By Renfrey Clarke
MOSCOW — The setting could have been Germany in the 1930s. Over a period of about a month, a well-known parliamentary deputy claimed that "Yids" were responsible for the country's economic problems; vowed before media reporters that he would "round up all the [Jews] and send them to the next world"; made the call "To the grave with all the Yids!"; and expressed a wish to "take at least a dozen Yids" with him when he died.
The country, however, was Russia. The period was October and early November, and the speaker was former general Albert Makashov, a member of the parliamentary fraction of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (KPRF).
If there was anything faintly Marxist about the KPRF leadership, Makashov would have been summarily expelled from the party. The KPRF deputies would also have voted to strip him of his parliamentary immunity, so that he could be charged under Soviet-era legislation outlawing "incitement of ethnic tension".
What happened was quite different. Makashov was subjected to a mild internal party rebuke. "We took note of the impermissible form of his remarks and condemned his intemperance", KPRF leader Gennady Zyuganov recounted later.
In the parliament, opponents of the Communists put a censure motion on November 4. Makashov's comments, the resolution argued, were "harsh and bordering on the vulgar", and "provoked concern in broad sectors of society". The motion was defeated, with almost all the Communist deputies voting against or abstaining.
Up to this point, KPRF leaders had had a certain room for dismissing Makashov's statements as outbursts by an isolated party eccentric. But by refusing to condemn the statements publicly, the KPRF leadership took responsibility for them.
Right-wing critics of the Communists seized on the political gift.
Oil and media magnate Boris Berezovsky declared: "The Communists should be banned as the carrier of an idea that could break Russia apart".
Former prime minister Yegor Gaidar accused the Communists of turning into Nazis, and argued, "If Russia wants to remain a democratic country, it should ban the Communist Party".
What Berezovsky and Gaidar were proposing — suppression of the political party with by far the largest number of seats in the parliament — would put an end to any meaningful democracy in Russia. But in setting the idea of a ban in circulation, Berezovsky and Gaidar came across not as totalitarians, but as indignant protectors of minority rights.
If the Communist leaders can be outmanoeuvred so easily, they plainly do not have much upstairs. But the debacle they suffered was not just the result of tactical stupidity.
The KPRF leaders also shrank from disciplining Makashov because, at least up to a point, they agree with him. Zyuganov too finds himself upset by the presence of Jews, though he has been more squeamish about expressing it than the flamboyant ex-general.
"There is not a single audience today", Zyuganov declared during October on the television program Akuly Politpera, "that does not ask questions about the subject of Jews. And this subject should alarm all of us.
"It is no secret that the personnel policy followed by Yeltsin has violated the principle of national representation in all our country's law enforcement agencies, the economy, finances and journalism ... Today the Russian people feel encroached upon."
Zyuganov is also on record with statements arguing that there are "too many ethnic non-Russians" presenting the television news, serving in the cabinet and occupying other prominent posts. The suggestion is that the state should regulate appointments to make sure that ethnic Russians (who make up about 80% of the population) are not crowded out by Jews (who make up about 0.5%) and members of other minority ethnic groups.
These views are the political antipodes of the proletarian internationalism which Marx argued for. But then, Marx would have difficulty identifying any of his ideas in the practice of today's Russian Communist leaders.
While the country's new capitalist elite pursues the concept of class struggle with vigour and ruthlessness — to the extent of not even paying wages to millions of workers — Zyuganov and his colleagues have discreetly put the idea aside.
They seek a comfortable accommodation with Russian capitalism — an accommodation that now includes ministries in a government that is anything but hostile to private business.
Such a project requires a certain political base. This cannot be had among politically active workers, few of whom feel anything but hatred for the new elite to whom the Communist leaders are cosying up.
Instead, Zyuganov and his colleagues have sought to base the party on nationalist sentiment, presenting the KPRF as more "Russian", and more concerned for the status of Russians compared with other ethnic groups, than its opponents.
Once the Communist leaders have set out on this course it is only consistent for them to promote febrile chauvinists like Makashov, who has a wide following among Russian nationalists. If Makashov calls for the dignity of Russians to be upheld through massacres of Jews, the party leaders are hard put to move resolutely against him. After all, Zyuganov himself identifies the presence of Jews in Russia as cause for "alarm".
Jewish members of Russia's new elite are understandably appalled by the increasingly open racism of the leaders of the country's largest political party. But the great majority of Russia's capitalists are not Jews, and have no special reason to lament the prospect that Jewish competitors will be removed forcibly from the scene.
Meanwhile, if the Communist leadership encourages workers to exhaust their energies fighting each other — Russian against Jew, Russian against Tatar, Russian against Chechen — that is something the capitalists can readily live with.
As this suggests, the decision by the KPRF leaders to defend Makashov is an ominous development not just for members of ethnic minorities in Russia, but for the country's working people in general.
For years, politically conscious workers in Russia have understood that Zyuganov and his colleagues represent historical wreckage that needs to be sidestepped or swept away. It is hard now to avoid a more far-reaching conclusion: that the KPRF leaders have become enemies needing to be fought.