By Renfrey Clarke
MOSCOW — "'The Union of Labour' — that is the name chosen by a trade union social and political movement formed in Krasnoyarsk region. The founders include the trade unions of workers in education and science, culture and the arts, and the regional organisation of the Social Democratic Party of Russia."
That was how the Moscow daily Rabochaya Tribuna on January 22 reported one of the developments in a process which is bringing Russia's democratic left out of the academies and trade union offices, and into active political campaigning. The bloc formed by unionists and political activists in Krasnoyarsk — a city of 900,000 people in central Siberia — is now serving as a model for unifying the anti-Stalinist left in a growing number of regions.
At the all-Russian level, the process of combining the forces of the democratic left has made impressive advances in the past two months. So far, three political groupings have held unity talks, and a joint organising bureau has begun to meet. The founding congress of a new bloc — probably to be called the Russian Union of Labour — is planned for mid-April.
The political formations taking part in this process are the left wing of the People's Party "Free Russia" (the party of jailed former vice-president Alexander Rutskoi); the United Social Democrats faction of the Social Democratic Party of Russia; and the Party of Labour.
The Social Democratic Party has been split for many months between a liberal capitalist right wing and the United Social Democrats group, which is highly critical of the "savage capitalism" taking root in Russia. The Party of Labour is a "new left" formation with a membership largely of intellectuals; although small, it has been a vital source of ideas and analyses for the broader left.
As left social democrat leader Pavel Kudyukin notes, the formation of the Russian Union of Labour "can't just be a process at the top — a group of leaders of various parties saying 'We're uniting!'" In Kudyukin's view, the process has to issue from below, "from those activists in the enterprises who until now haven't joined political parties".
At a recent conference of the United Social Democrats, a resolution noted as likely affiliates to the new bloc "organs of social self-management, environmental organisations, consumer rights groups ... trade unions and their federations, and other structures of self-organisation of working people".
The country's mass trade union body, the Federation of Independent Trade Unions of Russia (FNPR), will probably not affiliate to the Russian Union of Labour. This reflects the FNPR's delicate relations with the Yeltsin administration. Since calling for resistance to the overthrow by the president of the parliament in September last year, the FNPR has been subject to discreet but unmistakable threats that it will be shut down if it again takes part directly in opposition politics.
Nevertheless, FNPR officials have played a considerable role in getting the process of left unification under way, and many of the federation's sectoral and local unions are expected to take out collective membership in the new bloc. In Krasnoyarsk, for example, local trade union bodies that have joined the regional Union of Labour include those of forestry workers, telecommunications workers and air crew, as well as workers in education and science.
Significantly, the Union of Labour process is beginning to bridge the gap between "traditional" and "free" trade unions; the air crew union is one of the newly founded labour organisations outside the FNPR.
Notably absent from the Union of Labour process, meanwhile, is Russia's largest non-communist left grouping, the Socialist Party of Workers (SPT). Since the campaign for the December 1993 parliamentary elections, the SPT has turned abruptly to the right, seeking to consolidate a bloc with "moderate patriotic forces" such as the Union of Cossacks. At the same time, it has taken a sectarian attitude to other left organisations, denouncing attempts to form a common left front.
Even before the process of forming the Russian Union of Labour is consummated, the new bloc will receive a blooding in local elections. After crushing the old parliament in October, Yeltsin forced the dissolution of local and regional legislatures. Elections for some of the new legislative bodies have been held already, resulting in heavy defeats for pro-government parties; more such polls are due in March.
Union of Labour candidates have already been nominated for all the positions in the Krasnoyarsk district legislature, and petition signatures are being collected. A similar process is under way in Novosibirsk, and initiative groups are being formed in Novgorod, Komsomolsk-on-Amur and other cities. In St Petersburg, the formation of the electoral bloc "For a Decent Life!" has been welcomed by many workers.
The election platforms of these regional blocs are far from uniform. Local issues figure heavily, and the demands raised show widely differing degrees of radicalism, reflecting the distinct political mixes within the non-communist left in various centres.
At the all-Russian level, the Union of Labour will encompass a broad spectrum of progressive opinion. The least radical elements, which could be termed left liberal, are likely to be found among the members of the left wing of the People's Party "Free Russia". The best-known individuals here include Vasily Lipitsky, formerly a prominent figure within the "centrist" Civic Union bloc. From people like Lipitsky, the participants extend to the members of the radically anti-capitalist Party of Labour.
Will so broad a formation prove durable, and, more to the point, will it defend workers' rights?
Members of the Party of Labour will debate these questions at a congress on February 19. This gathering is expected to decide to join the Russian Union of Labour, while keeping its own party structures intact. Writer and political activist Boris Kagarlitsky, who is among the leaders of the Party of Labour, argues that in current circumstances forming an alliance with social democrats and even left liberals is justified and necessary.
Part of the reason is that the less radical elements of the bloc are likely to come under strong left-wing pressure from the rank and file of affiliated unions. "There's simply no political space in Russia today for social democrats", Kagarlitsky maintains.
In the midst of economic collapse, he points out, Russian capitalism cannot make significant concessions to the masses, and is compelled to attack wages and social provisions. Whatever the illusions of seekers after a political "middle ground", economic crisis and popular discontent are likely to force such people to take up anti-capitalist positions.
Meanwhile, Kagarlitsky points out, all the political forces that are working to found the Russian Union of Labour condemned Yeltsin's September coup. All have indicated their support for building a democratic opposition based on hired workers.
This does not, of course, alter the need to place the pro-working class character of the Russian Union of Labour on a firm programmatic basis. Documents now being prepared for discussion will call for the bloc to oppose the domination of society by capital, and in particular, for the rejection of the current model of privatisation. Instead, the Russian Union of Labour is expected to call for the retention — and if necessary restoration — of a strong state sector, and for a massive expansion of workers' ownership and control.
As emerged in the December elections, the main competitors of the left for the support of workers are not liberal capitalist tendencies aligned with Yeltsin and the government, but ultra-nationalist formations such as Vladimir Zhirinovsky's Liberal Democratic Party. The key strategic task of the Russian Union of Labour is thus to provide workers with a convincing alternative to Zhirinovsky.
This can be achieved only through making clear to Russian workers that the real threat to their interests comes not from workers of other nationalities, but from the new class of nomenklatura-mafia capitalists.
The chances for the Russian Union of Labour of making gains in the coming local elections do not lie in pledges of "moderation", but in a forthright militancy aimed against the new layer of exploiters. In these circumstances, democratic socialists, and above all the Party of Labour, have an important chance to define the political direction of the new bloc from the outset.