Russia: Toward a Party of Labor

Against the Current, No. 35, November/December 1991

David Finkel

“THE CRISIS THAT has brought Boris Yeltsin into power will now undercut his position, and he has no positive alternative,” says Boris Kagarlitsky, a long-time socialist democratic activist in the Soviet Union. “Yeltsin is going to face the same problems that confronted his adversaries, and he has no differences in any positive sense from them.”

Kagarlitsky spoke from Moscow by phone with Suzi Weissman, host of the weekly program “Portraits of the USSR” on KPFK-FM in Los Angeles. The interview was broadcast September 5, 1991. During the 1980s Kagarlitsky was a founder of the Federation of Socialist Clubs, the Peoples Front and later the Socialist Party, and was elected in 1989 to the Moscow City Council.

Kagarlitsky outlined a contradictory situation in the wake of the collapsed August 19 coup, in which possibilities for the growth of a strong independent left exist, along with dangers of a new dictatorship and repression.

“It’s interesting that one of the effects of the collapse of the Communist Party is the fast-growing importance of the independent left We are the only remaining opposition to the regime. In that sense, ironically, we are the second biggest beneficiary of these events,” with Yeltsin of course being the biggest winner,” Kagarlitsky reports.

“We have launched a project to transform our (Socialist) party into the Party of Labor. We have chosen that name to avoid any confusion with the Labor Party in Britain. This project is supported by many independent leftists, some groups, and by people in both the old and new trade unions.

“Also we have quite a lot of positive response from enterprises. Some oppositional ex-Communists are joining, such as the Marxism 21 group. Our aim is a strong organization, if not a mass party then at least a significant and broad political party of the left. Lt is to be based mostly on the platform of the Socialist Party; this is agreed among all participants.”

The appeal for the creation of the Party of Labor, issued in Moscow August 28, states, “[S]ocialist values … did not arise from the armchairs of intellectuals, they spring from the need for a political defense of the workers.” It calls for “a mass party that can defend: the right to work reform of the system of social guarantees; economic democracy, workers’ participation in the enterprises … independence and guarantee of the rights of the unions in all the enterprises, whatever the form of property … an end to the unregulated bureaucratic privatization of the former [state] sector and a refusal to transform state monopolies into private monopolies … integration into the world market in a way that upholds the interests of the national economy and not those of the international corporations … the rights of national, cultural and religious minorities” among other planks. (International Viewpoint, 9/30/91)

Kagarlitsky’s optimism, however, is carefully guarded: “The (new) regime isn’t prepared for mass-scale repression, so we may have a significant political space for some time. (But) the problem of repression isn’t whether, but when and how it will come.” His view of the nature of post-coup politics will be a somber warning to those who think democracy has actually been established in the (former) Soviet Union.

Both in this interview and in several articles in the British left-wing press, Kagarlitsky goes so far as to state that the events of August 19 and the following week may have marked the end of a “democratic interlude between two dictatorships”—an old regime whose power had corroded to the point where it was no longer Stalinist, and the emerging highly authoritarian rule of Yeltsin.

Anti-Democratic Acts

Regarding the banning of the Communist Party, for example, Kagarlitsky told Suzi Weissman, “While you know I am no supporter of the CP, the way it was liquidated is completely anti-democratic. The way its property was confiscated, its press closed down, was done precisely to create a precedent. Now everybody knows that if you are against the new regime, what was done to the Communists can be done to any critic.

“It’s very interesting that the KGB structures are not dismantled. The KGB is one of the few structures that Yeltsin wants to preserve, though in the long run of course as his own tool. There will be ideological purges, and there is a campaign against the people in the KGB who are more independent, like Karabanov, the head of Moscow KGB, who was said to be ‘collecting medical information on the republic leaders,’ What he possesses, in fact, is enormous information about the corruption of the new leadership, hence the campaign to discredit him.

“On television now, people from the Russian and sometimes the Moscow governments appear and say, you must report ‘unconstitutional behavior.’ There is a Commission on Unconstitutional Behavior with enormous power to summon people, demand they give evidence, everything except put them on trial. There are honest people in these commissions who try to limit their activities within the rule of law, so I don’t want to say all the members are participating in the witch-hunt, but that’s the atmosphere.

“In the Moscow Soviet (city council—ed.) we also have such a commission, which the representatives themselves call the McCarthy Commission! The Moscow commission gets three or four hundred reports daily, not only about officials but letters like ‘My ex-husband was very happy when the coup happened’ or ‘My neighbor spoke positively about the coup.’ Today, the paper Literaturnaya Gazela informed its readers that a new concentration camp is being built in Terskaya province, for the people who ‘behaved unconstitutionally.’

“Of course Yeltsin behaved unconstitutionally when he destroyed central authority and took over the Russian government (through rule by decree). But who cares? In this sense the situation is deteriorating day by day.”

Nonetheless, Kagarlitsky stresses, “the actual level of repression up to now is almost insignificant. Not many people have been arrested, though I think this is mostly because the new government isn’t yet ready for that stage.”

The basis for repression, Kagarlitsky argues, lies in the program of the new regime “Of course Yeltsin’s is a capitalist regime, but what will emerge is a very strange mixture of bureaucratic capitalism in coordination with joint ventures with western multinational corporations, with free enterprise playing almost no role in the economy.

“The local bureaucracy is turning more and more into a bureaucratic bourgeoisie. There’s not an entrepreneurial bourgeoisie (developing) from below. Corruption remains one of the main forces of accumulation, and these relations are going to reproduce themselves.

“We can find some parallels with what happened in Mexico, with an onslaught on human rights, attempts to silence the press, probably the destruction of the unions although they will resist. Of course this is producing a lot of hardship.” Presiding over this formation, Yeltsin appears to Kagarlitsky less as a new Tsar than a Mussolini, “a right-wing populist dictator having some authentic popularity, although this is exaggerated. Much of Yeltsin’s following is similar to a soccer fan club. Yeltsin’s populism has nothing to do with traditional monarchy, even though he uses some of those symbols, like the two-headed eagle but stripped of its crown.”

Sympathizing with the republics’ dash for national independence following August 19, Kagarlitsky states “It’s not about republican nationalism, it’s about Russian nationalism and especially Yeltsin. The republics know Yeltsin is a Russian chauvinist. In some of them—Ukraine, Byelorussia, Kazakhstan—the leaders are not progressives but local bureaucrats, but I can well understand them trying to protect themselves. They have already seen what Yeltsin does to his enemies.”

Regarding the murky events of the coup itself, Kagarlitsky refuses to accept the view that the “putschists” failed to arrest Yeltsin at the outset out of pure incompetence. Writing in the British New Statesman and elsewhere, Kagarlitsky argues that the August 19 self-appointed “Emergency Committee” must have been certain they had Yeltsin’s agreement, and intended to include him in a new coalition. By the following day when they realized Yeltsin was denouncing and mobilizing against them, they tried to move against him but lacked the loyal forces to do so.

Kagarlitsky told Suzi Weissman that the plotters projected “no changes in economic policy; and they never even mentioned the Communist Party. There wasn’t a single ‘hard-line Communist’ among them. In fact the Stalinist groups condemned the coup, much earlier than the democrats in many cases, because they considered it a coup to promote the policy of the market.” In any case, in Kagarlitsky’s view, the farce of August 19-20 ended in effect with a successful “coup”—by Yeltsin himself.

In the New Statesman Kagarlitsky wrote: “Yes, Russia deserves freedom,, but she has not gained it Millions of people in Russia have been fighting for democracy. But what they have got is Yeltsin.”

In the near future, as the program of enriching the bureaucrats-turned-bourgeois accelerates, Kagarlitsky predicts “a real wave of protests against the Yeltsin regime from both blue and white collar workers. That, of course, he stated in his interview with Suzi Weissman, “is one reason why it’s very important to have a strong Party of Labor—to organize these movements and give them some kind of political-strategic meaning?

© 2020 Against the Current

No. 35, November/December 1991