On the Russian Left
Boris Kagarlitsky: Young people are joining the movement but left is divided and weak
PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Washington.
As the Russian protests rocked the plans of President Putin, who, as Boris Kargalitsky wrote, wanted the elections to legitimize decisions that had already been made, these protests, as he said, essentially were led by segments that were more or less neoliberal or nationalist, but not much by what I guess Boris would call the left. And why is that?
So now joining us to talk about the state of the left in Russia is Boris Kagarlitsky. As I said in the earlier interview, he’s a sociologist. He was a deputy to the Moscow city soviet between 1990 and ’93. And he’s currently the director of the Institute of Globalization and Social Movements in Moscow. Thanks for joining us, Boris.
BORIS KAGARLITSKY, DIRECTOR, INSTITUTE OF GLOBALIZATION AND SOCIAL MOVEMENTS: Hi.
JAY: So let’s just sort of pick up where we were from the earlier interview. Why isn’t the left stronger? Or is it getting stronger? What’s the situation?
KAGARLITSKY: Well, the left is weak, of course, though I think it’s a global problem and it’s not just about Russia. But of course the protests were very much influenced by the left at the grassroots level. And, for example, if you are looking at the pictures taken from the rallies in Moscowâ€”and there you can see, of course, a lot of right-wingers waving their so-called imperial flag, but also quite a lot of red flags. And in reality the number of people with leftist slogans and flags wereâ€”it was much bigger than the number of nationalists, just nationalists, more kind of rich. They can simply buyâ€”I mean, order more flags. So it was kind of funny during demonstrations that if you see a right-wing column, then you see that every second person is with a flag, and the column is very small, but it has, like, 20 flags with maybe 50, 60 people. But then you see a column of maybe 300 people coming to represent some left-wing organization and they usually hold one flag or two flags.
JAY: So give us a picture of the political landscape of the left or such in Russia. I mean, people in the West know next to nothing. And, you know, we read polls that, I don’t know, 35, 40 percent of Russians say they would like to go back to the old Soviet Union and whatâ€”. Give us a sense of what is the left and how does it position itself within this historical context.
KAGARLITSKY: Well, I think the situation is not very different compared to what you see anywhere in the world, because, of course, you see some groups which are trying to continue the Stalinist tradition. Also you see quite a few Trotskyist groups and you see some social democrats and you see anarchists, and, well, you see all the same elements anywhere. And in that sense Russia is not any different. The landscape is pretty much the same as elsewhere.
The big question is: how relevant are these groups and forces politically? And here we see also a very serious problem, because in Russia we don’t have a system which allows you to have political parties properly, because, yes, there are so-called registered political parties, which are either created by the very same presidential administration in an artificial way, created by a person who used to be the deputy leader of presidential administration, Mr. Vladislav Surkov, who is now removed from his job after this big protest.
And also you have the old Communist Party, which is not a communist party. That’s another big irony. It’s a nationalist party which is racist, anti-Semitic, clericalâ€”it praises Russian Orthodox Church as its source of inspiration. It’s very anti-Marxist, and it’sâ€”even in its rhetoric and so on. And at the same time, it tries to appeal to the Soviet nostalgia, but representing Soviet Union just as a great empire which was destroyed, and say, well, there was no difference between the Soviet Union, and the tsarist empire was basically the continuation of the same, and it’s very bad that the empire now is destroyed so we just have Russia only.
JAY: And how much support does that communist party have?
KAGARLITSKY: Well, that’s [incompr.] problem, because you never know, because, you see, if you see the electoral result, it’s the second-biggest party in the country. In fact, I think they even got many more votes, because that’s exactly the problem of vote rigging. So that electoral process was distorted by fraud. But at the same time, then you get to another point. Most people who voted for the party didn’t vote for the party, because the slogan of opposition in this election, at least the official position, was vote for anyone except United Russia, which was that Putin party, nominally. And then people saw who were the biggest contender who was not called United Russia. They say, well, that’s the Communist Party. They voted for the Communist Party. And that’s about it. In fact, you see theâ€”now this party is actually falling apart because different regional groups are in total disconnect with the central leadership. Some groups are really trying to act as some kind of social democratic party. Sometimes they are acting as far right, sometimes they are trying to act as some kind of populist left. Even they just use the brand name and registration. And it’s in all disarray.
JAY: Get back to what we wereâ€”sort of more what we would understand as the a realâ€”as a left, which I guess is opposed to neoliberal kind of economic policies, is for a more modern vision of what a socialism might be. Where is that left?
KAGARLITSKY: Well, there are quite a few groups, and of course, as always, they are split into tendencies. And to make things worse, there is a very, very bad legacy of inner fighting. And it is very interesting because the infighting which we find among Russian leftists, it’s not very much sectarian. It’s not about politics. It’s not even about ideology. It’s not even about some kind of group identities or anything like that. It’s just very personal. Sometimes it’s a struggle for the resources, which are very limited. Sometimes, I mean, you see all sorts of terrible personal animosities, and in that sense very often it’s very hard to explain [incompr.] behind these struggles and fights.
But, well, on the other hand, what is interesting is that the new generation of activists is coming into the movement, and they are very much changing the situation. The numbers of people are growing, the numbers of people who call themselves left are growing very, very fast. And also, you see, the process in many ways is a revolutionary one, because though at this point it’s very much a split within the elite, within the ruling class which is going on, but it also opens up the political space for all sorts of different forces and opportunities. And in that sense the left is trying to kind of use this new opportunity and regroup. And there is a process going on for some kind of unity of the left, which I think will be achieved. And it is a very very funny situation, because about, like, seven months ago, ten months ago, you see people alsoâ€”almost ready to cut each other’s throats, and now they are all becoming very friendly, they are all coming together, they are all now calling for united action and, you know, coordinating committees, and so on and so on.
However, I don’t see that to be so positive, becauseâ€”well, there is positive side to it, definitely, but on the other hand, again, it’s very much like a personal decision to stop fighting and stop a new friendship rather than a political decision to launch a new project. And, for example, our institute, which is the leading Russian left-wing think tank orâ€”in fact, we’re saying we are the leading one because we are the only one. There is no similar institution to compete with us, which is very good news, because as I told you before, Russian political competition very often is very unfriendly. But our approach is that we insist on putting forward politics: let’s discuss politics before calling for unity or integration or some kind of united front.
JAY: Right. And to what extent has the Russian situation been influenced by what’s been going on in the Arab countries, or even in the Occupy movement, you know, in the U.S. and some other places?
KAGARLITSKY: Well, it was. It was, definitely. And I think there is a lot of interest. Egypt is becoming very popular. Occupy Wall Street is extremely popular. Also, European protest movements are seen with a lot of interest. Greece, for example, I think there was a lot of influence, and initially there was also a lot of envy, because people saw, okay, Arabs, weâ€”you know, Russia’s extremely racist, to be honest, and Russians said, well, look, Arabs are more capable of protesting or resisting than us, and that was seen as very humiliating news for the Russians.
JAY: And just a final question: what is the role of and are there independent unions? What’s happening amongst workers in Russia?
KAGARLITSKY: Well, there are independent unions. There were some very important strikes in the last phase of economic expansion, like into the southern towns. There were quite a few strikes which were quite important. The strongest union among them is the union of automakers or autoworkers union. I think, like in Canada also, it’s a very, very important, militant union. And their leader, Alexei Etmanov, is extremely popular among working-class people and among the leftâ€”though, again, I think it’s very serious that leadership is very personalized, so it’s very much like a populist movement rather than a proper democratic union in many ways. But, yes, the unions are there.
At the same time, however, you must understand that Russia had to undergo a very dramatic deindustrialization process, and in that sense the working class is massively weakened and disoriented and fragmented. So in that sense there are free trade unions. Some of them are important. But still the labor movement is not very strong.
JAY: Alright. Thanks very much for joining us, Boris.
KAGARLITSKY: Thank you.
JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.
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