Workers celebrate 1917 revolution

November 20, 1991

By Renfrey Clarke

MOSCOW — The savage free-market "reforms" of Russian President Boris Yeltsin are certain to encounter large-scale, organised worker resistance. This was clear by the afternoon of November 7, following the largest and angriest opposition demonstration in Moscow since Yeltsin was elected president of the Russian Federation in June.

Spurring the action was the determination of thousands of workers to celebrate the anniversary of the 1917 revolution in traditional fashion: with a march through the streets, concluding in Red Square. But the crowd that gathered around the statue of Lenin on Oktyabrskaya Square early on November 7 was not moved simply by nostalgia for one of the gala occasions of the old regime.

Here were the disgust and bitterness of workers at a smooth-talking president who rose to power by billing himself as the people's protector — and who then embraced an economic program that amounts to throwing the ordinary consumer to the wolves.

"Yeltsin! Russians will never be slaves! Your thieving reforms will not go through!", one placard proclaimed. "Down with the bandit prices of the free market!", said another. Yet another placard ran: "Instead of bread, Yeltsin and the 'democrats' offer the people repentance, a church candle and destitution!"

The rally and march had been called by the Union of Workers of Moscow, a labour movement umbrella group. The main political tendencies in evidence were the ones that liberal journalists here describe as "conservative" — Brezhnevite organisations such as the United Front of Workers, and such fragments of the shattered Communist Party as the "Organising Committee for the Party of Communists" and the "United Party of Communists of Russia".

Organisations such as these supplied many of the speakers. Of the people who addressed the crowd, however, rather more represented the workers' collectives of major factories around Moscow. The speakers hit the mark again and again: the task before the population was to stop the birth of a new dictatorship; Russians had to choose between workers' democracy and bourgeois plunder; privatisation was aiding the mafia millionaires, while the workers were headed for the graveyard.

To make such characterisations, however, was only the first of the tasks which labour leaders faced, and by no means the most difficult. How would the people who had called this demonstration cope with the demands of developing a broad political counteroffensive by the working class?

Return to old order?

Here I was struck by a proposition which had been advanced, in tones of dire warning, by various liberal journalists. As the mass following of Yeltsin and other populist phrase-mongers dissipated under the blows of liberal market economics, there was a possibility that large numbers of Russian workers would be driven to support organisations that based themselves firmly on the vices of the old order.

While outfits like the United Party of Communists might be able to formulate correct slogans ("The land to the peasants! The factories to the workers!"), there was no way they could analyse satisfactorily what had been wrong with the old system of bureaucratic power and command-administer economics. They could not formulate a program that could attract the huge numbers of workers who had been alienated decisively by the old system.

Consequently, and although the people who had organised the November 7 rally and march would undoubtedly call more large, angry demonstrations, this leadership could not take on the liberals politically and win. Paradoxically, the revival of an old-style Communist movement, which liberal journalists were predicting with alarm, was precisely the variant which the liberals had most reason to welcome.

But now the rally was winding up with a recording of the "Internationale"; the march was about to begin. For many years, November 7 marches in Moscow were carefully scripted affairs: huge red banners draped buildings along the route; cheerful music blared from loudspeakers. Half a dozen streams of marchers would converge on Red Square, keeping between the lines painted on the cobblestones, and pass swiftly before Soviet leaders on the reviewing stand atop the Lenin mausoleum.

This year the buildings were their usual shabby pastel. There was only one stream of marchers, and the music was a brass band of about a dozen players. Still, the march was impressive. It was now past 11 o'clock, and people had been streaming onto Oktyabrskaya Square for several hours.

They numbered at least 20,000 perhaps many more; it was by far the largest show of opposition the Yeltsin government had ever encountered. For those anxious to conclude that the only opponents of the "democrats" were geriatric Communists, the composition of the marchers would have been a shock: large numbers of young workers were present.

To begin with, the route from Oktyabrskaya Square was the traditional one. I smiled as we passed the spot where I had tried to "crash" the 1986 march. Two heavy factory-party-committee types had confronted me ("And which collective are you from, comrade?") and hustled me onto the sidelines; I didn't see Red Square that November 7. Now, the march was a genuine workers' demonstration instead of an act of bureaucratic self-aggrandisement, and the attitude to foreign sympathisers was different.

The traditional route would have led the march across the Moscow River and around the western wall of the Kremlin, to enter Red Square from the higher, northern end. But Moscow is no longer controlled by the Communist Party; the city is now the autocratically run fiefdom of Mayor Gavriil Popov, admirer of Margaret Thatcher's economics and, it need hardly be said, of her methods with workers.

The route was blocked at the river. The marchers halted, confused and increasingly angry. Eventually the organisers directed them eastward, to the next bridge downstream. Here the marchers were directly opposite the lower advanced onto the bridge. In the middle, the front ranks halted for several minutes while the organisers negotiated with Popov's police. A cheer went up; the authorities had decided against a confrontation. The band resumed: traditional songs of workers' struggle.

Soon the front ranks were streaming past the onion domes of the Shrine of St Basil Pokrovsky, and within a few minutes the marchers' triumph was complete. Red Square on November 7 was as it should have been, full of red banners and workers' slogans. For once the reviewing stand was empty. Gorbachev was nowhere to be seen, recalled only by the bitter placard: "Mikhail, you achieved what Adolf couldn't!"

To the rage of the new liberal-bureaucratic establishment, Moscow workers — including the factory organisations of many of the city's largest industrial enterprises — were celebrating the 1917 revolution.

The ideals and goals of that revolution — political freedom, social equality and workers' power — were becoming implanted in a fresh generation of young militants. It spells trouble for Yeltsin in the hungry months to come.

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