Monthly Archives: March 2015

On taking a break

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I have decided to take a break from this blog; I don’t know how long it will last – the gap may be a matter of a few days, it could easily be several months. I have had a blog or a website now for just under 20 years. Inevitably that means there is a danger of the quality degrading. When I started I would post lengthy pieces based on original research, but given my day job, which is often exhausting, I have less and less time to do the necessary reading, and there is the danger of slipping into a kind of automatic “comment”, where you are repetitively saying nothing new at all.

I also have a particular problem with this blog. When I started it, one of my principal motives was to publicise a memoir I had published about running; and for the first few months many of the pieces were “tasters” based on that book. It was a personal albeit left-wing running blog. Very soon afterwards there were the Olympics Games, and I posted effectively a whole book’s worth of new material based around the Counter Olympics Network and the broader campaign against the Games. This first transition – from running to interest in the intersection of Marxism and sport – was relatively modest and I didn’t ever properly pause and think to myself whether I needed to keep the blog going or what I would use it for.

By the end of the same year, the SWP crisis had begun and it suited me to have a blog ready to hand where I could post directly without having to go through the – tight – censorship that operates in the SWP’s internal “pre-conference” publications. The previous focus on sport was lost altogether, rightly and necessarily. But for 15 months now I have been outside that party, and neither my writing nor my political activity have made the transition I had hoped.

When I left, I spoke of having comrades in both “any party” and “none”, and this title was not accidental. I was inspired by the number of people outside the SWP who were following our internal battles and enthused by their support, and felt an intense comradeship with them.

One of my hopes was our generation of departees would construct a left culture in which the lines dividing the various left groups would become much more permeable. We would still have our differences of course and our different groups, but there would be an extent to which we co-ordinated ourselves without rancour and it would become relatively common for (say) a person principally associated with group X (say, RS21), to be invited to speak on a platform by group Y (say, the ISN, or the SP, or whoever else) and be trusted by group Y to be at that moment, their representative, bringing people into the left through the medium of group Y on behalf of whom they were then speaking. If this kind of mutual trust sounds naïve, it is worth saying that it was relatively common among much of the pre-1914 left, both in Britain and throughout Europe. (And it is not very difficult to do  – in my own local RS21 group, we have managed to sustain a pattern of nearly 50% outside speakers over more than a year, without in any way diminishing the coherence of our group).

Yet, if I am honest with myself, I do not believe that my writing has made the transition that I hoped to see in my own and other people’s political practice. Since leaving the SWP I have continued to write about the partisans of the old IS libertarian fringe, and even when talking about events far from home, I have on at least one occasion fallen into the trap of reading them through the black hole of ideological conservatism created by the dying star of the SWP.

There is a recurring debate between and within the SWP diaspora which pits those who would rather we kept on criticising the SWP against those who would ignore it. My own view is rather the orthodox Hegelian one that we need to supersede it by constructing a left which has different, more effective, reference points.

A writer can do little to build a party, still less the sort of broader political movement that I am describing, but one modest task to which they can contribute is the creation of a new political language of metaphors which capture the relationships of oppression on which capitalism thrives, and the distilled, century-long activist learning behind such seemingly-simple as ideas as revolution.

I would like to reorient my writing towards that task; it may never happen; my attempts may fail. But it will not happen unless I take a break, and (if or when I return) try something new.

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Before there were cars

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There were only hands
Calloused by many years of working with stone.
A figure shuffled into water, bent down,
Scooped out fists of damp sand.
Two arms came together, the hands cupped.
Walking back, the figure bent again.
Damp sand and dry mingled,
Bricks were formed.
Structures began.
With discovered shells, a hut was made and people.
Trenches were grubbed,
Digging down at an angle, never straight.
A piece of sea glass became a suit of armour.
And then, at night, the creatures came.

On the Independent Greeks; and on Alliances

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Six weeks ago, when Syriza formed a coalition with the Independent Greeks a common view among my friends was that this was Syriza’s first betrayal and that others would inevitably follow. The story was familiar; outside government, Syriza had promised to do politics differently, including granting 100,000 migrant children in Greece full citizenship, tearing down the refugee camps and rehousing the people in them. It would be the greatest challenge to Fortress Europe in a generation. But electoral parties are no different, the pressure of keeping in office always moderates reformists. And by joining with the racists of the Independent Greeks, Syriza was indicating its willingness to compromise on everything.

This pessimism was always unconvincing. After 40 years of left-wing parties exercising ever greater efforts to show how little they differ from the press-business neoliberal consensus, paling their flags an ever lighter pink as they went, Syriza is very clearly a different sort of project. And it was never going to be exhausted merely by its first, incomplete, compromise.

Being short of a majority in parliament, Syriza had no real option but to do a deal with someone. The KKE had already refused an alliance, foreshadowing its present position which is to vote with New Democracy and PASOK. The only other option, the River, was a party of neoliberal enthusiasts for cuts; on the central issue facing Greece –  austerity – the Independent Greeks were Syriza’s only possible allies.

And there are many different kinds of alliance. Such was the Parliamentary arithmetic (Syriza only needing two votes for a majority) that Tsipras had no need to water down on his commitments. This was reflected in his party’s deal with the Independent Greeks, where the two parties agreed to vote for migration policy along party lines (ie Syriza will get these measures through without needing the Independent Greeks’ support).

Far from dropping its promises, Syriza has renewed its commitments, on citizenship, and on the camps. The migration minister is Tasia Christodoulopoulou, doyenne of Greek migrants’ lawyers – the equivalent in England of giving our unreconstructed CLR James-ite Ian Macdonald the job. Indeed even the wretched four-month bailout deal has given Syriza additional reasons to maintain its promises to migrants. Precisely because its economic programme has become harder to implement, Syriza has needed to show that its social programme remains undiluted.

At this point, the voice of conscience intrudes. Isn’t the whole point about left-wing governments (or, at least, those worthy of the name) that they make no compromises, and in particular they do not, under any circumstances, make an alliance with conservatives or racists?

It may be helpful to review at this point some of the compromises that the party most often cited as a comparison, the Lenin-era Bolsheviks, made with its enemies. Brest-Litovsk, the recruitment of Tsarist officers to senior positions in the Red Army, one-man management in industry, the NEP, the Rapallo peace treaty under which the German military hosted its research facilities in tanks and chemical weapons on Bolshevik soil. The pamphlet in which the Bolsheviks drew up a balance-sheet on their experiences drew the inevitable conclusions – “to reject compromises ‘on principle’, to reject the permissibility of compromises in general, no matter of what kind, is childishness, which it is difficult even to consider seriously. A political leader who desires to be useful to the revolutionary proletariat must be able to distinguish concrete cases of compromises that are inexcusable and are an expression of opportunism and treachery.”

Some of the Bolsheviks’ compromises went deep. As Isaac Babel pointed out, long ago in Red Cavalry (and as Brendan McGeever has shown again in research which, when it makes it into print, should be compulsory reading for anyone nostalgic for a time which never existed), these compromises included in 1918-1919 leaving local Soviet power in many areas in the hands of people who were murderously anti-Semitic. This approach proved temporary because the Civil War finished and there was then a struggle within the fragile Soviet regime to purge itself of these elements.

So, a compromise with conservatives or racists is always unwanted and undesirable (means and ends always interconnect), but may be necessary as a temporary device provided as a minimum that it is the right making the principal compromises and the direction of travel is towards liberation.

Panos Kammenos, the leader of the Independent Greeks is no outsider, having been an MP for New Democracy for 20 years and a former minister for the shipping industry. The majority of its MPs were recruited like Kammenos from the anti-bailout wing of New Democracy, although they have had at least one MP come over from PASOK. The party is fiercely nationalist, and enthusiastic about the Orthodox church. Its racism expresses itself in two ways, first, in a hostility to migrants, and second, in a tendency to explain the Greek debt crisis in terms of banks, and therefore Jews, who stand in familiar anti-Semitic trope as the imaginary, physical embodiment of all that is wrong with finance as opposed to industry.

Just as Syriza has profited from “pasofikation” (ie the dramatic collapse of the main party of the centre-left, in conditions where it ceased to offer its voters anything), the Independent Greeks seem to have their own plan to become over 5-10 years the main party of Greece’s political right. They act as if they believe that austerity will ultimately be cancelled, and that all the parties which attempted to enforce Greece’s debts will wither. One of the Independent Greeks’ key proposals is therefore to investigate the terms under which during the second half of the 2000s New Democracy agreed to a massive increase of Greece’s debts, and to prosecute the ministers responsible. A deal with Syriza, from this perspective, is merely the means to an end: the complete reconstruction of the Greek political system and the defeat of New Democracy, after which it will be left vs right politics as usual.

English writers tend to compare them to UKIP, but they are in other respects more akin to the kinds of far-right “independents” that became the third power in the House of Commons between 1918 and 1920, in a period of intense paranoia about German power. To understand their appeal you may recall the inventor and champion of middle-class life but serial debtor, Caractus Potts, in his war with the Vulgarian (i.e. German) Baron Bomburst. Beneath the castles of the Baron’s power are the children of the poor, held in debt bondage through the medium of the (Jewish) childcatcher. The secret of German power, it follows, is its hold over the debt. If only the Baron can be captured, the children will go free. But who will defeat the Baron? You could scour Ian Fleming’s books (or those of his predecessors Erskine Childers or John Buchan) for an answer but you will find none.

Kammenos’ thinking suffers from the same weakness: the Independent Greeks are furiously anti-austerity, and blame Troika, and behind them “Germany”. During the negotiations, they were if anything harder against compromise with the Eurozone than Syriza. In contrast to them, Syriza has an idea of how to renegotiate the balance of forces within Germany – by encouraging the election of anti-austerity parties in Spain, Portugal and Ireland, and by promoting anti-austerity leftists in Britain, German, etc. The Baron can be defeated in other words, by the German Left Party, or (beneath it) by the German working class. Short of switching Greece’s client status to some alternative backer wealthier than Germany, Kammenos has no equivalent plan. His racism, in other words, constantly limits the desire for national independence which is his party’s rationale.

Syriza’s strategic thinking in response to the Independent Greeks appears to be as follows. The tasks facing the left (which remains a minority) remain too large for the social forces available. Therefore, the left has to try to split the right into two parts, a first with which it is possible to work, and a second (New Democracy, Golden Dawn), who are or will be beyond the pale. The Independent Greeks are sufficiently robust allies, not merely because they are committed to anti-austerity politics but because their social base reflects above all the influence of the Orthodox church, which has a very wide but very shallow hold over large parts of the Greek people and even dispossessed classes. If the recomposition of the left happens on the terms that both Syriza and the Independent Greeks want, Syriza predicts, the destruction of both Pasok and New Democracy, will not just result in the replacement of one old left-right rivalry with a new one (Syriza versus the Independent Greeks), it will also lead to a shift between left and right, with the future balance of powers foreshadowed by Syriza’s present hegemony in the coalition (it has 12 times as many seats as the Independent Greeks). Syriza will win because it will prove to have been the better fighters against austerity – and the (limited) polling evidence to date appears to be that it, rather than Independent Greeks, has been winning the most voters from New Democracy since the election.

An obvious attraction of this thinking to those of us outside Greece is that is a strategy for dealing which the right which envisages a victory over it. As such, it has an advantage over our usual way of thinking in which the right represents a significant social layer (the petty bourgeoisie) which has a static position of utter hostility to the workers’ movement, and whose racism is permanent and unsatisfiable. We have an idea that if this class throws up outlier parties, they may become so unpopular that we might isolate and physically defeat them. But we have seemingly no conception at all of how to go beyond a situation where they are not outliers but more respectable, and we (rather than they) are the unpopular minority.

Now the fact that a party has a plan does not mean that it is guaranteed to succeed. The gamble (as it is best characterised) risks treating the “left” and the “right” as if they were objective political realities rather than temporary relationships. Precisely because Syriza has had some success in quarantining off the bad parts of the right, they risk over-using the tactic. You can see this danger when it comes to the pending  prosecution of the leaders of Golden Dawn, Greece’s neo-Nazi revivalists, with their base in the police and their 5% of the vote.

Critics of Syriza to its left have taken umbrage at Syriza’s suggestion that elected Golden Dawn MPs should be released from custody to attend votes in Parliament suggesting that Syriza is extending too much deference to the right, and warning that Syriza may be cooling as to the prosecution itself. At this distance, it is impossible to know whether they are right about the prosecution itself (which is necessarily in the hands of the judiciary rather than the politicians) or these are the exaggerated fears of people who have committed themselves in advance to the narrative that Syriza will betray its supporters. But Syriza’s friends should be watching closely and urging the government to take no steps which help the fascists.

There is a second area where the alliance with the Independent Greeks bears a risk; and it is in terms of Syriza’s analysis of its  problems with Europe. Because they are advocates of simple, conspiratorial thinking, the Independent Greeks tend to explain all of Greece’s difficulties simply in terms of “Germany”. Here they risk bolstering some in Syriza for whom neo-liberalism in Europe is a German  phenomenon, and all sorts of alliances (with the United States or Britain or with Italian or French technocrats) remain potentially open. The alternative tentatively emerging within Syriza, which gives the greatest weight to explaining the balance of forces honestly to the party’s supporters, is incompatible with that sort of fantastical thinking.

The alliance with the Independent Greeks remains a difficulty, then; even if it is not yet the fatal germ against which Syriza’s original critics warned.

Peter Sedgwick, The Unilateralist State

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[first published as anon, ‘Say no to Nato’, Rebel, September 1960]

After nuclear disarmament, then what? it would be good to think that we were anywhere near asking that question. Most of us in CND are too busy asking, “Before nuclear disarmament, what?” to bother about very long-term crystal-gazing. However, it is very necessary to have a general picture in one’s mind of the kind of Britain that could pursue a policy of unilateral nuclear disarmament, and the kind of foreign politics that such a Britain would follow.

If we limit our vision to what a single anti-nuclear government could do in NATO to influence its “partners” towards abandoning the Bomb we are not trying to see nearly enough possibilities. Of course Adenauer, De Gaulle and the American government won’t listen. But a British government which had abandoned nuclear arms would also, if it was consistent, have to abandon the use of the Bomb by other governments on her behalf; that is, simply to refuse to stay in an alliance dominated by an atomic strategy. This does not mean isolationism. On the contrary, Britain would have to appeal to the peoples, and particularly the working-class movements, of other NATO countries, to follow our lead.

A year or two ago there was a vast anti-Bomb movement in West Germany, an Aldermaston in every major town, which petered out largely because it didn’t seem to be acheiving any real change. But if the working people of the world were faced with an actual government which had given up the Bomb, the international consequences would be tremendous.

After all, the reason why the Stalinist brand of Marxism has had so much influence in the world over the last thirty years, as opposed to other, less influential varieties like Trotskyism or Austrian Marxism, is that there has always been at least one important Stalinist government actually existing in the word. An anti-nuclear Britain would have at least as shattering an influence, by-passing governments and disarmament conferences, as October 1917.

I would certainly agree that there is a risk, if we were to break out of the Cold War, of being squeezed between the rival politics of Russia, or China, and the USA. But we run that risk anyway by being in the Cold War. The Deterrent theory is in any cause the maddest gamble in the world, beside which even the most risky alternative of breakthrough seems as sure as a fixed roulette-wheel.

It is difficult to understand how members of CND can have any doubts about NATO. NATO and the Bomb are inseparable for Britain and if you reject one you must reject the other. General Gruenther stated as long ago as 1954 that the Western Powers had already “passed the point of no return” in the use of conventional weapons, and that he had “no choice except to use atomic weapons whether the enemy does so or not” (quotes from Alistair Cooke, Guardian, 1/3/55). It is quite unprincipled for people like Crossman and Wigg to talk of Britain giving up her own Bomb and contributing conventional forces to NATO. This only means that we will start or engage in the “limited” wars, a new Korea or Suez perhaps, that may develop into an “unlimited”, “unconventional” H-Bomb blitz.

The policy advocated here is probably best called “subversive neutrality”. A government which was seriously neutral and anti-Bomb would have to be subversive too about its domestic capitalism. It is inconceivable that the vested interests of British imperial capitalism would stand by quietly and watch their overseas alliances and nice fat arms-shares fade away into nothing.

A Britain which gave up the Bomb and the arms-race and stayed capitalist would in any case find itself in a serious economic crisis, since static military spending provides an essential boost to a private-enterprise economy.

That means the only sort of government that is capable of implementing CND policy is one which is revolutionary -Socialist and internationalist. A tall order you might say; but no taller than the facts of power demand.

[Thanks to John Rudge, for finding the article and confirming the attribution. More on Sedgwick here]

A European Strategy for Syriza

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Guest post by John Palmer

[After the discussions in the comments on my blog last week, I invited John to write an article fleshing out what Syriza could gain from a policy of staying for as long as possible within the Eurozone]

GREECE-FINANCE-ECONOMY-FLAGS

In the politically highly charged post-mortem into negotiations between the Syriza government and the Euro-area powers, one fact should not be overlooked. In spite of the widespread view that Athens suffered a humiliating set back at the hands of the German government and its allies, the latest opinion polls show that more Greeks than ever support Syriza – enough to give them an overall majority in a new election.

This should not be entirely surprising. The mass of Greek voters do not blame Alexis Tsipras, or his finance minister, Yannis Varoufakis, for the dogmatic refusal of Berlin and Brussels to recognise that their austerity strategy has failed. They also believe the Euro-area leaders – as well as Syriza – also had to make concessions. As the US economist, James Galbraith has put it: “What happened was that at the end of the day, the creditor countries and the creditor institutions took a step back. There had been through the entire process a very firm position taken by the German government that you had to sign up to the existing loan program, all of its conditions, lock stock and barrel, no changes that the elections have really meant nothing.

This was an untenable position. It was a position that over the time of these discussions lost the sympathy of the European Commission, and I think also of the International Monetary Fund, and also of several other major governments. And it was a position from which the German government at the end of the day took a step back, agreeing to the essence of the Greek position all along, which was to have a financing arrangement that would be in place over a four-month period, and then discussions about the specific terms, based upon a list that was submitted yesterday to the institutions.

So that strikes me–I wouldn’t call that a capitulation; I would say that what happened was that the German government, having taken a very tough line through the process, took a step back from that tough line in order to secure a basic framework agreement for going forward. And that’s where we are now.”

No one in their right mind would suggest that Syriza is winning the struggle to defeat mindless austerity or that the pressures on Athens to retreat will not be re-doubled in intensity in the weeks ahead. I agree with those who urge Tsipras and his comrades not to gloss over the compromises they have been forced to make or the profound challenges ahead. In that sense, they should emulate the Russian Bolsheviks who never denied the terrible price they had to pay to Imperial Germany for the Brest-Litovsk treaty ending Soviet involvement in the First World War.

Some of the criticism of the Syriza strategy made by the Greek and international far left is, however, based on misunderstandings. For example those calling on Athens to defy Berlin and impose capital controls to prevent money being drained from the banks do not realise that this can be done under Euro-area rules. This what the Cypriot authorities were forced to do last year. It may be something Syriza adopts but the recent statistics show that capital is starting to return to Greece.

Leaving aside the Greek neo-Nazi and populist far right, and a small minority on the left, the mass of Greek workers rightly suspect – indeed fear – talk of abandoning the Euro. They remember the disasters which Drachma devaluations brought in the past and suspect it would mean an even more terrifying collapse in living standards.

But are the Greeks right in believing that Syriza should struggle to change the Euro-area, indeed the European Union itself, from within? Is there the remotest chance that Syriza could trigger a shift in the balance of class forces needed to secure a radical change of economic policy? Where in the EU are the allies to be found else to bring this about?

It is essential here to avoid exaggeration. But there are some signs that popular opinion in most EU countries is swinging against any prolongation (let alone intensification) of austerity. It takes different forms in different countries. In Portugal even the leader of the Social Democrats (the Mayor of Lisbon), who is favourite to win the next election, has declared he will negotiate an alternative agreement with the Euro-area authorities.

Of course we should not hold our breath. But the financial markets will be quick to see another crisis point in Portugal if talk of an economic policy change grows. Should a forced Grexit be seen as pre-figuring a possible Portuguese or even Spanish default, Berlin will be at risk of losing astronomic amounts of money.

Indeed why stop there? Market suspicion could easily fall on France and/or Italy – which may be why Berlin has just agreed to give both government more time to come into line on deficits and debt. Of course the right wing governments in Lisbon, Madrid who have insisted on the unpopular austerity policies are desperate they are not exposed by any concessions given to Athens.

The European Commission has already signalled it favours some relaxation of the current terms of the Greek austerity “agreement.” The balance of opinion in the elected European Parliament is in favour of even more substantial concessions because austerity has only succeeded in increasing rather than decreasing indebtedness.

Another important factor working Greece’s favour is the growing alarm among mainstream academic economists that the austerity card is being overused. In any future policy review it would not be surprising if even bodies like the IMF and the European Central Bank signalled to Berlin and its allies that some fiscal relaxation was in order.

None of this is to attribute any inherent or dependable progressive orientation to the EU institutions. They reflect the ideological tenor of the great majority of pro neo-liberal EU national governments. Nor can any confidence be placed in the mainstream social democratic parties whether in opposition or in coalition with the right – as in the case of the German SPD.

But political parties have to keep a keen weather ear on the fluxes in public opinion. Tolerance of austerity is wearing thin which is one reason why some even the populist far right – such as the French FN – is giving expression to public anger about public spending cuts and falling living standards.

Important in this context are the signs of a new restiveness stirring among workers in both northern and southern European countries. In Germany the Metal Workers have just forced through a major, inflation busting wage increase and public sector look set to follow. There have been strikes by airport workers against job losses in Denmark, Finland and by Portuguese transport workers against privatisation plans.

None of this is to suggest an imminent change in the economic or the political balance of forces which Syriza will have to confront in its struggle to survive and to win tangible relief for the Greek people. Pressure is growing from hard line right wing German tendencies (Alternative fur Deutschland, PEGIDA but also within the CDU/CSU) against any concessions to Greece.

A swing to the right in the recent Hamburg election brought Merkel’s CDU percentage vote down to the mid-teens.  Little wonder Schauble and co are worried.

I agree with those in Syriza (and commentators like David Renton) that Syriza must strengthen the societal groups at its base and ensure the government is more actively accountable to them. This will, however, involve these organisations also taking some very hard decisions on priorities and compromises. The Greek foreign ministry should be encouraging the maximum contact between Greek social interest groups – obviously including the trade unions – and comparable organisations throughout the European Union.

The next weeks will be crucial. It will be essential to use the maximum political leverage to ensure a substantial revision of the terms of the policy review. But Syriza cannot avoid having to play a longer term strategy. It should be judged by how it balances these priorities with maintaining the commitment of its support base to fundamental change both in Greece and throughout Europe. That is why it is bound to be a lengthy war of positioning.

For those socialists who regard their political pedigree in some sense as derivative of the so-called “IS tradition” I would like to quote from a leading article on the issue of European integration written in 1961 during the first debate on British membership of what is today the European Union, by the first editor of ISJ, Michael Kidron: For us the move to Europe extends the scope of class struggle in which we are directly involved; it worsens its conditions for the present. But it makes ultimate victory more secure.”