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Zyuganov and Religion

On 27 October, 2012, Gennady Zyuganov gave a rather important speech. Presented at the 14th plenum of the central committee, it sought to provide the framework for renewing and improving the theoretical work of the party. But this is not any party and Zyuganov is not any leader, for the party is the Russian Communist Party and Zyuganov is its first secretary. The date too was auspicious, for the speech was presented on the day of the Russian Revolution, 95 years on. The press was out in force and the speech was watched by millions, both live and later on the internet. Why? Contrary to representations outside Russia, the communist party is the main opposition to Putin’s various transformations. Despite many restrictions placed on the party, it regularly polls, along with the other main socialist party, almost 40% in the polls, with some observers pointing out that it would actually be over 50% if the elections were, shall we say, a little more transparent.

Towards Theoretical Renewal

I am interested in Zyuganov’s observations on religion, which appear towards the end of his speech. But in order to understand these observations, let me take a moment to outline their context. The scope of the speech is significant, seeking to map out what is needed rather than focusing on one area in-depth. It ranges from the extensive recent protests in Russia against Putin’s gangster-capitalism; through the clear failures of capitalism in light of sustained and near global recession, to assessments of the defeat of the communist party in the 1980s, which he attributes in no small part to the loss of theoretical sophistication, the culmination being Gorbachev’s ideological trouncing of the party in his liberal-bourgeois revolution.

The strongest parts of his speech concern the assessment of Russia since 1991, with its sharp decline in terms of economics, education, life expectancy and health since then[1]; his analysis of class struggle in Russia today, especially his focus on workers not initially experienced in class struggle from the Soviet era but now moving slowly from a class ‘in itself’ to a class ‘for itself’, marked most notably by the massive increase in strikes and protests; his exploration of the spirit of soviet civilisation, which runs deep in Russia and is for that reason attacked tooth and nail by the oligarchs.

Not all of Zyuganov’s speech is persuasive. Missing is any discussion of gender and sexuality, perhaps because the party still holds the ‘family’ as the basic item and has not faced up in any credible manner to the importance of gays, lesbians and queers. Further, I do not find the argument for the dialectical unity of socialism and patriotism the most robust. Although it cannot be gainsaid that nationalist movements have given and continue to give voice to the desire for liberation, and although patriotism may be a necessary feature of such movements at certain moments, the ambivalence of patriotism is a perpetual problem. Too often does it veer towards intolerance and xenophobia. And I would have preferred a little less jargon. But this should be read less as a sign of sloppy thinking than as a need to signal a genre of analysis. In this light, the touchstones of Marx and Lenin play a crucial role, although it may come as a surprise to many listeners and readers outside Russia that Stalin is cited often. Inside Russia this is far less of a problem, for his star shines strongly as the leader and victor of the ‘Great Patriotic War’ (WWII).

But why is theory – the main concern of his speech – so important? For Zyuganov, the struggle takes place in three spheres: politics, economics and theory. Far from being the least of the three, theory is crucial, so much so that he quotes Stalin, ‘without theory we are dead’. Or as Lenin put it, ‘without revolutionary theory there can be no revolutionary movement’. By theory he means not ‘ready-made recipes for all occasions’, but a ‘way of decision-making in each concrete historical situation’. A vital element of that theory concerns religion.


Zyuganov draws near to the matter of religion by focussing on what he calls ‘spiritual values’. This term is two-edged: not only is socialism and its heritage such a value, stemming from ancient Russian traditions and finding full expression in the Russian Revolution, but communism also fosters spiritual values. On this second count he means literature, art, culture, philosophy and so on. As was widely recognised at the time, the revolution and the Soviet era unleashed immense creative energy. Such a burst is simply impossible under capitalism, when the only value is profit at any imperial expense.

Religion is itself one of these spiritual values. On this matter, it would be easy to take a vulgar Marxist line: religion and especially its institutions are inherently reactionary. A brief look at history easily affirms such a picture. In the civil war after the Russian Revolution, many priests supported the white armies, monasteries stockpiled weapons for them, and the Orthodox Church hierarchy was implacably opposed to the Bolsheviks. Even now, that hierarchy enthusiastically supports Putin and the oligarchs, who in turn shower gifts on the hierarchy. They are at the forefront of anti-Soviet activities and propaganda, with lists of ‘new martyrs’ who died opposing the communist government.

Yet Zyuganov does not take that line. He is – to his credit – fully willing to admit the many mistakes made in the long history of the party. He admits that it was a mistake to oppose even the mainstream churches (Lenin preferred to foster marginal and sectarian forms of religion insofar as they expressed communist-like ideals). It was also a mistake to stop accepting believers into the party in the 1930s, especially since it had been the policy to accept them up to that time.

Zyuganov’s proposals on the question of religion fall into three categories: a strong separation of church and state; peaceful coexistence and mutual respect between the party and the church, since they share many of the same ideals; restoration of freedom of conscience in relation to religion and the active encouragement of believers to join the party.

First, what does the firm separation of church and state mean? Neither religion nor the government should seek to influence and use the other for its own agenda. In the current situation in Russia, the government attempts to make the church one of its lackeys. Putin and the oligarchs shower ‘gifts’ on the church, which is in turn expected to bless them and turn a blind eye to social degradation and exploitation. However, the church believes that it is using Putin and the oligarchs to its own advantage, gaining longed-for political influence and renovated buildings. This is hardly an ideal situation; mutual respect is at odds with the perpetual peddling of influence.

Second, mutual respect provides the basis for common cause. Here he cites an example from the past, from 1943, when a momentous agreement was reached between Stalin and the hierarchs of the church. The context was the dire threat of the German invasion and what was needed was a united front in the war. The many pages filled with past grievances on either side were turned over and left behind.

Such common agendas may also be found today, for the faithful of both the party and at least some elements of the church seek: to deal with and overcome the deep social divisions in Russia; to oppose the humiliation and insult of desecrating sacred symbols, whether of the church or the Soviet era; to live in a way that values peace and friendship, human well-being and flourishing, rather than profit; to oppose the ‘golden calf’ of capitalism, an opposition shared by socialist, Christian, Muslim, Buddhist …; to act for liberation from oppression, as may be seen in the history of Christianity and in liberation theology today (he mentions Hugo Chavez and the reverence of Che Guevara as a saint).

Third, freedom of conscience on matters of religion. Here Zyuganov takes a distinctly Leninist line: believers are not only permitted but should be encouraged to join, for they often share the same ideals. And if the party platform comes into conflict with some elements of a religious person’s beliefs, then that is a matter for such a person to resolve. Only one condition applies: anyone who joins the party must not engage in efforts to propagate ideas counter to the party’s platform (especially militant clericalism and anti-Soviet ideas). That platform is of course constantly debated and refined, and a religious person may take part in those debates. But he or she should not seek to undermine the platform by stealth. The catch is that party members in turn are not to insult anyone’s religious beliefs. The reason: religion may indeed bring one ‘closer to the spirit of socialism’.

Politician, Dreamer or Realist?

Of course, we may respond by arguing that Zyuganov is an astute politician. The experience during the Soviet era is that religion did not disappear and that a significant number of people held to religious commitment. So better be wise and prevent any opposition from the church in the present and future. However, this is a rather superficial reading that does not take account of at least two factors. The first is that his words are directed in part to the Neo-Renovationist movement in the Russian Orthodox Church. This movement consciously sees itself as a successor of the Renovationists in the time after the Russian Revolution. Led by Alexander Vvedensky (d. 1940), the metropolitan of Moscow, the Renovationists were left-leaning clergy and members who sought to renew the church in a way analogous to the renewal under way in Russian social, political and economic life. While being critical of the government, they also sought to work with the government, pointing out that it neglected the spiritual dimension of life at its peril, indeed that Christianity provided a more complete context for modern socialism. The second is an awareness of the progressive, revolutionary potential of religion. This reality has a long history, but it goes some way to explaining why religion persists after a communist revolution. A good deal of those religious elements may well be residue from before the revolution, residue that will take some time to disperse, but a significant element is that the revolution itself expresses in its own way ideals at the heart of religion.

Zyuganov closes his speech with a discussion of practical measures for theoretical renewal, for learning from both past mistakes and successes. And he is not afraid to state that ‘Soviet socialism is not only the past, but the future of Russia’. A sceptic might respond that he is dreaming, that the Communist Party of the Russian Federation is a minor outfit, a rump of ageing nostalgia buffs who cannot face the present. And one who is less familiar with the situation in Russia might wonder at what resources the party has for such renewal. So it is a surprise to find out that its resources are in fact quite significant. Publishing houses, media outlets, internet presence, journals, a raft of leading intellectuals and researchers, training programs for advocates educational programs for schools, text-books, seminars, conferences, round-tables, and public celebrations of past achievements. My sense is that Zyuganov and his comrades will be busy.

Roland Boer – on the road in the far east of Germany

[1] Since 1991, the country has lost two-thirds of its industry and more than half of its rural economy.

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