Russia’s left – what to do?

Ilya Ponomarev
9 March 2009

We really do live in very interesting times! The media is full of all kinds of reports.  There are apocalyptic announcements about the inevitable collapse of everything in the near future and ostrich-like claims that the country is in excellent form and anyone who thinks differently is a defeatist unworthy of the title of citizen.

Be that as it may.  However you look at it, I think it's difficult to deny that there is a crisis, whether it's a domestic one or we are only "battling with the consequences of international financial upheavals". There is something else that is much more interesting: what should the Left do in this situation?

We shouldn't hurry with an answer. Six months ago I would have said: strengthen the organisational network, raise awareness among employees, bolster our authority through participation in real street battles, strengthen cooperation with workers at factories and real trade unions, with social movements etc - then we'll see what happens.

The moment has now arrived when the "what happens" should already be happening. And what do we see? Everything has become utterly confused. Where do we direct our meagre resources and how can we understand which actions might have a significant social effect?

The Communist Party answers this question traditionally: we will put more people on the streets, write a resolution and announce that we strongly protest against the actions of the regime which does not work for the people. That's good, but what next? G.A. Zyuganov tells us that the main thing is not to rock the boat, as Russia won't be able to endure a new revolution. On the whole, the task is to reduce the pressure and ensure that voters at the next elections remember the fiery speeches of leaders and vote in the right way. This is all quite sensible.  But you can't just come up with the same trick for 15 years in a row, you need to think of something new!

The main rival of the Communist Party, "Fair Russia", is taking a different path. Rather than scare anyone before time, it is slowly strengthening its internal organisational infrastructure, but without admitting why, not even to its supporters. Party activists use "small-scale tactics", helping selected people with housing problems, pensions, work conflicts etc.  Areas where these efforts are needed are increasing, thanks to the crisis and the "highly effective" actions of the authorities at all levels. The party may offer those whose social rights are being infringed the support of its far from impartial activists with some (small) resources at their disposal.  This is done in such a way that issues about the future of the country and the party do not even have to be raised.  All the party has to do is wait until the mist clears of its own accord.  I think that the slogan "further from the leaders, closer to the people" will be reflected in the election results, though it will not in any way affect the foundations of the political system in Russia.

And what about the "Left outside the system"? I think that we're lost in the murky waters of the crisis. Many activists have taken the simplest route:  more protest, more radical slogans, more heroism. Alas, we are clearly unable to outdo the government in creating a revolutionary situation in Russia. Perhaps we can only limber up a little in the lead-up to future class struggles...

A year ago Left Front forces seizing Red Square was really something: by hook or by crook we'll draw attention to the problem and drive the message home. Today it's only lazy people or federal channel TV presenters on duty who don't talk about our current problems. No, we need some kind of asymmetric response.

What do we need to do? Instead of just "revealing" problems we need to convince people that we are the ones who can solve them. You know, I meet a lot of voters and I get the feeling that Putin's popularity level in the country has not fallen.  On the contrary it has increased over the last six months - though the popularity of the government has fallen catastrophically. Irrespective of whether he is good or bad, people believe that the prime minister can influence the situation.  The rest - including us - only chatter. This is very well understood by the Kremlin youth guard, whose main task, according to the holy instructions of Father Fyodor from Ilf and Petrov's Twelve Chairs, is to shout: "You're a fool yourself!" It's not important what this is a reply to.  What matters is that people who are inexperienced in politics frown squeamishly and run away from the disputers, without finding out which of them is right. Once Khodorkovsky called Putin the main liberal in the country: today he is also the main revolutionary. This is a serious problem for us.

I'm afraid my answer to the eternal question "what is to be done?" will be diametrically opposed to the opinion of many of my comrades. I think we should adopt the principle of "do no harm". The revolutionary situation is ripening as we speak: wonderful, then we should be prepared for things to get worse.  We should strengthen our contacts with large organisational groups, which could influence the course of events, above all with the alternative trade unions, which are increasingly united around the All Russian Confederation of Labour and various social movements. At the same time, we must remember that we cannot be the initiators of change - there are not enough of us for that.  We must, however, become the central ideological and organisational force. 

Something that seems even more important to me at the moment is getting the movement out of the margins. We have already shown that we are not shy of fighting, but now it's important to show that we can both think and organise. The authorities have painted themselves into a corner with their system for preferential advancement of personnel from St Petersburg, so this is not so difficult. At least two parties (the Communist Party and Fair Russia) are ready to present their lists for getting activists into the local bodies of power - why not make use of this? The most interesting level of politics - local  - is something that no one is interested in here, though we all admire the conscientious French who regularly come out on strikes and protests. They can only do this because their members (even the most radical leftist groups) go through intensive training in local government.  

Buffeted by the winds of crisis, an increasing number of Russian citizens will start looking around to see if there is anyone besides the existing regime to whom they can entrust the country. It is very important for all of us to realise that the government will go bankrupt not when the last dollar of the gold and currency reserves has gone, but when an alternative government appears that is acceptable to the majority of the active population. You can sympathise with punks protesting sincerely against the regime, but they don't inspire trust even in the "broad-minded" office plankton, so often described now as the "proletariat of the 21st century". And certainly not in workers, for whom this style of life is completely alien. It's time to grow up.

I would like to be understood correctly.  At this vitally important historical moment I am not calling for an end to street protests or suggesting that we should follow the Communist Party into the soothing peace of parliamentary cretinism. I do, however, suggest that we should take advantage of the general bewilderment, but not just to make a pointless fuss.  This has no effect on the real situation in Russia.  It only leads to ever longer sentences when party activists are arrested and have civil, and in future even criminal charges slapped on them.  Today we need to use the situation to prepare for the moment when the regime becomes completely derelict. Especially as all the logic of economic and political development shows that we do not have long to wait.


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