The Russian Election and the Left

David Johnson djohnson at cdi.org
Tue Jun 4 08:39:18 MDT 1996


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Russia

10,900 characters

The Russian Presidential Elections and the Democratic Left

Alexander Buzgalin, Andrei Kolganov and Renfrey Clarke explain the
choice facing
Russian voters in the forthcoming Presidential elections. And discuss
the pre-election debates and activities of the Russian left.

The presidential elections in Russia are taking place in a context of
continuing socio-economic crisis. GDP fell more than 3% in the first
quarter of 1996, in spite of the real reduction in inflation. There is
a maturing crisis of state finances, a growth in social polarisation
and a continuing decline in the real incomes of the majority of
working people. The decline in production may be much
more than official statistics indicate. Only the growing exports of
fuel and raw materials are "balancing" the recession in machinery,
light industry and food processing.

The main feature of social and economic life in Russia today is the
struggle between different corporate clans. These clans are
interconnected with industry, finance, agriculture and also with the
federal and regional state elites.

Some clans are based in finance, real estate, and commerce: sectors
where speculation is well developed, particularly concerning the
resale of energy sources, raw materials, non-ferrous metals and steel.
The elite of such clans tends towards a pro-Western orientation and
attempts to carry out the recipes of advisers from the International
Monetary Fund. These layers are oriented toward
a continuation of the radical marketisation of the Russian economy, a
continuation of privatisation and the creation of widespread private
property. They are closely interconnected with the modern ruling elite
by corruption, and through personal ties from the old, nomenklatura
days.

Other clans are based in the machinery and agricultural sectors,
sometimes in the military-industrial complex. Their style of
management is bureaucratic and
paternalistic. These clans are stronger in the provincial cities of
central Russia than in Moscow or St Petersburg (formerly Leningrad).

While workers in enterprises under the control of clans of the first
type tend to be relatively well paid, those in enterprises controlled
by clans of the second type are often in dire poverty.

The new Russia's social classes are not yet fully formed, as economic
and social relations are still in a process of transformation. But we
can already clearly identify, huge numbers of lumpenised, extremely
poor people. This layer includes ex-prisoners, people made jobless as
a result of neo-liberal reforms, a growing
number who have been homeless after being swindled out of their
apartments, and invalids and old people on tiny pensions. These people
lack class consciousness, and are liable to support any political
demagogue, from ultraleft to ultraright, who voices attractive
slogans.

The working class in modern Russia is not the traditional proletariat,
made up of workers who freely sell their labour power to capitalists.
They are still partly slaves of paternalistic bureaucracy, dependent
on enterprise bosses for housing and other necessities. Seventy years
of history weighs heavily on these workers' consciousness. Their
self-consciousness as a class is only beginning to
form.

There is a huge differentiation within the working class, because of
the varying ability of different clans to maintain the living
standards of "their" workers. Active trade unions barely exist, and
the level of self-organisation among
workers is very low. Inside the intelligentsia there is a deep
contradiction between their belief in abstract democratic liberal
values as the road to the status of Western-style educated middle
class, and the impoverishment of the working intelligentsia as a
result of shock-therapy reforms.

The so-called middle class in Russia, as measured by income, is
strikingly small. Those who "make it" include employees of
foreign-owned firms and joint ventures; senior bureaucrats; top
employees of the financial and commercial
sectors, and racketeers. This stratum in Russia has a strong
pro-capitalist and pro-Western orientation.

The so-called New Russians are not a normal bourgeoisie. Some are
former members of the nomenklatura, preserving many elements from the
past in their socio-economic and political behaviour. The second group
in the new elite is partly recruited from the commercial and financial
structures, and partly connected to the criminal world and the shadow
economy.

Russian society is witnessing a strong growth of nationalist and
great-power
chauvinist sentiments as a result of a series of factors. The most
important of
these include destruction of the Soviet Union and the
"Third-Worldisation" of
Russia; the lumpenisation of the population and the lack of class
self-consciousness; the tradition of paternalistic statism and of
subservience
to higher authority.

As a result, the two main presidential candidates, the incumbent Boris
Yeltsin,
and the Communist Gennady Zyuganov now speak of restoring the "strong
Russian
state" in line with national traditions. Over the past two years
Yeltsin and
Zyuganov, supposedly political opposites, have converged in this
respect. They
now stand next to one another - back to back, if not face to face - on
the
issues of statism and great-power chauvinism.

In such a situation there is little economic, social and ideological
basis for
the growth of democratic left forces in Russia. Russian working people
are faced
with a series of very bad choices. Either they support Yeltsin and a
continuation of his policies of primitive bureaucratic capitalisation
of the
country, or they support paternalistic bureaucracy in the hope that a
new "good
Tsar" and "father of all Russia" will solve their problems.

Left-Centrist Candidates and their Programs

Mikhail Gorbachev is trying to play the role of a centrist candidate,
proposing
Western-style social democratic policies. His typical slogan is that
each of us
has both left and right hands; and so society too has to have both
left and
right political and social forces. He himself would like to be the
head, ruling
both hands. For "democrats" Gorbachev is too socialist; for socialists
he is too
liberal. As a result, and despite the real democratic element in
Gorbachev's
position, he will not find support on the left or the right of the
Russian
political scene. He draws support only from the section of the
intelligentsia
that enjoyed some benefits from the first period of perestroika.

Gorbachev's popularity in the West is much higher than in Russia,
where many
people cannot forgive him for the destruction of the Soviet Union. For
many
orthodox communists, Gorbachev is also a symbol of the destruction of
socialism
and of the Communist Party.

Another centre-left candidate is Svyatoslav Fyodorov, the famous eye
surgeon. He
is also the director of a huge medical centre with high-technology
equipment and
real elements of self-management and employee ownership. His program
includes
corporate socialism, "convergence" between socialism and capitalism on
the basis
of collective labour-owned enterprises and social regulation of the
market.
There is also a good deal of social populism in his program. In the
past his
idea have been different. Two years ago he said Russia needs "Jesus
Christ in
Pinochet's uniform". The most positive element of Fyodorov's program
is its
emphasis on the crucial role of creative labour in the building of a
new Russia,
the necessity to supersede wage labour and create a situation in which
every
worker is a co-owner of the means of production and of the results of
labour. He
also stresses that the main goal of development is not capital or
money but the
free, harmonious development of the personality, the happiness of
ordinary
people. He is popular among the new generation of engineers and
technicians, but
not among the majority of ordinary Russians.

The main opposition candidate is Gennady Zyuganov, leader of the
Communist Party
of the Russian Federation, the largest party in Russia and the
accepted heir of
the Communist party of the Soviet Union. Formally, Zyuganov is the
candidate of
a whole bloc of "patriotic" forces. In reality he is above all the
representative of the orthodox Communists, and of older Russians for
whom
nostalgia is a dominating sentiment. Secondly, he is the candidate of
various
nationalistic, statist forces including Cossacks, orthodox religious
believers,
and of people who have lost their prosperity and self-confidence as a
result of
the reforms. Thirdly, and most importantly, he is the candidate of
corporatist
clans of the second, industrial type, led by paternalistic
bureaucrats.

His program is a mixture of social democratic ideas in the sphere of
economic
and social life with statism, nationalism and sometimes even Christian
Orthodox
values in the sphere of ideology. He stands for the "regulated market
economy".
He is in favour of the renationalisation only of enterprises which
were
illegally privatised. He is a supporter of free prices in the main
spheres of
the economy. His program also includes some elements of Western-style
selective
regulation and industrial policy. Of course, there is a lot of social
populism
and promises of state support and subsidies to numerous social forces
if he is
elected president.

In the political sphere he stands formally for the continuation of
democracy and
for a reduction in the powers of the presidency. But these promises
accord
poorly with his autocratic impulses and with his past in the
bureaucratic
apparatus of the Soviet Union.

In the ideological sphere Zyuganov's program is a mixture of common
words on the
need to revive the strong national state as the central goal, plus
narodnik-socialist ideas, some ideas from the orthodox church, and
elements of
Russian great chauvinism.

For the democratic left, whether or not to support Zyuganov is a big
problem.
Unfortunately, he is the only real alternative to Yeltsin. Gorbachev's
rating
among potential voters is 1-2%, Fyodorov scores no more than 5-7%.

Zyuganov's (reluctant) supporters on the democratic left stress that
it is
necessary to prevent the re-election of Yeltsin, who would lead Russia
into a
deepening socio-economic crisis, who is responsible for the war in
Chechnya and
could easily start other "local" war. A continuation of Yeltsin's
power could
lead to new, bloody sacrifices by working people in Russia.

Furthermore, they argue, a victory for Zyuganov would constitute a
shift to the
left, and might lead to some improvement in the conditions of life of
working
people in Russia. A third argument is that if Zyuganov wins, ordinary
people
will feel that they can change something through their common efforts
- that the
power of the state depends at least partly, on them. Many people would
feel that
a victory for the left candidate meant that changes in their interests
were on
the way, and that if these changes failed to materialise, workers were
entitled
to mobilise and demand that they occur. A Zyuganov victory would thus
tend to
set off a radicalising dynamic with potential to extend well beyond
anything
that Zyuganov himself had in mind.

Other democratic leftists argue against supporting Zyuganov. They
point to the
threat of neo-Stalinism and the growth of authoritarian tendencies and
great-power chauvinism. There is the risk that after a certain time
Zyuganov
would become a parody of Stalin, and that Russia could lose even the
minor
elements of democracy it enjoys at present. Zyuganov's policies will
lead to the
discrediting of communism and socialism, because his real policy
priorities will
not radically improve the situation for working people. Zyuganov's
strategy  is
not based not on the self-organisation of working people but on the
paternalistic bureaucracy, his main supporters. And finally, these
left
opponents argue, Zyuganov's power will lead to the preservation of
state-bureaucratic quasi-capitalism, and not of socialism. This will
undermine
the potential for a democratic socialist modernisation of Russia.

What can the democratic left do in such a situation? First, it can use
the
election campaign for the dissemination of information and for
agitation in
favour of socialist ideas. "Scholars for Democracy and Socialism" and
the "Union
of Internationalists" have taken some real steps in this direction,
including
pickets, seminars, radio and TV interviews. Second, the left can
agitate for a
vote in the first-round elections against all right-wing and centrist
candidates. In the second round of elections, we have to agitate for a
vote
against Yeltsin or any other right-wing candidate.

For the democratic left, of course, history will not end with the
elections. The
polls must be seen as a stage in a continuing struggle to raise
consciousness,
educate a basic cadre and begin the process of building organisations
that
accurate reflect the interests of working people in Russia, and that
can begin
the work of leading a fight against Yeltsin and the country's new
nomenklatura-capitalist rulers.

Moscow, May 29th, 1996


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