Mar 23 2007

Emancipation & Liberation Index 14

Category: Emancipation & Liberation,Issue 14RCN @ 7:29 pm

Emancipation & Liberation, Issue 14, Spring 2007

Issue 14 Cover

Issue 14 Cover


Mar 13 2007

The Republic of the Imagination

Category: Emancipation & Liberation,Issue 14RCN @ 8:46 pm

The Republic of the Imagination

In August 2006, Allan Armstrong interviewed the literary critic and poet John Manson about his life and works

Could you please give us some background information about your life?

John Manson

John Manson

I was born on a croft on the coast of the Pentland Firth in 1932. My mother was widowed in 1941. Within that year, 1941-2, she lost her husband, my father, and his brother, who lived with us (both to pneumonia), and her own brother, a wireless operator, whose ship was torpedoed. She worked until 1968 with no pension, except the old age pension at 60.

In 1950 I went to Aberdeen University to study English Literature and Language and completed the first three years. In the winter term of 1952-3, I attended David Murison’s Extra-Mural lectures on Scottish Literature and must have heard of Hugh MacDiarmid’s work there for the first time. At the same time I became interested in Franz Kafka and have followed the two strands of Scottish and European (and World) literature ever since. At the same time, or perhaps a little later, I began to read articles from a Marxist point of view, although I wasn’t living in class-conscious circumstances. I started to do some writing. This was the period of the Korean War, the colonial repression in Malaya and Kenya, and the suspension of the constitution in British Guiana.

At home in the summer of 1953 I began to have a partial breakdown of health (psychosomatic) – no hospitalization – and this went on for a few years. In 1955 my mother and I moved to a smaller place in Sutherland and I recovered my health there to a large extent. For the first time, I felt free from pressure. Later I qualified as a primary teacher and taught in Fife, Edinburgh and Dumfries and Galloway.

I began to read widely in literature. Of the novels I read at that time, I expect the works of Maxim Gorky and Mikhail Sholokhov would most stand rereading. I also read the trilogies of Konstantin Fedin and Alexei Tolstoy. When Dr. Zhivago, Lolita and One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich were published I read these as well. MacDiarmid published some of the Zhivago lyrics in The Voice of Scotland and introduced a selection of Pasternak’s work in a translation by his sister, Lydia Pasternak Slater (she moved to Britain before the Second World War).

The poets I read at that time were Christo Botev, the national poet of Bulgaria, in Paul Eluard’s French translation; Nicola Vaptsarov, also Bulgarian, who was shot by the Fascists; Martin Carter of (then) British Guiana, whose Collected Poems and Selected Prose, University of Hunger, was published in early 2006; and Nazim Hikmet, who is now regarded as the major poet of Turkey in the last century. I also became aware of Louis Aragon’s poetry in 1956, through his weekly paper, Les Lettres Francaises; and then read two of his 6 volume series, Les Communistes, and other novels in French. I still have a copy of a letter from Collet’s, listing eight volumes of Antonio Gramsci in Italian. Some of the other writers in whom I became interested at this time will emerge during my answers. I read the early works of Alan Sillitoe and Arnold Wesker, nearly all Ernest Hemingway and George Orwell, and at least one each of John Steinbeck, Sinclair Lewis, Erskine Caldwell and James T. Farrell.

How would you describe yourself in political terms?

A non-Party Socialist, since the dissolution of the CPGB

What do you see as the significance of the literary side of politics?

Politics is part of the public life of the times and it should be recreated as an important aspect of culture.

You see 1991 as forming a break in a certain period of literary politics. Why is this?

1991 witnessed the collapse of the Soviet Union and the dissolution of the Communist Party of Great Britain. It’s the end of an era in that sense, but not the end of other Communist Parties. It’s much more difficult to say how this affects the literary side of politics. The Portuguese Communist, Jose Saramago, won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1998, for example.

You see Hugh MacDiarmid as the most important literary figure in Scotland in the 20th century. Why is this?

MacDiarmid was a great lyrical and satirical poet and he was also a national regenerator through his anti-imperialist writing. He had enormous influence on other people, mostly when they were young and this influence extended to the worlds of art, music, history, language, philosophy, politics and economics as well as imaginative literature. He made the greatest single-handed contribution to ensure that Scotland would not be, as in the line from Tom Buchan’s poem, a one-way street to the coup of the mind. He wrote instead:

For freedom means that a lad or lass
In Cupar or elsewhaur yet
May alter the haill o’ human thocht
Mair than Christ’s altered it

I never set een on a lad or a lass
But I wonder gin he or she
Wi’ a word or deed’ll suddenly dae
An impossibility.

(Complete Poems, 1, pp. 257-8, Hugh MacDairmid, Manchester, 1993.)

MacDiarmid was at the centre of a number of political and literary controversies:

  • a. His alleged Scottish fascist past
  • b. The ‘bomb London’ poem from the Second World War(On the Imminent Destruction of London, in The Revolutionary Art of the Future – Rediscovered poems by Hugh MacDairmid, edited by John Manson, DorianGrieve and Alan Riach, Manchester, 2003.)
  • c. His ‘flytings’ with Hamish Henderson and Ewan MacColl.

What are your views on these particular issues?

  • MacDiarmid was never a Fascist in the sense of a supporter of a right-wing dictatorship; he didn’t belong to a Fascist group, for example. A study of his article in The Scottish Nation (1923), Programme for a Scottish Fascism, shows that he saw ‘a Scottish Fascism’ as Nationalist –

    ‘Scotland First’ for us as it was ‘Italy First’ for them’ – and Socialist – ‘… a Scottish Nationalist Socialism … will restore an atmosphere in which the fine, distinctive traits and tendencies of Scottish character which have withered in the foul air of our contemporary chaos, will once more revive.’

    He thought that …Fascism in Italy must incline to the Left. He also quoted The Fascist Movement in Italian Life where Pietro Gorgolini says that,

    Fascism understands the immense social importance of land, hence it condemns absentee and unproductive possession, which leaves vast tracts of land uncultivated that could be highly productive.

    (Hugh MacDiarmid: Selected Prose, pp. 34-8, Alan Riach, editor, Manchester, 2000.)

    Obviously, MacDiarmid thought this kind of ‘fascism’ could be applied to the Scottish Highlands but he failed to give weight to the fact that the Peasant Leagues were being broken up in Italy at this time. At the time MacDiarmid wrote the article he was a member of the Scottish Home Rule Association, the ILP and the No-More-War Movement through the League of Nations. He was also becoming interested in Social Credit.

    Similarly, MacDiarmid took ideas from Wyndham Lewis’s book on Hitler (1931) which seemed to chime with his own.

    Hitler’s ‘Nazis’ wear their socialism with precisely the difference which post-socialist Scottish nationalists must adopt. Class-consciousness is anathema to them, and in contradistinction to it they set up the principle of race consciousness.

    (The Caledonian Antisyzygy and the Gaelic Idea in Essays of Hugh MacDiarmid, Duncan Glen, editor, London, 1969.)

    He takes over the concept of ‘Blutsgefuhl’ or ‘blood feeling’. He equates Hitler’s attacks on ‘Leihkapital’ (loan capital) with Major Douglas’s (the main advocate of Social Credit). MacDiarmid was very impulsive and often wrote reviews and articles in great haste. MacDiarmid was certainly deceived by Hitler as a man in 1932-3.

    Here are some quotations from his Free Man articles At the Sign of the Thistle:

    In view of the recent discussion in Scotland of the necessity of militant action, readers should carefully weigh what [the poet] Mr [John] Gawsworth says:-[Hitler] is as much a prophet as Mahomet, Mussolini, or Lenin, but he is an armed prophet’.
    (23/6/32)

    Compare the mental calibre of the members of the Scottish Development Council with men like De Valera in Ireland, Hitler in Germany, Gandhi in India.
    (9/7/32) The SDC had been formed in 1931.

    … it is just this vital force, this resourcefulness and colour which attracts me in Hitler as, say, against the utter nullity of Sir Robert Horne or the horrible local preacherism, writ large, of Ramsay MacDonald.
    (3/9/32)

    I agree with Hitler in one thing – probably the only thing in which I do agree with him at all – and that is his doctrine that action must not negate propaganda.
    (4/11/33)

  • b. MacDiarmid saw London as metropolitan city, the centre of empire.
  • c. MacDiarmids ‘flytings’ with Hamish Henderson were public. Ewan MacColl records his private discussions in his autobiography, Journeyman. MacColl writes:So why had he chosen to single out the folk revival as a special target for his venom? Because of the kailyard, the nineteenth century parochialism which had poisoned Scots literature and condemned it to a debilitated existence in the cabbage patch. MacDiarmid had rescued it and, with the help of a talented band of devotees, restored it to its proper role. And now it was being threatened again by vandals calling themselves folk-singers, by a movement which had within it seeds which, if allowed to germinate, would produce such a crop of weeds that the kailyard would triumph again. MacDiarmid’s fears were not entirely unfounded.
    (Journeyman, an autobiography by Ewan MacColl, pp. 284-5, Ewan MacColl, London, 1990.)

    Macdiarmid had positives as well as negatives. He drew attention to modern epics such as Pablo Neruda’s Canto General and Hikmet’s Human Landscapes.

Could you explain how you came to persuade MacDiarmid to fully publish his Third Hymn to Lenin?

On my first visit to Macdiarmid’s house, Brownsbank, in February 1955 I asked him if it had been published in full (one-third had already been published in Lucky Poet). I saw he made a mental note and he published it in the next issue of The Voice of Scotland in April. Almost fifty years later I discovered that it was originally written as part of The Red Lion project (in the mid-Thirties) and that he then realised that it could be regarded as a ‘third hymn’ – but it wasn’t directly conceived as a ‘hymn to Lenin’ like the first and second hymns. Although it does address Lenin in parts of the poem it is more of a ferocious attack on the housing conditions in Glasgow and on the modes of thought which allowed these conditions to exist.

MacDairmid: a great lyrical & satirical poet

MacDairmid: a great lyrical & satirical poet

How did you discover the material which formed the basis for The Revolutionary Art of the Future – rediscovered poems by Hugh MacDiarmid?

In 1990 the National Library of Scotland purchased (for £250,000) the archive of material which Kulgin Duval and Colin Hamilton had been buying from him in his lifetime. An American University would have paid double. This has been classified into 246 folders and notebooks. As soon as I opened one of these I realised that some important poems had remained unpublished through lack of opportunities at particular times.

Other people had realised this before but perhaps I made a more thorough search than they did and recorded them in typescript. I had made several (more limited) discoveries of uncollected and unpublished poetry and prose on previous occasions, e.g. From Work in Progress in Penguin (1970), now retitled Kinsfolk, and the eight stories in Annals of the Five Senses(1999).

Your house contains many photographs and maps of places associated with MacDiarmid. Do you see ‘place’ as being important in his work?

Yes. Langholm, his birthplace; Whalsay, where he lived in the 1930’s; and also Liverpool and London. In Liverpool he wrote the poems in the abcbdd stanza (with the truncated sixth line) which he didn’t use before or after, when he was thinking back to Langholm; and in London he began The Red Lion project perhaps because he joined the CP there in August 1934 and had also just read Allen Hutt’s pamphlet Crisis on Clydeside.

Scott Lyall’s book, Hugh MacDiarmid’s Poetry of Politics and Place was published last year by Edinburgh University Press.

You have also located unpublished Lewis Grassic Gibbon writings in your researches.

Gibbon signed a contract with Faber to write a biography of William Wallace. He never completed it, but I found the first ten pages in the National Library of Scotland. Gibbon presents Wallace, At the head of a force that bore the significant title of the ‘Army of the Commons of Scotland’ and that after his defeat at Falkirk, not again, tell on tale, did the Commons of Scotland gather to battle under their ain folk till the Covenanting times.(William Wallace – Knight of Scotland, Lewis Grassic Gibbon, with introduction Braveheart in Kinraddie by John Manson, in Cencrastus, no. 61.)

In an important literary/political debate in the 1930’s Lewis Grassic Gibbon and James Barke seemed to reject a Scottish national identity. Yet MacDairmid later claimed that Gibbon had become a supporter of a Scottish Workers Republic. What is your view of this?

MacDiarmid may have drawn this impression from his last meeting with Gibbon in Welwyn Garden City in September 1934 but there is no evidence for it in Gibbon’s writing. Less than five months later he was dead.

You have spent some time recently working on James Barke. What do you see his significance was/is in the literary side of politics?

I think The Land of the Leal remains an important popular novel. Major Operation should also be republished though it is spoiled a bit by speeches like MacKelvie’s on materialism (in the context of the novel).

Jim White, a long time member of the Communist Party, has claimed James Barke was a Party member. Why do you dispute this?

Jim only had Bill Cowe’s word for it. I’ve rehearsed the evidence in my essay, Did James Barke join the Communist Party? (Communist History Network Newsletter, 19, 2006, published by Politics section, School of Social Sciences, University of Manchester, M13 9PL, website)

Why do you think James Barke was a member of the Freemasons?

I’ve no evidence here. Maybe it was the Burns connection? He was also a member of the Boys Brigade 1920-22 and spoke warmly of the Brigade in an article in 1956 (among other organisations).

Sorley MacLean doesn’t appear to have figured as much as MacDiarmid, Barke or Gibbon in your work on the literary side of politics. Is there a reason for this?

The reason is that I have no Gaelic and am therefore dependent on translations of his work. I’ve read his poems and his prose collection Ris a’ Bhruthaich (1985) and Joy Hendry and Raymond Ross’s Critical Essays (1986), the interviews he gave, and I’ve also heard him reading.

You have translated several European writers, particularly from the ‘God That Failed’ tradition, e.g. the Italian, Ignazio Silone; from dissident communists, like Victor Serge; and you have been interested in and sympathetic to non-Communists like the Icelander, Halldor Laxness. Why do you draw from these traditions?

A misunderstanding here. I’ve only translated one letter of Silone from Italian and though I’ve translated two books and a number of articles by Victor Serge I only became aware of him in the 1970s. But I’ve certainly been reading and rereading Silone from time to time since the late Fifties initially because he recreated the life of peasant societies and later because he reveals the debates within the minds of some of his leading characters with regard to the Communist Party.

The poets from whom I have translated the most are Pablo Neruda (Chile), Louis Aragon (France), and Paul Eluard (France)- Communists, though Eluard wasout of the Party for a decade,roughly 1932 to 1942. They had lifelong careers as authors and wrote intensely personal as well as political poetry – Resistance poetry in the case of Aragon and Eluard, anti-Franco and anti- Yankee poetry in the case of Neruda. Another poet I have translated, Cesar Vallejo (Peru), was also a Communist. But I’ve also translated from poets whose political positions cannot be so easily identified, e.g., Eugenio Montale (Italian), Constantine Cavafy (Greek), Manuel Bandeira (Brazilian), Henri Michaux (Belgian), whose work appears in my pamphlets.

Again I’ve read and reread Laxness since the late fifties, initially Independent People, about Icelandic crofters, and Salka Valka, about fishing communities (along with the Latvian, Vilis Lacis’s A Fisherman’s Son). I have read Max Frisch (Swiss), whose novels deal with questions of identity and who was also a great dramatist; Elias Canetti, Nobel prize-winner (1981), for his threevolume autobiography; Andre Malraux (France), for his novels of the political life of the Thirties; Albert Camus (France), for his stories and his posthumously published novel, The First Man, involving the search for his roots (Nobel prize-winner 1957); many of the works of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir (France), and more recently, the novels of the recently deceased Pramoeda Ananta Toer, who spent many years in the Indonesian gulag.

What attracted you, in particular, to Victor Serge, who has been part of the anarchist and Trotskyist tradition in the past?

I was first attracted to Serge in the 1970s through his novels, of which six have been translated into English (and one is currently being translated – Les Annees Sans Pardon. It was through Serge’s literary and historical works that I first became aware of the Left Opposition in the Communist Party; and this led to a much slighter knowledge of other Oppositionist novelists like Panait Istrati (Roumania) and Charles Plisnier (Belgium).

Why do you think there has been a resurgence of interest in Victor Serge recently?

I think Serge appeals because of his probity. But this doesn’t mean that I think he was right about all the positions he took up, particularly after the Second World War where he preferred the semi-dictatorship of the right to the Communist government which would have been in power if the ELASEAM hadn’t been defeated by our own forces (Carnets, p. 158, Victor Serge, Arles, 1985.). Recently I’ve heard that the well-known American essayist, the late Susan Sontag, wrote a preface to Serge’s The Case of Comrade Tulayev.

You are not just a literary critic and translator but also a poet. How important is this to you?

It is important to express my feelings but most of my poems are occasional rather than constructed to a theme. It’s only after they’re written that I begin to see the themes.

Why do you see the land as so important in a Scotland that has become very urbanised?

Simply my own experience.

I’ve lived the life and done the work. And it was also the experience of my forebears on both sides.

You have had a working relationship with the writer, David Craig. How did this develop?

I met David at Aberdeen University in 1951. In On The Crofters’ Trail (1990) which is dedicated to me as ‘poet and crofter’, David writes that … our discussions of literature and history have been incessant ever since.

How much influence have the places you have lived had upon you?

Caithness negative (as explained), Sutherland positive (my adopted county] West Fife positive, modern industry (then) and historical background, Edinburgh positive for its libraries and galleries.

You wrote to Emancipation & Liberation, in response to the article, Beyond Bayonets and Broadswords, which was trying to retrieve the revolutionary roots of Scottish Presbyterianism’s left wing. What prompted you to contribute to the wider discussion on Jacobites or Covenanters?

This was purely a literary interest, since the article made mention of MacDairmid’s literary use of the ‘white rose’. (Beyond Bayonets and Broadswords, Allan Armstrong, Emancipation & Liberation no. 5/6, and letter by John Manson, Emancipation & Liberation, no. 10.)

What is your view of the impact of Scottish Presbyterianism on society after your early experiences?

I found the impact of the particular brand of Presbyterianism with which I came into contact (when I was powerless myself) as harmful and repressive. I try to express this in my poem, To An Unconceived Child. Ian Macpherson’s Shepherd’s Calendar (1931) comes closest to my own experience. The author, Tom MacDonald (Fionn MacColla) called it nay-saying.(10 At the Sign of the Clenched Fist, p. 185, Fionn MacColla, Edinburgh, 1967.)

What literary projects are you currently involved in?

I’ve reconstructed the manuscript of Mature Art, which MacDiarmid hoped to publish with the Obelisk Press in Paris (before its occupation in 1940). After that he withdrew, and sometimes adapted, sections of the poem which he included in In Memoriam James Joyce (1955) and The Kind of Poetry I Want (1961). The poem has never been published in full and some parts remain unpublished. I’ve also found the plan of The Red Lion, but not all the parts.

A major project has been making a selection from the letters to MacDiarmid in the National Library of Scotland and Edinburgh University Library, which may well number fifteen thousand.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,


Mar 13 2007

Parecon: Participatory Economics and Socialism for the 21st Century

Category: Emancipation & Liberation,Issue 14RCN @ 7:17 pm

by Neil Bennet

What do you want?

It’s a question that we, as revolutionary socialists (or communists) face more often than any other when talking about our politics. We are more than happy to tell people what we are against – war, exploitation, suffering, injustice…but more often than not, when it comes to telling people exactly what it is we stand for, our answers fall short.

We might point out, for example that we stand for real socialism, for a democratic socialism – and contrast this with what was called ‘socialism’ or ‘communism’ in the Soviet Union, for the propaganda purposes of both sides of the Cold War.

But what does this really mean?

None of the phrases we might use goes into much detail about what an alternative to capitalism, a ‘socialist’ or ‘communist’ economy, might look like. What do we imagine the structures of such an economy to be? And how will it function?

These are questions that the socialist movement, and even the broader global anti-capitalist movement cannot leave unanswered. Sure we can make powerful and legitimate demands – from shutting down the WTO and stopping climate change to scrapping the council tax and getting free school meals. But without an economic vision, our campaigning will lack structure and direction, and we will struggle to convince more people to join us in the fight if we cannot articulate more clearly what it is we are fighting for.

An economic vision

As a starting point for exploring the question of what socialism might look like, it is important to discuss what an economy is, and what features characterise the different possible forms one might take.

The primary functions of any economy are the production, allocation and consumption of goods and services. Historically the most important division for socialists has been concerning ownership – that is who owns the means of production. However other things can influence class relationships in an economy just as powerfully, and must be considered when proposing a good economy or socialist economic model. But first let’s look at the basic differences between economic systems.

The two defining features of capitalism are the private ownership of the means of production (utilised for profit) and a market allocation system – that is a system where buyers and sellers attempt to maximise their own advantage at the expense of the other. There are many other features which flow from these, such as massive hierarchies of wealth and power, wage slavery and remuneration (payment) according to output and bargaining power. However ownership and market allocation are the aspects that define an economy as ‘capitalist’ in the commonly understood sense, so let’s stick with those.

So what other models have existed in the past? The most obvious answer is the command economy that existed in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Block countries. What had changed in these places that differentiated them from capitalism? Well ownership has certainly changed – in place of private capitalists we have an authoritarian state. And market allocation no longer exists, having been replaced with central planning performed by the state bureaucracy. But which of the injustices of capitalism does this actually resolve? Jobs still exist in a hierarchy – with people at the top having greater access to wealth and power, compared to those at the bottom. Some people are still forced into demeaning work for little reward, while other use power to gain privilege, and privilege to gather yet more power. In fact by concentrating power in ever fewer hands, command economies create new horrors, distinct but comparable to those inherent in capitalism.

What about ‘market socialism’? In this model (such as could have said to have been attempted in Tito’s Yugoslavia) ownership is distinct from capitalism, the means of production either being owned by the state, or by workers collectively. However the market allocation remains, the profits ostensibly shared amongst the workforce. So the question arises – do markets themselves have a negative impact on the people in an economy, or are they only so destructive when combined with private ownership? I think the answer becomes obvious if we again look at the defining features of a market – that is selfishly motivated buyers and sellers, prices determined by competition, profit and surplus maximisation and remuneration according to output and bargaining power – again necessitating hierarchical corporate divisions of labour.

So we have reached a crossroads.

We understand that no current or historical economic model achieves what we want to achieve. So what model can? Well first we have to consider what it is exactly that we want from our economic system.

An economy of values

What do we want our economy to do? We know we want it to produce, allocate and consume things, and we know we want to avoid the destructive and unjust qualities of other systems. So what values should our economy promote? Advocates of Parecon (or participatory economics) suggest they should be the same values we hold as important: equity, diversity, solidarity, and participatory self management. The last of those values is of fundamental importance, and is reflective of what should be meant when we talk of democratic socialism – that is that decisions should be made democratically by people in proportion to how much they are affected by those decisions.

Parecon overview

What are the important questions we have to answer when proposing a new economic model? What areas merit our attention when deciding on the institutions our model needs? The points highlighted below should be of primary concern:

  • how people should be remunerated (paid)
  • how workplaces should be organised
  • how decision-making should take place
  • how we can settle on what is produced and consumed

Remuneration due to effort and sacrifice

How do we define a just form of economic remuneration? Marx wrote From each according to ability: to each according to need. But is that an accurate picture of a just economy? And is it a realistic one?

I would suggest that it is not – that it is utopian and fails to take into account a concept of just rewards – making it wholly unworkable. What then are the alternative norms of remuneration we could consider? The forms that exist currently are mixed, and dependent on many variables. Income can be determined by output (i.e. the productive output of you as an individual), by bargaining power, by some natural advantage (perhaps you a smarter or stronger than I am), or often simply by luck. Under capitalism greed and cunning are also useful attributes in maximising your income.

However none of these could be said to just. There is no moral reason why someone should have more money because they were born into a rich family, happened to have a particularly useful skill, or worse because they lacked compassion for their fellow human beings.

The only just way for workers to be remunerated in an economy is according to effort and sacrifice.

In other words it is not economic output that should be measured in a just socialist economy, but the amount of work someone puts in – that is how hard they work and for how many hours. Who can determine how much effort and sacrifice is expended? Peers in the same workplace would presumably be better able the mos to determine such a thing. What’s more, in an optimal economy, effort and sacrifice would tend towards an average – meaning most people would be remunerated to a similar degree, variation occurring mostly in number of hours worked. But more on this later.

But let’s go back to Marx’s catch-all phrase first. There is something I’ve neglected to account for above. There will of course in any economy be those unable to work – be they too old, in hospital, incapacitated etc. Here Marx’s phrase comes into some relevance, as there are those with need but without ability. According to Parecon, those unable to work (and those between jobs) should be remunerated according to social averages. That is they should be paid as if doing the ‘average’ amount of work in an economy – that way neither gaining significantly nor losing out significantly from being unable to work. Of course medical treatment etc should be considered a social cost and underwritten by all.

Balanced job complexes

Orthodox Marxist theory defines two social classes – the capitalist class (who own the means of production) and the working class (who sell their labour to the capitalists). In other words the class system is solely down to ownership of the means of production. Sure there are other sub-classes described, but that is the basic model as understood by most.

Advocates of Parecon see things differently. Ask any regular worker about their job, and what pisses them off about it, what do you think they will say? Will they name some remote venture capitalist, or board of investors?

Or will they tell you how their boss treats them like shit?

Pareconists define three broad economic classes. As well as the capitalists and the majority working class, there is a third class situated between the two know as the ‘coordinator’ class. These coordinators include managers, professionals, doctors, lawyers, academics. They have a large degree of empowerment in their workplace, are often in charge of others and usually receive far greater levels of income than the majority working class. They have their own class interest – acting (like the working class) for greater gains and concessions from the capitalists, but at the same time trying to maintain their position of privilege and power over the majority working class.

Economists estimate the coordinator class to compose around 20% of the working population in developed countries such as in Western Europe and the USA.

It is this class of people that – with the absence of the capitalists – came to power in the Soviet Union.

And while we continue to allow this class division to exist, we will never achieve true equality of circumstance. Workplace hierarchies are an anathema to equity and diversity, and so have no place in a socialist economy.

So what is the answer? If we are to rid ourselves of the capitalist divisions of labour, what are we to replace them with? Parecon’s answer is the ‘balanced job complex’.

Put simply our demand is that everyone should do their fair share empowering, interesting work, and their fair share rote, boring, or unpleasant tasks. As we have already decided on remuneration according to effort and sacrifice, if we were to maintain capitalist labour divisions, people doing crappy jobs would be paid more for their extra sacrifice. This would be just, but would undermine equity. Similarly those doing more empowering jobs would be more able to take part in decision making, meaning others would be overpowered and lose all relative influence. This would undermine self-management and democracy.

If however peoples work is balanced into a variety of empowering and rote tasks, so that everyone’s job is more or less equal (though all very different), we re-enforce all the values we seek to promote.

Of course certain workplaces will sometimes have more or less empowering tasks than the social average. In these circumstances individual workers will have to spend some of their working week (or month, or quarter etc) in another workplace, in order to balance their complex.

Workplace decision-making

At the moment in capitalist workplaces, with corporate hierarchies, decision making is concentrated in the hands of the few. At the top level the capitalists decide where to invest their money. Below that decision making powers are monopolised by high-level management – whose decisions are influenced less by the needs of the workers or consumers, but more by the need for company profit and their own power within the organisation.

In a parecon workplace – where as we have established all workers will be paid according to effort and sacrifice for doing more-or-less balanced job complexes – decisions will be made by the whole workforce. But not by some abstract mechanism of majority rule. Rather each individual worker will have a say relevant to how each decision affects him or her. So if we are deciding which colour to paint your office, only you have the power to influence that decision, as only you are affected by it to any large extent (presuming you don’t share the office, and you don’t choose extravagantly expensive paint!). If however a decision affects a whole team – such as hiring a new colleague – then that decision must be made by the team as a whole, using norms they themselves have agreed upon. This system of democratic decision-making would form part of a working day, and would be paid for as such.

Larger scale decisions – such as on workload, productive outputs etc – for whole workplaces or even whole industries would be conducted by democratic councils of workers, with each group or department sending a delegate. Delegates would of course be immediately recallable and all decision-making and background information available to all. This brings us neatly onto the process itself.

Participatory planning

Readers may be familiar with the participatory budgeting, as practised by some Workers Party controlled local authorities in Brazil, such as in Porto Alegre. In these projects the limited local budget is controlled directly by delegated popular assemblies – an example of a community taking control of public spending and deciding its own priorities. This could be described as a form of participatory planning, only limited to social consumption. In a parecon, we would apply a similar model to the whole of the economy, for both production and consumption.

Participatory planning is the form of allocation system we describe as an alternative to markets and the central planning of the command economies. The main process is that of council democracy – both of workers in a workplace or industry, and of consumers in a community. The reasons for this are quite simple – every worker is also a consumer – that is they have two specific relationships within the economy. If we want a democratic economy we have to democratise both these relationships.

So how does the participatory economy settle on what is to be produced and consumed in any given time?

At the start of each planning period (say a year) every individual makes a proposal of how much they want to work, and how much they want to consume. This is easier than it sounds – last years production and consumption information will be available, so any changes can be considered relative to this. These proposals are taken to workplace and community councils and combined into joint proposals. These proposals are delegated to higher level councils and federations of councils, until at the end of the first round of planning there are full production and consumption proposals for the whole economy.

Now after this first round, it is quite likely that consumption proposals and production proposals do not match. These initial proposals are submitted to what are known as Iteration Facilitation Boards (IFBs). These would process the submissions, generating indicative prices based on the value of social inputs needed to produce different products and services. Based on these values, as well as all available qualitative information, people reassess there proposals and come up with new ones. This is repeated several times (i.e. iteratively) until consumption and production proposals are reasonably close, and a workable plan is created.

It should be made clear that the IFBs hold no economic power – they will simply be making calculations based on various data and socially agreed algorithms. In fact most of the process could be automated. To the extent that work has to be done, the IFBs would be a workplace like any other and subject to the same conditions of remuneration and balanced job complexes. If there was still any concern over the possibility of IFBs employees gaining some undue economic influence, the positions could be rotated amongst many individuals. However this would be exceedingly cautious.

Socialism for the 21st century?

Described above are the basic attributes of the parecon model of a democratic socialist or communist economy. I hope from this introduction that I have at the very least convinced you of the need for economic vision. I hope too that you might consider that some of the arguments for participatory economics make sense, and that you might be interested enough to explore these ideas further.

If so, I suggest you visit the website, or read some of the many books and articles on the subject by Michael Albert and Robin Hahnel – the principal proponents of Parecon. immediately recallable and all decision-making and background information available to all. This brings us neatly onto the process itself.

Tags:


Mar 13 2007

To See Oursels as Ithers See Us!

Category: Emancipation & Liberation,Issue 14RCN @ 6:39 pm

Crisis In The SSP

This article on recent events in the SSP is from the Irish Socialist Network.

Irish Socialist Network Website

The Tommy Sheridan affair probably hasn’t run its course yet: there’s bound to be a few twists and turns left before we can close the book on the whole saga. But it’s possible to draw up a provisional balance sheet after the events of the last few months and see what lessons can be learned. First of all, it’s important to establish the facts of what happened. It’s beyond question that somebody was lying. The rival versions of the story put across by Tommy Sheridan on the one hand, and his opponents in the SSP on the other, can’t both be accurate. So before we can draw any conclusions, we have to decide who’s telling the truth.

If we judged that Tommy Sheridan was telling the truth, then there’d be no problem deciding who was in the right and who was in the wrong. To sum it up briefly, Sheridan has put across the following story in the courts, the media and his own political material:

  • A) He was the victim of a monstrous conspiracy. This conspiracy stretched from the boardrooms of News International to the committee rooms of the SSP. Sheridan was a clean-living family man, devoted to his wife, whose only vice was an addiction to Scrabble. The News of the World set out to destroy his reputation because they feared the impact he might have as a radical political leader. They bribed witnesses to tell lies about him, making him out to be a sex-mad philanderer.
  • B) When Murdoch’s tabloid began publishing stories about him, a cabal in the SSP seized the chance to oust Sheridan. This cabal included most of the leading figures in the party, and virtually the entire leadership of the ISM, Sheridan’s own group. They were motivated by jealousy and personal resentment.
  • C) Not content with ousting Sheridan from the leadership of the SSP, his comrades then proceeded to fabricate a story about the meeting of the party’s Executive Council that forced him to step down. They doctored the minutes of that meeting to back up their fabricated story. They then proceeded to lie under oath when Sheridan’s libel case came to trial.

Contradictions

Now if this were all true, we’d have little more to discuss. Sheridan’s opponents in the SSP would be a disgraceful bunch of charlatans who should be despised and distrusted by everyone on the left. Sheridan himself would be entirely in the right, the victim of a terrible frame-up, and fully deserving of support.

The trouble is, the whole story stinks. It is riddled with contradictions and won’t stand up to any serious scrutiny. For example, the claim that the minutes were doctored only surfaced early in 2006. Before that, Sheridan had never challenged their accuracy. But probably the most telling proof that Sheridan has been telling big fat porkies is the attitude of his new allies in the SWP and the CWI.

They have attacked the rump SSP ferociously in their publications and in the various Internet discussion forums, but they have tended not to repeat Sheridan’s outlandish claims about a conspiracy. His SSP opponents have been attacked for siding with Rupert Murdoch, but not damned as liars. When Sheridan’s defenders have engaged in argument, they have tended to fall back on a very different line. They say that it was wrong for the party’s EC to discuss Sheridan’s personal life. Or if they did discuss it, that no minutes should have been taken. Or if they were taken, that they should have been destroyed. Whatever may be said about these arguments, they are all based on the assumption that Tommy Sheridan is lying and his opponents are telling the truth.

So it seems logical to take a very different version of events as the basis for discussion. The reality was that Tommy Sheridan did not live up to his public image as a family man. He was repeatedly…[we feel unable to publish the rest of this paragraph given TS‘s propensity for using the bourgeois courts -Ed]

Rumours of this behaviour were widespread and many people in the SSP were aware of them. Members of its leadership had confronted him about it well before the News of the World printed its stories, concerned that it might be damaging for the party. When the stories began appearing in the tabloids, Sheridan’s comrades were painfully aware that it wasn’t too far off the truth.

Alternative strategies

Hearing that he intended to take a libel case against the paper, the party’s EC confronted Sheridan and questioned the wisdom of his strategy. He assured them that while the stories might well be true, nothing could be proved in court, and he would take Murdoch’s rag to the cleaners by lying to protect his reputation. Sheridan expected the party leadership to support him. The other members of the EC agreed unanimously that this was a foolish course of action that was bound to be damaging for Sheridan and for the SSP. They suggested a number of alternative strategies for dealing with the paper’s stories. If he had accepted their advice and followed one of these courses, the story would probably have blown over in a few months.

The SSP has never preached the kind of rigid, conservative morality associated with the Tories or New Labour. Sex scandals did a lot of damage to the Tory party in the 90s because of their self-righteous cant about family values. Never having pointed the finger at people who don’t fit in with bible-bashing conservative morality, the SSP should have been able to weather its own sex scandal.

True, there was a bit of a contradiction between Sheridan’s use of his family as a tool for building his media image, and his actual behaviour. But ultimately, Sheridan hadn’t built his political reputation on his standing as a family man: he built it up through years of involvement in activism.

That reputation would have survived intact if he had come clean about his personal flaws, or simply refused to discuss the matter. The SSP would have avoided its recent crisis, and Sheridan might still be its convenor.

When Sheridan refused to accept the advice of the EC and made it clear that he was going ahead with his libel case, the EC was quite right to ask for his resignation as convenor of the party. Having refused to accept any kind of collective decision-making, Sheridan wasn’t fit to carry on as leader of the party.

Those who say that the matter should never have been discussed at the EC can’t expect to be taken seriously. When the leader of a small left-wing party takes a libel case against a newspaper, it is bound to affect the whole organisation (especially when the leader is as prominent a figure as Sheridan). The rest of the party has a right to be consulted before such a drastic step is taken. Sheridan expected the SSP to support him with his case: if you ask people for support, you have to listen to their opinions.

The claim that minutes should never have been taken of the meeting is equally wrong-headed. That meeting was by far the most significant one in the SSP’s short life. If no minutes had been taken, there would have been no objective record of the meeting that had ended with the party’s leader being forced to step down. This would have been a blatant denial of democracy.

In fact, the main mistake that was made was the decision to keep the minutes confidential. This was understandable: it would have caused a big row if the minutes had been made publicly available, and it was natural to hope that the whole thing could be kept under wraps. But if the minutes had been published there and then, there would have been no libel trial and an ugly mess could have been avoided. The SSP would be in much better shape today. Sheridan’s opponents in the rump SSP now seem agreed that this was their biggest error.

Sheridan, of course, went ahead with his case, and inevitably the now-notorious EC meeting came under scrutiny. Even if there had been no minutes taken of the meeting, or if the minutes had been destroyed, the EC meeting would still have been discussed in court. Everyone knew that there had been a meeting of the EC that led to Sheridan’s resignation, and everyone knew that the discussion had been related to the newspaper stories and his plan to take a libel action.

At any rate, the court ordered the minutes to be handed over. The initial decision of the SSP leadership to defy this order was abandoned after leading member Alan McCombes had spent time in jail and punitive fines were beginning to stack up. As the strategy of defiance collapsed, Sheridan launched a bid to take back control of the party, issuing an open letter that contained bitter attacks on the main figures in the party. Charges of Stalinism and McCarthyism were levelled, and there was a clear sexist undertone to sections of the open letter. At this point, the SWP and the CWI both swung fully behind Sheridan.

Dilemmas

As the court case opened, all those who had been present at the EC meeting were called as witnesses. They faced a simple choice. They could tell the truth about what Sheridan has said in their presence. This would assist the News of the World in its efforts to discredit Sheridan, whether they liked it or not.

Or they could lie to back up his case. This would mean contradicting the minutes, which were in the possession of the court. It would invite charges of perjury if their lies were disbelieved, or if different witnesses contradicted each other under cross-examination. It would also powerfully reinforce the claim by Sheridan and his supporters that he was the victim of a cabal who had forced him to resign as leader on a false pretext.

Even if the minutes had been destroyed long before the court could get its hands on them, the SSP witnesses would have faced a similar dilemma. Lawyers would have cross-examined them closely, and demanded to know why Sheridan had been forced to resign. If they had made a collective decision to lie, it would have been very difficult for a dozen witnesses to maintain the same story without contradicting each other.

What was at stake?

Before deciding whether they were duty bound to support Sheridan, it’s important to remember why they were all in court in the first place. Sheridan was not on trial. The British state was not bringing criminal charges against him. Nor had he been sued by a mighty corporate empire for libel. He had brought the case of his own free will.

It’s also important to remember what was at stake: the personal reputation of Tommy Sheridan, and nothing else. Those who have presented his eventual victory as a great triumph for socialism and the working class are deluding themselves. It makes no sense to compare Sheridan’s win to a court ruling in favour of trade unionists or peace activists – never mind a successful strike or occupation. The Murdoch empire is no doubt annoyed by Sheridan’s victory, but it will carry on regardless and mark down the libel award as small change.

Bearing this in mind, it also makes no sense to denounce the so-called SSP 11 who testified against Sheridan as scabs and traitors.

They were simply unwilling to perjure themselves and risk spending time in prison for the sake of preserving Tommy Sheridan’s personal reputation, in a case which he had not been obliged to bring, which they had rightly advised him not to bring. As soon as the case was over, the Scottish authorities launched a perjury investigation, which is still in progress. If the SSP 11 had all opted to perjure themselves out of loyalty to Sheridan, they would now have good reason to fear jail sentences.

Bad taste

By all accounts, Sheridan put in a brilliant performance in the courtroom, even if he was telling barefaced lies the whole way through. But his behaviour left a very bad taste in the mouth. If the only victim of his lies had been the Murdoch papers, then nobody would be too bothered. But he slandered some of his oldest comrades, accused them of being liars and exposed them to the risk of jail sentences for perjury. He humiliated former sexual partners, reinforcing the sexist undertones of his open letter. He created enough bitterness to keep ten feuds going, never mind one.

If the jury had based their decision on a rational examination of the evidence, it seems certain that they would have dismissed Sheridan’s case. But it appears that they based their decision instead on a gut feeling: they wanted to give Rupert Murdoch’s media empire a bloody nose, and they weren’t too bothered if Sheridan had misbehaved himself from time to time. You could say they made the wrong decision for the right reasons.

Sheridan’s behaviour after the verdict totally discredited him. He took £30,000 off the Blair supporting tabloid rag the Daily Record (a paper with a track record of bitter hostility to the SSP and to Sheridan himself) and then used its pages to denounce his one time comrades as scabs. The rhetoric used by Sheridan’s supporters to denounce his opponents in the party was poisonous: traitors, grasses and so on.

Sheridan initially aimed to take back the leadership of the SSP, and promised to purge it of the faction that had opposed him. But he apparently decided that there was little or no chance of the SSP accepting him as its leader again, and broke away to form a new party, Solidarity.

Since the split, there has been one major development. The News of the World has revealed the existence of a tape passed into its hands by an SSP member, George McNeilage. The tape is a recording of a conversation McNeilage had with Sheridan shortly after he was forced to step down as leader. It confirms the account of the EC meeting given by his opponents in the party.

While Sheridan has denounced the tape as a forgery, it seems likely to be genuine, and will come as no great surprise to anyone who has examined his version of events and noted the gaping holes. It remains to be seen what the outcome of the perjury investigation will be: there may well be further developments.

In any case, the tape raises difficult questions for the rump SSP. It was very dubious for McNeilage to make the tape in the first place, but handing it over to the News of the World was totally wrong. If he took money for it, that was even worse.

This is not a point that can fairly be made by those who have sided with Sheridan. He, after all, took a generous sum from a right-wing tabloid and used its pages to abuse socialists. But two wrongs don’t make a right: anyone who has criticised Sheridan for lining up with the Daily Record has to level the same criticisms against McNeilage.

The SSP leadership responded to the tape by denying any part in its release, but welcomed the proof it seemed to offer that Sheridan was lying and they were telling the truth. They did not criticise McNeilage for giving the tape to Murdoch’s paper and opposed moves at the recent SSP conference to condemn McNeilage. The leadership appears to have the support of much of the party membership for this stance, judging by the large majority that rejected a motion condemning McNeilage.

It has been suggested that some at least of the SSP’s leading figures must have known about the existence of the tape, and discussed its contents with McNeilage. This may well be true. If they did, then they should have strongly advised him against going to the News of the World. If on the contrary they actually advised him to do what he did, then they are as guilty as he is.

But this remains a matter for speculation. What we know is that McNeilage did something that was foolish and unprincipled, and that the SSP leadership has been unwilling to criticise him. This suggests that Sheridan’s claims have become a self-fulfilling prophesy: his opponents in the party have become so embittered after the experience of the last few months that they are in danger of losing all sense of proportion.

The SSP aims to retain its place as the main radical-left force in Scotland, and beat off the challenge from Solidarity. But this has nothing in common with the News of the World’s parallel campaign to reverse their defeat at the hands of Sheridan. There shouldn’t be any co-operation between SSP members and the Murdoch empire. No matter how bad Sheridan’s behaviour has been, he is not the main enemy and exposing him shouldn’t become a fixation.

It may be understandable that people who have been slandered and exposed to the risk of jail by Sheridan’s unprincipled behaviour have a distorted perspective on things. But they should still know better. It would have been better for the SSP if Sheridan and Solidarity had been left to their own devices over the coming months: any battle between the rival organisations should be political rather than legal.

Well that’s the story so far. Reading over the details will leave most people on the left feeling depressed and frustrated (or at any rate, it should). Disagreements among socialists should be about ideas and strategies, not personality clashes and bitter squabbles between people who share the same basic ideology. Whatever happens over the coming months and years, the Scottish left has taken a pounding, and it’ll be a long time before the echoes of this row fade away.

But we might as well take a look at what’s happened and see if we can draw any broader political lessons from the whole affair. Sheridan and his supporters would say that we should draw one clear lesson: when a socialist is locked in battle with a right-wing media empire, he should have the full support of all his comrades. Anyone who fails to offer such support is betraying the socialist cause.

Scargill vs. Daily Mirror

It’s useful to compare the Sheridan affair with another scandal involving a prominent left-wing activist and a tabloid newspaper: the Scargill affair that broke in 1990. Arthur Scargill and his closest ally in the miners’ union, Peter Heathfield, were accused of financial corruption by the Daily Mirror. They were charged with diverting funds for their own personal use, and with using money intended for a miners’ hardship fund to promote their pet political causes.

The progress of the Scargill affair has been well described by Seamus Milne in his book The Enemy Within. A few key differences should be apparent to anyone who’s familiar with both stories. First of all, the allegations levelled against Scargill and Heathfield were far more serious than anything the News of the World claimed about Tommy Sheridan. For a left-wing activist, taking the members’ money to subsidise your own lifestyle is far more damning than any kind of sexual infidelity.

If the allegations against Scargill had been true, his political reputation would have been in tatters. If the allegations against Sheridan were true, it would mean that he was guilty of personal flaws and perhaps also guilty of extreme recklessness. But it would certainly not have been the end of his political career: most socialists would have been quite happy to forgive him for his mistakes.

Secondly, the allegations against Scargill and Heathfield were totally false, without a shred of justification, and could easily be shown to be false. The same cannot be said when it comes to Sheridan. Although it seems the News of the World was sloppy and got some of the details wrong with its stories, Sheridan was definitely…[as above – Ed]

Going further, there’s another crucial difference. The Scargill affair was the product of a determined campaign to discredit Arthur Scargill and break the power of the miners’ union for good. This campaign was backed by the Tory government and the Labour Party leadership, it was assisted by the secret state, and it was launched by the Mirror’s owner Robert Maxwell. Scargill and Heathfield had no choice but to defy the campaign any way they could, and were entitled to expect support from every honest socialist.

It seems unlikely that the tabloid stories about Sheridan were the product of a similar campaign. To be sure, Rupert Murdoch’s media empire would have been quite happy to damage the reputation of a prominent left-winger. But his papers have had no problem publishing similar stories about Tory or New Labour politicians. The chances are, if Sheridan had been a member of a right-wing party, his personal life would have been exposed in exactly the same way.

Even if we assume that Rupert Murdoch personally ordered his editors to dish the dirt on Tommy Sheridan because he wanted to undermine the SSP, it would have been very easy for Sheridan to dodge the bullet. If he had accepted the advice of the SSP leadership when the stories first broke, the whole crisis would have been avoided. If Murdoch really wanted to damage the SSP, he must be absolutely delighted with the outcome of Sheridan’s libel case, which has left the Scottish left bitterly divided and weakened. If he’s capable of seeing things objectively, £200,000 wasn’t too much of a price to pay for doing so much damage to the left-wing forces in Scotland.

SSP: pointing in the right direction

SSP: pointing in the right direction

Leaders and accountability

The fact that Sheridan refused to take that advice suggest one of the most obvious political lessons that can be drawn from the whole affair. The SSP were too dependent on Sheridan. They used his personality to build the party and have paid the price. This is now acknowledged by most people in what remains of the SSP.

They recall all the times they introduced themselves to people in the street by saying we’re from the SSP, you know, Tommy Sheridan’s party and admit that they’re paying the price for it now. The SSP are hardly the first left group to be dependent on one public face. The Labour left relied on Tony Benn in the early 80s, Militant in Liverpool depended on Derek Hatton, RESPECT is totally dependent on George Galloway. In Ireland, Joe Higgins is probably known to far more people than his party.

It’s unlikely that the left can do without public leaders altogether. The key question is, how we hold them accountable? Obviously, democratic structures are needed within the organisation. But this isn’t enough. While RESPECT has no effective way of keeping George Galloway on a leash, in theory the SSP should have had the structures needed to prevent Sheridan from going down his disastrous path.

What was lacking was a culture of accountability. It seems as if Sheridan let his position as the public face of the SSP go to his head, and thought of himself as the personification of the socialist cause in Scotland. His own personal reputation was inseparable from that cause, and had to be protected at all costs.

The left needs its leaders to be humble. Even if the media presents them as the be-all and end-all of their organisation, that sort of attitude should be stamped on within the party. And they should never be indispensable: there should be a collective leadership, with a number of people capable of performing a role as spokesperson.

There were other problems with the functioning of the SSP that have been revealed by the crisis. The regional organisers of the party were sometimes completely autonomous, as was shown when some organisers were able to take whole sections of the SSP with them into Solidarity. It seems as if there was a drift away from grass roots activism after the party’s success in the 2003 Scottish assembly elections, as many activists dropped out and those that remained were often diverted into support for the parliamentary reps.

A discussion has begun in the rump SSP about any of these problems. It’s in its early stages yet, but there seems to be a consensus that it’s necessary to engage members to a much greater extent, with participatory education and more horizontal communication between branches. It remains to be seen what this discussion will produce in the end, but it’s pointing in the right direction at least.

Solidarity, on the other hand, seems likely to re-produce all the problems that arose in the SSP, on a grander scale. The new organisation will be totally dependent on the personality of Tommy Sheridan. It will be a leader-based party like RESPECT. It’s possible to imagine the SSP removing Colin Fox as its convenor or side lining other figures in the current leadership. But it’s impossible to imagine Solidarity without Sheridan. He will be a law unto himself, and there’s no telling where he will end up.

Infallibility

Two more points are worth making about attitudes that have done enormous damage to the left in the past, and have been very much in evidence during the SSP’s crisis. The first concerns the tendency of far-left organisations to proclaim their own infallibility. Groups have often tended to forget about their own mistakes, and to insist that every new development simply confirms that they were right all along about everything.

This goes hand-in-hand with a willingness to chuck yesterday’s party line in the bin when it no longer suits present requirements. The statements issued by the CWI and the SWP over the last few months have betrayed attitudes of this sort. For the CWI, the SSP’s crisis simply confirms everything they have been saying about the party since its leading members broke with their own organisation several years ago. Why this should be the case is not obvious to the uninitiated, since these criticisms were levelled at Sheridan and his former allies in equal measure. Past criticisms of Sheridan as a reformist and a nationalist have been quietly shelved.

The SWP has been equally keen to proclaim how right it was in everything it has said about the Scottish left. The flip side of this crude certainty is the need to bury evidence of past mistakes and forget all about drastic U-turns. So nothing is ever learnt from mistakes. There’s nothing wrong with making mistakes: they only become a problem when they are not acknowledged, and no lessons are drawn from them. The myth of infallibility is bound to result in grave errors.

Moral relativism

The second point concerns an attitude that has been even more damaging in the history of the left: the belief that the end justifies the means. This was clearly the way Sheridan saw things: not only was it ok to lie in order to give the Murdoch empire a bloody nose, it was ok to slander his comrades and humiliate his former sexual partners in public. It’s also the way his new allies in the SWP and the CWI see things. And the controversy regarding the Sheridan tape suggests that the rump SSP leadership aren’t innocent of that way of thinking either.

This kind of moral relativism has done enormous harm to the socialist movement. It’s true that it may sometimes be necessary to do things that are unpleasant and undesirable. But once you start accepting the idea that it’s ok to trample over people in the name of the greater good, it’s a slippery slope. A bit of personal integrity and respect for other people is essential for any socialist who wants to keep on the right path.

Moral relativism has been common enough on the Marxist left. While Marxism need not lead to this kind of attitude, it does contain some elements that make it more likely. As a strongly secular ideology, it naturally rejects the idea that moral principles have been established for all eternity by any higher being. And by asserting that all ideologies sare the product of class societies (which is true as far as it goes), it leaves the door open to the argument that all morality is bourgeois (or petit-bourgeois perhaps).

To prevent these elements in Marxism from leading to a corrupt and cynical attitude that anything goes as long as it advances the cause, it’s important to keep hold of some basic principles. It’s not necessary to believe in God to accept that some moral principles are likely to be valid in almost every situation – otherwise we’d have to say that it was ok to torture a child if it made the triumph of socialism more likely. This is not a melodramatic example, since equally vile things were done in the name of socialism in the last century and may be done again if lessons aren’t learnt from the experience.

Tags:


Mar 13 2007

Bought and Sold

Category: Emancipation & Liberation,Issue 14RCN @ 5:51 pm

Smart big awards and prize money
Is killing off black poetry
It’s not censors or dictators that are cutting up our art.
The lure of meeting royalty
And touching high society
Is damping creativity and eating at our heart.

The ancestors would turn in graves
Those poor black folk that once were slaves would wonder
How our souls were sold
And check our strategies,
The empire strikes back and waves
Tamed warriors bow on parades
When they have done what they’ve been told
They get their OBEs.

Don’t take my word, go check the verse
Cause every laureate gets worse
A family that you cannot fault as muse will mess your mind,
And yeah, you may fatten your purse
And surely they will check you first when subjects need to be amused
With paid for prose and rhymes.

Take your prize, now write more,
Faster,
Fuck the truth
Now you’re an actor do not fault your benefactor
Write, publish and review,
You look like a dreadlocks Rasta,
You look like a ghetto blaster,
But you can’t diss your paymaster
And bite the hand that feeds you.

What happened to the verse of fire
Cursing cool the empire
What happened to the soul rebel that Marley had in mind,
This bloodstained, stolen empire rewards you and you conspire,
(Yes Marley said that time will tell)
Now look they’ve gone and joined.

We keep getting this beating
It’s bad history repeating
It reminds me of those capitalists that say
‘Look you have a choice,’
It’s sick and self-defeating if our dispossessed keep weeping
And we give these awards meaning
But we end up with no voice.

Taken from Too Black, Too Strong. Published by Bloodaxe Books (2001)

Tags:


Mar 12 2007

Me? I Thought, OBE Me? Up Yours, I Thought

Category: Emancipation & Liberation,Issue 14RCN @ 4:19 pm

An invitation to the palace to accept a New Year honour…you must be joking. Benjamin Zephaniah won’t be going. Here he explains why. We have reprinted this article from The Guardian, Thursday November 27, 2003.

I woke up on the morning of November 13 wondering how the government could be overthrown and what could replace it, and then I noticed a letter from the prime minister’s office. It said:

The prime minister has asked me to inform you, in strict confidence, that he has in mind, on the occasion of the forthcoming list of New Year’s honours to submit your name to the Queen with a recommendation that Her Majesty may be graciously pleased to approve that you be appointed an officer of the Order of the British Empire.

I get angry when I hear that word empire

I get angry when I hear that word 'empire'

Me? I thought, OBE me? Up yours,
I thought. I get angry when I hear that word “empire”; it reminds me of slavery, it reminds of thousands of years of brutality, it reminds me of how my fore mothers were raped and my forefathers brutalised. It is because of this concept of empire that my British education led me to believe that the history of black people started with slavery and that we were born slaves, and should therefore be grateful that we were given freedom by our caring white masters. It is because of this idea of empire that black people like myself don’t even know our true names or our true historical culture. I am not one of those who are obsessed with their roots, andI’m certainly not suffering from a crisis of identity; my obsession is about the future and the political rights of all people. Benjamin Zephaniah OBE – no way Mr Blair, no way Mrs Queen. I am profoundly anti-empire.

There’s something very strange about receiving a letter from Tony Blair’s office asking me if I want to accept this award. In the past couple of months I’ve been on Blair’s doorstep a few times. I have begged him to come out and meet me; I have been longing for a conversation with him, but he won’t come out, and now here he is asking me to meet him at the palace! I was there with a million people on February 15, and the last time I was there was just a couple of weeks ago. My cousin, Michael Powell, was arrested and taken to Thornhill Road police station in Birmingham where he died. Now, I know how he died. The whole of Birmingham knows how he died, but in order to get this article published and to be politically (or journalistically) correct, I have to say that he died in suspicious circumstances. The police will not give us any answers.

We have not seen or heard anything of all the reports and investigations we were told were going to take place. Now, all that my family can do is join with all the other families who have lost members while in custody because no one in power is listening to us. Come on Mr Blair, I’ll meet you anytime. Let’s talk about your Home Office, let’s talk about being tough on crime.

This OBE thing is supposed to be for my services to literature, but there are a whole lot of writers who are better than me, and they’re not involved in the things that I’m involved in. All they do is write; I spend most of my time doing other things. If they want to give me one of these empire things, why can’t they give me one for my work in animal rights? Why can’t they give me one for my struggle against racism? What about giving me one for all the letters I write to innocent people in prisons who have been framed? I may just consider accepting some kind of award for my services on behalf of the millions of people who have stood up against the war in Iraq. It’s such hard work – much harder than writing poems.

And hey, if Her Majesty may be graciously pleased to lay all that empire stuff on me, why can’t she write to me herself. Let’s cut out the middleman – she knows me. The last time we met, it was at a concert I was hosting. She came backstage to meet me. That didn’t bother me; lots of people visit my dressing room after performances. Me and the South African performers I was working with that night thought it rather funny that we had a royal groupie. She’s a bit stiff but she’s a nice old lady.

Let me make it clear: I have nothing against her or the royal family. It is the institution of the monarchy that I loathe so very much, the monarchy that still refuses to apologise for sanctioning slavery.

There is a part of me that hopes that after writing this article I shall never be considered as a Poet Laureate or an OBE sucker again.

Let this put an end to it. This may lose me some of my writing friends; some people may never want to work with me again, but the truth is I think OBEs compromise writers and poets, and laureates suddenly go soft – in the past I’ve even written a poem, Bought and Sold, saying that. There are many black writers who love OBEs, it makes them feel like they have made it. When it suits them, they embrace the struggle against the ruling class and the oppression they visit upon us, but then they join the oppressors’ club.

They are so easily seduced into the great house of Babylon known as the palace. For them, a wonderful time is meeting the Queen and bowing before her presence.

I was shocked to see how many of my fellow writers jumped at the opportunity to go to Buckingham Palace when the Queen had her “meet the writers day” on July 9 2002, and I laughed at the pathetic excuses writers gave for going. I did it for my mum; I did it for my kids; I did it for the school; I did it for the people, etc. I have even heard black writers who have collected OBEs saying that it is symbolic of how far we have come. Oh yes, I say, we’ve struggled so hard just to get a minute with the Queen and we are so very grateful – not.

I’ve never heard of a holder of the OBE openly criticising the monarchy. They are officially friends, and that’s what this cool Britannia project is about. It gives OBEs to cool rock stars, successful businesswomen and blacks who would be militant in order to give the impression that it is inclusive. Then these rock stars, successful women, and ex militants write to me with the OBE after their name as if I should be impressed. I’m not. Quite the opposite – you’ve been had.

Writers and artists who see themselves as working outside the establishment are constantly being accused of selling out as soon as they have any kind of success. I’ve been called a sell-out for selling too many books, for writing books for children, for performing at the Royal Albert Hall, for going on Desert Island Discs, and for appearing on the Parkinson show.

...and this is what he could have won!

...and this is what he could have won!

But I want to reach as many people as possible without compromising the content of my work. What continues to be my biggest deal with the establishment must be my work with the British Council, of which, ironically, the Queen is patron. I have no problem with this. It has never told me what to say, or what not to say. I have always been free to criticise the government and even the council itself. This is what being a poet is about. Most importantly, through my work with the council I am able to show the world what Britain is really about in terms of our arts, and I am able to partake in the type of political and cultural intercourse which is not possible in the mainstream political arena. I have no problem representing the reality of our multiculturalism, which may sometimes mean speaking about the way my cousin Michael died in a police station. But then, I am also at ease letting people know that our music scene is more than what they hear in the charts, and that British poetry is more than Wordsworth, or even Motion. I have no problem with all of this because this is about us and what we do. It is about what happens on the streets of our country and not in the palace or at No 10. Me, OBE? Whoever is behind this offer can never have read any of my work. Why don’t they just give me some of those great African works of art that were taken in the name of the empire and let me return them to their rightful place? You can’t fool me, Mr Blair. You want to privatise us all; you want to send us to war. You stay silent when we need you to speak for us, preferring to be the voice of the US. You have lied to us, and you continue to lie to us, and you have poured the working-class dream of a fair, compassionate, caring society down the dirty drain of empire. Stick it, Mr Blair – and Mrs Queen, stop going on about the empire. Let’s do something else.

Tags:


Mar 12 2007

Bono Finally Finds What He’s Been Looking For – a Knighthood

Category: Emancipation & Liberation,Issue 14RCN @ 4:06 pm

by JM Thorn

This article is reproduced from the Socialist Democracy website

I have no embarrassment at all. No shame.

Bono, 2006

The quotation above was Irish rock star’s Bono attempt at self deprecating humour. However, being devoid of the humility required to make it work as a joke, it stands more as a statement of obvious fact; a self penned epitaph if ever there was one. Its accuracy was confirmed yet again with the announcement late last month that Bono was being awarded an honorary knighthood by the British Government. This important news was relayed to the world in a statement from Tony Blair posted on the Downing Street and U2 websites. Greeting readers with Hi folks and describing himself as a huge fan of the singer, he went on to express his delight that the award, which recognised an outstanding contribution to music and remarkable humanitarian work, had been accepted. A spokesman for Bono said he was very flattered to receive the award, particularly if it helped him with his campaigning work.

Most of the mainstream media either welcomed Bono’s knighthood or wrote it off as yet another gimmick. However, in many ways it does signify the changing relationship between Britain and the southern Irish state. In the past, such awards were rare. With a stronger nationalist sentiment amongst the population, which could be heightened by events such as Bloody Sunday and the hunger strikes, acceptance would have been frowned upon and the recipients written off as west Brits. However, the ending of the Republican struggle and the development of the peace process in the North, along with influx of foreign capital into the South over the last fifteen years has changed that. The southern bourgeoisie, increasingly dependent of imperialism for the maintenance of their economy and the political settlement that secures partition, now feel free to dump their watered down nationalist ideology and grab their gongs. After all isn’t this all part of the process of reconciliation?

Bono is merely the amplified personification of this class. He is one of the wealthiest men in the state, and his group U2 are a corporate entity. They have benefited greatly from the neo-liberal polices pursed by successive Irish governments. As artists they pay virtually no tax.

However, even this minuscule amount is too much. Last year the band moved part of their multipound operation to Amsterdam to avoid paying tax on royalty earnings. Around the same time Bono’s California-based venture capital firm, Elevation Partners, invested £157m in Forbes, the US business magazine described as the bible of capitalism. Roger McNamee, an Elevation partner, said Bono was drawn to Forbes because it has a point of view. He said the singer drove this part of the discussion and likes the fact that there has been a consistent philosophy throughout its history. This philosophy is an unabashed celebration of wealth and capitalist consumption.

Self-styled image

While this might seem at odds with Bono’s self-styled image as an anti poverty campaigner in reality they are wholly compatible. In the guises of both corporate predator and campaigner, he is preaching the gospel of capitalism. This can be seen in the campaigns that he has associated himself with. The campaigning vehicle he created for himself, Project Red, advocates a combination of consumerism and charity as a means of tackling the AIDS epidemic in Africa. This has seen Bono and his celebrity friends promoting the products of mobile phone and credit card companies on the basis that a tiny percentage of the profits go to AIDS charities.

The ethos of Project Red was expounded most extensively when Sir, Dr, Mr Anthony, Tony O’Reilly allowed Bono to edit an edition of the London Independent. The Red Indy as it was styled consisted of photographs and profiles of self promoting celebrities, sycophantic interviews with politicians, and extensive corporate adverts.

Inevitably Bono found space to tip his hat to the White House with Condoleezza Rice naming her top ten musical works. Declaring herself a big fan of Bono, she named anything (couldn’t even remember one of their songs) by U2 as number seven on her list. The best summary of Project Red came in the interview with BBC radio DJ Zane Lowe in which he declared that: The only thing people who are trying to make a difference can do is work alongside corporations. Another glaring thing about the Red Indy was the absence, apart from the Nigerian finance minister, of any African voices. There was also no mention of the arms trade or the exploitation of the continent’s natural resources. It was surely no co-incidence that some the corporate sponsors of the Red Indy, Motorola for example, were implicated in this gangsterism.

Privatisation of aid

The ethos of Project Red is very similar that underpinning Band Aid and more recently Live8, both vehicles of that other Irish knight Bob Geldof, in which Bono has been heavily involved. Band Aid was Geldof’s response to the famine in Ethiopia in the mid eighties. People will remember the pop concerts in London and Philadelphia, the charity records, appeals for donations, and the lobbying of politicians. While all this appeared very worthy, apart from boosting the careers of the people involved (it gave U2 their break in the US), it actually achieved very little. Indeed, it could be argued that Band Aid exacerbated the famine as most of the money raised went to the Ethiopian government, enabling it to prolong the war that was its main cause. At that time Geldof liked to portray himself as challenging the British and US government over their polices towards Africa, cultivated the image of the angry impassioned man banging the table and demanding action. In reality Band Aid fitted well with the polices that were being pursued by Thatcher and Regan, of reducing the social responsibility of the state, and putting the responsibility for the ills of society onto the individual. In this schema, famine in Africa could be solved through charitable giving; the privatisation of aid as one of Thatcher’s assistants described it. Governments (particularly the US) who were helping to fuel the crisis in Africa through political and military intervention were absolved of any responsibility.

Live8 was a figleaf for imperialisms responsibility for displacement and poverty in Africa

Live8 was a figleaf for imperialism's responsibility for displacement and poverty in Africa

Minimal concessions

More recently, Bono and Geldof have been campaigning against extreme poverty in Africa. The centrepiece of this was Live8, a lobby of the G8 group of the world’s wealthiest nations to reduce the debt owned by Africa states. This involved another pop concert in London, and a demonstration at Gleneagles in Scotland where the G8 leaders were meeting. In the event, Live8 produced very little in concrete terms to reduce poverty in Africa.

The G8 offered only minimal concessions on debt, and even these were conditional on African governments introducing further neo-liberal reforms such as privatisation of public services and concessions for foreign investors.

While anti-poverty campaigners were disappointed with the G8 proposals, Geldof and Bono enthusiastically endorsed them.

This once again exposed their phoney radicalism, posing as challengers to the status quo while in fact they are among its strongest defenders. Live8 provided a fig leaf for the continued imperialist domination of the continent of Africa, by accepting the political and financial structures that have plunged millions of Africans into extreme poverty. It proposed a programme for alleviation of poverty that would actually deeper poverty and inequality. For example, Bono and Geldof go on about on increasing trade, but they ignore the fact that record trade surpluses and extreme poverty for African states exist side by side. There was also an element of racism in Live8. This was not just in the almost all-white line-up at the pop concert, but in the portrayal of Africans as victims who are dependent upon the benevolence of western states and wealthy individuals. The idea that people who are oppressed can free themselves through their own struggles is dismissed. When a movement does arise in Africa to challenge imperialism the Bonos and Geldofs of this world will be among the first to denounce it.

In some ways the likes of Bono and Geldof are more dangerous that politicians. Few have any illusions in Bush and Blair, but people are willing to give a hearing to pop stars who appear to have humanitarian impulses. Unfortunately, this delusion has been aided by sections of the left who threw their weight behind the demands of Live8. Socialists should be exposing the fact that Bono, Bush, Geldof and Bair share a common agenda. Blair himself made this clear in the personal letter that accompanied Bono’s knighthood:

I want personally to thank you for the invaluable role you played in the run up to the Gleneagles G8 Summit. Without your personal contribution, we could not have achieved the results we did

.

Bono and friend

Bono and friend

Bono bashing is a bit like shooting fish in a barrel, your attacks can’t fail to hit the target. Despite his rock star status he is an enemy of the working class and the oppressed, and should be exposed as such. If you have any doubts then the selection of his quotes in the box should quickly dispel them.

Condemned from his own mouth

Bono on Blair leading Britain into the war in Iraq. – …anyone can make a mistake….,

Bono on Bush. – Well, I think [President Bush has] done an incredible job

Bono on racist and anti-gay US Senator, Jesse Helms. – I found him to be a beautiful man

Bono on Blair and Brown – the Lennon and McCartney of poverty reduction.

Bono introducing a song about Bloody Sunday – this song is not a rebel song. This song is Sunday Bloody Sunday.

Bono on the struggle for an Irish Republic – Fuck the ‘revolution’!

Bono advising Bush on how to conduct the war in Iraq – I think America has no experience with terrorism or even with war. In Europe, we know a little bit more about these things. We must not make a martyr out of Saddam Hussein. He’s good at propaganda. Let’s not make it easier for him.

Bono on the ‘War Against Terror’ – The war against terrorism is bound up with the war against poverty.

Tags:


Mar 12 2007

Secularism, Socialism and Religion

Category: Emancipation & Liberation,Issue 14RCN @ 3:26 pm

Bob Goupillot outlines a Marxist approach to religion

A Marxist understanding of religion

Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people

Karl Marx

Marx understood the religious impulse to be a human response to a world that sometimes presents as scary, terrifying and out of our control. Thus the religions of hunter-gatherer people focus on asserting control over their prey animals, the religious festivals of farming peoples focus on marking the passing seasons and placating the gods and goddesses of the earth and sky. Religion is a human, spiritual response to an uncertain world.

Under capitalism, Marx argued, religious faith and religion in general are a result of and a response to, capitalist oppression and exploitation. Thus the religious impulse today is a way of responding to the uncertainty of a world based on impersonal market relations rather than direct human relationships. A world in which we are not expected to love our neighbour or be our brother’s (or sister’s) keeper but are encouraged to relate to others, as competitors for limited resources, or at best, fellow consumers. In the modern world Religion is a product of alienation-our atomisation and isolation from each other and our selves.

Thus religion is a response to, rather than a direct cause of, oppression. This explains the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in the Arabic and Asian world. An important factor here was the failure of socialist and revolutionary nationalist movements e.g. Nasser in Egypt, Gaddafi in Libya, to defeat encroaching capitalism in the form of western imperialism. In the absence of an effective socialist movement Radical Islam provides a channel for the rage of the oppressed. Hamas and Hizbollah offer solace in the next world whilst being vehicles to deal with issues in this one e.g. the Israeli occupation of Palestine.

(As an aside I would argue that the historical Jesus was part of the Jewish resistance to Roman occupation and an early anti imperialist)

A progressive socialist approach to religion – secularism.

Marx criticised religion but he was equally scathing about liberals or anarchists who made the criticism of religion a point of honour and insisted on everybody being atheists.

Such thinkers would often argue against supporting campaigns in support of religious tolerance and against religious oppression (in our time, Islamophobia, in Marx ‘s time, anti Judaism) on the grounds that this was tolerating or even supporting religion. This misses the point that the right to freely express ones spiritual or philosophical beliefs is a hard won, democratic right, that should be ‘religiously’ defended by all progressive people, socialists in particular.

Marx argued that religious beliefs will erode to the degree that the material conditions that promote them erode, that is the exploitation and oppression of capitalism. Thus rather than focussing on a fight against religion we should be uniting with all those, believer and non-believer, who genuinely oppose capitalism.

Secularism – a definition

The attitude that religion should have no place in civil affairs.

Collins English dictionary

Secularism denotes the separation of religion from the state and abolishing discrimination between religions. That is a person’s spiritual or philosophical beliefs are their own affair and should be free from outside pressure or interference. People should be free to practise their religion, agnosticism or atheism as they see fit (provided it does not harm others). It expresses the equality of believers and non-believers.

Thus it is possible, for example, to be a secular, Christian, Moslem or Jewish socialist.

A secular state means no public funds would be given to any religious schools nor would any specific religion be preferentially taught although there might be the study of religions as a branch of philosophy.

The religious instruction of children into one faith is indoctrination as they are being deprived of choice – some Baptists kind of believe this and they only baptise adults.

State has no place in personal spiritual development. Opposition to state religion.

There are virtually no truly secular states. Interestingly, the writers of the US constitution firmly rejected any idea of a state religion and the final document omits any reference to god. The US state officially derives its authority from the people not God whatever George Bush and other American Christian fundamentalists may say.

Misguided socialist approaches to religion

Since Marx’s time socialists have wrestled with the issue of how to relate to religion and religious believers. This history has produced a number of misguided approaches to this important question:

  • 1) State atheism, crackdowns on religions. This happened in Enver Hoxha’s ‘socialist’ Albania. It also happened in the Soviet Union under Stalin. He later ensured that the Russian Orthodox Church became an arm of the state.
  • 2) Separation of church and state but secularism used as stick to beat religious minorities e.g. the banning of the Muslim hijab in France was supported by some sections of left as a defence of ‘secularism’. The correct approach was to support the right of Muslim women to freedom of choice over what they wear (or don’t wear) in opposition to the capitalist state and the religious authorities.
  • 3) Sections of the left, including within the SSP, oppose a Secularist position. Thus at our last 3 national conferences motions favouring secularism in our education system have failed to be discussed or have been voted down. Arguments against us promoting secularism usually take the following forms:
    • i) Given that some religions have their own schools funded by the state e.g. Catholicism it is discriminatory or even racist to refuse funding to other religions e.g. Islam.
    • ii) State schools are in practice Protestant schools and parents who subscribe to other religions are perfectly entitled to support for schools that are based on their religion.
    • iii) A distorted anti-imperialism/cultural relativism – i.e. we mustn’t judge other cultures. Some of those who attack secularism defend “Islam” to try and be seen as defending Muslims.

      However Lenin argued that all societies have ‘two cultures’ a democratic progressive culture and a repressive, backward culture and socialists must distinguish between the two. Therefore defend Muslims from state oppression and Islamophobia but don’t sweep disagreements under carpet.
      What is often proposed instead is a variety of multiculturalism or religious equality whereby every religion has the right to state support for its own ‘faith’ school.

      Note: what is not proposed is the equality of believers and non-believers i.e. secularism.

      Multiculturalism is a means whereby the capitalist state divides the working class and manages social conflict. In place of class struggle, religious, cultural, or ethnic groups are supposed to compete with each other for the state’s favours.

    • iv) Some socialists inside and outside Iraq and Iran see Islamic regimes or even Islam itself as the main or as great an enemy as the UK/USA imperialism. This is a mistake.

Socialism and secularism in Scotland/UK today – what should we campaign for?

  • Separation of church and state
  • No state support for ‘faith’ schools
  • No religious teaching in schools but the study of religions
  • The abolition of the UK’s blasphemy laws.

All belief systems should be open to criticism. That doesn’t mean that all criticism is useful e.g. the Danish anti-Islamic cartoons which were merely insulting. The Blair government is seeking to extend the blasphemy laws from Christianity to cover other religions. This has been supported by the likes of George Galloway, the SWP and Respect in England on the grounds that it would give some legal protection against Islamophobia.

Socialists should oppose all attempts to divide the working class on the basis of religion. Class unity in this world is more important than agreement about the nature of the next world.

Socialists consistently demand the earthly equality of believers and non-believers. We campaign for a democratic, secular, republic.

Intelligent design?

Intelligent design?

Tags:


Mar 12 2007

Footprints on the Face

Category: Emancipation & Liberation,Issue 14RCN @ 3:11 pm

by Rod Macgregor

On a clear autumn evening I watched the moon rising,
It was big, it was bright, in its heavenly place,
How clever we are, I thought, we’ve walked on you,
And behind us we’ve left footprints on your face.
No wind will blow there to ever remove them,
No one will build over that desolate place,
Till time ends they’re there, a giant leap for mankind,
The greatest exploit of a wandering race.

Aye, we are clever, there is no denying,
We soar higher than eagles on silvery wings,
We talk to each other though vast miles divide us,
Seems every new day some new marvel brings.
Yet, smart as we are, we are not far sighted,
Profit being all makes our actions unwise,
We plunder the earth, take from it its treasures,
Then poison the oceans, the land and the skies.

Cut back, said some sage ones, ignored by the leaders,
Who, asked what was needed, would always say, More.
And so we kept ripping the black oil, the dark coal,
And everything precious from Earth’s bounteous store.
But the Earth was a live thing, and being mistreated,
Ever so slowly it counter-attacked
Against the humans who, clever but greedy,
Just kept on taking and gave nothing back.

Time now grows short, the rainforests vanish,
The ice is fast melting as the temperatures rise,
Four horsemen show face, is their time upon us?
No place is there now for the spin doctors’ lies.
We must listen well to those who would tell us
The old path is done, and is now out of date,
For if we do not, our days may be numbered,
And extinction could well be our ultimate fate.

The seas will rise higher, proud cities will crumble,
Slow aeons will crawl by and wipe out all trace
Of the creature who, in a blink of time’s eyelid,
Moved from the caves and reached out into space.
No worldly hint will remain of our presence,
We treated Earth badly, were laid in our place,
But still on the moon, forlorn, weeps one last sign— ’Twas our cleverest trick—footprints on its face.

Tags:


Mar 12 2007

The Sinn Fein Ard Fheis and the Collapse of Republicanism

Category: Emancipation & Liberation,Issue 14RCN @ 3:09 pm

Joe Craig (Socialist Democracy – Belfast) analyses the recent developments in Ireland’s republican movement

The vote at the Sinn Fein Ard Fheis to support the police force and judicial system of the Northern State is dramatic evidence of the collapse of republican consciousness. Publication the week beforehand of the ombudsman’s report into police collusion with UVF paramilitaries in the murder of Catholic and Protestant workers, and the evidence that this was covered up by senior officers who refused to co-operate with the enquiry, shone an embarrassing spotlight on what was at issue. That, after all this, and the acknowledgement that no one would be held accountable, the Ard Fheis voted by around 95% to support the re-branded RUC and the judicial system that protects it, is proof, if further proof were needed, that Sinn Fein has no progressive role to play in Irish politics.

This is a damning judgement that is both inescapable and yet many who think of themselves as an alternative seem oblivious to the facts. During the series of meetings preceding the Ard Fheis Gerry Adams felt able to say to his critics that ‘he was not the enemy.’ In doing so he called the bluff of many critics, confident he would not be contradicted, or if he was, confident that any affirmative answer would be widely seen as taking opposition too far. In effect his critics were disarmed. Those few inside the hall voting against the leadership motion were keen to assert their loyalty and avowed that they would rally round the leadership after the vote was taken, even if it meant the motion was passed. In effect they were declaring continuing support for a leadership that was declaring support for the PSNI. Their support for the latter is therefore one step removed but nonetheless real for all that.

Among the socialist organisations there are many who have sought a united ‘left’ that includes Sinn Fein. Will this those involved now support the PSNI or will the question simply be ignored? The extent of confusion among those opposed to Sinn Fein’s latest capitulation to imperialism was evident in rumours that republican opponents wanted Eamonn McCann of the SWP to stand as an anti-PSNI candidate. These people are either ignorant of the SWP’s call for unity with Sinn Fein in the South or just don’t get it.

McCann has however made it clear that opposing the PSNI is not something he will emphasise – as open an admission of political bankruptcy as one can imagine. For this sort of left having to pay a couple of hundred pounds in water charges (the issue of privatisation has always been secondary to those demanding non-payment) is more important an issue, more fundamental a political question, than the murder of workers by agents of the State.

These harsh judgements are only a reflection of the harsher reality exposed by the latest report into State collusion with sectarian murder. The objective role of those who seek to minimise its importance is unwittingly to conspire in the cover up.

Before the Ard Fheis

There are four aspects to the collapse of republicanism evident in the ‘debate’ on policing. For many republican supporters the question has been posed in terms of the ability to report petty, and not so petty, crime to the police. In the Inside Politics TV show on the day of the debate Martin McGuinness said he didn’t want to see republicans dancing on the head of a pin explaining why people couldn’t report crimes such as rape to the police.

In fact it has been Sinn Fein who has insisted that political opposition had to entail complete non-cooperation over such matters, an echo of their quasi-religious non-recognition of the State from years ago when they refused to file for permission to march, refused to stand in elections and refused to recognise courts when arrested and charged.

Of course political support for the police is not about reporting ‘ordinary’ crime. Socialists oppose the system of exploitation built around the wages system but this no more stops us accepting wages than opposition to finance capital stops us taking out a mortgage to buy a house. Similarly non-support for the police is not about failing to report burglaries in order to claim insurance (very few people actually believe the PSNI will catch thieves) or seeking to prevent the arrest of rapists. It is about failing to provide political support for the inevitable political role that the police perform as defenders and servants of the State.

This is what Sinn Fein has signed up to. In letters to The Irish News before the Ard Fheis correspondents wrote that Sinn Fein will ‘critically engage’ with the police. What rubbish! The demand from the British, US and Irish governments and the DUP was not for ‘critical engagement’, it was for support for the PSNI. This is what the Ard Fheis motion proposed and this is what the party has promised to deliver. This includes, but is not limited to, participation in the local District Policing Partnerships and the Policing Board. Their role in this will be to legitimise and provide cover for the actions of the PSNI, which will remain under the control of the British.

Supporting the police will mean collaborating in all the activities that the police have always got up to, including repressing dissent and opposition. Day to day actions will be under the ‘operational control of the Chief Constable’ and overall the British government will control strategy. For Martin McGuinness to claim that Sinn Fein will ‘boss’ policing or for Adams to claim that they will put ‘manners’ on them is simply laughable. Even if the Policing Board had any real power to enforce change how would Sinn Fein achieve it with two or three members out of nineteen? The police ombudsman can expose what is already more or less known but the fact that little or nothing happens afterwards only demonstrates that things continue very much as before.

Sinn Fein has claimed that MI5 has now been excluded from ‘civic policing’, thanks to them, but as one wag pointed out, MI5 was never going to be involved in ‘civic policing.’ The idea that MI5 will not continue to run informers and will not also have agents in the PSNI to protect them is too naive to be taken seriously. Sinn Fein even failed to get rid of plastic bullets and despite a ceasefire, decommissioning and virtual disbandment of the IRA is still ‘negotiating’ on ‘on the runs’ – republicans facing charges from the days of armed conflict who are still unable to return home. What was glaringly evident at the Ard Fheis was how little Sinn Fein could claim in order to justify the switch to supporting the PSNI.

The erection of a large building in Co. Down to house MI5 is a much more important indicator of the role MI5 will play than the meaningless separation of policing from MI5 that Sinn Fein has claimed.

Sinn Fein got nothing for its promise to support the PSNI.

Even its deal to receive a DUP promise to enter power sharing with them was withdrawn. Their decision to go ahead regardless was humiliating.

None of this was enough to generate an opposition inside Sinn Fein. The vote against the motion did not even have to be counted.

The journalist covering the Ard Fheis for The Irish Times recorded that it had all the signs of a rubber stamping exercise. Another contrasted it with the 1986 decision to abandon abstentionism, noting that there was never any doubt about the result.

Commentators such as these tend to put this down to a combination of the military style discipline of the Sinn Fein organisation and the political skills of the leadership and its party machine. These are undoubtedly factors of some importance but they cannot be the whole explanation.

There exists a wide layer of republican supporters opposed to or unhappy with the decision. These include people who have risked their lives and could not be accused of lacking physical courage. Unfortunately what they have lacked is a political foundation to their opposition, a positive framework to articulate a principled position that does not rely on wrapping the green flag round oneself and declaring fidelity to the patriot dead. Appealing to the dead generations who did not fight and die to support a rebranded enemy police force is all very well, but it fails one decisive test. If the dead generations would have opposed the current leadership why do the majority of survivors, who could so easily have also been among the dead, now support the Sinn Fein leadership?

Republican martyrs might not have fought for support for the police force of the Northern State but then neither, until relatively recently, did the current leadership. The debate, such as it was, between the Sinn Fein leadership and its opponents was not won by Adams and co. because of their superior political skills. Even a cursory examination of Gerry Adams’ Ard Fheis speech reveals a miserable and sorry platform that only a demoralised organisation could endorse.

Police ombudswoman confirm state collusion with UVF

Police ombudswoman confirms state collusion with UVF

Speech

His speech was an admission of failure. He gave a significant section of it over to the revelations published by the police ombudsman and then to how he had given Tony Blair a file on collusion ten years ago. So what happened then Gerry? Did Tony stop the collusion?

He rhetorically asked the question – who authorised the killings? – but absolved Blair of all responsibility. In fact he declared that it was Blair’s responsibility to sort things out! Who’s more powerful than the British prime minister he asked, as if Tony just had to show some interest for the terrorising of Irish workers to stop. This and the continual reference to collusion in the past tense amounted to Sinn Fein joining in the cover-up, which has as its main theme that all this collusion is in the past and is now over.

It is absolutely necessary for Adams to claim this because Sinn Fein is now a supporter of the system that has been exposed. It has now hitched its reputation to that of the PSNI and must now claim that it will ensure such things will not happen again. The main responsibility for preventing it however, according to Gerry, apparently lies with the same people – the British State – responsible for it in the first place – I also told Mr Blair that British policy in Ireland has to change.

Oh really? So the centuries old Irish question is to be solved by asking the Brits politely to behave!? Only slightly less fanciful is the idea that the Irish government will also help clean up the mess by acting as ‘equals’ when meeting the British.

Apparently it is Sinn Fein which will help them do this despite Sinn Fein complaining only weeks before the Ard Fheis that Bertie Ahern was hardly speaking to them.

How a tiny State that has already surrendered part of its territory to imperialism is expected to reverse policy and stand up for itself is left unanswered. Adams in his speech criticised previous Irish governments for ignoring murderous attacks by British agents within the State’s jurisdiction, but now expects them to stand up for Irish citizens outside their jurisdiction.

Adams performed the rhetorical trick much used by loyalist spokesmen (who get away with it because of a compliant media) of using the arguments of the opposition but then drawing the contrary conclusion. Only complete confidence in being unchallenged could allow one to use the ombudsman’s report on collusion as material in a speech in support of the PSNI.

It was reported that while Adams appealed to the head (!) Martin McGuinness appealed to the heart of his audience, which must explain his incredible statement that the IRA ‘had fought the British army to a standstill’, which invites the question why the British Army didn’t call a ceasefire, decommission and disband.

To this pathetic performance the opposition could only declare how awful the decision would be – ‘against the ideals and principles of Sinn Fein’ – but then contradict their own claims by saying that they would still support the party regardless! If opposition speakers were in the least bit serious about their arguments then no reconciliation with the Adams leadership or continued membership of the Sinn Fein party would be possible. That they did not say so and did not walk out, as the majority of delegates must have known, meant that no one in the hall could have been convinced of the seriousness of what they had to say. Adams, for them, had to be right to claim that the decision to support the police was only yet another question of tactics.

If support for the PSNI was a betrayal of republican principles then opposition to it must have meant a declaration of opposition to the leadership. Unfortunately the ‘opposition’ fell back on a bedrock principle that ironically lies behind many of those who supported the motion – trust in the leadership. This in itself is a reflection of the fact that the republican movement is a defeated movement and cannot be saved or reclaimed. A vibrant, confident and critical movement would fight for its principles, not surrender them on the demand of its enemies.

Opposition

All this goes some way to explaining the failure of republicans to build an opposition to the policy of the leadership of Sinn Fein. Many have so far failed or refused to accept that opposition to the policy of the leadership means opposition to the leadership itself, and opposition to the Sinn Fein party. Just as those inside the hall performed the role of loyal opposition, many outside have played the role of a loyal public opposition. Even those declaring an intention to stand against Sinn Fein in the elections are doing so, they say, in order to get Sinn Fein to ‘see sense’ and to win them back. In effect their standing is only a form of lobbying which fails to educate Sinn Fein supporters on the enormity of the party’s betrayal and fails to put on the agenda the necessary tasks of creating an alternative.

The confusion of the opposition can be seen by the fact that such opposition includes some who still support the peace process and the Good Friday Agreement despite support for the police being written into this agreement and despite all the subsequent retreats that inevitably flowrd from this capitulation. Indeed the qualitative degeneration of the republican movement from an anti-imperialist one (with all the limitations to it that socialists have argued) to a pro-imperialist one can be dated to the original Ard Fheis decision in to support the Good Friday Agreement. This included acceptance of the unionist veto; the legitimacy of the Northern State and imperialist intervention; deletion of articles two and three of the Southern State’s constitution and pursuit of office inside a Stormont regime. Those for whom supporting the police is a bridge too far have to explain why all this was not.

They need to do this because opposition to the police and opposition to imperialism can only be grounded on opposition to the Good Friday Agreement, and its successor in the St Andrews Agreement. Such opposition requires elaborating a democratic alternative and a means of organising support for it. It means a review of the failure of the republican struggle and a determination not to suffer defeat again, not as a result of any act of will, but because of political lessons learned.

Unfortunately the republican opposition shares many of the basic assumptions that inform Sinn Fein. Ultimately the failure of Sinn Fein is a failure of nationalism and their opposition to seeing politics in class terms. A Marxist analysis tells us that the class interest of the various parties is primary and explains the interests of the British; why its involvement is accurately called imperialist, and why the various parties of the Irish capitalist class have supported it against all democratic opposition. Because class interests are primary the struggle for Irish democracy is primarily a class struggle involving all the issues facing the Irish working class. The old refrain of ‘labour must wait’ has time and time again proved self-defeating for republicans for this very reason. To address this glaring weakness the republican programme would thus have to be much more than simply a republican one, it would have to be socialist. But all the past formulations of socialist republicanism or republican socialism have tried to gloss over this fundamental choice. Left republican have always been just that – republicans with left wing opinions but a republican programme devoid of class content which uses left phrases to promote nationalist priorities.

Sinn Fein has quietly justified each surrender with the perspective of gaining political power in government North and South.

Opponents can argue that they will always be a minority in the North and doubt their ability to ever be a majority in the South, and point out that while pursuing these pipe dreams they meanwhile drop everything that makes them republican, until now there is nothing left. These objections are true but are not fundamental. The fundamental truth about Sinn Fein’s strategy is that the class interests of British imperialism means it doesn’t give a damn about the democratic rights of the Irish people and will no more feel compelled to recognise now an Irish majority in favour of its leaving than it did ninety odd years ago. The Irish capitalist class seeks no more than political stability under the tutelage of the EU and US multinationals and is also opposed to the democratic aspirations and activity of the Irish people. Its State exists to defend their class interests and cannot be used as a weapon against imperialism. Rather it exists to defend the imperialist settlement reached in 1921 and crush its opponents, something it has been doing regularly for a long time.

The truth is that the democratic aspirations once embodied by republicanism have had the context in which they could be achieved transformed by partition, the development of the capitalist economy in Ireland and the international subordination of the whole island to multinational capital. Whoever thinks national liberation means anything outside of socialist revolution at an international level is refusing to acknowledge the profound transformation Irish society has undergone. The confusion and degeneration of republican consciousness displayed in the proceedings of the Sinn Fein Ard Fheis is a result of failure to do what Gerry Adams says republicans must do – think big. Adams has no idea how big that think has to be or the transformation in republican politics that is required.

This is true for the opposition.

Traditional republicanism must change even more fundamentally than that evidenced in the Ard Fheis, but its transformation must be towards socialism, otherwise the failures of republicanism that led to this sorry conference will arise again and again as it has so often in the history of Irish republicanism.

What impresses many sincere, and not so sincere, supporters of Sinn Fein is the growth in their party.

The opposition, they remind themselves, is small and divided.

The alternative however is being prepared and is being prepared by the actions of Sinn Fein themselves. The reason why so many have opposed support for the PSNI is not primarily because these are republicans who oppose the police on principle, but because the PSNI and its actions have created republicans. The PSNI will continue to produce opponents but now with the more and more open support of Sinn Fein. In this way Sinn Fein will demonstrate to more and more nationalist workers that their hopes are not served but obstructed by this party and that if they want to advance they will be compelled to seek an alternative.

The second part of building an alternative will require the intervention of socialists over what sort of alternative this will be. A socialist movement that abstains and treats the question of imperialist domination as a republican one will fail these workers and fail itself.

The future opportunities created by this decision of Sinn Fein will only help move the cause of Irish workers forward if socialists can contribute to combating the collapse of republican consciousness and clarify the fight for an alternative. This involves drawing a clear line between our politics and those of Sinn Fein, and arguing for a democratic, socialist political alternative to this party and opposition to those who either want to remain dissidents, yet remain members of the republican family or seek to repeat the mistakes of the past with the pursuit of yet another disastrous military agenda.

The coming elections North and South present an opportunity to put this alternative. Unfortunately there is no evidence that the left intends to point out that only revolutionary change could possibly prevent future State sponsorship of sectarian murder.

There is no evidence it will present a revolutionary and anti-imperialist platform that addresses all this confusion. Socialist Democracy exists to put forward this political programme and will continue to argue against false and failed reformist conceptions whether peddled by Sinn Fein or their ‘left’ suitors.

Tags:


Next Page »