Category: Solidarity

Labour needs a new leader – and not one of the usual suspects

This article appeared in Solidarity.


After Labour’s abysmal showing in the Newark by-election, which closely followed on its poor showing in the European elections, it is becoming increasingly clear that the party faces defeat yet again in the 2015 general election. That would mean another five years of Tory rule, something which would be a disaster for working people in this country.

There’s considerable discontent and unease in Labour’s ranks, and disappointment at Ed Miliband’s role as party leader, making the question of who should lead Labour into the election a crucial one. Yet there are very few good suggestions.

Tony Blair seems to want to return to political life, but that’s not going to happen. Gordon Brown already proved himself a completely ineffective campaigner when he lost to Cameron in 2010. Ed’s brother David has wandered off to do good work for the International Rescue Committee. There seems to be no one around to step in and provide leadership at a time when it is sorely needed.

But let’s try to imagine for just a moment what the ideal Labour leader might look like.

First of all, if Labour is to be in touch with the party’s working-class roots, to re-capture those communities from UKIP, Labour should choose someone who shares those roots, who comes out of the working class.

Second, Labour needs to rebuild its links — already quite tenuous — with the trade union movement. The 54 TUC-affiliated unions have nearly six million members, all of them potential voters, and a leader who could appeal to them specifically would do well in attracting many of them back to the party that bears their name. That leader would also need to appeal to the many millions of working people who are not currently in trade unions, and who often do not vote — the people who feel excluded, disengaged and ignored.

Third, Labour needs to understand how deeply disillusioned voters are with the political class. Its next leader shouldn’t come out of the ranks of Labour’s contingent in Westminster. Labour needs a fresh face, someone who’s not been an MP or Minister.

And finally, the time has come — indeed, it is long overdue — for Labour to have a female leader. Nearly 40 years have passed since the Conservatives accepted that a woman could lead a party (albeit with disastrous results for the country). Why has Labour in opposition and in power always been led by those who are “stale, pale and male”, as I once heard them described?

The person who I heard that from more than a decade ago was running the TUC’s innovative experiment in trade union revitalisation — the Organising Academy. Her name was Frances O’Grady and today she’s the first female general secretary of the TUC in its history.

I think she should also be first female leader of the Labour Party, and the sooner the better.

I doubt very much if Frances would want to do this.

And yet she meets all the criteria I mentioned above. She’s a committed trade unionist, on the Left, articulate, experienced and a proven leader.

If anyone could re-energize the Labour Party, she’s the one.

People who can’t bear the thought of David Cameron being re-elected Prime Minister in 2015 should be prepared to take risks, to do what’s not been done before.

That’s why Labour supporters should launch a ‘Draft Frances’ movement today.

 

Unions and smartphones: Time to get it right

The wrong way, an improvement, and the right way to do responsive design for union websites.
The wrong way, an improvement, and the right way to do responsive design for union websites.

In recent weeks, I’ve gotten a few requests for information about a survey LabourStart did a couple of years ago. It’s odd because we’ve not done anything to publicize this. So I asked one of those who wrote to me where they’d heard about it.

It turned out it was on a website for business people, in an article about how advanced unions were in their use of the net. Author Jessica Miller-Merrell warned companies that “While HR is slow to adopt and understand social media, unions on the other hand are very open to using this online technology.”

I think anyone who has spent time working with unions and new media will smile reading that sentence.

Because even if we’ve managed to get a website for nearly every union, we still lag far behind, and run the risk of disappearing completely from the online world if we don’t catch up.

I’m thinking specifically of the problem known in the IT world as “responsive design”.

What this basically means is that every website should render correctly on every device, regardless of screen size.

There should be no need to scroll horizontally, or squint at tiny letters, or any of the other problems that might come up when trying to view a website on a phone or tablet.

If a union does this right, if its website appears correctly on a smartphone, it may not even need a dedicated app. There are huge advantages to this, as apps need to be written to work on specific operating systems (ones that work on Apple devices won’t work on Android phones) and apps can be expensive to create.

If a union were to embrace responsive design, it would already have what is sometimes called a “web app” — which is essentially a website that works correctly on small screens.

This is important because increasing numbers of people access our movement’s websites on smartphones and tablets.

16% of the visitors to LabourStart last month came on small screen devices, and 19% of the visitors to our online campaigns were on such devices as well.

This is probably because people often visit a website by clicking on a link in an email message.

As anyone who’s been on a bus in the UK in the last few years knows, millions of people now routinely access their email on their phones.

The notion of responsive design for the web was first raised in a groundbreaking article by Ethan Marcotte in May 2010.

I doubt if any trade union communication officers read it then and I doubt if many of them are familiar with Marcotte’s arguments even now.

Here is a nutshell is what he said:

“Rather than tailoring disconnected designs to each of an ever-increasing number of web devices, we can treat them as facets of the same experience. We can design for an optimal viewing experience, but embed standards-based technologies into our designs to make them not only more flexible, but more adaptive to the media that renders them. In short, we need to practice responsive web design.”

So four years after his article, and with many thousands of websites now taking on board his arguments, how do union websites in the UK rate?

Can our members correctly use their union’s website on a smartphone or tablet?

Let’s have a look.

The TUC website gets it right, sort-of. Viewed on a small screen, it correctly displays just one column. Unfortunately, that column is essentially a menu of everything on the site. To see the latest news, which is prominent on the full-screen version, you need to scroll down quite a bit.

The GMB works pretty much like the TUC website, with the same problems.

The RMT to its credit does a better job, showing not a menu, but the main news story on top of the page.

But UNISON gets it all wrong. Imagine if someone printed out the UNISON home page as you’d see it on your desktop PC — and then cuts off the upper left corner, taking about a fifth of the page width. That’s what you’ll see on your phone. Click on the link to News, and you’ll see just the first few words — you need to keep scrolling left and right to see the whole thing.

Look at the websites of Unite, the CWU, PCS, NASUWT and NUT and you see the same thing: a site that just doesn’t work correctly on a small screen device. Do members of these unions not use smartphones and tablets?

Some unions, like UNISON, have invested heavily in apps for smartphones. UNISON’s app, for example, works on Apple’s iOS devices, Android phone and tables, and even on Blackberry phones (which have an absolutely tiny market share these days).

Why invest in expensive apps when a web app can do pretty much the same thing at a fraction of the price?

Why reinvent the wheel when a union’s existing website can be fairly easily adapted using the principles of responsive design?

As our union websites because an increasingly important part of how we communicate with members and with the outside world, it’s essential that we get this right.

Four years after Ethan Marcotte’s call to arms, most unions are still lagging far behind.


This article appears in Solidarity.

Welcoming China’s unions back into the family?

This article appears in the current issue of Solidarity.

At the end of March, the International Labour Organisation’s Bureau for Workers Activities (known as ILO-ACTRAV) and the All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU) signed a Memorandum of Understanding “to promote Trade unions South-South Cooperation in the Asia- Pacific region”.

The Director-General of the ILO, Guy Ryder, said “we need to find a way which so that the ACFTU can work more closely with other parts of the international trade union movement, sharing common objectives.”

Ryder is a former General Secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation, which has decided to invite the ACFTU to attend its upcoming World Congress in Berlin in May.

These two events illustrate the fact that the trade union leadership in much of the developed world now seems keen on putting the past behind us and welcoming China’s trade unions back into our “global family”.

This is the culmination of efforts going back several years, and the British TUC has played a prominent — indeed, enthusiastic — part in this process.

I think that this is a problem for the trade union movement because the officially sanctioned, legal trade unions in China are not trade unions in the sense that we understand them in a country like the UK.

Historically, the ACFTU differed not one iota from, say, the “All-Union Central Council of Trade Unions” in the USSR. In fact, it was set up based on the Soviet model.

And that model had nothing to do with worker representation, collective bargaining, or class struggle.

In the Soviet model, unions were organs of the Communist Party and the state, designed to enforce workplace discipline and provide some welfare benefits to workers.

I think few would deny that the Chinese unions fit that description perfectly, at least up until a few years ago.

For that reason, for many decades the ACFTU was quite isolated in the international trade union movement. Like trade unions in Cuba, North Korea or Vietnam, it was seen as a “state labour front” — and not a union.

What has changed in the last few decades is that China has embraced the free market. And as a result, there is the sudden re-emergence of class struggle.

Strikes occur every day, all over the country, and they are often allowed to run their course — winning workers improved wages and working conditions.

The Communist Party seems to have decided that it is best to let workers let off steam this way, rather than attempting to suppress every strike and protest.

So strikes are tolerated — but it stops there. The regime does not tolerate, and cannot tolerate, the emergence of truly free and independent trade unions controlled by their members.

The formation of a nationwide Chinese version of “Solidarity” is a nightmare scenario for the ruling Party elite.

In most cases, the strikes taking place are local with very little nationwide coordination. The organisations set up by workers spontaneously tend to fade away fairly quickly.

In some cases, local officials of the ACFTU unions support the workers or even lead them.

But the ACFTU as a whole remains firmly in the grasp of the Communist Party.

Its leader, Li Jianguo, is a member of the Politburo of the Party. His entire political career spanning some 40 years has been as a Party official. He was given the task of the leading the ACFTU in early 2013.

Just to emphasize — Li rose up through the ranks of the Communist Party, not the unions. As a very senior Party leader, he was brought in to take charge of the ACFTU. This is typical of the authoritarian, top-down style of Chinese politics — and trade unionism.

Just before his elevation to the leadership of the Chinese unions, Li faced public accusations of favouritism. He was accused with promoting his nephew to a plum position.

The website of the ACFTU speaks a great deal about how the organisation protects workers:

“The fundamental task of the Chinese trade unions is to carry out the various social functions of the trade unions in line with the guiding principle of reflecting and safeguarding concrete interests of the workers and staff members in a better way while safeguarding the overall interests of the people throughout the whole country, and, united with the broad masses of workers and staff members, strive for the realization of China’s socialist modernization. The major social functions of the Chinese trade unions are as follows: (1) to protect the legitimate interests and democratic rights of the workers and staff members, (2) to mobilize and organize the workers and staff members to take part in the construction and reform and accomplish the tasks in the economic and social development, (3) to represent and organize the workers and staff members to take part in the administration of the State and social affairs and to participate in the democratic management of enterprises, (4) to educate the workers and staff members to constantly improve their ideological and moral qualities and raise their scientific and cultural levels.”

That was quite a mouthful, but the operative phrases emphasize the ACFTU’s role regarding the “overall interests of the people” rather than its own members, and its striving for the country’s “socialist modernization”. It includes in its job description the accomplishing of tasks and taking part in construction and reform — all of this being code for supporting the Communist Party.

The Orwellian language about improving the “ideological and moral qualities” of its members reflect the ACFTU’s origins as a Soviet-style state labour front.

But it may be a bit more complicated than that today.

The authoritative — and fiercely independent — China Labour Bulletin offers a nuanced view of the ACFTU:

“The ACFTU is China’s sole official union. It has traditionally been an adjunct of the Chinese Communist Party and government, serving as a ‘bridge’ between workers and management in state-owned enterprises. With the economic reforms and development of the private economy over the last two decades the ACTFU’s role has been blurred. It has sought to unionize the private sector but thus far has failed to encourage the development of genuinely representative grassroots unions. It has adopted a top-down approach, imposing unions and collective contracts on enterprises without consulting the workers themselves. However CLB believes the ACFTU, especially at the local level, can play a positive role in the future development of grassroots unions.”

An example of that kind of local initiative could be seen earlier this week, as the FT and others reported that China’s “normally reticient official union” has been “involved in at least one of three protests that have erupted at [Walmart] stores slated for closure this month.”

While there may well be local examples of ACFTU bureaucrats taking the workers’ side, no one seriously views people like ACFTU leader Li Jianguo as anything but a Communist Party hack. And a corrupt one at that.

The vast majority of trade unionists in Britain or elsewhere in the developed world know very little about the Chinese trade union movement, and presumably trust their leaders’ decisions to engage with, or not engage with, the ACFTU.

The issue is unlikely to be addressed at a congress of the TUC, or even at the ITUC’s World Congress in Berlin.

And yet it should be — for two reasons.

First of all, because in order to genuinely help Chinese workers, the international trade union movement should fully support real unions, democratically controlled by their members — and this includes first and foremost the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions.

The principle of trade union independence (from both employers and the state) should be defended.

Chinese workers are not helped by pandering to the likes of Li Jianguo and his Communist Party bosses.

And second, by blurring the distinction between state labour fronts and actual trade unions, we lose something of importance.

We lose a sense of who we are, and of what it means to be a trade union.

We don’t need more handshakes and photo-ops in Geneva and Berlin, nor trade unionists flying off on junkets to Beijing to be wined and dined by Communist Party officials.

We need an open and honest discussion of these issues — for the sake of our Chinese brothers and sisters, and for ourselves.

Should male circumcision be banned? A socialist view

This article appears in the current issue of Solidarity and is a response to this article by Camilla Bassi.

Camilla Bassi’s “basic socialist demands” regarding male circumcision have no foundation in Marxist tradition, give legitimacy to racist and anti-Semitic arguments, and are wrong.

Bassi admits to learning only recently about the calls for a ban on male circumcision from an article by Frank Furedi. Furedi refers to a debate in the Nordic countries and Solidarity chose to headline the article with a reference to the “Scandinavian debate”.

This softens the blow, because Scandinavians, after all, are modern, progressive people. Though there’s been a rise in the far Right in some Nordic countries, it’s not like the “ban circumcision” stuff started in Germany. I mean, that would have more than a whiff of anti-Semitism.

But the debate did start in Germany. Not in Scandinavia.

In June 2012 a German court banned male circumcision, and though the court decision was eventually overturned, it made headlines at the time.

Not only did Jewish and Muslim leaders across Europe condemn that ban, but they were joined (according to a piece in the Guardian) by women’s leaders. They opposed the linking of male circumcision to female genital mutilation, which is already banned in some European countries.

The campaigns across Europe for a ban on circumcision are closely linked to calls for a ban on Jewish and Muslim ritual slaughter, which are seen by some as being cruel to animals.

These campaigns, like the calls for a ban on the building of minarets, are rightly seen by Jews and Muslims as racist attacks on their communities.

The one positive thing about these attacks is that in some places, including the UK, they have led to rare displays of unity between Jews and Muslims. (Just Google the phrase “Jews and Muslims unite”.)

Bassi writes that the correct socialist position would place the Left in opposition to those communities.

She calls for “the right of children to bodily integrity; the right of children to the sexual autonomy of their adult life; non-therapeutic, ritual circumcision only be carried out when the person to be circumcised is mature, informed, and able to consent to the procedure.”

Almost as an afterthought, she adds opposition to racism, support for socialism, whatever.

Using the same reasoning, why not also support the ban on kosher and halal slaughter? After all, socialists like all right-thinking people oppose cruelty to animals, right?

And while we’re busy banning these things, why not close down all faith schools, because after all, they’re not teaching children what we’d like them to be taught, and they’re forcing children to accept their parents’ religion? Shouldn’t that decision be reserved for adults who are “mature, informed and able to consent”?

These views – banning male circumcision, banning ritual slaughter of animals, closing down faith schools and so on – have nothing to do with socialist views.

Socialists have always defined religion as a private matter. Socialists defend the freedom of religion, and of course the right of people to have no religion.

But that’s all on the level of theory.

In practice, the European far Right is on the upswing, and Jewish and Muslim communities feel threatened with a new wave of anti-Semitism and racism. Is this really a good time to take a stand against the Jewish and Muslim communities of Europe?

The task of socialists in a debate like this one is clear: defend religious and ethnic minorities from racist attack, and fight anti-Semitism and Islamophobia across Europe.

Turkish trade unionists on trial

DSC_0017
KESK leaders standing outside the main courthouse in Istanbul last week.

I was in Istanbul for three days last week to attend the opening of the trial of Turkish trade union leaders.

My articles on what I saw have begun appearing in a number of places:

Germany:

Global:

UK:

USA:

French language:

  • Andy Funnell has translated one of the articles for LabourStart’s French language blog, here.

North Korea’s Great Terror

Andrey Vyshinsky - prosecutor of the Stalinist show trials.
Andrey Vyshinsky – prosecutor of the Stalinist show trials.

The downfall of Chang Song-thaek, once considered the second most powerful person in North Korea, is a lesson in history for a new generation – and not only in Korea.

The parallels to Soviet history are so striking that one almost wonders if Kim Jong-un read Robert Conquest’s “The Great Terror” – the classic history of the Stalinist purges of the late 1930s.

That’s not an entirely rhetorical question either, as Kim was educated abroad and may well have had access to history books denied to ordinary North Koreans.

In any event, the regime he now heads openly reveres Stalin and is perhaps the only one in the world that does so.

Fidel Castro has criticized Stalin, but also says “He established unity in the Soviet Union. He consolidated what Lenin had begun: party unity.”

People with only a passing acquaintance with Soviet history may be surprised to discover that nearly all the victims of Stalin’s massive purge which peaked in 1937 were not, in fact, oppositionists. Continue reading

Why the left should have nothing to do with Russia Today

This article appears in the current issue of Solidarity.


Thom Hartmann is a prominent left-wing radio broadcaster from the USA. I first came across him when he interviewed me at a conference in Washington and was promptly told by everyone just how prominent he is. He describes himself as a “democratic socialist” and his nationally-syndicated radio show has an estimated 2.75 million listeners.

George Galloway needs no introduction to a a left-wing audience in the UK.

What Hartmann and Galloway have in common is that they host shows on Russia Today (RT), a global satellite television channel that performs the same function for Vladimir Putin as Press TV did (and still does) for the Iranian dictatorship.

Hartmann’s show, “The Big Picture”, typically covers the standard fare of the US left – most recently with reports on how badly Walmart treats its workers, or why Vermont’s socialist senator Bernie Sanders should run for president.

Galloway’s new show on RT is called “Sputnik: Orbiting the world with George Galloway”.

RT uses the language of the mainstream left to cover politics that are fundamentally reactionary and that serve Russian imperial interests.

Of course that’s not how the TV channel describes itself. “RT news covers the major issues of our time for viewers wishing to question more,” says their website, “and delivers stories often missed by the mainstream media to create news with an edge.”

By “news with an edge”, they may sometimes mean that quite literally – and the edge belongs to a Russian bayonet.

For example, according to a timeline published on RT’s website, in 2008, “RT leads the coverage of the conflict in South Ossetia. RT is the only international news network to report from Tskhinvali during the Russia-Georgia War of 2008 and the first to confirm atrocities committed by the Georgian military against the civilian population.”

They were probably the only news network in South Ossetia because they were embedded in the Russian army.

One of RT’s regular shows “exposes the BIG STORIES Mainstream Media dare not touch,” according to their website.

But those stories are invariably ones in which the West, and in particular the USA, comes out looking bad.

When RT turns its attention closer to home, the progressive mask drops rather quickly and the strident tone of late-Stalinist Soviet propaganda comes to the fore.

This week, while “Mainstream Media” reported on the mass street protests in Kiev, RT brought on experts to discuss what was behind the new, giant wave of demonstrations.

One Moscow-based expert came on to explain that while it appeared that the European Union was behind the unrest – for which the United Nations should be called upon to intervene, as the EU was violating Ukraine’s sovereignty – this was not actually the case. The EU, we’re told, is only acting as a proxy for Washington. The real behind-the-scenes players are the National Endowment for Democracy and Freedom House – the same shadowy organizations that brought on the original “Orange Revolution”.

RT can’t enforce a party line, and the speaker that followed – a Russian academic – forcefully disagreed, insisting that it was in fact the EU that was sabotaging Ukrainian sovereignty, and not merely the EU acting as an American proxy.

Both speakers of course agreed that it was Western “interference” that was the source of the trouble.

While the two speakers were “debating” who was more at fault, the news ticker scrolling across the bottom of the screen talked about how protestors in Kiev were throwing rocks at police, how an estimated 100 police officers had been injured so far (no mention of civilian casualties), and how some protestors were using “an unknown gas” to attack the defenders of public order.

The film footage shown again and again was of masked, violent protestors hurling objects at the police, who stood still for the cameras.

It was made abundantly clear to RT’s viewers that the Russian state is not happy with pro-EU demonstrators in Ukraine, and that Mr Putin would be delighted if the Ukrainian leadership would deal with them the way he has dealt with such threats to state security as “Pussy Riot” and the Greenpeace “pirates”.

Let’s be absolutely clear about what RT actually is. This is a state organ of the Putin regime and though it occasionally uses the language of the left (when attacking Russia’s rivals) the one thing consistent about its coverage is its uncritical support of Russian imperialism.

Honest leftists should refuse to have anything to do with RT, shouldn’t watch it, should refuse to be interviewed by it, and certainly should not host shows on it.

Railway workers win in Georgia

This article appeared this week in Solidarity.


Over the course of two days earlier this month, a drama played on the Georgian railways that showed the labour movement at its best.

This has not always been the case in Georgia, a country whose most famous sons in recent times have been Stalin and Beria.

And yet Georgia has a long tradition of working-class struggle, and Georgian labour and social democratic leaders punched far above their weight in the Russian Social Democratic Party and the Second International in the years up to 1917.

That tradition was largely forgotten in the decades following the 1921 Red Army invasion of Georgia.

But there are signs – such as the recent railway strike – of a new vigour among the Georgian trade unionists.

The issues that concerned the “Georgian Railway Workers New Trade Union” (GRWNTU) will be familiar to workers in the UK and elsewhere.

According to Ilia Lezhava, the deputy chairman of the union, those issues included the following demands: “pay for overtime work, increased wages and bonus system based on experience, as well as a return of the 13th pay system by the end of the year.”

The union called for a nationwide strike to begin on Thursday, November 14th, but the railway company did all it could to disrupt the strike and prevent its spread.

While in the capital Tbilisi the strike was solid, in western Georgia, it ran into strong resistance from the employer.

Some key union leaders were uncontactable, and reported that threats were made against them.

As the Georgian Trade Union Confederation (GTUC) reported – in a language reminiscent of an earlier era, “Some of the attendants at the strike were unknown individuals. They were not in uniform, however we knew that they were working for certain structures.”

The GTUC put out an appeal for help, and got a quick response from the International Trade Union Confederation, based in Brussels.

In a strongly worded statement to the Georgian authorities, ITUC General Secretary Sharan Burrow wrote “I am very much concerned by the information I received regarding the on-going pressure and defamation exerted by the management before and during the strike. Instead of negotiating, the management interfered in the union internal affairs and in particular its right of assembly. When the notice of the strike went public, the management started to threaten workers of reprisals in case they joined the strike. To mislead public attention, GR management also tried to slander the railway union and GTUC by speaking of blackmail and sabotage as well as by accusing the GTUC leadership of masterminding the process.”

The employer’s efforts to break the strike only made it stronger.

As a leader of the GTUC in Tbilisi put it in an email message, “the workers of the Western part of the railways have been joining the protest all day long and now it resembles a real general strike.”

Within a few short hours, it was all over.

The GTUC issued a statement saying that “Following 6-hour talks a consensus has been reached regarding all three issues raised by the Georgian Railway Workers New Trade Union. The just fight of the railway workers has been successful and the outcome meets the interests of the railway workers. The Georgian Railway has now resumed its operation in a usual mode.”

In Brussels, Sharan Burrow issued a second statement later in the day saying that “Management should have had the good sense to negotiate from the beginning. Thanks to the solidarity of the railway workers and their determination to achieve a just settlement, good sense has prevailed and the workers and their families will now get fair reward for their work.”

For the workers’ movement in Georgia, this victory – sweet though it is – is only the beginning.

Stalin’s Great Secret?

This article appears in Solidarity – please post any comments there.


 

This summer marks the hundredth anniversary of the drafting of a letter which revealed one of history’s greatest secrets. Or maybe not.

The letter in question is dated July 12, 1913 and is signed by Colonel Alexander Eremin, head of the Special Section of the tsarist Department of Police. Writing from the police headquarters in St. Petersburg, Eremin informs a captain in the distant Siberian town of Yeniseisk that one of the revolutionaries who has just been deported to his jurisdiction is, in fact, a former police collaborator.

The agent’s name is Josef Vissarionovich Djugashvili – better known to us today as Stalin.

According to Eremin, Stalin began giving information to the police following his 1906 arrest in Tbilisi, continued working for them in Baku, and then again in St. Petersburg. By the time the letter was written, Stalin had broken from the police following his election to the Bolshevik Central Committee.

The problem with Eremin’s letter is that no one knows if it is genuine.

The letter first surfaced, apparently, in the 1930s and there is reason to believe that Trotsky saw it, or knew of its existence. But Trotsky chose to reject the view – then widely held – that Stalin had probably been a double agent.

In the mid 1940s the letter surfaced again in New York, having been passed around among White Russian emigres.

It was finally published in 1956 as a front cover story in Life Magazine, followed up by a book-length treatment by journalist Isaac Don Levine. Levine had authored the first English language biography of Stalin a quarter century earlier and considered the letter to be genuine.

Most scholars disagreed.

Within a few years, the letter was largely forgotten – in the West.

But when Mikhail Gorbachev suddenly opened up Soviet society to a measure of free discussion and debate in the 1980s, the letter resurfaced as Russian historians resumed the discussion of Stalin’s early career and possible role as a police spy.

Having studied the history of the letter for several years, my own view is the same as that of historian and diplomat George F. Kennan, who said that the letter is “one of those curious bits of historical evidence of which it can only be said that the marks of spuriousness are too strong for us to call it genuine, and the marks of genuiness are too strong for us to call it entirely spurious.”

Among the aspects of the letter that raise the possibility that it is genuine is the extraordinary story of Stalin’s 1906 arrest in Tbilisi, today the capital of Georgia.

Most accounts of Stalin’s life, especially the officially-sanctioned Soviet ones, made no mention of such an arrest.

But one place it is mentioned is in Trotsky’s own unfinished biography of Stalin, which was published at about the same time as Levine and the White Russians began their quest to get the Eremin letter published.

Trotsky’s book – which rejects Stalin’s possible role as an informer – nevertheless includes a chronology and notes his 1906 arrest, one of several that marked Stalin’s career as a revolutionary.

Trostky himself didn’t write the chronology – his translator did. But it is almost certainly based on Trotsky’s own notes.

If Stalin was arrested in 1906, it was probably at the time of the police raid on the underground printing press in a Tbilisi neighborhood called Avlabar. Like nearly everything else in Georgia at the time, this would have been a Menshevik-controlled press. Stalin was one of the very few Lenin loyalists in that region of the Russian empire.

But this was a time when Bolsheviks and Mensheviks were forced to work together, and shortly after Stalin learned of the location of the Avlabar press, the police closed it down, making many arrests. Stalin may have been the one who tipped the police off.

If Stalin was one of those arrested, and if he took up an offer from the police to become a collaborator, he would have been swiftly released. This would have awakened suspicion, and would almost certainly have been covered up.

Over the years, several biographers of Stalin – admittedly, a minority – have accepted that the circumstantial evidence of Stalin’s collaboration with the police is overwhelming. But hardly any of them believe that the Eremin letter is genuine.

A century later, one might ask if it matters.

I think it does. For many decades, many on the revolutionary left – probably most – accepted that Stalin was a genuine communist with whom one might have disagreements. Some went so far as to say that once in power, Stalin even committed violations of socialist legality. The Trotskyists of course went further and accused him of betraying the revolution.

But what if that betrayal pre-dated the revolution by a decade or more?

In the end, Stalin created a police state that made the tsarist police seem like amateurs. His half-dozen escapes from prisons and exile under tsarist rule became impossible once he was at the helm of the Russian state. He learned the lessons well from a poorly organized political police; the GPU and NKVD of his era were far more efficient and ruthless than their tsarist predecessors.

Stalin, it may turn out, was not a genuine revolutionary who was corrupted by power. He may well have been corrupted by weakness, a young, fearful man in the clutches of the police, accepting an offer that he could not refuse.

How fair is Fairphone?

I recently attended the London launch of Fairphone — “a seriously cool smartphone that puts social values first”.

Fairphone is a Dutch initiative to create an alternative to the decidely “unfair” phones that are being made and sold today.

Their phone, prototypes of which were available at the launch, is in some ways an improvement upon the mass-manufactured phones most of us carry around today.

Those phones are usually made with little or no concern for the environment or the well-being of the workers who make them.

Fairphone, on the other hand, aims to use “fair and confict-free resources”, is committed to environmentally-friendly solutions to the problem of e-waste, and has given the phone an “open design”.

All good, but when it comes to who actually makes the phone, we run into some problems.

Originally, it seems, Fairphone aimed to make the phone in Europe, but quickly gave up on that and moved its manufacture to China.

As they explain, “Fairphone intends to manufacture in China because … we feel our model can make a difference in improving working conditions and environmental impacts in China”.

So, it’s a unionized factory then?

Not exactly.

Because Fairphone’s vision for workers doesn’t seem to include unions — any unions.

Fairphone says that in China they are committed to “creating a fund to improve worker’s wages and working conditions and open discussions between workers and their employers”.

Open discussion between workers and their employers?

That’s it?

Even the state-controlled unions in China offer more than that.

Let’s be blunt: these are weasel words.

Fairphone says they “want every worker … to earn a fair wage” but the only concrete step they’ve taken in that direction is to partner with “an independent, third-party social assessment organization to perform an assessment”.

In plainer English, that means a group that like the Rainforest Alliance, which notoriously certifies union-busting banana plantations as being “ethical”.

The company Fairphone has hired is paid by Fairphone to give a similar (and equally worthless) seal of approval for their factories.

This kind of paternalistic approach to industrial relations takes us back centuries, back to the pre-Marxian Utopian Socialists who relied on the goodwill of well-intentioned, humane capitalists like Robert Owen.

Workers don’t need “independent third-party social assessment organizations” and they don’t need “open discussions” with their bosses.  They need the only thing that actually works to ensure health and safety in the workplace, decent wages, and job security – an independent trade union.

And there won’t be any of those in FairPhone’s factory in China.

To be fair, it may well be difficult for FairPhone to compete on price if it were to be manufactured in Europe.

So one might understand the need, strictly on a commercial basis, to use a low-wage country somewhere in Asia to make the phones.

But why choose a low-wage country that also happens to be completely union-free?

Asia is full of countries that have low-wage workforces, but where there are unions that at least try to organise and represent those workers.

China is surrounded by such countries, any one of which (except North Korea) has a better record on workers’ rights.

The people behind Fairphone are clearly well-intentioned and want to make the world a better place.  But by opting for non-union manufacture in China, and trying to placate critics with sops like “social assessment” and “open discussion”, they’re ducking the serious issues.

A truly fair FairPhone would carry the one label that really mattered: a union label.

 


This article was published in Solidarity. Please post any comments there.