Wednesday, 24 March 2010

Born in1891 in Kiev, Mikhail Bulgakov is best known for his magical realist novel The Master and Margarita, published posthumously. It is the best example of his wildly surreal and satirical writing. The book was available underground as samizdat for many years in the Soviet Union, and it led to international appreciation of Bulgakov’s writing.

In 1916, he served in the White army alongside his brothers. After the Civil War and rise of the Bolsheviks, most of his family emigrated but Mikhail remained. He remained ambivalent towards the Soviet government: while mocking it in some of his works, he also wrote the play Batum glorifying Stalin's early revolutionary activity. Much of his work remained in his desk drawer. He published a number of works through the early and mid-twenties, but by 1927 his career began to suffer from criticism that he was too anti-Soviet.

The White Guard in its original form was a novel and first appeared as a serial in the Soviet literary journal Rossiya in 1926, but was never fully released. Instead it was turned into a play The Days of the Turbins, and became a big hit, enjoying a long run at the Moscow Arts Theatre before eventually being banned. Bulgakov then wrote to Stalin personally to be permitted to leave the country, but instead Stalin gave instructions for him to be given a job at the Moscow Arts Theatre, where he was still working when he completed The Master and Margarita, before he died in 1940. His widow partially published The White Guard in the literary journal Moskva in 1966, and the entire novel was only finally published in 1973.

The play is set in the Ukraine during 1918, and depicts the fate of the Turbin family as the Civil War rages around them - the Whites, the Reds and the remnants of the German army are fighting for the city of Kiev. Real historical figures such as Petlyura and Skoropadsky feature as the Turbins are caught up in the turbulence of the Revolution.

White Guard contains many autobiographical elements. The younger Turbin brother is modelled after Bulgakov's own. The house of the Turbins is an exact description of the one lived in by the Bulgakov family in Kiev.

The play gives us a portrait of an upper-class Ukrainian family wedded to an outdated system. During the final days of the First World War, the Ukrainian regime’s protectors, the Germans, are in retreat and the Bolsheviks are at the gates of Kiev.
It is in essence a Chekhovian situation and – handled with subtlety and historical acumen – the production could have teased out the tragedy as well as the comedy encapsulated in this family’s doomed situation. Instead it is played almost entirely for laughs and becomes more Whitehall farce than Cherry Orchard. One wonders what motivated the NT to resuscitate the play in this new adaptation by Andrew Upton who seems more fascinated by Stalin’s apparent love of the play and Soviet censorship of it, than with Bulgakov’s central concerns. Upton was also responsible for the NT’s version of Gorky’s Philistines.
The actors here perform well but are straitjacketed by the over-emphasis on the farcical and are left little space to develop multi-faceted characters. It is directed by NT Associate Howard Davies.

Sunday, 21 March 2010

There is more to the British Airways strike than media headlines reveal. It is the first all-out strike by cabin crew for 13 years. This time the vote for strike action by cabin crew – not noted for militancy –saw 9,000 members out of the 11,000 balloted backing strike action in the row over staffing cuts and proposed changes to working conditions - an unprecedented percentage. Clearly staff were sufficiently enraged by the bullying tactics of BA management and the drastic implications of the proposed cuts that they saw no alternative to strike action.
BA’s share price soared last Friday, despite the strike announcement. Clearly the establishment is convinced BA and its pit-bull, Willie Walsh, will win and the union will be defeated.
On the first day of the strike BA maintained that half of staff had reported for duty, however, Unite insisted that 80% of its 11,000 members supported the first day of this three-day walkout. Walsh described the industrial action as ‘another cold-blooded threat’ to the holiday plans of their passengers. He attacked Unite, claiming they were ‘militant activists’ who had ‘cynically misled’ and coerced the company’s staff, who are among the highest paid in the industry.
BA suffered a loss before tax of £342m for the nine months to the end of December 2009 and says it needs to cut costs in order to survive, but this could have been achieved by negotiation. The Unite negotiating team lent over backwards to find a compromise and were willing to consider a range of options, including a two-year pay freeze, a partial repeal of staffing reductions on flights and an agreement to create a ‘new fleet’. Why did BA put an offer on the table which the unions were prepared to consider, only to then withdraw it?

Walsh’s deliberately aggressive and provocative stance vis a vis the union’s conciliatory attitude seems to indicate a deliberate attempt to provoke a strike. One has to ask why he wasn’t prepared to compromise. BA will be losing even more millions over this period and will hardly lead to an improvement of its already precarious financial situation, unless it is able to smash the union.

The last thing the new Labour government wanted so soon before a general election is a strike like this, and it has done everything it can behind the scenes to avoid it. The strike is likely to rebound on New Labour and will only benefit the Tories. That’s why Brown and his courtiers have done all they can to ensure it didn’t happen, but they failed.
Walsh seems the perfect man to take on the unions; he is the archetypal shop steward promoted to foreman. He became a pilot at Irish flag-carrier Aer Lingus, and during his time there acted as chief negotiator for the Irish Airline Pilots Association (IALPA) and was quoted at the time as saying that ‘a reasonable man gets nowhere in negotiations’. He is now putting that credo into practice and clearly wishes to outdo his Irish compatriot, loud-mouthed union-basher-in-chief, Michael O'Leary of Ryan Air.
BA's management has not faced up to the consequences of cut-throat competition among airlines and Walsh now wants to ensure that the unions take the blame. With imaginative and co-operative policies it could have carried the workforce and their unions with it. Walsh, though, is attempting to conceal this failing behind his crude anti-union strategy.
Governments too need to face up to the consequences of a completely de-regulated airline system. A fight to the bottom is taking place, resulting in underpaid and under-trained staff, overworked pilots and cabin crew with potentially serious repercussions for passenger safety, comfort and service. Governments need to recognise the crisis facing all airlines and work towards an internationally-agreed and more rational regulatory system embracing pricing, environmental issues, passengers' needs and a closer co-operation between all who work for the airlines and their unions. There are obvious parallels here with what has taken place in the financial world.
The establishment media have gleefully recycled the old headlines about too much union power and the unions bank-rolling the Labour Party. You’d think we were back in the seventies when the unions still had considerable power. Despite Thatcher’s union-shackling legislation still in place and the unions jumping through all the hoops of a regulated ballot and still winning a massive turnout and yes vote, a new round of union bashing is firmly on the agenda.
There may not be a conspiracy, it may be just fateful co-incidence, but with the recession showing little sign of improvement, and a determination by both main parties to impose cuts and wage-freezes, a militant trade union movement is the last thing either wants. Giving Unite a bloody nose at this time would send a strong signal to others, just as Thatcher’s defeat of the miners did in 1984.

Saturday, 13 March 2010

10 March 2010

Dear Sir

It is easy to point the finger at other nations, but few countries are willing to admit to reprehensible collective acts committed during their history – some do, but only many decades later (Guardian 10 March: La Rafle confronts wartime stain on French history - Film attempts to recreate the terror of the 1942 Rafle du Vel d'Hiv, in which 13,000 Jews were rounded up in Paris). The Turks are still refusing to admit their genocide of the Armenians and we have still not addressed the role of HM representatives in the Channel Islands during the Nazi occupation. Few today realise that the Nazis actually occupied a part of Britain and that the police and island administrations co-operated willingly with the Nazis, deporting Jews and accepting the slave labour and ill-treatment of Russian POWs. No one has been asked to account for this; it has been brushed under the carpet. The Governor of Jersey was even knighted for services to the Crown!

Wednesday, 3 March 2010

Tweedledee and Tweedldum once again!
It seems we’re already experiencing the post-election blues before we know what the outcome is! The Local Government Association, dominated at present by the Tories is already talking of slashing 25,000 jobs nationally. Prof. Tony Travers of LSE is predicting that it could be even more. The BBC, after relentless pressure from the commercial sector, led by the Murdoch mammoth, is cutting its services with considerable job losses. We sure know what we are in for whoever wins.
The late Fenner Brockway records the widespread disappointment and even sense of betrayal when the first Labour governments in 1924 and 1929 under Ramsay MacDonald refused to challenge capitalism but decided to manage it instead. That position has characterised Labour governments ever since, despite Clause VI of its pre-Blair era constitution in which it stated unequivocally that the aim of the party would be: ‘To secure for the workers by hand or by brain the full fruits of their industry and the most equitable distribution thereof that may be possible upon the basis of the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange, and the best obtainable system of popular administration and control of each industry or service.’
The men and women and trade unions which founded the Labour Party at the turn of the century saw it as a means of ‘furthering the cause of labour’ and of justice and equality to counter jungle capitalism. Those aims are as far away now as they ever were, despite the amelioration of conditions for many.

At the close of the Second World War, the electorate was avid for change and was determined to make a clear break with the past. If ever the Labour Party was given a virtual mandate to introduce socialism, 1945 was the year. The subsequently elected Labour government did nationalise vital sectors of the economy and bring in a national health service; this was the most far-reaching political and economic shift in power carried out by any government that century. However, since then successive Labour governments have retreated from those earlier laudable achievements until we now have a country in which finance capital rules our economy and calls the shots; social inequality in Britain is now higher under Gordon than at any time since modern records began in the early 1960s. The incomes of the poor fell while those of the rich rose in the three years after the 2005 general election. Both Blair and Brown were more than content to ‘manage capitalism’; they had complete faith in capitalism as the best system for delivering social justice and stability, even though the facts prove otherwise and their much vaunted financial system came crashing down around their ears.

Ministers in the Labour governments of Harold Wilson during the sixties and seventies were so convinced of capitalism’s potential for progress that they saw the increasing introduction of new technology as freeing workers from mundane work and giving everyone more leisure time. It saw the country’s future dilemma, not in terms of class struggle or a collapse of the system, but in terms of how we would be able to cope with the increased leisure time the success of capitalism would grant us. How ironic now that despite all that technological innovation, we are all now working longer hours with less leisure time than before and are more stressed and less happy in our jobs. In the post-war period, a considerable numbers of workers have of course enjoyed increased wealth, particularly during the seventies and eighties, but a social price has been paid for that. It is sometimes forgotten that many families before the war relied on one income – the man’s – now it is virtually impossible for a family to cope on one income alone. A family without two full-time incomes is hardly able to maintain a reasonable standard of living. A recent survey by Employment law firm Peninsula reveals that more of us are even having to take on two jobs in order to keep our heads financially above water. Many people have also gained in monetary terms, often immensely, simply by owning property and watching prices rocket. That bubble has now burst, and we are faced with the most acute housing shortage since just after the war.

In the wake of the world financial crisis, rising unemployment, shameful economic inequality and increasing social breakdown this coming election should be focussing on a discussion around a real choice of policies, however, that is hardly the case. Where is the vision, the bold ideas, the challenge to big business? Unlike in 1945, we have a widespread disengagement by many, a deep-rooted political apathy and a general uninterest in politics altogether. Instead we have the two main pro-capitalist parties slugging it out over who will make the deepest public spending cuts and who can best bandage-up the financial crash case. There is a total lack of visionary ideas, of political courage and of potential leaders. We have an army of colourless political clones, chosen from a middle class elite who are slaves to their respective party systems and as blindly-loyal as limpets to their chosen rock. We can only hope that the deepening recession and political paralysis within the major parties will galvanise grassroots struggles and that a new generation of leaders with a new vision and firm principles will emerge.
Zapatistas – rebellion from the grassroots to the global
By Alex Khasnabish

When the Zapatista movement exploded onto the political stage on New Year’s Day in 1994 it seemed to have emerged from nowhere. It captured the headlines of the world’s media and fired the imagination of rebels everywhere with its audacious exploits. The poetic words of its charismatic, masked and pipe-smoking spokesperson, Sub-comandante Marcos became the new credo. It appeared to be a new type of movement, eschewing old dogmas and traditional forms of guerrilla struggle. There were no hierarchies of command – only horizontal networks - and the movement identified with the aspirations and wishes of the Mexican indigenous people; they offered no blueprint for others, merely averring that their ways were developed to suit Mexican reality. It took its name from the legendary Zapata, who was a peasant leader of the first Mexican revolution in 1910.

Sickened by decades of virtual dictatorial rule by the corrupt Institutional Revolutionary Party and its brutal oppression of the indigenous people, they were orientated toward shorter-term objectives and local movements rather than the longer-term, strategic goals of conventional political actors like parties and trade unions; indeed the Zapatistas declared they were not interested in taking state power.

Their philosophy as expounded by Marcos, in his replies to hypothetical accusations is more an intangible dialectical credo than a real policy or manifesto. It emphasises the movement’s more anarchist than Marxist basis. The Zapatistas see modernisation as representing the obliteration of all that is ‘backward’ ie indigenous in Mexico.

Khasnabish is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Mount Saint Vincent University in Canada, and gives an excellent depiction of the roots of ‘Zapatismo’ and relates how the moment evolved. He may be somewhat in thrall to its romantic aura but he doesn’t cross the line of becoming its mouthpiece. He emphasises the world-shattering effect of the Zapatistas, but one has to ask brutally what the movement has in fact achieved on the ground.

It is a very informative book and certainly provokes a rethinking of traditional attitudes and modes of struggle on the Left.