Category: 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.

From Tahrir to Taksim

IMG_0634This article appeared in Solidarity and Talking Union.


I was talking the other day to an educated and informed American and mentioned that I’d spent a lot of time recently working on building support for the protestors in Taksim Square.

Her reaction surprised me.

“But aren’t you worried about, you know, an Islamist takeover?”

In the two years since the overthrow of the Mubarak Regime, many people have begun to learn all the wrong lessons from the Arab Spring.

The fear that reactionary Islamists in Syria might hijack the revolution is a genuine one.

But in Turkey, it’s the Islamists in power and secular, modern Turkey is in the streets and squares.

There is a widely-held belief that the “Arab Spring” was a failure, that the hopes it awakened have been dashed, that it was all a huge disappointment.

This is a belief that we must challenge, especially if we are to build support for the Turkish uprising and others to follow.

Let’s start by dealing with the disappointment with the Egyptian revolution and all that it promised.

It’s not true that one dictatorship was replaced by another, or that nothing has changed on the ground.

Independent trade unions have emerged, held congresses, and organised workers – something that would not have been tolerated in Mubarak’s Egypt.

Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood may not be the leaders we’d have chosen, but they were chosen in multi-party elections and so far have avoided imposing the kind of Islamist dictatorship that some feared.

What’s happened in Egypt, Tunisia and elsewhere is that the civil war in the Muslim world – a war between authoritarians and democrats, reactionaries and progressives, Islamists and secularists – is still raging, but these days it is a somewhat fairer fight.

And in that civil war, there are of course grey areas like Syria where it can be hard to tell who the good guys are.

But that’s not the case in other countries, such as Iran or Turkey, where popular uprisings have assumed a democratic and secular character.

Democrats, socialists and trade unionists have been engaged for years with the Egyptian, Turkish and Iranian oppositions and one result is that there are strong forces in those countries with whom we can identify.

We knew Kamal Abbas and the Centre for Trade Union and Worker Services (CTUWS) in Egypt long before Mubarak fell. We’ve supported the Tehran bus drivers and other independent trade unions that have challenged the regime in Iran. In Turkey, national trade union centres like DISK and KESK – now leading the movements in the streets – have long been our friends and allies.

It was much harder to make contact with Syrian or Libyan oppositionists, in part because of the brutally authoritarian characters of the Assad and Gadaffi regimes.

Our main role remains to support our comrades in Taksim Square and across Turkey, as well as democrats, secularists, trade unionists and socialists in Iran, Egypt and elsewhere.

But we also have a message for those now challenging the rule of Erdogan, Morsi and Khamenei.

It is not enough to replace these regimes with new leaders – it is also important to challenge the ideology of those being replaced.

The Islamist regimes are based on lies, as were regimes like Mubarak’s, and those lies included racist propaganda targetting Kurds, Jews and others. Those regimes are also anti-women and homophobic, as were their predecessors.

Socialists must be calling for self-determination for all peoples in the region. (This includes defending Israel’s right to exist.) We must be putting the rights of women and gay people in the forefront of these struggles.

Of all the movements represented today in Taksim Square, and two years ago in Tahrir Square, only the workers organized in independent and democratic trade unions can be counted to push the revolution forward – and to realise the dream of a Middle Eastern Spring.

Confronting Stalinism

This article appears in Solidarity. It is a reply to a letter by Martin Thomas (“How to marginalise Stalin“), who was replying to my original article three weeks ago.


Martin Thomas is opposed to kicking the Stalinists out of the May Day march in London. “Much better,” he says, “to deal with the Stalinists politically, by mobilisation and argument …”

He didn’t read my article, at least not until the end. I wrote: “We begin by debating and confronting the Stalinist Left, demolishing their arguments and educating their members and periphery. We fight them on their turf and we fight them seriously. This is a fight over historical memory, over truth, and it is a fight we must win in order to cleanse and revitalise the Left.”

So we agree on that.

Here’s where we disagree: Martin says that the handful of people who carried the massive banners of Stalin at this year’s London May Day event “reckon themselves left-wingers” which is, I think, about as irrelevant a point as one can make in this context.

Who cares what they think about themselves? I have no doubt that all kinds of people with nasty politics “reckon themselves” as having good politics, or even being “socialists”.

What matters is, of course, their actual politics.

Which brings me to the part of Martin’s argument I find most unappealing: the notion that this infinitesimal group – and I’m speaking in particular of the micro-sect in Britain that carried the very largest banners – “are in fact left-wingers, of a sort” as Martin puts it.

“Of a sort?” He adds: “on the direct struggle of workers against capitalists in Britain or in Turkey”.

In other words, on some historical, theoretical or otherwise meaningless level, they are of course rotten totalitarians. But in “direct struggles” they are – what? Our allies? Surely the AWL doesn’t consider “The Stalin Society” a legitimate part of the British Left, or does it?

The counterposing of direct real-world struggles in which groups like the Communist Party of Great Britain (Marxist-Leninist) presumably play a positive role with irrelevant, theoretical issues (like democracy) is false and unworthy of the AWL.

The CPGB(M-L), with its dozen or so members, seems to be mostly engaged in trying to win free trips to North Korea, not leading some fight against hospital cuts. The only time in recent memory when they made the news was when Kim’s ambassador to London used their platform to defend his regime’s threats to turn South Korea, Japan and Guam into nuclear wastelands.

The last time I saw the Stalin Society in action was when they handed out an extraordinarily offensive leaflet at a showing of the Polish film “Katyn”. I should re-phrase that: not ‘they’ but ‘he’; I’m not sure this Society has more than a single member.

A generation or two ago, I’d have understood Martin’s hesitation – I would not have agreed even then, but I’d have understood. Stalin was a revered figure to many decent people right up until his death, and even beyond. The Left was unfortunately full of Stalinists.

But today, people who carry his banner on May Day demonstrations in the streets of London represent no one, and serve as a reminder of a disgraceful history for a part of the Left which has already acknowledged that Stalin was a monster and his regime monstrous.

So we agree that Stalinism must be dealt with politically and I welcome any activity that raises awareness of this. But I also think it shows a real lack of political guts to refuse to confront the tiny remants of Stalin worshippers on the streets, and to tell them – go away, this is not your holiday, you are not part of our Left.