In the fight for workers’ rights, there are no borders

June 14th, 2019

The following is the text of my presentation to the international seminar held in Oslo this week by the Arthur Svensson foundation.

First of all, I want to thank the Svensson foundation for the invitation to speak here today, and also for your decision in 2016 to award the prize to LabourStart. That recognition was enormously important for us, as it will be for the other recipients including this year’s winner.

I think it was on one of my visits to Scandinavia that I met a trade unionist who was active in Amnesty International and he was wearing a t-shirt with the slogan “workers’ rights are human rights” and at the time I remember thinking — well, that’s obvious.

Perhaps the most famous example that proves that connection between workers’ rights and human rights was the struggle of Polish workers, initially dock workers, in the early and mid 1970s. Eventually, that struggle resulted in the birth of Solidarnosc, the first successful independent trade union in a Stalinist country. And the rise of Solidarnosc is what led to the collapse of the one-party state and the establishment of democracy in Poland and elsewhere in the former Soviet bloc.

That fight is not yet over, as we can see in the fact that LabourStart this week has launched a campaign at the request of the Polish dock workers union to support one of their members, who was sacked for his trade union activity. That worker was employed by, and was sacked by, a giant transnational corporation, which is also the target of another ongoing LabourStart campaign in Pakistan, where eight workers have also been sacked for their union activity.

So those workers in Poland may have won the right to join a free and independent trade union and are no longer the victims of state interference as they were during the Stalinist period, but now they face the challenge of transnational corporations that are no better at respecting workers’ rights, than the totalitarian regime which they got rid of a generation ago.

We in the labour movement need to say consistently and clearly that workers’ rights are fundamental human rights, and that workers have the right to join and form trade unions, independent of the state and their employers, and to engage in collective action including strikes. And that is true in Poland whether it’s a Stalinist state or a capitalist one, and it’s true in Pakistan, and even here in Norway.

We live in a time when not only workers’ rights but democracy itself is under assault around the world. That attack on democracy is always an attack on workers. It doesn’t matter if the leaders claim to be populists who care about ordinary people or not. And how widespread is this anti-democratic phenomenon? I can just rattle off some of the names — Putin, Trump, Erdogan, Orban, Bolsonaro, Duterte, Netanyahu.

Human rights and workers rights are under attack in all the countries they lead. And unions are often in the front lines of the fight for democracy in these countries.

So what do we need to do to defend the rights of working people at such a dangerous moment?

First of all, to paraphrase a former Nobel Prize for Literature laureate, we need to acknowledge that there are no “internal affairs” left on our crowded planet.

Here in Norway, where trade union rights are generally respected, you need to react to the sacking of dock workers in Poland and Pakistan as if those workers were members of your own dock workers union. You need to mobilise the members of your unions and the general public every time workers rights are violated, no matter where this happens in the world. International trade union solidarity has never been more needed than today, in this globalised world of ours.

But in addition to taking the lead in defending democracy, unions need to renew their political vision. There was a time when people who felt left out, on the margins, who were treated unjustly, or who just wanted a better and fairer world would support social democratic parties. That is not the case today. But it must become the case tomorrow if democracy is to survive.

Let me illustrate this with an example from the United States. If the choice is between the representatives of a neoliberal global elite such as Hillary Clinton or a populist demagogue like Donald Trump, then democracy is finished. But if a social democratic alternative exists, like Bernie Sanders, then there is hope.

We are seeing signs of hope today in the electoral victories of some social democratic parties in different parts of Europe — in Spain, in Finland, and even in your neighbour, Sweden.

In conclusion then, what we need to be doing is putting our unions in the forefront of the fight to defend workers rights and democracy more broadly — and at the same time, to renew our social democratic movement worldwide. And in those struggles, for democracy, for workers rights, for a fairer, more just and sustainable society, there are no borders.

Review: Homage to Catalonia, by George Orwell

June 13th, 2019

I first read George Orwell’s account of his time in Spain many years ago, and now re-read in advance of a visit to Barcelona. I am actually writing this review from the hotel in which Orwell and his wife stayed during the terrible events of May 1937. There is no question that Orwell’s book is a masterpiece and critical to our understanding not only of the events that took place in Barcelona at that time, but of the twentieth century as a whole. Because it is in this book that the George Orwell we now know, the author of 1984 and Animal Farm, is born. This is the George Orwell who came to Spain to fight for the Republic against the fascists and was actually happy to sign up with the Communists in that fight. By accident, he wound up in the militia of the POUM, a dissident Marxist group that has often been mislabelled as “Trotskyist” and whose leader, Andreu Nin, was tortured and murdered by Soviet secret police agents.

Returned to Barcelona after being injured on the front, Orwell was an eyewitness to the successful attempt by the Soviet-directed Spanish Communists to bloodily suppress both the POUM and the much larger anarchist movement. What surprised me most in re-reading this book is not how unfairly anti-Communist this is (as some have claimed) but rather how little Orwell understood then of the monstrous behaviour of the Soviet Union in Spain. But of course he learned these things too, over time.

Tonight I will go for a stroll down the Ramblas, and I will look at the theatre on whose roof-top Orwell sat for three nights, guarding the POUM headquarters across the street, and at the cafe below where the POUM fighters had entrapped some Civil Guard troops, sharing beers with them as those troops feared for their lives. But for now, I sit in a room in the Hotel Continental imagining what the author of Homage to Catalonia thought as he stayed here more than eighty years ago.

Review: Their Little Secret, by Mark Billingham

May 23rd, 2019

Their Little Secret, the latest in the Tom Thorne series of crime novels, offers further proof of why author Mark Billingham is probably the best crime writer in Britain today — and one of our very best writers, full stop. This complicated, deeply human story revolves entirely around an extraordinary woman named Sarah, who at the very start of the book appears as the next victim for a con artist named Conrad, but is actually so much more than that. In parallel with the Sarah and Conrad story is the ongoing struggle of DI Thorne to have a life outside of the Job. His fellow officer, Nicola Tanner, plans a key role in the story and her name now features in the series title. The only thing wrong with this book is that having devoured it in two days, I now have to wait a full year for the next book in the series.

All The World’s A Stage, by Boris Akunin

May 19th, 2019

I read this book in the wrong order as it precedes Akunin’s Black City, which I recently completed. And it does set the stage (sorry – couldn’t resist) for the latter book, with Fandorin now unhappily married to a woman he meets in this one. This book is set in Moscow during the final years of the tsarist regime, before the outbreak of the first world war, and one can sense the impending demise of that regime. Theatre directors are all cultural revolutionaries of a sort, the tsarist police force is useless in the face of ordinary criminals and revolutionaries, and the hero of these books, Erast Fandorin already seems rather weary of the whole business. Still, worth reading as the series itself is a remarkable achievement — and I do wonder if we’ve seen the last of Fandorin.

Back to Linux

May 8th, 2019

Several years back, I had a Linux laptop. But by around 2010 I had migrated to the Apple ecosystem, starting with an iPad, and left Linux behind. Now I’m back to Linux and let me explain why.

It turned out that I hardly use any of Apple’s software products – not Siri, not Pages, not iTunes, not Safari. My software — even on the Mac — consisted mostly of free and open source tools, such as Libre Office, Thunderbird, and Firefox, and I rely on web applications for much of what I do (e.g., TickTick for my to-do list, Diaro for my daily diary, Netflix, Spotify, etc.). I was getting no added value from being with Apple.

Today took delivery of my new laptop, a Dell XPS-13 with Ubuntu Linux 18.04 pre-installed.

I’ve spent the last hour getting re-acquainted and it’s been a happy experience so far.

What I have learned is that migrating from other operating systems to Linux is much easier than it used to be. For example, there’s one-click downloading of software. I was surprised to see that Firefox did not come pre-installed, but installing it, syncing it with my previous version, and making it my new default browser took less than a minute – no technical skills required.

Connecting to wifi and bluetooth was a piece of cake. My Microsoft mouse works perfectly — though I do have to get used to the fact that I now have a touch screen.

The XPS-13 is a lovely bit of kit — it seems so much smaller than my MacBook Air, but it’s the same screen size. The screen resolution is spectacularly good, the memory is quadruple what I had before, as is the hard drive capacity.

The first new app I downloaded (which does work on Mac, but I never tried it there) is Typora. It may come in useful when I write my next book.

More in the days to come as I complete the transition (and learn about all the hard stuff).

Review: Black City, by Boris Akunin

April 22nd, 2019

Boris Akunin is the pseudonym for Grigory Chkhartishvili, one of the most successful crime writers ever to emerge from Russia. His series of books featuring Erast Fandorin span several decades of the late 19th and early 20th century, and have sold tens of millions of copies in Russia.

The English translations by Andrew Bromfield are superb. The books have been described as “Tolstoy writing James Bond with the logical rigour of Sherlock Holmes,” though that may apply mainly to the first ones in the evolving series.

I have enjoyed the whole series, from The Winter Queen up through this book, which is set in 1914 on the very brink of the outbreak of the First World War. This is a complex story, and it helps for one to have an understanding of Russian history. (In parallel to these books, Akunin also writes history books.)

Set in Baku, this story has Fandorin — who is now in his 50s — on the trail of a revolutionary terrorist known as “Woodpecker” or “Odysseus”. This villain is, of course, a Bolshevik and he has some clear parallels to a young Stalin. Fandorin (and the author as well) have strong views about this: “All ardent revolutionaries are basically psychologically sick,” he thinks.

Without giving too much away, this may be the very last of the Fandorin books (I’m actually not sure about this) — but I certainly hope not.

Review: The Battle, by Richard Overy

April 15th, 2019

This book has now gone through several editions, and was recently re-issued with a slightly different title.

It is a very short history of the Battle of Britain of 1940-41 and in just a few pages, Overy manages to demolish a number of long standing myths about the period. Among these are the idea that the British or Germans at that time were deliberately engaged in terror-bombings of each other’s cities. Or that either the RAF or the Luftwaffe was significantly “better” than the other; both air forces had cutting-edge aircraft and outstanding pilots.

He attributes Britain’s “victory” (he’s not convinced it can be called that) to something rarely discussed: Britain was far better at producing large numbers of Spitfires and other aircraft, while the Germans (despite their having conquered most of Europe) struggled to meet their production targets.

A good introduction to the subject, but not without controversy.

If we can’t get a new government, let’s get a new Left

April 10th, 2019

The Israeli Left failed yesterday in its attempt to change the leadership and the direction of the country. Maybe it’s time to change the Left instead. And let’s learn a lesson from Israel’s history to show us how to do that.

Read my full blog from the Times of Israel by clicking here.

Review: The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, illustrated by Renée Nault

April 10th, 2019

Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale has been in the news a lot lately. Her book is now considered a classic, a recent television adaptation was a huge success, and a sequel is due out later this year.

The book was first published in 1985, a time when many in the U.S. and other western societies assumed that the women’s movement was making changes that could never be reversed, and that society was gradually becoming more liberal and more tolerant. Today, more than three decades later, Atwood’s dystopian vision increasingly seems far closer than we would have imagined when the book was first written.

This graphic novel adaption is done beautifully, and shows Gilead (the country that used to be the United States) almost as a dream — and a bad dream at that. Highly recommended.

Review: Eugene V. Debs: A Graphic Biography by Noah Van Sciver, Paul Buhle, Steve Max and Dave Nance

April 8th, 2019

The colourful Eugene V. Debs would make a wonderful subject for a graphic novel but unfortunately, this is not the book I’d recommend.

A text-heavy graphic novel that cannot decide if it’s “Debs for beginners” or something far more serious. It is filled with half-ideas, people and institutions that pop in for a moment, are never introduced, and who then disappear a moment later. (Will anyone reading it know who Daniel De Leon was? Or for that matter, William Winpisinger?)

Much is done to show Debs as if he was a 21st century politician, far ahead of his time on issues like race and gender, though one wonders how true this is. (The party he led was hardly free of racism and sexism.)

There are passing references, largely uncritical, about the Bolsheviks and their American supporters.

A not insignificant part of the book focusses on American socialism post-Debs, showing Norman Thomas as a rather nice old man and Michael Harrington in a very critical light.

The authors’ political agenda is evident on every page, but the real Eugene Debs does not come alive here. A pity — this was such a great idea for a book.