Archive for January, 2012

Ölarbeiterstreiks in Kasachstan

Saturday, January 21st, 2012

This article appears in the current issue of Jungle World.  A Russian translation is here.

Im Parlament Kasachstans wird es künftig mehrere Parteien geben. Das ist nach der Wahl am Sonntag so sicher wie der Sieg der Regierungspartei Nur Otan, denn Präsident Nursultan Nasarbajew wollte es so. Die nun im Parlament zugelassenen Parteien stehen dem Regime nahe. Oppositionelle Kandidaten waren auch diesmal nicht zugelassen. Dass Nasarbajew es für nötig hält, seinem Regime den Anschein von Pluralismus zu geben, wird auf die wachsende Unzufriedenheit im Land zurückgeführt. (more…)

Building the revolution

Friday, January 20th, 2012

This article appears in the current issue of Solidarity.

Building the revolution.I bought tickets back in November for the “Building the revolution” show at the Royal Academy and was given a 10:00 AM admission time. When I phoned to ask if it would be possible to come later, they told me not to worry — the show was not very popular and it wouldn’t be crowded at any time.

So the good news is, they were wrong.

When I finally did get to see this exhibition, subtitled “Soviet Art and Architecture 1915-1935”, it was absolutely packed with people. Clearly many are interested in the subject.

On a cold Saturday afternoon in London, there were hundreds of people of all ages walking past an enormous model of Vladimir Tatlin’s Monument to the Third International and then wandering through a series of rooms showing everything from an industrial bakery to special housing constructed for the Cheka, the Bolshevik’ secret police.

And delighted as I am that so many people seem to be interested in one of the most revolutionary experiments ever undertaken, I left the exhibition feeling deeply disturbed. Let me explain why.

The idea that revolutionary politics, that changing the world, is somehow a part of the distant past, something that we modern people can look back it the same why we look at earlier civilizations, is somehow … wrong.

This exhibition with its cold, academic descriptions, was filled with people staring at photos of buildings — both as they were in the 1920s and as they are now — and then commenting on what they liked and didn’t, just as one would do with, say, Etruscan statues in the British Museum or medieval paintings of the infant Jesus.

“I like that one,” someone would say. “And that’s very ugly, isn’t it?” asked another.

But the ideas expressed — if one bothered to read the texts — were extraordinary, and deeply relevant to our time. This is not ancient history, and shouldn’t be presented as such.

For example, there was whole section devoted to early Bolshevik experiments with collective housing for workers. These massive structures included vast communal areas, common dining rooms, kitchens, laundries, libraries, kindergartens, wide hallways to allow social interaction, and relatively small sleeping areas. I was reminded of the Israeli kibbutzim, but on an urban scale.

It also struck me how so much of this architecture — like the kibbutz itself — seemed to define its vision of new society in terms of the liberation of women. Women living in such housing would not be expected to cook and clean, or even to be the primary carers of children. All of this was done collectively.

The involvement of revolutionary architects in the design of bakeries and garages and dams was also extraordinary. It expressed the idea that the places ordinary people spent their days — their work-places — should be designed thoughtfully, with some degree of respect for the people who work there.

The exhibition gave no indication of what preceded these buildings — we didn’t see what workers’ housing looked like under the tsarist regime, or what factories looked like before the 1917 revolution.

Without that context, and without any political understanding of the ideas of Marx and Lenin, the exhibition was like any other, showing any random country and period of history.

Nor does the decline of experimental art and architecture in the increasingly Stalinised Soviet Union get an explanation. We see Lenin’s absurdly grandiose tomb, the resting place of his mummified corpse to this day. And we’re shown details of housing built in Moscow for the party elite, the new ruling class. There is no sense that there is some kind of break here, that the revolution has been defeated, replaced by a new kind of class society.

If one knows something of the history of revolutionary Russia, the experience of seeing such works can be quite moving. There was a genuine sense of artistic and cultural liberation in the first years of Bolshevik rule.

But taken out of context, all one sees in this exhibit are objects, which one may judge according to individual tastes.

The great ideas that stood behind them — equality, freedom, social justice — have disappeared from view.

Global Labour Online Campaigns: The next 10 Years

Sunday, January 15th, 2012

This article appeared as the Global Labour Column on 10 January 2012. Post any comments you may have there.

In November 2011, the military dictatorship in Fiji jailed two of the country’s most prominent trade union leaders. Following the launch of an online campaign sponsored by the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) and run on the LabourStart website, some 4,000 messages of protest were sent in less than 24 hours. The government relented, the union leaders were freed, and the campaign suspended. A month earlier, Suzuki workers locked out in India waged a successful online campaign through the International Metalworkers Federation (IMF) and LabourStart. Almost 7,000 messages flooded the company’s inboxes, and after only a few days, a compromise was reached.
The spectacular success of those campaigns is the culmination of a decade-long process of building up the campaigning capacity of the international trade union movement – specifically that of the ITUC and the global union federations (like the IMF), and the role played by LabourStart in that process.
This short essay will focus on the rather narrow topic of global online labour campaigning, to see where we have been, where we are now, and to speculate where we go next. (more…)