Aug 17 2017

A CRITIQUE OF JEREMY CORBYN AND BRITISH LEFT SOCIAL DEMOCRACY, Part 3

 

This is the third part of A Critique of Jeremy Corbyn and British Left Social Democracy, written by Allan Armstrong. The first part can be read at:- http://republicancommunist.org/blog/2017/08/09/a-critique-of-jeremy-corbyn-and-british-left-social-democracy/and the second part can be read at:- http://republicancommunist.org/blog/2017/08/11/a-critique-of-jeremy-corbyn-and-british-left-social-democracy-part-2/

 

3. THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN SOCIAL DEMOCRACY, OFFICIAL AND DISSIDENT COMMUNISM

AND A POLITICS BASED ON EMANCIPATION, LIBERATION AND SELF DETERMINATION

 

Contents of part 3

 a.     The limits placed on social democracy during a crisis of global capitalism

 b.     From revolutionary democratic social democracy to existing state-accommodating reformist social  democracy

 c.     A further shift in the meaning of social democracy; the brief emergence of an alternative revolutionary democratic communism; and the descent to state-backed official communism and dissident communism

 d.     Social democracy and official communism morph into social neo-liberalism

 e.     From social liberalism to populism

 

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a.     The limits placed on social democracy during a crisis of global capitalism

i.       We are living through a period of unprecedented global crisis – political, economic, social, and cultural. This means that ideas will be tested continuously. A class-based democratic party will have people from a whole number of tendencies – communist (as outlined 2Axlviii), republican socialist, social democratic, movementist, green socialist, socialist feminist, environmental, etc.

ii.        Any new party needs to recognise that political ideas will be in ferment, and not try to come up with some deal, which freezes the political relationship between particular tendencies, in order to bring about diplomatic ‘unity’. In a fast changing situation, the relationship between these tendencies, and the relevance of the arguments they make, will change. Thus, it is not some political deal that is required (which usually means marginalising those people and suppressing those arguments which it is thought will undermine this unity), but promoting the most advanced democratic culture, where different ideas can be thoroughly debated, applied and tested.

iii.       The current extent of the multifaceted crisis we confront is such that it is highly unlikely that any of the dominant forms of politics in the world can bring an end to the uncertainty, insecurity and threats to human lives. In the run-up to the horrific 1914-18 First World War, which marked the culmination of an earlier period of imperial crisis, Rosa Luxemburg said that the choice facing humanity lay between ‘Barbarism or Socialism’. In the event, humanity had to endure this war, and after a relatively short post-war boom, they then had to go through the growing barbarism of the late 1920s and 30s. This culminated in the even more horrific 1939-45 Second World War.

iv.       However, the resulting massive destruction of capital allowed for a new (but still pretty destructive) period of post-war reconstruction. Keynesian state intervention in the ‘West’, and Party-state controlled planning in the ‘East’, were able to deliver real gains in such a period of economic expansion. These provided the material basis for renewed national statist, social democratic politics in their different forms – ‘Western’ and ‘Eastern’.

v.         It is not surprising that social democracy has deep roots, particularly in a long-standing state like the UK, which once dominated the world economy, and hence was more shielded from the effects of crisis than other more peripheral imperially dominated countries. This meant the British ruling class could make concessions to its working class. Due the conservative nature of the UK state though, such concessions were only made after considerable political pressure. And these concessions were made in return for ‘lower orders’ support for the UK state and for continued British imperial policies.

vi.         Ignoring or downplaying these aspects of British rule, British social democracy became associated in many workers’ minds with the periods when they enjoyed more secure lives, their best pay and conditions, and improved access to health, education, leisure and cultural provision. Hence, there is the desire to turn back the clock – to the ‘Spirit of 45’ or 1972-5. These dates correspond to the beginning and the end of the post-war boom. The idea that capitalism can be permanently reformed and eventually lead to a post-capitalist society (which some social democrats might call socialism) has formed the basis of social democratic politics, at least since the First World War.

vii.       However today, such is the threat from continued economic recession, environmental degradation, and nuclear and other forms of warfare, that for Rosa Luxemburg’s ‘Barbarism’, the independent marxist, Istvan Mezsaros has substituted ‘Barbarism or Worse’. We have entered another period of imperialist crisis, and as during previous crises, social democracy will be found wanting.

 

b.        From revolutionary democratic social democracy to existing state-accommodating reformist social democracy

i.          Before examining more contemporary events, it is necessary to go back much further and understand the changes in the meaning of social democracy. In the lead up to the 1847-9 International Revolutionary Wave, democracy was understood as being based on the principle of the sovereignty of the people expressed in a republican constitution. Thus democracy and republicanism were closely linked revolutionary ideas. This is why people saw that the struggle to attain popular sovereignty was to be achieved by revolutionary democratic means. There were already divisions over how this was to be done, whether by Jacobin ‘Party’ methods, or by communes and revolutionary societies. These divisions had already appeared in the first phase of the International Revolutionary Wave between 1789 and 1795. They were to reappear in the future.

ii.         In the lead up to, and during the 1847-9 International Revolutionary Wave, a minority began to analyse the deeper contradictions in the emerging new society. They recognised the significance of the labour/capitalist divide, and not just the older monarchy/aristocracy and people divide. They realised that, unless the labour/capitalist divide, which provided the real underpinning of the new rising capitalism order, was transcended, then exploitation, oppression and alienation would be reconstituted in a new form. Wage slavery would replace earlier forms of exploitation. This is why they argued that capitalism’s social conditions would also need to be ended – hence the ‘social’ prefix to democracy. As understood in this sense, social democracy was synonymous with communism.

iii.        Despite the defeat of that vision, the 1847-9 International Revolutionary Wave still resulted in the end of feudalism and exclusive monarchical/aristocratic power in Europe and further undermined other tributary social systems in the world, e.g. in India, China, Japan, the Ottoman and Persian Empires. This led to the massive expansion of capitalism, particularly in the leading imperial states – the UK, France, and later Prussia/Germany. This contributed to the consolidation of parliamentary representative forms of government. Although there were still considerable democratic limitations (as could be seen in the UK and Prussia/Germany), what had been understood to be democracy before – a republic based on the principle of the sovereignty of the people – became replaced with the much more limited concept of parliamentary democracy with an extended franchise.

iv.         In the leading imperial countries, the expansion of capital helped to create a new working class, whose living standards did improve. They now accepted this capitalist framework as given. In the UK, following the defeat of the social republican wing of the Chartists, new working class organisations appeared. These included the Model Trade Unions, which looked, not for the ending of wage slavery, but for ‘a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work’. Their members often also worked within the Radical, and later the Lib-Lab sections of the Liberal Party to press for economic and social reforms and an extension of the franchise.

v.          Non-conformist and other Christian influences also became more deeply rooted in the working class, leading to the marginalisation of freethinking and secularism. As the state’s remaining political and social restrictions on non-conformism were removed, the leaders of these denominations began to have greater influence after their bourgeois members joined the British ruling class. (This process occurred more slowly for Catholics and Jews). A Christian cross-class social liberalism was promoted to undermine any independent working class thinking or organisation. Although this Christian social liberalism could give its support to improved economic and social conditions for the working class, it remained socially conservative in other respects, particularly in its attitudes to gendered roles. This encouraged a divide between men’s world of work and women’s domestic world. Rather than secular education, denominational schooling was increasingly promoted, the better to discipline working class children and prepare them for their allotted role within capitalist society.

vi.           A more ecumenical, but still Christian, wing of social liberalism emerged (indeed some would call themselves Christian socialists), which did hold to a vision of a new society; but one that would come about through the gradual evolutionary changes, as a projection of an almost inevitable ‘British road to progress’ under divine providence. The ‘British road to progress’ became useful to the British ruling class’s wider imperial aims. Indeed this could be exported, particularly to the white settler colonies.

vii.       Social liberalism had a major impact upon the British social democracy, which emerged form the 1880s. Whereas the earlier social democrats understood the need for a revolutionary democratic overthrow of the state, the ending of wage slavery, and the transformation of the world order, the new social democrats accepted the existing UK state, the wages system and the British Empire. They even welcomed the attention and honours they received from monarchs, aristocrats and business leaders. Following the ruling class, they equated democracy with Westminster, seeking mainly to extend the franchise and educational provision.

viii.       Soon, social democracy came to mean, in effect, social parliamentarianism, with an acceptance of such blatantly undemocratic features as the monarchy, House of Lords, Crown Powers, an established religion, and unionist and imperialist suppression of national self-determination. The word ‘social’ began to appear before many other terms, e.g. monarchy, imperialism, patriotism and liberalism. The growing acceptance of the legitimacy of such institutions and practices represented an extension of social democratic acceptance of the anti-democratic features of the existing states where they operated.

ix.         Following this early shift in the understanding of social democracy, the main working class organisation, which emerged in the UK, the Independent Labour Party (ILP), was treated with some reservation by other social democrats in the orthodox Marxist-dominated Second International. The ILP was often pulled into political dependence upon the Liberal Party, particularly when it became more overtly social liberal under Lloyd George. The ILP’s name did not proclaim its commitment to social democracy/socialism because the leadership thought that its ideal future society could be obtained by stealth, through the gradual reform of capitalism and Westminster under the existing UK constitution. Influenced by the Fabian Society, the ILP’s name did not include social democracy or socialism, because these still had revolutionary connotations and would scare off the social liberals.

x.         Nevertheless, the ILP passed another test of the Second International. It represented significant sections of the organised working class, particularly those in British trade unions. The self-proclaimed Marxist Social Democratic Workers Party had already been prepared to join with the non-Marxist General German Workers Association to form the SAPD in 1875, because of the latter’s larger organised working class support. Marx expressed his reservations about this deal in the Critique of the Gotha Programme.

xi.        The SAPD became the SPD, when legalised in 1890. In 1891, Engels noted, in his Critique of the Erfurt Programme, that the by now orthodox social democratic SPD did not oppose key elements of the reactionary Prussian/German constitution. Even official social democracy was beginning to give primacy to the continuation of its host state, which underpinned the capitalism to which it applied its minimum programme of reforms.

xii.       After the Second International was formed in 1889, it sought to recognise member parties on the basis of one state/one party. However, since there was, as yet, no official state backing for such a notion, a number of parties, not formed on this principle, were still recognised. Ironically, this happened because inter-imperial conflict was beginning to make its impact, and some non-state parties in particular states could get support from the one-state parties in other states, when there was some imperialist tension between them. Hence, James Connolly’s Irish Socialist Republican Party was able to get recognition at the 1900 Second International conference, against the wishes of the British social democratic representatives.

xiii.     Internationalism was now pursued through diplomacy between state-based member parties. This mirrored the way the imperialist states conducted their business. Any severe crisis was likely to disrupt particular states’ and parties’ diplomatic arrangements. The degree to which the SPD accepted its host state was finally displayed by its support for the First World War in 1914. The degree to which this was true of the majority of other state-based member parties was highlighted by the collapse of the Second International in the face of this war. Even when the true horrors of this war began to impinge on these social democrats’ thinking, they looked little further than to the re-establishment of peaceful diplomatic relations between their states and within the Second International.

xiv.       Thus, over quite an extended period of time, earlier in some states than others, depending on how well they were placed in the global pecking order, the term social democracy relinquished its earlier revolutionary democratic connotations.

 

c.          A further shift in the meaning of social democracy; the brief emergence of an alternative revolutionary democratic communism; and the descent to state-backed official communism and dissident communism

i.            In the face of the horrors of the First World War, the minority revolutionary democratic wing of the Second International began to prepare for a new International. The Communist or Third International was formed in 1919, in the midst of the 1916-23 International Revolutionary Wave.

ii.          This International Revolutionary Wave produced some of the most advanced thinking, in regard to defining and putting emancipation, liberation and self-determination into practice, that has ever been witnessed. Even after its final crushing in 1923, ripples and eddies still occurred in various places around the world, although, as happens after all major defeats, they often took place in the form of a cultural renaissance.

iii.         The dilution of any rounded and connected vision of emancipation, liberation and self-determination took an extended period of time in the case of social democracy. However, this process happened much more quickly with the establishment of state-backed official communism, following the spectacular rise and fall of the 1916-23 International Revolutionary Wave.

iv.         Furthermore, this process also occurred amongst many of the dissident sects, which left the Third International, after the crushing of the Kronstadt Rising in 1921; after the exile of Trotsky in 1928; and after 1956 following the CPSU revelations once Stalin had died. Official communism had become equated with Party-state presiding over a nationalised economy. Many dissident communists whilst no longer accepting the legitimacy of the official Party running the state, still upheld the revolutionary nature of the nationalised property relations it was based on.

v.           For the official communists, a new global communist society would no longer come about through a revolutionary democratic extension of socialist republicanism wherever the exploited had won power, but by an extension of a national state-based ‘socialisms in one country’. Internationalism increasingly took the form of unquestioning support for a Third International, which was subordinated to the interests the USSR Party-state. Wherever new Party-states were created these were meant to become part of a new international socio-economic order through a process of diplomacy. New international economic bodies like COMECON (1949) were set up. As long as the old imperialists still threatened, then the Warsaw Pact (1955) was meant to provide military defence

vi.          However, the leaders of those participating states participating in the bodies set up by the USSR soon realised their own subordination. This resulted in the freeze in relationships between USSR and Yugoslavia after 1947, Albania in 1961, and Romania in the 1960s. It was shown by the USSR-state promoted Warsaw Pact military interventions in Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968. China never joined COMECON and border skirmishes with the USSR broke out in 1969. Bigger wars took place between Vietnam and Kampuchea in 1978 and China and Vietnam in 1979.

vii.        The Party-states’ inability to deal with the National Question, even within their own borders, has been highlighted by the break-up Yugoslavia in 1990 and the USSR in 1991; and the continued national resistance in in Tibet and Xinjiang to their incorporation within the Chinese state.

viii.       The old policy one-state/one-party policy of the Second International was taken a step further in the official Party-states, where defence of the one Party-state became official policy. The USSR provided an interesting comparison with another Union state – the UK. Both officially recognised their own multi-national make-up. They both created ‘international’ identities – Soviet and British, which incorporated hyphenated subordinate identities, e.g. Russian and Ukrainian Soviet or Scottish, Welsh and ‘Ulster’ British. In the UK, the Crown Powers negate any right of national self-determination. In the USSR, the supremacy of the one-state Party had the same effect.

ix.         The original national reformist social democracy, which had developed in the period leading up to the First World War, became organised in a new Labour and Socialist International (L&SI), set up in 1923. The addition of the word ‘Labour’ reflected two things. First was a dilution of any specific socialist requirement as a condition of affiliation. The second was the ongoing battle with the new Third International as to which party best represented the working class.

x.          Where, in the immediate context of 1916-23 International Revolutionary Wave, the working class became drawn into major class struggles, e.g. France and Italy, or struggles facing the additional whip of competing state powers’ imperial oppression, e.g. Germany, then the infant Third International-affiliated communist parties threatened to replace the L&SI-affiliated social democratic parties. In France the PCF outgrew the SFIO. However, although growing in influence until Hitler crushed all the opposition, the KPD did not outgrow the SPD. Social democratic and official communist party competition continued. Sometimes, as in Britain, the Third International section, in this case the CPGB, whilst remaining a minority, related better than the social democrats to the most exploited and oppressed sections of the working class (e.g. Maerdy in South Wales, West Dunbartonshire’s Vale of Leven, the Fife coalfield, Chopwell in County Durham and East London).

xi.         However, the key area in which competition for working class support took place was the trade unions. The Third International set up Profintern in 1921. In France, Profintern was able to win over the largest section of the trade union movement, the CGT. In Germany, however, the continued drastic economic effects of the World War I defeat (e.g. the heavy cost of the imposed of reparations) and then the Depression, as well as some bad political decisions, made it harder to increase the KPD’s influence in the trade union movement. The official communists increasingly recognised that outside those areas in which they enjoyed state control (the USSR before Second World War and Eastern Europe afterwards), they would have to adapt to social democracy. Profintern was closed down in 1937. Although the CPI emerged as the largest Left party in Italy after the Second World War, it pushed for the development of the CGIL, a new Italian trade union federation, to organise official communist, social democratic and Christian democratic trade unionists. The CGIL was set up in 1951.

xii.       Instead of building new unions or federations, or adopting an industrial republican approach and democratising the trade unions, the official communists pursued what was termed a popular frontist, or in its British trade union context a Broad Left, approach. This involved allying with Left social democrats to replace the Right social democratic leaders of the existing trade unions, whilst largely leaving their bureaucratic structures intact. One of the weaknesses of this approach became evident, when new Broad Left candidates had to stand against old Broad Left officials, who had become bureaucratised in their outlook.

xiii.       However, it was the largely one-sided inter-imperialist competition, which emerged between the USA and the USSR in the Cold War period between 1947 and 1989, which pushed official communism and a section of Left social democracy closer together. This had precedents in the pre-Second World War popular frontist politics, particularly Third International support for Leon Blum’s SFIO led French government (1936) and Juan Negrin’s PSOE participation in the Republican government of Spain (1936-9).

xiv.       During the Cold War, Right social democracy sided with the US state, and where any ‘Moscow’ sympathising popular frontism existed in national social democratic parties, trade unions and cultural organisations, they worked to break this connection. Every level of the US state was involved, including the CIA. What became known as an Atlanticist political orientation was promoted using US state funding, including money for US visits and other forms of ‘hospitality’. Against the Left, blacklisting, political show trails, were all resorted to in the USA and Western Europe, military coups elsewhere, including Greece in 1967.

xv.         There was even a Leftist version of this crusade against official communists and their supporters. This extended to some dissident communists, e.g. Max Schachtman and his followers from 1958. (Today the Alliance for Workers Liberty follow in this tradition.)

xvi.       Most Left social democrats aligned themselves with the official communists. In the UK, there was a lot of shared thinking in the British Road to Socialism (published under Stalin in 1951, with further revisions in 1952, 1958, 1968 and 1977). An indication of the linkage was the CPGB’s support for Left social democrat, Tony Benn’s Alternative Economic Strategy (AES)(1976) based on the promotion of neo-Keynesian economics. The Broad Left in the trade unions pushed the AES at the same time as several of them accepted the Labour government’s Social Contract.

xvii.      The Third International proved to be more attractive in states subjected to western imperialism. Here, as a result of the imperial control and distortion of their economies, the working class often formed small minorities. So, the Third International affiliated parties sought to represent the interests of other oppressed classes, particularly the peasantry. It abandoned the notion of international democratic revolution in favour of the building what it saw as the preconditions for socialism, further capitalist development but on the basis of national state protectionism, and making economic deals with the USSR. Thus, the Third International extended its appeals to those who wanted to form a would-be state capitalist class.

xviii.     International competition took place on the basis of whether the US or the USSR backed models offered the best roads for national economic development. The USSR-backed model proved particularly attractive to those  who held to a top-down bureaucratic managerialist ethos. These people considered it the duty of the workers and peasants to make sacrifices for further national development.

xix.       Therefore, the period between 1923 and 1975 saw a trend to a coalescence of Left social democracy and official communism. This involved no revolutionary democratic vision of emancipation, liberation and self-determination, but a shared, top-down managerialist concern for greater state promoted economic development. There were differences over the balance between the degree of state control, from complete nationalisation to state regulation and nationalisation of key strategic sectors of the economy. Official state-backed orthodox marxism justified the first, neo-Keynesians the second. There was still a considerable overlap between the two.

xx.       Thus, the national state focus of pre-First World War social democracy was taken further by both later social democracy and official communism. This approach was justified as taking a national road to socialism. The next section will show that these roads did not lead to socialism but contributed instead to the latest phase of global imperialism, dominated by finance capital beyond the effective control of any national state.

 

d.        Social democracy and official communism morph into morphs into social neo- liberalism

i.           Both social democracy and official communism reached the highpoint of their influence in the prolonged post war boom. Their decline was also linked. Transnational corporations became increasingly able to escape the restrictions of national states and developed global institutions, particularly in the financial sector, e.g. IMF, to pressurise existing states to bow to their needs. Following the new global economic crisis, which developed from the mid 1970s, Thatcher’s Tories and Reagan’s Republicans launched a neo-liberal offensive through the 1980s. This succeeded in reversing earlier social democratic and official communist inspired reforms, and led to an increasing accommodation by these two groups to this rising neo-liberalism.

ii.          In accommodating to this latest form of capitalism, and the sacrifices it demanded of the working class, a new Right social democracy gained ascendancy over its Left and Centre predecessors in the West. This slide to Right social democracy took place throughout the western world. In New Zealand it was the Labour Party under Finance Minister, Roger Douglas, which actually initiated neo-liberal restructuring in 1984. It took the experience of Thatcher’s Tories and the defeat of the miners, before social neo-liberalism became more entrenched in the British Labour Party.

iii.         Eurocommunism had developed in in Italy, Spain and elsewhere in the 1970s. Eurocommunism represented a more dissident strain in relation to official communism, until official communism itself adopted Perestroika and Glasnost in the USSR to prop up the state and economy. There were similar Eurocommunist style developments in several Warsaw Pact states, e.g. Poland and Hungary (but they were still restrained by a slower moving USSR). Had the USSR been able to survive, a version of Eurocommunism might have become the new official communism. The fact that Eurocommunism, which increasingly accommodated to existing western capitalism, inspired Perestroika and Glasnost in the USSR, highlighted the growing ascendancy of Western social democracy over Eastern official communism. This in turn was a product of the growing accommodation of social democracy to the neo-liberal offensive.

iv.          The Party-states had also been stagnating for sometime. Key sectors of their economy had become dysfunctional. This was reflected in their low productivity rates as working class resistance, under police state conditions, took the form of, ‘If they pretend to pay us, we’ll pretend to work’. Political battles in these states took place over the degree to which the dominant state protectionism should give way to a new engagement with the global economy, with further marketisation of the economy and the legalisation of the already extensive market-based black market.

v.          When the Party-states collapsed, their successor states abandoned the state protectionism, which had shielded then from the direct impact of the global economy. The capitalist economic relations already latent in these states were able to firmly establish themselves. There was no need to mount a bloody counter-revolution such as occurred after the 1871 Paris Commune, in order to remove the working class from power. It was the Party-state bureaucrats who had wielded power, and not the working class. Instead there was the brutal neo-liberal assault on jobs, pay and welfare provision. The neo-liberal attacks on traditional industries and welfare provision in the East have been similar, but more brutal than those that occurred in the West with the support of Right social democrats. The levels of state protectionism had been considerably greater and these had to be removed, however drastic the social effects.

vi.          In the aftermath of the collapse of the Warsaw Pact and USSR, many well placed former official communist party officials were able to make the transition to being individual capitalists, sometimes in league with new gangster capitalists. Together they opened up the Russian Federation’s state resources to foreign capitalists, aided by the ”Chicago Boys’ – western finance capital’s own buccaneers. In the process, Boris Yeltsin ousted Mikhail Gorbachev. The latter’s policies of Perestroika and Glasnost, designed to reform the USSR, in order to maintain it, failed spectacularly in 1991. The post-1991 joint looting of the old USSR by a new kleptocracy led to a catastrophic decline in production, living standards, welfare provision and even life expectancy. But in the process a new class of oligarchs was forming.

vii.         Official communism had led to a particularly form of economic development with its simultaneous high rate of exploitation of workers and peasants, and its increase in the provision of education and skills needed to speed up industrialisation. Eventually, the living standards of the working class in the Party-states did rise during the global post-war boom. Official communism’s main advantage over social democracy was that it enjoyed official state backing. When this ended between 1989-91, the official communist model evaporated.

viii.       Triumphalist neo-liberals highlighted the common statist approach shared by official communism and social democracy. They stepped up their offensive. Furthermore, since the official communists had used their state power to marginalise any genuine communism based on a vision of emancipation, liberation and self-determination, the Right was now able to say, “There is no alternative’.

ix.         But it wasn’t a completely one-sided take-over. The major global corporations are often run, not by individual capitalists, but by professional managers, led by a CEO. They did take on board some of the managerialist techniques developed in the Party-states. Target setting for lower managers and an atomised workforce were borrowed from the Five Year Plans. New corporate plans were often launched before earlier ones had been completed, because the main function of planning was to impose managerial discipline. Glossy corporate brochures boasted of successes that were as far from the reality experienced by the workforce as the old Soviet Weekly.

x.          After the experience of Tiananmen Square, Peking, in 1989, the Chinese CP leadership decided the Party-state would have to preside over the transition from a heavily protectionist to a turbo-capitalist economy. Under the CPC’s continued political domination, a new powerful capitalist class began to grow rapidly. The CPC opened up `Special Economic Zones’ to transnational corporations, with the intention of massively increasing exports to gain access to global financial markets, and to create a working class in the most advanced sectors of the global economy.

xi.         However, the attacks on welfare in China were even more draconian, the super-exploitation of labour even harsher, with internal controls over labour movement as brutal as much of the cross-border movement of labour in Europe and the USA. A segmented labour force was created, with an ever decreasing proportion being protected by the ‘Iron Bowl’, and an increasing proportion being dependent on balancing their existence between resort to urban industrial employment and whatever support they could get from their home rural communities. Land in these communities has often been sold illegally with the connivance of corrupt party officials, further weakening the working class. And beyond this there is an extensive semi-legal and black economy where ‘illegals’ are employed, including North Koreans fleeing repression.

xii.        Meanwhile, a further shift occurred in the meaning of social democracy under the Right. In the UK, the Labour Party first accommodated to the rise of Thatcher through the ‘dented shield’ policy of Centre social democrats under Michael Foot, Neil Kinnock and John Smith. After the defeat of the Miners’ Strike though, the political trajectory moved relentlessly to the Right, until Tony Blair emerged as leader of New Labour. He ditched Old Labour, Centre and Left social democratic Clause 4 pretensions.

xiii.         Following the earlier historically premature breakaway of the Social Democratic Party, which went on to merge with the Liberal Party, Blair talked about reintegrating the social democratic and liberal traditions. He began to investigate the possibility of state funding to marginalise the hold of the trade unions on the party. Which class actually Labour represented became decidedly vague, as Peter Mandelson declared, “He was extremely relaxed about people getting filthy rich”.

xiv.         Tony Blair, fully taking on board the earlier political degeneration of the term social democracy, went on to describe himself as a ‘social-ist’. This concept meant putting the word ‘social’, not only before democracy, by which he meant Westminster; but monarchy, hence his suggestion of the ‘Peoples Princess’; neo-liberalism, by which some of elite’s wealth might trickle down to the minions; and imperialism under which he took the UK into war with Iraq, by such democratic means as sanctioning covert military actions before the war was officially declared, the use of the ‘Dodgy Dossier’, the sacking of journalist Andrew Gilligan from the BBC, and the ‘suicide’ of weapons expert, David Kelly.

xv.        Right social democrats did come into conflict with the neo-conservatives over the kind of society they wanted neo-liberal economics to create. Social democrats could support women, gay and LGBT and other minority rights. However, the emphasis was on improving access to higher managerial jobs, providing niche consumer markets and seeking legal recognition within the existing order, not on drawing together the oppressed to create a wider vision of social possibilities based on emancipation, liberation and self-determination in its widest sense.

xvi.        Right social democracy’s abandonment of any commitment to the state other than to maximise the opportunities for corporate profitabilty in its particular ‘branch’ of the global economy; to any particular commitment to the working class other than as individual consumers; to democracy other than the existing UK state and the use of focus groups to help make policy, led to the ditching of even the remotest prospect of a reformist alternative to existing society. They bought heavily into TINA, offering nothing more than ‘neo-liberalism with a human face’.

xvii.       Thus, instead of leading workers along their ‘national roads to socialism’, and social democracy and official communism dragged then into the dead end of neo-liberal integration into the world economy.

 

e.        From social liberalism to populism

i.        The most widespread political reaction across the globe to the regressive impact of neo-liberalism has been the rise of populism. Populist politics should not be conflated with popular politics. In popular politics, the well-organised sections of the working class use their power and influence to win support from the more marginal exploited and oppressed groups in society. Populist politics, however, reverses this. Particular charismatic leaders, anti-democratic movements or parties try to impose their views upon a marginalised, atomised and alienated working class, peasantry (where this still exists) and a downwardly mobile middle class. Populism also means mobilising on a national, cross-class basis. Thus populism, Left or Right, is always nationalist.

ii.         Populism can take root after particular defeats, in the context of the disintegration of class organisations – whether older social democratic, official communist or independent – which had previously provided the basis for gaining reforms or for resistance. Populism, instead of uniting workers and promoting class confidence from their own collective experience and organisation, turns to atomised individuals who look for saviours and scapegoats. They still crave collective identities – but these begin to take other alienated forms – ethnic, ethno-religious, racist and male chauvinist -which break-up working class unity. Furthermore, the lack of an organised class-conscious pole of attraction means populism can oscillate between Left and Right.

iii.         As early victims of US imperialism’s and the IMF’s Structural Adjustment Programs imposed upon South America, a Left populist politics appeared in the form of Hugo Chavez’s proposed 2000 Bolivarian Revolution in Venezuela and Rafael Correa’s 2008 Citizens’ Revolution in Ecuador. More ambiguously, the vice president of Bolivia, self-styled Marxist, Alvaro Garcia Linera, has termed Evo Morale’s post-2006 government, “Andean and Amazonian capitalism”, whilst Aymara Indian activist, Felipe Quispe, has termed it ~”neo-liberalism with an Indian face” [i]. This slippage along a Left/Right spectrum is characteristic of populism.

iv.          In the Russian Federation neo-liberalism was imposed in such a brutal way, under Boris Yeltsin and the kleptocracy, between 1991-99, that a Right populist alternative emerged around Vladimir Putin. He was Depute Prime Minister under Yeltsin, before becoming President in 2000. However, to gain popularity he began challenging ‘unpatriotic’ elements amongst the rising class of oligarchs and their neo-liberal ‘excesses’. Putin centralised state executive power into his hands, taking on both non-compliant oligarchs and any independently minded journalists. He had some killed. Putin acted as the political front man for the interests of one section of the Russian oligarchy. Even before the demise of the old USSR, a particularly virulent Great Russian chauvinist and right wing street politics had emerged in the form of Pamyat, under the protection of the KGB. Putin, an ex-KGB officer, based his Right populist politics in the revival Great Russian nationalism, Russian Orthodoxy and the promotion of very traditional social values.

v.            Putin has made international overtures both on the Right and Left. He has backed Russian neo-fascist forces in Crimea and eastern Ukraine. Some from old official and dissident communist organisations have been prepared to form Red-Brown alliances with these forces. Although Putin clearly fronts a Russian capitalist state, he shares a Great Russian chauvinism with neo-Stalinists and a Soviet pan-unionism with some Trotskyists. They see the Russian Federation as a victim of imperialism or western imperialism, rather than a declining imperial power, like the Spanish Empire in relation to a rising US imperialism in the nineteenth century. This, rather than uncritical support for ‘existing socialism’, which led to such earlier Red Brown alliances as the Molotov-Ribbentrop (or Hitler-Stalin) Pact from 1939-41, helps to explain, but not excuse such alliances.

vi.           Putin’s most consistent overtures have been to the Far Right in Europe – Golden Dawn in Greece, Attak in Bulgaria, Jobbik in Hungary, Northern League in Italy and Front National in France. He has recognised fellow Right populists in Farage and Trump. However, the Russian state backed Russia Today is more designed to appeal to Left populists. Some overtures, like his attempt to woo the SNP led government in Scotland have not worked because, although Scottish independence was opposed between 2012-14 by the UK, US governments and leading EU bureaucrats, the SNP has remained pro-EU. Putin and his oligarchic backers see the EU as an economic threat to Russian interests, and its lack of an independent military strategy and force, as making it subordinate to NATO’s policy of encirclement of the Russian Federation.

vii.         The full impact of neo-liberalism only became obvious in the EU, including the UK during the 2007-8 Financial Crash, which has led to a prolonged recession.   Many of neo-liberalism’s leading proponents were initially shell-shocked. Gordon Brown, who as UK Chancellor, abolished any remaining government regulation of the City of London in 1997, had been claiming for a number of years that the old boom and bust days were over. He fully accepted the economic basis of neo-liberal economic thinking, but opposed its ‘excesses’. Under Labour, neo-liberalism could be made to work for the majority of the British people, including its working class, through the trickle down of the wealth ‘created’ by a turbo-charged global economy. He joined the massive Make History Poverty demonstration in Edinburgh in 2005, coinciding with the G8 conference at Gleneagles. In a throwback to old nineteenth century Christian moralism and pacifism, this protest was made to bring about a change in the consciences of global capitalists. They remained unmoved.

viii.       In 2008, following the Crash, Alan Greenspan, Chair of the US Federal Reserve and arch-advocate of finance capital-led neo-liberalism declared, “I have found a flaw. I don’t know how significant or permanent it is. But I have been very distressed by that fact [ii]“. Traditionally, it has been thought it is the Left, which would welcome a major economic crisis, because this highlights the bankruptcy of the capitalist system. However, one effect of a serious crisis is to provide new opportunities for some capitalists – “Never let a good crisis go to waste”. Strongly placed supporters of old-style neo-liberalism soon took this idea up. Naomi Klein called this The Shock Doctrine. Many global corporations may have lost billions on paper, but they still had real billions of assets left. Yet their demand that others, the exploited and oppressed, pay the banksters’ debts produced an inevitable reaction. Therefore the 1% became particularly exposed politically.

ix.         The post 2007/8 economic crisis hit the EU. As a consequence the Troika (IMF, European Central Bank-ECB and European Commission – EC) resorted to an updated version of the Structural Adjustment Programmes previously imposed upon the ‘Third World’. In the process, the EU’s southern tier – Greece, Italy, Spain to Portugal, plus Ireland (which was done over by both the EU and The City) – were the worst hit.

x.         In 2011, a year of mounting resistance across the world (from the massive Arab Spring to the student demonstration in London and the Hetherington occupation at Glasgow University) two new movementist organisations appeared in the EU – Direct Democracy Now in Greece and the Indignados in Spain. Initially though, the movement with the most international clout was Occupy. This was launched in the very heart of the beast – New York’s Wall Street. Occupy, which celebrated its own spontaneous nature was to rapidly rise and fall. However, in the context of even deeper crisis in Greece and Spain, many of those who had been involved in Direct Democracy Now and the Indignados saw the need for a specific political challenge.

xi.          Therefore, in both Greece and Spain, new Left populist and increasingly electoral organisations arose – Syriza and Podemos. Both claimed inspiration from Venezuela. However, they have been more circumspect in any resort to revolutionary talk than Chavez. They both accepted their existing state frameworks as an adequate vehicle to begin their challenge. Two charismatic leaders came to the fore – Alex Tspiras in Greece and Pablo Iglesias in Spain. Under the guise of marginalising the sects (whose behaviour usually alienated many), these two individuals increasingly concentrated real power in a leadership built around themselves.

xii.         Syriza’s Finance Minister, Yanis Varoufakis, who describes himself as an ”erratic marxist” was quite clear about why he adopted Left populism. This was done to “save European capitalism from itself…. Not out of love for European capitalism, for the eurozone, for Brussels, or for the European Central Bank, but just because we want to minimise the unnecessary human toll from this crisis”. “I have campaigned on an agenda founded on the assumption that the left was, and remains, squarely defeated”. The link between populism and perceived Left defeat could not be clearer.

xiii.        Furthermore, Varoufakis went on to recognise the negative historical role of “the communist and social democratic parties. Both of them, in addition to their other errors (and, indeed, crimes) failed, to their detriment, to follow Marx’s lead in a crucial regard: instead of embracing liberty and rationality as their rallying cries and organising concepts, they opted for equality and justice, bequeathing the concept of freedom to the neoliberals. Marx was adamant: The problem with capitalism is not that it is unfair but that it is irrational, as it habitually condemns whole generations to deprivation and unemployment and even turns capitalists into angst-ridden automata, living in permanent fear that unless they commodify their fellow humans fully so as to serve capital accumulation more efficiently, they will cease to be capitalists. So, if capitalism appears unjust this is because it enslaves everyone; it wastes human and natural resources; the same production line that pumps out remarkable gizmos and untold wealth, also produces deep unhappiness and crises [iii]“.

xiv.        There is real substance to Varoufakis’s criticism of the `left for failing to put forward a vision embracing liberty… and bequeathing the concept of freedom to the neo-liberals [iv]“. Varoufakis stated that he has “been accused, by well-meaning radical voices, of being ‘defeatist’ and of trying to save an indefensible European socio-economic system. This criticism, I confess, hurts. And it hurts because it contains more than a kernel of truth [v].” However, it also needs to be recognised that Varoufakis’s criticism of the Left itself contains more than “a kernel of truth”, even if it hurts.

xv.         Nevertheless, in abandoning the bureaucratic politics of traditional social democracy and official communism and the sectarian politics of dissident communism, what alternative economic course did Varoufakis advocate, to save European capitalism from itself, and to prevent a slide to the Far Right? Populism has no distinct economic programme of its own, so Syriza borrowed heavily from the Left social democratic neo-Keynesianism. George Papandreou, leader of Greece’s mainstream social democratic party, PASOK, had already abandoned this course. On occasions Papandreou had not been averse to making his own Left populist appeals. He won the 2009 election on the basis of challenging austerity (just as Francois Hollande’s social democratic PSF did in 2012, with a programme similar to Corbyn’s). Yet, within months, Papandreou was imposing the EU’s drastic austerity package, without mounting any opposition (as Hollande was to do too).

xvi.         Syriza aimed for government office in the belief that it could persuade the European capitalist class to act in its own best longer-term interests (a somewhat Lefter version of Gordon Brown’s ‘Make Poverty History’ thinking). However, the European capitalists’ representatives in the ECB were not operating in an international vacuum. The post 2007/8 crisis had placed the EU in increasing economic competition with the US and China. This was a time to batten down the hatches of the EU Megacorp, and not encourage any of its ‘branch offices’ to come up with alternative experiments. This could only lead to the undermining of the centralised financial power of the ECB, the coordinator of the European capitalist response to the global crisis it found itself in. Furthermore, the US under Obama, the UK under Brown and Cameron were already to the forefront of making their working class’s pay for the crisis, so the ECB, backed by the EC, were not going to follow a neo-Keynesian course, which could lead to global financial and speculative attacks on the euro.

xvii.       When Left populist Syriza took office in 2015, it formed a coalition with the Right populist ANEL. This again highlights the ability of populism to behave in a chameleon like fashion. Although Syriza belongs to the EL and its parliamentary group GUE/NGL, Prime Minister Tspiras was aware that its internationalism was largely sentimental. Its leaders much preferred diplomacy behind the scenes to taking the lead in organising effective international solidarity. He also knew that the Greek Communist Party’s (KKE) sect international – the Initiative of Communist and Workers’ Parties [vi]– and those of Antarsaya [vii] (a coalition of several sects) – the USFI and IST – were unable to provide any effective solidarity for their alternative Grexit policy. This is why, on the international plane, Tspiras turned to Putin, the Right populist leader of the Russian Federation, for an ally to help him deal with the Troika. Putin, however, hedged his bets, and also made overtures, on a pan-Orthodox basis, to the Greek fascist Golden Dawn.

xviii.       There is a strong likelihood that Tspiras, knowing that his Syriza/ANEL coalition only enjoyed 40% electoral backing [viii], conducted his Greek bailout referendum on 5th July 2125, in the expectation that he would only get minority backing for defiance. This would provide Syriza with the excuse Tspiras was looking for to back off. However, the Greek people gave a defiant 61% ‘Oxi’ (No) vote to the deal the ECB was trying to impose. Therefore, when Tspiras capitulated, three days later, the limitations of national populist challenges to corporate capital became very apparent. A gloating ECB was able to impose an even harsher austerity package than the one the Greek people had rejected.

xix.        Unable to offer the Greek people any practical alternative, which would have required effective international solidarity, neither the KKE nor Antarsya made any breakthrough in Tsipras’ rushed September 2015 election. Syriza, despite a fall in their vote, held on to office [ix]. The increased abstention rate and the rise in the vote for Golden Dawn was an indication of the politics of demoralisation. The mainstream Greek parties did not mind Syriza carrying the can for the ECB’s austerity measures. Furthermore, now that the Syriza/ANEL coalition has become directly responsible for implementing these (including pensions cuts and more privatisations), the neo-fascism of Golden Dawn is also likely to benefit.

xx.     However, the impact of the crisis struck even closer to the centres of corporate power – in the UK and US. Although the ‘1%’ appeared to be out on a limb politically, crises that downgrade the economic and hence political clout of some players also raise the prospects for others. And some of these new players are extremely ambitious. This has meant that those, less obviously linked to the existing state institutions and mainstream parties, were in a better position to seize the new opportunities presented to them. Hedge funds owners and managers, e.g. BlackRock and Ray Dalio [x], and certain major companies, e.g. Uber, Coors appreciated this. They financed Donald Trump’s presidential bid. Trump, himself a major corporate business owner, could attack the Washington establishment, and its prime political representative, Hilary Clinton. She was so obviously in the pockets of major US corporations that Trump could claim he did not need to bribe any government. He could miss out the middle {wo}man and bring his ‘successful’ business skills directly to government. He knew that Clinton would not want to run her campaign on the ethics of big business!

xxi.       It was Trump’s personal wealth (and that of his wealthy backers), coupled to his political outsider status, which gave him a decided advantage when appealing to the workers in the rust-belt communities. They had faced decades of industrial decline, the loss of skilled work, increasingly precarious labour, and removal of much of what was already weak welfare support. They now confronted the world as atomised and alienated individuals, with whatever support they received often coming from fundamentalist evangelist churches. The National Rifle Association, and Far right organisations like the KKK and various militias also operated in this milieu.

xxii.     Few workers in the rust belt any longer had independent class organisations of their own. They had been ‘groomed’ for decades to think only individually, through watching highly competitive TV games shows at home, and to look to celebrities as role models. The major TV channels, NBC, Fox News and CNN were overwhelmingly pro-corporate America. However, they became outflanked by a whole online media world, which encouraged audience participation. This increased the possibility of drawing people into supporting new celebrity politicians. Trump was already well known as the US producer of The Apprentice. So he straddled the two worlds of commercial TV and the massive online world of Twitter. This was a world that his AltRight backers had also colonised, through such outlets as Breibart. Too much focus, though, on the role of the hard Right can draw attention away form the fact it was the economic conditions and hyper-individualism promoted under neo-liberalism that allowed this new political phenomenon to grow. No matter how unsavoury Trump’s ‘America First’ appeared to the Old Guard of Democrats and Republicans, he represents a ‘blowback’ consequence of their own neo-liberalism.

xxiii.     Trump’s supporters also saw Brexit as a possible dry run for their US ambitions. Thus Robert Mercer, hedge fund billionaire and co-owner of Breitbart, provided free backing for Nigel Farage [xi] But one-time City trader, Farage did not have the same economic muscle of Trump, and only had the support of a few wealthy business figures, like Arron Banks, But Brexit also had another parallel campaign, with far more significant backers in the Tory Right. Once the vote for Brexit had been won, Trump would go on to his own “Brexit, plus, plus, plus” victory. Having seen Theresa May adopt Brexit, he tried to get her to make Farage the UK ambassador to the US. The British ruling class were happy enough for the Tories to adopt UKIP’s clothes, but not its erratic leader or its other prominent and unpredictable figures. Trump could see the lie of the land and got May to meet him in the Oval Office, to plan for his ‘America First’ US-UK ‘free trade’ deal.

xxiv.    And this, in turn, is the immediate political context in which Jeremy Corbyn and British Left social democratic politics have emerged. Therefore, it is not surprising that some of his closest political advisors are calling upon Corbyn to adopt a specifically Left populist politics, which ramps up the British nationalism already inherent in social democracy. Independent working class organisation, whether industrial or communal, is currently weak, but a national statist politics can draw support across a wider Left/Right political spectrum.

xxv.    Leading trade union bureaucrats welcome the prospect of increased power, after years of their marginalisation under neo-liberalism and Right social democracy. In return for trying to persuade their members (but not themselves of course) to make the necessary ‘sacrifices’ to prop up a Corbyn-led government, they expect to be given a much more central role in the running of the UK state. All of McCluskey’s years of political manoeuvring in the TUC and Labour Party could yet bear fruit for him. May Day ‘socialist’ rhetoric aside his vision is an extension of the best deal he thinks that a trade union bureaucrat can deliver at any particular time. His ‘socialism’ is designed to come about through an accumulation of good deals, which improve everyone’s pay, conditions and welfare provision. So collective bargaining needs to be supplemented by neo-Keynesian state regulation.

xxvi.     But the overwhelming weakness of this revived Left social democratic economics is that it ignores the massive pressures exerted on the competing nation-based capitalist classes, particularly in a period of continued economic crisis. Keynesian measures may be able to iron out short term cyclical movements in the economy, during a prolonged period of overall growth. However, once the rate of profit has slowed down due to the prolonged post-war build up of vast amounts of capital, then neo-Keynesian measures threaten corporate profits even more, particularly in the context of growing inter-imperialist rivalry. No national capitalist class is prepared to make the sacrifices demanded of them in the name of ‘the many not the few’, because their international competitors will go for the jugular to try to eliminate or subordinate them to their interests. Furthermore, the UK state, which the British Left social democrats hold to be the vehicle for their neo-Keynesian reforms has been developed over the centuries to best meet the interests of the few not the many. The Crown Powers serve the British ruling class. This is why any sustainable challenge to the existing global corporate order, and its local centres of accumulated power, involves the development of a party and international advocating revolutionary democracy and independent working class organisation.

10.8.17

 

References

[i]      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Evo_Morales#Political_ideology

[ii]     http://www.nytimes.com/2008/10/24/business/economy/24panel.html

[iii]    https://www.theguardian.com/news/2015/feb/18/yanis-varoufakis-how-i-became-an-erratic-marxist

[iv]    ibid.

[v]     ibid.

[vi]    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Initiative_of_Communist_and_Workers%27_Parties

[vii]   https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Antarsya

[viii]  The Greek electoral system gives a parliamentary representative boost to the leading party.

[ix]    However, Tsipiras had to sack one of his ANEL coalition ministers, Dimitris Kammenos, because of his anti-semitism – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alexis_Tsipras#Re-election

[x]    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-38688559

[xi]   http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/robert-mercer-brexit-nigel-farage-donald-trump-breitbart-facebook-advertisement-cambridge-analytica-a7600041.html

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Aug 11 2017

A CRITIQUE OF JEREMY CORBYN AND BRITISH LEFT SOCIAL DEMOCRACY, Part 2

This is the second part of A Critique of Jeremy Corbyn and British Left Social Democracy, written by Allan Armstrong. the first part can be read at:- http://republicancommunist.org/blog/2017/08/09/a-critique-of-jeremy-corbyn-and-british-left-social-democracy/

 

2. EMANCIPATION, LIBERATION AND SELF-DETERMINATION AND INTERNATIONALISM FROM BELOW

IN RESPONSE TO NATIONAL SOCIAL DEMOCRACY, AND OFFICIAL AND DISSIDENT COMMUNIST

INTERNATIONALISM FROM ABOVE

 

Contents of Part 2

 a.     Why did Corbynism and Left social democracy appear in the UK?

 b.     The rise and fall of proto-parties outside Labour

 c.     To party or not to party, that is the question

 d.     Autonomous organisations

e.      International organisation

f.       Labour bureaucracy or dissident communist sects – a false choice 

______________

 a.      Why did Corbynism and Left social democracy appear in the UK?

i.      One thing that needs explained is how did Corbynism and Left social democracy make a revival which nobody predicted? If we look to Greece, Spain, Portugal, France and Ireland, we can see well-supported independent Left organisations, which have developed outside the traditional social democratic parties. One answer to this question is the sheer resilience of conservative organisational forms in a state like the UK with such a long and deep-rooted unionist and imperial history. Continue reading “A CRITIQUE OF JEREMY CORBYN AND BRITISH LEFT SOCIAL DEMOCRACY, Part 2”

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Apr 07 2017

SOME OBSERVATIONS UPON ‘THE COMMONWEALTH OF ENGLAND’

Allan Armstrong makes some observations on The Commonwealth of England written by Steve Freeman (see http://republicancommunist.org/blog/2017/04/07/the-commonwealth-of-england/). He examines the likely role that federalism will play in IndyRef2, drawing on the historical precedents for its use in the UK and USSR.

 

SOME OBSERVATIONS UPON THE COMMONWEALTH OF ENGLAND

There is a great deal I agree with in Steve’s article. In a later contribution to this discussion I would like to develop Steve’s historic analysis, going back to the days of the Levellers, through the Chartists and on to the Suffragettes. However, in these observations, I will confine myself to the issue of federalism.

The politics of federalism, whenever it has been raised within the UK, has always represented a last ditch unionist attempt to preserve the UK. The political origins of the idea of British federalism go back to the first attempts to hold together the British Empire in North America, when faced by the challenge of American republicanism. It failed. A federal UK has been Liberal Party policy for over a century, with no obvious effect on the UK constitution. The challenge of Irish republicanism and the War of Independence from 1919, led to a Westminster Speakers’ Conference. This recommended a federal solution for the UK. It too failed. Although the UK state did instead, after Loyalist pogroms and reactionary Partition, come up with the earliest form of political Devolution in the UK – Stormont. No wonder it was difficult for others later to win support for devolution in Scotland and Wales, when Stormont formed the precedent!
Continue reading “SOME OBSERVATIONS UPON ‘THE COMMONWEALTH OF ENGLAND’”

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Apr 07 2016

THE CENTENARY OF THE IRISH REBELLION OF 1916

As part of our celebration the 1916 Easter Rising, we are posting two new articles.  The first is by Allan Armstrong (RCN), and addresses Lenin’s response to in his Irish Rebellion of 1916 (which is also posted). The second comes from the latest issue of Socialist Democracy (Ireland) and looks at the situation in Ireland today, 100 years after the Rising.

 

1. LENIN AND THE IRISH REBELLION OF 1916

The Dublin GPO during the 1916 Rising, painted by Robert Ballagh

 

In the midst of the First World War, following the Dublin 1916 Easter Rising, Lenin returned to the issue of national self-determination. He had already addressed this at the beginning of the year in The Socialist Revolution and the Right of Nations to Self-Determination. Immediately before the Rising, he had also gone on to write The Discussion on Self-Determination Summed Up.
Continue reading “THE CENTENARY OF THE IRISH REBELLION OF 1916”

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Apr 03 2015

DIGITAL CITIZENSHIP: FROM LIBERAL PRIVILEGE TO DEMOCRATIC EMANCIPATION

On the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta in England, Richard Barbrook calls for a new debate on the conception of citizenship.

Richard Barbrook, lecturer at University of Westminster

Richard Barbrook, lecturer at University of Westminster

 

“Government founded… on a system of universal peace, on the indefeasible hereditary Rights of Man … interests not particular individuals, but nations, in its progress, and promises a new era to the human race.”

Tom Paine, Rights of Man

 

In the second decade of the 21st century, citizenship is defined not just by the people being able to choose the political leadership of their nation through regular elections, but also by the legal protection of their human rights, such as media freedom, personal privacy, fair trials and religious toleration. Enshrined in both national constitutions and international treaties, these democratic precepts ensure that individual citizens can express their views and campaign for causes without fear of persecution or discrimination. Yet, when they were first codified during the 17th and 18th centuries’ modernising revolutions which overthrew aristocratic and priestly despotism in Western Europe and North America, these fundamental freedoms were initially restricted to a minority of the population: white male property-owners. Despite the universalist rhetoric of the English 1689 Bill of Rights, the French 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen and the USA’s 1791 Bill of Rights, men without property, all women and the African slaves who were property remained outside their constitutional protection. In this pioneering liberal iteration, political and civil freedom was founded upon economic exploitation. Human rights were the privilege of the few not the emancipation of the many.

Continue reading “DIGITAL CITIZENSHIP: FROM LIBERAL PRIVILEGE TO DEMOCRATIC EMANCIPATION”

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Mar 06 2014

SECULARISM, SOCIALISM AND RELIGION

The issue of secularism was discussed at the RCN weekend away in Fife on 22nd February. Allan Armstrong introduced the session using the presentation he had made to Edinburgh RIC. The following discussion extended beyond the scope of the introductory talk, and brought up issues which Bob Goupillot had written about when the RCN was a platform in the SSP. Below, is an updated version of this, first published in Emancipation & Liberation, no 14, Spring 2007.

th-4 

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, A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right

Marx understood the religious impulse to be a human response to a world that is sometimes 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.

Continue reading “SECULARISM, SOCIALISM AND RELIGION”

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Apr 26 2010

A Reply to Nick Roger’s Workers Unity not Separatism

A Reply to Nick Roger’s Workers Unity not Separatism (edited version in Weekly Worker, no. 211)

Independent Action Required to Achieve Genuine Workers’ Unity

First, I would like to thank Nick for the tenor of his contribution to the debate about communist strategy in the states of the UK and the 26 county Irish republic. After our initial sparring in earlier issues of Weekly Worker and on the RCN website Nick’s contribution develops further his own case for a British approach and a British party. (I am still not sure to what extent the alternative and logically more consistent one state/one party stance of having an all-UK party is supported in the CPGB.) Nick also usefully clears up some points himself (e.g. over his attitude to Luxemburgism) and asks a question which is designed to advance the debate. Before going on to the other issues Nick raises, I will therefore answer this question on whether I support breakaway unions in Scotland.

How to win effective union solidarity

I have consistently argued that the struggle to attain effective union organisation can not be reduced to which national flag flies over a union HQ. Most of the Left, in practice, uphold the sovereignty of the union officials located in their existing union HQs, hoping to replace these some day. This is why many of their union campaigns amount to electoral attempts to replace existing union leaderships with Broad Left leaderships. In more and more cases, the latest Broad Left challenges are being mounted against old Broad Left leaderships, suggesting a serious flaw in this strategy!

Of course, many on the Left would say – ‘No’, we champion the sovereignty of the union conference. However, the relationship between most union conferences and their union bureaucracies is very similar to that between Westminster and the government of the day. In both cases, executives only implement what they wish to, whilst systematically undermining any conference/election policies they, or the employers/ruling class, oppose. In the case of unions, this division is accentuated by elected-for-life and appointed officials, who enjoy pay and perks way beyond those of their members – a bit like Cabinet ministers.

Therefore, I uphold the sovereignty of the membership in their workplaces – a republican rank and file industrial strategy, if you like. From this viewpoint ‘unofficial’ action, the term used by bureaucrats to undermine members and to reassert their control, is rejected in favour of the term independent action. Action undertaken by branches can be extended by picketing, and by wider delegate or mass meetings. Certainly, this places a considerable responsibility upon the membership in the branches concerned, necessitating their active involvement in strategic and tactical discussion over the possibilities for extending effective action. Furthermore, instead of politics being largely confined to the select few – union bureaucrats and conference attenders – as when unions are affiliated to the Labour Party – politics becomes a vital necessity in workplace branches.

Nick asks, how can the SSP effectively support action by, for example, civil servants who are organised on an all-British union basis, when we are organised on a Scottish political basis? Actually, it is quite easy. The SSP has members on the executives of all-Britain trade unions, and we seek wider unity for effective action with officers and delegates from England and Wales. Indeed, we can go further and state that we would seek cooperation with union members in Northern Ireland, when action involves all-UK unions, such as the FBU. Yet, in the latter case, support for joint action over economic issues should not prevent socialists raising the political issue of Ireland’s breakaway from the UK state. There is an obvious analogy here for the SSP.

Indeed, there are three other territorial union forms in these islands, – Northern Irish unions (e.g. Northern Ireland Public Services Alliance), Irish unions which organise in the North (e.g. Irish National Teachers Union and the Independent Workers Union) and all-islands unions (e.g. UCATT). Nick’s attempt to equate more effective action with all-Britain unions would in no way help socialists to bring about unity in such varied circumstances. Championing the sovereignty of the union branch, and the forging of unity from below in expanding action, offer the best way of achieving this.

Nick mentions the Educational Institute of Scotland (EIS) – the major teaching union in Scotland, and one of the last unions organised on a Scottish basis. The EIS is affiliated, not only to the STUC, but to the TUC and, although not affiliated to the Labour Party, its leadership has, since the mid 1970’s, been as loyal to Labour as any. The EIS is one of the strongest adherents of ‘social partnership’, with large chunks of its official journal indistinguishable from government/management spin – especially its articles on governmental education initiatives.

Until I retired, I was a member of the EIS, a union rep (shop steward) for 34 years, and served on the union’s Edinburgh Local Executive and National Council. I was also a member of Scottish Rank & File Teachers (until they were sabotaged by the SWP) and later the Scottish Federation of Socialist Teachers. I always upheld the sovereignty of the membership in their branches. Furthermore, I was also centrally involved in the largest campaign that rocked the Scottish educational world and the EIS, in 1974. Here, for the first time, I came up against the sort of arguments Nick raises.

The 1974 strike action was organised unofficially/independently. It took place over more than three months, with huge weekly, school delegate-based meetings. We also argued within the official structures of the EIS (whilst even drawing in some members of the two other small unions). It was here that the old CPGB, Labour Party and Militant supporters told us we should end our independent action and confine ourselves to getting motions passed calling on the union leadership to take a national lead.

If we had done this, it is likely there would have been no industrial action at all. As it was, the massive independent action forced the official leadership to move. And it was the independent rank and file movement which sent delegates to schools in England to try and widen the challenge to the Tory government over pay. Labour Party and CPGB union officers, all stalwart Left British unionists, confined official union activity to Scotland!

There is a definite parallel between Nick’s advocacy that the SSP should abandon its own independent organisation and join with the British Left, planning for the ‘big bang’ British/UK revolution they hope for in the future, and those old CPGB, Left Labour and Militant arguments I first faced back in 1974.

The anti-poll tax campaign – ‘internationalism from below’ in action

Some years later, in 1988, I became chair of the first Anti-Poll Tax Federation (Lothians) and co-chair of the conference of the Scottish Anti-Poll Tax Federation. The campaign against the poll tax started a year earlier in Scotland, due to Thatcher’s propensity to impose her own form of devolution here – testing out reactionary legislation in Scotland first.

Militant emerged as the largest political organisation in the Federations. Militant became torn between those who wanted to maintain an all-Britain Labour Party orientation, continuing to prioritise activities inside the party’s official structures, and those who saw the necessity to become involved in independent action through the anti-poll tax unions. Fortunately, it was the latter view that won out.

The negative effect of pursuing a tacitly British unionist strategy was demonstrated by the SWP. Their slogan was – Kinnock and Willis {then TUC General Secretary}- get off your knees and fight (i.e. pushing for others to lead). They argued that only a Britain-wide campaign backed by the official trade union movement could win. When a special Labour Party conference in Glasgow voted against non-payment, the SWP declared the game was over, and some Scottish members went on to pay their poll tax.

The majority in the Federations stuck to their guns and built the independent action first in Scotland, e.g. through non-payment, confronting sheriff officers (bailiffs), etc, and by sending delegations to England and Wales, to prepare people for widened action the following year. Spreading such action from below contributed to the Trafalgar Square riots of March 31st 1990, which put finally paid to the poll tax and to Thatcher.

‘Internationalism from below’, which the SSP International Committee has advocated at the two Republican Socialist Conventions, represents a wider and more politicised development of such actions by our class. Any reading of our documents will show that our ‘internationalism from below’ stance flows from an analysis the concrete political situation, and unlike Nick’s and the CPGB’s stance, does not stem from some abstract attempt to extend a ‘one state/one party’ (or trade union) organisational form over all British/UK socialists; or from a belief in the efficacy of the top-down bureaucratic ‘internationalism’, which is intrinsic to such attempts.

Although rather belated in its formation, the Scottish Socialist Alliance, set up in 1996, directly stemmed from the lessons learned in the anti-poll tax campaign. (Socialist republicans in the Scottish Anti-Poll Tax Federation had argued for the setting up of such organisations from 1990.) Furthermore, contrary to what Nick maintains, far from having a purely Scottish orientation, SSA/SSP members took an active part, providing speakers, to help set up the Socialist Alliances in England, Wales and the Irish Socialist Network. The main obstacles we faced in helping to form new democratic united front organisations came from the British Left!

Perhaps it is also significant that, after addressing large meetings in Scotland, some of the striking Liverpool dockers (1995-8) and their partners said that support here was often wider than in England. Even the response received from the SNP trade union group in Dundee was compared very favourably with the coolness of many Labour Party members closer to home! The SSA was particularly prominent in trying to win solidarity for the dockers in Scotland.

Comparing records in trying to build socialist/communist unity

Now, Nick goes on to make some valid criticisms of the SSA’s successor organisation, the SSP, particularly over its handling of the Tommy Sheridan affair. However, here it is necessary to compare like with like. The CPGB is only a small political organisation with very few connections to the wider working class. In reality it is a socialist/communist propaganda organisation. The SSP, at its height in 2003, united the vast majority of the Left in Scotland, had over a thousand members, won 128,026 votes in the Holyrood election, gained six MSPs and had 2 councillors. It was a party of socialist unity, unlike today when it is an organisation for socialist unity.

When you attempt to organise amongst the wider working class you come under all the immediate political pressures, as well as having to face up to the legacies of past Left traditions. We live in a UK state with a deep-seated imperialist legacy, and where our class has been in retreat in the face of a Capitalist Offensive since 1975.

So, if we are to engage meaningfully amongst the wider class, we have to acknowledge this, and develop a strategy to prevent socialists/communists being dragged back, and to find new openings that enable us to advance both the case and the struggle for a genuine socialist/communist alternative. This means forming definite political platforms. The RCN is a platform in the SSP; the CPGB was part of a platform (Workers Unity) in the SSP. So let’s compare our roles in trying to build wider principled socialist unity.

Now, just as Nick points out that the CPGB has already made many of the criticisms of the SWP and Socialist Party that I raised in my critique, so I will point out that the RCN publicly raised criticisms of the SSP Executive’s handling of the Tommy Sheridan affair, which he also quite rightly criticises. The RCN was the only political organisation to oppose, in principle, socialists’ resort to the bourgeois courts to get legal rulings on how they conduct themselves.

The split, which eventually emerged on the SSP Executive, was about the tactical advisability of a resort to the courts, not against the principle. The Executive, having unanimously warned against such a course of action in this particular case, came to an agreement with Sheridan, who insisted on ignoring this advice. In this agreement, he was allowed to stand down as SSP Convenor in order to pursue his court case as an individual. The Executive hoped this would remove the pressure upon the SSP itself.

This was extremely naïve, showing little understanding of how the state operates. In the case of the CWI/SP, they still haven’t learned this lesson, as their misguided resort to the courts to defend four victimised activists in UNISON has recently highlighted. Back in 2006, the Scottish courts made it quite clear that they made no distinction between the SSP and the activities of its most prominent member. It jailed Alan McCombes for refusing to hand over party minutes covering the Executive decisions on the handling of the Sheridan affair.

This led to a public split on the SSP’s Executive Committee, between those who wanted to continue with Sheridan’s case in the bourgeois courts, and those who could now see that the state held the whip hand. Sheridan was asked to abandon this particularly flawed and potentially disastrous course of action. Unfortunately, with the encouragement of the SWP and the CWI/IS – Sheridan went on regardless, resulting in a split in the SSP. They refused to attend the post-trial Conference organised to address the deep-seated differences, which had emerged in the SSP. Solidarity has been little more than a political ‘marriage of convenience’. You only have to look at the SWP and SP’s continued organisational separation in England, Wales (and Ireland/Northern Ireland) to understand this.

Certainly, mistakes had also been be made by the SSP Executive majority, but these could have been rectified. Indeed, the RCN initiated motion to condemn the resort to bourgeois courts and newspapers to deal with differences amongst socialists was passed at the post-split SSP Conference in 2006.

Ironically, the one issue, which played no part in the split, was the territorial organisational basis of the SSP. The left nationalist Sheridanistas (now the Democratic Green Socialist platform) joined with the Left unionist SWP and with CWI/IS in Solidarity. The Left nationalist influenced (now former) ISM, along with the Left unionist and carelessly named Solidarity platform (!) (AWL), and the republican socialist RCN stayed with the SSP. The left nationalist Scottish Republican Socialist Movement left the SSP to urge support for the SNP, whilst the Left unionist CPGB ended up telling people to vote New Labour in the recent Euro-elections. Yes, a sorry mess!

Now, if ever there was an opportunity for the British Left to make some headway in Scotland, the SSP split this should have been it. However, the CWI/SP had already sabotaged the Socialist Alliances in England and Wales, whilst the final coup-de-grace was administered by the SWP, when it decided to move over to pastures green in Respect. Losing support there to Galloway and his allies (the SWP seemed to have learned nothing about cultivating celebrity politics in Solidarity) they then sabotaged Respect. Perhaps, the one thing Nick and I could agree on, is that a particular organisational form – Scottish or British – provides no guarantee of principled socialist unity! That has to be fought out on the basis of principled politics and democratic methods.

Now, some time after the CPGB’s advocacy of giving no support to either the SSP or Solidarity (to my knowledge it no longer had any members involved at this stage), it came up with its own Campaign for a Marxist Party (CMP). Here surely, given the balance of political forces (much more favourable to the CPGB, than say to the SP or SWP in the old Socialist Alliance, the SWP in Respect, or the SP in No2EU) it should have been able to make some real headway in advancing its own brand of socialist/communist unity politics – the organisational unity of self-declared Marxists in an all-Britain (UK?) party.

However, as every non-CPGB report on the CMP has shown (see New Interventions), the CPGB played an analogous role to the SWP in its front organisations. And, just as in the case of the SWP, there has been no honest attempt to account politically for the demise of the CPGB project in this respect. Instead, we have been given personalised attacks – once again shades of the SWP. From the outside, it looks as if the CPGB was just attempting a new recruiting manoeuvre – much like the SWP.

Now the CMP certainly organised on an all-Britain basis, including the Critique/Marxist Forum group in Glasgow. Yet, far from bringing about greater unity, the CMP experience has only resulted in greater disunity! Nick I’m sure witnessed much of this, and I would think it unlikely that he was entirely happy with the way the CPGB conducted itself. However, this wasn’t an accidental one-off.

Before Nick became involved in the CPGB, there had been an all-Britain RCN, which included the Red Republicans (including myself), the Campaign for a Federal Republic, the CPGB and the RDG. The CPGB, in alliance with the RDG, decided to marginalise those who disagreed with their own ‘federal British republican’ position. In Scotland, federal British republicans were a minority in the RCN, but were still well represented on our Scottish Committee. In England, federal republicans were in a majority, but the CPGB and RDG acted to ensure there were no non-federal republicans on the ‘organising committee’ there (in reality very little organising had gone on).

Their idea was to refashion the RCN into an organisation, which would intervene with the ‘federal British republican’ line in the SSP. The CPGB and RDG had no wider role for the RCN in England. They saw their job as conducting Left British unionist ‘missionary work’ in Scotland only.

A rather unpleasant all-Britain RCN meeting was held in London, and through the votes of CPGB and RDG members, the majority of whom had never lifted a finger for the RCN, they won the day. The RCN in Scotland decided it had had enough of the bureaucratic manoeuvring and withdrew. Even the Scottish members of the Campaign for a Federal Republic members joined with the RCN majority in Scotland, and together we constituted ourselves as the RCN (Scotland).

It is not even necessary to accept my interpretation of these particular events to make a political assessment of the consequences of the split. The RCN now only existed in Scotland. The CPGB and RDG were attempting to link up with the very Left unionist (and social imperialist) AWL, and the Glasgow Critique group which still had members in Scotland, to build a new Left unionist platform within the SSP. An additional advantage was the support they had in England (and Wales).

So, which of the two platforms was able to advance in the SSP? Using Nick’s argument about the obvious superiority of all-Britain political organisations it should have been the CPGB and its allies. Yet this wasn’t the case, despite the CPGB’s hope of also winning the support of other Left unionist organisations in the SSP, such as the SWP (Weekly Worker assiduously tried to court Neil Davidson, the SWP’s leading theoretician in Scotland, then advancing a strong Left unionist politics.)

Now, it could possibly be argued, from a CPGB viewpoint, that the task of winning over the SSP to ‘principled’ British Left organisational unity was just too big a task in the face of the opposition. However, then the fight conducted by the CPGB and its allies should have at least solidified a more united pro-British tendency in Scotland. However, the CPGB soon fell out with the AWL and, after the CMP debacle, with the RDG, also leaving members of the Glasgow Critique/Marxist Forum split! And Nick wonders why I think supporters of British Left unity tend to mirror the bureaucratic methods utilised by the British state!

The historical basis for ‘internationalism from below’

The UK is not just any old state. It was once at the centre of the world’s largest empire upon which the sun never set. Today, it forms the principle ally of US imperialism, the dominant power in the world. Today, the UK is ‘Hapsburg Austria’ to the USA’s ‘Tsarist Russia’.

For the greater part of their political lives, Marx and Engels argued that socialists should make opposition to the Romanov/Hapsburg counter-revolutionary alliance fundamental to their revolutionary project. Support for the Polish struggle to gain political independence, particularly from the Russian and Austrian Empires, was central to Marx and Engels’ strategy. Engels held on to this perspective until the end of his life, opposing the young Rosa Luxemburg on Polish independence, in the process. Socialists need to adopt a similar strategy today towards the US/UK imperial alliance.

It took some time before Marx and Engels came to an understanding of the best method needed to unite socialists organisationally to promote revolution and struggle against reaction and counter-revolution. However, they outlined their most developed position within the First International, when, significantly, they had to confront the British Left of their day. This tendency tried to uphold a ‘one-state/one-party’ stance, when they denied the Irish the right to form their own national organisation within the International. In arguing against a prominent British First International member, Engels argued that:-

The position of Ireland with regard to England was not that of an equal, but that of Poland with regard to Russia… What would be said if the Council called upon Polish sections to acknowledge the supremacy of a Council sitting in Petersburg, or upon Prussian Polish, North Schleswig {Danish} and Alsatian sections to submit to a Federal Council in Berlin… that was not Internationalism, but simply preaching to them submission to the yoke… and attempting to justify and perpetuate the dominion of the conqueror under the cloak of Internationalism. It was sanctioning the belief, only too common amongst English {British} working men, that they were superior beings compared to the Irish, and as much an aristocracy as the mean whites of the Slave States considered themselves to be with regard to the Negroes.

The Second International was formed as the High Imperialism of European dominant-nationality states (German, French and Russian) and top-down imperial national identity sates (British and Belgian) were in the ascendancy. The Second International abandoned Marx and Engels’ ‘internationalism from below’ principle. They adopted a ‘one state/one party’ organisational principle instead, which soon became the conduit for social chauvinist and social imperialist thinking within the social democratic movement.

Luxemburg and Lenin both accepted this new organisational principle. Luxemburg thought, though, that dominant nation chauvinism, which she still recognised, could be combatted by pushing for all-round democratic reforms, without regard to the specific nationalities in any particular state (albeit, as Lenin noticed, with the inconsistent qualification that, after the revolution, Poles should enjoy political autonomy).

Lenin also recognised the dominant nation social chauvinism and social imperialism found in the Second International, but thought this could best be combated through the 1896, Second International Congress decision to uphold ‘the right of nations to self determination’. Lenin thought, though, that any need to actually fight to implement this right was constantly being undermined by ongoing capitalist development, which he thought led to greater working class unity. Furthermore, after any future revolution, national self-determination would not be required, since workers would then want to unite together, initially within the existing state territorial frameworks, after these had been suitably transformed.

However, mainstream Second International figures, as well as Lenin, went on to consider various exceptions to both these organisational and political principles. In the case of some of the major constituent Second International parties, support was sometimes given to non-state parties in other states (often ones in competition with their own imperial bourgeoisies!). In this way the PPS (Poland) and IRSP (Ireland) were able to gain official recognition as Second International Congress delegates.

Lenin, in contrast, tended to support the exercise of self-determination retrospectively, only after he had recognised its political significance, e.g. Norway in 1905, Ireland in 1916. Lenin’s refusal to recognise the real political significance of Left-led national movements within the Russian Empire from 1917 (e.g. Finland and Ukraine), contributed to the isolation of the Revolution, and also to the burgeoning Great Russian bureaucratic character of the new USSR.

Luxemburg’s refusal to get socialists to fight for the leadership of national democratic movements contributed even more to the particular political marginalisation of socialists in Poland, compared say to those ostensibly less revolutionary Finnish socialists. They had been much more brutally crushed in the 1918 White counter-revolution in Finland, than the Polish socialists had been in the imperial backed nationalist revolution there. One reason why Finnish socialists and communists were able to rise from the ashes, is that were still remembered as leaders in the national struggle against Tsarist Russian and German occupation.

The role of an ‘internationalism from below’ strategy in combating the current US/UK imperial alliance

Fast forward to today, and we can see the leading role of US/UK imperialism in the world, promoting the interests of the global corporations. The UK state has been awarded the North Atlantic franchise by the US. Here it operates as spoiler within the EU to prevent it emerging as an imperial competitor to the US. It can even designate Iceland a terrorist state! Through the Peace (or more accurately pacification) Process, UK governments, in alliance with their own junior partners, successive Irish governments, have rolled back the challenge represented by the revolutionary nationalist challenge of the Republican Movement.

Sinn Fein is now a major partner in upholding British rule in ‘the Six Counties’ through their coalition with the reactionary unionist DUP. The ‘Peace Process’ was designed to create the best political environment to ensure that the global corporations can maximise their profits in Ireland. This political strategy has been extended throughout these islands, by the policy of ‘Devolution-all-round’ – Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales.

This strategy has easily tamed such constitutional nationalist parties as the SNP and Plaid Cymru. The SNP, for example, is pursuing a Devolution-Max policy to uphold Scottish business interests in an accepted global corporate dominated world. The UK state strategy has the full support of the USA, the EU, and trade union leaderships locked in ‘social partnerships’ with their governments and the employers.

The constitutionally unionist form of the UK state places the National Question at the heart of the democratic struggle. Middle class nationalism is continually forced into compromises with unionism and imperialism. (At the height of British imperial world domination, the overwhelming majority of the Scottish and Welsh, and a significant section of the Irish middle classes, could be won over to acceptance of various hyphenated British identities – Scottish-British, Welsh-British and Irish-British – in their shared pursuit of imperial spoils). However, today’s SNP support for the monarchy, and for Scottish regiments in the British imperial army, show that unionist/imperialist pressure can still have an impact. Even the ‘independent’ Irish state has given Shannon Airport over to US imperial forces, particularly for ‘rendition’ flights.

Unfortunately, the CPGB has only the most abstract understanding of the British unionist state. As yet, it doesn’t even fully comprehend the difference between a nation and a nationality. During the 1997 Devolution Referendum campaign, Weekly Worker denied there was such a thing as a Scottish nation, claiming there was only a British nation, in which there lives a Scottish nationality. The existence of a wider Scottish nation, and not just a narrower ethnic Scots nationality, can easily be demonstrated in the well-known Scottish names of Sean Connery, Tom Conti, Shireen Nanjiani and Omar Saeed.

The logic of the CPGB’s position, if it had upheld its own particular version of national self-determination, should have been to argue for the 1997 referendum ballot to be confined to (ethnic) Scots. This would of course brought it into line with the far right nationalist, Siol nan Gaidheal! The CPGB also got itself into so many knots through promoting its own particular sect-front, ‘The Campaign for Genuine Self Determination’, that it buried any report of its end-of-campaign public meeting and rally in Glasgow. This meeting was certainly entertaining, but hardly a triumph for CPGB politics!

Indeed the beginnings of the CPGB’s political decline in Scotland can be identified with this particular meeting, which it was so reluctant to report on. I made an extended political assessment, which was sent to Weekly Worker to review. It declined to do so.

However, the confusion between nation and nationality has been taken to greater lengths in ‘the Six Counties’. Here Jack Conrad has identified a 75% Irish-British nation (!), scoring somewhat higher in the nation stakes than Scotland. The fact that Irish-British nationality identification went into rapid retreat after the Irish War of Independence is just ignored.

What undoubtedly exists in the ‘Six Counties’ today is an ‘Ulster’-British identity, buttressed by official Unionism and unofficial Loyalism alike. However, this relatively new nationality identification isn’t fixed either. There are a minority of ‘Ulster’-British who would happily become fully integrated into the British unionist and imperial state. The majority in the UUP, DUP and TUV, still want to maintain Stormont and other Northern Irish statelet institutions to hopefully ensure continued Protestant Unionist ascendancy. An ultra-reactionary minority has contemplated declaring UDI (Rhodesia style) to form an independent Ulster state, through ethnic cleansing (or, as the relevant UDA document puts it – ‘nullification’). They all, of course, proudly champion the British imperial legacy.

Ironically, there has been a limited rise of British-Irishness in ‘the 26 counties’, particularly in ‘Dublin 4’, amongst former Official Republicans and a new wave if ‘revisionist historians’. Significantly, this usually goes along with support for the UK and the USA in its current ‘anti-terrorist’ (i.e. imperial) adventures. These people represent a similar phenomenon to the Euston Manifesto group, formed in 2006 along with others, by former AWL member, Alan Johnson. The AWL, of course, has gone further even than the CWI in its apologetics for working class Loyalist organisations (anticipating its similar attitude to Zionist Labour organisations), so it is not surprising that it has given birth to strong social unionist and imperialist tendencies. Therefore, as long as the CPGB champions the ‘nation’ rights of this particularly reactionary nationality, it is in danger of following the path of the AWL and the CWI.

Now, the majority of the real Irish-British in ‘the 26 counties’ did eventually become Irish themselves, despite the undoubted barriers posed by the Catholic confessional nature of the state there. This development shows the possibilities of creating Irish national unity, especially if full nationality and religious equality is promoted.

The RCN appreciates the real nature of the UK state, and the strategy being pursued by its ruling class to contain potentially threatening national democratic movements. These can take on a republican form in their opposition to the anti-democratic Crown Powers soon wielded against any effective opposition. The RCN also recognises the need to supplement this by engagement with major social issues. This social republicanism (which needs to be developed by communists into conscious socialist republicanism) isn’t just an added-on extra. The fight against jobs and housing discrimination in the Civil Right Movement, and against the poll tax in Scotland, soon became linked with the national and (latent) republican movements in their respective countries.

When the RCN argues for a challenge to the UK state and to its anti-democratic Crown Powers in Scotland, this stems from a recognition that republican political consciousness is currently higher here (itself a reflection of the importance of the National Question). By way of analogy, in the 1980’s, the wider working class appreciated the more advanced class consciousness of the NUM and recognised they were in the vanguard of the fight, not just to save pits, but against the Thatcher government. The Great Miners’ Strike was itself triggered off by independent action. The job of socialists soon became to organise effective wider solidarity, and generalise this into a wider political struggle against Thatcher.

If socialist republicans in Scotland can take the lead in the political struggle against the UK state, the task of socialists in these islands becomes something similar – to build solidarity and to extend the challenge by breaking each link in the unionist chain. Whether we end up with independent democratic republics (and only weaken imperialism – nevertheless a better basis for future progress than the UK imperial state which exists at present), or are able to move forward to a federation of European socialist republics, depends on the ability of socialists/communists to build ever widening independent class organisation, culminating in workers’ councils.

Abstention from the democratic struggle on the grounds it isn’t specifically ‘socialist’ would be equivalent to abstention in supporting workers fighting for increased wages, on the grounds that they weren’t fighting against the wages system. Socialists/communists can only gain a wider audience by participating in all the economic, social, cultural and political (democratic) struggles facing our class. To do this effectively, socialists throughout these islands need to build on the basis of ‘internationalism from below’.

 __________

Nick Rogers replies to Allan Armstrong of the Scottish Socialist Party’s international committee

(Weekly Worker, no. 809)

The very first point I made at the February 13 Republican Socialist Convention in London was that the most pressing task for communists was to build an international working class movement that could challenge the capitalist class globally.

In the letters column of last week’s Weekly Worker I argued that it was necessary to build pan-European workers’ organisations (Blind alley, March 4). The masthead of the Weekly Worker carries the slogan, Towards a Communist Party of the European Union. Yet Allan Armstrong of the Scottish Socialist Party’s international committee characterises my position as Brit left (Left mirror of the UK state Weekly Worker March 4). In this reply I want to explore Allan’s revealing conclusion.

In my original report I criticised the SSP, represented at the February 13 meeting by co-convenor Colin Fox, for refusing to unite in an all-British party to combat the actually existing British state (‘Debating with left nationalists’ Weekly Worker February 18). Granted, Allan advocates united action across the British Isles, but, as he puts it, on the basis of the same kind of relations that Hands Off the People of Iran has established between British and Iranian workers. He asks, Does the CPGB secretly think that joint work cannot be effective because British and Iranian socialist do not live in the same state?

I applaud the work of Hopi, but everyone in that organisation – Iranian, British or whatever – recognises that workers in the two countries face quite different political environments that, for the time being, make unity in one centralised party both undesirable and unrealistic.

The difference between the kind of internationalism that Hopi encourages the British and Iranian workers to engage in and the level of unity workers in Scotland and England require can be illustrated quite simply by considering the nature of their respective struggles.

When Iranian bus, car or oil workers take industrial action, their grievances will generally be very specific to conditions in Iran – albeit sharing common characteristics with workers anywhere, given the drive by capitalist regimes all round the world to step up the neo-liberal assault on workers’ rights. Generous financial support, logistical support where practical, solidarity messages, pickets of the Iranian embassy, etc – actions such as these are what it is feasible for British workers to do. Of course, we also place direct pressure on the British state by opposing sanctions against Iran and any preparations for war. These are the tasks that Hopi has set itself.

If Iranian workers in struggle were facing a western transnational, other types of action become possible, from workers’ sanctions to solidarity industrial action. Since the mullahs and revolutionary guards dominate profit-making activities in Iran, these opportunities are relatively rare.

British workers, by contrast, face capitalist companies that do not respect national boundaries within Britain (and increasingly the boundaries separating European countries). Effective industrial action also has to take place across these boundaries and requires close British and pan-European organisation by workers. In Britain workers confront laws made by the capitalist state – and also laws laid down by the European Union. For many workers the capitalist state is their employer. Defensive actions such as last week’s two-day strike by the Public and Commercial Services union inevitably assume an all-Britain character.

Allan affects to believe that the nature of the joint action by workers in Britain and the solidarity British and Iranian workers can achieve is essentially no different. In that case, what about British-wide unions? Does Allan believe that the struggles of civil servants (or any other group of workers) would be more or less effective if they were split into separate English and Scottish bodies? I honestly do not know Allan’s position on this. Some left nationalists, such as the Scottish Socialist Republican Movement, do advocate forming separate Scottish unions. I have observed that quite often it is the teachers in the SSP – organised, as it happens, in a Scottish union, the Educational Institute of Scotland – who least grasp the merits of Britain-wide industrial organisation. The majority in the SSP has, though, always cautioned against industrial separatism and argued that even Scottish independence would not undermine the rationale for all-Britain unions.

We are some way off a situation where we can contemplate signing up workers in Britain and Iran to the same unions. So it seems we agree that the existence of a British state – and the shared political, social and economic environment that goes along with it – makes the closest possible cooperation between workers in some types of organisation essential.

That leaves us with the rather extraordinary conundrum of explaining why communists – supposedly the most advanced militants of the working class – should unite on a less ambitious scale than workers seeking to defend their immediate economic interests.

For most it is self-evident that civil servants defending their redundancy terms need to organise in the same union against the British state in its role as an employer. How far would civil servants get if the PCS were to be split into separate Scottish, Welsh and English unions and leave the coordination of joint industrial actions to their respective ‘international departments’? I suggest that we would not be expecting anything very dynamic or effective to come of it.

But for the left nationalists in the SSP the proposal that revolutionary socialists need to achieve the same degree of unity in seeking to overthrow that capitalist state and replace it with a workers’ democracy draws forth accusations of ‘unionism’. For them, building joint activities with communists in England and Wales must be left to the SSP’s international committee in case we were to inadvertently imply that a closer form of unity just might be appropriate.

An observation. Allan points to the SSP’s participation in European Anti-Capitalist Alliance in last year’s European elections and the speaker tour they organised for a member of the French New Anti-Capitalist Party. I would say that was a principled stance as far as it went. But when has the SSP ever stood as part of a Britain-wide electoral front in a British general election? What principle allows the SSP to collaborate with European socialists to the extent of forming a common platform, but prohibits a similar step with socialists across Britain?

Allan takes me to task for using the word ‘foreign’ to describe the SSP’s attitude to English communists. He thinks the word carries inherent connotations of xenophobia. What nonsense. The capitalist international system of states is a reality communists are obliged to acknowledge, even while they strive to overcome it. Allan, however, in his refusal to accept that the existence of a British state requires a united struggle by workers against it, departs from reality.

‘Brit left’

So what is the ‘Brit left’? According to Allan the epithet is aimed at those socialists who seek to build party organisations throughout Britain – who try to mirror the UK state in its organisational set-up. Allan admits that this is to apply an old Second and Third International orthodoxy: ie, one party for each state. Within the SSP it struck me as an insult hurled most fiercely at fellow Scots – a jibe implying deficient Scottish patriotism.

Allan sketches out a litany of the failings of ‘Brit left’ organisations: the Socialist Workers Party’s opposition to Hopi, the British nationalism of last year’s ‘No to the European Union, Yes to Democracy’ electoral front, the cowardice of Respect and the Campaign for a New Workers’ Party over migrant workers.

What is he driving at? Is he saying that the sectarian failings of the left in Britain are intrinsic to all Britain-wide ventures? The political project of the CPGB could be summed up as advocacy of left unity on the basis of principled politics. The examples of unprincipled left politics that Allan cites could very well be drawn from exposés in the Weekly Worker.

Certainly, the sectarian fragmentation of the left makes a nonsense of attempts to present an effective challenge to capitalism in Britain. Not much of an excuse, though, for the SSP to add a nationalist twist to that fragmentation.

Does the fact that the SSP operates only north of the border really make it immune to much the same failings as ‘London-based’ organisations? What about the whole Tommy Sheridan debacle? It was the leadership of the SSP that built up Tommy as a political superstar. That carried his picture on the masthead of most issues of Scottish Socialist Voice. That incorporated a message from Tommy and his portrait on every election leaflet. That added his name to that of the party on ballot papers. That ran a prominent story about his wedding.

Most in the SSP now accept that the hero-worship of Sheridan was a mistake – a re-evaluation that is rather a case of closing the gate after the horse has bolted. Today the whole organisation pretty much reviles him. I can understand the anger at Tommy Sheridan, but that in its turn does not excuse what is effectively collaboration with state authorities (a British state, moreover) and News International to put the man in prison. A perjury trial, whatever the outcome, is not going to place the SSP back in the big time. It is not even going to remove a martyred Tommy Sheridan from the Scottish political scene.

The fact of the matter is that such get-rich-quick schemes distort the priorities of most of the left in Britain – and internationally for that matter. You could argue that it is Trotsky’s transitional demands – a concept built into the DNA of most so-called revolutionary groups – that provides the excuse to describe any campaign for however modest a reform as a coherent aspect of a revolutionary strategy. I think the tendency towards political opportunism is more deep-rooted than that, but a lack of seriousness about programme is certainly a feature of virtually the whole left, including the revolutionaries in the SSP.

Republicanism

An understanding of the importance of demands around democracy and the part these should play in the strategy for achieving working class power should be at the heart of the programme of a communist party. That programme must take seriously the national question. I think that is a position I have always taken – and certainly before I joined the CPGB. I do not remember ever saying I was a ‘Luxemburgist’ – not that association with Rosa Luxemburg counts as a very severe insult in my book.

Like the rest of the CPGB, I have always maintained as a fundamental principle the right of the Scottish and Welsh people to choose independence. A right which a federal republic would enshrine with Scottish and Welsh parliaments having full powers to decide their future. What Allan has difficulty with is the dialectical subtlety of an approach that defends the right to self-determination, while advocating that the option for separation should not be exercised. Allan describes that as “condescending”.

In fact, paradoxical though it may appear to some, upholding the rights of nations is the only practical strategy for superseding the existing system of states. This is the task that will confront the working class as it seeks to build a world socialist order. What does Allan think this will entail? Would Allan either force nationalities against their will into broader federations or accept indefinitely as a fact of ‘human nature’ the national fragmentation bequeathed by capitalism?

The principle that any nation can choose to withdraw from a larger entity must hold, even after the working class has taken power. It is the only way of assuring all nations that their national and democratic rights will be respected and that they have nothing to fear from the construction of a socialist world.

Of course, there are national situations that pose particular problems. The CPGB supports the right of the Irish people to choose the unity of their island. This is the position we set out in our current Draft programme, as well as in the redrafted version proposed by the Provisional Central Committee. In addition, the majority within our organisation argues that the best way of assuaging the fears of the ‘British-Irish’ is to establish a federal Ireland with the right of self-determination for a British-Irish province covering a smaller geographical area than the current six counties.

I acknowledge the majority’s attempt to apply political principle consistently. However, I think there are problems with a formulation the leaves open the possibility of a repartitioned Ireland in which the rights of an Irish minority in a new Protestant statelet might not be guaranteed. As always, we will continue to debate our differences with the objective of achieving greater clarity.

The national rights of Scotland and Wales pose no problems of this kind. Their national boundaries are not in question. People in Scotland or Wales who regard themselves as English are unlikely to suffer any oppression – although grievances around the division of state resources might well exacerbate national tensions in the short term.

But what is the prospect for independence in Scotland? We were told at the convention that the most recent polls report support at levels of 37%. This is where support for independence has plateaued for the last decade or two. Occasionally, polls show support for independence spiking higher, but usually it oscillates around the mid-30s.

Clearly, there is a national question, but as things stand the Scottish people do not want separation. Yet left nationalists such as Allan argue that the key task for socialists north of the border – a task which justifies splitting the organisations of revolutionary socialists in the face of a very united British state – must be to win a majority of Scots to see the benefits of breaking with England.

This strategy is dressed up as an assault on British imperialism. Allan at least has the honesty to acknowledge that independence under the Scottish National Party would not involve a break with the circuits of international capitalism. But that is precisely the form in which independence is most likely to be delivered. According to Colin Fox, even an independent capitalist Scotland would be more progressive than the current British state.

Even if that were true (it is not), a communist programme must be more ambitious than that. Allan talks in terms of taking “the leadership of the national movement here from the SNP”. How about taking the leadership of the working class movement throughout Britain and Europe?

Allan criticises the tactics of the CPGB during last year’s European elections. However, contrary to his assertion, the CPGB did raise the question of migration. It is simply that the sticking point with the Socialist Party candidates in No2EU was around the right to bear arms. I was critical of making that the key issue in those elections, when it was the nationalism of No2EU that should have retained the focus of our tactics (‘Against sectarianism’ Weekly Worker June 18 2009).

But raising the demand that the British state’s monopoly of armed force should be broken is key to a republican agenda. It exposes the undemocratic nature of the rule of the capitalist class and, therefore, has far more radical potential than the separatism to which Allan aspires. It is the kind of republican politics that can lead the working class to challenge for state power. That is the prize for which all communists should strive.

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Mar 20 2009

Well, the Crisis of Capitalism has arrived – So, what do we do now!

Category: Emancipation & Liberation,Issue 17RCN @ 1:39 pm

Not just a ‘Credit Crunch’ – but a ‘Crisis of Capitalism’

This year’s SSP Conference takes place against the background of an unprecedented crisis for capitalism. Every day it becomes clearer that the problems in the economy are not just confined to the over-inflated world of finance, but are having a major impact on the productive sector, as factories face closure or short-time working. Furthermore, the large drop in government revenues, due to the big decline in economic activity, threatens huge cuts in social expenditure and provision too. Brown and Darling officially concede that we are living in an economic recession. Other analysts and commentators openly talk of a new depression, perhaps even deeper than that of the 1930’s.

Marxists have long talked of the crisis of capitalism, albeit often only amongst themselves. What is new today is that so many economic commentators agree.The difference now lies in their proposed solutions to deal with the current economic situation. For the mainstream economists, in the various corporate funded think-tanks and university economics departments, the debate is confined to what is the best way to get the capitalist system fully up and running again. In other words how can capitalist accumulation and profitability be restored?

What has changed, in the thinking of business executives and politicians, is the sharp decline in their earlier belief that everything could be left to the market. When the global economy was ‘booming’, millions of workers could have their real wages and social benefits cut, whilst being offered seemingly ‘limitless’ credit as an alternative. Many more millions of peasants, throughout the world, could be uprooted and forced to seek a ‘better life’ as transient migrant labourers. However, whenever workers and peasants made any calls for government funding to address their immediate problems, they were brusquely told by neo-liberals that this would only stall the engines of economic growth. Now, in the face of the economic crisis, which threatens the rich and powerful too, recent advocates of neo-liberalism are on the defensive, as they shamefacedly look to governments to bail out their system.

Neo-liberalism and neo-Keynesianism – the two faces of capitalism

This helps to explain the rapid rise of neo-Keynesianism, with its calls for greater government spending and state regulation of the economy. Keynesianism originally developed in the 1930’s as the ideology of the capitalist system in crisis. It became economic orthodoxy after the experience of the Great Depression and the Second World War. In 1971, the then Republican US President, Richard Nixon, could say We are all Keynesians now.

By then, the majority of capitalists were in agreement over the economic mechanisms needed to keep any economic crisis at bay. However, just as an earlier Gold Standard, free market, economic orthodoxy was dealt a fatal blow by the Stock Market Crash of 1929; and just as the recent global corporate, neo-liberalism has faced its nemesis in the 2008 Credit Crunch; so too, capitalist confidence in Keynesian panaceas came to an end in the mid-1970’s.

It had then become obvious that the maintenance of profit rates was incompatible with steadily rising wages and an expanding welfare state. Furthermore, after 1968, workers’ rising expectations led to large numbers taking strike action, and even to some workers occupying their factories, to defend and advance their interests. Squeezed between declining profits and rising class struggle, capitalism was once more under threat.

This is why big business turned to the previously marginalised, ‘free market’ economists, such as von Hayek and Friedman, to help them overcome their latest problems. These neo-liberals opposed government intervention in the economy and believed that it could be left to ‘the invisible hand’ of the market. However, it was only with the backing of the very visible hand of the state, that the ‘full freedoms’ of the market were restored. Thousands of Chilean socialists and workers were killed after Pinochet’s military coup in 1973, whilst in 1980’s UK and USA, the Thatcher and Reagan led governments promoted mass unemployment and union-busting offensives to discipline the working class.

The Libertarian Right’s dream of a stateless society under the free market proved to be a utopian illusion built on the false notion that capitalism can thrive best without government interference. The application of neo-liberal policies certainly led to the cutting of government spending in the field of direct social expenditure. However, indirect taxes were increased and spending was diverted to the coercive arms of the state – the armed forces, police and judiciary – to undermine the power of the working class; or given directly to the corporations through military spending and other government contracts.

Imperialist interventions were stepped up once more, particularly in Latin America and the Middle East. Some of these had direct economic intent – to ensure corporate control over such vital assets as oil; others were demonstrations of raw ruling class power, to remind people just who was boss, and to promote favoured clients in the ‘Third World’. Eventhe elimination of the USSR-led ‘state socialist’ competition, after 1989, failed to reverse the rise in state expenditure in the West. ‘Free markets’ now depend on massive and continually increased government intervention and spending.

Thus, throughout the prolonged period of neo-liberal ascendancy, from 1979 to 2008, global corporations were benefiting from government promoted wars, and by military, police and security operations designed to break-up ‘communities of resistance’, thus creating pools of cheap flexible labour. Private capital also gained from the huge rip-offs of the tax-payer associated with PFI/PPP schemes; and from the state’s resort to the use of costly private agencies and overpaid consultants.

Far from renewing a ‘free market’ economy, with a much-reduced ‘night-watchman state’, the big corporations and their neo-liberal supporting politicians presided over the continued expansion of, and their dependency upon state power. ‘State capitalism’ was not confined to, nor did it end with the demise of the Soviet Union between 1989-91. It morphed into a new single global order with the definitive victory of the corporate executives over theparty bureaucrats. On a world scale, the global corporations were now the prime beneficiaries of state power.

Furthermore, the demise of the Soviet Union meant that, for a certain period, the US state, which fronted the largest collection of global corporations and had the most powerful armed forces in the world, could either pressure the ‘international’ UN to sanction wars in its interests (retrospectively, if necessary, as in Iraq), or just go it alone. After ‘9/11’, the US state also took upon itself the role of handing out ‘anti-terror licenses’ to supportive governments so they could crush their own troublesome oppositions, e.g. Israel and the Palestinians, Sri Lanka and the Tamils. Meanwhile the arms corporations in the USA, UK, Europe and Israel made billions.

Despite all their support from the state, super-confident and arrogant corporate executives opposed any public scrutiny of their activities. They pushed for the ending of all government regulation of the economy. They demanded the protection of private companies’ ‘commercial confidentiality’, even when undertaking publicly funded projects.

The net result of all this direct and indirect state assistance, combined with the lack of any meaningful public scrutiny and accountability, has been a massive switch of wealth to the ‘masters of the universe’. It also led to greatly increased incomes and perks for their supporters in the media, those they fund in various ‘educational’ institutions, and of course, for their apologists in government. So, by the 1990’s, Clinton’s Democrats and Blair’s New Labour Party could easily have said, We are all neo-liberals now.

However, the current economic crisis has shown that, even in the private, privatised and deregulated sectors of the economy, over which the corporate executives declared their complete competency, they have failed spectacularly. So now they openly demand, on top of all their earlier massive, if largely publicly unacknowledged, state support, mind-boggling financial government subventions – at our expense. This is not to be done for the wider benefit of the public, who have never figured in corporate executive concerns, but to ensure that their current staggering losses are socialised, and to restore their private profits in the future.

(Neo)-Keynesianism, national protectionism and the drive to inter-imperialist wars

As the current economic crisis deepens, even those publicly unaccountable transnational institutions, which corporate capital and its political backers have created or moulded to further their global interests – e.g. G8, IMF, World Bank, WTO, GATT, NATO and the EU – are being subjected to increased internal strains. An overstretched and badly bruised USA can no longer command automatic support for its imperial ventures – especially when they are unsuccessful. China and Russia, and possibly even the EU, or its bigger constituent states in the future, are pulling in different directions, opening up the even more dangerous prospect of inter-imperialist wars.

Faced with falling profits and the devaluation of their assets, competing national ruling classes are beginning to move away from their recent international capitalist cooperation and opt instead for ‘me first and devil take the hindmost’ policies. National neo-Keynesianism is linked to new protectionist drives, designed to uphold particular national capitalist interests, to set worker against worker, and to make future shooting wars between major imperialist powers more likely.

Furthermore, there is the chilling reality that, although several national governments pursued Keynesian policies in the 1930’s, these failed to end the Great Depression. Just prior to the First World War, Rosa Luxemburg had anticipated the choice facing humanity – Socialism or Barbarism. However, it took two world wars, with millions dead and the massive destruction of accumulated capital, to eventually give capitalism a new lease of life after 1945. Any future world war, however, brings the very real prospect of human annihilation, whilst the increased capitalist degradation of the environment adds another twist to Luxemburg’s warning. As the marxist philosopher, Istvan Mezsaros has said, the choice now lies between Socialism or Barbarism if we are lucky!

One worrying early example of the future likelihood of inter-imperialist wars has occurred since the last SSP Conference. The nasty little conflict, which emerged in South Ossetia, last August, highlighted the growing US/Russian antagonism. In this particular case, the US client government in Georgia, led by President Saakashvili, was unable to provoke the direct US intervention it sought on its behalf, despite the rapid Russian reaction to his bloody invasion of South Ossetia. The USA was too bogged down elsewhere to open up a new military front against such a dangerous adversary as Russia.

Saakashvili had to eat humble pie, as the Russian military took control of and guaranteed the ‘independence’ of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. The notion that Medvedev and Putin did this for the benefit of two of the many oppressed peoples of the Caucasus would not impress many Chechenyans. Successive US governments, though, have had more success in promoting their imperial aims in the one-time Warsaw Pact countries, and even in the former Soviet Baltic states. These have been drawn into NATO.

US and Russian inter-imperial competition continues, and is now focused upon Ukraine. Its shaky coalition government has recently faced threats to Russian-supplied oil and gas deliveries. This represents a warning from the Russian state not to get any closer to the West. Yet, the lengthy Russian borderlands represent just one potential shatter zone, which could become the focus of a rapid escalation of inter-imperialist wars in the future.

Israel represents another US client state, only too eager to provoke wider wars, to provide cover for its leaders’ desire to ethnically cleanse the remaining Palestinians. During the dog days of the outgoing Bush administration, Barak Obama was keen to be seen to take initiatives to deal with the crisis-ridden American economy, but he remained silent over the Israeli invasion of Gaza. The likely formation of an even further Right Zionist government in Israel, under Netanyahu, seems only to have prompted the US government to attempt to further cripple the elected Hamas government in Gaza, under the guise of foreign aid, channelled through the US/EU/Israeli Palestinian Authority stooges.

President Obama’s new administration includes nobody even remotely connected to those misguided radicals so important to the success of his election campaign. This is because they were not so crucial to his future project – the re-branding of US imperialism – as those big business backers, who now determine the real direction of US state policy. Obama’s Cabinet now includes Republicans, Clintonites and avowed supporters of any Israel – no matter how belligerent and oppressive the government in power. He has, in effect, formed a national coalition. Obama wants to get wider international imperial assistance, after the disastrous gung-ho, go-it-alone record of Bush and his neo-liberal advisors.

After facing unforeseen resistance, Iraq is largely being given-up as bad job. Nevertheless, it has been left in a much weakened and balkanised state, unable any longer to play a role as a regional power. Where outright victory can not be achieved, then a legacy of massive destruction and dislocation has become the preferred US policy option. Israeli operations in Lebanon and Gaza follow the same pattern. This may still provide openings for non-state terrorist organisations to operate; but if they become troublesome, then massive all-out bombing offensives can be launched, with total disregard for the wider human consequences. Increased numbers of US troops are now being sent to a disunited Afghanistan to cause even more havoc and misery. Meanwhile preparations are being made for more draconian sanctions against Iran.

Thus, just as neo-liberalism was not merely an economic strategy, but was accompanied by massive US imperial interventions throughout the world; neither is neo-Keynesianism confined to purely economic measures. It can only lead to further imperialist wars and to increased inter-imperialist competition, with dire consequences for humanity.

Looking at the world through different SSP lenses

Our annual Conference is the time to take a close look at these latest developments, and to debate the policies needed to address the situation we face. The SSP is a broad-based socialist party, which includes different organised platforms as well as less clearly formed tendencies. Conference resolutions are a reflection of these different approaches. The fact that self-declared revolutionary socialists may often find themselves in a minority can easily be understood in today’s non-revolutionary conditions. However, as long as there is genuine democracy in the SSP, the possibility of winning members (and others) to consistent republican and communist politics remains open, in the changed circumstances of the future.

So, what are the political tendencies to be found in the SSP? After the split, overt Left nationalists have become a weaker force, with the departure of the SRSM and several former SNP members. Similarly, Left unionists are a diminished presence, with thedeparture of the CWI,/IS, SWP, and the apparent demise of the Left Unity Platform (although one of their constituents, the Left unionist and social imperialist AWL, still has members in the SSP).

The once dominant International Socialist Movement (ISM) has fragmented, leading to the rise of a variety of Left nationalist, Old Labourist, Green Left, socialist feminist, and pro-social movement, spontaneist ideas. Former ISM platform members still form the majority of the SSP leadership, but are less politically cohesive than they once were. This has allowed other politics, including republican socialist, to make headway in our party.

Although Frontline no longer considers itself to be organised platform of the SSP, in some respects this journal represents a kind of ‘Continuity ISM’, where debates between and beyond former ISM members continue. The former ISM’s international contacts were less extensive than those of the CWI, which they originally broke from, but are still valued by Frontline contributors. Perhaps the closest of these are to be found in the Australian Democratic Socialist Party/Green Left and those Fourth International members, some in the French LCR, and others grouped around the magazine Socialist Resistance in England and Wales. Socialist Resistance has replaced the SWP as the main organised grouping in the post-split Respect Renewal. Unfortunately, Respect’s leader, George Galloway, is a Left unionist. He used his Daily Record column to give support to New Labour in the Glasgow East and Glenrothes byelections. Worryingly, neither Frontline nor Socialist Resistance has publicly commented on this.

Orthodox Trotskyism claimed that nationalisation = socialism

Since the old ISM came out of the Trotskyist and CWI,/Militant traditions, it will be interesting to see how their view of the economic crisis develops. ‘Nationalisation of the top 200 companies’ was always a particular Militant shibboleth. There has been much loose talk in the media, following the effective nationalisation of several major banks by the US and UK governments. Some have even declared that, We are all socialists now.

This equation of ‘nationalisation’ with ‘socialism’ has been the hallmark, not only of neo-liberal economists, but also of official and dissident communists (or socialists as Trotskyists prefer to call themselves in the British Isles). The last vestiges of effective workers’ control of the Soviet economy had been eliminated in 1921, after the crushing of the Kronstadt Rising. After that, official and dissident communist claims that the USSR was still moving towards ‘socialism’, rested either upon the continuation of Communist Party rule, or the extension of nationalised property relations. The idea of socialism became separated from that of genuine democracy or effective workers’ control.

In the USSR, the reality was that the working class had no effective control over the economy, only the ability to passively resist top-down directives – They pretend to pay us, we pretend to work. Indeed, in the West, during the highpoint of class struggle between 1968-75, workers exerted more effective influence over the private companies they worked for, than did those workers in the East over ‘their own’ so-called ‘Workers’ States’. This was because of the relative strength of workers’ organisations in the West, at that time, compared to the situation workers faced in the East, where they had no independent class organisations of their own.

We have to be on guard against any notion of ‘socialism’ that separates state control from effective workers’ and popular democratic control. Any nationalisation or large-scale government funding measures under New Labour can only be aimed at meeting the needs of Brown, Darling and Mandelson’s real class backers – the global corporations.

Therefore, all those parties, which just voted for the government bail out of the banks, behaved in the same manner as those First World War Social Democrats who voted to provide war credits for their governments. For the decision to give trillions of dollars, pounds and euros to corporate capital amounts to a declaration of war upon the working class. We are going to be called on to pay for this through a massive austerity drive and further wars.

What is socialism and communism? – The need for a widened debate in the SSP

Nick McKerrall (Frontline) has been arguing for some time, that the SSP has not yet really developed a programme, which can address the situation we face. The RCN disagrees with Nick’s advocacy of a temporary retreat from public politics, in favour of a period of internal education. We believe, not only that you can do both, but that theoretical and programmatic development stems from political practice as well as from internal party education. However, we do agree with Nick that a new SSP programme is required. To do this though, the SSP needs to undertake a serious analysis of exactly what we mean by socialism (and/or communism) and, in particular, what role we see for the state, both today and in any revolutionary transition to a new society.

This is why, following on from our well-received pamphlet, Republicanism, Socialism and Democracy, we intend to produce another later this year, which addresses the issue of Communism and Socialism. Istvan Mezsaros’ challenging new book, with its essay, Socialism in the Twenty First Century, makes a major contribution to the wider ongoing international debate on this largely abandoned area of theory. The RCN has also been following the interesting ideas put forward in The Commune, a new website magazine, which is also beginning to re-examine earlier ideas about what constitutes socialism/communism.

There have always been some in the SSP who hanker after the days of ‘Old Labour’ (albeit within a Scottish national framework). This is not surprising, given the historical strength of Labourism in Scotland, and the spectacular betrayals of New Labour. The sudden revival of officially sponsored Keynesianism could give some sustenance to those who claim that state ownership is inherently better than private ownership, regardless of who controls the state.

However, the renewed debate between neo-liberals and (neo)-Keynesians should be used as an opportunity to put forward a distinctive socialist challenge to both these variants of capitalist thought. If all we do is become Left Keynesians, championing the role of the capitalist state over the capitalist corporation, then this can only contribute to the rebuilding of the discredited Labour Left, and to the possible demise of the SSP. Over a decade’s hard work to create an independent socialist organisation will have gone to waste.

The political dangers of national protectionism – ‘British jobs for British workers’

If the war in South Ossetia heralded possible new inter-imperialist wars, then the politically ambiguous legacy left by the recent strike at the Lindsey oil refinery, highlights the dangers of the shift to the politics of national protectionism. The defence of hard-won national contracts for all workers, whatever their nationality, is vitally important, especially since Lord Mandelson is the main promoter of ‘drive to the bottom’ in the EU. However, the reactionary demand of ‘British jobs for British workers’ can not be glibly dismissed. The BNP may have been seen off the picket lines, but you can bet it will be their support that grows in the forthcoming EU elections, and not those of some socialist parties hailing a great victory. Furthermore, the claim that such specifically ‘British’ appeals have little purchase in Scotland, are also worrying, given the undercurrent of unionism and loyalism, which can still be found here. Union Jack caps were to be seen amongst the Grangemouth strikers.

At present, the main danger to workers in Scotland is not the BNP, but the revived credibility of such Labour Party trade union leaders as UNITE’s Derek Simpson. He jumped on to the ‘British jobs for British workers’ bandwagon to cover up his opposition to any rank and file control in the union, and to smother the recent exposes of his privileged fat-cat lifestyle, paid for by union members. It was the Broad Left leaders of UNITE who undermined earlier militant strike action by Heathrow cleaners – but they were largely Asian women workers.

There has also been the attempt by Bob Crow of the Broad Left led RMT to play the ‘British workers’ card. He is trying to form a ‘No2EU’ electoral challenge in the forthcoming Euro-elections, with a platform defending ‘British democracy’ and opposing ‘social dumping’, i.e. migrant workers. Much of this could be accepted by the anti-EU UKIP.

The only significant strike in the last year in Scotland was that conducted by Grangemouth refinery workers to defend their pensions. Their success was linked to their key role in the economy, and has not been repeated by other workers whose pensions are under attack. Although there have been other strikes, involving civil servants and post office workers, these have been the token one day strikes used by trade union bureaucrats to let off steam. This perhaps explains the lack of motions this year to Conference addressing industrial struggle.

Broad Left versus Rank and File

Broad Leftism, however, remains the dominant industrial strategy pushed by the SSP leadership. In this there has been little movement from the old Militant tradition. Broad Leftism sees the main job of socialists in the unions as being to try and replace Rightwing leaders with Left wing leaders, through winning leading posts within the union bureaucracy. The underlying problem with this strategy is highlighted by the appearance of new Broad Left campaigns to replace old Broad Left leaders who have themselves become the new Right.

The alternative Rank and File approach, advocated by the RCN, represents an industrial republican approach. We see union sovereignty lying not in the union HQs, but in the collective memberships in their workplaces. Socialists should not accept the union bureaucrats’ right to dismiss workers’ own actions as ‘unofficial’. When such activity occurs, this amounts to independent workers’ action. When action is extended by means of mass picketing, it should still remain under the effective control of the workers involved. Elected officials, on the average pay of the members they represent, should service not control rank and file union members.

Furthermore, there are now large swathes of non-unionised workers in the country. A debate needs to be opened up in the SSP about the possibility of building additional, new, independent rank and file controlled unions. Too often, socialists can become mere recruiting sergeants for the existing cynical dues-pocketing bureaucrats, who offer no real support to their new members. Here, the experience of the Independent Workers Union in Ireland could be valuable. Ireland is a country where trade unionists have been hamstrung, since 1987, by the bureaucrats’ support for social partnerships with the government and employers.

As with Derek Simpson’s posturing, we should also be on the look-out for other moves to hoodwink workers, who are increasingly questioning union leaders’ near total commitment to New Labour and ‘social partnership’. We could well be told that, We are all in this crisis together, and that ‘our’ union leaders intend to push for more widely-based ‘worker participation schemes’, so that our concerns can be aired. Remember, the irregular conjugation of the verb ‘to participate’ in government/corporate speak – I participate; you participate; he and she participates; we participate; you participate, but – They decide.

The real importance of trade unions is that they are a key part of working class self-organisation – well, when they are not the playthings of privileged officials, or instruments in the hands of the governments and employers, that is. We can exert no meaningful control over the wider economy and society if we have no effective control over our own organisations. So the strengthening of independent working class organisations is the most pressing task of all in the current crisis. It will be necessary to return to the Broad Left versus Rank and File debate in the SSP.

Socialist unity can not be divorced from ‘internationalism from below’ in these islands

If motions addressing industrial struggle are absent from the Conference agenda, a call for socialist unity has come from Renfrewshire branch. This, however, is largely confined to Scotland, with a nod and a wink to certain developments in England and Wales – such as the Convention of the Left and the RMT initiative. However, the geographical scope of this motion doesn’t cover the full extent of the UK state, which also includes the ‘Six Counties’. Nor does it address the problem of the shared British and Irish governments’ promotion of the ‘Peace Process’ and ‘Devolution-all-round’. Together these policies are designed to maintain the best political framework for the corporations’ profitable operations in these islands. This common ruling class strategy has the backing of the British, Scottish and Welsh TUCs, and the Irish CTU. They are all locked into the ‘social partnerships’, which have turned union leaders into a free personnel management service for the employers.

Since 1992, the ‘Peace Process’, originally pioneered under Major’s government, has enjoyed shared Tory/Labour support. This reflects the widespread British (and Irish) ruling class agreement, in the face of their pressing need to pacify and reassert control over the republican ‘communities of resistance’ in the ‘Six Counties’. The disillusionment with the lack of any real ‘peace dividend’ has contributed to the re-emergence of physical force republicanism, with the killing of two British soldiers and a local PSNI officer by dissident republicans. In the absence of a wider political and social movement, such actions can only lead to further demoralisation and increased state repression.

It had already become clear that ‘British normality’had not been established in the ‘Six Counties’. Nevertheless, the UK government is now sufficiently in control that current Labour/Tory bipartisan support is fraying, as both parties develop their own strategies to preserve the Union in the face of the wider challenges.

Significantly, the Conservatives and Ulster Unionists have decided to form their own alliance to contest the next UK General Election. This represents the emergence of a new distinct and potentially dangerous Rightist strategy. The UUP is still heavily coloured by Protestant sectarianism, with many members active in the Orange Order. As yet, even after 87 years of the ‘Six County’ statelet and the UUP’s existence, it has not fielded even a single ‘Castle Catholic’ parliamentary candidate. This should be a wake-up call to the SSP, when Conservatives look for support in Scotland for their alliance with the UUP.

In the past, sections of the SSP, still influenced by the Militant’s old Left unionist traditions, were unable to make the distinction between the Irish republican struggle to end political and religious sectarianism, breaking the link with the UK, and the Ulster loyalists’ defence of Protestant privilege and the British Union. This was all dismissed as a ‘war between two tribes’. Gordon Brown’s call for ‘British jobs for British workers’ has been widely condemned for playing into the BNP’s hands. Now that the Conservatives want to give new life to Right Unionism in Scotland, it won’t only be the BNP who are given succour, but those supporters of the even more dangerous loyalist death squads, currently lying low over here.

Real headway has been made in the SSP over adopting a republican socialist strategy to break-up the UK and to end Irish partition, as opposed to a Left nationalist strategy for Scotland only. Nevertheless, the latter notion still enjoys some influential support in our party. The SSP initiated Calton Hill Declaration of October 9th, 2004, and the Republican Socialist Convention held last November 29th, were significant landmarks in the development of socialist republicanism. However, in the face of new reactionary pressures, we will need to stand firm in our commitment to democratic republicanism and to an ‘internationalism from below’ alliance with socialists in Ireland, Wales and England.

Such a strategy will be needed, not only to confront Unionism in all its forms, but to make any meaningful moves towards socialism in these islands. The failure of the ‘Peace Process’ to create ‘British normality’ in the ‘Six Counties’, along with the spectacular demise of the Irish ‘Celtic Tiger’ economic model, now offer socialists a real opportunity to put forward our alternative to both the unionists and the nationalists, if we can clearly see what is at stake.

The SNP retreats – the Republican Socialist Convention shows the way forward

The Republican Socialist Convention also drew the attention of visiting socialist republicans in England, Ireland and Wales to the political significance of the centrepiece policy of the SNP-led Scottish Executive – a referendum on Scotland’s independence. Although the various unionist parties have been quick to see the possible dangers this represents to the future of the UK, there has hardly been any discussion about this amongst the British Left. Their supporters in Scotland have probably put the issue to the very back of their minds, now that the economic crisis has taken the wind out of the SNP’s sails.

The SNP’s ‘independence’ project was based on the backing of key sectors of the Scottish business community, and tied to continued capitalist economic growth, led by a lightly-regulated Scottish-based finance sector. Indeed the Royal Bank of Scotland’s document, Wealth Creation in Scotland, provided the economic underpinning for the SNP’s proposed mild social democratic measures.

Alex Salmond, once keen to be seen in the company of the likes of Sir George Mathewson, now keeps his distance – at least in public. Whether all Donald Trump’s proposed new business venture in Aberdeenshire survives the crisis remains to be seen. However, other SNP big business backers such as Brian Souter, Sir Tom Farmer and Donald Macdonald recently demanded to meet Salmond. Soon afterwards, the SNP’s other flagship policy, the abolition of the council tax, was dropped. It probably won’t be long before the independence referendum is abandoned too, in favour of the more ‘realistic’ ‘Devolution-max’ proposals emanating from the British unionists’ Calman Commission, which the SNP once scorned.

The RCN has long predicted that the SNP would fall fully into line with other constitutional nationalist parties, such as the Parti Quebecois, Catalan Convergence, the Basque National Party (PNV) and now ‘New’ Sinn Fein too (after taking ministerial office in her majesty’s Stormont government and voting in the Dail for government bailout of the Irish banks). An SNP, now holding office, will follow these constitutional nationalist parties in opting for gradual political reforms acceptable to the major imperial powers, the global corporations, and in particular, to their respective national business communities. The SNP’s recent, openly declared support for the British monarchy is a clear indicator of the very cautious road they have adopted. It also shows us exactly whose support they are courting.

If the SSP is to make its policy of the break-up of the imperial and unionist UK a reality, this means an end to tail-ending the SNP in such organisations as Independence First and the Scottish Constitutional Convention. These organisations are completely tied to the SNP leadership’s rate of movement – which could very soon be in a reverse direction. The precedent of the successful Calton Hill Declaration, and the new links to Ireland, Wales and England, made through the Republican Socialist Convention, offer the best basis for a campaign of radical constitutional and social change.

There has been general agreement within the SSP that any intervention in an ‘independence referendum’ campaign would be accompanied by clearly articulated economic and social measures, which would point to the type of society that we would want to help create. The fact that a Scottish Executive launched referendum is looking more unlikely does not lessen our need to develop a programme with such policies. Indeed the current crisis of capitalism makes it even more imperative, since it will increase the strains upon the Union.

Two things should be clear though – any calls the SSP makes for government intervention should be coupled with the demand for increased democratic control. Indeed, it is the republican demand for greater democracy, and not the nationalist desire to paint more British unionist institutions tartan, that should inform our campaign for political independence. Secondly, we can’t afford to confine such a campaign to Scotland. The various unionist parties are quite capable of whipping up British chauvinist feeling within the various countries constituting the UK, whilst warning an Irish government, which will be only too keen to comply, to keep its nose out.

The need for wider international contacts and campaigns

The ongoing economic crisis has created divisions amongst the leaders of the EU. We can take some cheer from the massive students and workers’ struggles, which emerged in Greece, and the mass strike action in France. The ‘unofficial’/independentworkers’ occupation at Waterford Glass has also given the trade union bureaucrats such a nasty jolt, that it has even prodded the Irish CTU into action. They called the massive 120,000 strong, Dublin demonstration on February 21st. Significantly, the wildcat actions of those fighting for ‘British jobs for British workers’, has not been seen by the TUC torepresent a similar threat. The TUC and STUC remain bogged down in complacent inertia, pleased to hear a few sympathetic remarks from such government ministers as Alan Johnson and Peter Hain.

However, mounting resistance elsewhere will not stop European capitalists from trying to offload the cost of the current crisis on to workers’ shoulders. They are still trying to revive the neo-liberal Lisbon Treaty. Their attempt to browbeat the Irish into overturning their clear ‘No’ vote last year, should be met by an international campaign to back rejection once again. We hope that our Irish comrades in the Irish Socialist Network and Fourthwrite will consider seeking such support.

Unfortunately, the still divided European (and worldwide) Left is a long way from creating the new International we need to properly meet current challenges. This is one reason why the SSP must participate more fully in those wider international initiatives that do exist. To this end, the RCN has brought the formation of the New Anti-Capitalist Party in France, along with the European Anti-Capitalist Alliance (EACA), to the attention of Conference. We also offer a suggestion on how to improve their election platform for the forthcoming Euro-election.

Hopefully, the South Edinburgh SSP motion, which also advocates being part of the joint EACA campaign in the forthcoming Euro-elections, will also be adopted by Conference. Support for such policies would highlight the SSP’s active participation, alongside other European socialists, in promoting international solutions to counter the austerity and war-mongering drives being promoted by European capitalists, and by the Union Jack chauvinists of the BNP, UKIP, the Tories and sections of the Labour Party, as well as showing those SNP supporters committed to genuine independence that this can not be achieved on the coat-tails of the likes of Matthewson, Souter, et al. The purpose of the SSP is not to represent the interests solely of Scottish workers, but to act as an organisation representing all workers living and working in Scotland, whatever their nationality. This can only be achieved successfully in an active international alliance with others.

Despite the depth of the current crisis, capitalism could still yet be given new life, in a more barbaric form, and at the expense of the vast majority of working people. However, we shouldn’t underestimate its capacity, though, to bring about our complete extinction through nuclear war or man-made environmental catastrophe. Only socialists can offer an alternative future for humanity and the Earth. This is the bold challenge the SSP has to face up to at its 2009 Annual Conference.

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Jul 25 2002

Hooray for Hollywood

Category: Emancipation & Liberation,Issue 02RCN @ 9:42 pm

Steve Kaczynski looks at September 11, Hollywood and the portrayal of war and terrorism

The cinema, like other forms of entertainment and the media, is a powerful means of reflecting what goes on in society. It, like other forms of entertainment and the media, is also used by the powers that be to shape public perceptions in ways congenial to the ruling class. Hollywood and politics, at this point, is essentially the same system; it’s the monolithic corporate state. (Oliver Stone, quoted in the Spring 2002 issue of the US film magazine Cineaste, p.64.) And the system exerts its influence not just economically and politically, but culturally as well.

This article will examine how this has been done in America, with specific reference to events since September 11. But to start with, it cannot yet be said that September 11 has seen a dramatic change in American cinema and the way its movies portray foreign politics, especially with regard to the Middle East. This is, in part, because the destruction of the World Trade Center and the damage to the Pentagon happened only seven months ago. Films often take as much as two years to go through all the steps from conception in the mind of a screenwriter to their ultimate appearance on the screen at a multiplex near you. So in the Spring 2002, it is simply too early to say whether S11 will trigger a dramatic change in US films. Before I return to this subject, I want to devote some time to examine how cinema has been used to shape public perceptions, especially but not exclusively in the USA.

While this aspect of the cinema being used to influence the public never goes away in peacetime, it is particularly relevant in times of war or special stress. The USA entered World War I in 1917, a relatively late date, but the US path to the Western Front was smoothed by various films portraying the barbarity of the Hun.

Cinema used for propaganda

The Second World War saw cinema used for propaganda by all the belligerent countries. Nazi cinema showed The Eternal Jew, which compared Jews literally to rats, and contributed to dehumanising them so that their extermination would spark as few protests as possible. Meanwhile in Hollywood, especially after America entered the war, movies played their part in keeping the home fires burning. Josef Goebbels, the Nazi propaganda minister, is reported to have admired the 1942 American film Casablanca as an expert piece of enemy propaganda.

After the war the American film industry could hardly escape the consequences of the cold war. The HUAC imprisoned some communists or excommunists who had been active in Hollywood, and drove many more out of the industry or into foreign exile. Studios made anticommunist films, generally of poor quality, and partly as a guarantee that the HUAC and similar bodies would leave them alone. When the Korean War broke out, it was reflected in Hollywood’s output.

John Ford’s 1951 film, This is Korea! , has appalling footage of napalm, no less horrifying for having been staged in part. Over one scene with a flame-thrower the commentary (read by John Wayne) simply says: ‘Burn ‘em out, cook ‘em, fry ‘em.’
Korea: The Unknown War, Jon Halliday and Bruce Cumings, Viking, 1988, p.166.

The favourite villain of Hollywood tended to be reds of one kind or another, up until the latter half of the 1980s. However, a recurrent problem of using entertainment as propaganda is that it has to remain entertainment. This to some extent limits the capacity to use them as propaganda tools to make people see the world the way the government and ruling class want. People go to see films in large part for escapism, not necessarily to be told what to think. For example, it is noticeable that Hollywood tended to avoid overtly portraying the Vietnam War while it was actually going on. The main Vietnam film during that period was John Wayne’s The Green Berets, made in the late 1960s, and it did poorly at the box office and was savaged by just about every critic who was to the left of J. Edgar Hoover. The film MASH, which came out in 1970, cast a cynical eye on the Korean War, though it was often seen as a coded reference to Vietnam. This lack of a clear propaganda message (despite attempts by the government to influence the industry in that direction) reflects the real confusion and revulsion engendered by the Vietnam conflict in
US society.

Still, despite setbacks the US government and establishment has continued its efforts in various channels to influence Hollywood. For example, the US military extends facilities, often free of charge, to the making of films which portray the US armed forces in a positive light. It withholds such facilities from films that are critical. For example, the 1992 film A Few Good Men, starring Jack Nicholson and Tom Cruise, was hardly a radical clarion call, but because it suggested that Marines at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba use illegal forms of discipline, the US Marine Corps refused to cooperate with the film.

Demonising Muslims

The Reagan years saw a drift back to a more propagandist America’s back style, with radical and fundamentalist Islam beginning to take over as the bogeyman. With the collapse of the
USSR in 1991, this trend was reinforced.

A good example is the 1994 film True Lies, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jamie Lee Curtis. This features a set of mainly Middle Eastern baddies, whose leader is played by Art Malik, a British actor of Pakistani origin. They belong to something called Crimson Jihad (perhaps to mix the red threat with the Muslim peril). They are evil and fanatical but also inept and ridiculous: in one scene their attempt to make a threatening video message fails because they are too incompetent to operate the camera properly. When I watched this film, I wondered whether members of other religions or ethnic groups could be lampooned so freely in Hollywood as Muslims could be. There is a Muslim lobby in the USA, but clearly it is not as powerful as others out there. There have been surprisingly few films about the Gulf War, perhaps because it was relatively short, and the 1990s, on the whole were relatively peaceful for Americans. But where a cinematic villain on the international stage was needed, Muslims and Arabs have tended to be chosen.

The film from the year 2000, Rules of Engagement, starring Samuel Jackson, tended to demonise Arabs, while even more recently Black Hawk Down did the same with regard to Somalia, referring to a real-life American military fiasco in 1993, in which a number of US soldiers were killed. Black Hawk Down was released after S11, though made before it, and since Somalia is a possible target for the USA as part of the war on terrorism, the film has some political and propaganda significance. However, in style and treatment it is not very different from trends that have long been established in US cinema and are hardly unique to that country’s films. US troops are in Somalia for good, altruistic reasons but evil warlords are there to foil and frustrate them, etc. So, in summary, trends that appear at first glance to have S11 written all over them were in fact established well back in the last century.

Impact of September 11

Coming back to S11’s potential or future impact on US cinema: after it, British TV’s Panorama examined whether Hollywood could have averted what had happened, since many of the more extravagant scripts and completed films are not unlike the events of that day. It is very probable that many Hollywood screenwriters do indeed have more imagination than CIA or Pentagon planners and analysts, but for me that was not the most interesting part of the programme. What was interesting was some of the interviews. In particular, one screenwriter or producer said that there had been some criticism of the way Muslims had been portrayed in American films, but that American cinema’s earlier use of Muslims and Arabs as villains and bogeymen had now been vindicated by S11.

Because of the long lead times for making films, as explained at the start of this article, post-S11 trends have yet to reach full fruition, but what we are likely to see is an intensification of terrorism, especially Muslim and/or Arab, as a threat woven into the plots of US films. The Panorama remarks I have mentioned strongly point in that direction. That would please US policymakers and the Zionist lobby, and might do well at a box office, which has for a long time tended to have villains of a carefully selected kind dangled before it.

Considering how many films shown in Britain are of US origin, such trends are likely to have an impact in Britain. The left will need to respond in some way. It will need to picket cinemas, which show particularly revolting films of the kind I have described. But this will be a real test of the British left’s anti-imperialism and internationalism.

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Mar 23 2002

Why Emancipation And Liberation?

Category: Emancipation & Liberation,Issue 01RCN @ 7:12 pm

Emancipation and Liberation are heady words. Yet it is vital that we give serious consideration to what we stand for – not merely what we are against.

The left is best known for being anti – anti-cuts, anti-poll tax, anti-Nazi, anti-fascist, anti-war, anti-imperialist, anti-globalisation or anti-capitalist. Some will argue that as long as we stand as socialists or communists then it will be clear that we also offer a positive alternative. Unfortunately both words have become tarnished. Socialism has been used to describe a variety of states from National Socialist Germany to the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics; a whole host of authoritarian populist regimes in Africa, Asia and Latin America; and the now much diminished and compromised forces of social democracy. Communism became synonymous in many people’s minds with such brutal tyrannies as those led by Stalin, Hoxha, Kim Il-Sung and Pol Pot or the dull grey bureaucracies led by Honecker in East Germany and Husak in Czechoslovakia.

Since September 11th, Bush and Blair have raised the political stakes considerably by invoking the defence of civilisation and enduring freedom. Without offering this positive vision, these politicians would find it far harder to legitimise their new-found crusade – the Coalition Against Terror. If they confined themselves to being merely against terrorism, it certainly wouldn’t take long to expose their hypocrisy. It is indeed a strange Coalition Against Terror which includes the USA, Russia, China, Israel, Turkey, Pakistan and the Northern Alliance!

Continue reading “Why Emancipation And Liberation?”

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