Wednesday, 29 December 2010

New hope for socialist advance in 2011
While 2010 was a horrendous year in so many ways, 2011 presents the Left with new hopes and opportunities. We can draw succour from the fact that the time has never been better for a revival of socialist ideas and renewing our vision of a socialist society. This new opportunity is also being noted and commented on by a number of leading thinkers.

Capitalism is going through the sort of fundamental crisis that Marx and Engels predicted and which they were deeply convinced would usher in socialism. Only through a massive and unprecedented rescue of the world’s banking system could the ruling class temporarily prevent global capitalism from tipping over the brink. With outrageous impertinence they are now attempting to make working people pay for rescuing them from a catastrophe instigated by the bankers and their political helots.

2011 will undoubtedly be another difficult year, but it is also pregnant with opportunity for meaningful struggle and holds the promise of real revolutionary change. The anti-austerity demonstrations in many countries and now students taking action are merely precursors of intensified mass action in the coming year.

If the Left is to have any real input and provide leadership in this coming struggle. It should also use this time for reflection and reassessment of deeply held shibboleths in order to avoid missing opportunities, drawing false historical parallels or misinterpreting and miscalculating the forces for change.

With the virtual implosion of the financial system, here in Britain we are facing the dismantling of the welfare state, and could be forgiven for thinking we are threatened with a return to 19th century values. For the first time in the post-war period, as a population, we face a real reduction in living standards, the returning fear of job insecurity, homelessness and poverty. Globally, we face an apocalyptical environmental catastrophe with global warming, large geographical shifts of people, population growth and diminishing raw materials. As individuals we face increasing alienation in our jobs and in society, where communities have been destroyed and continuous labour mobility is demanded. On top of that, we are witnessing a tectonic shift in global economic power towards countries like China, India and Brazil which will have an even more serious impact on jobs and living standards, with unforeseeable consequences. In Britain we have enjoyed privileges based on our colonial and imperialist past. With the export of manufacturing and jobs elsewhere, those days are over, and working people now face draconian attacks that have already been flagged up by the present government..

The need for a rethink
It is perhaps, on reflection, no surprise that socialism in the Soviet Union collapsed. Marx and Engels themselves, towards the end of the 19th century, were very reluctant to recognise a revolutionary potential there and even when Engels was persuaded that there was (Marx was already dead), he was sceptical of the outcome because he knew that a highly developed capitalist system was essential before socialism could be successfully constructed.

Many of us who lived through the colonial liberation movement of the sixties onwards and witnessed the liberation of one country after another by nationalist and socialist leaders were convinced that these countries would go on to build successful socialist societies. (The consensus of the world’s communist parties then was that national liberation struggles would lead almost automatically to socialist transformation). That vision and those hopes have been thrown back in our faces. Today, particularly in Africa, we see only internecine wars, ingrained corruption on an unimaginable scale and an almost total destruction of social infrastructures.

Although Marx, and later Lenin, recognised clearly that finance capital would eventually become predominant in any capitalist system, they couldn’t have foreseen how the enormous expansion of speculative activities, at the expense of productive activities, have diminished the relative weight of real economy and seriously eroded national sovereignty. This in itself makes nation-based protest and struggle more difficult than ever.

The changing face of the proletariat
Conditions in Britain today are, of course, very different from those when Marx and Engels developed their theories. The proletariat they described as the revolutionary force that would usher in socialism exists no longer – it has shifted to China, India and other industrially previously under-developed countries. We no longer have a large and recognisable middle class either. Apart from the few very wealthy, 90% of us earn a wage, experience job insecurity and a degree of workplace alienation. Of course some earn very good wages and some are poorly paid, but all of us in this group are subject to the same mechanisms of the system. We won’t all think of ourselves as ‘workers’ but that’s what we are. That is why even traditional ‘white collar’ sections and higher status professionals in society find themselves taking strike action, picketing and fighting to protect their working conditions and jobs. This has led to a gradual ‘quasi-proletarianisation’ of increasing numbers of wage- and salary-earners. As a consequence of these changes, the 19th century concepts of working class and middle class, in a British context, are no longer particularly useful as differentiating factors, or in helping us understand how society works. Even the strong cultural differences that separated and identified these classes in the past have now largely disappeared. Across the class divides people watch X-factor and Strictly Come Dancing; young people go to the same discos and clubs, listen to the same popular music and buy clothing from the same chains; social differences are now mainly ones relating to income differentials.

In the absence of real industrial communities, very often, today, ‘working class’ is used to refer to those marginalised by the system, the neglected and forgotten in the old industrial centres and those ghettoised on council estates. While it is important to include such people in our struggle for justice, we must realise that they are not the mainstream and are hardly potential revolutionary forces. We have to stop identifying overwhelmingly with the dispossessed, the marginalised and extremely poor. It is essential that we focus on, and try and win over, those in the mainstream, often in well-paid jobs, who are becoming aware of the increasing threats to their own lives and welfare and will be looking for trade union support and allies.

These changes need to be reflected in our thinking, our analysis of society and our proposals for progressive change. We can no longer seek ideological refuge in repeating the mantra of the revolutionary potential of the ‘working class’, without better defining what it is and what we mean by it. By continuing to over-emphasise the role of the industrial working class (now hardly existent in the UK) in this way, potential allies and supporters who don’t see themselves as proletarian become alienated and feel excluded from the struggle; and many of these people may be very progressive, active trade unionists and even socialists.

New world forces
We are also seeing the seemingly impossible and contradictory situation of China, led by a communist party, overseeing a capitalist expansion on an unprecedented scale. Something no one would have thought possible on either side of the ideological divide in the past. How do we explain that? How can we interpret it? There is nothing that I know of in mainstream Marxist theory to begin to explain such a development.
Then, in Latin America we have progressive and socialist governments attempting to build socialist societies, but on a base that was scarcely developed in terms of industrialisation or civil democracy (hopefully we won’t see a reprise there of what has already happened in Africa).

In addition to the economic challenges, we are also facing a world increasingly divided more by religion than class. The rise of fundamentalist Islam in the East and Middle-East has filled the vacuum left by the communist parties and secular national liberation movements and is seen by the masses in those impoverished and war-ravaged areas as the revolutionary force to combat western domination and the imposition of capitalist values.

The severe impoverishment of many countries as a direct result of imperialist rapacity has also led to an increase in mass migration which is destabilising many countries and seen as a potential threat to the social stability of many western capitalist nations, which are now erecting walls to keep out those seeking an escape from poverty and injustice. All this has intensified the contradictions and conflicts, with the dominant capitalist forces prepared to resort to violence and localised wars to contain the problems and suppress any forces opposed to them.
In this context, we also have to recognise that, despite all the positive potential, on the level of consciousness and ideology, this crisis also provides a fertile ground for the revival of extremism (racism, chauvinism and religious fundamentalism). There is a big potential for developing protest movements that take on anti-capitalist content, but there are also ideological and political challenges that face every effort to achieve the necessary alliances and unite the diverse strands in a coherent current that will become effective in opposing the retrogressive demands made by imperialism and take society forward to socialism.
It is the job of the Left to ensure that the right wing is prevented from capitalising on the increased fears, alienation and wider social breakdown. It can be done, but only if we are able to build and maintain a unity on the Left and develop clear and attainable goals, jettison the anachronistic ideological baggage of the past, hold on to that which is still useful and prepare to adapt our thinking and tactics to the new realities, rather than refight old battles. Let’s make 2011 the year of socialist renewal.
If He Hollers Let Him Go
By Chester Himes
Pubs. Serpent Tail Books
Pbck £7.99
Pps 259

Himes was one of the leading black writers of his generation and this, his first novel, was first published in 1945. He is, though, most famous for his series of Harlem-based detective stories. Growing up during the first half of the twentieth century he experienced the unremitting hatred and discrimination of blacks in his native country. This novel takes place over several days in the life of a young, black shipyard worker in California whose anger, outrage and a determination to take revenge on those oppressing him bursts onto the page like molten lava. Bob Jones, the hero, is a skilled ‘leaderman’ on the docks, but is slowly destroyed by the daily humiliations, degradation and even violence meted out by the whites he encounters. The claustrophobic situation makes him respond with violence too, an expression of the hatred that eats away inside him. Today the book won’t have the same shock value that it no doubt had then, but Himes’ direct and vivid, everyday language lends it a raw validity, turning it onto a compulsive read. It has the quality of a Greek tragedy in which the terrible fate of the hero is a foregone conclusion. For a black man in 40s USA there were two choices: submit to slavery or fight it head on.

As a black male, Himes would never find true recognition for his writing in the USA, In the 1950s, he emigrated and settled in France permanently, a country he liked in part due to his popularity in literary circles. There, Himes' fitted easily into the expat community that included fellow black artists like the communist political cartoonist Ollie Harrington and writer Richard Wright, as well as James Baldwin. An interesting essay is appended in which Himes calls for a Communist world revolution.
The Comrade from Milan
By Rossana Rossanda
Pubs Verso
Hdbck £29.99
400 pages

Rossana Rossanda, now in her eighties, was a leading Italian communist for over half a century. She was expelled from the party in 1969 because of her opposition to the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. She went on to found the renowned Italian left newspaper Il Manifesto and has been a regular contributor to New Left Review.
Born into an impoverished lower middle class family in the 1920s on the Italian-Yugoslav border, she grew up in a protective and apolitical family and politics only entered her life during her university studies and, in 1943, she joined the underground Italian resistance to fascism. After the war she worked in many positions in the party, and rose to become a member of its central committee.

Her autobiography is a history of those turbulent times in Italy, a vivid portrayal; of the communist movement and at the same time, but more importantly, an interrogation of her own past in the context of that wider historical tapestry. However she doesn’t use a broad brush but filters this process through her own personal experience. As a convinced communist she is understandably more concerned with the mistakes and weaknesses of the movement than dealing with the machinations and political tactics of the movement’s opponents. Thus many sentences are questions, rather than answers.

The Italian party tried to steer its own course. As the largest western communist party it was on the threshold of power for over 40 years; only the machinations of the Catholic Church and USA prevented the party forming a government. The party’s powereful position and strength made it almost part of the establishment and this, in the end, led to a certain complacency and accommodation with the status quo. The party also refused to submit to Moscow’s centralised control and hegemony, albeit behind the scenes. She underlines how the Italian Communist Party was undoubtedly a strong democratising force in post-war Italy, and was also instrumental in drawing up the new post-fascist constitution.

Rossana addresses issues that every politically-engaged person has to face: how far am I responsible for what happens in my lifetime? ‘The dividing line between what we are and what we are made into,’ she writes, ‘is very thin.’
She asks herself how she could have been ignorant of or ignored what was happening in the Soviet Union under Stalin, the Czech show trials and the Hungarian uprising.

During the fascist period and throughout the whole latter half of the twentieth century, life was messy, not black and white, there were few genuine heroes – factors undoubtedly true for any historical period. But, she writes, at that time the communists stood out: ‘Being a communist meant belonging to the most resolute party’.

She says, of her decision to join and stay with the communists: ‘They were the only ones who rejected the inevitability of inhuman behaviour’. Her own humanity and genuine identifiaction with working people shimmers through this honest account. It is an informative, provocative and fascinating read, as well as a valuabel contribution to the hsitory of the communist movement. The translation, too, is excellent, although there are instances of mis-translation and sloppy editing which can sometimes lead to confusion.

Tuesday, 21 December 2010

Letter to Guardian on misuse of langauge by USA (not published)
20 December 2010

Dear Sir

So, ‘WikLeaks founder is high-tech terrorist,’ says Biden (Guardian 20 December). Even by the most elastic definition, ‘terrorism’ involves the imposition of extreme fear on a person or population, through the threat of dire consequences and violence. By no stretch of the imagination can the release of confidential diplomatic exchanges be construed in this way. Biden’s comments are another irresponsible attempt by the US to conceal its anti-humanitarian policies, along with its use of other Orwellian terms like ‘extraordinary rendition’ for illegal kidnapping, ‘coercive counterintelligency’ for torture and ‘humanitarian intervention’ for the invasion of other countries etc. Bernard Shaw memorably said that the USA and Britain were two nations divided by a common language, and that has never been truer. But, what is even more serious is that we are now divided by our concepts of morality.
Unpublished letter to Guardian after its attack on Unite Gen Sec Len McCluskey

Dear Sir

The Guardian leader (Leading Nowhere 20 Dec. 2010) compares Unite’s newly elected General Secretary, Len McClusky with being ‘like the Bourbons who have learned nothing and forgotten everything’. A more appropriate historical comparison would be of the leader writer with Neville Chamberlain who thought he could appease a determined, ideologically-motivated dictator. How does the Guardian propose that trade unions and the many ordinary people should fight the present draconian cuts that were singularly absent in the coalition parties’ manifestos? With a trade union movement more shackled by restrictive legislation than any other in the western world, outside the USA and the immediate threat of thousands losing their jobs, a roof over their head and many other financial blows, a wait-and-see attitude by the trade unions would be to to submit.

In McClusky Britain has a trade union leader prepared to work with others to seriously challenge government policies that have not been approved by the electorate and if fully implemented threaten to destroy what is left of the social fabric of this country after Thatcher’s onslaught.

Thursday, 2 December 2010

WikiLeaks – champion of the truth
The release of 251, 287 United States embassy cables by WikiLeaks is the largest set of confidential documents ever to be released into the public domain. The documents are giving people around the world an unprecedented insight into the policies and activities abroad of the US government. WikiLeaks is a non-profit media organization dedicated to bringing important news and information to the public. The cables, which date from 1966 up until the end of February this year, contain confidential communications between 274 embassies in countries throughout the world and the State Department in Washington.
Unbelievably a lone, lowly-ranked US soldier - Private First Class Bradley Manning – pretended to sing along to Lady Gaga songs while downloading thousands of classified documents from military computers. He was then able to pass these on to WikiLeaks. He was an intelligence analyst, and had access to an amazing amount of sensitive data.
According to friends, Manning was frustrated because of a career that he perceived was in a rut as well as with his personal life. Manning—who grew up in Oklahoma and then moved to Wales as a teenager — reportedly was teased and bullied at school because of his sexuality. However, his prime motivation seems to have been altruistic; he asked for no financial reward for the information. After reading some of these documents he felt so strongly that they should be in the public domain and so decided to leak them.
Despite the incandescent rage in Washington, the documents don’t reveal anything that could really endanger people’s lives or national security. What they do, though, is to show up the duplicity and cynical subterfuge of leading politicians and governments. The fact that Putin’s Russia is largely run by a business mafia or that there is widespread worry about Pakistan’s nuclear programme and that the country’s security services have close links to the Taliban are hardly revelatory. The documents also reveal that the spineless British government bowed to US pressure to let it keep its cluster bombs on British territory despite an Act of Parliamentary banning them. And it reveals the political interference of Mervyn King, the Governor of the Bank of England, despite his supposed political neutrality. OK, not earth-shattering titbits; in fact only items of high-level gossip, but highly damaging nevertheless to the ruling elites.
WikiLeaks’ founder, the Australian Julian Assange, has now been put on Interpol’s ‘most wanted’ list as a result of his publishing these documents. Coincidentally, he is also wanted in Sweden on a probably trumped up charge of rape. Freedom of information is clearly not meant to be taken seriously, particularly, in the USA, the land of freedom, where the WikiLeaks site, hosted by Amazon, has now been removed from the web as a result of pressure from the administration. But Amazon now faces a backlash from free speech campaigners, who say it should be punished with a boycott at what is its busiest trading period of the year. There is also a demand by backwoodsmen in the Republican Party for Assange to be executed for treason.
Only a short while ago WikiLeaks was lauded as a beacon of freedom. It won a number of awards, including the 2008 Economist New Media Award In June 2009, WikiLeaks and Julian Assange won an Amnesty International’s UK Media Award for its 2008 publication, Kenya: The Cry of Blood – Extra Judicial Killings and Disappearances, about police killings in Kenya. In May this year, the New York Daily News listed WikiLeaks first in a ranking of ‘websites that could totally change the news’, and it’s certainly done that.
In April 2010, WikiLeaks posted video of an incident in 2007 in which Iraqi civilians were killed by US forces. In July of the same year, it released Afghan War Diary, a compilation of more than 76,900 documents about the war there. In October, the group released a package of almost 400,000 documents called ‘Iraq War Logs’ in coordination with major media organisations. It is no wonder the US government is after his scalp.
Julian Assange is now in hiding in Britain and the demands by the USA for his extradition should be vehemently rejected. Far from being a criminal, he should be celebrated as a most courageous journalist and publisher, more deserving of a Nobel Prize than being put in jail. He has done more to disclose the obsessive secretivity of governments and the blatant distortion of the truth by mainstream media. It is essential for everyone who values truth and openness to defend Assange and WikiLeaks from the bloodhounds now salivating for the kill.
Contribution to Compass/New Statesman debate on the way forward
This is a very useful contribution to the ongoing debate about the way out of the crisis. But I feel, in suggesting solutions, it falls short of what is needed. The term socialism, like communism, has been so degraded and misused during the last and present centuries, that even adding the prefix ‘New’ (also a term that has been thoroughly eroded) can hardly save it. Socialism does need a redefinition, but Harris and Lawson seem to be using it as a synonym for ‘Social Democracy’. If it has to have meaning at all it has to be defined in contradistinction to capitalism not as capitalism with a human face. Any attempt to ‘manage’ or ‘regulate’ capitalism is doomed to failure as past experience has clearly shown, even if amelioration of the system’s raw brutality can be achieved, it is always only temporary.
Capitalism in its present guise is supra- and trans-national and involves interests more powerful than the world has ever experienced. These powerful interests are able to buy up governments and corrupt peoples with ease. Only by neutralising these powerful individuals and companies and restoring some form of national autonomy, will we be able to begin rebuilding our societies along more just, egalitarian and sustainable lines.
As the recent upsurge of opposition to the cuts has shown, there are many people out there, including the ‘self-centred and solipsistic’ youth, who are willing to actively oppose government cuts.
The Labour Party is impotent at present because its policies were and are only slightly less draconian than those of the Con-Dems. What is not being addressed is the deeper underlying reasons for the present chronic illness of capitalism because, as the authors say, there is also a lack of intellectual debate and an understanding of the mechanisms of economics and social change.
I completely agree with the two authors that any idea of a rerun of a party-imposed or top-down form of socialism is a non-starter. I also feel that any idea of the state playing a leading role in any transformation is misguided, although it will have to play a contributory role in the interim.
I welcome this debate, but it needs to be widened to involve left intellectuals, trade unions and other Left and Green parties.

See my recent interview with Prof. Eric Swyngedouw on the idea of resuscitating the ‘hypothesis of communism’: