Sakhnin: The February Theses — The Left and the Political Crisis in Russia

PI Council member Alexey Sakhnin sets out his perspective on the protests that swept Russia in February 2021 — and charts a way forward for the Russian left.
History doesn't repeat itself. It’s February 2021, not 1917. The political crisis unfolding before our eyes is not a cosplay of Russian revolutionary history — this year, the connection between February and October exists only in the pages of the calendar.
History doesn't repeat itself. It’s February 2021, not 1917. The political crisis unfolding before our eyes is not a cosplay of Russian revolutionary history — this year, the connection between February and October exists only in the pages of the calendar.

What matters in our thinking about the present moment is the difference between the number of people who took part in the January protests (between 150,000 and 200,000 all around Russia) and the number who watched them online (over 20 million). These figures point to radical changes in the political climate in Russia: the dissatisfied, those seeking a way out of the dead end of our national politics, now number in the millions. The main social force behind the protests is no longer the metropolitan middle class, but the masses: teachers, students, workers, the precarious and self-employed, and small business owners. In other words, those who had not previously supported anti-government actions. Two facts point to this conclusion: for the first time in recent history, far more people took to the streets in the regions than in Moscow, and, according to researchers, around 40% of those protesting did so for the first time.

Despite the numbers, something has held the vast majority of the disaffected back from taking part in the protests organised by the liberal opposition. Liberals attribute this to the fear of police violence and repression. This is partly true. People are, indeed, afraid. But this is not the only — and perhaps not the main — reason. Many people haven’t taken to the streets simply because they cannot see themselves or their interests reflected in a political movement personified by one man: Alexei Navalny.

In interviews with journalists and researchers, many protesters spoke out not only against authoritarianism, but also against rising social inequality and the desperate poverty that most of our fellow citizens face. It was precisely these social demands that many of the poor and working classes brought to these protests. In that sense, the situation is comparable to that in Belarus last year: while supporters of the opposition can be found in every workplace, the majority of the working class distrusts the liberal opposition, despite its flirtations with the language of social justice.

Their distrust is not without reason. Navalny was — and remains — a liberal politician. Over the years, he has been associated with various elements of Russia’s establishment — from his scandalous 2012 meeting in the German Alps with a number of Russian oligarchs to his ongoing financial dealings with Chichvarkin and Zimin, which he does little to conceal.

Navalny has constructed his political organisation not as a participatory, democratic movement shaped by its members. On the contrary, Navalny's movement remains authoritarian and leader-driven. All decision-making is top-down and reflects the views of a narrow leadership ring. Analysing the real strategy of Navalny’s movement and its motives, then, is often an exercise in speculation — just as it is in the case of the opaque Kremlin oligarchy. Still, there are enough concrete leads to enable us to decipher its logic and political orientation.

The biggest clue was handed to us by Navalny’s close associate, Leonid Volkov. In an interview, Volkov said that the mission of the liberal opposition was to strike a “deal” with big business and Russia’s political elites. At its heart, the deal is grounded in the belief that the liberal opposition can better serve the interests of Russia’s ruling minority than Russia’s conservative security services and Putin's kleptocrats currently do. It promises to ensure better relations with the West, more certainty for business, and so on. But the key promise underpinning this deal, Volkov says, is that "the system of private property" and the existing infrastructures for the distribution of the national wealth will remain intact. To achieve this, Volkov says, it is necessary to quell all signs of an uncontrolled "Russian revolt" — and any involvement of the left in Russia’s political transition. Volkov, in other words, is proposing a coup — one in which popular protest is reduced to ornament.

The liberal strategy, then, has two strands: absolute control of the streets and the monopolisation of the political sphere. Both are fundamental preconditions of its success. Only by monopolising political energies — and political power — can they win the trust and active support of the ruling class. This is precisely why Navalny and his team refuse to expand their political coalition, even if this would allow them to radically increase the scale of their actions. Their domination of the movement sweeping Russia is precisely what ensures its relative weakness and narrow social base. But even those thousands who do take to the streets at Navalny’s call are left disempowered. They do not participate in the development of the tactics and strategies of the movement, much less in determining its political goals and program.

As much as the left may distrust Navalny, it must be firm in the understanding that it is not he, but the current government, that is responsible for the socio-economic dead-end in which the country finds itself — for the poverty, powerlessness, inequality, and police brutality that are becoming increasingly unbearable. The ruling regime has proven incapable of change — and the crises it produced will only grow and deepen with time. Increasing numbers of people will be drawn into open struggle against the government. Isolation, then, is no longer a viable strategy. Action will become necessary. But that action must remain non-reactive, not carried by the chaotic forces of the day. It must, instead, be grounded in a clear strategy — a left strategy — that can offer the working classes and the majority of Russia’s population a way forward. Not one that deepens inequality and economic stagnation, or strengthens the dictatorship of the privileged few — whoever of them may occupy the seat of power — but that leads to long-overdue changes in the interests of the many.

The vacillation of some on the Russian left in the face of the events unfolding today plunges them into escapism. "This is not our fight,” they say. We must be honest about this stance, this cold admission of defeat. Class consciousness and socialist politics are not created through the study of books and the past — although they cannot be achieved without it — but through class and political struggle in the present. To turn away from the struggle at this juncture is to demobilize the working class, to renounce its political subjectivity — even when coated in radical language or justified by reference to the authority of revolutionaries past. Those who turn away from the struggle in the present will forever remain in the past — relics, divorced from the class struggle by an impassable chasm of their own design. The refusal to participate in politics in the name of "theoretical" or abstractly "propagandistic" activities does little to prepare the cadres of a future communist front. It is a banal act of desertion.

The left is not immune to the rapid polarisation of society that its politicisation — amid escalating national crisis — inevitably brings. There are those who are prepared to defend the existing social and political order as the lesser of two evils. Their "red Putinism'' is based on the premise that every major protest in the past few decades — however far-reaching its consequences — has produced nothing but anti-social reforms, stratification, deindustrialization, cultural archaization, and political reaction for the working classes. The fear that the forces of imperialism will take hold in Russia — the consequences of which may very well be irreversible — paralyzes these "conservative leftists," suppresses their will, and constrains their ability to form independent political strategies. The tactics of this "reactionary left" produce two inevitable consequences. First, they pit the left against its own social base. The less the masses are prepared to sustain the status quo that condemns them to a life of poverty, the more acute the crisis and the sharper the contradictions it exposes — between the state’s anti-liberal conservatism and the aspirations of the masses that find their expression in the streets. Secondly, "red Putinism'' is the rejection of the future — of social alternatives. These leftists commit themselves to an order that is already doomed. They become hostages to the conservatism and inertia of the ruling class.

If the current political movement pushes a part of society — and a part of the leftist movement — towards supporting the ruling government, it will also push others towards the liberal opposition. The latter carries the same reactionary character as “red Putinism”. Mass protests are emotionally gripping and uncertain in their promise of change and direction of travel. Police brutality, political repression, shocking social inequality, and the other political monsters of contemporary Russia make participation in the protest movement emotionally appealing. One cannot help but resent the way the courts manufacture guilty verdicts for dissent — and the justifications that our millionaire propagandists churn out to deceive us. But political choices cannot be dictated by emotion alone. Participation in a movement carries responsibility for its political program.

Participating in Navalny’s movement will not give the Russian left an opportunity to push a social agenda or form a distinct left flank within its ranks. Leafleting at unsanctioned protest is a strategy for engaging dozens — not hundreds of thousands or millions. These strategies will not set or shape the agenda, demands, or tactics of the movement. The participation of left forces in the liberal movement, then, cannot foreground the left’s own political subjectivity. At best, it may convince a small number of people to shift allegiances without demanding any substantive commitment from them.

The only way for the left to engage consciously in political life in Russia is by formulating our own coherent strategy for change. Not a set of abstract slogans or policy pamphlets, but an algorithm for action that can produce change in the interests of the many. Everyone in our increasingly atomized society needs to have an answer to the question of what he or she can do to bring about this change.

The left will not be able to produce such a strategy without political mobilization of its own. This mobilization must unfold on the Internet, in material worker and social struggle, and in the main terrain of political crisis today: the street. The left must offer the millions of disaffected their own platform, their own movement, their own protest campaign.

The twenty largest leftist blogs on YouTube today have an audience of about six million people. But this audience remains wedded to arguments about the past — about aesthetics and theory — not discussions about what is happening here and now. I’m convinced that, in the midst of political crisis, there is no agenda more pressing than collective deliberation on questions of political strategy and tactics. I can't script videos for leftist bloggers, but I'm sure that instead of Trotsky and Brodsky, we should focus on the rallies unfolding outside our windows, and reflecting on our own course of action. Granted, this process is unlikely to alchemise a common position tomorrow, but it would allow us, for once, to dissociate (and unite) on substantive issues — rather than relitigating events past. My first concrete proposal, then, is to kickstart this difficult dialogue across all the platforms available to us. In the medium-term, this process could lead to the emergence of a Forum of the Left, which in turn could construct a roadmap for the struggle for democratic and social change in Russia.

The second step that I think we need to take is to assess the strength of our forces. What would happen if most of us — leftist bloggers, activists, and organizers — called on our audiences to take to the streets? Perhaps for a sanctioned action, just to start. Who would respond? In a moment marked by rapid social politicization, we may find more willing participants than we think. What if even a small percentage of those who watched January's protests unfold on screen, but didn't join them, saw our call and found its appeal stronger than Navalny’s? What if, among the audiences of leftist blogs and communist groups on social media, the number of those who are prepared to take to the streets is higher than the considerable audience of liberal news outlet TV Rain? The relative success of such a mobilization could deliver a considerable boost to the leftist movement. It would be our call to arms. Around it, we could rally an army. The question of where to begin is an important one, but it remains a question of strategy.

To summarize, I would like to list — once again — my practical suggestions:

  • To hold a debate on the tactics and strategies of the left as soon as possible, and to broadcast them to the largest audience we can muster.
  • To formulate plans for a Forum of the Left that could convene a left-wing coalition to take part in the unfolding events as an independent political force.

Alexey Sakhnin is a Russian activist and a member of the Left Front. He was one of the leaders of the anti-government protest movement from 2011 to 2013 and was later exiled to Sweden.

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