Publication: Prism Volume: 3 Issue: 11

The Russian Communist Party: The view from the left

By Aleksandr Buzgalin

Ever since December 1993, when the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (CPRF) became the leading opposition force in the State Duma, analysts have been trying to fathom this organization. It has almost 500,000 members and forms the largest parliamentary faction. Its leader, Gennady Zyuganov, came a close second in last year’s presidential election and always figures on the list of the country’s ten leading politicians. All this in a Russia that is said to be successfully making the transition to democracy and the market from "the monstrous totalitarian past."

This situation could be explained in terms of the "enigma of the Russian soul." But there is also a completely rational explanation, which is that the situation is the result of a combination of deep social crisis and popular traditions of conformism, obedience and passivity. The legacy of Russia’s more than 70 years of mutant socialist rule was a solid system of social guarantees and stability combined with harshly paternalistic government and the almost total atrophy of the population’s "social muscles." That is to say, the population had lost the ability to organize itself at grass-roots level and to fight for its rights.

When a systemic crisis was superimposed on the traditions of passivity and conformity of the average Russian citizen, the only significant form of opposition that could arise was an organization that perpetuated the paternalism of the past and sought to defend the interests of the general population with the help of bureaucratic-corporate structures. Such an organization had to be radically oppositionist in appearance (otherwise, it would not have won support from below) but only mildly oppositionist in substance (otherwise, it would have been prohibited from above). That is indeed what the CPRF became.

The party’s main characteristics are as follows:

(1) The Communist Party’s real policies and slogans reflect not so much the true strategic interests of the majority of workers and pensioners as their stereotypes in the mass consciousness.

(2) The CPRF is the only political organization in the Russian Federation which has the support of a broad base of citizens. The figure of half a million members is clearly an exaggeration and includes everyone who ever agreed to join the party in any form. The real figure is probably closer to 200,000-300,000. Nonetheless, this makes the CPRF Russia’s largest mass party. Most of the party’s members are not able to conduct independent organizational, political or propaganda work but, at the oblast level there is often a group of activists who are able to act in the traditions of the Soviet period, carrying out instructions from above in a disciplined way.

(3) The CPRF has the support of some business and financial structures and some circles of the regional bureaucracy.

(4) New blood entered the CPRF as a result of the party’s success in the Duma elections of 1995 and in regional elections in a number of oblasts. The people who came into the party from the lower and middle levels of the bureaucracy can be characterized as follows:

(a) They tend to be less cynical and corrupt than the people who support the Yeltsin administration;

(b) They have not made successful careers in business or in the Yeltsin administration (perhaps because they are not corrupt, perhaps because they lack entrepreneurial skills);

(c) They are oriented towards the old, paternalist-bureaucratic style of work.

(5) Since the CPRF is the only real opposition force and campaigns for the preservation and development of Russian culture, it has won the support of some members of the patriotically-minded intelligentsia and the Russian Orthodox clergy.

At the present time, the CPRF is a very heterogeneous organization. Three main ideological and political tendencies are represented within it.

The social-nationalist (sotsial-derzhavnoe) tendency is the dominant one. Its main ideologists are Gennady Zyuganov and Yury Belov. In their ideological and political activity, they rely on organizations such as "Spiritual Heritage" and the Russian-American University (RAU) Corporation (both run by Aleksei Podberezkin), though Podberezkin’s organizations are far more nationalist than Communist. The values of this tendency have been formulated by Zyuganov himself as: great-power nationalism (derzhavnost), which emphasizes the importance of resolving geopolitical problems; populism (narodnost) — a paternalistic government policy, passively supported from below; and spirituality (dukhovnost) — in the tradition of Russian Orthodoxy. In their writings, speeches and policies, the leaders of this tendency rely not on any of the socialist tendencies, but on the Russian Slavophile tradition.

The orthodox Communist tendency is the largest in number but it is only weakly represented organizationally and is hardly represented at all among the CPRF’s leadership. Its main base of support is the "rank and file" CPRF members educated in Marxism-Leninism, leaders of some regional organizations, and a narrow circle of scholars — former university teachers of Marxism who belong to the organization "Russian Scholars of Socialist Orientation" (RUSO). Ideologically, this tendency is close to the standards of the textbook Scientific Communism, published back in Brezhnev’s time. It differs from Zyuganov’s position chiefly in its greater emphasis on class struggle, socialist goals, and Marxist ideology.

The social-statist (sotsialno-gosudarstvennoe) tendency contains a pragmatic wing and is represented by a number of members in the parliamentary faction (most often, these are members of the business community or of the regional elites). Their main goal is to lobby for the interests of those who secured their election to the Duma. They combine the economic ideas of Western social democracy with homespun paternalism and pragmatism and place less emphasis than, say, Zyuganov on nationalist or great-power slogans. The part of the scientific intelligentsia which is closest to the CPRF tends to be affiliated with this tendency. It is not very influential ideologically, but politically it is very influential.

The CPRF’s program was drafted by highly qualified socialist scholars and is a rather clever synthesis of modern (or relatively so — on the level of the 1960s and 1970s) Western socialist and social-democratic ideas with enlightened great-power nationalist formulae and a number of Marxist theories. But for the CPRF, as for the CPSU, there is a clear divergence between words and deeds: the party’s actual policy and even its ideology (as typified by the books and articles of the party’s ideological leaders — Zyuganov, Podberezkin, Belov) are quite different from the party’s program and are characterized by a powerful great-power nationalist bent.

The CPRF’s real policy falls into several channels.

The policy of the parliamentary faction is, for the most part, to compromise with the center while making a lot of radical statements. During the period from the end of 1996 to the first half of 1997, the faction supported the policies of Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin in order to prevent the radical democrats (typified by Anatoly Chubais and his circle) from coming to power. This policy ended in failure in March, when Chubais and his allies entered the government. Meanwhile, it provoked systematic criticism from rank-and-file party members, regional leaders and orthodox ideologues, all of whom saw it as insufficiently socialist and a betrayal of the interests of the country’s disadvantaged citizens.

The activity of the CPRF’s primary party organizations is, as a rule, limited to (rather passive) participation in election campaigns, holding party meetings and, in some places, publishing Communist newspapers and pamphlets (generally of orthodox-Communist content).

As for regional leaders elected with CPRF support, they vary substantially from paternalist-socialist to openly pro-Yeltsin. In Russia’s "red belt," a number of CPRF organizations and their leaders conduct a truly oppositionist policy and defend the interests of the workers and the poorer strata of the population. In other places, the policies of leaders elected with CPRF differ little from those of Yeltsin’s supporters and represent an almost total renunciation of pre-election promises. This wide variety may be explained by the CPRF’s bureaucratic nature, the pragmatism of many of its leaders, and the passivity and lack of organization of the party rank-and-file.

Relations within the CPRF are consistent with the nature of the party as described above. The main characteristic of party life is the existence of a bitter struggle between two lines. On the one hand, there is the pragmatic great-power nationalist policy of Zyuganov and others in the leadership, which is oriented towards compromise with the government. On the other hand, there is the policy characteristic of the party rank-and-file and a number of regional leaders, which is targeted toward a real defense of the poorest strata of society but which strives at the same time to maintain ideological purity. The struggle between these two lines is generally camouflaged and carried out behind the scenes in the form of intrigues. There are occasional instances of "letting off steam" during speeches at closed plenary sessions of the CPRF Central Committee, but these are rare and the voting that follows is always unanimous. The CPRF forbids not only fractions but even platforms. For all its seriousness, therefore, the struggle between the great-power nationalists and the orthodox Communists has been driven underground.

Although the CPRF is the largest left-wing organization in Russia, it is not the only one. On the left, it is "propped up" by a radical-Communist current which supports the restoration of "socialism" according to the 1930s-1960s model. A social-democratic current is forming to the right of the CPRF, but is still at an embryonic stage and has not yet assumed a stable organizational structure. The reason for this is that the necessary social base is still lacking. The "middle class" has only just begun to take shape in Russia. There is almost no organized workers’ movement in the country.

As for Communist and socialist organizations oriented toward democracy, internationalism and socialism, these are for the most part small groups of intellectuals, far removed from the real political struggle and mainly engaged in propaganda activity. They range in size from a few dozen members to a maximum of a few thousand. At times, they play an active role in concrete political actions: defending the White House in October 1993 or protesting against the war in Chechnya in 1994-1996, for example. Among these organizations are the Russian Communist Party; the Union of Communists (which includes influential orthodox Communist groups and, as a rule, forms a bloc with the orthodox Communists); and the international association "Scholars for Democracy and Socialism" and the Union of Internationalists (the author of this article is a member of the last two organizations). Finally, there are a number of anarchist and Trotskyite groups.

* * *

The CPRF is a very specific type of political structure. Its substantial difference, not only from "new" mass socialist and Communist parties (such as the Workers’ Party of Brazil) but even from the leftist social-democratic organizations found in so many other countries, lies in its orientation toward the strengthening of a unitary, centralized state, and in its nomenklatura past and present. This is the source of the isolation of the party’s leadership from the rank-and-file, the strong strand of great-power chauvinism in its approach to the nationalities question, the expansionism that characterizes its geopolitical thinking, and its support for a strong state, army and police. There are real foundations (but not justifications!) for these policies, such as great-power nationalist opinions among the working class, part of the bureaucracy, and the bourgeoisie, provoked by Russia’s having slipped from its position as a superpower into semi-colonial status.

At the same time, the nature of the movement’s social base requires that a number of objectively progressive social-democratic slogans be included in its program documents (once again, it must be stressed that the CPRF’s leadership is extremely inconsistent in carrying them out). Proponents of a democratic socialist revival in Russia can and should support these slogans but must at the same time understand the nature of the CPRF bureaucracy. Moreover, it must be remembered that practice in central and eastern Europe has shown that when "post-Communist" parties come to power, they often refrain from implementing the most radical social and democratic proposals for which they campaigned while out of power.

Translated by Mark Eckert