The Golitsino consensus

By Boris Kagarlitsky

Links contributing editor Boris Kagarlitsky is well known for his many books and articles on Soviet and post-Soviet society. Translated by Renfrey Clarke.

For many years, Russian leftists have talked of the need for a process of unification. The results, however, have been poor. The reasons for this have not lain in the disagreements and ambitions of leaders, or in the ideological positions of the various groups. The main problem has been the weakness and immaturity of the movement itself. Experience has shown that the weaker the left is, and the smaller its influence on society, the greater its inclination to sectarianism.

The events that unfolded from June 20 to 22, 2003, in the town of Golitsino near Moscow can be considered crucial not only because a conference on the future of the left finally initiated a unification process, but also because this meeting itself provided evidence of a level of maturity and seriousness in the movement that is quite new and unfamiliar for Russia.

More than 130 people, from various parties and movements, took part in the Golitsino conference. They included members of the "official" Communist Party of the Russian Federation (KPRF), activists of the "alternative" Russian Communist Workers Party, a few social democrats, and the leader of the left-liberal Union of People for Education and Science, Vyacheslav Igrunov. There were foreign guests from Denmark, Turkey, Norway, Sweden, Ukraine, Belarus and Britain. Also present were the heads of four left-wing Moscow publishing houses, and of the Falanster bookshop, so far the only such outlet in Moscow to specialise in left-wing texts. The gathering was organised by the Institute of the Problems of Globalisation (IPROG), with support from the Popular Initiative Centre and a group of activists from the KPRF.

The media, naturally enough, concentrated their attention on the speech by Sergey Glazyev, a well-known economist and State Duma deputy who is a potential leader of a left bloc. The most important feature of the Golitsino forum, however, was not the speeches by political figures, but the discussions between activists. These debates took place in an unexpectedly amicable fashion, and even the representatives of groups known for sectarian attacks on other leftists behaved with studious correctness.

Still more importantly, the leaders of the KPRF, who earlier had totally ignored criticism from the left and had tried to avoid noticing the critics themselves, started engaging in dialogue with them. The arguments could have been quite sharp, but a peculiarity of the Golitsino forum was the fact that the younger representatives of the Communist Party were inclined to solidarise with the criticisms directed at their own organisation by the independent left.

The party was accused of excessive moderation, of substituting rhetoric for program, and of replacing political work with electoral campaigns. The main weight of the criticism was directed against nationalism and imperial chauvinism within the "official opposition", which continues to rail against the "oppression of Russians" while ignoring the oppression of national minorities and forgetting about workers' solidarity (the KPRF has removed the slogan "Workers of all lands, unite!" from its banners).

The representatives of the KPRF leadership did not deny that the party needed changes and renewal, but argued that this should not be rushed, and that it was necessary to "get rid of stereotypes". The official position of the KPRF leadership was voiced by the secretary of the Central Committee, Oleg Kulikov. "I wanted to see the state of the left, and who makes it up", Kulikov said. He continued:

On the whole, my impression is positive, because these are young people, relatively developed and educated, and with left-wing convictions. But they have a poor understanding of what today's KPRF is like. I think this is a problem for all of us. Forums like this allow us to get to know one another betterto get to know the role of the KPRF, the role of the opposition, how we need to work, and in general, to assess the situation Russia now finds itself in.

Whether we have points of agreement. Whether Russia is a democratic or an undemocratic country. What the reforms led towhether it was counter-revolution or not. Whether civil liberties are present or not. Whether or not the state is oligarchic. I think we have found many points of agreement here, points that can be developed further. This is going to help the causeI won't say of the unification, but of some forerunner to the unification of the left, and of the victory of the future progressive forces of Russia.

The position of the independent left was expressed particularly well by Dmitry Kostenko, addressing the closing session. The KPRF, Kostenko declared, was a profoundly flawed organisation, but if the authorities were now to move against it, the position of the entire left, including its most right-wing elements, would become far worse. The common views of the left that had been identified were termed by the left social democrat Viktor Militarev "the Golitsino consensus". This was the title that was also given to the theses adopted at the conference.

Naturally, this political idyll did not emerge out of a vacuum. What happened in Golitsino was the result of long and complex processes, occurring not only on the left, but also in Russian society as a whole.

The Russia of President Putin, unlike that of Boris Yeltsin, is relatively stable. This stability is inherently precarious, conditional, and to an important degree "virtual". There is no disputing, however, that Russian capitalism has reached its "definitive" forms, and has become conservative.

The rhetoric of the authorities is becoming more and more nationalist, and yet this nationalism, mixed with anti-Islamic racism, in no way impedes the country's participation in the processes of neo-liberal globalisation. The KPRF, which throughout the 1990s rested on the conservative and nationalist-minded public, has been forced to surrender both its ideas and its voters to the authorities. By contrast, left-wing sentiments have been growing in the large cities, among the youth, in the university centres and among the intelligentsia.

The trouble is that the "old" party, with its slogans, prejudices and organisational forms, cannot take advantage of this leftward movement of the urban masses to further its interests. Instead, this process has found its expression in the growth of various "new left" initiatives. The "new left", however, has lacked both the organisational structures and the resources needed to become a force on a national scale. Accordingly, both forces have begun showing interest in one another.

The changes began when the KPRF's internet site was headed by the young manager Ilya Ponomarev. The site began to feature a discussion section entitled "The KPRF and the New Left", regular contributors to which included such radicals as Aleksandr Tarasov and Aleksey Tsvetkov. Ponomarev himself joined the staff of iprog, where work began on developing a strategy for the renewal and unification of the Russian left.

The Golitsino consensus is the first fruit of this work. It can be summarised as follows.

First of all, the renewal of the left is essential. Turning the left parties of Russia into parties of the future, capable of recruiting modern workers into their ranks, is impossible without a clear criticism of authoritarianism and totalitarianism, and a recognition of democracy as the basic value of the modern left movement in Russia.

Nevertheless, representative democracy of the parliamentary type (still unattainable in Russia) is not the only possible goal; the left calls for a democracy of participation.

The modern political process in Russia is experiencing a serious crisis, afflicting especially the institutions of representative democracy. This crisis is linked with the purging of the political content from the party-political process, and the transformation of political parties from real tools of public influence on the authorities to political "brands"divorced from society, not expressing its interests and engaged in the struggle to divide up the political pie between members of the ruling elite. Overcoming the crisis will require the development of new forms of democracy and new forms of dialogue with society, the development of mechanisms of participation and of public self-government and control.

The second main idea of the Golitsino consensus is that renewal has to be carried out on the basis of anti-capitalist and socialist principles. The activists who attended the forum were unanimous that a New Labour-type road, involving a policy of reconciliation with neo-liberalism, was incompatible with the development of left perspectives.

Third, the movement has to be internationalist. The solidarity involved has to be the solidarity of workers, irrespective of ethnicity or religion, and the goal has to be unity with the worldwide left movement, above all with anti-globalist forces.

Fourth, the left has to reassert the class character of its politics, resting above all on genuinely functioning trade unions. Leftists should not only aid in the politicisation of the trade unions, but should themselves participate in the work of these bodies, helping them to carry out their everyday tasks.

Fifth, unity has to be achieved on the basis of respect for differences. The left movement can be effective only if it is democratic and pluralist, and at the same time capable of acting in solidarity. It is thus extremely important to bridge the abyss between the communists and the alternative left, to study and use the experience of the Western left movements, and to develop good relations with colleagues from other countries.

Similarly, it must be understood that the differences between reformist and radical currents remain natural and inevitable even in the conditions of joint struggle. The optimal form of unification is an alliance or united front, which allows the independent development of different tendencies.

Finally, there needs to be dialogue between socialists and religious believers. A session on religion was conducted by the Islamic "liberation theologian" Geydar Dzhemal, who declared that genuine theology, as opposed to clerical propaganda, was a school of thought that could quite legitimately enter into dialogue with Marxism and other left-wing intellectual tendencies.

To call for such a dialogue was in no sense to deny the need for a decisive struggle against clericalism and for the defence of freedom of conscience.

The experience of liberation theology showed that believers and Marxists stood together not only in the struggle against oppression, but also to a significant degree in their ideological and moral positions. Religion, Dzhemal declared, provided an extremely well-established ideological basis for the struggle of the oppressed, performing this function for two thousand years. It united communities of individuals, allowed scope for the contradiction between individualism and solidarity, and throughout history had often furnished a mechanism for the mobilisation of masses of people.

For the present, of course, the Golitsino consensus remains no more than a collection of theses discussed and approved by left-wing leaders, ideologues and activists. It still needs to be embodied in political practice. The prospects for relations between the "alternative left" and the KPRF, moreover, depend not only on the wishes of activists, but also on the behaviour of the apparatus. Nevertheless, one thing can already be stated with assurance. Until recently, it was possible to speak of individual left-wing intellectuals in Russia, of groups putting forward left ideas, and of parties that officially described themselves as left wing, often without any particular justification. There was no movement, in the sense of something integral that exercised ideological and political influence. But since Golitsino, it has been clear that this stage lies in the past.

Russia now has a left movement worthy of the name.