oDR: Opinion

What’s behind Russia’s left-wing turn?

As Putin extends his rule once again, the need for social democracy in Russia has never been clearer.

Kirill Medvedev
12 March 2020
"He's no king to us" protest, Moscow, May 2018
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(c) Celestino Arce/NurPhoto. All rights reserved

Russia needs a modern, democratic left-wing political force – this what we increasingly hear from political analysts and the Russian media, which not so long ago viewed slogans about defending workers and their rights as a hangover from the past. So, what’s behind Russia’s “turn to the left”?

First, growing inequality and the removal of social guarantees are, at last, hitting Russian media headlines (against the wishes of liberal commentators). Second, it has become less easy to ignore the word “neoliberalism” as a left-wing ideological label – it’s now a standard term in international economics and politics. And lastly, we have more and more reasons to ask what a party system in “Russia’s bright future” might look like.

The issue of a political force that could unite a struggle for democratic rights and freedoms with decent conditions for working people and vulnerable sections of the Russian public - while providing an alternative to both pro-Soviet politics and market liberalism - has been around since Perestroika. Back then, left-wing dissidents, together with supporters of “socialism with a human face” from the Communist Party and politicised Soviet citizens, created a community which in the 1990s gave birth to all sorts of left-wing democratic projects and, of course, intense ideological discussions.

Many well-known political writers and politicians were part of this milieu – from commenetators Roy Medvedev and Boris Kagarlitsky to General Alexander Rutskoy, politicians Ivan Rybkin and Andrey Isayev (who is today a United Russia functionary). In 2001, the initiator of one of these social democratic projects, the Social Democratic Party of Russia, was a certain Mikhail Gorbachev. The last ambitious effort was probably the Russian Labour Party, which, thanks to a disagreement between Oleg Shein and Sergey Khramov, later turned into the insignificant Patriots of Russia.

By the mid-2000s, after another purge and division of Russia’s political field, the prospect of an independent left democratic alternative was effectively removed from the political agenda. It was replaced by “managed democracy”, the supporters and beneficiaries of which included the Communist Party and Just Russia party. Both of these political parties had a number of left democratic points in their programmes, but lacked the ability to put them into practice. Their conservative, right-populist ideas and slogans also disqualify them from membership of the modern left, though this didn’t stop Just Russia from joining the Socialist International. Ironically, this fact came to light in 2011, just as Yelena Mizulina, one of its members, was actively lobbying for an ultra-conservative anti-abortion law.

In any case, any social tension or mass protest in Russia raises the question of a left-wing agenda and its political agents. And we now have a new generation of left democratic politicians who are free from the traumatic legacy of both the 1990s and the left-wing underground scene.

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Workers at a waste processing factory in Tambov protest against closure, 2018 | (c) Demian Stringer/ZUMA Wire. All rights reserved

“The left-democratic agenda today is the complete antithesis of the ruling order in Russia,” says one of these politicians - Alexander Zamyatin, a councillor from Moscow’s Zyuzino district. “In terms of politics, it’s democracy at a grassroots level, self-organized and populist, the opposite of our country’s authoritarian, vertical and technocratic regime. And in terms of economics, it’s a battle with inequality and our obvious and almost caste-ridden property-based society. As for the social sphere, we’re talking about state social guarantees instead of biopolitics.”

At the time of Russia’s 2012 protest cycle, the opposition’s fight for the inclusion of socio-economic demands into the political agenda felt more like haggling: the left tried to concentrate on incomes, labour rights and social guarantees, while Russian liberals feared a watering down of their general democratic agenda. The result was a series of compromise resolutions between the two forces.

The situation has changed in the last few years: Russia’s so-called “social agenda” has become common sense for the opposition. This is in part to do with the growth of urban movements whose members, fighting against the merging of schools and closing of health centres, as well as commercial development are involved in municipal and local campaigns as candidates, team workers and volunteers – and they now make up an active core of the opposition.

Related story

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In the Russian capital, administrative wrangling by the Moscow authorities has provoked mobilisation from below - capitalising on long-held discontent by city residents.

At a congress of independent municipal deputies held in Moscow in October 2019, several dozen municipal council members spoke single-mindedly about the need to strengthen the Russian state’s role in the social sphere. Interestingly, only one speaker tried to point out that the congress was seeing a traditionally left-wing agenda as something self-evident.

The Russian opposition’s “social turn” has also been influenced by Alexey Navalny. His popular exposes of corruption have done much to legitimise hatred of the “rich” - which was previously considered the prerogative of “red” radicals or Soviet nostalgists. Yet another move to the left involved Navalny’s recent attempt at setting up trade unions and including them in his political orbit. Other liberal politicians are also trying to meet the left-wing demand – opposition figure Ilya Yashin doesn’t just pose in front of a Polish Solidarność poster in his municipal deputy office, but also uses his limited powers to help truck drivers and workers in public utility companies, whose labour rights are often breached by both local councils and businesses.

It’s also possible to claim that a significant section of Russia’s social and trade union activists hold left democratic views, whether they realise it or not. The logic of your average social activist’s politicisation tends to reject ideological extremes – pro-Soviet, ultra-liberal, nationalist. Of course, there are people who come from an ideological perspective – Stalinists, ultra-leftists, perestroika-era liberals who see Soviet traditions behind the arbitrary rule of the Putin regime. But most are interested in specific cases and “small actions”, as they are the ones who face the illegality of property developers and employers head on. For them, it’s easy to see that they’re not facing up against some kind of abstract “FSB regime”, but a specific, situational alliance of interests between their municipal authorities and capital. Whether it’s violence or corruption, both are organic elements of entrepreneurial behaviour in Russia. “Good capitalists” and “capitalism built right” are pipe dreams.

Russian activists are starting to see that in order to protect the natural environment, urban landscape, accessible education and medical services as well as our cultural legacy, what we need isn’t the freedom of the market, but limits on it in the form of state control

On the other hand, constant interaction with the police and “Center E”, Russia’s Centre for Combating Extremism, makes activists sensitive to political repression and universal human rights. With their experience of the police, it’s hard for them to approve of Stalin’s Great Terror of the 1930s or the punitive psychiatry of the late Soviet years.

In other words, Russian activists are starting to see that in order to protect the natural environment, urban landscape, accessible education and medical services as well as our cultural legacy, what we need isn’t the freedom of the market, but limits on it in the form of state control. The democratic control over the state by its citizens and the democratic control of the state over business – this is what we can more or less describe as the natural development of left-wing democracy.

Armen Aramyan, a postgraduate student at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics and editor of the DOXA student journal, believes that for Russia’s students and young people, the “demand for a left-democratic organisation in Russia will continue to grow given the increasing commercialisation of higher education. This includes the rise of private, paid-for university places, increased dormitory and other fees and a narrow range of opportunities as regular, permanent jobs become fewer.”

Sergey Tsukasov, a municipal councillor in the Moscow district of Ostankino, points out that “there is a need for a left democratic force, including among Communist Party and Yabloko supporters. There are organisations of this type, but there’s no reason for them to unite – to participate in elections, for example. The reason for this is the complexity or impossibility of formal registration.

“If barriers to block voting at elections and registration of parties were removed, this kind of integrated organisation could appear. Society is increasingly demanding changes: people want an end to social inequality and are tired of right-wing and archaicStalinist ideology and rhetoric.”

Video: Sergey Tsukasov talks about local politics in Moscow.

“There’s a demand for a political organisation in the trade union sector,” says Andrey Konoval, co-chair of the healthcare union Action. “But it has no resource base, and in the present situation we could end up with failure.”

“Putin’s conservative authoritarian rule uses a combination of political manipulation and repression to quash any attempt to create a left-wing party,” says Alexander Zamyatin. “To be honest, while the Communist Party exists, the left-wing niche is occupied, and activists have little chance of taking it - radicals are punished and moderates co-opted. It seems as though the political system is less and less able to do its job: our rulers’ ratings are unstable and Dmitry Medvedev had to be fired. United Russia has no idea of how to run State Duma elections, and independent politicians win against the administration candidates every year in local elections.”

So what, apart from obvious barriers from the Putin regime, is preventing the formation of a distinct left democratic force with its own agenda in Russia?

One of the most important issues is the question of the state and revolution – the “eternal” ideological question on the left. Do we need more or less of the state? In an authoritarian situation, the suppression of democratic rights, on the one hand, and an increasing rejection of its social responsibilities on the other demands the following response. We need a democratic, social state working in conjunction with civil society to support social protection and self-government structures and ready, given favourable conditions, to “dissolve” more and more of its functions, just as socialists and communists have done at various times in the past.

Is a peaceful movement of this kind possible? There is no answer to that question. In the 20th century, hope for a peaceful break with capitalism led, we must remember, to the collapse of radical reformist projects such as the Meidner Plan in Sweden and Allende’s programme in Chile. There is also a problem with socialist revolutions. In the 20th century they more often than not led to dictatorships that modernised society, but were far from bourgeois, let alone socialist democracies.

The identification of Russian radical left rests on revolutionary sentiment, which includes a historical rejection of social democracy, with its famous weighty examples of treachery and opportunism. The stories of tragic non-existent (Germany in the 1930s) and successful (Chile at the time of “Popular Unity”) cooperation are almost forgotten. Political competition is a complex matter: on the one hand, the Bolsheviks weren’t particularly against the idea of “socialist multi-partyism”, but on the other, the classic idea of communists as the sole avant-garde of the working class reproduces sectarian stereotypes in small left-wing groups and impedes the development of a culture of cooperation and multi-organisation solidarity that we need so badly today.

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Junior medical personnel protest in Kemerovo, April 2019 | Source: Andrey Konoval / Facebook

Among Russian liberals, on the other hand, there is an idea that the left should completely reject its Soviet and revolutionary past and become fully fledged participants in the democratic process. More often than not this means recognising not only Soviet-era repressions but also the danger or utopianism in any attempt to reject capitalism. In this context, a new social democracy can be seen as the left element in a future system, something like the Democratic Party in the USA.

It wouldn’t, however, be too clever when creating a new political tradition to concentrate exclusively on the losers of history, the victims, as the Mensheviks and Left SRs are generally seen in the left-wing anti-Soviet myth. It’s true that a multi-party Soviet government and socialist democracy didn’t ever come to power, to the great tragedy of the country. The blame for this (if we can talk in categories of blame) lies on the shoulders of the left-wingers of those days, for their theoretical, tactical and strategic mistakes. And we have to admit that they all became part of that tragic story of Russian socialism which began long before 1917, suffered a defeat in the early 1990s and continues today.

Only by accepting and digesting the Soviet experience as if it were one’s own can socialists in Russia propose a convincing version of history, including the inevitable conversation about state repressions that began after the Civil War. By yielding Bolshevik history with its revolutionary victories and Soviet symbolism, handing everything together with the corrupt and conservative Russian Communist Party, the Russian Left risks dispossessing itself of any historical base in Russia. Remember the 1990s, when many left democrats saw their central task as settling scores with the Soviet Communist Party and its legacy, hoping for future competition with their political opponents in new conditions. The vulgar market liberal propaganda of the time, however, didn’t leave our fellow-socialists, with their complex dialectic version of history, any hope of success.

“We can’t exclude the possibility that the left will develop in Russia along American lines, where they will be active in the intellectual and academic sphere, despite being weak politically,” wrote Pavel Kudyukin, a veteran of the left democratic and trade union movement in the late 1990s. Today, American left-wing democrats are in fact undergoing a political revival, while their Russian colleagues find themselves at a dangerous fork in the road.

The issue is not, of course, restricted to the Soviet period. As Armen Aramyam rightly feels, as well as a battle over social guarantees as a reaction to their disappearance, we need “a positive concept of how Russia will look in the future, which isn’t easy. The Russian Federation has a very unfortunate colonial and imperial history that is hard to re-format as progressive.”

Andrey Konoval reminds us of another crucial issue. “Our society hasn’t yet got to the point where it can accept the strong link between ‘gender’ and ‘social’ issues that are obligatory for western (and not only western) democratic left-wingers. Here, political social democracy has a long road ahead between conservative populism and a radical gender-based programme, which could put off or antagonise its potential audience. One option here would be to concentrate on a social agenda that would unite left-liberal and left-conservative spheres within a clearly articulated anti-racist and anti-sexist code both inside and outside the movement. We also need to cooperate with high-profile voluntary initiatives and NGOs working on gender issues.”

“Inequality, multiplied by people’s mass and profound alienation from politics, creates a demand for public, grassroots, anti-elite politics"

In 2016, Russian intellectuals and activists wrote a manifesto “In Defence of Society”, which is probably still the most recent document of Russia’s left democratic scene. Apart from general opposition demands, the text included nationalisation of fundamental areas of the economy, the introduction of a democratically organised planning system, the universal right to free pre-school, primary, secondary and higher education and qualified medical services.

These are points that can, on the one hand, attract a wide range of sympathisers and on the other, clearly divide the left-wing agenda from the liberal one. They are fairly middle-of-the-road, so as not to look utopian, but they could become revolutionary in terms of Russia’s current system. The question is: could this agenda form the basis of an influential political project?

“The possibility of a left democratic movement becoming ‘meaty’, with resources and organisations lies within the bounds of public politics – we need to put candidates forward for every available elective organ and gather supporters from outside our narrow politicised group,” says Alexander Zamyatin. “Inequality, multiplied by people’s mass and profound alienation from politics, creates a demand for public, grassroots, anti-elite politics, i.e. populism. And as we know, it can be both left and right, so left-wing politics can’t predominate: it’s a fork in the road, a challenge, a task for the future development of our country.”

The left democratic audience in Russia today includes the most politicised activists from social movements and trade unions, students fighting for an accessible education and democratic rights at universities, radical left activists moving beyond old orthodoxies and experts ready to engage with a political project.

A clear understanding of the role of the state in the economy and social protection, a positive but critical image of the past, a combination of healthy patriotism and internationalism as “traditional” and essential left-wing values, readiness both to fight for a position within capitalism and bring about its downfall – all this put together can give a democratic left project a chance in Russia.

Can there be a green populist project on the Left?

Many on the Left want to return to a politics based on class, not populism. They point to Left populist parties not reaching their goals. But Chantal Mouffe argues that as the COVID-19 pandemic has put the need for protection from harm at the top of the agenda, a Left populist strategy is now more relevant than ever.

Is this an opportunity for a realignment around a green democratic transformation?

Join us for a free live discussion on Thursday 22 October, 5pm UK time/12pm EDT.

Hear from:

Paolo Gerbaudo Sociologist and political theorist, director of the Centre for Digital Culture at King’s College London and author of ‘The Mask and the Flag: Populism and Global Protest’ and ‘The Digital Party: Political Organisation and Online Democracy’, and of the forthcoming ‘The Great Recoil: Politics After Populism and Pandemic’.

Chantal Mouffe Emeritus Professor of Political Theory at the University of Westminster in London. Her most recent books are ‘Agonistics. Thinking the World Politically’, ‘Podemos. In the Name of the People’ and ‘For a Left Populism’.

Spyros A. Sofos Researcher and research coordinator at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies, Lund University and author of ‘Nation and Identity in Contemporary Europe’, ‘Tormented by History’ and ‘Islam in Europe: Public Spaces and Civic Networks'.

Chair: Walid el Houri Researcher, journalist and filmmaker based between Berlin and Beirut. He is partnerships editor at openDemocracy and lead editor of its North Africa, West Asia project.

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