Labor, Socialists, and Human Rights — Russia 2001
Russian Left Today
judge from opinion surveys, newspaper reports and simply from conversations on
the street, Russian society is moving leftward. To judge from the statements of
politicians and the relationship of forces within the elite, however, the
country is moving decisively to the right.
with the results of privatization is almost universal. More than two-thirds of
citizens invariably support the proposal to return oil and gas fields — and the
largest industrial corporations along with them — to public ownership. In
everyday usage, the words “free market” have the force almost of an
obscenity. Even among the intelligentsia and small business operators, people
who only recently were strong supporters of neo-liberal ideology, moods have
changed. More and more Russians are inclined to describe themselves not just as
social democrats, but as socialists. Courses on Marxism are returning to the
universities, in response to demand from the students themselves.
the same time, the government is promising the forced-draft privatization of the
few assets that remain in its hands. It is also abolishing progressive taxation,
forcing anti-trade union legislation through the Duma, and threatening to carry
out a reform of municipal services that would not only compel the already
impoverished members of the population to pay the full cost of these provisions,
but in effect, to invest money in this sector from their own pockets. If
enacted, these measures will spell ruin for the new middle class that arose
during the 1990s, and this, naturally, will cause them to become radicalized. It
is this, along with the winds of “anti-globalist” protest blowing in from
the West, that explains the changed state of affairs in society.
demonstrate, the trade unions of dockers and aviation workers organize
successful strikes, and telephone subscribers wage a successful campaign against
the introduction of timed calls, forcing the corporations to make concessions.
All this is combined with a growing alarm for the future of civil liberties
under the administration of Vladimir Putin, and an increasingly powerful
discontent over the continuation of the Chechnya war.
the shift by the regime to the right is meeting scarcely any resistance on the
political level. Formally speaking, the opposition in Russia is represented by
two organizations—the Communist Party of the Russian Federation, and the
Yabloko party [headed by the liberal Grigory Yavlinsky]. The trouble is that the
opposition long ago became part of the establishment, and is no less corrupt
than the government. While criticizing the “authoritarian tendencies” of the
regime, Yabloko gives total support to the Kremlin’s social policy, despite
the obvious fact that it is this social and economic course that obliges the
Kremlin to be authoritarian. Under the conditions of the oligarchic economy,
when the authorities carry out reforms that serve the interests of a tiny
minority, and which are condemned by two-thirds of the population, there is
ruling layers are trying to compensate for their unpopular social program by
using nationalist rhetoric and by whipping up a racist psychosis closely linked
to the war in Chechnya. The “opposition liberals” have wound up in a
political trap. From time to time they criticize the consequences, while
ignoring (or even applauding) the cause.
only thing that is now left-wing about the official Communist Party is its name.
For socialism, the party leaders have substituted the slogan of “great-power
patriotism,” and the press organs they control are full of racist and
anti-Semitic attacks. Under the leadership of Gennady Zyuganov, the Communist
Party of the Russian Federation not only gives fervent support to the genocide
in Chechnya, but regularly helps the government to implement its economic
policies. It is no accident that representatives of the KPRF were in the first
ranks of those who sought the ruinous increase in telephone charges, justifying
this on the basis of the need to accumulate funds in national industries. In
essence, the actions of the leaders of Russia’s official Communist movement
would be better suited to members of a fascist party.
leaders of the Federation of Independent Trade Unions of Russia (Russian
initials, FNPR) — the country’s largest trade union federation, surviving from
Soviet times — have shown themselves to be not much better. When the government
presented its draft for a new labor code, which abolished long-established
benefits for workers, allowed employers complete freedom to carry out sackings
and compile blacklists, legalized child labor and provided for the phasing-in of
a twelve-hour workday, the FNPR bitterly criticized the document. For several
months the leaders of the trade union federation declared their disagreement
with the government. Then, they joined with the government in setting up a
conciliation commission which put forward a “compromise variant” that
differed little from the original. The few improvements that were introduced to
the draft law were the result of demands put forward by the alternative trade
unions, which also took part in the commission.
situation might have seemed altogether tragic, but there was another side to the
coin. The open corruption of the official opposition led to the rise of
alternative movements on its left flank. This is better illustrated using the
example of the trade unions. Alternative unions already have a long history in
Russia. Arising after the miners’ strike of 1989, when the Soviet Union still
existed, most of them came under the influence of anti-Communist ideas. The only
exception was the trade union Zashchita Truda (Defense of Labor), established by
radical left activists. The experience of the 1990s once again showed that
liberal ideology was incompatible with the goals of the labor movement. After a
string of failures, scandals, defeats, and disappointments, the alternative
trade union movement started moving to the left.
Defense of Labor was in the privileged position of not having to change its
ideas and strategy. In the late 1990s the leadership of this trade union
federation was assumed by Oleg Shein, who in 1999 was also elected by voters in
the city of Astrakhan to the position of deputy to the State Duma [the Russian
parliament]. Although Defense of Labor was still relatively small, a process
began in which other alternative unions united around it. A Russian trade union
congress held on June 6, 2000, not only attracted representatives from 90 per
cent of the alternative organizations, but also a number of members of FNPR
unions who were in opposition to their leaders.
congress voted to support its own draft labour code, drawn up by Shein. On 19
June demonstrations and strikes in support of Shein’s draft took place
throughout the country. Although the number of participants did not exceed
200,000 people, this could be considered a turning point for the labor movement;
the apathy and demoralization of earlier years had been replaced by a readiness
idea of a united workers party hung in the air at the June trade union congress.
Workers in Russia no longer consider the KPRF their party, and expect nothing
good from the authorities. Until recently, left activists were still hoping for
a split or a leadership change in the KPRF. Quite possibly, something of the
kind will happen sooner or later, but the wait now seems too long. Most
importantly, under Putin the KPRF has definitively abandoned its role as an
opposition, and has become one of the props of the regime.
the 1990s, efforts by the fractious left groups to unite invariably ended in
failure. The situation only changed in 1999 with the appearance of the Movement
for a Workers Party (DRP), which was joined by most of the leaders of Defense of
Labor. Even after unifying in the DRP, however, many groups persisted in making
sectarian attacks on one another, not to speak of the attacks they made on the
leftists who remained outside the unification process. For members of the left,
overcoming sectarianism is now becoming a question of life or death. The need to
establish a broad left organization is being felt at every step, but the left
itself often lacks the experience, the knowledge and simply the personnel to
make use of the opportunities that are opening up.
future of the left in Russia depends to a considerable extent on the development
of the antiwar movement. Here as well, striking changes have occurred. The small
size of the demonstrations and pickets held by human rights defenders might seem
to offer graphic confirmation of the regime’s thesis that the people are
united in supporting the war. Meanwhile, the many thousands of members of the
Caucasus diaspora, as well as of Russia’s Muslim minorities, have been
conspicuously absent from these demonstrations. The reason is simple. As pointed
out by Ahmad Shabazov, one of the ideologues of the Movement for Civil Rights
founded by Moscow Chechens, these human rights groups have been more interested
in Western grants than in the real situation in Chechnya, and have been
unwilling to see the links between Russia’s social problems and the war.
the appearance on the political scene of the Movement for Civil Rights and of
the Chechen coalition “Third Force,” the situation has changed radically.
Russian society has witnessed a new Chechen movement that is secular,
internationalist and progressive. The slogan of national independence for
Chechnya has been shifted to the background; the primary place is now taken by
slogans focusing on equal rights and the solidarity of all the oppressed.
Meanwhile, the Movement for Civil Rights aims to become not just a movement of
people of Caucasus nationality, who in Russia are subject to mockery and
humiliation on a daily basis, but also a body open to all citizens with an
interest in national and social equality. Unlike Islamic nationalists who oppose
everything Russian, the ideologues of the Movement for Human Rights maintain
that the “Chechen question” cannot be settled until the “worker
question” is resolved. The practical result of this ideological shift has been
agreement on united actions between the Movement for a Workers Party and the
Movement for Civil Rights. Most likely this will only be the initial phase in
the establishing of a broad left-democratic coalition.
history of the left, of course, includes numerous coalitions that have not
achieved their goals, as well as movements that have had brilliant beginnings,
but which later have ignominiously collapsed. Nevertheless, the atmosphere in
Russia is changing. The coming months will be a testing time not only for
coalitions arising on the left flank of politics, but also for the regime. The
economic upturn is losing momentum, and the Russian elite is haunted by the
specter of a new economic crisis. This crisis is looming both within the
country, and outside it.
country with a hundred and fifty million people cannot exist solely on the
income from sales of oil and gas. In the neocolonial economy created by the
Russian oligarchs, not only the standard of living but also the very survival of
many citizens of Russia depends on the fluctuations in the price of oil on world
markets. Changes are about to happen, and the elites feel this no less keenly
than left activists. For this very reason, the authorities are anxious to settle
the question by strengthening their machine of repression, by putting pressure
on the media, and through racist and chauvinist demagogy. This is their method
of “consolidation.” The left puts forward its own method, based on the
principles of democracy and solidarity. A collision is inevitable.
Russia today we are seeing only the first stage in the creation of a new
democratic movement. A great deal remains unclear, but one thing is obvious:
this will be a movement of the left, or it will not exist at all.
comes dripping from head to foot, from every pore, with blood and dirt.”—Marx,
Capital, Vol. 1, Chapter 31