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Another world was possible – for workers: The Georgian Experiment, 1918-1921

Click here to read the Georgian Version

The following is the text of a speech I delivered at the National Parliamentary Library of Georgia in Tbilisi on Wednesday, 2 November 2016.


Thank you to Irakli Petriashvili and the Georgian Trade Union Confederation for the invitation to speak here today. It is a great honour to be giving this talk here in the Georgian capital, which less than one hundred years ago was the capital of the world’s first democratic socialist republic.

Some of the Georgian trade unionists will know me as a fellow trade union activist, and the founding editor of LabourStart. LabourStart is the news and campaigning website of the international trade union movement. My work there reflects my life-long commitment to the labour movement.

I am here today because these are the final weeks of a decades-long research project of mine. I am now completing the writing of a book which will be published next year in Britain on the subject of the Georgian Democratic Republic of 1918-1921.

I have been fascinated by Georgia’s experiment in democratic socialism for many years. In my opinion, the experience of the Georgian people in those three years of independence is significant and should be studied throughout the world.

And this is because the Georgians were able to do what the Russian Bolsheviks could not: they created a humane, egalitarian society rooted in socialist values while maintaining a multi-party political democracy. They showed the world that the choices made by Lenin and the Bolsheviks were not the only ones possible, that another path could have been taken. Another world was possible, an alternative to totalitarian Communism, and Georgia was the proof of this.

The Second International sends a mission to Georgia

At the time, both during the three short years of Georgian independence and for several years thereafter, their experience was widely known. In 1920, the leaders of the Second International, an international confederation of social democratic parties, organised a delegation to come visit this country.

The members of that delegation represented the most important socialist and social democratic parties in Europe. Among them were leaders of the British Labour Party, the French Socialist Party, the Belgian Socialists, and so on. They were household names at the time.

The delegation included men who went on to become prime ministers of their countries, James Ramsay MacDonald of the British Labour Party and Camille Huysmans, the Belgian Socialist.

Other British Labour leaders in the group were Tom Shaw and Ethel Snowden. Both were prominent figures in their party and in the Second International. Mrs Snowden had participated in a delegation to Soviet Russia the previous year and wrote a highly critical account of the Bolshevik regime.

The French socialists were represented by Pierre Renaudel, Adrien Marquet and Alfred Inghels. The other Belgians were Louis de Brouckère and Emile Vandervelde.

Perhaps the best known member of the delegation was Karl Kautsky, the great theoretician of social democracy, and the author of numerous books which popularized and explained Marxism to working people.

Kautsky was known as the “pope of Marxism” and it was precisely for this reason that he was hated by Lenin and Trotsky for his criticisms of their regime in Russia. Lenin referred to him as a “renegade” for his refusal to support the Bolshevik coup d’etat and the dictatorial regime which it produced.

Kautsky was part of this delegation but when they returned to western Europe, he chose to remain for several months in Georgia, and as a result, he got an in-depth view of what was taking place here. He was deeply impressed, though critical of some of the government’s policies.

Once the Red Army invaded in February 1921, crushing Georgia and causing the exile of the social democratic government, Kautsky and other socialist leaders wrote books, pamphlets and articles denouncing the Russian Communist aggression.

Kautsky’s short book was called Georgia: A Social Democratic Peasant Republic. Trotsky wrote a rebuttal, published in English as Between Red and White.

The exiled Georgian socialist leaders, with Noe Jordania at their head, were welcome guests at conferences and congresses of socialist parties across Europe. The Second International vigorously condemned the invasion.

But over time, the voices of protest died down. And gradually, over many years, people began to forget about the Georgian Democratic Republic.

As a result, when a presidential candidate in America like Bernie Sanders says that he is a democratic socialist, and is asked by the media to give an example of what a democratic socialist society might look like, he offers them Denmark, or mentions the kibbutz movement in Israel. A generation or two earlier, he might have said – the Georgian Democratic Republic.

Two different visions of socialism

Today I want to discuss some of the ways in which the Georgian vision of socialism differed radically from the Russian Bolshevik one.

These include political democracy, the nature of the socialist party, agrarian reform, the trade unions, the cooperative movement, the national question, and foreign policy.

Let’s start with political democracy, because it is here that the differences between Soviet Russia and the Georgian Democratic Republic are most stark.

From the moment the Bolsheviks seized power, overthrowing the Provisional Revolutionary Government, they had no intention of sharing power with any other political party. They were briefly compelled to share power with the Left Social Revolutionaries, but that didn’t last.

Lenin and his comrades preferred for the Bolsheviks to rule alone, and established a one party state that lasted for more than seven decades. They were quick to suppress not only the right-wing and centrist political parties, but their socialist opponents as well. The first Menshevik newspapers were closed soon after the Bolshevik coup, and before the end of 1917, the Cheka was established.

In Georgia, on the other hand, the Social Democrats under the leadership of Noe Jordania were committed to political democracy from day one. The multi-party system they established had room for a wide range of views from right to left. Several political parties competed in the elections to the Constituent Assembly, which the Social Democrats won by a landslide, with over 400,000 votes. Among the other parties competing for votes were the National Democrats, the Social Federalists and the Social Revolutionaries.

The only political party in Georgia to not enjoy complete freedom of action was the local branch of the Russian Bolshevik party. And the restrictions on their freedom were entirely due to their constant attempts to violently seize control of the Georgian state.

The Georgian Bolsheviks, who did even consider themselves to be a Georgian political party, but simply a branch of a Russian party, were in effect the agents of a foreign power. They were not simply the proponents of a different political point of view.

But even they were given complete freedom of action from 1920, once the Moscow regime had agreed to recognize Georgian independence and promised to stop undermining it. And this was in spite of the fact that on the very eve of that short-lived peace deal between Tbilisi and Moscow, the Georgian Bolsheviks had yet again made an attempt to seize power violently and arrest the existing government.

The nature of the socialist party

Which brings me to the question of the party. Because long before the Bolsheviks came to power in Russia or the Mensheviks in Georgia, they were already very different political parties.

One reason why the Bolsheviks had no problem with the single party state was because of how they interpreted the idea of a political party. To Lenin, parties represented the interests of social classes. The Bolsheviks, and the Bolsheviks alone, represented the vanguard of the industrial proletariat. They saw themselves very much as the elite party of a single class, even if the party did include intellectuals and some peasants.

The Georgian Social Democrats, however, had become a mass party of the entire Georgian people. Their party was forged in the great peasant struggles that culminated in the famous “Gurian Republic” of 1902-1906. At that time, the Social Democrats began to accept that not only industrial workers – of which there were not that many in Georgia – but also peasants, intellectuals and others could also be Social Democrats.

They were not unique in taking that view. David Ben Gurion, the labour Zionist leader who became the first Prime Minister of Israel, used the phrase “from class to nation” and argued that in national liberation movements like Zionism, the role of Social Democrats is to fight for the interests of the whole people, and their agenda was not limited to that of a single social class.

The agrarian question

The Georgian Social Democrats and the Russian Bolsheviks took very different approaches to the agrarian question.

During the period of “war Communism” in Russia, the Bolsheviks treated the peasants both as suppliers of essential goods and in particular food for the vanguard class, but also as enemies. For several years, the relationship between the peasants and the urban working class in Russia was poisoned by the hostility shown by the Bolshevik leadership to peasants. This only began to change with the adoption of the New Economic Policy in 1921. And even that only lasted a few years before Stalin unleashed the genocidal war against the peasants known as “forced collectivization”.

Meanwhile, in Georgia under Social Democratic rule, there was nothing like that hostility between workers and peasants. The Minister of Agriculture in the Georgian government, Noe Khomeriki, was himself a veteran of the Gurian rebellion. He and his comrades understood the peasant hunger for land. Even before Georgia declared its independence in May 1918, they pushed an agrarian reform law through the Transcaucasian parliament. But it was not until Georgia was fully independent that their ideas became reality.

Their agrarian programme included some state ownership of land, and the confiscation of lands owned by the tsar and church, but on the whole, their focus was on giving land to the peasants. And in this they were largely successful. There were some outbreaks of peasant unrest, usually tied to ethnic conflict. But on the whole the peasants who supported the Social Democrats when they first came to power continued to support them right up until the end.

And even beyond the end. When the Social Democrats made their final attempt to overthrow the Bolsheviks in 1924, their greatest support came from the peasants in Guria – the same villages which had overthrown tsarist rule in 1902-1906.

Why Marxists opposed state ownership of the land

I should add that the agrarian policy of the Georgian Social Democrats, like that of their Menshevik comrades in Russia, was rooted in their Marxist interpretation of the nature of Russian society. They strongly believed that Russia was not a capitalist society, and not even a feudal one, but something that Marx characterised as “semi-Asiatic”.

In societies which Marx called “Oriental despotisms”, the land was owned by the state. Social classes and civil society were weak. The state was more powerful than society.

If one wanted to transform those societies into liberal democracies or later, socialist societies, one had to begin by taking control of the land away from the state.

As the great Russian Marxist theoretician Georgi Plekhanov warned, if socialists were to come to power in a country like Russia and put all the land in the hands of the state, they would be creating the basis for a modern and far more powerful version of a despotic regime. This turned out to be prophetic.

Under the Social Democrats in Georgia, the starvation of the cities by embittered peasants which characterized the period of war Communism in Russia never took place.

A decade later, it took the full power of the Russian Soviet state to subdue Georgian peasants when the horrors of collectivization were imposed on this country.

The urban proletariat

Let’s turn now from the peasants to the urban working class.

Today it is widely accepted that without free and independent trade unions, a society cannot truly be free. The right of workers to join and form trade unions is part of international law thanks to the core conventions of the International Labour Organisation.

In Soviet Russia, where the industrial proletariat was, in theory, the masters of their own state, free and independent trade unions were gradually crushed. Trotsky, who had successfully led the Red Army to victory in the civil war, strongly believed in the militarization of labour. He wanted to form highly disciplined “labour armies” which would work much as the Red Army did. And in his vision there was no place for trade unions other than as a transmission belt for instructions from the state and party leadership down to the workers.

This idea was quite an extreme one even for the Bolsheviks and was the subject of an extensive and prolonged debate within their party. In the end, Trotsky’s vision of a country free of self-organized workers, in which things like strikes could never take place, prevailed. It was not until the very late 1980s that workers in Russia were able to once again go on strike, or form independent trade unions.

In Social Democratic Georgia, it was a completely different situation. Unions which had only emerged in the country a decade or so earlier, began to thrive under the Social Democrats. They wielded considerable influence, including successfully pushing to for the recognition of their right to strike, and this became Article 38 of the Georgian Constitution.

They did have strikes, many of them, which were a constant source of tension with foreign occupiers such as the British, who could not fully understand how striking workers, red flags and even soviets – workers councils – were compatible with democracy.

But they were compatible, and the Georgian trade unions working together with their government were able to protect workers against cost of living increases, to ensure that basic foods were available to them at low cost, and so on. Because of their cooperation, the number of strikes began to diminish – not because, as in Soviet Russia they were illegal, but because they became unnecessary.

The cooperatives

Side by side with powerful and independent trade unions, Georgia under the Social Democratic government saw a real flourishing of the cooperative movement.

Cooperatives had come into existence in Georgia by 1867, fifty years before the revolution which toppled tsarism. Georgians read the works of the Frenchman Charles Fourier and Robert Owen, the pioneering British industrialist who is often seen as an founding father of the cooperative movement, and consumer cooperatives sprang up across the country. The Georgian cooperatives suffered severely during the first world war, but grew rapidly once Georgia became an independent state. There were both consumer and producer cooperatives, there were cooperative bookshops and restaurants and sausage factories, glass works, soap making plants, and much more. According to Kautsky, they were nearly all quite successful businesses. In the end a national cooperative bank was founded.

And while Marxists were often quite skeptical of the cooperative movement, even Kautsky was forced to admit that he was impressed.

In Soviet Russia, cooperatives also grew during the first years of Bolshevik rule, but as with trade unions, they could not be independent of the party and state. In Georgia, the cooperatives, like the trade unions and the political parties, were pillars of civil society. In Russia, they were just another arm of an increasingly powerful and centralised state.

The national question

If I am painting a picture of Georgia as a paradise, let me stop here, for that would not be accurate. Georgia under the Social Democrats suffered from many problems, including constant economic crises, and I want to focus on two of the more problematic areas of the history of independent Georgia.

The first of these is what Marxists always referred to as the “national question”.

The Georgian Social Democrats believed in the rights of ethnic minorities. Article 14 of the Georgian Constitution made this very clear:

“It is forbidden to bring any obstacle to the free social development, economic and cultural, of the ethnical minorities of Georgia, especially to the teaching in their mother language and the interior management of their own culture.”

Over the course of eight more articles, the Social Democrats laid out their vision of ethnic and linguistic minorities with full rights. In this they were not only acting in accordance with socialist principles, but with the zeitgeist of the post-war era, particularly US President Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points. Everyone, including Lenin and the Bolsheviks, now supported the rights of peoples to self-determination, and the rights of national minorities within multinational states.

But the multicultural paradise proposed by the Georgian Constitution was not to be as it clashed with a very different reality on the ground.

Within only a few months of declaring independence, Georgia found itself at war with Armenia. And the south western corner of the country declared independence, calling itself the “South Western Caucasian Republic”. The South Ossetian region became the focus of considerable unrest, due both to ethnic and class conflicts. And Abkhazia found itself both calling on Georgia to help it resist Russian aggression, but also at one point welcoming the very same Russians.

These disputes have led some historians to refer to a kind of “Georgian imperialism” but the reality is more complicated than that.

Take for example, the “South Western Caucasian Republic”. A close look at this revealed a government that was committed to full equality for all ethnic groups within its territory – which sounds very liberal – except for the Armenians. That gives a clue to what was really behind this separatist group, who turned out to be representatives of Turkey in the region. This eventually became quite clear and the British occupying forces eventually accepted that the Georgian government, and not the pro-Turkish, Armenian-hating separatists, deserved to control Batumi.

Or the example of Georgia’s territorial dispute with Armenia in 1918. On the surface, it can look like Georgia was behaving badly, but again a closer look reveals that the Armenians suffered from serious illusions about the nature of the post-war world. Having supported the Allies and suffered at the hands of the Turks, they imagined a much larger independent Armenia, and expected Britain and America to support them fully. This turned out not to be the case. The Georgian Social Democrats actually had a good track record as they sought ways to avert conflict with the Armenians.

The case of South Ossetia in particular is a troubling one. Of course the Russians took advantage, then as now, of problems in this region to provoke separatism, but the Georgian Social Democrats were not blameless and in their successful crushing of rebellions in this province engaged in activities that today (and also then) could be considered war crimes.

There was a certain ruthlessness to the way the commanders of the People’s Guard, a proletarian militia closely linked to the leadership of the Social Democratic Party, waged war in this region. And this was used against Georgia in Russian propaganda in the years after 1921.

A democratic foreign policy

In fact the main accusation made by the Soviet Russians, and expressed clearly in Trotsky’s most dishonest book, Between Red and White, concerned the foreign policy of the Georgian government.

The Georgian Democratic Republic was conceived during the First World War. The country was surrounded by hostile powers, primarily a resurgent Turkey and Russia. And it did not matter who ruled Russia, for both the Bolsheviks and the White Russians led by Denikin, rejected Georgia’s claim to independence.

Faced with an existential threat, the Georgian Social Democrats took a pragmatic view of how to defend the country by building alliances first with the Germans and then later with the British. They were attacked by the Bolsheviks for allowing German and British forces to occupy the country. But looking back a century later one has to concede that they probably had little choice.

Interestingly, of the two occupying armies, the Germans appeared to have been the better-behaved ones and they were missed when they left. The British did not cover themselves in glory when they occupied Georgia, were seen as arrogant, though their honour was saved the presence of Oliver Wardrop, a true friend of Georgia, who represented the British state.

The accusation that the Georgian Social Democrats were not neutral in the Russian Civil War, that they supported the Whites, was central to Trotsky’s argument. But it was almost certainly not true. The Social Democratic government was terrified of a Russian invasion and it didn’t matter whether that came from the Red Army of Denikin’s Volunteers. Their hostility to the Whites in the civil war was actually a source of tension with the British.

In 1919 when Denikin’s forces were moving on Georgia, the People’s Guard issued a proclamation that said:

“A new danger is felt today: the dark shadow of General Denikin’s forces overclouds Georgia . . . We will defend ourselves from the terrible power of reaction from the old ‘gendarmerie’ and from slavery . . . The sacred blood spilt by our comrades on the field of battle, in defence of freedom and democracy, compels us comrades, to unite ourselves and closely surrounding the red banner with arms in hand to join battle to the death with the forces of reaction advancing against revolutionary Georgia . . . Away with black reaction. Long live revolutionary democracy! Long live Socialism!”

That’s hardly the kind of proclamation you would expect if the Georgian Mensheviks were allied with Denikin against the Bolsheviks.

The Georgian Social Democrats took the pragmatic view that a tiny country with very limited resources cannot preserve its independence when surrounded by hostile states – unless it has friends. Georgia’s decision then to ally itself to Britain and to seek recognition from the Allied powers and the League of Nations prefigured Georgia’s current efforts to become a full member country of NATO and the European Union.

Those efforts in the end were not enough, and once the Russian civil war had ended, Stalin was able to throw the full might of the Red Army against the independent Georgian republic.

The end of the Georgian Democratic Republic

You know how the story ended. In only a few weeks, the Soviet Russian forces captured Tbilisi, forced the withdrawal of the Georgian government to Batumi and then its evacuation on Allied ships.

The Georgian Social Democrats were defeated, but they did not give up. They maintained a semi-legal existence for the first couple of years under Soviet rule, and eventually in August 1924 launched a rebellion which was swiftly crushed by the Red Army and the Cheka.

Though there was nothing left of the Social Democratic party, a young Chekist, Lavrenty Beria, made his name by the bloody suppression of their remnants in the years that followed. Thousands were killed.

In December 1930, the first prime minister of independent Georgia, Noe Ramishvili, was murdered by a Soviet agent in Paris. Nearly a decade had passed since the defeat of the Georgian Republic by the Russian Red Army, but Stalin still feared the possibility of a Social Democratic return to power.

In the many decades that followed, when Georgia was a province of a massive Soviet empire, the true history of this period could not be told or taught in this country. But it was also forgotten outside of Georgia, as Social Democratic parties moved on, and people gradually accepted the permanence of Soviet rule in this country.

Today, as we approach the 100th anniversary of Georgian independence, it is worth remembering that for three short years, there was a country here in the borderlands between Russia and Turkey, where a Social Democratic Party tried to create a new kind of society based on social justice and freedom.

It was an experiment in democratic socialism, and in many ways it was an impressive success.

When Ethel Snowden returned from her visit to Georgia in 1920 she was asked by English journalists to comment on what she had seen. The Georgians, she told them, “have set up what is the most perfect socialism in Europe.”

The Georgian Experiment was crushed and then forgotten. But it deserves to be remembered and studied and learned from – both here in Georgia and around the world.

Another world was possible, as the Georgian Social Democrats proved.

And another world is possible today too.

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Liveblog: New Scientist Live, London

14:41

Coming up next: Monica Grady on Rosetta’s Legacy.  Monica is a space scientist at the Open University.

Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko on 3 August 2014.
Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko on 3 August 2014.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

14:15

When Arabic science changed the world – with Jim Al-Khalili.

The House of Wisdom was a real place - in Baghdad - where science was done.
The House of Wisdom was a real place – in Baghdad – where science was done.

Between the fall of the Roman Empire and the Renaissance, according to this Baghdad-born scientist, Islamic civilization did more than just preserve the memory of Greek achievements.

They also broke new ground, including the invention of algebra.

Only at the very, very end of the talk, he addressed the question of why the golden age of “Arabic science” cam to an end — by saying that, well, civilizations just decline, and the baton is passed.

11:30

No, not an "amazing" coincidence.
No, not an “amazing” coincidence.

Robert Matthews, What are the chances?

From a 19th century short story that seemed to anticipate the sinking of the Titanic to newspaper reports about double-yolked eggs (trillion to one chance!), Matthews gave a wide-ranging, sometimes difficult, talk about probability.

He did give away one very easy way to win money off our friends, but I won’t reveal it here.

 

 

11:25

No, this not what velociraptors looked like, probably.
No, this not what velociraptors looked like, probably.

Darren Naish: What dinosaurs really looked like.  This was the first lecture I attended and I loved it.  Naish started by showing how dinosaurs are conventionally portrayed by artists — starting with the skeleton and then “shrink wrapping” a skin around them.  We now know it’s a little more complicated than that, and in addition to have muscle, fat, etc, they likely had feathers and lots of other, weirder, stuff.  If the rest of New Scientist Live is this good, I’m going to enjoy these next few days …

11:15

I don’t normally do this, but this promises to be a very interesting four days, so I thought I’d share.  I’m attending the New Scientist Live event at Excel London, where there are four theatres and a main stage, and dozens of exhibitors.  I stopped by Rentokil’s “Pestaurant” this morning, which offered up — for free — snacks made from bugs.  If I hadn’t had that croissant earlier, I might have been tempted.

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Day 1: A whiff of fascism in Cleveland

I arrived in Philadelphia last night, just in time to catch Donald Trump’s acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention.

Though I have to confess that after the first four hours of his speech (or at least it felt that long, maybe it was only an hour), I nodded off.

But not before I caught these sentences:

A number of these reforms that I will outline tonight will be opposed by some of our nation’s most powerful special interests. That is because these interests have rigged our political and economic system for their exclusive benefit.

Big business, elite media and major donors are lining up behind the campaign of my opponent because they know she will keep our rigged system in place. They are throwing money at her because they have total control over everything she does. She is their puppet, and they pull the strings.

On the one hand, you might think there’s not much wrong with this.  Some Sanders supporters might even say similar things.

We’re all against the privileged elite, against big money in politics, etc.  But Trump is using a very specific language to describe those elites and how they operate.

It is the language of fascism.  And specifically of its national socialist variety.  And this is because it imagines  a world with secret rulers who manipulate others with their money.  That ruling cabal goes un-named by Donald Trump, but just as the dog can hear a particular kind of whistle, so the fascist understands who those “special interests” are.

Not convinced that this is a classic Nazi image?  Have a look at these examples from Nazi propaganda:

jewishpuppeteers

 

Is Donald Trump an anti-Semite?  Probably not.

But he is reviving a classic anti-Jewish trope, the notion of a powerful, secretive ruling cabal that owns and controls non-Jewish politicians just as a puppeteer controls his puppets.

If Trump had made those remarks in the context of a liberal, inclusive and anti-racist speech, one would hesitate to say anything.  After all, it may simply have been a poor choice of words.

But it wasn’t a liberal and anti-racist speech — it was the most racist and reactionary speech given at a national political convention in the United States in living memory.

There was more than a whiff of fascism in it.

I worry for America.

Trade unions in the Middle East: Opening remarks at the Svensson Prize panel

Last week the International Trade Union Confederation released its annual Global Rights Index. The Index reviews the state of workers rights in 141 countries. “The Middle East and North Africa,” it reported, “were again the worst region for working people.”

In the section on Libya, the ITUC reports that “an attempt was made on the life of Nermin Al-Sharif, head of the Libyan Dockers’ and Seafarers’ Union.” Nermin “was at the wheel of a car on the outskirts of Benghazi when the occupants of two vehicles began pursuing her and shooting at her. Hit by a bullet, the trade unionist was unable to avoid crashing. She had to be hospitalised. This is the second attempt to murder Nermin Al-Sharif. Like many other human rights activists, she was targeted by fanatics.”

Referring to Bahrain, the ITUC reports on “the guilty verdict issued against the” leaders of the teachers union Mahdi Abu Dheeb and Jalila al-Salman “for allegedly attempting to overthrow the ruling system by force and inciting hatred of the regime.” Jalila was released in 2012, while Mahdi remained in prison to serve out his sentence and has only recently been freed. According to the ITUC report, both Mahdi and Jalila were tortured in detention.

And in the section on Egypt, the ITUC discusses the Centre for Trade Unions and Workers’ Services, which denounced a renewed attempt to muzzle independent trade unions. The CTUWS and its leader Kamal Abbas have long been targetted by the regime – and its predecessors – for their unshakeable commitment to independent trade unionism.

LabourStart has been involved in all three countries, launching global online campaigns in support of these brave individuals and their unions.

In 2012, working together with the ITUC, we campaigned demanding that the Egyptian government drop the charges against Kamal Abbas, who was accused of “insulting a public officer”. Over 7,000 trade unionists around the world supported that campaign.

That same year, our campaign calling on the Bahrain government to free Mahdi and Jalila got the support of more than 11,000 union members, and we hope that this contributed to the decision by the government to free Jalila.

And in November 2015, working together with the International Transport Workers Federation, we launched a campaign demanding justice for Nermin and calling on the Libyan government to take steps to protect the lives of trade unionists and human rights defenders.

All three campaigns are bound up with the story of the “Arab Spring” which began in 2011.

The revolutions in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and elsewhere have had mixed results. We are all thrilled that our brothers and sisters in the Tunisian trade union movement UGTT shared the Nobel Peace Prize last year. The success of the democratic revolution in Tunisia is due in no small part to the trade union movement there.

I have no doubt that in the coming months and years we will see the ideals of the Arab Spring come to life again in Egypt, Bahrain and Libya — and that the independent trade unions in those countries will play central roles in the battle for democracy. People like Nermin, Mahdi and Kamal, who have been jailed, shot at, harassed and denounced by authoritarian regimes and fanatics, will be free to do their jobs as trade union leaders — and recognized for their heroic efforts in the fight for democracy and social justice.

I am glad that LabourStart, working together with our partners in the international trade union movement, has been able to play a small role in all this.

And I can promise to our brothers and sisters here today, to Nermin, Mahdi and Kamal, that we will stand by your side in the struggles to come.

Thank you.

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The Arthur Svensson International Prize for Trade Union Rights – my speech in Oslo

leif-arthur-eric 020

It is a great honour to be here today and to receive the Arthur Svensson International Prize for Trade Union Rights on behalf of LabourStart. I want to thank the union Industri Energi for awarding the Prize to us this year.

It is truly humbling to read the names of winners in previous years. The people and organisations you have selected represent the very best of the trade union movement, people who are often on the front lines of the fight for democracy and social justice.

In previous years the focus of the prize has been on individuals and unions which have taken great risks and sometimes suffered enormously for the “crime” of defending workers’ rights.

Mahdi Abu Dheeb, who together with Jalila al-Salman, was jailed and tortured by a government which was willing to go to enormous lengths to prevent the spread of the “Arab Spring” to Bahrain.

Napoléon Gómez, the leader of Los Mineros in Mexico, a victim of repression and death threats who is forced to live in exile from his country.

Russian trade union leader Valentin Urusov, jailed on fabricated charges when his real crime was to stand up for workers.

We who campaign in support of people like Mahdi, Napoleon and Valentin here in places like Oslo and London take few personal risks in doing so.

We are unlikely to be jailed and tortured, or shot at or forced into exile.

We live in countries with strong trade union movements, with a democratic tradition where human rights are largely respected.

We are not on the front lines in the way that our brothers and sisters in Bahrain, Mexico or Russia are.

And yet, the role we play in building global solidarity and in particular with our online campaigns, is critical.

LabourStart was founded 18 years ago, a time when few trade unions fully grasped the importance of the internet.

Today, I think that pretty much everyone understands that the Internet has changed completely how we organize, how we campaign, how we fight.

But LabourStart, from the very beginning, this was not just about the technology.

It was about internationalism. About global solidarity. About a world where the differences between social classes are more important than the differences between nations.

In a globalized economy, we made the case a globalized labour movement.

At first, we struggled to be heard.

But over the years, what we offer to the international trade union movement is increasingly understood and valued.

When it comes to campaigning in defense of workers rights we bring two things to the table: a platform and a network.

The platform is the web-based ActNOW system, which is a bespoke system we use to make it easy for trade unionists working in any language to support our campaigns.

The network is at its core a mailing list of just under 137,000 names and addresses of trade unionists who are prepared to support our campaigns. 88,000 of them are on our English list and the other 49,000 on dozens of other lists in all the major and several minor languages.

So how does it work?

Unions come to us with problems and we offer solutions.

For a number of reasons we work mostly with the global union federations and the International Trade Union Confederation. But we also work with national trade union centres, national unions, and in some cases, even local unions and pro-union NGOs.

Those organisations come to us with issues like an employer who has sacked union officials for doing their jobs, or a government which has jailed union leaders, or — in the worst case scenario — cases where trade unionists have lost their lives and the demand is simple justice.

Working together with our union partners, we figure out what the message of the campaign needs to be, who the target of our messages will be, and how we can achieve our goal.

Once this is all agreed upon, we put the campaign online and begin translating it. Typically, a campaign will appear in 15 – 20 languages, all the translations done by volunteers.

Anyone visiting LabourStart’s website will learn about the campaign, and it will appear on many other union websites automatically. We make sure it gets known on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and other social networks.

And if that’s all we do, the campaign will be a failure and very few people will know about it.

We have learned over the years that the only effective way to get the word out about these campaigns is email.

Email, that old, low-tech, boring communications tool turns out to be the killer app of online campaigning.

When we launch a campaign targetting a company or government, within minutes of our email message going out, the first few hundred messages of protest will have been delivered.

Within a day, we could be looking at 5,000 or more messages.

Never before in the long history of the international trade union movement have we had a tool like this.

That’s great, you may be thinking, but does it work? Do sacked trade unionists get their jobs back? Do jailed union leaders get released? Is anyone listening to our protests?

The answer is yes, sometimes. Not all the time. There is no guarantee that a campaign will work. But our campaigns succeed often enough that we actually published a short book a couple of years ago called Campaigning Online and Winning where we talked about dozens of successful LabourStart campaigns.

It’s probably time to do an updated version of that book — and to translate it into Norwegian.

And I should say a word about what we mean by winning.

We don’t mean “sending a lot of protest messages”. I don’t care if we send 1,000 messages or 20,000 messages — what matters is only this: did we get the result we were looking for?

There are campaigns we have won with very few messages sent. And campaigns we’ve lost despite having mobilized very large numbers of people.

That doesn’t mean numbers don’t matter. They do. It certainly helps to have more people involved in a campaign.

But other factors play a role as well.

The central one is the role played by people on the ground. We win campaigns when the workers on the ground, the ones we are fighting for and with, show determination and grit.

The courage of so many of the workers we campaign with is truly inspiring. Our role is clearly secondary — it is their heroic struggle that wins the day.

Which brings me here today, speaking to you in Oslo at this wonderful event.

I want to speak about your role, the role of Norwegian trade unionists in the work we do at LabourStart.

More than a decade ago, Espen Loken launched the Norwegian version of LabourStart. It was one of our very first versions in a language other than English and it flourished. We tapped into a couple of things that made it a success.

First of all, Norwegian trade unionists have been using computers and the Internet for a long time. So it was relatively easy, even some years ago, to reach large numbers of workers in this country using the Internet.

And second, we tapped into a long and proud history of international solidarity in the Norwegian labour movement. On one of my visits to Oslo — I think it was my last one — I was invited by one of your unions to speak at a full-day event on international solidarity. It was part of the union’s regular congress. I can’t imagine unions in most countries doing that sort of thing, and giving international work such prominence.

As a result of our work here in Norway, we now have 2,700 trade unionists from your country on our mailing list. Every campaign we do is quickly translated into Norwegian and every mass mailing goes out to those 2,700 people.

I’m tempted to say, thanks very much. If only we had such a large group of committed trade unionists in every country.

And yet — we could do better.

The unions affiliated to the LO claim 900,000 members. YS claims 220,000 members. These are extraordinarily high numbers considering that Norway only has about five million people.

But it also tells me that the potential for LabourStart here is much greater than the 2,700 people we currently talk to and who are involved in our campaigns.

It’s important to remember that only a fraction of the people on our mailing list actually sign up to support each campaign.

Our most successful campaign at the moment in Norway is one demanding justice for the murdered Italian researcher Giulio Regeni, who was killed in Egypt while doing research into independent trade unionism.

That campaign got the support of 185 people in Norway. Which means that over 2,500 Norwegian trade unionists who are on our mailing list have not yet supported the campaign. And another million or so organized workers in Norway, members of trade unions here, have probably never heard of the campaign.

Imagine if our mailing list consisted of, say, 10% of the members of Norwegian unions. The 10% who care the most about international solidarity.

Instead of having 2,700 people as part of our global network, we’d have 110,000. Instead of sending 185 messages of protest to the Egyptian government from here, we’d have sent over 7,500.

Is that overly ambitious?

I don’t think so.

When we started LabourStart back in March, 1998, there was no staff, no network, no resources. It was just an idea.

It grew slowly, year on year, and today we have the capacity to rapidly deliver thousands of messages of protest by email to targetted governments and employers.

But we can do so much more.

Our global solidarity conferences — the most recent ones were in Toronto, Berlin, Sydney and Istanbul — show that we can also work outside of cyberspace.

I think we’ve made great progress, and we’ve won some inspiring victories, but I’m not content and not resting on our laurels.

Looking back at the last 18 years, seeing what’s been achieved and how far we’ve come, my conclusion is a simple one.

This is only the beginning. Now, let’s start the real work.

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For this activist, the battle of Berlin is over

Larry Sanders and Eric Lee at a campaign event in London.
Larry Sanders and Eric Lee at a campaign event in London.

I have just left the Global Convention of Democrats Abroad here in Berlin where I represented Senator Bernie Sanders.

I was not a delegate, or elector, and hold no office in Democrats Abroad. But I was there to ensure that the best possible delegation was elected to represent our political revolution and I’m pleased with the results.

Not only did we manage to get Bernie’s brother Larry Sanders elected to the first position with nearly unanimous support, but we elected a whole team of excellent campaigners and activists. I’m particularly proud of the election of two women, one an old friend (Penny Schantz) and the other who was one of the key volunteers in London for Bernie (Kari Mosleh). I am sorry that of the 211 people who proposed themselves to be Sanders delegates from Democrats Abroad, only 9 will be going to Philadelphia in July to represent our campaign.

Among those 202 disappointed people I now have to count myself. This morning I was defeated in voting to be an alternate.

I won’t go into all the gory detail of what happened, except to say this.

Inside the Sanders Presidential Preference Group which I attended, I saw candidates rise to make their case, talking about themselves, or what they did for the campaign, or their political vision. I did not see people rising to attack other candidates, to question their integrity or make accusations against them.

Except in one case.

Over the course of the last several days, I was repeatedly accused, publicly and in private conversations, from the floor and in the corridors, of the worst possible crime.

That crime was denying the existing leadership of Democrats Abroad, meaning the people who gathered together in Berlin this week, the right to choose the 9 people who would go to represent the 24,000 people who voted for Bernie Sanders in the Global Presidential Primary.

In the Delegate Selection Plan drafted by Democrats Abroad, campaigns are given the right to review the lists of self-nominated candidates, and to submit a shortlist. The campaign is obligated to submit at least two names for every open position so that in the end, the leaders of Democrats Abroad still get a say in the matter.

Instead of submitting the minimum requirement of 18 names, we submitted 34. It goes without saying that many people were disappointed not to be included on that list.

Anticipating that, I wrote to everyone who had submitted their names, explaining what we had done and why.

I’m pleased to say that I received many emails thanking me for my transparency and fairness. I did not hear a single complaint from the self-nominated candidates who were excluded from the shortlist.

That shortlist met the requirement for gender balance, and 60% of the names on it met the affirmative action criteria as well. It included young and old people, Democrats Abroad veterans and people who have never been active in the organization.

Our idea was to ensure that some of the latter group, newcomers who the existing leaders of Democrats Abroad would not know, would go as delegates to Philadelphia. Their chances were increased because of the shortlist.

And as Larry Sanders just told the participants in the convention this morning, that is what is normally done in political organizations, and is particularly needed by insurgent campaigns like ours.

Unfortunately, not everyone in Democrats Abroad shared that view, and some began spreading rumors which had no basis in fact, and which served to cast the campaign in general and me in particular in the worst possible light.

Those attacks began well before we gathered in Berlin and picked up steam over the last few days despite our best efforts to clear the air.

They reached a peak this morning when the time came for the small number of electors who showed up for an early morning session to vote in the final round for an alternate.

I was given an opportunity for speak for one minute, and used it to say what I’d done for the campaign.

The winning candidate also had a minute and used all of it to denounce me for being involved in the creation of a shortlist of candidates.

And in the midst of all this nastiness, several people worked very hard openly and behind the scenes to clear up the rumors and encourage people to vote for me. In particular I want to thank Larry Sanders, Penny Schantz, Travis Mooney, Rob and Sanja Carolina. Your support and friendship have gotten me through a difficult few days.

In the end, the delegation we are sending of Sanders supporters to Philadelphia is a good one and I’m proud to have played a role in ensuring that happened. I’m even more proud of having played a role in mobilizing thousands of people in London and around the world since June 2015, winning a spectacular victory in the Global Presidential Primary in March this year.

I expect to be in Philadelphia for the convention in one capacity or another, and look forward to meeting many of you there.

The old politics may have won a small victory in Berlin this morning. As Bernie Sanders constantly reminds us, it is a rigged system.

But I am confident that we are strong and we are growing, and the political revolution Bernie speaks about is a reality.

The struggle continues.

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After Wisconsin, can Sanders still win?

This article appears in today’s edition of the Morning Star.


Bernie Sanders’ victory in the Wisconsin Democratic Primary this week is being spun by the mainstream media as “too little, too late”. The consensus among pundits is that Hillary Clinton’s delegate lead is so huge that there is simply no way for the democratic socialist senator from Vermont to catch up.

That has been the case for every single one of Sanders’ recent victories, starting with his wins in Idaho and Utah on 22 March. Those two victories, in two small states, went barely noticed even if they were shocking in their scale. In Idaho, Sanders took 78% of the vote and in Utah he won over 79%. His supporters reacted by donating a staggering amount of money online, making it the third month in a row that Sanders has out-raised Clinton. But the consensus among experts was that he didn’t have a chance. Continue reading

Haufenweise schwarze Schafe

This article appears in this week’s edition of Jungle World.


Die britische Labour Party und ihr neuer Vorsitzender Jeremy Corbyn haben ein Problem mit dem Antisemitismus in den eigenen Reihen. Das wird zwar öffentlich kritisiert, aber ihre politischen Prioritäten liegen anderswo. Continue reading