Netanyahu, accidental truth-teller

May 24, 2010

Sometimes, even very disagreeable people speak the truth. No, they don’t do that on purpose: I will not hold them responsible for it. But yes, even evil leaders of horrible states (as if there are states that are not horrible, but let’s not digress now…), come close to truth-telling. A case in point is Netanyahu, prime minister of Israel.

What truthful thing did he say? This: “The greatest thing mankind faces is a radical regime, without limits to its cruelty.” Well, yes. One might argue about even bigger threats to humanity – human-induced climate disaster, for instance. However, Netanyahu is not wrong in saying that states led by extremists and religious fanatics and armed with neclear weapons are very, very dangerous. States like, for instance, the United States under people like Reagan and Bush.

Which state does he mean himself? Well, Iran, of course. No matter that there is not any proof that Iran is even trying to develop nuclear weapons. No matter that everyone can see that, in case Iran had nuclear weapons, it could not fruitfully use them unless it wanted toe invite immediate and total destruction through US or Israeli action. Whatever the proven facts, Iran is the big radical evil enemy, as far is the state of Israel and its leaders are concerned.

Iran does not quite fit the bill, as we can see. There is a state, rather close to where Netanyahu lives, that does fit the bill. That state is called Israel, with Netanyahu as prime minister. Its limitless cruelty has been on discpay during the murderous attack on Gaza, at the end 2008 and the beginning of 2009. Around 1,400 Palestinian deaths, many of them civilians. Number of Israeli victims: 13. Its cruelty continues, in the form of a blockade of Gaza, imposing desperate poverty and worse on the population there.

And yes, Israel is led by radicals – right wing radicals, that is. The state, founded on occupation of Palestine, ethnic cleansing of Palestinians and more occupation, seeks part of its legitimacy ina nationalism that accepts no compromise, and an interpertation of Judaism that does not accept limits on what its holy state is allowed to do. Israel is a radical state, led by nationalist and religious extremists. And it is based on open discrimination along ethnic/religious lines. Jews are worth more than Palestinians, according to Israeli law and governance. Apartheid is a fitting label for the way Israeli society is organised and ruled.

A radical regime, limitless cruelty … and nuclear weapons as well. For Ir srael has themm, even if it never ackowledged their existence. However, documentation has come to light that proves their existence. Israel has in the past offered nuclear warheads to … South Africa, that other apartheid state. The deal was made by South African  and prime minister Vorster and Shimon Peres, who was minister of defence in that year, 1975. One state behaving with exemplary racist cruelty helping another state behaving with similar racist cruelty – helping that state in getting weapons of mass destruction. Shimon Peres, who is in denial about the deal, is president of Israel at the moment.

Fortunately, more and pore people are no longer accepting Israeli excuses for their despicable behaviour. Still, double standards for Israeli and Palestinian violence have not died. Here is the BBC, in a recent headline: “Israeli army kills infiltrators from Gaza.”  Two men, apparently sent by Hamas inside the borders of Israel, werre killed by Israeli soldiers.

Now, you can think all kinds of things abvout the events themselves. My rejection of the state of Israel does not imply any support for Hamas, who has its own authoritarian form of rule, much weaker that Israel, but certainly no beacon of revolutionary hope (yes, I changed my mind on that, as readers of my Dutch-language blog may notice).

But notice the words the BBC uses! Israel has a ‘military’ that the government sends across borders as it sees fit; Hamas, however, sends ‘infiltrators’. Question: how can you be an infiltrator when you go from one part of the country you considers yours, to another part of that same country? From the indirectly occupied bit of Palestine called ‘Gaza’ to the directly occupied bit calles ‘Israel’? Should’n we call all Israeli soldiers, on whatever part of historic Palestine they are, ‘infiltrators’?

Strike in Yemen should cheer us up

May 16, 2010

Capitalist society is torn apart in two ways. One offers despair; the other may offer a way out. One way leads to a seemingly endless series of wars.  ‘Seemingly ‘, because, with all the high-tech-weaponry around, sooner or later humanity might get utterly exterminated through military violence, in which case the series of wars does come to an end. The other way puts class against class, those down below against those at the top. This may lead to revolution, the end of capitalism, liberation from wage slavery, from exploitation, the end of capital and the state.

The two tendencies play themselves out all around the globe. Competition drives segments of the ruling class into rivalry, spilling over into wars. That is the root cause of the first tendency. But competition also leads capitalists to put pressure upon workers, to exploit them even more in order to remain, uh, competitive 🙂 This pushes workers towards self-defence, towards resistance. This is the root cause of the second tendency.

We are in a race between these two tendencies. Will wars – and other destructive tendencies rooted in competitive exploitation – dominate? or will workers find and use their collective strength in time to themselves and thereby liberate humanity? To be free, or not to be at all? That – with due respect to Shakespeare – is the question.

These two tendencies are both at work all over the world. In countries like Greece, the tendency of hope, of workers against capitalists and state – dominates. That does nog mean that revolution is at the point of succeeding. But it does mean that the battle lines are those indicating revolution as possibility. We see insurgent workers and other downtrodden layers of the population, striking, demonstrating, rioting against the government, the banks, the police. Class against class, the tendency of hope. But the other tendency is there as well: the Greek government who translates the crisis as a national one: international financial institutions   ant EU governments on one side, the whole of the Greek population on the other. A shallow anti-imperialism, not without influence amongst left-wing parties which have influence among the working class as well.

Other parts of the world are, sadly, dominated by the other, dangerous, destructive, tendency. A case in point is the Middle East region. Here, we see rivalries between segments of the ruling classes, mobilising peasants, workers, the poor against other peasants, workers and the poor, by means of religious, nationalist, ethnic and/ or regionalist themes. We have seen Iraqi society torn apart in that way. First, an American-British invasion and occupation. Then through classic divide-and-rule policies, Shiite elites, often under cover of the occupation,  encouraging oppressive policies against Sunni population, Sunni leaders encouraging a resistance against both the occupation and against the Shia community. Western occupation opened the door to communal slaughter. The violence has abated in recent years. In recent months, however, we see a new wave of bombings and bloodshed.

Other countries see the same dynamics. There is, for example, Yemen. A very poor country, formerly two countries that became one through a unification process in 1990. Regional rivalry remains, however. People in the south complain that most power is reserved for people in the North. There is an armed resistance in operation, based on this kind of feelings. Again, poor people kill and die for the ambitions of the powerful. Again, the destructive war-tendency in full bloom.

But even in countries full of despair, like Iraq, like Yemen, the other tendency now and then raises its head. There is a workers’ movement in Iraq, for instance with collective action in the oil industry – sometimes, as in April 2009,  successfully. In Yemen, there is workers’ struggle as well. The GLU trade union federation, in which 520.000 empluyees are organised, is  holding strike action, in the form of escalating general strikes: one hour yesterday and today, two hours the next to days, three hours the day after that… until the strike is complete on May 24. Emergency services in, for instance, water supply and health, are exempt from the strike.

The union federation demands higher wages. “Following  the sharp rise in prices and cost of living that has been afflicting Yemeni citizens in the last two years, GLU demands a rise in wages and salaries and the establishment of a minimum wage of at least 300 dollars as well as recognition of employees’ rights for workers in the cleaning sector.”  This is the kind of news that cheers me up, as it hopefully cheers you up as well.

Britain after elections: governmental speculations makes little sense

May 10, 2010

The British elections have led to a situation of political confusion. No party got a working majority. Labour did better than expected: many working  class people apparently feared a Tory majority and the ferocious cuts that they are threatening to impose. The expected Tory majority did not materialise. The Liberal Democrats won votes, but not nearly as many seats. Rarely was the contradiction between the number of votes for the parties and the numbers of seats more blatant. First-past-the-post distorts the electoral picture and adds to the already valid sense that elections offer only a distorted way to express what policies people support.

A number of comments from the Trotskyist left  deserve to be mentioned. Lenin’s Tomb has several pieces. One of them discusses the question: what governmental combination is the best for the working class and the left? A conservative-Liberal coalition? A conservative minority government? Both are made up of the biggest fans of savage cuts. Both mean that the open class enemy is in the giovernmental saddle. The article tries to convince the readers that a Labour-Liberal coalition is to be preferred. Such a government wil also go for cuts – but its mandate rests on people voting Labour because the fear the even more vicious Tory policies. That may weaken the government, which would bea positive thing for those who want to resist the austerity policies about to be imposed. The contradiction between a totally bourgeois Labour leadership and its working class base – also through the union link that still connects workers to Labour – makes Labour a weaker opponent for a resisting working class.

Socialist Resistance also prefers a Liberal-Labour coalition. It explains that the Liberals would harm not only the working class but their own prospects, if they would jopin the Tories in government. Supporting hated Tory policies would also hurt themselves, and the Tories would not be above promising some deal on proportional representation – an issue that is pushed by the LibDems – and then cynically breaking their promise. Much better for the LibDems to support Labour, with which party they have a lot of common ground. That might also a deal on PR possible, which would make it much harder for the Tory party to come back in government, als long as they do not reach the 50 percent of the vote.

Socialist Resistance adds “two key conditions” for such a coalition to “play any kind of progressive role”: serious reform of the electoral system in the direction of PR; and “an abandonment of the cuts agenda as an approach on the ecopnomic crisis and its replacement by an agenda of recovery through planned investment in green jobs.” In other wordds: Socialist resistance calss an openly pro-capitalist, neoliberal government – both Labour an the LibDems accept the neoliberal framework – to act as a serious radical social-democratic government. One might as well ask foxes to stop chasing rabbits.

But there is more to be said about the speculations on the Trotskyist left about which government is more favorable for our side, the working class side. The first thing is: you never know, you know. The idea th that a left-of-center government is a weaker opponent for us than a right wing government may be true. Then again, it may not. I remember the right wing electoral victory in France, 1995. Within a year, the new government overplayed its hand and had to retreat in the face of mass strikes of very serious proportions.

Right wing govermnents are more openly our enemy that left-wing governments. At the same time, they are more easily recognised as outrr enemy. Sometimes, left wing governments have less trouble in pushing cuts, because they can rely on forces with influence among workers – unions, especially their leaderships – to push their agenda. I would NOT prefer, as a rule, one type of government above the other. They are all enemies.

There is one more thing: specualation on what government is more or less favorable are rather futile. Giving electoral advice at least has the merit of recommendingh a certain copurse of action. Governmental speculation does not even doe that. There is, in essence, nothing that people in Britain can do to bring about one or another government coalition. Too much speculation distracts energies from the real task: how to counter the austerity offensive, no matter from which government the attack is about to come?

Remembering the Kent State killings

May 4, 2010

On May 4, exactly 40 years ago today,  soldiers of the National Guard shot and killed  four students protesting the invasion of Cambodia. With that invasion, president Nixon escalated the Vietnam War. That was on April 30.

After that invasion, protests broke out immediately. Within hours, there were people protesting on the streets. The days and weeks after that saw 4 million people in action. Universities and colleges closed down because of student strike action. High school kids protested.

Students revolted on Kent State University, Ohio. Activists burned down a recruiting centre on campus. The National Guard occupied the university. Students assembled to protest. Their number was around 4,000. Some threw rocks, some threw molotov cocktails. The days of purely peaceful protests were – after a war that dragged on and on and had already cost hundresds of thousands of Vietnamese lives, and tens of thousands of American lives as well – were gone.

Then, National Guardsman opened fire on the crowd. From a distance,  67 bullets  were fired. Four students died, two of them, on their way to class, were not even part of the protests. In the days after thisese shootings, more people got killed. On May 14, two protesters were shot dead by National Guards on Jackson State University, Mississippi. These state killings got much less publicity than theose on Kent State. The victims on Kent, you see, were white. The victims on Jackson State were black.

For days and weeks, revolt rumbled through the United States. Anger against the escalation f the war combined with anger because of the state killings. Within months, president Nixon announced that the invasion of Cambodia would end. The Vietnam war, however, dragged  on for a number of years. We should not forget the people who were murdered by the U.S. state in its effort to keep that war going against the will of a large part of the U.S population.

Based on:

The Russian experience, 1917-1929 (2): 1917-1918

April 29, 2010

Yes, there was a working class revolution in Russia in 1917. Yes, soviets dominated the scene after the October Revolution, the new Bolshevik regime based itself on  the soviets and their majoritity within them. In that sense, the new regime has a certain revolutionary legitimacy. However, that legitimacy eroded quickly, the soviets saw their strength diminished, Bolshevik support drained away. Bolshevik power, from the beginning uneasily combined with soviet power, evolved more and more in opposition to the remnants of that power. Already in 1918, there was a break between the regime above, and the power of workers and peasants to take and keep control of society.

Two factors were relevant. There were, firstly,  the horrendous circumstances under which the revolution succeeded, and under which the new regime tried to build a new society. There were, secondly, the concepts and ideas that the Bolsheviks held on to in building that society. The first made the building of socialist society built on workers’ and peasants’ democracy  virtually impssible, and Bolshevik ideology or ambition cannot be blamed for that. The second, however, meant that this failure took the form of the building of a new bureaucratic state under Bolshevik leadership which crushed the revolution. Here, the Bolshevik leadership can, and should, be blamed. From 1918 onwards, the regime lost its proletarian-revolutionary legitimacy and stood in opposition to the forces which tried to build the revolution from below.

How dit this come about? In the first moths after October 1917, we saw two things. On the one hand, the spread of soviets and similar forms of democracy, far and wide through society. In general, Bolshevik leaders encouraged this spread in this period. Numerous quotes of Lenin can make this clear. Bolshevik goals and workers ‘ initiatives went in the seme direction – although the workers tended to move faster, in a more radical fashion than the Bolshevik leadership. There was tension already.

At the same time, however, that Lenin encouraged workers’ and peasants’ initiatives, the Bolshevik regime did something else as well. They began building a state, above the soviet structues, though still moe or less under the influence of those soviets.. This was the period in which the regime started founding commissariats, basically a replica on lower level of  the governmental structure on top, the Council of People’s Commissars, i.e. the government. Where the masses answered every problom with the election of a committee, a mini-soviet, the party leaders answered every problem with the building of such a commissariat. Two kinds of structures, in uneasy coexistence.

This was more or less viable for a while, as long as the soviets remained strong and full of life. And this strength and viability depended on the strength of the classes which expressed its power through these soviets: the workers and the peasants. Ecomimic catastrophe, however, started to destroy the strength of these classes. Russia withdrew from the war. This meant that millions of soldier went home, to jobs that were not there, or to their villages on the countryside. At the same time, war production collapsed because of a sudden lack of demand. Mass unemployment followed. Years of war and a collapsing infrastructure meant severe interruption of food suplies. Hunger enterded the cities in full force in the first months of 1918.

This had disastrous effects on the soviets. Factories – the basis of workers’ councils – closed down, workers had to use all their energy to survive. Time and opportunity to decide and vote upon the running of society was no longer a given. The basis of soviet power started to erode quite quickly. You cannot have workers’ councils without a more or less cohesive workforce in the factories.

This is  the factor that Trotskyist analases punt very much in the forefront of their eplanations of what went wrong. And yes, it was a very important factor – but not the only one. For there was more to it than circumstances. Under pressure from the economic crisis, the new regime started to limit workers’ initiatives. Production, so Lenin’s reasoning went, had to take precedence above all else. A strong management in the factories was needed to guarantee labour discipline. Direct workers power in the factories – the factory committees, a kind of soviets on factory level –  was seen as an obstacle, and  pressure was brought to bear to bring them under the control of the trade unions which were much more centralised and open to government directives. Efforts of workers themselves to encourage production and coordination through factory committees themselves  were not encouraged, even pushed aside, The solution, als Lenin saw it, should come from the centre, from above, from planning agencies under indirect workers’ influcence – not through workers’ direct control and certainly not through workers’ self management. Here, we see more than circumstances at work. Here, we see a clash of visions. On the one hand, a centralised, top-down vision with clear Social Democratic roots. On the other hand, a bottom-up vision, with clear anarcho-syndicalist elements (and yes, anarchosyncicalism was not without influence in these days and events).

There was strong resistance from workers against  the centralised policies that the party leadership encouraged. Workers had fought for workers’ control since before October, and had pushed that control in the direction of direct self-management of the factories. They considered this the essence of their revolution, and did not want to give this up. Here, we saw the beginnings a a break between regime and a considerable part of its working class base.

This, in itself, would not yet have been a fatal break, however. In Lenin’s view, the centralised management structure that replaced direct workers democracy in the factories, was still embedded in general soviet democracy. Soviets – or commissariats still leaning upun soviet legitimacy – were supposed to appoint managers. But the soviets themseves were still elected, so workers’ power was still respected in an indirect way.

However, there were  two problems. The elections of soviets was based in the factories. While these factories were under workers’ management, these elections could find place in an environment the workers could consider their own. But when these elections had to find place in an environment in which they had an old-fashion appointed director, this was no longer the case. Workers had to exercise their freedom in a factory in which they were no longer so free.

Soon, a second, much larger problem, took precedence. The soviets themselves lost much of their democratic character. In the spring of 1918, there were a number of re-elections of  local soviets in central Russian cities. Bolsheviks lost their majorities, Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries (SRs) gained. This was worrying, not just for the Bolsheviks, but for the revolution itself. For these Mensheviks and SRs opposed the revolutionary goal of soviet power, and wanted to replace it with parliamentary rule, a much more limited form of democracy which the working masses had decisively rejected in the October revolution. Worse, SRs and Mensheviks were not above collaborating with right wing forces in armed efforts to overthrow the revolution. With these parties in control of soviets, the revolution would  indeed be in danger.

However, this danger had its reasons. Workers’ discontent had been growing for months. Bolshevik answers to that discontent had already contained a serious dose of repression. That workers started to support exactly those parties that they had rejected in 1917 showed a failure of the Bolsheviks to keep the trust that they had gained during 1917. Not all of that was due to failues on the Bolshevik side. But part of it was. And anyway, when you set yourself up as a government above the working classes, you should not be surprised that these classes hold that government responsible for whatever goes wrong. This is what workers, understandably and justifiably, did. They started to demonstrate and strike, they were met with Bolshevik armed force, ans sometimes with lethal bullets.  They started to make their opposition visible. They started to vote Menshevik and SR. Bolshevik power, however, did not accept the results. The new majorities were prevented from taking their soviets positions. In the place of soviets, revolutionary committees were formed, appointed by Bolsheviks, filled with Bolsheviks. Power from above, no longer from below.

The lesson was clear: Bolsheviks were for soviet power, but not unconditionally so. As soon as workers started to elect on-Bolshevik majorities, the Bolshevik party reserved the right to overthrow these majorities. All for the good of the revolution, of course. But should the final arbiter of what is good for the revolution not be the class that makes the revolution and tries to build its own new society?

In a very serious sense, the working class had lost the core of the power it had gained in 1917. Workers’ councils were no longer truly in control, and in as much as they still were, Bolshevik pressure saw to it that these soviets had solid Bolshevik majorities whether workers voted freely that way or not. From the early summer of 1918, the Bolshevik regime was no longer a faithful expression of the proletarian revolution but a force standing above and against that revolution.

The Trotskyist position of defending the proletarian-revolutionary legitimacy of that regime – already a shaky proposition for the contradictory times in the first months after October – becomes clearly wrong after that. You can side with the revolution of the working classes of Russia. Or you can side with the regime that came from this revolution but came to stand in opposition to these classes. But you cannot do both.

(this is the third part of a series. Earlier articles appeared on February 19 and April 18).

Greece: crisis deepening, resistance continues

April 23, 2010

The financial crisis in Greece  is deepening. At the same time,  workers’ struggles  are continuing against the austerity policies that the government is imposing.

Signs of deepening crisis are not hard to find. Today, the Greek government asked for financial support. Such aid has been made possible by an IMF/EU program. Greece “had hoped  that just the promise of EU support, agreed last months, would have been enough to reassure markets andhelp its recovery.”  That hope proved an illusion.

The trigger for this decision was more financial trouble for the Greek state. Yesterday, a “worse-than-expected budget deficit of 13.6 percent” was made public. “The moment has come”, thus spoke prime minister Papandreou, announcing his decision to ask for financial aid.

This means that the financial disaster is far from over. It also means that the austerity policies imposed on the population of the country, are not sufficient to restore the confidence of financial insitutions on the international market in the Greek state and its policies.In fact, they are saying: we want more austerity! In the meantime,there is already far more austerity than the workers in Greece are willing and able to stand passively. This means that the clash between what capital demands and what workers are prepared to take is only deepening.

This same week, the resistance of workers against these policies has again become clear. T Yeterday, Thursday , April 22, there was a public sector strike. “Doctors, nurses, teachers, tax officials and dockers stopped work, paralyzing public services, while thousands are expcte to march to parliament at midday as European and IMF officials meet.” A civil servant, quoted by Reuters, explains: “We won’t tolerate any more measures because we cannot make ends meet. I have a mortgage, two children. I have cut down on every luxury. Why don’t they catch those who stle the money? Is my salary or my mother’s pension of 300 Euros going to save the country?”

Taxikipali, reporting on, has more on this strike and on strikes that had been announced for the week that is now ending: by taxi drivers,  amongst others. Taxikipali writes that “another strike wave is on the rise in greece.” I can only hope this wave will grow higher and will wash the government and its policies away. In the meantime, taxikipali’s reports are, and will likely remain, an important source of information and inspiration from Greece in the tense days and weeks to come.

The Russian experience, 1917-1929: (1): the revolution itself

April 18, 2010

The Trotskyist interpretation of the aftermath of the Revolution, the developments in postrevolutionary society in the former Czarist empire, is defecient. In an earlier article, I sketched the main outlines of that interpretation. Here I will try to explain what is wrong  with the first parts of it.

The first element in the Trotskyist analysis, however,  is basically correct: yes, there was a working class revolution in Russia in 1917. First, there were the demonstrations for bread in Women’s day in Petrograd. A general strike grew out of these protests; demonstrations grew, police and soldiers failed to break the tide of revolt. Within a week, mutinies brought whole regiments to the side of the rebellious population. After  some wrangling and much despair in high places, the Czar abdicated. The workers had overthrown the Czarist state within a week. this  became known as the February Revolution.

This workers’ revolution, however, did not directly lead tothe power of the working class over society. There developed a period in which a Provisional Government, first of liberals, later of reformist socialistsunder the leadership of  Kerensky, tried to keep any changes within capitalist limits. Especially, they wanted to continue the war against Germany as part of the Entente with France and britain. Thorough reforms were endlessly postoned. On the other side, there was the network of workers’, soldiers’ and peasants councils: the soviets. They expressed the power of the exploited classes, of whicht the urban working class held the central, stragegic  position.

At first, workers and soldiers mostly elected delegates of the reformist parties in the soviets. Under their tutelage the soviets were a kind a of loyal opposition. Within months, however, workers saw that these kind of socialists refused to bring about the changes workers wanted: an end to the war, measures against hunger, workers control of the factories against a management that defended their privileges and power. Workers began to shift their support to a party that, after an internal strruggle, mor ore less expressed their desires for radical change. Peasants  began attacking the landlords and taking over their lands. The revolution was not over; it had barely begun.

This was the period of dual power: a pro-capitalist gvernment, against soviets who more and more expressed the desire to continue the revolution. Bolshevik support grew, struggle intensified; in July, there was almost an insurrection that overthrew the goverment. The government and the right wing struck back: in August, there was the coup attempt by general Kornilov. This collapsed because of worker’ resistance in whcih the Bolsheviks played a prominent part. In September, the Bolshevik party gained majority support in the important soviets of Moscow and Petrograd.

Their leader Lenin now began to pushfor armed insurrection to overthrow the government, who was g quickly losing much of iets authority. After an struggle within the party, combined with the pressure of workers and peasants who were already beginning to take things in their own hands, the Bolsheviks opted for insurrection. A weak effort of the government to transfer revolutionary regiments out Petrograd, and to closeBolshevik papers, was exactly the provocation the Bolsheviks could use. A few thousands Red Guards and revolutionary soldiers overhrew the government. This became known as the October Revolution.

The Bolsheviks leadership, together with some Left Socialist Revolutionaries and anarchists, did much of the organisational work through the Military Revolutionary Committee. However, the Bolshevik leadership – Lenin from a disctance, Troksky on the scene itself – led the operation. It was the Bolsheviks which were in charge – but they made there move in the knowledge that their slogan – ‘All Power to the Soviets”- had majority working class support. In the All-Russian congress of Soviets, in session while the insurretion unfolded, a majority accepted the Bolshevik proposal to form a government made of Bolsheviks. Thse whole thing had aspects of a coup d’etat. But it was much more: a tide of working class revolt that had first overthrew Czarism , had now led to the overthrow of the provisional government as well. Workers’ and soldiers’ councils were in charge. Or were they?

There was a contradiction from Day One. By having their leaders elected in a government – even of it as called a Council of People’s Commissars – the Bolshevik party created an instutite that stood, in a rea sense, above the soviets. Yes, it was responsible towards the soviets, it reported back etcetera. But the relationship between soviets and government was not unlike the relationship between a government and a parliament in bourgeois democracy: in practice, the government has enormous leeway, the parliament is not in charge. Neither were, within months after the October revolution, the soviets.

Yes, 1917 saw a working class revolution. But the outcome was contradictory: a extention of soviet power, at first encouraged by the Bolshevik leadership; but at the same time, the construction of  a state power above the soviets,  instigated by that same Bolshevik leadership. That is: the Bolsheviks did not unequivocally bring the soviets to power. They brought themselves to power, on the basis of a soviet majority. That is not quite the same thing.

One could say that this new state was legitimate, because its leaders were elected in that government by the soviet congress. However, that is only valid as long as such a congress, or the Executive Comittee elected by such a congress,  was, and remained, in the position toe replace the government – and as long as workers and peasants could elect end replace their delegates when and if they chose to do so. That proved an illusion in the years that followed.

And even then, its validity is rather limited for those who take the slogan “All Power to the Soveits’ seriously. As soon as soviets tolerate a government with extensive powers above them, power has in essential respects shifted from the soviets to that government. In that situation, the councils may give the government legitimacy, they can influence the direction of government policy. But the councils in such a situation, were not in charge. There was partial soviet power in Russia after the October revolution. But “All Power to the Soviets?” Not exactly.

Referring to the points in whicht I summarised the Trotskyist analysis in my earlier article: point one – Russia experienced a workers’ revolution – stands. Point  two – the Bolsheviks led the working class to soviet power – in a very real sense does not.

Confrontation in Thailand has potentially revolutionary dimension

April 12, 2010

Demonstrations in Bangkok, Thailand, have brought about a severe crisis for the government of prime minister Abhisit. This is a culmination of demonstrations which have been going on for weeks. On the one side is a government, installed by parliament under pressure of the military, and after court action. On the other side are demonstrators, mobilised by the so-coalled Red Shirts, demanding the end of that government, and new electionas afther the parliament has been dissolved. They are generally, but not exclusively, supporters of former prime minister Thaksin, who twice won elections but was overthrown in a military coup. On Saturday, thousands of demonstrators clashed with thousands of soldiers, ordered to suppress the protests. At least 21 people died: protesters, but also a Japanese camera man working for Reuters, and four soldiers.

That the crisis is coming to a head is shown by political reactions, both from the side of the protest movement – the Red Shirts – and from the side of authorities. A Red Shirt leader, Jatuporn Prompan, called on the King, the much – and undeservedly – revered Bhumibol, to act. This shows a lack of confidence in the strength of the protest movement itself. It is not an good thing when a movement for more democracy calls upon higher, totally undemocratic authority to get its way, if only partly. It can also be seen as a sign of hesitation, a lack of confidence in the movement’s strength to push all the way – and maybe a  lack of desire, too. Moving all the way, the Red Shirt movement can easily become – in a certain sensse already is -much more than a pro-Thaksin movement. It might move in the direction of more racical democratic, but also social, change. Not all Red Shirt leaders might find that desirable. Hence, maybe, the call upon the monarch to solve the crisis for them.

This is happening almost at the same time that the authorities are clearly hesitating. That was already noticeable on the day of the clash, last Saturday. After pushing forward, after violent clashes, military leaders withdrew the troops in a sort of truce with the protesters, who by that time were not unarmed anymore. That was not a sign of authorities’ strength.

Today, there were more symptoms of weakening on the authorities’ side. The electoral commission in Thailand is invesigating possibly illegal funding of the governing party. Illegal funding has been effectively used against a pro-Thaksin-party, during the right wing campaign to overthrow their government. Now, this weapon is working the other way. It may give the Army an excuse to drop its support for the current government. It may even lead to the disbanding of the governing party, just like a pro-Thaksin-party had to disband after a similar investigation.

Army support for the government seems already fading. General Anupong Paojinda, head of the army, has said that parliament should be dissolved. He adds, however, that the timing should be subject of negotations. The Red Shirt movement wants parliament dissolved immediately. Still, the remarks of the general add to the already significant pressure on the government to make concessions.

What is the background of all this? We see a clash with two dimensions, contradictorily related. In one sense, this is a clash between different segments of the establishment, between competing bourgeois politicians and factions around them. We have on the one side the government, supported by the military leadership, by the business elite in Bangkok, and by the court of king Bhumibol. On the other side, we have former prime minister Thaksin, living in exile but still exerting influence to rbing about a kind of come-back.

He was – and still  is – an enormously rich businessmen. He went into politics, and won two elections convincingly. His government was seen as corrupt, but not more  so than preceding governments. He used bloody repression against Muslim rebels in the South of the country. In an anti-crime-campaign, police killed large numbers of suspects, or so-called-suspects. He opened up the urban economy to neoliberal measures, privatisation for instance. All this makes him quite an unlikely hero for the downtrodden, the oppressed and the poor.

Both sides – the Bangkok elites who govern today, and Thaksin who governed until 2006 – have used street movements to have their way. The government of today got appointed by parliament after ferocious street protests against Thaksin, and against a government of Thaksin supporters that got elected after the military overthrew Thaksin. The street movement was known as the Yellow Shirts. In 2007, they blocked two Bangkok airports. The military tolerated that, showing on whose side they were. Shortly after that, the pro-Thaksin-government was replaced by parliament, and the present government was installed.

Then it was the turn of Thaksin supporters to take to sthe streets. That is what we are seeing these days and weeks. But, where the Yellow Shirts got the support of the army – with army pressure helping them to governmental power – the Red Shirts have to confront that army. This is one sign that Red and Yellow shirts do not just support different politicians; they have a different social base, they appeal to different groups of people. And that difference has political and social reasons.

Thaksin, when he was prime minister, was corrupt and repressive. But that is not at all the whole story, as Giles Ungpakorn, socialist from Thailand, critical Red Shirt supporter  and exiled for political reasons, explains. Thaksin also introduced policies that helped poor people in the countryside, farmers in the rural north of Thailand. They got accessible health care, and credits. For this reason, Thaksin came to be seen as a friend of the poor. He became tremendously popular among large numbers of poor people in the villages of Thailand. This made him, at the same time, a most hated figure among the middle classes in Bangkok, the urban rich, and among the forces upholding the position of the rich: the army and the court. They used corruption charges against Thaksin. But their deeper grievance against Thaksi was class-based, rooted in the fear of the rich for anything that made the poor stronger and more confident.

That is the second dimension of the struggle. Not just a struggle between capitalist political factions, but at the same time a struggle between rich and poor – and between dictatorship and democratic change. Thaksin was elected twice. Abhisits government cannot say that much. His government, formed in 2008, is the product of parliamentary manoeuvre, court action, military pressure … a kind of indirect military coup. The road for all these machinations were earliar opened by the military coup of 2006, against Thaksin himself. The Red Shirts stand for restoration and strengthening of democracy, for elections whose results are respected,even if these results are disliked by the Bangkok elite. The government and the military and the court stand in the way of these demands.

The Red Shirts are Thaksin supporters, and in that sense, a bourgeois force in Thai politics. At the same time, they are mostly poor people, standing up for their right to be something, to be taken into account. That gives the protest movement a potential that goes beyond the limits of capitalist politics-as-usual. And there are those within the Red Shirt movement who, less or more conciously, push things beyond these limits. In other words, things might get out of hands of any bourgeois political force, from Thaksin or others like him. That makes the events interesting, and for revolutionaries potentially explosively important.

Maoism in India

April 6, 2010

Maoist guerrilla fighters have ambushed and killed at least 73 officers of a paramilitary unit, according to a report in the New York Times. The attack is part of a long armed struggle in parts of India.

“By some unofficial estimates, roghly 200 security officers have been killed by Maoists during the past 12 months”, according to the article. For instance: “On Sunday, Maoists detonated a land mine in the state of Orissa, killing 10 officers and injuring 16 others. Last month, the Maoists blew up a railroad track, forcing the minor derailment of a passenger train. And in February, about 100 Maoists on motorcycles stormed a police outpost in the state of West Bengal, killing 24 security officers.” Aljazeera has a long list of Maoist attacks, from October 1, 2003  up until today’s operation. Most of all these attacks are directed at police and other security forces of the indan states; some of them involve the liberation of Maoist  and other prisoners or the capturing of arms, a few of them have civilian victims.

Of coursel there is the usual state hypocricy in condenning the attacks.  Palaniappan Chidambaram, Indian Home Minister, says he is “deeply shocked at the loss of lives”; according to him, “the Maoist attack showed the ‘brutality and the savagery they are capable of’ .” Was he ever ‘deeply shocked’ by the vilence of the Indian state against poor villagers in tribal areas, the areas where Maoism finds so much support? He studiously ignores the reason of attacks like these. They are part of a guerrilla war waged by a movement that tries to defend the interest of millions of the most oppressed an downtrodden people in India. And they are a  reaction to a brutal counterinsurgency campaign by the Indian state, an effeort to crush the Maoist insurgency by force. That, no doubt, was the reason that the paramilitary patrol was on the place were they got ambushed in the first place. Attacks like these should be seen as assertive self-defence by the Maoist movement.

This movement had been in existence for many long and bloody years, as Aljazeera explains. The revolt started in 1967, when  Maoist activists fought against a landlord in a West Bengal village called naxalbari. That is why this movement is usually referred to as Naxalites or Naxals. They are now active in a third of the country, in 16 states of India, in 195 disctricts out of a total of 604 disctricts., according to Aljazeera. There may be 10.000 trained and armed guerrilla fighters in the Maoist movement, and 54.000 people as active organised supporters, if the estimate of the Indian government is correct. Considering the size of the territories where the insurgents operate and  have  influence, these numbers almost certainly are a gross underestimate.

The Maoists , formerly organised in several factions, are now unified in an organisation calling itself the Communist Party of India-Maoist. They find support among tribal communities in the countryside. These communities are not only desperately poor: they are systematically marginalised and oppresed. That is why people in tribal villages rally to the Maoists.

Mainstream sources tell grim stories about Maoist attacks on police forces, and on villagers whom Maoists accuse of collaboration with the police. The other side of the story – the brutal oppression going on in the countryside – is sometimes mentioned as a factor in the war, but is rarely given its due weight as the root cause of the insurgency.

For understanding, for a vivid account of Maoist activity in India, we can usefully turn to a beautiful article written by Arundhati Roy: “Walking with the comrades”. It had appeared in Outlook India, on march 29, and its reading is highly, highly recommended. Roy describes her encounters with Maoists in fascinating detail. She explains how the Indian state basically confiscates tribal grounds, to allow corporations to build mines and dams that destroy the areas where these communities try to make a living. She explains how Maoists gradually found support amongst tribal communities, by helping to organise struggles against the onslaught of these corportions and against the state which enables these corporations.

We read horror story upon horror story – of a woman fighter whose first husband was killed by Indian state forces, and remarried. Her second husband was also killed by Indian state forces. of a mother whose son was killed by police, the body dragged behind a vehicle, the mother walking behind the police , mile after mile, to see her son’s burial. Villages burned, women raped. reaing all this, what may surprise the reader is not the violence of the Maoists. What  may surprise you is the relatively limited character of this violence: not at al random but mainly – though not exclusively –  directed at police, paramility forces and people actively supportive of these kind of forces.

Roy is clearly filled with admiration of what she sees of Maoism in action. Some details and comments are both funny and very moving. Her first encounter, for instance: she was  supposed to meet a guide  whom she could recognize because he would wear a cap and would carry an issue of Outlook magazine, and bananas. When she met the guide – a young guy – she found that he had a cap, but no Outlook: could’t find a copy, she read on a note the boy gave her. “And the bananas?”  she inquires ” ‘I ate them’ he said. ‘I got hungry'”  Roy: “He really was a security threat.”

But she is not without healthy doubts and criticisms. She laments the lack of criticism of earlier Maoist and related experiences – China,  the horrors of the Khmer Rouge. She mentions China, an example for  indian Maoists. “China’s path has changed. China has become an imperial powe now, preyin on  other countries, other people’s resources. Only, the Party has changed its mind.” Well, not that much, one might add. There was already the occupation of Tibet, in the heydays of Maoism… 

She continues: “When the Party is a suitor (as it is now in Dandakaranya), wooing the people, attentive to their needs, then it genuinely is a People’s Party, ist army genuineely a people’s Army. But after the revolution how easily this love affair can turn into  a bitter image. How easily can they turn upon the people. Today in Dandakaranya, the Party wants to keep the bauxite in the mountain. Tomorrow, will it change its mind?” Good questions, unfortunately.

The problems, however, may run somewhat deeper than Roy suspects. The People’s Party and  the People’s Army may be supportive of people’s need, and may be supported by a large part of the people in turn. But they ar not controlled by these people. A central leadership – organised through the usual Stalinist hierarchies of Politburo, Central Committee, army leaderships, cadres etcetera – are in control. People debate and participate in the execution of policies. The basic outlines  however, are handed down from the leadership, from above.

In case of Maoist victory –  this leadership will be in charge – not the people themselves. And this leadership will be in charge of a state amongst other states, with all the pressures of competition that implies. That means that they will feel themselves forced to develop the economy, through state-led accumulation (as in Maoist China), thorough deals with multinationals, or through a combination of both (as in present-day China). And then, beware the people who get in the way of  ‘progress’… That is the tragedy of top-down-revolutinary politics: it can lead to a somewhat better life for the oppressed, but it cannot lead to true liberation.

Roy doesn’t analyze Indian Maoism along these lines. But she feels the danger, and the reader feels with her. She has her doubts about some instances of maoist vilence – summary executions of people consedered traitors, for instance – as well. But then, what are the rebellious tribespeople supposed to do? “Go to the police?”

Do these people have an alternative, other than either submission to brutal oppression, or a war that  brings new  injustices and oppression? Roy does not find a way out. Revolutionaries, in India and elsewhere, have no  other choice but to try to find such a way. However, Roy’s beautiful piece at least gives us an understanding of Maoism in India that is most welcome.

Obama, or: changes we can become sick of

March 31, 2010

Are there still left wing people around who can believe in Obama’s ‘Change you can believe in’? Decision after decision had been made by Obama and his White House crew that proves theat hs presidency is becoming more dangerous and – to left-wing hopes misplaced in him – dissappointing by the day.

A few examples. Obama spoke beautiful words about climate change, how big a problem that is, and how measures to stop it are urgenty needed. Yet, today we read that “Obama has announced proposals to expand offshore il and gas exploration in a bid to reduce foreign energy dependency.” The source of the fossile fuels – whose use contributes mightily to carbon dioxine in the atmosphere, and hence to the greenhouse effect which is a source of climate change – may change, from Middle East oil to Atlantic ocean oil. The addiction to these fossile fuels  remains, the monster destabilising the climate will be fed – with Obama’s explicit consent. n this way, he hopes to get Republican support for a law to  combat… climate change! In order to save the climate, we had to destroy it…

Talking about energy and the Middle East: the U.S. drive against oil state Iran is continuing. The U.S. president has pressed for tougher UN sanctions against Iran over its nuclear program to be passed in a matter of weeks.” Iran is building nuclear facilities. The US claims Iran is doing that because it  is making nuclear wapons. There is no evidence for that claim.

And even if it were true, that is no reason for any aggression towards Iran. An Iranian nuclear weapons capability wuld mean that the country becomes what Pakistan, Iran, India already are: nuclear powers. Rejecting  Iran’s step in that direction,while accepting those three powers als friends and allies – it is vile hypocracy. And let us not forget that the US – that same US that Obama is pushing towards aggression  against Iran – is the one and only country that has actually used nuclear weapns – against two cities of a defeated enemy.

But – Obama fans may retort – hasn’t he finally reformed health care? Yes, he did – in an atrocious way. Millions of Americans will remain uninsured. The rest will be forced to buy expensive insurance policies which don’t even cover all costs. People on lower incomes get government subsidies for buying insurance – but these subsidies cover only part of the costs of that policies. No full coverage, rising expenses for people, money going from government to insurnce companies through the subsidies people get for buying insurance….

It is a bad deal. If yo don’t take my word for it, maybe Dr. Steffie Woolhandler, one of the founders of Physicians for a National Health programme, can convince you. Or maybe the statement of that organisation itself, will.

If all this is not quite enough,  you might uesefully check out Chris FLoyd’s beautiful blog, Empire Burlesque. He write article after article attacking the Obama myth with facts, figures and quotes. Enlightening stuff.