Russian Communists pass a landmark


By Boris Kagarlitsky

MOSCOW — On January 21 and 22, the Third Congress of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (KPRF) was held here. No sensations were expected, and none occurred. Nevertheless, the congress was an important landmark in the evolution of the KPRF. It was supposed to mark the successful end of the "reconstruction" phase of the party and to usher in a new period of struggle for power through parliamentary means.

Among the guests at the congress were representatives of the Agrarian Party of Russia, the Party of Labour and the Socialist Party of Workers. The social democrats were not invited.

The venue — the expensive Hall of Columns in the House of Unions in central Moscow — together with the presence of more than 40 foreign delegations and a large number of journalists, showed that the KPRF rates as one of Russia's leading political forces although it is true that most of the foreign parties sent relatively low-level representatives.

The congress fulfilled the tasks set for it. The leadership received the support of the delegates. Potential allies were convinced of the party's viability and organisational capacities. A new program and a new set of party statutes were adopted. If the statutes were even more traditional than the set which preceded them, the program bore witness to the party's efforts to find a place for itself in the new conditions.

Immediately before the congress the KPRF's second-in-command, Valentin Kuptsov, spoke of his desire to create a party "free of nostalgia". The communists no longer hark back to the shining past. Their program and documents clearly set out an orientation to creating a mixed economy with a dominant social sector.

The party condemned the war in Chechnya and the policy of privatisation, calling for reassessment of the prices of enterprises sold off for trivial sums. If this demand were to be fulfilled — and the need for such measures is obvious even to some government experts — the bulk of the property seized by the "new Russians" and by foreign capital would be returned to social ownership.

The party documents also criticise the Soviet past and the administrative-centralised economy, but in very cautious fashion. The name of Stalin is not mentioned in either a positive or a negative light.

Party leader Gennady Zyuganov showed striking skill in skirting round the KPRF's rough edges. Vitaly Tretyakov, the chief editor of the influential left-liberal newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta, published an article on January 27 listing a series of points in Zyuganov's report where the KPRF leader, in Tretyakov's view, had shown exceptional cunning. The congress delegates, however, did not seem to notice this slyness. It is significant that Tretyakov himself, while discerning the weaknesses of the report, provided a generally positive account of Zyuganov's speech.

Unlike many of Zyuganov's earlier speeches and writings, his report was notable for its use of populist rather than patriotic rhetoric. Zyuganov cited both Marx and Lenin, but his interpretation of Marxism was reminiscent of the populist Social Revolutionaries of the early years of the century. He referred to the traditional village commune and the peculiarities of Russian society that supposedly predisposed the country to socialism.

The new Central Committee is dominated by people who are ready to work uncomplainingly with the leadership, and internal dissidents of any kind have been pushed onto the sidelines. It is hard to speak of a victory for either the left or the right; rather, what occurred was a victory for leadership authority over the principle of representation. While it could be argued that the party as a whole shifted to the left, the most active and independent leaders of the left wing — people such as Boris Slavin and Yevgeny Krasnitsky — were not elected to the new Central Committee.

The KPRF's main problem, however, is not even the lack of internal democracy so much as the weakness of the middle layer of party leaders. Most of the delegates to the 1991 congress were heads of grassroots party organisations in enterprises and state institutions, though not the largest ones. Today these people are heading regional organisations of the KPRF. They are conscientious, are good at collecting dues, keep membership records up to date and know how to run meetings. But they are incapable of serious, independent political work.

The earlier mid-level party officials, who under Gorbachev were said to be acting as a brake on reforms, are now pursuing these reforms energetically as part of the state administration. The KPRF now suffers from a lack of cadres at this level. In a party such as this there cannot be any question of holding rich internal discussions, and if the structure is democratised, it is threatened with paralysis.

The appeals to youth, the intelligentsia and skilled workers to join the party will remain pious wishes, since the existing party cadres will be unable to attract new people. The problem here is not the "anticommunist syndrome" of 1989-1991; this was dispelled with astonishing speed.

Sympathies for the Communists among young people may well grow, but not to the point where large numbers of them join the party. At best, the Communists can expect to pick up young voters, but not activists. According to data provided to the congress, young people make up no more than 5% of the membership — at a time when surveys show a dramatic rise in "red" sentiments among youth.

Unlike the KPRF leaders, young activists are inclined toward extra-parliamentary actions. The radical group Student Defence has achieved significant successes among young people, while the Party of Labour and the Russian Komsomol — the latter reconstructed and independent of the KPRF — also have a degree of influence.

For all its problems and contradictions, the KPRF remains the largest party of the Russian left. At the congress, the need for a left bloc was mentioned several times. For more than a year, other Russian leftists have been holding discussions on united actions, without great success. A turn by the KPRF to collaborating with other left organisations could signal a decisive breakthrough.

The KPRF congress coincided with important changes in the Russian trade unions. Disillusioned with seeking accord with the government — a policy which has brought the trade unions nothing except constant humiliations — the leaders of the Federation of Independent Trade Unions of Russia (FNPR) have declared a new "spring offensive".

At a press conference on January 25, FNPR leader Mikhail Shmakov declared that in April his federation intended to call an all-Russian one-day warning strike. At the same time, the trade union leadership made known its desire for joint actions with communists and radical leftists.

This is the first radical step by the FNPR leadership following a drift to the right that has lasted a year and a half. Today the failure of their policies is becoming obvious to the trade union leaders themselves. The united front remains the only real alternative to the arbitrary rule of the authorities and to the deepening crisis of Russia's nascent capitalism.

If a left bloc handles its work correctly, it will be able to make up for the shortcomings of the KPRF. The bloc will be able to draw in social groups which would not join any political party, but which are capable of being active in a broad movement. The bloc can guarantee that the trade unions are represented in the next parliament, and can ensure them a direct, active input into deciding questions in which the labour movement has a particular interest.

Most importantly, the creation of such a bloc offers a real chance to establish a new political majority in the country, a majority that responds to the needs of working people.

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