced one way or the other.
But if this were the case, the leadership failed to count the numbers at its disposal. Malyarov and his supporters would almost certainly have prevailed even without exiling a group of might-have-been delegates to the corridor outside the congress hall.
In any case, representatives of the dissolved branches were allowed into the congress to state their case. For much of the day debate was dominated by arguments over whether the dissolving of regional organisations by the executive bureau was allowed under the RKSM statutes (it probably was), and by expressions of outrage at the offence done to the spirit of intra-party democracy. Eventually, a motion to endorse the leadership's action was carried by a solid, though by no means overwhelming, majority. At that, more than 20 delegates from at least four regions stood up and walked out.
The KPRF's assault on the Komsomol had been beaten off. The RKSM will now have the reputation of an organisation that cannot be bought and is hard to intimidate. The impact of the Komsomol's success in defending its independence will quite likely reverberate through whole decades of Russian history. But the cost of the victory was high.
At the congress, people who had been involved in grossly disloyal factionalising were able to present themselves as indignant protesters against leadership arbitrariness. Many Komsomol members will see through the hypocrisy, but not all.
More crucially, the need to concentrate on defending the Komsomol's independence meant that little attention could be paid to discussing the organisation's strategic tasks.
The reason the KPRF sought to take over the Komsomol was not only because it wanted a source of cheap election campaign labour. More fundamentally, the KPRF leaders fear the rise of a competing mass formation armed with combative working-class politics. The KPRF chiefs are not just indifferent to such ideas, but positively hostile.
The April 18 congress was the first the Komsomol had held since 1996, and an intensive debate on what the Komsomol needs to do and on how it should organise its work is urgently needed. To the extent that such a debate now takes place, it will be on a haphazard basis, with only limited participation by rank-and-file members. That in itself is a significant victory for all the Komsomol's adversaries.