Publication: Prism Volume: 4 Issue: 6

Yuri Luzhkov as a “New Socialist”

By Aleksandr Buzgalin

In Russia, even the impossible is possible. It may seem bizarre to speak of an alliance between a movement that calls itself social-democratic and a nomenklatura technocrat who professes great-power, nationalist tendencies. In our country, however, the collaboration between Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov and the recently-created Russian Movement "For A New Socialism" (RDNS) is not seen as anything out of the ordinary.

The RDNS and its Constituent Parties

The RDNS represents an alliance between paternalistic, middle-ranking bureaucrats and "pink" intellectuals. Most of Russia’s real social-democrats, such as the Social-Democratic Party (SDPR), have not joined it. Instead, its backbone consists of more complex organizations: the "Union of Realists," the Workers’ Self-Management Party, and the Socialist Workers’ Party. The movement’s program, the speeches of its leaders and its intellectual profile are all suffused with a social-democratic aura. But the real nature of the movement is rather different — it is an amorphous and volatile alliance of several semi-political, semi-clan organizations, only a few of which bear any resemblance to political parties.

The "Union of Realists" is not the largest organization in the RDNS, but its role is pivotal since it is the only organization with significant financial resources. The "Realists" favor a semi-social, semi-bureaucratic, paternalistic, corporatist market economy; a pragmatic policy in the spirit of enlightened oligarchy; and a vaguely patriotic ideology stressing social justice. Their leader, Yuri Petrov, now runs an investment company with enormous assets. From 1991-1993, he was President Boris Yeltsin’s chief of administration. Although he calls himself a classic social-democrat, Petrov supported Yeltsin in the 1996 presidential elections.

The Workers’ Self-Management Party (PST) is the best-known of the RDNS member-organizations, thanks to its leader, Svyatoslav Fedorov, Russia’s most prominent ophthalmologist. As a public figure, Fedorov is rather contradictory. But one of his ideas has remained constant ever since perestroika: his stress on the need to replace hired labor with the labor of free men who are co-owners of their enterprises and participate actively in management. This is clearly an idea which fits well under socialism. But in everything else, the PST is closer to the social-democrats: it supports a socially-regulated market economy, self-government and democracy.

These ideas did not emerge out of a vacuum: the traditions of collectivism, solidarity and collective free labor have always enjoyed significant support in Russia. Moreover, Fedorov is known as a man who puts his money where his mouth is — his eye microsurgery company really does function on the principles of workers’ ownership and participation. In the 1995 elections to the State Duma, the PST got more than three percent of the vote. In the presidential elections of 1996, however, Fedorov (but not his party!) supported Yeltsin.

The Socialist Workers’ Party (SPT) is the least solid of the partners which created the RDNS. The SPT began life as a substitute for the banned Soviet Communist Party. Until the Russian Communist Party (KPRF) emerged, the SPT was quite a large organization, boasting tens of thousands of members. After devoting no small effort to the birth of a new Communist party, the SPT found itself abandoned: most of its members gradually moved to the KPRF.

The SPT twice participated in parliamentary elections, both times in alliance with the "Congress of Russian Communities." The first time, in 1993, the SPT did not even get enough signatures to be officially registered. The second time, in 1995, it won 4 percent of the vote. Ideologically, the SPT is a social democratic party with elements of great-power nationalism and nostalgia for the USSR. Where practical politics are concerned, however, the SPT’s championing of social-democratic values can be reduced to a search for profitable political alliances.

There are at present ten deputies at most in Russia’s State Duma who are either close to the RDNS or who belong to one of its constituent organizations. How, therefore, did this movement, whose programmatic "crust" is social-democratic but whose "filling" is far removed from traditional social-democracy, arise?

The Poverty of Social-Democracy, or Why Don’t Russians Want to Become Europeans?

It is no secret that social-democracy in Russia does not enjoy the support of poor people. In the last parliamentary elections, the SDPR ran on the slogan "A Window to Europe," offering the voters a vision of a state founded on the rule of law, a social market economy, human rights, openness to the best achievements of western civilization, and so on. They got less than one percent of the vote. The semi-social-democrats (the PST and other such parties) got a little more: three to four percent.

This indicates, first, that the "niche" of a moderate-reformist opposition party with socialist slogans has already been occupied by the KPRF. (1)

Second, and more importantly, the two most important preconditions for social-democracy are absent in Russia. In our country, there are no strong social movements and no independent trade unions enjoying the trust and respect of the workers; instead what you have in Russia is passivity and conformism, which give rise to a mass faith in a "good Tsar" and statist illusions.

Moreover, there are as yet no smart capitalists in Russia who have moved far enough beyond the laws of primary accumulation to realize that it would be in their own interests to share some of their profits with those less fortunate. Nor does Russia yet have a state that is capable of defending not only the power of capital but the rights of other strata of the population, and of forming the basis of what west European social democrats call a "social partnership."

Third, Russia is still in too deep a crisis to be able to afford moderately-reformist solutions to its socio-economic problems.

So why do blocs, movements and parties claiming to be social-democratic continue to spring up in Russia? And why has a politician as pragmatic and powerful as Moscow’s Yuri Luzhkov decided — so far, admittedly, only informally — to link his name with the RDNS?

The Luzhkov Phenomenon

Yuri Luzhkov occupies a special place in Russian politics. He holds no post in the federal hierarchy and has not formally joined any large political group (his links with the RDNS having been limited so far to friendly demarches and expressions of mutual sympathy). It is impossible to fit him into any of the usual categories.

Is Luzhkov a great-power nationalist? Yes, and he has proven it with his statements on rights of Russians in the "near abroad."

Is Luzhkov a supporter of capitalism? Undoubtedly: he is supported by some of Russia’s largest financial groups.

Is Luzhkov a socialist? Judging from the speech he gave at the RDNS congress in December 1997 and the support he enjoys among many members of the opposition — yes, he is.

So who is he? A political leader without a political face? No, it’s more complicated than that. Luzhkov’s position cannot be defined within the framework of linear logic. A certain post-modern permissiveness is required, a combination of "common sense" and a variety of doctrines foreign to a consistent politician and unintelligible to a traditional political scientist, but quite understandable to the average person, who doesn’t care about "isms" or the difference between social-democrats and liberals.

But it is precisely this mixture that fits contemporary Russia where, after the fall of "socialism" and the USSR, a contradictory mix of the most incompatible strata of social life has been formed: renascent feudal-clan structures and financial capital of the Internet era, the remnants of the command economy and the rudiments of the market…

Luzhkov has not merely grasped these peculiar Russian features: he has been able to manage Russia’s richest city and establish it as one of only a few Russian regions that are growing and making progress.

The clever, pragmatic Luzhkov has been able to lead an economy which fits these parameters. Meanwhile, he has not forgotten the least fortunate members of society, or neglected his own image as a father of culture and spirituality.

All this explains why Luzhkov is so often to be found in the list of Russia’s top ten political leaders. It explains, too, why he is one of the few political figures in Russia who enjoy virtually unconditional support from his constituents — the population of Moscow (more than ten million people). He is supported both by Yeltsin’s supporters and by the opposition, by the "common people" and by the "elite," by old and young alike.

Finally, Luzhkov is a regional leader who is actively involved not only in national but in international politics.

Why does such a leader need the RDNS?

Luzhkov and the RDNS: A Post-Modern Collage

In fact, Luzhkov does not need the RDNS, although the movement needs him very much. So far, therefore, Luzhkov has deliberately kept his distance from it. But Luzhkov’s further progress as a politician on a national scale will be impossible without the support of a large movement with an at least moderately well-defined ideology.

Therefore, a vague alliance with a movement that represents a combination of 1) social-democratic paternalism, 2) moderate great-power nationalism and 3) loyalty to the real masters of contemporary Russia could be useful to Luzhkov. The Communist Party would satisfy two of these requirements but, while a future alliance between Luzhkov and the Communists cannot be ruled out, the KPRF already has a leader. Only the RDNS meets all three requirements.

Nonetheless, the RDNS suffers several substantial defects, including the narrowness of its membership and the weakness of its ties with leading financial and industrial groups. The attempt to form an ideological identity on the basis of a synthesis of social-democracy and the Russian idea is more likely to appeal to well-fed Muscovites than to hungry provincials. And even Muscovites support Luzhkov less for his ideology (which is hard to pin down) than for his ability to attract big money to Moscow and willingness to use at least some of it for the benefit of the city’s residents.

Luzhkov’s flirtation with "New Socialism" is unlikely, therefore, to lead to a solid alliance with a promising political future. Nor is there much likelihood that an influential social-democratic force (in any sense of the term) will be formed in Russia in the near future. This does not mean that there is no future for socialist ideas as such. They will revive again in Russia, but when they do so it is likely to be in a much more radical form.


(1) See the author’s "Russia’s Communist Party: A Party With a Communist Name, Great-Power Policies, and Nostalgic Members," in Prism, July 11, 1997


KPRF: Communist Party of the Russian Federation

PST: Workers’ Self-Management Party

RDNS: Russian Movement "For A New Socialism"

SDPR: Social-Democratic Party of Russia

SPT: Socialist Workers’ Party

Translated by Mark Eckert

Aleksandr Buzgalin is a Doctor of Economics and a professor at Moscow State University. He is one of the leaders of the Democratic Socialist Movement in Russia.


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