Friday, 28 November 2008

Socialism 2008 – Review – Socialism and Left Unity by Peter Taaffe (2008)

Whilst this isn’t really a session at Socialism 2008, this book was launched there and is a critique of the ideas and methods of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP). It does take up some of the points that were debated in the session at Socialism 2008 on Building a Revolutionary Party (of which there is a video of on the Socialist Party website -

The book begins with some general points about why the Socialist Party (SP) thinks debates on the methods and ideas of organisations are important for serious attempts at left unity. The first section proper discusses the origins of the SWP and the Socialist Party and their ideas in relation to Stalinism – particularly criticising their idea of the USSR and other states as being state capitalism and the problems with this definition. The next chapter begins with focussing on how these ideas led to problems after the collapse of Stalinism in the early 1990’s and their idea of this decade being “the 1930’s in slow motion”.

It then moves on to discuss the approach of the SWP towards the anti-capitalist movement – in particular their use of the slogan – another world is possible - compared to the SPs – a socialist world is possible. It also takes up Trotsky’s transitional programme, what the SP believes to be the misapplication of the idea of transitional demands.

Next up is the attitude of the SWP to the rest of the left – its role in relation to the Socialist Alliances and also the role of its sister organisation in Germany. To this the approach of the SP is contrasted with that of the SWP, particularly how the SP argued for a federal approach in that organisation with the SWPs ‘rule or ruin’ approach. It then deals with the RESPECT saga too. This area is then dealt with again later in the book in a section entitled “United Front Today and the Left in Germany”.

The book then goes discusses a few incidents in the trade unions in the 90’s before taking up disagreements in the PCS and NUT between the SP and the SWP. The section after this discusses the SWP’s anti-fascism work – after discussing the successes of the Anti-Nazi League – it critiques what the SP believes were some of its failures – it’s “Don’t vote Nazi” slogan which leaves open the possibility of voting for other capitalist parties and the lack of democracy within that organisation and then deals with the role of Unite Against Fascism in recent years.

The final section deals with the internal regime of the SWP, in particular the use of top-down bureaucratic methods when dealing with serious disagreements inside the organisation giving examples of the expulsion of their US sister organisation and in relation to break up of RESPECT and then contrasts this with the SP and the CWI.

Although the book is a critique of the SWP and many of the arguments may be familiar to people already, the book touches on many other points which are of interest to anyone on the left in terms of history, theory and various movements. The debate on revolutionary ideas, organisation and methods will become increasingly important and this book is worth reading for anyone who agrees with the necessity of this, especially current members of the SWP.

Tuesday, 25 November 2008

Socialists on the Criminal Justice System – Leon Trotsky

The second in my series of looks at the writings of socialists. This piece looks at the comments of Trotsky regarding the police that he makes in “Stalin’s Gangsters” a compilation of his articles that were published just before his assassination in Mexico in relation to a previous attempt. I also want to briefly comment upon the passage in What Next? Vital Question for the German Proletariat too.

The most bandied about quotation from Trotsky on the police is the one from What Next? Vital Questions for the German Proletariat which goes “The worker who becomes a policeman in the service of the capitalist state, is a bourgeois cop, not a worker.” This quotation is used by some ultra-left sects to put forward a blanket argument of the complete reactionary nature of all policemen. I don’t think this is necessarily the case as readers of this blog may have noticed, indeed the very sentence before this explains “Consciousness is determined by environment even in this instance”. Rather than saying that the police were wholly a reactionary mass at all times, what Trotsky was actually saying here is that the Prussian police which the SPD technically had control over couldn’t be relied upon as a bulwark against Hitler, indeed concretising that sentence he says “Of late years these policemen have had to do much more fighting with revolutionary workers than with Nazi students. Such training does not fail to leave its effects.”

But I am talking about another period, when Trotsky was in Mexico and the GPU was attempting to murder him. Here Trotsky touches upon a different element to the police – that of trying to catch perpetrators of crimes (that is infringements of the law that are reported to them) and take reasonable precautions to prevent crimes from occurring. Discussing this is frankly tricky – mostly because the police’s role as part of the state defending capitalism can often blend in with this so you get arbitrary controls to defend the capitalist state interests portrayed as vital measures to prevent crime (when fairly often they are nothing of the sort). Because the comments are so scattered I will not use quotations as I’m trying to draw the general line of thought in relation to this from a pamphlet that is mainly concerned with a political expose of the methods of Stalinism.

That there could be potential benefits from the police guarding him in Mexico, Trotsky was in no doubt. Otherwise he would have denounced them for doing so in this pamphlet. However, following the points made above, he also supplemented them with his own guard. During the investigation into the attempt on his life he also cooperated with the investigation and court proceedings. Again he supplemented this by collecting material, which as well as supplementing the political points he wished to make in regards, also added to his defence in court. What is the point I am trying to make? Well, in this respect of dealing with crime, a proportion of the actions of the police are socially useful. This is why I defend the idea of democratic control over the police – to give working people the decision on how the resources of the police are to be used.

Indeed whilst I would argue that a socialist society would cut away at the causes of crime, it is a little utopian to expect all crime to diminish and there be no need for investigative procedures to examine facts in relation to something. Expertise in this area would be something we would need to draw out of the police as it exists presently, and perhaps dedicated investigators may be initially necessary. But let us be clear – this would be on a completely different social and organisational basis – it would need to be clearly separated from security and guarding and be thoroughly democratised.

Sunday, 23 November 2008

Democratic republic of Congo: Civil war erupts once again

From this weeks issue of The Socialist (NB. an shortened version of this article is also appearing in Seren, the newspaper of Bangor Students Union)

RENEWED FIGHTING has broken out around the city of Goma in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) between armed forces led by the rebel general Laurent Nkunda and those of the Congolese president Joseph Kabila, deepening the region's humanitarian crisis. The fighting is taking place as talks are on-going between the two protagonists, brokered by the United Nations special envoy, the former Nigerian president, Olusegun Obasanjo.
Iain Dalton reports on the background to this conflict, particularly the role of the western powers, multinational companies, regional elites and UN troops in fermenting and perpetuating the civil war.

IN THE last few weeks over 250,000 refugees have fled from North Kivu province in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC, formerly Zaire) near the border with Rwanda. This brings the total of internal refugees in the region to over one million.
Rebels in the National Congress for the Defence of the People (CNDP), under the control of ethnic Tutsi, Laurent Nkunda, have been advancing on government strongholds in the province - particularly the regional capital Gomu.
Although this conflict has only been major news headlines for the last few weeks it has been going on for years, since Nkunda rebelled against the DRC army in 2004.
The conflict has been a disaster for the people of the Congo. Since the civil war began in 1998 over five million people have been killed, life expectancy is only 45.8 years in the country as a whole, and in North Kivu it is 43.7 years; 73% of the population are in poverty.
Additionally the region has seen large usage of child soldiers and North Kivu province itself is the worst area for sexual violence in the world - according to United Nations (UN) 2007 figures there are around 350 rapes a month, although local figures suggest over 800 in April 2008 alone.

Unresolved conflict

Yet the civil war in the DRC was supposed to have ended in 2003. Then, a peace deal was signed to end six years of fighting after the deposition of the dictator Mobutu Sese-Seko. Laurent Kabila, who headed the Rwandan-backed forces Alliance des Forces Démocratiques pour la Libération du Congo-Zaïre (AFDL), tapped into the mass discontent with Mobuto's rule and declared himself president.
However, this coalition broke up almost as soon as Kabila took power and Rwanda in particular began backing a new rebellion, the Rassemblement Congolais pour la Democratie (RCD) to look after its own mineral interests in the country. Kabila was backed with arms and troops by the regimes of Angola, Zimbabwe and Namibia.
In reality, however, an on-off civil war has been going on ever since the deposition of the first prime minister of the DRC, the anti-imperialist Patrice Lumumba in 1960.
The Belgian colonial government and other western powers had wanted a compliant stooge post-independence government. Lumumba was deemed too much of a threat to the imperialist powers and the CIA-backed colonel Mobutu took power in 1966.
The western powers considered Mobutu as a bulwark against communism in the region. He crushed the remaining Lumumba supporters (Lumumba had been executed in 1961) but sporadic revolts continued thereafter and were fought with the aid of western powers. Some rebels, such as Kabila, even carved out their own statelets within the country and financed themselves through trafficking gold and other materials.
The collapse of the USSR at the beginning of the 1990s meant that Mobutu's bloody regime became unnecessary for maintaining US interests in the country.
Added to the political crisis was the backlash from the ethnic civil war in Rwanda when over one million ethnic Hutus fled from the country - including many members of the Interahamwe militia which Mobutu used against the Tutsis in Kivu to prop up his failing regime. It is these same ethnic Hutu forces that Nkunda alleges government troops have been supporting in attacks on Tutsis and he claims that his rebellion is in defence of Tutsis, particularly his own native group the Banyamulenge.

Resource rich

The country's rich mineral resources (particularly diamonds, copper, zinc and coltan - which is used in mobile phones and computers) have been fought over in the civil war with various companies backing warlords with arms to facilitate their plundering of the country. A UN report named 85 multinationals that it believed to be "violating ethical guidelines" - such as Anglo-American, Standard Chartered Bank, De Beers etc.
But it isn't just the companies themselves. It is no accident that when an anti-imperialist government under Lumumba was elected in 1960, Belgian imperialism sought to support the break away of resource rich Katanga province in a manner that parallels the moves to autonomy by the Media Luna provinces in Bolivia.
Regional powers are also in on the act. Zimbabwe, one of the backers of the Laurent Kabila regime, was granted concessions in the diamond industry for example, whilst Rwandan forces control some mines in the Kivu region that the country borders that are protected by the RCD it backs.

Socialist answers

Imperialism and capitalism have devastated the DRC and it is ordinary people that are suffering. However, many journalists, international human right groups and aid agencies are still calling for intervention by foreign troops. For example, Johann Hari in the Independent (30/10/08) suggests that UN peacekeepers will need to be kept in the region to 'stabilise' the country and that a coltan-tax should be created to fund this.
But Monuc, the current UN peacekeeping force, has over 16,000 troops in the country and is blatantly failing to stop the abuses. Indeed UN documents disclosed by Human Rights Watch demonstrate how UN peacekeepers in Congo took part in weapons trading with rebels and smuggling.
These forces are part of the problem because by their very nature they are subordinated not to the needs of ordinary Congolese but to the imperialist powers that dominate the UN security council.
Like in Iraq at present, what is needed to combat the abuses of militias, rebels, government troops and 'peacekeepers' alike are democratic, working class-based defence organisations that can cut across the ethnic divides and build up the mass resistance of workers and peasants to both militia-backed warlords, multinational companies and the major capitalist powers.
Capitalism has failed in the DRC.It is only socialist ideas, such as taking the mineral resources into public ownership to use for the common good of society and not to fatten the pockets of warlords and big business, that can provide a way out of the nightmare for the working class and poor in the DRC.

Wednesday, 19 November 2008

Why say NO to disaffiliation?

This is an article written for the weekly paper of Sussex Students Union, the Badger, by Lee Vernon, Finance Officer at that Student Union and also a member of Socialist Students. I think it raises some interesting questions as to how to approach NUS if the governance review passes.

November 17, 2008 by Lee Vernon

I just wish to start by saying how much I hate NUS. Words can hardly do my bitterness justice, but saying I despise it with every ounce of my being is a pretty good description. I’m kinda the NUS expert around the Union and I challenge anyone to take that honour (god, please do).I attend just about any NUS event going only to sidelined, write numerous policy submissions that get ignored and speak at conferences only to be shouted down. Yep, I really hate NUS and yet, I say no to disaffiliation.
Yes the NUS is run by a bunch of bureaucrats and New Labour stooges who are hell bent on wrecking democracy and stand opposed to a lot of what Sussex stands for.
As a committed socialist and a member of Socialist Students, the NUS leadership is the evil doppelganger of all my beliefs. But this isn’t enough to warrant disaffiliation. Why? Because us leaving it would only disadvantage and isolate us whilst the NUS leadership would be overjoyed and the left wing weakened. Sussex remains one of the NUS’s biggest critics, and you can guarantee at every meeting, conference and event we’re there pushing for a strong democratic NUS that fights against marketisation and for free education.
Thanks to Sussex’s role in Save NUS Democracy, the first constitution got voted down, embarrassing the NUS leadership and forcing them to back down on and give us concessions.
We raise the political debate and show that a Union that engages it students and fights for them goes out and wins. We inspire other smaller Unions to campaign in the same way and are one of the few that hold the NUS to account at every corner.
Without us, I guarantee the NUS bureaucrats will sleep safer at night, knowing that it will be twice as easy to get its motions rubber stamped without so much as a peep. But we’ll be making a political statement I hear you say, I mean, really?
Sussex, with its reputation as the most left wing union in the country, leaving will hardly cause a ripple as one Union leaves and NUS continues as usual. And what happens to us? We become one Union against the world, with no national or regional representation.
Though we will save the £36,000 we give in affiliation fees. And then lose between £50,000-60,000 in savings in beer and shop goods we get through NUSSL (the NUS’s purchasing consortium). Not to mention all the training, connections, networking and resources we also get from NUS, along with the 10% student discount.
So to conclude disaffiliation gives us :
  • A 30k budget deficit
  • No representation nationally
  • No say in policy debates
  • No arena for networking
  • And of course, no discount card….

It is vital that Sussex stays in NUS, not just for the resources it gives us, but to continue to fight and hold it to account, networking and uniting with other activist unions and showing them that the way forward is genuine democracy, engagement and resistance.
The student movement needs an organisation to bring together all the Unions to fight nationally whilst supporting locally, and the NUS for all its faults is that organisation. Say No to disaffiliation, so we can continue to both fight and inspire on a national level .

Monday, 17 November 2008

Accidental Lawbreaking

Another break from Socialism 2008 reports (there are 3 more in the works). I basically need time to write them so I'm publishing this that I'd written beforehand.

Can you break a law by accident? Conventionally, to be found guilty of breaking a law you are usual assumed to have wilfully or recklessly done an action which breaks a law. I’m not sure how this stands leaglly, but to me that assumes that you have knowledge in general that said act is illegal. What if you didn’t though?
Now obviously the vast majority of people know that murder is a crime, the exceptions being very young children, people with serious mental health issues etc. The same can be said for most major crimes. However, what about minor crimes - the potential is there for this to occur.
I wish to cite a few cases how this may happen based on fact. Firstly, the crime may be a very obscure one. This is especially possible given the explosion in criminal offences in recent years. Secondly, there is the case of crimes that relate to a specific area – bye-laws for example could be broken by someone who is not from the area where that bye-law applies to. Thirdly there are the infamous ASBOs which have been used to blanket ban some activities – such as young people gathering in a certain area. Committing a crime in this instance can combine elements of the above – but ASBO’s aren’t criminal legislation although breaching them is a criminal offence.
So what could be done about this. One solution could perhaps be to make people aware of such laws – whether through general education in the case of obscure laws or signage in the case of specific area laws.
I think however, that a more pertinent question is whether we should criminalise these matters at all or whether they are better being dealt with informally. After all, our criminal justice system and prisons are completely clogged up. But I don’t mean by issuing on the spot penalties or administrative penalties to deal with such problems – that method is an essentially arbitrary one which is open to massive abuse. We really need a social approach to dealing with such minor offences rather than a criminal justice one who’s main effect seems to be criminogenic.

Saturday, 15 November 2008

Review – What’s Going On? By Mark Steel (2008)

I wrote this review quite a while back, but given that Mark Steel was a speaker at the sunday rally at Socialism 2008 and some of the points he raised were also raised in this book it think it is apt to publish it now.

Mark Steel’s latest book is a tale of his very own personnel mid-life crisis. As his personal life breaks down seeing him sleeping on the couch at home, he also goes through a political divorce with the organisation he’s belonged to since he was a teenager, the Socialist Workers Party (SWP).
But both these personal episodes illustrate the bigger issue that Steel discusses throughout the book, the question of how we can take the anger that exists at the capitalist system and do something about it.
On of the main things Steel disputes throughout the book is the notion that the working class no longer exists. Although the large factories of traditional industrial working class are slowly being transferred abroad, Steel notes how layers such as civil servants and teachers now form parts of the working class. More importantly he notes how the supermarkets and other large retail stores have in effect become the factories of the 21st century with customers being the object the workforce there are processing – Steel picks out a good comparison of how in Subway customers order their sandwiches in a manner that is effectively a conveyer belt system.
Steel notes how events such as the movement against the Iraq war have drawn large numbers of people into opposition to the government , yet the potential for building a new party to represent workers has been squandered on several occasions, particularly by the leadership of the SWP.
Steel focuses on the ruins of Respect, noting how the SWP leadership were willing to overlook various factors ie. George Galloway’s lack of accountability to Respect etc. (of which the Socialist Party has been critical of Respect), but for George Galloway to issues a document mildly criticising John Rees, the National Secretary of Respect (and SWP Central Committee member) – this was a step too far.
The rest is history as they say. Steel gives plenty of examples of the control-freakery of the SWP leadership in the downfall of Respect. But given he also cites examples prior to this, including the inflation of membership numbers, the reader wonders why it took him so long to break politically from such people.
The book however, is well worth the read. Steel writes in a manner that is easy to understand and in a very humourous manner (as is to be expected being a comedian), but he also helps even those very politically aware understand things in new and insightful ways at the same time.

Thursday, 13 November 2008

A Necessary Hell? NUS Extraordinary Conference

A short interlude from reports back from Socialism 2008 - yes, I was unfortunate enough to get elected to NUS Extraordinary Conference yesterday.
Just for people's information we don't actually have cross campus ballot elections for NUS Conference anyway - we have elections at our Student Union general meetings. For this conference however, we elected delegates at our student senate (last year we didn't have any elections - they just delegated the same people as for National Conference). I managed to get 7 first preference votes, which isn't bad when you consider that other people who were elected got none (they beat RON on second preference). We really should have got someone else to stand but pretty much everyone was off home during reading week.
So I got the 7 o'clock train from Bangor with the rest of the Bangor delegation (all pro-governance review) and got to Wolverhampton and eventually found the conference. Socialist Students nationally didn't have a huge delegation, which was hampered somewhat by our members from Northumbria not being able to come to the conference because their student union couldn't afford it.
Anyway - I eventually got seated and we heard NUS President (and apparently not Labour Students chair), Wes Streeting speak (for the first of many times) saying that the NUS leadership had compromised with this new version of the constitution (yes, on secondary issues though!) and that people needed to vote for the governance review because NUS needs change (yes, NUS needs change, but not the kind of change that Wes is proposing).
And then we got to what was perhaps the most surreal bit - we had NUS Australia President Angus MacFarlane speaking - he didn't seem particularly left wing but what he described had happened in Australia seemed like a vision for NUS UK's future. He described how tuition fees had been brought in 20 or so years ago by the then Labor government in Australia and how the Howard government had increased fees by 25%, and had brought in variable fees for different courses as well as slashing government grants. In 2000 they brought in legislation that allowed universities to charge whatever they liked if they waived entry tests.
The Howard governments also introduced voluntary student unionism in 2005. This made union membership opt-in, banned collections of fees and banned contributions from Universities such as block grants. You'd be suprised to hear that 1/3 of all SU's in Australia collapsed as a result of this. The only bright thing he pointed out was that Labor had abolished some full fee places since it had got back in and that we should all vote against neo-liberalism.
Anyway - after that was lunch and a chance to catch up with some comrades from elsewhere in the country before back into the furnace. What I thought were some good motions from Sussex in particular got voted down and basically their premises trampled on by conference - the motions from Sussex advocated:
1) That the more representative annual conference (with at least 500-650 more delegates present) should have the deciding say on the constitution - basically stopping them calling more extraordinary conferences
2) That we should bring back a properly organised winter conference instead of continually not getting enough stuff passed through annual conference and instead of the ever continuing extraordinary conferences
3) That there should not be external trustees on the board of NUS as they are unnecessary

There were some truly weird moments - like the conference documents containing the word 'udders' instead of 'used' (I reckon whoever typed the document up was having a laugh) or the person from Warwick SU who in the debate on cross-campus votes for NUS delegates argued against it likening this to voting for the Home Secretary or other government figures (well some of them are elected MP's but it's not really such a bad thing going the whole hog either).

There were some good speeches from the no campaign - Lee Vernon's (Sussex SU Finance Officer and Socialist Students) speech (his second) on the Winter Conference motion was really good and I thought Daniel Randall's closing speech against the new constitution was very good too. I thought Rob Owen varied a hell of a lot and most of his weren't so good (there was a really good one at one point though) - but I wasn't impressed with the amount of times people waved his speech to him - if it would have been possible for this conference to have a close vote then this wouldn't be such a good tactic when the NUS leadership is trying to portray the new constitution as being of the students rather than their little baby. Indeed rather than saying we only need a 1/3 surely it would have been better to talk more like Lee Vernon and Daniel Randall did about the need for a campaigning strategy. Of course - it was never going to be close and that was the whole point of rushing the thing through an extraordinary conference at very short notice - to completely shut out as best as possible real ordinary students in favour of what NUS refer to as ordinary students (namely SU sabbatical officers, trustees or people who have been one or the other).
For those who don't already know the NUS leaderhsip got a big majority 614 YES, 142 No and 8 abstentions - hardly suprising. Despite Wes Streeting trying to distance himself from calling another extraordinary conference - I think he wants this as he doesn't want to chance the far more representative annual conference - but its so undemocratic that he doesn't want to associate itself with himself so he can say that 'ordinary students' called for it.

PS. - On the way back I heard some news to do with the SU at Glyndwr Uni in Wrexham is not getting some or all of it's block grant because Glyndwr Uni had lots of money invested in Icelandic banks - not sure how accurate that is, it needs checking, but Universities will feel able to do this with impunity becuase of the toothlessness of many Student Unions.

Tuesday, 11 November 2008

Socialism 2008 - The Fourth International and After

Before I begin i'd like to give a heads up to some other general reports of Socialism 2008 - there are one's at A Very Public Sociologist, Socialist Party Devon, The Nation of Duncan and The Revolution Decides - if there are anymore that want plugging let us know! (by the way, some of this is a little simplifed but i'm trying to draw out some of the main points made) On a completely different note - maybe we should have a Socialist Party Bloggers meeting next year at Socialism during one of the breaks?

The final session I went to on the sunday was the one on the furth international. Disappointly or nor, there were none of the ultra-left groups there that i had expected. However, we were treated to a leadoff which breifly summarised the history and degeneration of the first three international working class organisations and then Niall Mulholland outlined the emergence of the Fourth International (also referred to as FI).
It had been the defeat of the German working class with the rise of Hitler to power in 1933 which had led Trotsky to break with the Comintern. Although him and other had been expelled, the International Left Opposition created in 1930 (the Russian Left Opposition had already existed for 7 years) saw itself as trying to reform the Comintern and as an expelled faction.
The Fourth International was launched under difficult conditions. It supporters were under attacks in Russia and abroad by the GPU - several of the main supporters of the Fourth International were executed prior to the conference or in the next few year afterwards - Leon Sedov. Rudolf Klement, Erwin Wolf and Trotdsky himself to name a few. But Niall said that the conference was justified by continuing the marxist political programme which the Comintern had moved away from.
The organisation's difficulties didn't stop after the conference. The outbreak of WW2 led to a crisis in one of it's strongest sections, the US SWP, with some of the leaders capitulating to petty-bourgeois ideas over the USSR. The war also scattered the forces of the Fourth International, this was especially so after the assination fo Trotsky. However, there were some acheivements during the war - particularly in Britain by the WIL and RCP organising workers.
But a whole range of political and historical debates where thrown up by the end of WW2. Trotsky had argued that there would be an upsruge in struggle after the war - which did occur, however, as Niall put it, there was a counter-revolution in democratic clothes led by the CP's and Social Democracies. Flying in the face of the situation some of the leaders of the Fourth International argued that the war would continue and that Eastern Europe couldn't be Stalinised. This was criticised by Ted Grant who put forward the best positions in relation to these events and it is the organisation around the Militant that he helped found from which the Socialist Party developed from. We were part of the FI until 1965 - criticisng the illusions of some of the leaders fo the FI, like Mandel and Pablo, had in Tito, Mao and Castro. Although all these regimes differed from the USSR, none were healthy workers democracies. At that time we were based only in Britain, but by linking up with Marxists in other countries (namely Ireland, Germany and Sweden) we launched the Committee for a Workers International (CWI) in 1974 - the Committee part was deliberate as we didn't see ourselves as the whole of the new international (and still don't at this stage - we are far too small despite now being present in over 40 countries)

I didn't make that many notes on the discussion and my contribution came out all wrong. However on of the things in the sum up did interest me and that was on the fact that Trotskyism did build a base for itself in some countries - Bolivia (post on that session coming soon) and Sri Lanka. Now I would really like to read up on Sri Lanka as what Niall alluded to in his leadoff was quite interesting - the NSSP had built up a strong presence in the workers movement there but under the influence of the FI had squandered this by joining a bourgois government - indeed Niall alluded to its capitulation being aprt of the reason for the civil war that rages to this day. There were also more points that I didn't properly take notes of. However, Phil from AVPS was sitting next to me and his notes seemed much fuller on the discussion so hopefully he'll post on that.

Sunday, 9 November 2008

Socialism 2008 - First Thoughts

I think this is possibly the first blog report going out about Socialism 2008.

Anyways, what a thoroughly enjoybale weekend it was, the only thing that got on my nerves was missing a connection on the way back up to Bangor this evening (it takes about five hours at the best of times). I even slept well in the hostel (which has never happened before!). A small delegation managed to make it down from North Wales, which considering the huge expense in train fares is commendable.
Anyways, after perusing through the book stalls and spending even more money (including on the three new publications on sale - to be reviewed shortly), I went to the first session on Bolivia which was a discussion (rather than a debate) on Bolivia which was excellent and a full report of that session will appear in the next few days.
After that it was on to the main Socialism 2008 rally (with Bangor Socialist Student bilingual banner prudly displayed - is that the first bilingual (english-welsh) banner at Socialism?). There were so many speakers I can't be bothered counting, but they were all pretty good - they highlights for me was the comrade from Greece discussing the movements there and Syriza, the youngest speaker on the platform and newly elected Deputy Youth Mayor of Lewisham Natalie Powell-Davies who spoke really well on her campaign and the German school student comrade from Kassel who discussed the school student strikes there. Not that the other speakers were bad either, although I thought Peter Taaffe wasn't as good as any other time I've heard him speak - perhaps though that was because his contribution was quite short (for him!). Oh, and we collect about £33,000 - a pretty impressive total inlcuding a donation from Bangor that takes us well over our FF target.
After bantering in the Euston flyer, I retired to bed and got up to find the hostel had some quite funky toasters - which made the extra distance to the hostel compared to last years so worth it.
Then I ran back to ULU for a quick discussion with the regional full-timers about North Wales (which is potentially on the verge of a big membership growth) as due to the big distance between us here and the south we don't get to discuss face to face all that often and then it was on to a discussion on What future for youth? which I mostly went to to discuss the Bangor referendum as I've discussed many of the points raised in the leadoff incessently over the last few months and have probably blogged a bit about them already (it comes from being part-worker, part student - i get both kind of aspects of our youth work) before going to the discussion on The Fourth International and After - which suprisingly had no Sparts or anyone at it!!! (I was well disappointed - not!) Again, I'll post a report of this discussion - as I imagine will Phil from A Very Public Sociologist whom I met for the first time there.
Finally there was the closing Campaign for a New Workers Party Rally. Mark Serwotka was ill, but all the speakers were good. Dave Nellist came down heavily on the sheer corruptness of New Labour and their delaings with big buisenss, Kevin Ovenden borught greetings from RESPECT and outlined their views on building a new left party - quite welcomely mentioning that he saw RESPECT as part of the jigsaw in doing this, but not as a finished solution. Mark Steel was hillarious (and I have a review of his book to come). Hannah Sell concluded the rally and that was that.

On some general points there didn't seem to be many sects about at all. The IBT, ICL and Sparts all argued with each other on the China meeting, but I only saw the Sparts having a stall.
The turnout to me seemed bigger than last year - I had a pretty good view of the hall at the Saturday night rally - it also seemed even more youthful than ever and by quite a bit at that.
All in all, a really good weekend and those who weren't able to go missed out.

Friday, 7 November 2008

Interview with Cindy Sheehan - Anti-war Mom Calls For New Party, Polls 17% Against Nancy Pelosi

From the CWI website. For me the 17% that Sheehan won is the bright spot of the election (better than Nader's 0.5% - but that still equated to half a million votes - and i was happy with 271 votes in Bangor). Obama has mobilised thousands but he remains a president for the Democratic Party, a pro-capitalist party and will only be forced to implement some of his most leftwing policies under the pressure of the movement he has intiated. A new party, like what Sheehan is calling for will help this along immensly (although the name First Party is a bit rubbish). It will be a good beginning and is well worth discussing.

Ty Moore, Socialist Alternative (CWI in USA)
“I will never concede defeat”, announced famed anti-war mom Cindy Sheehan after receiving an impressive 29,951 votes – 17 percent – in her insurgent bid for Congress. Sheehan took on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, architect of the Democratic Party’s betrayals following their 2006 takeover of Congress. The campaign faced a media blackout and Pelosi refused repeated calls to debate Sheehan. But supported by dedicated volunteers, Sheehan became just the 6th independent candidate in California history to overcome the restrictive ballot access laws, raised over $500,000, and mounted a serious campaign.
Sheehan came to national fame during her August 2005 protest outside Bush’s ranch, after her son Casey, a serving US soldier, was killed in Iraq. Hoping to end the war, Sheehan supported the Democratic Party in 2006, when they won a sweeping victory in the mid-term congressional elections on promises to end the war and reverse Bush’s corporate agenda.
But in the first months of 2007, the Democratic majority voted to expand funding for the Iraq War, and Sheehan made a decisive break from the party. In a speech launching her independent campaign against Pelosi, Sheehan explained: “An electorate disgusted with the policies of the Bush regime put the Democrats in the majority in Congress in November ‘06. We voted for change, however Congress, under the Speakership of Ms. Pelosi, has done nothing but protect the status quo of the corporate elite and, in fact, since she has been the Speaker the situation in the Middle East has grown far worse, with Congress’ help... That is not what we elected them to do!”
The interview
On a recent trip to San Francisco, I was able to meet up with Cindy Sheehan and her campaign manager, Tiffany Burns, in their downtown office. It was October 13th, three weeks before election day. We discussed their campaign, but I was especially interested in Sheehan’s recent declaration to launch a new party following November 4th.
“Ever since I left the Democratic Party, and even before, I was writing about how there is not much difference in the two-party system,” Sheehan explained to me. “I’ve seen a lot of energy around Ralph Nader’s campaign, around Cynthia McKinney’s campaign and certainly I see it in my campaign everyday. I see that all three of us basically stand for the same things. Even Ron Paul (a candidate for the Republican nomination who combined opposition to the Iraq war with a right wing, anti-worker programme) revolutionaries, who are anti-imperialist – some of them don’t really understand [Ron Paul’s] full programme… that certainly was a huge movement. Instead of having such disparate people trying for the same thing, why don’t we join our movements together to make an even bigger movement, to maybe have a viable third party.”
In a previous interview, Sheehan had reportedly already decided to name the new formation the “First Party.” My concern, I explained, was that simply declaring a new party, with a name and programme already picked out, could alienate other forces who would want to be part of the process. “I never said I would just form a third party,” Cindy responded. “I said I was going to use the energies of the movement to bring it together. My idea is to call it the First Party.” Cindy also explained, “Right now it’s just an idea. I’ve talked to McKinney about it. I’ve talked to people in the Nader campaign about it… After the elections, win or lose, I’m committed to bringing in all the voices.”
Campaign manager Tiffany Burns added that “we want to have a gathering and really create a space for people to come together and have a sense of what would the party look like, who would it represent, who wants to be a part of this, very soon after the elections, because we have to capitalize on the energy coming off of the elections.”
Is now the time?
There have been many failed attempts to build new left and working class parties, I pointed out. But big business’s two-party system in the US has proven more impervious to political challenges any other system in the modern capitalist world. What is different today?
“The independent movement is the fastest growing category in this country,” Sheehan explained. “Independents are the second most registered group in San Francisco... The abuses of the last eight years have awakened people who thought before that maybe there were two choices, at least an appearance of a choice. But they have seen the Democrats betray the country, the constitution, and their base over and over again. So I think that now is the time to strike with the ’First Party’ movement.”
I began to ask: “With the economic crisis and bailout, which Pelosi played an instrumental role in passing…” Cindy interrupted: “She didn’t just play an instrumental role, she jammed it down everybody’s throat. I mean she was the terminator of politicians at that time. She was like, ‘we are going to pass this mother f***er no matter what happens.’”
“The economic crisis is what is really motivating people, because it’s touching their lives, it’s not far away… [The new party] will of course be a party for the working class, and very pro-worker, pro-labor, pro-democratic structures. Not like the SEIU Andy Stern model. True organizing, true participation… There is not a true choice in the national picture – there is just the appearance of choice. It’s façade over substance. It’s imperialism, it’s capitalism, and it’s crumbling. No matter what they do to save it, it’s still crumbling. And I think people are going to start getting it.”
Movement building
Our conversation moved to a discussion about party building. Among the central mistakes of the Green Party, I argued, is their narrow focus on running candidates instead of devoting resources to initiating protests and community struggles. While plenty of individual Greens are active in antiwar groups, environmental campaigns, etc., the party itself rarely attempts to become an organizing center for non-electoral struggles, allowing Democratic Party-aligned groups to dominate most social movements unchallenged.
Sheehan seemed to agree. “A new party has to be diverse and it has to be a movement. It can’t just be people with registration cards walking around saying sign up for our party. It has to be something that the people will feel will actually help them. I think the Green Party is a wonderful conception, but it’s not about movement building – it’s about getting people elected. It’s not going to be a viable third party until it becomes a movement. And if people who are disaffected want to come and help us…”
“You know, we’ve had several people leave our campaign because they were only focused on getting elected, and that’s not what our campaign is about,” Sheehan finished. Burnsalso explained how they are taking “a completely different approach to a political campaign. But we’ve been really successful, which is frustrating to people who are in electoral politics, who have a cookie cutter method to getting elected, to running a campaign. We’re not just a campaign who shows up with leaflets to antiwar rallies, we’re organizing and leading them as part of our campaign tactics.”
“Our anti-war base left us”
After gaining national fame for her camp outside Bush’s Crawford, Texas ranch in 2005, Sheehan became a darling of mainstream anti-war groups and within liberal Democratic Party circles. She accepted a position on the Progressive Democrats of America advisory board. And as Burns explained, “Cindy has been approached many, many times about running. From the second she became a household name everybody thought, ‘Oh, she’d be a great Democratic candidate.’”
However, once she broke from the Democrats, “Everybody that supported Cindy before she decided to run totally turned their back on her. Our anti-war base left us when the groups that should have supported Cindy, and supported her before when she was fundraising for their groups or speaking the anti-war message without calling out the Democrats… every one of those groups totally abandoned her. There were lots of groups who just flat out said: ‘We wish you were running as a Democrat.’”
Imagine what would be possible if the social movement organizations – the unions, antiwar groups, civil rights and community organizations, the environmental movement, etc. – broke from the Democrats and dedicated their resources building a new party for working people. Tiffany made a similar observation: “And so we have been able to raise $500,000 in spite of not having access to the membership of those [anti-war] groups. We probably would have been able to raise exponentially more if we’d been able to reach those members.”
Opposing Obama
Both Sheehan and Burns had a lot to say about pressures to water down their campaign from fair-weather friends on the liberal left, most of whom abandoned Sheehan after she broke with the Democrats. “At every single event we’ve gone to since Cindy became the candidate, whether an antiwar protest or a community event, they all say, ‘Oh this can’t be a political event,’” Burns explained. “They want her because she is the peace mom, they want a name draw, but they won’t identify her as a candidate, they don’t want her to speak about why she’s running, who she’s running against, and that all has to do with not wanting to challenge Pelosi and the Democrats… You know, this is an intentional campaign that is about bringing down the two-party system and about bringing down the most powerful Democrat in Congress… If you don’t want us to say that, then we’re not going to be there.”
“The most political decision we have,” Burns said, is walking “this fine line of not alienating everyone who will vote for Obama but also support Cindy… Not in any way, shape, or form have we ever said anything supportive of either mainstream presidential candidate. Cynthia McKinney is the co-chair of our campaign, and we’ve done lots of work with Ralph Nader too… The first article [Cindy] wrote against Obama, we got so much criticism from people who thought they had a lot of political insight, who thought she was committing voter suicide. That was a year ago. But we said that Obama is just going to move to the political center, everybody knows that. The voters you think we’re alienating are smart too. They’re going to see that. And that’s exactly what’s happened. So a lot of those people who a year ago just thought Cindy was an asshole have come to agree with her.”
The campaign
I asked Tiffany about how the campaign itself was going: “We started with a very small, concentrated volunteer base. Now at times we’ll have like 40 people, but those 40 people are doing the work of 400 people. At times we’ll have 100 people come in over a weekend and do things. So it ebbs and flows… We have 60 dedicated phone bankers from across the country. We have a campaign staff of four people, and seven paid interns, and half a dozen volunteers who might as well be staff. And a normal weekend we’ll have 20-25 volunteers to help us table, do neighborhood walking. These people are much more dedicated than the average volunteer.”
“We just crossed the $500,000 mark last week. That’s phenomenal! That was from a list of 8,000 people that we started with. You know,” Tiffany said proudly, “I think there were expectations that we would only raise $50,000. We didn’t have any infrastructure or party backing.”
The Cindy Sheehan campaign signed another year’s lease for their downtown San Francisco office. They have already announced plans to challenge Pelosi again in 2010, but Sheehan hopes that by then a new party will be up and running, with candidates across the country running for Congress and other offices. Whether Sheehan’s project succeeds or not remains to be seen. There are many potential pit-falls. But the coming years will no doubt provide more opportunities than ever for the American working class to develop its own political voice.

Wednesday, 5 November 2008

Obama wins – neo-cons routed, New struggles lie ahead

From the CWI website

Tony Saunois (CWI)

The overwhelming victory for Barack Obama in the US Presidential elections and the major gains scored by the Democrats in the Senate and House of Representatives represent a turning point for the USA. At the time of writing it appears Obama has won over 52.3% of the popular vote and more than 62 million votes. The massive increase in turnout – which at the time of writing is estimated to have reached 64% - with the dramatic increase in registration and votes from Afro- Americans, Latinos and young people represent a crushing condemnation of Bush and the neo-cons as well as a generalised, if incoherent demand for ‘change’ amongst the mass of the US population.
In the run up to the election, opinion polls indicated that over 90% of the population thought that Bush was doing a “poor job” and 80% considered the country to be on the wrong track.
The backlash against the Bush regime and the effects of the economic crisis has produced a mass politicisation in the USA, reflected in this election. The huge Obama rallies during the election attended by tens of thousands, with over 250,000 turning out in the early hours of the morning for his victory rally in Chicago, indicate the massive polarisation and high expectations which have developed during the campaign.
While at the time of writing the final results are not yet tallied, it is clear that Obama has scored a massive victory amongst important sections of the population. Amongst young voters Obama was leading by 69% to 31% for McCain. Amongst new first-time voters, Obama won 69% to 30%. The only age group Obama was behind in was the over 60s.
Throughout the campaign, the question of race has been featured as an important issue which it is, especially in the USA due to its racist history. While racism still exists, Obama’s victory was possible because it cut across ethnic and racial divisions. Unsurprisingly, an estimated 95% of Afro-Americans voted for him. Amongst Latinos, 63% supported him. Amongst whites he won a minority 43%. This does not tell the entire story, as amongst working class whites the figures appear to be more evenly split.
McCain’s support was drawn overwhelmingly from small towns and rural areas while Obama won 71% of the vote in the big cities and 59% in the smaller cities and 50% in the suburbs.
In this election the decisive factor we saw was the massive class polarisation which has taken place in US society in recent years. Although the vote for Obama and the Democratic Party, which remains a capitalist party, is not a conscious class vote it does indicate the gulf which has opened up and the bitter hatred that has developed towards the rich – especially the bankers and financiers. The running sore of the Iraq war remains an important issue but as the economic crisis has unfolded it has taken precedence in the minds of people. Consequently in some polls 10% considered Iraq as the major issue. This represented an important change which has taken place during recent months. However, Iraq will remain an important question for people and for the Obama Presidency.
Throughout the election campaign, tens of thousands of people have been drawn into campaigning work for Obama. In the US and Europe, capitalist commentators have argued that campaigning activity and activists were a thing of the past. TV ads and the media were all that is needed for politics in the modern era they claimed. Both the capitalist Republican and Democrat parties have been election machines with few activists on the ground in the real sense. However, the mobilisation of tens of thousands into activity during this campaign illustrates how people can rapidly be drawn into active politics when they perceive a real struggle to defend their interests is at stake. It is striking how rapidly these layers were drawn into activity for Obama. While TV ads etc, were used by Obama, it is significant that mass meetings, workplace meetings, canvassing and the use of blogs and the web were a major feature of this campaign. This has important lessons for the US and other countries for the future when a new genuine left or workers’ party develops.
It is estimated that between 120 and 130 million will have voted in this election making it proportionally the highest turnout since women were given the vote in the US in1920. For hours people queued to cast their votes, in scenes reminiscent of the first post apartheid election in South Africa. For Afro-Americans, especially, Obama’s victory has been as significant as Evo Morales victory was for the indigenous peoples of Bolivia.

‘Socialism’ back on the agenda

Another important feature in the election and during the economic crisis has been that the question of ‘socialism’ has been put back into the political debate in the US for the first time in decades. Ironically this was done by the neo-con Republican right, including in the Congress. They first raised it when the bail out package was announced. Then Obama was accused of being a ‘socialist’ and even a ‘communist’ by the Republicans. Neither Obama nor the Democrats are socialists and they both defend capitalism. However, events and the Republican right, have inadvertently put the question of socialism back on the table for discussion. Unfortunately, there was not a strong left or working people’s party which could then capitalise on this. However, as capitalism continues to decline, it will re-introduce the issue for debate and discussion about the way forward in the coming months and years amongst workers and young people, as the effects of the crisis hit home.
Obama’s victory represents a further ideological defeat for the neo-cons and has aroused enormous enthusiasm not only in the USA but internationally. The people of Western Europe, and especially Asia, Africa, and Latin America in particular look to this victory with high hopes and expectations.
The crucial issue following Obama’s election victory is what polices his new administration will introduce? Will his programme and polices be able to satisfy the hopes and expectations which have been aroused amongst millions following his victory?

High expectations – will Obama deliver?

Obama will take power against the background of the worst economic crisis since the 1930s. It is already having a devastating effect on the lives of millions throughout the US. Internationally, US imperialism remains bogged down in two major wars – Iraq and Afghanistan.
The demand for change and reform could compel Obama to introduce some reforms for example in health care and assistance to those threatened with eviction from their homes following the financial meltdown. Those who voted for him will also demand that he takes steps to withdraw troops from Iraq. If he fails to do this, then the massive hope and expectations in him could rapidly evaporate. Yet, even the introduction of some temporary concessions will not be sufficient to resolve the devastating crisis which is unfolding. A genuine mass programme of public works, in the face of a deepening recession and mass unemployment, will be needed. There must be a struggle to demand no evictions from their homes of those who cannot afford mortgage repayments.
Bush rejected a bail-out to the motor industry. Thereby condemning thousands of workers and their families to suffer the misery of unemployment Rather than a bail- out for the directors of major companies threatened with bankruptcy, they should be nationalised with compensation paid to small share-holders on the basis of proven need and put under democratic workers’ control and management. These and other demands will need to be fought for by working people and those who voted for Obama, to fight the effects of the recession.
The deepening economic crisis of capitalism will not allow Obama to satisfy the demands and needs of those who voted for him. He is not coming to power at the same stage of the economic cycle as Franklin D Roosevelt did in the 1930s. Roosevelt assumed the presidency in 1933 and introduced the ‘New Deal’ just as the slump following the 1929 crash was at its lowest point and the economy then began to pull out of it. The ‘New Deal’ introduced some minimal measures which were utilised by the trade unions. Yet it was a question of “advertised reforms” and did not mean lasting significant gains for the mass of the working class.
Yet Obama is coming to power at the beginning of the onset of the recession.
Significantly, during his victory rally Obama appealed for all Americans- rich and poor, Republican and Democrat to stand together. Yet how is it possible to have ‘class unity’ between rich and poor just at the time the capitalists are trying to unload the burden of the crisis onto working people and their families. A ‘rainbow’ administration, including Republicans like Colin Powell is also being considered.
Moreover, in international policy Obama has made clear that the disastrous military intervention in Afghanistan will be stepped up with the threat of further incursions into Pakistan. Democratic Congressmen are also demanding that Britain step up its intervention into Afghanistan. This will not prevent the inevitable defeat of US forces in such catastrophic foreign interventions.
This election opens a new era of struggle in the USA. One that will pose the need to build a new political party that will fight to defend working people and challenge capitalism. One that will offer a real socialist alternative to capitalism.

Monday, 3 November 2008

“It’s the economy, stupid!”

My most recent column for Bangor Student Union's Newspaper - Seren. I was a little short of space for this months column so I had to be very brief on the issues concerned.

Those were Bill Clinton’s famous words about what the main issue was during the 1992 US Presidential elections. And in the wake of the freezing up of the banking system last month, the part and full nationalisations that have taken place, increasing rates of home repossessions and the rising tide of unemployment have made it the main issue in this years U.S. Elections.
Of course, in the early days it was all about change, as Barack Obama positioned himself as an alternative to both the continuations of the last two US Presidents in the Republican Party candidate John McCain (potential successor of George W Bush) and his rival for the Democratic Party nomination, Hillary Clinton (potential successor to the aforementioned Bill Clinton). Of course Bush was responsible for the Afghani and Iraqi invasions, but Clinton had previously been responsible for the sanctions against Iraq and other U.S. military actions too.
The selection of Sarah Palin as John McCain’s running mate, as an apparent political ‘outsider’ (she still is the Governor of Alaska though!) was an attempt to undermine Obama’s theme of change which had actually mobilized a lot of younger voters to support him in the U.S.
But it is the economic crisis deepening that has swung Obama decisively into the lead. Thousands of families in the US face losing their homes as a result of the subprime crisis. Whatever anger about the Bush government’s policies that existed before (and unlike here the anti-Iraq war movement in the US was getting bigger not smaller), it has been massively multiplied by the economic crisis their ultra-neoliberal policies have driven the U.S. It is the height of irony that government’s who love the idea of the free market like those of Gordon Brown, George W Bush, Angela Merkel etc. have been forced to nationalize or part-nationalise so many companies to save the market they so cherish.
You may think that being a socialist I’d be on top of the moon at the moment with capitalism taking a battering, but unfortunately not. The truth is that what these governments want is to bail out these company’s bad debts, get them back into shape and then sell them back to the private sector. And its ordinary people that they are going to try and make pay for it with cuts to public services.
Capitalism goes through economic crises every so often like this, but the only way to make the situation better for the rest of us is to fight for it to be better. Although these companies have been nationalized, they are still gonna be run by similar people to those who wrecked them who won’t be as interested in the human cost of their decisions as opposed to the need for them to make these companies profitable again. And both McCain and Obama agree on this basic strategy, rather than what I would advocate which is placing them under the democratic control of the people who work at the company and the people who use their services.