Tag Archives: solidarity

Syriza: what to watch for

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Up at the League, says a friend, there was last night a brisk discussion as to whether what had happened this week in Greece was already the Morrow of the Revolution, which shaded off into a forthright statement by various of the comrades on their views as to the nature of a revolutionary government.

Continues our friend, all things considered, the discussion was good natured for if comrade Tom was sitting at the back with his face in an expression of utter scorn, at least the remainder of the seven people present did not always attempt to speak together, as is the custom when persons are assembled together for any social occasion. The hall was not wholly empty, the building not wholly unlit, and the situation of the apostles of Humanity not too unpleasant. One of the company, says our friend, began by explaining that the Syriza government had achieved more reforms in a week than the Labour Party here has managed in 40 years, drawing in particular on the government’s stated intention to increase the minimum wage, restore sacked cleaners, and sack the ministries of their neo-liberal advisers.

Now it was hardly expected that those present would agree with each other’s opinions, but that comrade was followed by her neighbour Sam: a man of celebrated revolutionary sentiment. His riposte was that governments of the left or in his language “reformists” (a term uttered only with a clearing of the throat) came and went, and that Syriza should be watched with the greatest caution. Reminding those present of the story of the Ox and the Flea, in which the latter, the perennial advocate of another country’s militant cause, claims half the credit for the great work done by the former, he concluded with a muted call on those present to observe, “Let us watch it for a month”, he said, “we can but wait and see…”

If we can but watch, albeit in a spirit of solidarity, what should we be looking for?

There is a common analysis on the left which explains the success of Syriza in terms of the depth of the social movements in Greece, in particular the very large number of general strikes, in comparison to Britain where enthusiasm has been drifting out of the movements since early on in the Coalition, when the students were physically beaten of the streets and the unions failed in their joint strikes in defence of pensions. In this explanation, the large social movements are the prior cause of Syriza, and the modest movements here the cause of our weakness.

One problem with this approach – in terms of understanding Syriza –  is that the relationship between what used to be called party and class must always first be established and can never be assumed. In particular, it would be wrong to underestimate the barriers that had to be crossed so that the leaders of Syriza, who as recently as 2009 were only the third-largest party on the left in Greece with a mere 4% of the vote, could become the unifying force they are now generally perceived to be.

A further difficulty comes when you start to see social movements as (say) merely the base and the party as merely the superstructure, with the movements providing the money, activists and voters on which the party relies. Such a metaphor implies that the structure takes without giving and the base gives without anything being returned. Yet there must be an extent to which Syriza reshapes its supporters: it provides an explanation as to who is to blame for Greece’s crisis and how the crisis can be solved and a strategy combining elections, negotiations with the EU, etc, all of which has an impact on the movements. It structures the issues they campaign about, and to whom they protest and how.

Given that Syriza is now in government, I want to see if it will enact reforms which pave the way to more powerful social movements. This ought to be the point at which a reforming administration earns its name. When Barack Obama was elected as American president in 2008, this was down to the millions of people for whom the importance of having an American President was an overriding priority. The main policy achievement of his administration – greater healthcare – may have all sorts of strengths but it is almost wholly devoid of any feature that might enable new social movement activists to emerge from it. This puts Obama in contrast to his obvious predecessor, Roosevelt, whose New Deal contained a large number of measures which were likely to strengthen the movements on which the Democrats were based. The Wagner Act gave workers collective bargaining rights, assisting the great sit-down strikes which forced the car industry to conceded union recognition. The Works Progress Administration gave work to left-wing writers, musicians, artists, etc. The New Deal was so successful at deepening the movements on which the Democrats were based that it established them as the natural party of government in the US for thirty years; Obama by contrast has failed to strengthen the social movements which sustained him.

A further question is whether Syriza will take steps which enable the movements to retain a degree of independence rather than merely co-opting them – either into Syriza or the state. Co-option can take place inadvertently, as for example, after the October revolution, when the Bolsheviks saw themselves as the party of workers’ (“Soviet”) power. Within six months, the Civil War had begun and by winter 1918-1919 a huge proportion of the working-class activists on which the party was based were fighting in the Red Army. By this point, the historic potential of Bolshevism had not yet been exhausted, but there was no meaningful sense in which unions, soviets or co-operatives were in control of the state – tens of thousands of activists had been killed and the social movements of the working class were vastly weaker than they had been.

The right hope is that Syriza must accede power to the movements without expecting anything in return, and while this notion of what you might call the unselfish state (unselfish in its relationship to the movements) sounds paradoxical, there are clues that the party might understand the need. For example, the removal of barriers outside Parliament is a small but important suggestion that Syriza welcomes protests against its policies, and even encourages them in order to discipline it in government.

I want to see if Syriza will enable a turnover in the power relationships constituting the state. If you think for example of the last decade in Venezuela: Chavez’s plan was to achieve state control of the oil industry and use its income for social and economic development. From early on oil revenues were spent on social programmes (“Missions”) in health, education, land redistribution and housing which were always intended to benefit the poor and indigenous majority. A key question was whether the Missions were going to be simply conduits to reward loyalty to the state. It was an attempted coup by the old order which caused the regime to become radicalised, and a very different project emerged in which, although still part of the state, the Missions were now intended to represent a grass roots democracy – ie a different kind of relationship between the people and the state.

Given who Syriza has just entered coalition with, I will look to see if there are going to be measures which illustrate the weakness, or the power, of Syiza’s partners. For example, if the Coalition holds good to its promise to grant citizenship to migrant children born and raised in Greece, this seems in complete kilter to everything the racists of Anel stand for. But of course there will equally be pressure – votes in Parliament which can only be won in return for the sorts of small compromises whose ultimate effect is to denude a left-wing party of the things which once made it worthwhile.

The one point at which Syriza seems most interesting is in its commitment to renegotiate the Greek debt, beginning when the last bailout ends, which is only next month. Immediately, Greece will have to borrow £22 billion euros (to cover debt repayments in 2015 and 2016) with the immediate prospect of either of the likely lenders – the EU and the IMF – demanding that Syriza in return concedes the very policies (eg an increase in the minimum wage) on which it was elected. Syriza has attempted to position itself as a combination of the mild and the militant: keen to talk, opposed to an EU exit, but determined to concede nothing of substance. Its plan B, such as there is, is to overstep the heads of the negotiators and to speak to the people and then the leaders of Europe. This helps to explain why Pablo Iglesias Podemos’ leader was present at quite so many Syriza election rallies: if Podemos wins the Spanish elections, he will be a key ally. Even if he does, if the election drags on till December (as under Spanish election laws it may do) it may not come soon enough to resolve negotiations starting in February. Faced with an impasse, will Syriza turn to the people, ignoring investment strikes as Chavez did after the 2002 coup?

So long as this possibility remains open, events in Greece will be worth watching – because if Syriza does turn to the people of Europe to put pressure on their behalf – at that moment, much more will be required from us than mere observation.

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Zimbabwe: a class still in need of solidarity (2004)

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bob

Another piece originally published in What Next.

Last June, the news filled with reports from the frontline in Zimbabwe. The opposition Movement for Democratic Change had called mass demonstrations designed to topple the government of Robert Mugabe. The movement was exhausted, however, and the police took back control of the streets. I can recall the images, which were vivid. The cameras showed lone demonstrators, being attacked by thugs with batons. One long-distance shot showed police dragging students from a moving lorry. Another scene portrayed an elderly woman journalist, who was sat in her car screaming, while a single figure tried to break through the glass in her car windows. The implied racial dynamics were hardly subtle. As the story broke, I was already packing for a trip to the same country. What a stupid place to visit.

On arriving in Harare, the first building I saw was a giant new aircraft terminal opened only the year before. I was in the city for more than 48 hours, before I saw my first uniform. Driving through the business district in Harare, all I could see were skyscrapers, holding banks and international agencies, built in the very period that the Western governments had been arguing for sanctions. Where had this money come from? The papers in Britain reported daily that the entire population of Zimbabwe was poor and destitute, even starving. It made no sense.

Robert Mugabe has held the Presidency for twenty years, ever since the defeat of the previous, white Rhodesian state. For the first five years or so, the new Zanu-PF regime did attempt to grant certain reforms, if only to establish its own popular legitimacy. Yet even in this period, there were purges of dissidents, many of them linked to the rival pan-African party, Zapu. In one particular notorious incident, Mugabe’s troops killed 30,000 people loyal to his enemies.

The colonial power with responsibility for Zimbabwe was Britain. Our government has traditionally seen its responsibility as being to safeguard the interests of the white minority. The Lancaster House Accords that accompanied the transfer of power accepted that there should be a transfer of white-held land towards black farmers. The UK promised tens of million of pounds to facilitate this process, and enable black farmers to purchase land at market rates. Such aid never arrived.

Despite occasional diplomatic rows, the international community accepted Mugabe’s government long into the 1990s, ignoring the murders and the regime’s increasingly autocratic aspect. The argument was that Mugabe could ‘do business’. He respected the limits of neo-liberalism. It has been Mugabe’s recent populist turns against white interests that have so angered the British press in particular.

Robert Mugabe is evidently a tyrant. Yet over time I concluded that he could not be quite the stupid one, portrayed in the papers here. By squeezing the vast estates of the white farmers for every penny, he had endeared himself to a significant number of poor black farmers. They remember how the land had been stolen from their parents, during the white wars of reconquest in the 1970s.

Meanwhile, Mugabe’s government seemed to have negotiated a certain compromise with significant sections of foreign capitalist interests. The white farmers had seen their lands expropriated, but white businesses remained untouched. In June, George Bush travelled to South Africa. He publicly refused to call for Mugabe’s overthrow, or even to criticise the South African government for its ‘softly-softly’ approach towards him. Meanwhile UN agencies sent corn in vast quantities. Boiled corn (sadzo) is a miserable diet, but it kept at least some of the people fed.

The greatest victims of Mugabe’s rule had not been white. Instead, the last ten years had witnessed the practical destruction of the black urban economy. The numbers of workers in trade unions had fallen by half. Unemployment has been the majority experience. The markets were empty all summer. Queues formed for bread, sugar and even for bank notes. One of the two teachers’ unions was on indefinite strike, calling for wage rises above their current salary of just thirty dollars per month. I stayed at the offices of the International Socialist Organisation, whose comrades are sacrificing everything to build up the unions and the democracy movement. But still Mugabe survived. Still he enjoyed the passive support of a rural majority.

At the start of June, the MDC launched a series of mass protests. In the run-up to this so-called ‘final push’, the situation was confused in the extreme. The MDC enjoys a mixed history. It had originally been formed by the trade unions, but had then sought to bring white workers behind a programme amenable to foreign capitalism. By spring 2003, the MDC had failed to call mass actions for twelve months, before relaunch itself through protests. Its leaders remained fearful of working-class action. They advertised their protests ‘by remote’, placing ads in the press rather than rebuilding the structures that had previously linked them to the townships. Meanwhile, Mugabe had been more willing than his opponents to swing left. Articles in the government’s Daily Herald condemned US foreign policy. The MDC allowed itself to be presented as having a more moderate programme than the state’s. Yet despite everything, the MDC had shown that it enjoyed a decisive majority among voters in the towns. Every urban election had gone their way. More than once, it had called mass strikes, which had threatened to overturn the state. The Zanu-PF government had survived by means of peasant support. Neither the government nor the opposition were strong enough to land a decisive blow.

In the last week, I travelled for a week with a friend Leo to the ruins of Great Zimbabwe. The stone structures date back to the eleventh century, and are among the tallest stone structures in Africa. Some are twenty foot high and five foot thick. They are a symbol of an extraordinary society, a confederation of peoples united by the trade in cattle. The goods found on the site have included presents to the rulers of Great Zimbabwe, donated by states in Central and West Africa. The country itself took its name from the Shona words for such stone forts, dzimba dza mabwe.

Leo and I decided to travel south by way of Mutare, Zimbabwe’s fourth city. The train was an overnight sleeper, cheap and busy. Friends in Mutare showed us a local paper mill thriving on South African money and the nearby game park, replete with a family of elephants, one giraffe and two white rhino.

The mill was supposedly maintained by money from a nearby forestry college, which sent its students there for training. In reality, all cash flowed from the private business into education coffers. The plant had benefited from a series of special grants. At the time of the handover, it had enjoyed generous state backing. Later, the regional institutions of Southern African economic co-operation had provided additional funds. More recently still, a number of North American businesses had bought into South African timber, hoping to export wood across the Atlantic. The whole sector was awash with dollar grants. The Zimbabwean plant was able to afford the latest tools imported from Italy. Its machines had been purchased in the last ten years, and were far newer than ones I have seen used in England.

The bus from Mutare to Masvingo was clean and efficient. Congolese music burst from the speakers. The bus collected workers in blue overalls, mothers with quiet babies strapped to their backs, youngsters in green and white bobble hats. This was no ‘chicken bus’. Instead there were signs of certain prosperity, in the thick wool sweaters and new black backpacks worn by the commuters around us.

From Masvingo, a local bus took us to the site itself. Great Zimbabwe’s ruins surrounded a hill to the southeast of the city. To access the ruins, we walked through a field of traders, selling giant wooden carvings, masks, ornate chess sets. The African women left their huts to view us tourists, with our strange grey blankets and our foreign ways. The path leads through a glamorous-looking hotel, all SUVs and then there was a gate, a hefty fee to pay and the museum.

The most impressive buildings were those in the plains surrounding the hill. Their walls were curved, in grooves and buttresses. They were covered in the past with plaster and painted. At one time, there were probably fifty such houses in the valley, holding officials of the court and their families. The shock I felt at the first sight of the city was real. The bird-tower was a huge structure composed of almost 15,000 tons of individual bricks, built without foundation and sections of the wall still reached more than ten metres high. It was truly ‘bird tower’. The centrepiece of it all was an imposing giant stone that obscured all others and was shaped, distinctly as a bird, with a large protruding beak. It was easy to imagine another generation of arrivals, seeing this giant rock for the first time and planning the whole city around it.

We took a bull-trap and then a bus back to Masvingo. Our fellow travellers were farmers, taking three large sacks of corn to sell in town. They shivered in the cold and we encourage them to sing to keep up as all warm. Their songs are in Shona, English. ‘Jesus number one, Jesus number one.’ We joined in shaking two plastic maracas bought from a street-kid in Mutare. Leo tried to sing along. ‘Jesus number two, Jesus number three’. He then lost the farmers in a horribly convoluted explanation. ‘I am the devil, I am pretending, you have to shout me down.’

The farmers were certainly poor, but they seemed no worse off to me than their equivalents in South Africa. They had corn enough to sell, and no great worries for the year ahead. What kept them going? No one mentioned the land distribution schemes. By all accounts, anyway, they have mostly benefited the regime.

The best explanation I could find was that international agencies (NGOs and the UN) were supplying such large quantities of emergency food aid, and distributing it so well, that disaster had been averted. To put it another way, the very international statesman who have been so busily denouncing Mugabe have financed the measures that keep his people alive. You could call it hypocrisy, perhaps even a necessary display of double standards. Indeed in the short-term, there is no other alternative to foreign aid, other than mass starvation. This situation should remind us, though, that many of Africa’s problems can still be found outside her borders.

The Polish Explosion (Women’s Voice, 1980)

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 THE RECENT strikes in Poland have shown that workers’ rights no more exist there than they do in the west.  The demand for free trade unions is one which we can echo in our campaigns against Prior’s anti-union law and for democracy in the unions.  But it is commonly believed that the position of women in Poland is better than that of women in most Western countries.  Women go out to work, their equality is written into the constitution and collective childcare is an accepted part of life.

At least that is the accepted myth.  Experienced observers of Eastern Europe have even claimed that women cannot be unemployed because their right to work is guaranteed by the constitution.  Unfortunately the reality is miles away and touches much more closely on our own experiences.

As in the west, in periods of economic stagnation women carry the burden of the crisis.  After the ‘spring in October’ of 1956, there followed a period of female unemployment.  Women were sacked on the pretext of curbing the bureaucracy.  The government even discussed giving allowances to men whose wives didn’t work.

At the same time, the benefits of the family as a stabilising factor were stressed and women were encouraged to see themselves as mothers.

‘Women’s jobs’ where women are ghettoised into low paid and badly organised work are as common as in the west.  Poland has seen a ‘feminisation’ of certain sectors – 80% of health workers and 67% of teachers are women.  Traditional masculine preserves like technical and skilled manual work remain precisely that. Seventy percent of married women work, but an unrecorded number are working on small-scale farms owned by peasant families.

The burden of housework and childcare rests almost entirely on women.  Only 15 per cent of children find a place in state run crèches.  The majority are looked after by relatives or informal childminders.  Polish women spend an incredible two hours a day in queues for food and other essentials.  Shortages are a way of life and things which help women’s work in the home, such as washing machines and detergents are often impossible to obtain.

Housing conditions in a country where a family will have to wait several years for a single bedroom flat, and where little single person housing is available, place a further strain on women’s lives.

Neither do women have control over their bodies.  Abortions are only available by law if the woman is pregnant as a result of a criminal act or there are ‘difficult living conditions’ and many older women still rely on the rhythm and withdrawal methods of contraception.  This is hardly surprising when the pill is not freely available and the influence of the church is still widespread.  An estimated 40 per cent of Polish women still use abortion as their major form of contraception.

Polish society has women’s oppression built into it.  Some people believe that is because socialism can’t bring women’s liberation.  But workers self-government is a myth.  The regime is no more socialist than nationalised industry here.  There is nationalisation and goods are supposed to be produced according to a plan.  But the system has nothing to do with socialism.

The Polish government has to produce in competition with the west in order to survive.  Therefore it exports as much as possible to pay its debts to the west.  That explains why in a major agricultural country like Poland meat is so scarce and  why there is more Polish sausage in your local Sainsburys than in most shops in Warsaw.

Not everyone in Poland suffers.  If you are in possession of western ‘hard’ currency many goods in short supply become magically available.  Special shops sell western fashions, cosmetics, American cigarettes and plentiful quantities of meat and fruit.

They are for the benefit of the small group of bureaucrats who control society.  But for workers, life is as grim as it is for most workers in Britain  Food shortages, long working hours and the oppression of the family are all features of Polish life.  Control of the factories does not lie with the workers but with that selfsame group of bureaucrats.

No wonder that the demands of the Gdansk workers went much further than the call for free trade unions.  Demands included the equalisation of family allowances with the military police and the army, an end to special shops, improvements in nurseries, more housing and better maternity leave.  They show that the issues concerning women are at the heart of the Polish working class, just as women themselves are.

The strikes have shown yet again that workers are willing to take action to change their lives.  Women have one reason to be grateful to the existing Polish government.  Their entry into the workforce has meant they are totally involved in the strike action.  Now they have to begin to liberate themselves.  The struggle for that liberation will mean having  to overthrow the existing society in Poland and creating a new one, just as it will in the west.

When that happens, Polish women will find they can change the course of history and their own destinies as well.

Lindsay German

Anna Paczuska

From Women’s Voice October ’80 Issue 45

Running for the 96

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Solidarity greetings to Dominic Williams and the other five runners who are raising money for the Hillsborough Families Support Group (HFSG) and the Hillsborough Justice Campaign (HJC) by running the route from Hillsorough to Anfield, which is equivalent to 3 marathons in 3 days.

I was not at Hillsboborough, but found myself watching the game on television, sobbing at the images of so many people killed for so little good reason. I was 16 at the time and had been a Liverpool fan for several years. I wasn’t from the city, but had adopted Liverpool  in part because so much of the city’s culture (comprising music, art and politics as well as football) was bound up with resistance to the Thatcher government, which I too loathed.

I had started going to football matches for the first time that season, and used to travel up from London to Liverpool by train, joining a group of regular Liverpool fans who made the same journey. I didn’t buy tickets in advance; you didn’t need to in those days.

I attended the match before, which was an away game conveniently in London against Millwall, and found myself talking to a man in his late 50s or early 60s, an amateur referee. He was kind and generous; he saw me as a young fan attending a game by himself, and took me under his wing.

The following game was Hillsborough of course, and it was especially poignant to see that among those killed was a former amateur referee John Anderson, aged 62. Looking back on the events of twenty years ago I have no way of knowing whether it was John who I had met at the game before.

In a sense, what does it matter? Whether I knew them or not, people had been killed who were a part of me.

This isn’t the place to go into the ways that the powerful in Britain worked together to ruin the lives of the Hillsborough survivors: first by spreading lies about them in the Sun, then by re-writing the rules of the tort of neligence so that the families could not obtain compensation from the police for what the police did that day.

It just seems right to me that people should still be fundraising for the campaigns which are needed if we are ever going to have full disclosure of all the records from the day; and that this campaigning should take the form of running.

More details of how to donate here; http://hillsborough-anfieldrun.co.uk/