Monday, November 26, 2007

Friday, November 23, 2007

Kronstadt foam

A letter to the Weekly Worker

Edward Eisenstein's letter on the 1921 Kronstadt rebellion is based on the amalgam technique of lumping different opponents of the Communist Party together as if they were the same, and furthermore resorts to using "authoritative quotes" as if these were themselves evidence. For example the claim that "Subjectively the [Kronstadters] were doubtlessly highly moral revolutionists. But objectively it was a filthy counterrevolution" is highly tendentious, but goes without explanation.

However, not only were the Kronstadters' aims fundamentally different from those of the Whites - who were hardly partisans of slogans for "free soviet elections" and "workers' control" in industry - but it is not true that they excluded Communists from their soviet.

The city's equivalent of a soviet was convened at the Kronstadt Engineers' College on 2nd March 1921. Three hundred and three ship, dock, army unit, workshop, trade union and soviet institution delegates participated, with Communists representing over one-third of those attending. The meeting elected a Provisional Revolutionary Committee in which anarcho-populist Maximalists (not Makhnovists) held great influence, and fresh soviet elections were planned. In the 4th March edition of its paper Izvestiia the PRC published the Appeal of the independent Provisional Bureau of the Kronstadt section of the Russian Communist Party, formed by long-standing local Communist leaders Ilyin, Pervushin and Kabanov;

"Do not believe the absurd rumours that Communist leaders are supposedly being shot or that Communists are preparing for armed action in Kronstadt. They are spread by a clearly provocative element, which wishes to provoke bloodshed. These are lies and absurdities, and it is on such as these that the agents of the Entente, working to achieve the overthrow of soviet power, wish to play.
"We openly declare that our party, with weapon in hand, has and will defend all the achievements of the working class against the open and secret White Guards who wish the destruction of the Soviet power of workers and peasants.
"The Provisional Bureau of the R.C.P recognizes new elections to the Soviet as necessary, and calls on all members of the R.C.P to take part in these new elections."

The Kronstadt sailors, workers and soldiers demanding free soviet elections - a slogan raised at the March 1919 Putilov works strike as well as in February 1921's Petrograd strikes - was no call for bourgeois counter-revolution. Indeed the Kronstadters had rebuffed the Right Socialist Revolutionaries, who wanted to replace soviet power with a Constituent Assembly, as can easily be divined by reading their fifteen demands (the Petropavlovsk resolution).

It in any case seems perverse to foam at the mouth attacking the Kronstadt workers' council for alleged exclusions, given that the Communist Party leadership had brutally suppressed numerous strikes such as that of workers at the Aleksandrovskii workshops in February-March 1919 and the Petrograd general strike of March 1919, co-opted the Factory Committees into official unions and replaced workers' control with one-man management, and clamped down on dissidents within the Communist Party itself at the March 1921 Tenth Congress. Along with the atrophy of soviets and the lack of independent unions, this meant a severe disenfranchisement of the working class.

What those who tell us that Kronstadt was a counter-revolution do not get is (a) that it was possible to criticise the Communist leaders at certain given junctures from a revolutionary point of view, not a reactionary one and (b) that working-class self-rule is the revolution itself (i.e. the reason why it has become the ruling class), and this cannot be put on ice or abandoned in the interest of some higher military-strategic goal. Even if well-meaning, sincerely revolutionary and beset by difficult circumstances, the Communist Party undermined workers' power by crushing those who wanted to democratise the soviet apparatus and restore working-class authority over such organs. Yet according to Edward, anarchists are "unable to settle things in a comradely fashion"!

The claim that the rule of the Kronstadt workers' council meant ceding ground to imperialism, but that invading the city and killing thousand upon thousand of people was to defend its workers' authority, is beyond my comprehension. Why would the Kronstadters who declared soviet power in May 1917 and March 1921 not resist a White invasion? Much as I am not an anarchist I think it perfectly possible to isolate different anarchist organisations in different episodes and judge when they are supporting workers' power and when they are not.

I suggest that Edward reads Israel Getzler's book Kronstadt 1917-1921: the fate of a soviet democracy and Ida Mett's pamphlet The Kronstadt Uprising of 1921

Thursday, November 22, 2007

False flag

Australia's governing Liberal Party has been caught with its pants down over a black propaganda operation attempting to associate the Labor Party with "softness" on Islamist terrorism in the run-up to Saturday's Federal Election. The leaflet, distributed by the husband of an outgoing Liberal MP, the husband of the local candidate Karen Chijoff, and a member of the Liberals' state executive, is reproduced below.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Support Palestinian workers!

I was disappointed by Rhodri Evans' response to Daniel Randall's Solidarity article about the Palestinian trade union movement. While Daniel's piece displayed his support for the “third camp” of independent working-class forces in Palestine, the tone of Rhodri's letter was to emphasise our criticisms of initiatives to organise Palestinian workers rather than focussing on their vital role in opposing both Israeli expansionism and clerical-fascist Islamist forces.

Rhodri is right to say that we should not have illusions in the politics of the Stalinist leaders of the Workers' Advice Centre initiative – he cites their failure to adopt a “two states” position on Israel-Palestine as his greatest concern here. But Rhodri sidesteps any reference to Fatah-controlled trade unions which, although of course standing in favour of a “two-state” solution, are in tow to a bourgeois-nationalist party riddled with corruption.

He tells us that the “working-class movements can effect fundamental political change only when they have the policies to do so” - well, yes, of course there is more to working-class politics than day-to-day trade union activism. But “two states” - a slogan which I myself support as the only guarantee of self-determination for both nations - is a poor litmus test. Some version of “two states” could be taken up by any number of different political forces, including both Ehud Olmert some sections of Hamas; we do not in any case propose that basic trade union activism plus good international politics equals a rounded workers' movement; and our support for independent working-class organisation is not conditional.

Indeed, neither Israel's racist Histradut union nor Iraqi trade unions who, horror of horrors, call for the withdrawal of US-UK troops, are subject to equivalent disapproval in Solidarity. In both cases we recognise their potential to organise the working class as a class as central and not conditional on any given democratic question.

Of course, Rhodri denies any suggestion that our support for the Palestinian labour movement is subject to any conditions. But the way we portray the situation in Israel-Palestine and the enthusiasm of our support for workers' organisations there says something about our orientation and is furthermore, in a sense, part of our “solidarity” effort, exposing the way in which the international labour movement ignores Palestinian workers. We should – absolutely - not be afraid to be open about our disagreements with their politics. But our primary attitude is not one of criticism, which may risk clouding the class lines.

To illustrate the contradiction here, I recommend that comrades take a look at recent Solidarity pieces on Palestine such as the editorial in Solidarity 3/114 and Mark Osborn's letter “Help Fatah fight Hamas”, which were both highly sympathetic to Fatah. While using vaguely sceptical formulations such as “David doesn’t like the choice, Fatah or Hamas. I don’t like it much myself”, no specific problems with Fatah’s programme were mentioned, which has the effect of blunting our criticisms and giving the impression that we do indeed tolerate their politics. In both pieces the fact that Fatah is a bourgeois party; its support for the “al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigade”; and all of the reasons why Fatah has lost the confidence of the Palestinian masses, were ignored. Why is Fatah above criticism? Because it is for “two states”, and better than Hamas.

So despite the AWL's “third campism”, on the Palestinian question it seems that our solidarity with the workers' movement is essentially secondary to interest in the fortunes of Fatah. We have no positive alternative to Hamas-Fatah feuding.

Indeed, the recent Workers' Liberty supplement entitled “How do we best help the Palestinians?” rightly opposed any academic boycott of Israel and argued for “two states” but failed to pose the question of positive solidarity with Palestinian workers – thus repeating one of the main mistakes of the “boycotters”. While the arguments made on the national question were convincing, its pages did not in fact give us any clues as to “how we can best help the Palestinians”, or deal with the question of agency. How might the organised working class grow as a real force in the region, and how can we practically help them? This should have been addressed.

For as socialists we know what we are for as well as what we are against. We do not let our opponents write our programmes for us. Opposing Hamas should not mean that we support Fatah, any more than opposing a boycott of Israeli academia means we do not build solidarity with the Palestinians, à la Engage. If the AWL is in favour of independent working-class politics, than how can supporting independent working-class organisations, however weak they are now, be anything other than our number one focus?

Les amants - René Magritte

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Tuesday 20th, all out on strike and in the streets!

Convergences Révolutionnaires statement

It's in the name of "fairness" that Sarkozy, [Prime Minister] Fillon and their allies are waging the struggle against "special" pension deals. But no-one can help but notice that having voted through 15 billion euros' tax cuts for the rich and given himself a 206% pay (or is that pocket money?) rise, having ignored the fraudulent profits of his mate Lagardère who got rid of tens of thousands of jobs at Airbus, President Sarkozy and his government don't have anything much to do with "fairness". And it's a bit of a swindle when they tell us "work more to earn more!"

Train drivers, RATP [Paris transport network] workers, electricians and gas-workers don't need telling that Sarkozy wants them to work more and earn less. All other worker s understand that they are also in the firing line of this attack. Not only because after taking on "special deals" the government will mount a fresh fight against all pensions, demanding 41 or 42 years' worth of pension fund contributions - in fact cutting pensions. But also because this government is preparing new measures to make redundancies easier, push down salaries, cut unemployment benefits and attack free healthcare.

"Fairness" would be a return to 37 and a half years' worth of pension fund contributions, like before Balladur's private sector reforms. Why should it be that the huge economic growth of the last few decades is translated into the need to work for longer and the impoverishment of workers and retired people? How come bosses and shareholders can still get rich anyway?

"Fairness" would mean dividing up wealth differently, first off setting a minimum wage of 300 euros a week for everyone. That would just be to meet increases in the cost of living, which are felt particularly sharply in basic necessities like food, petrol, rent and bills. "Fairness" would mean banning lay-offs, in particular in enterprises which are making profits. It would mean getting rid of casual contracts.

All those taking strike action and demonstrating in the streets are right - it's the only way of stopping [Sarkozy] pressganging the whole working class into even deeper poverty.

The government would love to force the workers who were on strike in the days leading up to Tuesday [20th November] to give in. It fears that they will join up with public sector workers as well as a certain number in the private sector. It knows that if the movement broadens it will become an irresistable force and it will have to back down. So, all together now! Our future depends on it, as does that of our children - including many of the students fighting against the university reforms in order than education is not placed even more at the service of capital and even more unequal.

Sarkozy and his government hope, with the support of certain union leaders - who have until now done everything possible to keep the struggles separate - to avoid having to face a united movement. The Parti Socialiste politicians themselves want to stop the strikes. They support us no more than right-wingers do, and all of them proclaim that they would make the same "reforms", even if they say they'd use different methods to put them in place. But nothing proves that these stooges will be able to put the lid on the movement without cost. It's time for all the unions to follow the example of the rank-and-file train drivers who in their general assemblies last week showed that they would not bend down in front of anyone else's decisions. We can't count on anything but our struggle, and we must be in charge of it ourselves.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Hal Draper - The Two Souls of Socialism

Chapter 10: Which Side Are You On?

From the point of view of intellectuals who have a choice of roles to play in the social struggle, the perspective of Socialism-from-Below has historically had little appeal. Even within the framework of the socialist movement it has had few consistent exponents and not many inconsistent ones. Outside the socialist movement, naturally, the standard line is that such ideas are visionary, impractical, unrealistic, “utopian”; idealistic perhaps but quixotic. The mass of people are congenitally stupid, corrupt, apathetic and generally hopeless; and progressive change must come from Superior People rather like (as it happens) the intellectual expressing these sentiments. This is translated theoretically into an Iron Law of Oligarchy or a tinny law of elitism, in one way or another involving a crude theory of inevitability – the inevitability of change-from-above-only.

Without presuming to review in a few words the arguments pro and con for this pervasive view, we can note the social role it plays, as the self-justificatory rite of the elitist. In “normal” times when the masses are not moving, the theory simply requires pointing with scorn, while the whole history of revolution and social upheaval is simply dismissed as obsolete. But the recurrence of revolutionary upheavals and social disturbances, defined precisely by the intrusion onto the historical stage of previous inactive masses and characteristic of periods when basic social change is on the agenda, is just as “normal” in history as the intervening periods of conservatism. When the elitist theorist therefore has to abandon the posture of the scientific observer who is merely predicting that the mass of people will always continue quiescent, when he is faced with the opposite reality of a revolutionary mass threatening to subvert the structure of power, he is typically not behindhand in switching over to an entirely different track: denouncing mass intervention from below as evil in itself.

The fact is that the choice between Socialism-from-Above and Socialism-from-Below is, for the intellectual, basically a moral choice, whereas for the working masses who have no social alternative it is a matter of necessity. The intellectual may have the option of “joining the Establishment” where the worker does not; the same option holds also for labor leaders, who, as they rise out of their class, likewise confront a choice that did not exist before. The pressure of conformity to the mores of the ruling class, the pressure for bourgeoisification, is stronger in proportion as personal and organizational ties with the ranks below become weak. It is not hard for an intellectual or bureaucratized official to convince himself that permeation of and adaptation to the existing power is the smart way to do it, when (as it happens) it also permits sharing in the perquisites of influence and affluence.

It is an ironic fact, therefore, that the “Iron Law of Oligarchy” is iron-clad mainly for the intellectual elements from whom it arises. As a social stratum (i.e., apart from exceptional individuals) intellectuals have never been known to rise against established power in anything like the way that the modern working class has done time and again through its relatively brief history. Functioning typically as the ideological flunkies of the established rulers of society, the brain-worker sector of the non-propertied middle classes is yet, at the same time, moved to discontent and disgruntlement by the relationship. Like many another servant, this Admirable Crichton thinks, “I am a better man than my master, and if things were different we would see who should bend the knee.” More than ever in our day, when the credit of the capitalist system is disintegrating throughout the world, he easily dreams of a form of society in which he can come into his own, in which the Brain and not Hands or Moneybags would dictate; in which he and his similars would be released from the pressure of Property through the elimination of capitalism, and released from the pressure of the more numerous masses through the elimination of democracy.

Nor does he have to dream very far, for existing versions of such a society seem to be before his eyes, in the Eastern collectivisms. Even if he rejects these versions, for various reasons including the Cold War, he can theorize his own version of a “good” kind of bureaucratic collectivism, to be called “Meritocracy” or “managerialism” or “Industrialism” or what-have-you, in the U.S.; or “African Socialism” in Ghana and “Arab Socialism” in Cairo; or various other kinds of socialism in other parts of the world.

The nature of the choice between Socialism-from-Above and Socialism-from-Below stands out most starkly in connection with a question on which there is a considerable measure of agreement among liberal, social-democratic and Stalinoid intellectuals today. This is the alleged inevitability of authoritarian dictatorships (benevolent despotisms) in the newly developing states of Africa and Asia particularly – e.g. Nkrumah, Nasser, Sukarno, et al. – dictatorships which crush independent trade unions as well as all political opposition and organize to maximize the exploitation of labor, in order to extract from the hides of the working masses sufficient capital to hasten industrialization at the tempo which the new rulers desire. Thus to an unprecented degree, “progressive” circles which once would have protested injustice anywhere have become automatic apologists for any authoritarianism which is considered non-capitalist.

Apart from the economic-determinist rationale usually given for this position, there are two aspects of the question which illuminate what is broadly at stake:

1. The economic argument for dictatorship, purporting to prove the necessity of breakneck industrialization, is undoubtedly very weighty for the new bureaucratic rulers – who meanwhile do not stint their own revenue and aggrandizement – but it is incapable of persuading the worker at the bottom of the heap that he and his family must bow to super-exploitation and super-sweating for some generations ahead, for the sake of a quick accumulation of capital. (In fact, this is why breakneck industrialization requires dictatorial controls.)

The economic-determinist argument is the rationalization of a ruling class viewpoint; it makes human sense only from a ruling-class viewpoint, which of course is always identified with the needs of “society.” It makes equally good sense that the workers at the bottom of the heap must move to fight this super-exploitation to defend their elementary human dignity and wellbeing. So was it also during the capitalist Industrial Revolution, when the “newly developing states” were in Europe.
It is not a question simply of some technical-economic argument but of sides in a class struggle. The question is: Which side are you on?

2. It is argued that the mass of people in these countries are too backward to control the society and its government; and this is no doubt true, not only there. But what follows? How does a people or a class become fit to rule in their own name?
Only by fighting to do so. Only by waging their struggle against oppression – oppression by those who tell them they are unfit to govern. Only by fighting for democratic power do they educate themselves and raise themselves up to the level of being able to wield that power. There has never been any other way for any class.

Although we have been considering a particular line of apologia, the two points which emerged do in fact apply all over the world, in every country, advanced or developing, capitalist or Stalinist. When the demonstrations and boycotts of the Southern Negroes threatened to embarrass President Johnson as he faced an election, the question was: which side are you on? When the Hungarian people erupted in revolt against the Russian occupier, the question was: which side are you on? When the Algerian people fought for liberation against the “socialist” government of Guy Mollet, the question was: which side are you on? When Cuba was invaded by Washington’s puppets, the question was: which side are you on? and when the Cuban trade unions are taken over by the commissars of the dictatorship, the question is also: which side are you on?

Since the beginning of society, there has been no end of theories “proving” that tyranny is inevitable and that freedom-in-democracy is impossible; there is no more convenient ideology for a ruling class and its intellectual flunkies. These are self-fulfilling predictions, since they remain true only as long as they are taken to be true. In the last analysis, the only way of proving them false is in the struggle itself. That struggle from below has never been stopped by the theories from above, and it has changed the world time and again. To choose any of the forms of Socialism-from-Above is to look back to the old world, to the “old crap.” To choose the road of Socialism-from-Below is to affirm the beginning of a new world.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Not so gorgeous

Given his colossal ego, z-list celebrity status and continuing admiration of Stalinist politics, it is hard to imagine a better candidate for biography than George Galloway. However, those who deduce from David Morley’s chosen title, “Gorgeous George”, that the book is irreverent or cutting will be greatly disappointed.

Yes, it is funny to think of the Galloway we all know and love as the twinkle-eyed young man who dreamt of being Foreign Secretary and devoted his youth to organising Dundee Labour Party (having failed to get elected to the heady heights of local councillor). But the scores of pages about the personalities, intrigues and business ventures of Labour in Dundee during the ‘70s and ‘80s are of scant interest to anyone serious about politics.

Indeed, Morley clearly has minimal understanding of socialist ideas and groups- he describes Galloway as a “Marxist” and “working class hero” (as with Fidel Castro), whereas in his lexicon “Trotskyites” are not “Marxists”. This bold allegation is never explained, nor his flat denial that Galloway is a Stalinist. But the most risible case in point comes where Morley tells us that the Workers’ Revolutionary Party - who received over £1 million in payments from Colonel Gaddafi and Saddam Hussein in exchange for fingering communists in the Middle East – “are so extreme in their revolutionary views that even members of the left describe them as ‘left-wing loonies’.

Neither is the writer interested in Galloway’s own failure to join the Socialist Campaign Group while a Labour MP, or own claim to be “not as left wing as you might think”, both severe indictments of his socialist credentials. Morley ignores Galloway’s continuing dismay at the collapse of the monstrous USSR regime, “the saddest day of my life”.

Morley does however defend Galloway’s 1994 audience with Saddam Hussein, in which he told the Iraqi tyrant “Sir, I salute your courage, your strength, your indefatigability”. He swallows Galloway’s claim that this address was intended to the whole Iraqi nation – an analysis which jars somewhat with the fact that in the same meeting Galloway gave the dictator a sickly tribute about meeting Palestinians who had named their sons ‘Saddam’. Even if Galloway were “saluting” all Iraqis, the fact that he would say this to the man who monopolised the country’s political life and butchered his opponents might seem like rather a slap in the face for Iraqi socialists.

Much of the biography is a narrative on Gorgeous George’s alleged financial impropriety – reporting legal wranglings of little note but drawing no conclusions – and does not ask why a supposed “workers’ representative” would refuse to draw only a workers’ wage. Morley does devote some pages to the Respect popular front but ignores the many critics – leftist or otherwise - of this project. This despite his interview with SWP leader John Rees, who makes a clear-as-mud case for workers’ management:

“It might be that if you ask about renationalisation you get one answer, but if you ask about continued privatisation you get a very different one, and certainly it isn’t hard to imagine that two steps down the road people may say: ‘Well, if privatisation isn’t working then we have to discuss public provision in some form.’ Neither they nor we want to have the old nationalised industries return, but we do want democratic public provision of essential services, and I would say there is a very, very large constituency for that view.”

And while Galloway’s pretentious mannerisms - Cuban cigars; wearing a coat over his shoulders with his arms out of the sleeves, like a mafia don, ready for a lackey to remove it for him; his pompous sloganeering about Saddam Hussein and Hezbollah – are fine targets for comedy, Morley steers well clear of farce. He instead peppers the book with his own one liners;

“Singers of the stature of Tony Christie had played [at the Labour Club], though whether he knew that some of the gate money was going to the Labour Party, or cared if it might have been on its way to Amarillo, we’ll never know”.

Morley is very much telling Galloway’s side of the story. Even though he is a “maverick”, a “firebrand”, and is “controversial”, Galloway is presented as principled and essentially benign, not like the yes-men in Cabinet who he might have emulated if he were a careerist. Yet Galloway has never been other than a politician, and his politics are far from socialist. He is a carbuncle on the image of the left, and the SWP/Respect would do well to break with him politically.

Monday, November 5, 2007

I ♥ bureaucracy?

This weekend I attended both the demonstration against cuts and privatisation in the National Health Service and a meeting in defence of the democratic structures of the National Union of Students. Both displayed the basically reactionary politics of the bureaucratic "left".

Saturday's NHS demo displayed Unison's ability to waste money on trinkets while avoiding serious campaigning. A plethora of flags with the slogan "I ♥ NHS" left me wondering whether working for shit wages for the National Health Service is all it's cracked up to be, or indeed whether the union's slogan was aimed to appeal to NHS management consultants who grow filthy rich as parasites in the state bureaucracy.

Many branches had turned out hardly anyone - the London organisers thinking the protest pointless - while others, such as Leeds, attempted to entice activists with leaflets offering a bargain "Shopping trip to London and Defend the NHS demo". Attendance was in the low thousands, which is very poor indeed, but unsurprising given the do-nothing strategy of the Unison leadership. As one Unison member heckled at the tiny 3rd March NHS rally at Friends' Meeting House, "ballot for a strike!"

The campaign to defend universal, free healthcare is doomed unless workers actually do something to defend it, action which will make the government sit up and listen. Furthermore, such a campaign needs to decry the very real faults of the health service, its mismanagement and the lack of public control over it, and make the case to extend public services. Instead, Unison seem to think that "reforms" are going ahead too quickly, but really everything's fine and we can all "♥" the NHS as it is.

The Socialist Workers' Party made a similar point at the NUS democracy meeting, where they argued that although the National Union of Students is undemocratic at the moment, our response to a further wave of attacks on democracy in the union should be to run a purely defensive campaign where we make no positive demands. It would be impossible to run a "broad campaign" if we linked the fight to defend democracy to demands in favour of extending rank-and-file involvement and reversing previous attacks - that would alienate potential supporters.

My first reaction to this was to wonder precisely why having no positive proposals and shutting ourselves up about what's wrong with the status quo would inspire people to support us, particularly given that many activists don't see any point in involving themselves in the bureaucratic union - and, indeed, why anyone would be opposed to the current attempts to bureaucratise the union further, but not care about democracy in general or oppose previous attacks. But then I understood - the "broad" campaign, it seems, is meant to include self-serving student bureaucrats who feel under threat from the review, even if their reasons for opposing it are completely contrary to our own. We are in favour of democracy in principle, but they are opposed to a coup within the bureaucracy.

Engaging rank-and-file students is fine in principle, but mobilising them is more difficult than rousing student union sabbatical officers, so we should put them on the backburner for the moment...