Archive for March, 2014

Welcoming China’s unions back into the family?

Friday, March 28th, 2014

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

Wednesday, March 12th, 2014

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.

Russia, Ukraine and the International Left

Monday, March 3rd, 2014

“The policy of Russia is changeless … Its methods, its tactics, its maneuvers may change, but the polar star of its policy — world domination — is a fixed star.”

— Karl Marx, 1867

That extraordinary passage by Marx appears in a little-known collection of his writings (as well as those of Friedrich Engels) which was published in 1952 under the title “The Russian Menace to Europe”.

That book aimed to show the fundamental continuity of Russian foreign policy from the tsars through Stalin.

Its editors, Paul W. Blackstock and Bert F. Hoselitz, argued that “the analysis made by Marx and Engels of the external as well as internal polices and socio-political trends of Czarist Russia are fully applicable to similar aspects of Stalinist Russia.  The main provisional and final objectives of Russian foreign policy have not been altered …”

It was a bold argument, and one not widely appreciated by the Left during the Cold War.  Many leftists believed Russia played a progressive role in international affairs right up until the end.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, it was widely hoped that the predatory foreign policy of the tsars and their Stalinist successors had finally come to an end.

And yet within a few short years, those hopes were to be dashed — first by the barbaric war against Chechnya, and later by Russian aggression directed against Georgia.

The seizure of the Georgian provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia were dress rehearsals for the seizure this week of Crimea.

Though few would accept that the Putin regime still dreams of world domination, there can no longer be any question of its dreams regarding the countries of the former USSR — the so-called “near abroad”.

What should be the response of the international Left to the latest Russian aggression, this time targetting democratic Ukraine?

In my view, the slogan “Hands Off Ukraine!” should be embraced by all socialists and democrats but this has not been the case.

In the UK, the Communist Party’s daily newspaper, the Morning Star — which is funded by Britain’s largest union — has enthusiastically supported Russian aggression yet again.

The “Stop the War Coalition” which spearheaded opposition to British involvement in the Afghan and Iraq wars has called on Nato and the USA to back down.  Here’s an example of their thinking:

“Vladimir Putin’s troop movements in Crimea, which are supported by most Russians, are of questionable legality under the terms of the peace and friendship treaty that Russia signed with Ukraine in 1997. But their illegality is considerably less clear-cut than that of the US-led invasion of Iraq, or of Afghanistan, where the UN security council only authorised the intervention several weeks after it had happened.”

In other words, Putin may be bad — but Obama is worse.

Putin’s propaganda message has spread far and wide, and is being embraced by people who should know better.

I don’t only mean publicity-hungry and unprincipled fools like George Galloway or Thom Hartmann, who have sold out to get a show on Putin’s “Russia Today” television channel.

There are plenty of people out there who have no sympathy for Putin, but who are buying into the official Russian propaganda line.

The allegation that Nazi bandits have taken control of Kyiv is patently absurd.  Even the Jewish leadership in Ukraine has gone out of its way to reassure people that there have been very few anti-Semitic incidents.

Of course there are political forces in Ukraine that are vile, such as Svoboda.

The task of the international Left surely is to oppose them, to support the democratic and progressive elements in Ukraine, first and foremost the independent trade union movement.

Those unions were in the Maidan square from the beginning with their flags and banners and played a key role in the revolution which toppled the rotten and corrupt Yanukovich regime.

If the Ukrainian far-Right is to be defeated, it will be defeated by Ukrainians — not by Russian troops.

Democrats in Russia understand all this, and have protested demanding that their country stop its aggression against Ukraine.

Hundreds have been arrested.

The international Left should be focused on supporting those people, our comrades, in Russia and elsewhere who are challenging Putin.

We should not become apologists for Putin and his cronies, as some on the Left have become.

Our message should be loud and clear:

Hands off Ukraine!

No to Russian aggression!

Solidarity with the Ukrainian revolution!