Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

In the fight for workers’ rights, there are no borders

Friday, June 14th, 2019

The following is the text of my presentation to the international seminar held in Oslo this week by the Arthur Svensson foundation.

First of all, I want to thank the Svensson foundation for the invitation to speak here today, and also for your decision in 2016 to award the prize to LabourStart. That recognition was enormously important for us, as it will be for the other recipients including this year’s winner.

I think it was on one of my visits to Scandinavia that I met a trade unionist who was active in Amnesty International and he was wearing a t-shirt with the slogan “workers’ rights are human rights” and at the time I remember thinking — well, that’s obvious.

Perhaps the most famous example that proves that connection between workers’ rights and human rights was the struggle of Polish workers, initially dock workers, in the early and mid 1970s. Eventually, that struggle resulted in the birth of Solidarnosc, the first successful independent trade union in a Stalinist country. And the rise of Solidarnosc is what led to the collapse of the one-party state and the establishment of democracy in Poland and elsewhere in the former Soviet bloc.

That fight is not yet over, as we can see in the fact that LabourStart this week has launched a campaign at the request of the Polish dock workers union to support one of their members, who was sacked for his trade union activity. That worker was employed by, and was sacked by, a giant transnational corporation, which is also the target of another ongoing LabourStart campaign in Pakistan, where eight workers have also been sacked for their union activity.

So those workers in Poland may have won the right to join a free and independent trade union and are no longer the victims of state interference as they were during the Stalinist period, but now they face the challenge of transnational corporations that are no better at respecting workers’ rights, than the totalitarian regime which they got rid of a generation ago.

We in the labour movement need to say consistently and clearly that workers’ rights are fundamental human rights, and that workers have the right to join and form trade unions, independent of the state and their employers, and to engage in collective action including strikes. And that is true in Poland whether it’s a Stalinist state or a capitalist one, and it’s true in Pakistan, and even here in Norway.

We live in a time when not only workers’ rights but democracy itself is under assault around the world. That attack on democracy is always an attack on workers. It doesn’t matter if the leaders claim to be populists who care about ordinary people or not. And how widespread is this anti-democratic phenomenon? I can just rattle off some of the names — Putin, Trump, Erdogan, Orban, Bolsonaro, Duterte, Netanyahu.

Human rights and workers rights are under attack in all the countries they lead. And unions are often in the front lines of the fight for democracy in these countries.

So what do we need to do to defend the rights of working people at such a dangerous moment?

First of all, to paraphrase a former Nobel Prize for Literature laureate, we need to acknowledge that there are no “internal affairs” left on our crowded planet.

Here in Norway, where trade union rights are generally respected, you need to react to the sacking of dock workers in Poland and Pakistan as if those workers were members of your own dock workers union. You need to mobilise the members of your unions and the general public every time workers rights are violated, no matter where this happens in the world. International trade union solidarity has never been more needed than today, in this globalised world of ours.

But in addition to taking the lead in defending democracy, unions need to renew their political vision. There was a time when people who felt left out, on the margins, who were treated unjustly, or who just wanted a better and fairer world would support social democratic parties. That is not the case today. But it must become the case tomorrow if democracy is to survive.

Let me illustrate this with an example from the United States. If the choice is between the representatives of a neoliberal global elite such as Hillary Clinton or a populist demagogue like Donald Trump, then democracy is finished. But if a social democratic alternative exists, like Bernie Sanders, then there is hope.

We are seeing signs of hope today in the electoral victories of some social democratic parties in different parts of Europe — in Spain, in Finland, and even in your neighbour, Sweden.

In conclusion then, what we need to be doing is putting our unions in the forefront of the fight to defend workers rights and democracy more broadly — and at the same time, to renew our social democratic movement worldwide. And in those struggles, for democracy, for workers rights, for a fairer, more just and sustainable society, there are no borders.

Review: Homage to Catalonia, by George Orwell

Thursday, June 13th, 2019

I first read George Orwell’s account of his time in Spain many years ago, and now re-read in advance of a visit to Barcelona. I am actually writing this review from the hotel in which Orwell and his wife stayed during the terrible events of May 1937. There is no question that Orwell’s book is a masterpiece and critical to our understanding not only of the events that took place in Barcelona at that time, but of the twentieth century as a whole. Because it is in this book that the George Orwell we now know, the author of 1984 and Animal Farm, is born. This is the George Orwell who came to Spain to fight for the Republic against the fascists and was actually happy to sign up with the Communists in that fight. By accident, he wound up in the militia of the POUM, a dissident Marxist group that has often been mislabelled as “Trotskyist” and whose leader, Andreu Nin, was tortured and murdered by Soviet secret police agents.

Returned to Barcelona after being injured on the front, Orwell was an eyewitness to the successful attempt by the Soviet-directed Spanish Communists to bloodily suppress both the POUM and the much larger anarchist movement. What surprised me most in re-reading this book is not how unfairly anti-Communist this is (as some have claimed) but rather how little Orwell understood then of the monstrous behaviour of the Soviet Union in Spain. But of course he learned these things too, over time.

Tonight I will go for a stroll down the Ramblas, and I will look at the theatre on whose roof-top Orwell sat for three nights, guarding the POUM headquarters across the street, and at the cafe below where the POUM fighters had entrapped some Civil Guard troops, sharing beers with them as those troops feared for their lives. But for now, I sit in a room in the Hotel Continental imagining what the author of Homage to Catalonia thought as he stayed here more than eighty years ago.

Israeli elections 2019: Battle of the insiders

Sunday, January 20th, 2019

“I was a minister in Netanyahu’s government and know it’s impossible to create change from there.”

Those are the words of Avi Gabbay, the embattled leader of Israel’s rapidly-fading Labor Party.

But they could equally be the words of Yair Lapid, the leader of the main party of the political center Yesh Atid, or Tzipi Livni, of Hatnua, or Moshe Ya’alon, who’s heading a new centrist political party. They could be spoken by some on the political margins today (but with lingering ambitions) like former prime minister Ehud Barak

Read the rest of this blog on the Times of Israel – https://blogs.timesofisrael.com/battle-of-the-insiders/

Review: The London Cage, by Helen Fry

Monday, December 24th, 2018

In the end, this is a book about morality. The London Cage was a top secret interrogation centre set up by British intelligence during the Second World War. Located in Kensington Palace Gardens, it was closed down in 1948. For most of that time, it was a place that German prisoners of war passed through, where they were questioned, and valuable intelligence was gathered. From 1945 onwards, it collected evidence for use in war crimes trials. No one questions that the Cage, and its commanding officer Colonel Alexander Scotland, did collect useful intelligence that helped the Allies win the war. And it is also clear that Colonel Scotland’s team did excellent work in helping to prepared the cases that led the imprisonment, and sometimes hanging, of German Nazi war criminals in the years after 1945.

The moral issue is that despite Colonel Scotland’s insistence that everything done under his command was strictly in accord with the Geneva Convention, there is some evidence of mistreatment of some prisoners. There have been allegations of torture, and there were four suspicious deaths in custody at the London Cage.

Helen Fry has done an outstanding job with this book, going deep into the archives to find new sources and to attempt to reconstruct what actually happened at the London Cage. Among her many interesting finds was the original, uncensored memoir by Colonel Scotland himself.

The reputation of Colonel Scotland reminds me a bit of what happened with Arthur “Bomber” Harris, who led the strategic bombing campaign against Germany. Harris clearly contributed to a successful conclusion of the war, though the tactics he employed — which destroyed entire German cities — proved embarrassing to some after the war. It took several decades, but eventually a statue was erected to Harris in London, and Bomber Command got its own memorial in Green Park. One wonders if some day Colonel Scotland will also be recognised for his contribution to victory.

If that ever happens, this book will have made an important contribution to rediscovering the work he and his staff did in the London Cage.

Review: Night of Camp David, by Fletcher Knebel

Thursday, December 20th, 2018

The story about this book goes something like this: Published in 1965 and a best-seller at the time, this was not Fletcher Knebel’s best work. That would be Seven Days in May, a successful thriller about a military coup d’etat in the United States, later made into a film. Night of Camp David was deservedly forgotten for several decades.

And then its copyright owners noticed, somehow, that sales of used copies were soaring. There was a demand for the book. Why? Because the basic premise is that the President of the United States is insane. Crazy, right?

So Vintage Books decides to re-brand the book with a new cover, all in black, without the title or author name (Knebel is no longer a household name anyway) and puts this instead: “What would happen if the President of the U.S.A. went stark-raving mad?”

It probably worked. Sales are no doubt going well. I was even tempted to buy a copy myself, and did. But my advice to you is: don’t.

This is book of its time, with shallow, two-dimensional cut-out characters, full of casual sexism, a plot that plods and what may be the most unsatisfying ending ever written to a political thriller. A missed opportunity.

Review: Vox by Christina Dalcher

Friday, August 31st, 2018

In the near future, a populist demagogue comes to power in America and rolls back decades of progress on women’s rights. In the end, women are forced to wear bracelets which limit the number of words they can say in a day — speak more than 100 words and you get an electric shock. The more you speak, the more powerful the shock. Gays are imprisoned, and anyone who resists the new order is sent off to labour camps.

In other words, Vox is a satire of Trumpian America. One reviewer has called it a re-imagining of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, but to me it reads more like a re-working of Sinclair Lewis’ classic novel from 1935, It Can’t Happen Here. Like Lewis’ book, this one focusses on a family divided by the rise of a uniquely American kind of fascism. There are the children who are raised to be little monsters by the state, unrecognisable to their parents. And there is — thankfully — the Resistance. Dystopian fiction without a resistance of any kind, such as George Orwell’s 1984, can be unbearably painful to read.

Vox is an excellent book that deserves a wide readership.

100 years ago today …

Tuesday, November 7th, 2017

… the Bolsheviks seized power in Petrograd.  This video may be worth viewing.

 

Operation Basalt 75 years later

Friday, October 6th, 2017

This is the text of a speech I gave at Stocks Hotel, Sark, 3 October 2017, the 75th anniversary of the British commando raid on the island.


It has been three quarters of a century since a dozen or so British commandos landed on this island in the raid known as “Operation Basalt”.

Tonight we honour their memory. But this is also a good opportunity to reflect upon not only what happened here on the night of 3-4 October 1942, but also upon how that story has been told.

I want to talk this evening about how the Nazi German government began telling lies about this raid from the morning after, why those lies and were told and most important, I think, why they were believed. And I want to conclude with some reflections on the importance of historical memory.

Eric Lee, Chris Oliver and John Appleyard, Sark, 3.10.17. Photo credit: Cindy Berman.

But first, let me review what happened here, actually only a few metres away from where we are meeting right now, on that October evening.

The German occupation of Sark was, first of all, an illegal occupation, part of an illegal war. At the Nuremberg trials at the end of the Second World War, a number of key Nazi party officials and German army officers were accused not only of the famous war crimes and crimes against humanity, but also of the initial crime of starting an illegal war of aggression.

The Second World War, unlike the First, is not one in which merit can be found on both sides. Germany and its allies, primarily fascist Italy and imperial Japan, launched unprovoked aggression against their neighbours. The first victims were the Chinese, then the Ethiopians, and finally the Poles. By the time the first German soldiers set foot on Sark in 1940, their armies had invaded and conquered nearly all of continental Europe. The only parts of Europe which were not yet occupied by German forces were a handful of neutral countries including Sweden, Switzerland, and Spain, as well as countries which were allies — at the time — of Hitler and his Third Reich, most notably the Soviet Union.

In the decades since the war ended, there has been a bit of a debate about the nature of the German occupation of Sark and the other Channel Islands. The term “model occupation” has been used to describe an effort by the Germans to attempt to persuade the local populations in the Channel Islands — and by extension, the British people in general — that ending the war on German terms with a British surrender would not be so terrible.

It is important to lay that term to rest, to bury it and never use it again, because it conceals the reality of the German occupation, which was not only illegal but brutal from the beginning. This was no “model occupation.”

I’m going to jump slightly ahead of myself here to highlight just one fact which, I think, exposes the reality of this “model occupation”. Long before the British commandos landed here on Sark, the Germans had already deported some 2,000 innocent civilians from the Channel Islands to camps in Germany. This illegal deportation, which was confirmed as a war crime by the Nuremberg court, *preceded* the raid. It was not *a result* of the raid.

And those deportations from Jersey, Guernsey and Sark were not the very worse thing the Germans did. The worst thing they did, in my view, was their decision to extend the Final Solution — the Holocaust — to these peaceful islands.

There were only a few Jews living in the Channel Islands when the Germans arrived in the spring of 1940. But they were treated no differently than those Jews who lived in far greater numbers in places like Poland.

In the eyes of the German Nazis, the Jews were a virus, and needed to be exterminated for the health of the Aryan race. The occupiers demanded of the local governments in the Channel Islands that they turn over the names and details of all Jewish residents.

To their shame, they did. A number of innocent Jewish civilians in Guernsey and Jersey were arrested, and shipped off to the death camps of eastern Europe where they were murdered. The local officials in Guernsey and Jersey, who were accomplices to this crime of murder, were never punished.

On Sark, the Germans grew to suspect one woman of possibly being Jewish. Her life was somehow spared, and some attribute this to the intervention of the Dame of Sark, who was her friend. If true, that is to her eternal credit.

Eric Lee and Lt. Colonel Reg Guille MBE, Sark, 3.10.17. Photo credit: Cindy Berman.

I say all of this to make it clear that by the time Winston Churchill decided to unleash the Small Scale Raiding Force on Sark in October 1942, they came as the representatives of civilisation to fight against a barbaric enemy who thought nothing of slaughtering millions of innocent and defenceless people.

The raiders that night were a mix of two units, some from the Small Scale Raiding Force, led by Major Geoffrey Appleyard, and a contingent from a group known as the “Irish Commando” led by Phillip Hugh Pinckney. Unfortunately, there is no certified list of who actually participated in the raid, and the names we’ve agreed to put on the memorial stone on the Hog’s Back are the ones we are certain were there. But if we don’t know who they all were, we do know what they came here to do. Their mission was clear even if little understood at the time by many of the local population, or later by some historians.

It consisted of this:

Land on Sark. Find enemy soldiers. Capture some and bring them back to England for interrogation.

Why was this important? Because the British government and army knew very little about conditions not only here in the Channel Islands, but in occupied Europe as a whole.

What kind of defences had the Germans erected? Of what did Hitler’s infamous “Atlantic Wall” consist? What was the situation of the local populations under German rule?

Remember that 75 years ago, there were no satellites, no drones, and even aerial reconnaissance was rarely very accurate.

People on the islands were unable to communicate with their family members or anyone else in England.

The Allies knew almost nothing about the situation on Sark and the other Channel Islands — except that Germans were here.

Their intelligence was so poor, that they were told that a German machine gun emplacement was located on the Hog’s Back when it fact it turned out to be a very old cannon, which is still there.

When the commandos landed on that October night, they actually struggled to find those Germans.

They thought they spotted some on the Hog’s Back, but it turned that these were just targets.

They moved toward their primary target, Petit Dixcart, and found it empty.

Time was running out when they stumbled upon Mrs Pittard, awakening her and leading her to exclaim — finding herself surrounded by men in uniform, their faces blackened — “Is there a fire?” She assumed they were firemen.

The fact that she told them exactly where to find Germans — over by the Dixcart Hotel — makes her, in my eyes, a real heroine. But in addition to that, she gave the commandos valuable information about life under the German occupation. It was because of her, and the newspapers she passed on to Major Appleyard and his men, that we know about the deportations from the Channel Islands to Germany which preceded the raid.

The rest of the story is, I hope, familiar to you.

One of the commandos, Anders Lassen, managed to neutralise the German sentry, and they went on to capture a group of sleeping German combat engineers. These men were caught without their weapons, some of them stark naked, and they were marched out into the night. What happened next is a matter of some controversy.

It appears that the Germans were expecting a much larger force, and when they realised that fewer than a dozen soldiers had captured them, some began to fight back, to scream and shout, and to run away. Stocks Hotel, which is where we are right now, was only a few metres away. There were many heavily armed, battle hardened German infantry right here who could have come to the rescue of the combat engineers.

Had that happened, the raid would have been a disaster, with the British soldiers captured or killed by an overwhelmingly superior German force. But that is not what happened.

Instead, someone — probably Appleyard — gave the the order to put a stop to the attempts by some of the prisoners to run away and to raise the alarm. Shots were fired. German soldiers were killed.

The commander of the engineers group decided that the smart thing to do was to remain calm and to obey his British captors. He survived that night, and survived the war, returning to his home in Germany in February 1947.

His capture and return to England where he was interrogated, was — if you recall — the whole point of the raid.

And the records of his interrogation show that the raid was an unqualified success.

No British soldiers were captured or killed. A German prisoner was successfully taken alive, back to Britain, exactly as planned. He provided invaluable information about the German defences, and it turned out to have been a lucky break to have captured a combat engineer who could speak about things like trenches, and barbed-wire, and land mines, not only here but also on the French coast.

And now we come to how the raid was understood, and misunderstood, and how the lies began.

The German propaganda machine instantly reacted to the British raid which was, of course, a massive embarrassment. After all, about a dozen British raiders had landed on what was part of occupied Europe, killed several German soldiers, captured one, evaded detection and returned home safely. It was not an impressive performance by the German army.

The Germans professed themselves to be deeply shocked by the fact that the commandos had tied the hands of the soldiers they had captured. This was, in their view, a war crime, a breach of the Geneva Conventions.

I don’t even know where to begin with that one. Not only had the German army violated probably every single article of the Geneva conventions, and committed every possible war crime by this point in the war, but they were creating *entirely new classes* of war crimes.

In the case of the treatment of prisoners of war, while it is true that tying their hands may in some way be unpleasant or degrading, contrast this to how the German army treated its prisoners of war, particularly those captured from the ranks of the Soviet army. If you were a Soviet soldier and had the misfortune of falling into German hands, your nightmare was only beginning. And your chances of survival were nil.

If German soldiers tied the hands of their prisoners, it would have been the nicest thing they ever did. In fact, they did *far worse*, they did it *every day*, and they did it for *many years* until they were finally stopped by the Allied victory.

They couldn’t have cared less about the Geneva conventions.

But they made a huge noise about this nonetheless, and in retaliation for the raid, they demonstratively tied the hands of Allied prisoners who had been taken during the disastrous commando raid on the French port of Dieppe.

Afterwards, upon learning that German soldiers with their hands bound had been shot, Hitler apparently went into a rage, and this led to the infamous Commando Order.

That order was a death sentence for any Allied commandos, and this included Americans as well as British. The order declared that any captured commando was a terrorist and would be executed regardless of whether they were in uniform or not.

The Commando Order was such a terrible thing that some, few, German commanders refused to carry it out. Some, however, carried it out with *enthusiasm*. When the war ended, the Commando Order was named as one the Nazi Germans’ war crimes, and senior officers were punished for it.

The Germans of course punished the local population as well, deporting not only the brave Mrs Pittard who had actively assisted the commandos, but also the Seigneur of Sark, Robert Hathaway, and many, many others.

In their propaganda, the Germans insisted that they were responding to a British war crime, and compared the British commandos to gangsters, ordinary criminals.

For a number of reasons, not all this was clear to the people living on Sark at the time, or even later. And it was not always clear to historians writing about this.

Some people blamed Churchill and the commandos for the negative results of the raid, in particular the additional deportations which followed.

But we must emphasise: these were *not* the first deportations — the Germans were deporting innocent Channel Islanders, including children, all the time.

Many people on Sark and elsewhere would not have known the positive results of the raid, including the treasure trove of information about German defences which was given up by the prisoner captured that night.

One result of the raid which people here on Sark, and elsewhere in the Channel Islands, would have noticed was a beefing up of the German forces. The German army was forced to maintain large numbers of well-trained and heavily-armed soldiers who could not be used where they were needed.

When, for example, the Allies landed in Normandy, the thousands of German infantry here in the Channel Islands sat and watched as the Atlantic Wall crumbled and the nightmare that was the Third Reich began its final phase.

The commando raid in October 1942 was a clear psychological victory for the Allies. It reminded the Germans that “model occupation” or not, they were not welcome here, and that as they patrolled the cliff tops of Sark and the other islands, they could at any moment find themselves in the clutches of an Allied commando like the Anders Lassen, the knife-wielding Danish soldier who went on to win the Victoria Cross for heroism.

The raid sent a message as well to the islanders, who legitimately felt abandoned in 1940 when the British forces withdrew, leaving them to their fate. Whatever were the rights and wrongs of the decision taken in 1940, Churchill was now making it clear that Britain did not accept the German occupation of these islands, and that sooner or later, British forces would arrive to liberate them, as they did in May 1945.

The German propaganda about the raid nevertheless had an effect. That propaganda came not only through radio broadcasts by the likes of the traitor known as “Lord Haw Haw” but also by the daily newspapers in the Channel Islands which were then under German control.

It sounds surprising today, but at the time German propaganda did have an effect, and some British politicians and even soldiers gave some credence to German claims that the commandos had done something terribly wrong that night in Sark.

Perhaps the most shocking example was a letter sent by Lord Louis Mountbatten, who as chief of Combined Operations had some responsibility for the raid.

Here is what he said:

“I specifically told Major Appleyard (if my memory serves me right) before he undertook the raid on Sark that he was not to tie the hands of any of his prisoners. Unfortunately this order was disregarded.”

This to me is shameful, for a commanding officer to pass the buck to his subordinates.

For many decades after the raid, some historians continued to fail to see the point of Operation Basalt.

Why stir up trouble? The Germans were, after all, not the worst possible occupiers. They were polite, life went on, the war was being fought elsewhere.

The main reason why some people in Britain and here in the islands believed some of the German propaganda was that the facts about the raid were not known or understood.

The lack of information about the German defences, and the need to gather intelligence before launching the invasion of France in 1944, required commando raids like Operation Basalt to take place.

For that reason, it is essential that we learn the truth about Operation Basalt, why it took place and what were its real results.

And when we do so, we look at Geoffrey Appleyard, Philip Pinckney, Anders Lassen and they men they led that night, and we honour their memory.

For every single one of them was a hero, and they deserve our thanks — not only the thanks of the people of Sark, but of all free people, for the contribution they made to defeating the Nazi German enemy.

Thank you.

Operation Basalt – now available in paperback

Sunday, September 3rd, 2017

On 1 September, Operation Basalt became available in paperback. Order your copy from Foyles (free shipping in the UK) for just £12.99.

More details on other bookshops coming soon.

This book includes a brand new and highly detailed map of the area of operations.

I resign from Democratic Socialists of America

Sunday, August 6th, 2017

I was a member of DSA’s parent organization, DSOC, from 1975 until 1981, served on its National Board and also worked as a staff member in its national office.  I joined DSA after a lapse of many years during the Bernie Sanders campaign in which I served as the representative of the campaign to Democrats Abroad.

I understand that DSA at its national convention yesterday voted by a large majority to endorse the campaign of boycotts, divestments and sanctions (BDS) targeting Israel.  In a video I saw from the convention, this vote resulted in chants from some delegates of “Palestine will be free, from the river to the sea”.  I also saw at least one Palestinian flag being waved in celebration.

I cannot in good conscience be a member of an organization which promotes a boycott of the Jewish state.  I consider the BDS campaign to be antisemitic and racist.  I oppose it as a socialist and as a Jew.  I am appalled that DSA would take such a position.

For that reason, despite more than 40 years supporting DSA and its predecessor, I now wish to resign my membership.