Friday, 27 January 2012

Leon Trotsky – a revolutionary’s life
By Joshua Rubenstein
Pubs. Yale University Press
Trotsky was a man much traduced, and his reputation has not been enhanced by the ideas and actions of many of his devoted followers. This new biography, in the series Jewish Lives, is written neither by an admirer and follower like Deutscher nor by a denigrator like Robert Service. It is a view very much coloured, as the series indicates, by the idea of ‘Jewishness’ and a Jewish self-understanding, but manages to give a fairly objective and useful, if very brief, portrait.

Trotsky was a tragic figure of mythical proportions. A dedicated – one could say fanatical – devotee of the ideas of Marx and the Russian revolution, which consumed his whole life. He was persecuted unmercifully by Stalin, who had all his immediate family killed, alongside his many associates and former comrades.

Once expelled from the Soviet Union, Trotsky’s intransigence and unremitting calls for world revolution left him marooned in a no-mans-land without safe refuge.

Alongside Lenin, he was indisputably the most capable and influential figure of the Bolshevik revolution. He was broadly educated, an eloquent writer and magnetic speaker. Ironically Stalin, after Lenin’s death, was able to outmanoeuvre and sideline him because of his lack of ambition and refusal to conspire or join in political intrigues. While he undoubtedly had serious flaws in his character and could be just as callous as Stalin if he felt it furthered the ends of the revolution, he was a selfless and dedicated revolutionary.

In retrospect it beggars belief that such a key figure could have been reduced to a pathetic and isolated renegade in such a short space of time and that Stalin’s clever propaganda machine was able to convince not only communist parties throughout the world, but also many leading liberals and left-wingers that Trotsky was a malevolent cancer in the international communist movement. As this book reveals, this denigration was facilitated by a virulent and entrenched anti-Semitism in Eastern Europe as well as by its more genteel form in the West.

Thursday, 26 January 2012

Once again, back in the USA!
Buffalo NY Jan 2012
Every visit to the USA only seems to confirm my already prejudicial viewpoint. I promised myself that I would never fly long distances again, and certainly not to the USA. But Siski’s impending birth gave me little choice; she needed help in the immediate post-parturition phase, at least. Although the plane across ‘The Pond’ was not full, and I could bag a couple of seats to myself, the flight seemed interminably long and tedious.
Arriving at JFK in New York, I had to join the long queue through immigration and customs. The notices informed passengers that the officials who vetted them would be their first experience of the US, and they would be friendly and courteous. Well, the latter maybe, but with the former they must be expressing a sense of irony after all: the officials seem bored out of their minds and singularly lack any vestige of humour; try cracking a joke at your peril.
After an hour, I was through unscathed, but still faced a four-hour wait for my connection to Buffalo. Although this is the most prestigious US airport, it had the distinct feel of a rather outdated post war building; not exactly scruffy, but slightly shabby at the edges. The shops and cafes all seem to have been transported from one of those small town urban shopping malls, with the attractiveness of aged prostitutes. I forewent the culinary joys on offer and stilled my hunger with a stale roll I’d brought off the plane. There was nowhere I could sit and be out of earshot of the ubiquitous ceiling mounted TV screens or the regular announcements warning everyone not to take items from strangers into our luggage etc. Nevertheless, I tried to doze. The time approached for my flight, but we were then told that it had been delayed – oh the joys of flying! Eventually, I arrived at around 11.00pm local time, 3.00am home time.

Siski and Jose live on the outskirts of Buffalo. Not an unpleasant place, but like almost any other ‘middle class’ suburb in the USA: long streets of large, clapboard houses in ‘colonial style’, with largish gardens (actually just grassed areas) with no fences or hedges, and each house plonked alongside the next, as if on an open stage with no privacy from each other.
Although their little street is quiet, the nearby main street, with all the shops, is a six-lane highway with continual traffic and with no central reservation – a nightmare to cross. Apart from the odd jogger or dog-walker, you see no one out and about; only cars. No wonder there is so much obesity. Apart from the numerous pizza outlets and other fast food joints to cheaply satisfy your hunger, there are drive-in pharmacies and drive-in banks, so why bother getting out of your car at all?
They have so much land in the USA, that towns just spread out, which means not just acres of monotonous suburbia, but shopping streets that go on for ever as well. It’s impossible from Siski’s place to simply walk around the corner and do most of your shopping; the main street goes on for miles and miles.
The local supermarket is just that – super sized – like an enormous factory warehouse with so much choice that you are mesmerized by the superfluity. There are even British and German sections where you can buy specialist products. However, they sell beer but no wines or spirits. And even to buy a couple of bottles of beer you ‘may be asked to provide and ID’ to show you are an adult, but rather than be selective, everyone is challenged, so Jose and I, both with greying hair, are asked to show that we are over 18!
Walking past the bakery department in the store, I saw all the staff doing synchronised group exercises on the spot – felt for a moment I might be in North Korea.
As I’ve said previously the US is a land of incredible contradictions. The house on the corner near Siski’s has Ron Paul posters in their garden – he’s the right-wing libertarian Republican presidential hopeful. People might be right wing politically, but can be as friendly as apple pie on a personal level. One neighbour offered to lend Siski their car and offered to take Lili while Siski was in hospital; the couple across the road just popped in to ask if it would be Ok for them to cook a meal and bring it across tomorrow, so that Siski wouldn’t need to cook. That would be rare in Britain, I suspect. The same family has their own personal, petrol-driven snow blower to clear their small drive! Almost everyone greets you and even tried to strike up conversation – great if you want contact, but can be annoying when you just want your own peace and quiet.
Williamsville, the Buffalo suburb where Siski lives, prides itself on being ‘a village’ and relishes the connotation, displayed on every shop and sign, although it is really only a suburban corridor between Buffalo proper and elsewhere.
Lili loves her new little sister and spends long periods just gazing at her and holding her hand or stroking her. I have now become demoted to second-best friend. She trots off to bed obediently for her nap every midday even though she is not at all tired, and can spend half an hour or more ‘reading’ aloud to herself. Constanza sleeps most of the day and night and only seems to be discomfited if her nappy is full. You would hardly know she is here most of the time; she just sleeps quietly in her cot in the living room, oblivious of the daily noises around her.
Weather here now seems like in Britain – after heavy snowfall the other day and very cold temp., today is drizzly and very mild and the snow is melting rapidly. Despite rain, went for a short walk. Despite tis being built-up suburbia, only five minutes from Siski is a ‘creek’ i.e. small but fast-flowing river, and some rough woodland. This morning had lovely views of three large deer at the edge of the wood – they stood for a few moments just watching me – then excellent views of blue jays, cardinals, song sparrows and black-capped chickadees; also mourning doves, an American robin and excellent views of a lovely belted kingfisher. There were plenty of woodpeckers about: northern yellow-shafted flicker and hairy woodpeckers. Lots of grey squirrels, of course, and rabbits. So no shortage of wildlife, despite it being part of a big city.
Today the belted kingfisher was on a small pond in the park and flew back and forth with annoyance once we approached. We got excellent views. A number of American goldfinches with song sparrows and chickadees in the park. It’s trying to snow again and the temperature has dropped. Lili and I went for a short walk but couldn’t walk along the river because it is now in full flood after the melt and has flooded the path. Lili is good company and sings songs along the way and makes no complaints.
Yesterday afternoon Becky, Siski’s friend (her son used to go to the same nursery as Lili) popped in. She immediately offered to clear the snow from our driveway, while her daughter played with Lili. She then came inside for a drink and chatted, or should I say kept up a fast flow of chatter, almost a monologue. Why do so many US-Americans talk so much, and in such loud voices and at such a speed that you have a headache afterwards? Siski reckons they talk so much and so loud because they are mostly full of self confidence, engendered in school from an early age by being encouraged to talk to the class. Even Lili does it in nursery – every child has to bring something in each week and talk about it.
Then the neighbour popped in and brought us our evening meal, plus presents for Lili and the baby! They’d cooked us chicken pie with broccoli and brownies as a desert. It’s surprising what they spend on presents, too, 40-100 dollars is not excessive; very generous.
Friday 20 Jan. Had a good fall of snow once again yesterday evening. Today bright and sunny so Siski let Lili miss school and we both went tobogganing. We had the little park and slope all to ourselves and had great fun sledding up and down. Lili even ventured down by herself. Tomorrow I will have the dubious pleasure of accompanying Lili to a friend’s birthday party at ‘Rolly Polly’s.
Rolly Pollys turns out to be a great place for children, founded by an entrepreneurial couple (one a former teacher) who found that children didn’t know what to do when they had break-time at school and had become so sedentary, so they came up with this idea of making a business out of giving children exercise. It is a spacious children’s gym with bouncy castle, trampolines, pits full of foam rubber, ladders and swings etc, so the children spend an hour really expending physical energy, then have a piece of birthday cake and watch the birthday girl opening her presents before going home. The birthday cake looked like something out of a science fiction book – a large slab of dark, gooey cake covered in the most vile multi-coloured icing. The children all get given a bag to take home with a sugar lolly and bits and pieces! No wonder they all grow up to be obese. The birthday girl got given numerous presents – Barbie dolls, dressing up clothes and other assorted ‘cheap’ toys. She was totally overwhelmed by it all.
The bottle recycling point at the supermarket is called the ‘Beverage container redemption centre’. Sound like a place on a Biblical college campus!
Today, Sunday, we all drove out to the Iroqois wildlife reserve, but apart from a far-off view of a bald eagle and a few more Am. Goldfinches and Am tree sparrows, nothing to be seen or heard!
Lili is fascinated by the song that Siski maintains my mother sang to her and Gali at bath time (can’t imagine it!). It’s an amusing Cockney music hall song, called, ‘Your baby has gone down the plughole’ or as it is really sung (and Lili does a great imitation to the amusement of all): Yer baeby ‘as gorn daan the plug’ole!
Monday 23rd, the day before my return to London, and my toothe ache was getting worse, so decided to visit Siski’s dentist. It was about a mile away, the weather was dry and mild, so I walked not that I had much option, as Jose was at work and there is no public transport on this route). I didn’t see another walker all the way. The dentist was very friendly, wanted to know where I was from and then spoke about Dickens. He did three x rays and located a rotting wisdom tooth which he recommended extracting, so I decided to wait till I got home. He said he could email the x-rays to my dentist if they wished and then gave me a photo copy of the x ray and refused to take any payment!
On my way home, again no one else about, I heard a police siren and the cop car slid alongside me and the bullet-headed cop got out. I thought I was going to be questioned again simply because I was walking – an odd thing to do in this country – but he wanted to know if I’d been ringing on someone’s door bell. I said, ‘no’ but I did see two dubious-looking characters who were ringing a door bell, a block down the road. He replied that they weren’t there when he drove by. Not my problem, I thought, but didn’t say so, as his face had a distinctly unhumorous mien. He demanded my ID and where I lived, then to back in his car and drove off, without so much as a thank you. The contrast of the USA once again: generosity and friendliness vs. stony-faced officialdom.
At the check-in desk at the airport in Buffalo I asked if I could check my bags through to London. The lady said OK but could I tell her where London is!
The UCS Work-in captured the imagination of the people
Bob Starrett and George Kerr were workmates in the Yarrow Shipyard on the Clyde in Glasgow. They were both there when the 40th anniversary of the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders work-in was commemorated last year. That event became legendary in British labour movement history.
Bob doesn’t look his 73 years. Despite a shock of white hair, he looks like a fitness trainer at least ten years younger; George, too, still has the optimism and combativeness of a much younger man.
For Bob and George, the work-in could have happened yesterday as it is still vivid in their memories. It saddens both of them that that heroic battle for the right to work is today for many only a distant memory if at all. Most of the leaders and indeed many of the men who took part in that struggle are no longer with us: Jimmy Reid, Jimmie Airlie and Sammy Gilmore are all dead.
Bob worked as a painter in the Yarrow Yard, but his talent for caricature and cartooning was discovered early on. He’d been drawing since he was a boy growing up in Maryhill in Glasgow. Once the work-in was underway, it became essential to keep workers informed of what was happening day-by-day, but also to explain their case to the wider public and win them over. Good communications were vital, so Bob's talents were soon put to good use as the UCS’s resident cartoonist. He later donated the archive of his work to Glasgow's Caledonian University UCS archive, and his work was shown at Glasgow's Mitchell Library, and also featured in a Channel 4 film made by Ken Sprague about worker artists. ‘They thought cartoons would be a good way to present some of the complex issues in a concise way,’ Bob says. When Bob’s daughter Tanya was born in the year of the work-in, ‘the sleepless nights proved perfect for helping him get down to the necessary cartooning work,’ he says with a laugh.
The historic work-in by the 8500 workers of Upper Clyde Shipbuilders to save the yards from closure began in 1971. Jimmy Reid and other leading stewards realised that a strike would be counter productive and be immediately seized upon as an excuse to close the yards. They hit on the idea of a work-in instead. This would demonstrate that they were still viable and that the workers weren’t a group of work-shy layabouts. Their stand captured the imagination not only of people throughout Britain, but worldwide.
George was outfitting convenor at the yard and an activist in the electricians’ union. He was also a leader of a tenants’ campaign to prevent a polluting incinerator being built near the estate where he lived. When Pinochet’s bloody coup took place in Chile, George and his wife took two Chilean exiles into their small council house and slept on the sofa for four months so that the Chileans could have their bed. The two of them didn’t just talk solidarity; they practised it.
Both talk of their time in the yards with warm affection despite the incredibly hard and dirty work it was. The banter and story-telling was a feature of the workforce and the tight-knit community they lived in. One guy’s stories were so enthralling that if he hadn’t finished telling one before the siren went at the end of the day his workmates would make sure they were back at the crack of dawn just to hear the rest of it.
The Heath government wanted to shut the yards because they were deemed no longer competitive, mainly due to a lack of investment over the years by the owners who just creamed off the profits. They belonged to what were termed ‘lame duck’ industries. This was the start of Britain’s deindustrialisation, subsequently completed by Thatcher. The work-in continued for 18-months and, Bob and George stress: ‘without a single arrest, no vandalism, no hooliganism, no malice, no hatred.’
Edward Heath's Tory government refused to put government money in to save the yards, but he was eventually forced to cave in by the enormous support for the work in galvanised throughout the country and the government came up with a belated £35million to help the yards modernise. MP Tony Benn was one of the chief supporters work-in.
Bob left the shipyards in 1979, after being offered a temporary job as a sign-writer for a small film company. He then took himself off to Italy, earning his keep by "minding a palace" in Tuscany, before going on to art school and eventually work as a set painter and carpenter in the film industry.
Although Bob has since met a whole number of high profile Hollywood stars, he says unequivocally that none of them come near the leaders of the UCS work-in like Jimmy Reid, Jimmie Airlie and Sammy Barr as real heroes. ‘They were superb at what they did,’ he says, ‘I could listen to Airlie over and over again. Jimmy Reid I knew a lot earlier and he never let you down in terms of the clarity of his analyses.’
Despite mixing with the glitterati of the film industry, it has in no way eclipsed his strong attachment to his roots. I met him again by chance in London at last year’s big demonstration, suffering from jet-lag after returning only the day before from working with his partner, the Oscar-winning costume designer Lindy Hemming, in New York on a new Batman film. But there he was demonstrating with public service workers demanding pension protection and an end to public service cuts.
‘When the Tory Government took on the Clyde they imagined they would be dealing with a few ignorant and backward workers, but if they had done their homework properly they would have realised these guys were real intellectuals.’ But they could be blunt too. Sammy Gilmore, one of the UCS leaders, once told the Secretary of Industry, Keith Joseph to shut up - told Heath to cut the commercials’, when he refused to get to the point.
Despite its impact, however, the UCS has been forgotten to a large extent which is why Bob and George welcomed the 40th anniversary commemoration - for which Bob provided the artwork. They both believe the lessons learned in the UCS will have to be learned by the younger generation again. ‘The things that caused UCS are more glaring now, the contradictions get sharper each year,’ Bob says. George is putting together a travelling presentation to go around Scotland’s’ schools so that the valuable experience of the UCS work-in can inspire new generations.
‘Physically,’ Bob says, ‘I worked in films but mentally, I remain in a time warp with the UCS because I've witnessed what ordinary people can do when given the chance to do it.’

Sunday, 1 January 2012

What Chance for Progress in 2012?

The Year 2012 will be one of continued crisis and severe hardship for the many. Despite a virtual implosion of global capitalism, the left and progressive forces nowhere seem able to mount a serious challenge, never mind topple the rotten system which also becomes ever more capable of fragmenting, integrating or redirecting whatever opposes or challenges it.

The arguments for a non-capitalist form of society are ever more pressing and increasingly obvious. However, without a party or organisation strong and magnetic enough to give focus and leadership, this awareness will not be translated into meaningful action, despite the many welcome and heroic city square occupations, demonstrations and pickets outside banks.

Most would agree that some sort of radical change of the present bandit capitalism is necessary if humanity is to progress and flourish. Facing environmental catastrophe, widespread poverty and inequality, increasing unemployment, crises in our healthcare and education systems, lack of adequate pensions, a severe housing deficit and rising crime levels, few could argue that the present system is fulfilling society’s needs or that it offers a stable future. Such a crisis in the past would have spurred an enormous development of the left, but this is not happening. Trade unions remain on the defensive almost everywhere and working people, by and large, appear to acquiesce to the blackmail of economic crisis and budget deficits. Most of the new social movements reject organisation, ideology and politics as they have known them in the past and as they present themselves today. While we need new thinking, it cannot be reduced to ‘revolution via the internet plus blogging and tweeting…a refusal of politics, the demand for power from below, a revolution without the seizure of power may contain partial truths, but runs the risk of becoming merely a fossilized subculture,’ as the recently deceased Italian communist Lucio Magri wrote.

Why has this profound crisis not produced a resurgence of the left? The answers are complex, but there are undoubtedly a number of central ones.

Marx and Engels clearly saw that outmoded productive forces would become fetters on the development of more advanced production relations, and that has become more obvious than ever, but it hasn’t led (as the two predicted) to the overthrow of the old relationship; we have not witnessed a growing proletariat with increasing class consciousness challenging the status quo. In fact, in the western world, the industrial productive forces (as described by Marx) are becoming increasingly less significant numerically and socially, and their contribution to GDP has also diminished. Relations of production are now more fragmented, less cohesive or socially significant than ever. We have also seen a profound set-back in the development of class consciousness – avidly promoted over the years by the media. Our society today is more fragmented than ever, on the social, cultural and political levels. Certainly class and class interests are no longer as clear or black and white as they were decades ago. For the left to bang on about the ‘working class’ as if nothing had changed since the height of 19th century capitalism, is a refusal to recognise this new reality.

The Political Map has changed
The role of the mainstream political parties has changed too. They no longer clearly represent different class interests in society, but have become self-perpetuating and self-selecting elites content to argue over which one can best manage the same system. None has a mass membership base any longer, or strong local parties that truly represent their populations; there dwindling memberships are also ageing. They have become electoral machines geared to the reproduction of governing castes and turning out their dwindling votes once every few years.

The overwhelming majority of the population has become so disillusioned with politics as a whole that it has switched off. This is a dangerous situation, because the political elite will continue to govern and make policy, with or without popular mandate. Already in the highly developed north we have seen how an increasing rejection of politics can open the way to a spiral of revolt and repression (viz. the recent riots). The concentration of social injustice in marginalised sectors and zones has also made social conflict less unified and transparent and has removed the cohesiveness of organised masses that for decades breathed life into political democracy. This runs parallel with a wider ideological crisis linked to general social attitudes, the decline of mass parties as activist organisations capable of unifying and mobilising interests and behaviour in a common culture or project.

But worldwide, despite an impending environmental catastrophe, a system in chaos and leaderships in denial, most people are continuing their daily lives as if little has changed. Of course there are continual protests, but like the recent ‘anti-capitalist’ occupation movement, they are undertaken by smallish groups that have been able to galvanise much public sympathy, but this has not led to an expansion of the movement itself. The big exceptions have been, of course, the heroic uprisings in the Arab world.

Within this whole debate we can’t ignore the key role of the media. Their role has become key in moulding consciousness, and in counteracting and negating a class consciousness developed in daily work and social relationships. What is also new is the leap in the manipulative power of these media and their close inter-relationship with the major centres of economic power. They are continually reshaping the common sense of the times, moulding cultures, lifestyles and values, especially among the subaltern sections of society. This lends public opinion a confused and indecisive character and leads to political apathy. Education itself is being supplanted by fast-moving mass media and their message of passivity.

What role for the Labour Party and Trade Unions?
The Labour Party was created by the unions in 1900 in order to ensure working people had adequate representation in parliament. We don’t have to go into details of Labour Party history to argue that, today, it can hardly be said to represent those interests any longer. The fact that parliament itself has also become a largely impotent force in the context of our globalised economy and the power of the banks and multinationals means that the representatives we elect to sit there have little power. Traditional parties are, today, characterised by a less representative and ageing membership. A conception of the party as the exclusive locus and instrument of politics is no longer valid. The political system as a whole has entered a new crisis and impotence as the role of nation states has declined and spawned institutions divorced from democratic input

The trade unions and the left in general, today, have to look beyond parliamentary representation if they wish to promote a shift towards implementing policies and changes in society commensurate with the needs and goals of their members and constituents. Those needs and goals can no longer be channelled or indeed implemented through the sort of political party we have traditionally assumed represented working people, and certainly not through an impotent parliament. There is also a general ossification in the organisational forms of the workers’ movement. Traditional forms of organisation and methods of waging the struggle for better pay and working conditions are no longer effective, particularly within the context of the complex legal restrictions on workers’ rights. Working people now find themselves in a losing battle to defend things like public services, pensions, job security as well as living wage levels that most of us thought had been won for good. The present functioning of the economic system has proved incompatible with long-standing social gains, a universal welfare system, stable full employment and elements of participatory democracy in the most advanced societies.

A secure future for working people will depend less than in the past on trade unions, but more on a defined and clear political project and on forging instruments that directly impact on the structure of the state, the economy, technological strategies and educational apparatuses. Trade unions, in the past could rely on the power of a collective labour force, but that is no longer the case, due to a fragmentation of workplaces and workforces, increased mobility of labour and the instability and temporality of the work-place itself. These factors are continually subtracting from the vanguards, i.e. working class grass-roots organisations and leaderships are continually being dismantled or destroyed.

It is today perfectly feasible to reduce the hours of the working day and thus create more jobs and provide people with more leisure time, but who’s making the demand? Unions and the left need to look beyond the horizon of paid work; without free time, paid work becomes a hollow and frustrating state of restlessness.

The political institutions of capitalism in the present post-industrial phase have also changed. Parliament once formed the nerve centre of decision-making, the instrument of powerful hegemony, but has now become an empty ritualised instrument for rubber-stamping what has already happened, a mediation and administrative support for a power that exists elsewhere, in the citadels of finance and transnational corporations.

A party of unity and concensus
Today we have a whole range of organisations independently pursuing aims of social change, but each alone is weak and incapable of forcing through such change, yet there is little consciousness of the need, nor willingness to attempt, to focus on those goals through closer co-operation with others. A strong party of the left could perform that role, but it could only do so by reconstituting itself in a different way, sloughing off much out-dated traditional thinking and party political baggage.

Such a party, even more so today, would need to work openly inside the various progressive organisations, but at the same time recognising the other’s autonomy; the party would need to engage with them, not just ‘represent’ them. It would have to become a unifying force, an agent and organiser of society, whose role is to promote struggle and stimulate intellectual and moral reform. In the past, in many countries, the Communist Party played such a role and could still do so.

It would have to work with and through these many organisations, whether they be environmental, trade union, feminist, racial or social, not to impose its own ideology, but to listen and learn, to offer organising and ideological advice, to help promote consensus and effective action, to invigorate new generations of activists and the concerned to take political action together as the only means of challenging the present hegemony of big finance and corporate power.

The chronic effects of short-termism
The very nature of capitalism (and this includes the subservient governments administering the political system) means that the necessary long-term decisions are not being made; everything is based on short-termism. This includes not only decision-making on a factory or organisational level but at the highest levels too. This is reflected in the prevailing model of consumption and the extreme concentration of powers in research planning, technology and growth strategies, which is in the hands of decision-making centres remote from the regions and populations affected by them. They are controlled by the companies and organisations whose priorities are short-term profit rather than social good. Reality shows that the choices of investment and location are not taking us in the direction we need to go if humanity’s survival is to be guaranteed.

The environmental question offers good ground on which a communist project could base its critique of the system and could also provide a momentum to transform and qualitatively enrich that critique, taking it beyond economistic or utopian ways of thinking. The environmental question needs a communist project and organisational form to unite the many different social subjects and interests, to identify the real roots of the problems and to assert a power capable of addressing them as a whole as well as helping to change people’s minds.

Some growing social needs are of unquestionable importance - healthcare, education and urban planning – and can only be properly satisfied in the form of collective production and consumption. This is why government attempts to privatise these services at the behest of the big conglomerates, is leading to such chaos and seriously deficient services. The present attacks on the welfare state, benefits and pensions are reversing years of achievements won in struggle, and annulling post-war consensus politics. Despite strikes and vigorous campaigns the unions have this time been incapable of reversing the process.

The great historical merit of capitalism has been precisely its ability to channel much of the surplus product into accumulation; this made it possible to accelerate the development of productive forces. But the history of capitalism has not been one of ever widening prosperity; indeed it has led, in many parts of the world, to forms of inequality and more brutal and widespread exploitation than before. We have seen how capitalism has led to the growth of mega-cities with sprawling suburbs in the less developed countries, we’re also seeing a ghettoisation of city centres in the developed north, both leading to a chaotic degradation of life.

To view all these pressing social issues as manageable with a reformed or recuperated capitalism or capable of being addressed by means of welfare and aid, is to misunderstand the depth of the crisis and the underlying, deep fracture in the system. However, on an ‘ultra-modern’ terrain there is a possibility of reviving communist thinking and struggle. There is an organic link between the large mass of the marginalised and impoverished and the traditional workers’ movement and new sectors emerging from the qualitative contradictions of post-industrialism.

At the peak of capitalist development, the workers’ movement found favourable terrain for its struggles and managed to wring important concessions from the capitalists. That is now changing for the worse. Prosperity is diminishing and inequality is increasing. On a world scale the gap in living conditions has widened inexorably between north and south. In the highly developed world income differentials are widening again after a period of narrowing, and a significant fringe of society is once again falling beneath acceptable thresholds of minimum existence. The less industrialised south is now largely trapped between the pressures of increasing population and the break up of traditional forms of self-sufficiency; its economies are spiralling downward to below subsistence level. The region is over-burdened with foreign debt and its environments have been degraded. The present forms of injustice and new poverty are expressed in the less developed world particularly as a cumulative process of marginalisation creating a broad social stratum without hope and being pushed towards degenerate cultural forms (e.g. fundamentalist fanaticism or racial conflict and barbarism).

Does the Chinese model offer a lesson?
Finally, in this whole context the Chinese experience is illuminating. Faced with the implosion of the socialist world, after 1989, China realised that capitalism was the only show on the road, but its inherent contradictions and solely market-oriented strategies were incompatible with its population size and largely rural population. So what has arisen (something never envisaged in either Marxist or capitalist thinking) is a country led by a Communist Party with centralised planning and strict regulatory mechanisms overseeing a mixed, but largely capitalist economy. This has enabled the country to attract foreign investments and to rapidly industrialise; its population has experienced rising living standards and a broad satisfaction of consumer demand. It has meant that the ruling party has been able to direct, monitor and adjust investments and infra-structure projects, tightly control its own banking system and set the country's priorities with little outside interference. Of course, this transformation has not been a smooth one or without its problems – there is an increasing gulf between a small elite of super-rich and a mass of still relatively poor workers; there has been environmental degradation on a massive scale and there is still widespread corruption and restricted democratic freedoms. But it appears to be working better, in terms of stability, than the capitalist world elsewhere. Can this model be sustained? Is it one to emulate? It is undoubtedly too early to answer those questions, but it deserves a more intense scrutiny. Japan, too, has a system without political alternation, resting on a committee of all the country’s major economic powers, it also has, like China, a high degree of conformism among the mass of the people. Its economy, despite recent environmental catastrophes and the world economic crisis also appears to be weathering the storm.

(This article owes a great debt to the writing of the lately deceased Italian communist Lucio Magri, whose historical reflections in his book ‘The Tailor of Ulm’ is a great source of ideas for the left)