Category Archives: international

Another England Is Possible

Steve FreemanSteve Freeman is a Republican Socialist from England. He recently spoke at the Radical Independence Conference in Glasgow.

As Scotland moves towards the 2014 referendum something is stirring in England. People are increasingly distrustful and alienated from the Westminster parliamentary circus. The Crown’s austerity policies and the redistribution of wealth to the super-rich have added to the anger. The following is based on my contribution to the discussion at the Radical Independence Conference held in Glasgow on 16 November with Bernadette McAliskey and Mary McGregor in which I spoke about the future for England.

My own political thinking has been shaped by the changing relationship between England and Scotland. I became interested in this in 1978 and came to Scotland and first met Allan Armstrong. We began to co-operate around the debate in the SWP about the 1979 Devolution referendum.

It is worth remembering, as a member of the audience reminded me, that although there was a slight majority vote for Devolution it was defeated in parliament by Tam Dayell’s 40% rule. The Callaghan government fell and Thatcher and the Tories came to power and proceeded to shift the political terrain against the working class.

Thatcher and neo-liberalism were the real victors of the defeat of Devolution in 1979. It was twenty years before another opportunity arose. Today when Unionist politicians warn of the dire consequences of supporting the SNP plan for Independence we should remember 1979. If the Unionists win the Tories will gain a great boost in authority and this will encourage them to step up their attacks on the working class in Scotland and England. Once the danger to Unionism is safely out of the way it will be ‘no more Mr. Nice Guy’ – like Osborne’s budget announcement of increased investment in Scotland under the Barnett Formula –after a ‘No’ vote this formula will be scrapped.

I was back in Scotland in 1997 with the next referendum on a Scottish Parliament and helped Mary McGregor and other comrades do leafleting in Glasgow. It is a great honour to be back again this time on a republican socialist platform with Bernadette and Mary. Next weekend I will be attending the Left Unity conference in England and will bring greetings from Scotland.

In 1978 I referred to this at the national question and in 1997 as the Scottish question. Today I think of this as the English question. What are we going to do about England? A largely Scottish audience might be forgiven for thinking this is a problem for the English people. But as internationalists and socialists it has to be seen as ‘our’ problem since it will impact on the working class North and South of the border one way or another. Reactionary forces are more than ready and willing to exploit any division between the people of Scotland and England. ‘We’ have to find a democratic, republican and internationalist answer.

This England

England has 57 million people which includes18-20 million workers with 4 million on the minimum wage. The productive power of this section of the people makes the English working class a very important constituency for any progressive movement in Scotland. This is one way in which working class oriented socialists differ from nationalists. Our aim is to build greater unity and solidarity between the working class in England and Scotland and this means recognising that Unionism is a barrier to unity, through its effective denial of democracy and self government.

The British ruling class know that the battle to save the Union has to be fought for in Scotland and England. The main Unionist parties, the Tories, Liberal Democrats and Labour, will want to win the support for the idea that we are all ‘better off together’. In fact we are all getting worse off together as the Unionist political system keeps inflation up, cuts taxes for the rich, whilst the employers hold wages down.

The present situation is fraught with danger because in England millions of people are unhappy with a parliamentary ‘democracy’ that is failing them. There are two expressions of this disillusionment. On the right the failure or decline of ‘democracy’ is down to foreigners in the guise of the European Union, immigrants, welfare too generous for poor people, and rebellious Scots. UKIP is the party gathering up and reinforcing these views. Nigel Farage, the uncrowned King of Little England, was recently given a big raspberry by Scottish protesters.

Fortunately Little Englanders are not the majority. Many are looking at the Scottish Parliament and some of its social democratic policies – no privatisation of the NHS, no student fees, care for the elderly – and wonder whether England could have its own Parliament. In 2011 the Occupy movement organised a protest at St Pauls Cathedral taking up the issue of the City of London and demands for ‘real democracy’. The latest focus for political discontent has been the Russell Brand interview with Jeremy Paxman which gave expression to widespread alienation especially among young people.

In his New Statesman article Brand says “when people talk about politics within the existing Westminster framework I feel a dull thud in my stomach and my eyes involuntary glaze”. He continues “like most people I am utterly disenchanted by politics. Like most people I regard politicians as frauds and liars and the current political system as nothing more than a bureaucratic means for furthering the augmentation and advantages of economic elites”….”I don’t vote because to me it seems like a tacit act of compliance…As far as I am concerned there is nothing to vote for … a far more potent political act to completely renounce the current paradigm.”

England’s Commonwealth

In looking for an answer Brand stumbles across Oliver Cromwell’s address to the Rump parliament in 1653 when he condemns the House of Commons as a “den of thieves” inhabited by “a pack of mercenary wretches” who would “sell your country for a mess of pottage” and who had “grown odious to the whole nation”. But Brand retreats somewhat when he remembers that Cromwell was no saint himself and had starved and murdered Irish Catholics. Nevertheless an intelligent comedian like Brand is looking at the right period in our history but the wrong time.

In 1649 England became a ‘Commonwealth’ or republic. The Levellers, the republican party of the revolution, stood on the brink of creating a democratic state whilst the Diggers began to occupy the land. We need to wind the clock back to the start of the revolution over ten years earlier in Scotland when the Covenanters rose in rebellion against Charles Stuart and defeated his invading army. This triggered a wider rebellion in the English parliament and led to the civil war.

In 1644 an army of Scottish Covenanters and Cromwell’s Ironsides joined forces in a united front to defeat the Royalists at the battle of Marston Moor near York. It was one of the decisive turning points of the revolution. For those who may imagine that a Scottish rebellion and a united front with forces in England are confined to the 17th century then look at the Poll Tax. A Scottish movement against the Poll Tax in 1989 joined with progressive forces in England and delivered the fatal blow in the Trafalgar Square Riots which more or less ended Thatcher’s rule.

England’s left

Let us leave our history and return to the present. In England the left remains deeply divided between the Labour Left, the Socialist Party, the SWP and a range of independent socialists and small groups. A new initiative started by a Ken Loach appeal has drawn the Indies and small groups to form Left Unity. Left Unity decided to allow its supporters to present Platforms. It is interesting to examine what was thrown up. It tells us about the past and the future of the English left.

The main stage is occupied by the Left Party Platform which identifies with the 1945 Labour government and intends to recreate the ‘spirit of 45’. In opposition was the Socialist Platform linked with the 1917 revolution and wants a revolutionary party to abolish capitalism. Both main platforms reflect an implicit and sometimes explicit British perspective. They are properly called the British Broad Left platform and the British Socialist Platform. These are the politics of the recent past which their supporters want to repeat despite its manifest failures.

Fortunately there is an alternative Republican Socialist Platform. This platform uses words not used in the other platforms like ‘England’, ‘Scotland’, the ‘social republic’ and the ‘English Commonwealth 1649’. This may make sense in Scotland but not in England. ‘Strange’ ideas are not welcome in conservative England. The word ‘republic’ is not popular either, labouring as it does under the weight of over three hundred and fifty years of British counter-revolution. The platform will not get much support. But it is the one which will have to be taken seriously and reckoned with not least it relates to a future which is rapidly coming up over the horizon.

Meanwhile the Left Party Platform and the Socialist Platform are set to dominate the Left Unity conference like two bald men fighting furiously over a comb. I hope to report to your readers on what happened from a republican socialist perspective on another occasion.


Next year will be a big year in Scottish politics. So I am pleased to be invited to speak at the Radical Independence Conference and have an opportunity to express my solidarity and seek your support. Republican socialists in England, the few of us that there are, need your help. As internationalists we must get the working class movement in England to understand the importance of the referendum for its own future. Then we create a virtuous circle by helping each other.

The working class movement in England must be shown that this is not a two sided contest between Unionists, parading as internationalists, and Nationalists who want to grab more for the Scottish capitalists in a deal with the US and the EU. If the working class sees this, and only this, they will think a plague on all their houses. In so far as the official Trade Union movement takes sides it will likely go with Unionism as ‘internationalism’ reflecting the politics of the Labour leadership.

The struggle around the referendum must come to be seen as a three cornered fight between Unionists, Nationalists and Republicans, the latter calling for a Scottish Republic and the only democratic form of self determination on offer. Any united front between Nationalists and Republicans is surely temporary and confined to the referendum vote. The case for a Yes vote is that although both Unionists and Nationalists are supporting the continuation of the monarchy, a yes victory will provide better conditions to advance towards a Scottish Republic provided the Republicans appear as an independent force and not simply as the tail-end of the Nationalists.

The Republicans must therefore present themselves as Internationalists. This is not about nationalists simply disguising themselves as ‘internationalists’. The Unionists will use a bogus internationalism to make their case against narrow Nationalism. But Unionism is internationalism-from-above, imposed on the Scottish people in 1707. Republican-Internationalism comes ‘from below’ by agreements for mutual class solidarity and support. In practical terms it has to be built during the referendum by carrying the message to the trade union and socialist movement in England with the help from supporters in England.

There is a final point which I did not include in my talk not least because I have only begun to think about it. Those few of us campaigning for a Republican Socialist Party in England would be greatly helped if a Republican Socialist Party (Scotland) was established. There is surely a great vacuum on the left in Scottish politics since the demise of the Scottish Socialist Party. Although the SSP is still fighting on it is surely a shadow of its former self from the high point before the Sheridan debacle.

How can the Republican-Internationalists become a significant force in Scotland without a new party? How can Republican-Internationalists present an alternative to the SNP and act as a beacon for the left in England? The SSP was a product of the 1997 referendum and the need for the Scottish left to raise its political profile. Surely the same applies today. The SSP was a trail blazer. Now is the time to get back on track but with the emphasis not so much on ‘Scottishness’ but republican-internationalism. A new party should be formed in 2014 if not in time to fight the referendum then to continue the struggle in an ‘Independent’ Scotland. But if the referendum is lost and the movement demoralised, what better time to signal there is another way to another Scotland.

The Future of Sandinismo

Nicaragua FSLN Revolución y Victoria

Sam Gordon writes from Nicaragua on the history and prospects for the Sandinistas

The decade of the 1980s was hard time for the political Left. Britain had the Thatcher government; the USA had Ronald Reagan as president. After him George Bush continued the Republican Party rampage. In South Africa the Apartheid regime was slaughtering black people on its own streets. In South America the dictator Pinochet was consolidating his rule in Chile and the generals of Argentina had been “disappearing” people they didn’t like for some time.

At the end of 1981 Ronald Reagan fired 11000 USA striking air traffic control workers. British print workers fought a rearguard action against Rupert Murdoch’s News International and the London Metropolitan Police. Elsewhere in the country police forces fought members of the National Unions of Mineworkers on picket lines during a year long strike. It all ended up rather badly for the trade unions.

In defiance of many British Labour Party members the parliamentary leadership opened the door leading away from social democracy and towards neo-liberalism. Party leader Neil Kinnock, often with eloquent oratory, boasted about his council house upbringing and working class roots. But he was no match for Margaret Thatcher, daughter of a grocer and unheard of Conservative councillor who lived above the shop. History records that the handbag truly trumped the windbag.

A more radical political Right advanced. Its campaign not solely confined to domestic policy. The post Second World War consensus, with a voice for the poor, was declared no longer fit for purpose. In this new world order the Non Aligned Movement (NAM), a gathering of poorer nation known as the G77 and the United Nations funded United Nations Council for Trade and Developed (UNCTAD) became part of a lost legion. The once influential voice of Liberation Theology – putting forward “God’s option for the poor” in the Catholic Church of Latin America was swept aside.


In all this doom and gloom a lot of people, not only the committed Left, found a silver lining. That was the example of Nicaragua. The appealing sparkle of this small Central American republic didn’t only attract other Latin Americans. It caught the attention of people from Asia, the Arab world, Australia, North America and Europe. Scotland had its own Scottish Medical Aid for Nicaragua, a Non Governmental Organisation (NGO) specializing in health and education.

Much has been written about Nicaragua. The struggle of its people against the 30- plus- year Somoza family dictatorship, followed by a war on its democratic survival waged by dissatisfied Nicaraguans with training, support and funds from the USA, known as the Contra War. (Contra is Spanish for against). All this is a matter of public record. But the euphoria that accompanied the struggle of the 1980s has died away. Many First World Nicaragua activists of that era have moved on to other fronts of interest. And, truth be told, among many on the Left there is also a sense of letdown, even betrayal by those who led the Sandinista Popular Revolution of 1979.

My objective here is not to refresh the memory of readers concerning recent Nicaraguan history. Nor is it to point out the various, perceived or otherwise, failings, short comings, and sell outs that have so disillusioned and perplexed the Left. What I do hope to achieve is to place contemporary perceptions of Nicaragua today in a relevant context. From there, perhaps we might be better informed about the future options history will present to us.

A Starting Point

Nicaragua is a country with a distinct political life and tradition. Since 1979 there have been three main political camps. The oldest gathers around the green flag of conservatism. Stronger in the southern, Pacific side of the republic, its appeal is found among those favoring the big latifundista or land owners,  with an inward emphasis on the economy and the acceptance of an old and establishes social order. A place for everyone, where everyone knows their place.

Growing out of that have been various liberal parties. Historically their strongest support has been based around the northern regions of León and Chinandega. They gather around the red and white flag and are much more inclined towards an export led economy. It wouldn´t be too far off the mark to say they represent “new money” while the conservatives come from “old money.” The truth is that a lot of the new money families that dominate much of party political and economic life come from long established families that were once conservative.

Many of Nicaragua’s problems today stem from the fractious period of the mid 19th century. Then, both tendencies locked horns in debilitating squabbles and civil war. Opportunities to advance the nation state, even in a nationalist sense, were squandered by warring factions of the ruling classes. Interference from the USA further aggravated this.

The third political force in Nicaragua today is Sandinismo. The name comes from Augusto César Sandino, who had worked as a mechanic in the Mexican oil fields. Under a red and black banner and rejecting Marxism, he led an army, during an insurgency war in the 1930s. Some of this tradition continues in the form of the Sandinista Front for National Liberation (FSLN), created in the 1960s. It is the largest single political party and is capable of mobilizing support from large sections the rural and urban poor.

Apart from these principal players there are other supporting roles to consider in the political drama. A good many people who were Sandinista activists during the 1980s no longer regularly engage in political activities. Liberalism has a number of different parties that seem unable to settle their differences. A splinter group from the FSLN also exists (1) as does a small party with roots going back to the Contra movement (2). Political parties with bases solely in the autonomous regions of the Atlantic coast make up another component.

At one time Nicaragua claimed over twenty political parties all vying for a voice in the National Assembly. Today, essentially, there are two competing groups; the ruling FSLN and the Liberals. Off stage, other acts come and go lending their own contribution to the political drama. A number of NGOs exist, often promoting a political agenda. Special interests, rights and pressure groups operating under a banner – their banner and one much used by commentator s- of Civil Society are both visible and vocal.

The Triumph Lost?

An armed struggle, which eventually drew active support from the wider Nicaraguan population, took much of its inspiration from the Cuban example of 1959.(3) On 19th July 1979 the Sandinista forces entered the capital city of Managua. Nicaraguans still refer to this as La Diecenueve, The 19th. But the political significance of time is best summed up as El Triumfo, The Triumph.

The Triumph of 1979 set out a bold thesis. Disbandment of the dictator’s armed forces, redistributive land reform, health services and education made accessible on a scale never seen before in Nicaragua, a new constitution, women in key government and administrative positions and other progressive reforms.

Agricultural cooperatives were set up, in line with Sandino’s original aspirations. Work brigades bolstered by young volunteers from the city helped harvest Nicaragua’s principle export, coffee. A wide range of skilled workers in health services, technical and higher education as well as areas of industrial and administrative expertise arrived from all over the world, often with their government’s direct or indirect support.

This was enough to evoke the wrath of the USA which trained and equipped the right wing, counter revolutionary Contra. The ensuing armed struggle took on the characteristics of low intensity warfare. It was successful in distorting the national economy and contributing to community tensions. Yet despite what the government in Washington said about the threat of communism down south in its back yard, large, medium sized and small privately owned businesses continued to struggle and survive in revolutionary Nicaragua. This war and many of the social programs officially ended when the FSLN, in the grip of war induced stress, lost the elections of 1990.

The loss of the Sandinistas has been explained away by some as a general tendency that was marked by the fall of the Berlin wall, the reunification of Germany and the collapse of the Soviet Union. The latter’s collapse came a year after the Sandinistas lost the elections.

This European attempt at socialism has been largely consigned to history books, with the odd derogatory comment by journalists of left and right persuasions, when hard pressed to give an explanation of unfolding history. But in this part of Central America Sandinismo clings on in the form of expanded health and education services, cooperative and women’s movements and a body of social aspiration not satisfied by neoliberalism.

Many commentators have said that Violeta Chamorro, the UNO candidate who won the elections, ended the war.(4) An alternative take on this would be to say that the Contra war ended in 1990, not because Violeta won, but at the same time, because the US deemed it unnecessary to support, supply and train the Contra. In the peace that came after the war a train of ideas and practices set in motion, rolling back the thesis of the Sandinista Popular Revolution.

Moving On – Going Back 

To the mid 20th century populist British Conservative Prime Minister, Harold MacMillan, is accredited the saying; “don’t fall out with the Brigade of Guards (elite British military regiments), the Catholic Church or the National Union of Mine workers.” As a paradigm of British governance this lasted into the early 1980’s. That was when Thatcher and Reagan went on a union busting spree. It coincided with a related shift in US foreign policy.

As far as the US military establishment of the 1980’s was concerned communists were everywhere, particularly in southern Africa. Cuban solders with old Soviet tanks and other military equipment arrived in Angola to fight alongside the MPLA who were up against the Apartheid army of South Africa.(5) There were other threats in the region. Besides the African National Congress in South Africa, there was SWAPO (6) in South West Africa (now Namibia) and FRELIMO (7) in Mozambique. In Washington, policy makers turned from “containment” of communism to a “rollback” mode.(8)

This was the world of the 1990’s into which Nicaragua was thrust after years of dictatorship, guerrilla war, foreign military and economic intervention in their domestic affairs. The Sandinistas had presented their brave new thesis to the world. But the piper was playing the tune of structural adjustments paid for by the International Monetary Fund. The First World began celebrating the antitheses of the 1980’s.

In the Background

In his book, Eurocentrism, the Egyptian economist Samir Amin devotes considerable attention to metaphysics; its role in what he calls a tributary culture and its decline in the advance of capitalism. The tributary system Amin refers to takes in Europe but stretches well into Asia as far as India and China, the Arab world and much of Africa.  In the Atlantic countries of Europe this is usually called feudalism. Amin, a Marxist, does not deny nor diminish the rise of capitalism in Europe but consistently argues the case for the understated economic, social and cultural development of Africa, Asia and Latin America.

At the end of the 15th century Columbus opened the doors of Central America to European migration.  With it came the political perspectives and social attitudes particular to that time period. And the main vehicle, navies and armies apart, for transmitting these influences and structures was European religion, nothing less that the Catholic Church. At the core of the church, along with its doctrines and liturgies, snuggled close to spirituality was metaphysics; dimensions of reality that exist beyond the physical world which yet form part of human experience. Following Amin’s lead, a brief journey along the metaphysical route taken by Nicaragua may be worthwhile.

No visitor here will escape the importance of Christian beliefs in Nicaragua. Humble gathering places and modern temples of Protestant evangelism proclaim a variety of Christian interpretations. Baroque churches testify to the continuous, if somewhat challenged continuity, of Roman Catholicism. Street processions commemorating the Virgin Mary and a host of other honoured catholic dignitaries and saints are part of everyday life.

For many in Nicaragua saints are seen as a dependable entity. An actual example I know of will serve to illustrate this point. During a difficult labour a pregnant woman prayed to Saint Martin for help with her delivery. When the baby was born, presumably with the beneficial intervention of Saint Martin, the saint was duly honoured. The child was named Martin.

Unlike North America, in Nicaragua, there was not the same continuous flow of migrants during the 19th and early 20th centuries. The northern migrants brought diversity in language and cultural experience and a wider set of skills and knowledge in manufacture, commerce and intellectual traditions. In Nicaragua during the same period there was less industrialisation. It did not have the same volume of external and commercial influences as Panama, Costa Rica and El Salvador.

With the arrival of Europeans in Central America the seeds of capitalism were scattered and husbanded. In Nicaragua’s fertile land it grew and flourished, but unevenly. The few who controlled coffee, sugar, fruit, basic grains and to a lesser extent beef production, doubled in the role of political elites. In these brutal conditions the social order was established and maintained by the rule of the caudillo or strong man. Like other parts of Latin America, capitalism developed in what an advisor to Chile’s Salvador Allende, writing about modern industrial management, has referred to as conditions of low variety; that is, options were few.(9)

For those on or beyond the margins life was precarious. Paid work, was seasonal, casual, not well rewarded and at the whim of the patrón, or master.  In the material and social world of ill-developed capitalism, dependency was pervasive. Metaphysics reflected this reality. If good fortune came it was a case of ojala.   This is a Spanish word derived from Arabic, which literally means, “If Allah wants it.” In Catholic Nicaragua, for Allah read; The Virgin, Heavenly Father, or any number of saints.

After what was regarded as progress during the 1960s and 1970, the NAM, G77, and UNCTAD began to wane. Much of the First World Left did not recognise this for what it was; a systematic attack on opposition to the “reproduction of capital.”  In other words, it was the advance of imperialism.  Amin sums it up like this, “The collapse of the Soviet Union system also entailed the collapse of the social democratic model . . .” (10) There are still Social Democrats but the parties which laid claim to that tradition have broken faith and adopted neoliberalism. Who could the wretched of the earth now turn to if not to themselves?(11)

A Revolutionary Return?

First Lady Rosario Murillo, Coordinator of the Communication and Community Commission has described the present electoral period as the second stage of the Sandinista revolutionary government. This view has been reinforced by her frequent use of such phrases as; “the Nicaraguan family” and “Nicaragua – Christian, socialist and in solidarity.” This is a linear view of history.

A more dialectical portrayal of the present FSLN government might be expressed differently. In this case the present, the here and now, is a product of past activities and beliefs. The present is a working out of a future that has not yet achieved definition. It is a synthesis, not an end game. It is the preparation of a new thesis.  This begs a number of questions. Does the future of Sandinismo reach for the right or the left in political terms or will it wither on the vine. Will it follow the way of the caudillo or be inclusive and participatory? Above all, does it have the desire and capacity to be a transforming political force? That is, facilitating a radical and popular shift in power.

Some say the FSLN, with President Ortega as general secretary and his wife as the public voice of government, is already taking on some of the characteristics of the Institutional Revolutionary Party of Mexico. A view expressed by Monica Baltodana (12). The term “Ortegaismo” has been coined to describe what some see as the Ortega family’s high profile in state and commercial affairs. Another view claims that party, and therefore Ortega loyalists, have been placed in too many positions of national, municipal and civil society administration. No party occupies elective space to the left of the Sandinistas.

There are distant similarities to the populist presidency of General Juan Perón of Argentina during the 1940s. This saw social and welfare benefits for trade unionists and the urban poor, while “Peronista” officials were awarded key administrative positions. Sometimes images of Nicaragua’s presidential couple, sat at table with high ranking military and police officers, Sandinista trade union leaders, a cardinal and bishop of Managua are reminiscent of General Franco in Spain.

 A Change of Colours

It was a matter of some public knowledge that Manuel Calderón, mayor of the university city of León, did not have a good working relationship with Rosario Murillo. But it did come as a surprise when the FSLN political secretary of León delivered a demanding message from the First Lady to the mayor; that his anticipated resignation was not a matter for negotiation butone of immediate effect.

Manuel’s brother, a local catholic priest, organized a mass for the dismissed mayor, in the Church of the Hermitage. His sister, an official of León’s municipal theatre took a more dramatic and colourful approach. She announced on air, “me hermano es rojo y negro, no chichi /  my brother is red and black, not pink.” Chicha is a cheap soft drink made from ground maize, sweetened with sugar and made an insipid pink with artificial colouring.

In the election campaigns of 2006 and 2011 pink banners replaced some, but by no means all, of the old red and black. The colour has become synonymous with Rosario Morillo who is credited with managing both victorious campaigns. Rosario has become increasingly identified as the voice of government and people have quietly speculated that she could be the FSLN presidential candidate in the 2016 elections. She does not hold any elected position at present.

Civic Concerns

The Sandinista government has introduced a number of programs aimed at combating poverty, which few believe the Liberal opposition would have undertaken. Zero Hunger, Zero Usury, and Dignified Housing are just some of the social programs set in motion by the FSLN government. The purchases of Venezuelan diesel and petrol through ALBA have ensured that transport runs, services are delivered and the wheels of private industry keep turning. Yet, as with any democracy concerns have been voiced about those who hold public office. Sometimes the concerns are ephemeral or easily abated; others are more persistent. Below are listed some of the more notable concerns that have surfaced since the FSLN lost the 1990 elections.

Govern from below 1990

In a speech following the 1990 election loss Daniel vowed to keep “ruling from below” a reference to the power that the FSLN still wielded in various sectors. He also stressed his belief that the Sandinistas had the goal of bringing “dignity” to Latin America, and not necessarily to hold on to government.

“We will govern from below, we will govern from below, and we will govern from below. We will defend from below, we will defend from below”, he said at some length to the cheers of enthusiastic supporters.(13) The voters had decided that they did not want him to govern; that was clear. Although, he certainly retained the democratic entitlement to defend from below.

La Piñata 1990

A piñata often appears as a birthday treat. A cardboard mock up, usually in the form of an animal, the piñata is suspended from the branch of a tree or a beam in the roof of a house. An adult controls the height and swing of this with an attached rope. Young children then take turns to swipe at the piñata using a stick or base ball bat. To add to the fun the child is blind folded and the other children scream instructions; up, down, behind, etc. When the piñata has been battered to destruction sweets fall out and the screaming kids get into an unsightly scramble for the goodies which have fallen to the floor.

After the shock of losing the 1990 elections the word piñata entered into the political vocabulary of Nicaragua. The state had confiscated lands from Somoza collaborators and sympathizers, many of whom had fled to Miami. Cuba had donated a complete sugar refinery to the government. What to do with these resources? It was widely believed, and with good reason, that the new government would either pocket or privatize these resources. So, much was dispersed to FSLN members for safe keeping, until the return of Sandinismo. That’s when the word piñata became political.

Zoilamérica  1998 – . . .  

In the early days of March 1998 an event took place that in its own way was as shuddering as an eruption of one of Nicaragua’s many volcanoes. Zoilamérica, daughter of Rosario Murillo and adopted step daughter of Daniel Ortega, proclaimed to the world that she had been sexually abused as a child by Daniel over a period of many years. Commentators went into overdrive. Some claimed that this revelation followed a typical pattern of someone who had suffered prolonged sexual abuse. Zoilamérica, then 30 years of age, was denounced as a CIA plant, and worst of all, a sociologist. For others, presumption of innocence until proven guilty was a non starter.

Since then Zoilamérica petitioned the National Assembly to have Daniel’s parliamentary immunity to prosecution set aside so he could be prosecuted in the courts. The National Assembly which had a male majority refused to include the petition on its agenda. Through a Nicaraguan NGO, the Nicaraguan Human Rights Centre, she then filed a suit with the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights (IACHR) claiming denial of justice. In 2001 the case was declared admissible. Soon after, Daniel agreed to stand trial. But the judge said the case was closed as the statute of limitations – time limit in legal terms – had been exceeded. The following year the IACHR’s suggested both parties find a “friendly solution.” This was accepted. In 2003 Zoilamérica abandoned this legal avenue.

The family tragedy continues to rumble into farce.

El Pacto, Therapeutic Abortion, and More

In 1999 Daniel Ortega and Arnoldo Aleman, Constitutional Liberal Party leader, found common ground. This became known as “El Pacto”, The Pact. Agreement was reached on what percentage of votes, given certain margins, would permit a particular presidential candidate the right to take office. There was also agreement on quotas of officials, with known political positions, holding key posts in the Supreme Court and the Supreme Electoral Council. This scandalized many Nicaraguans at the time and continues to exercise commentators. It has entered into the everyday currency of how political business is done in Nicaragua – from below. Today it looks like the FSLN has done rather well from El Pacto, with apparent control of important state institutions. Daniel Ortega won the presidential election of 2006 with less percentage vote than he lost the pre-Pact elections of 1990.

The right to what in Nicaragua is referred to as therapeutic abortion – termination of pregnancy when certain conditions were determined – existed on the statute books for over a hundred years. Before the 2006 election both Catholic and Protestant evangelical churches campaigned to change this law and deny women, under any circumstances, the long standing right. In the National Assembly the churches had their way. No Sandinista and few others, voted against the new law.

There are a number of other agreements and convergences affecting public life at national, municipal and community level.

The Future Begins Today

It’s been clear for some time that many national liberation movements of yesterday have succumbed to the interests of global capitalism. South Africa, Mozambique and Angola have all embraced neoliberalism and this has come to pass under governments of national liberation parties, claiming left credentials. The compliant position of Western governments and electorates has already been mentioned.

Given that, it’s reasonable to ask if Left political movements and those of us who support them really have any idea of where we want to go. What is “the world we want to see”, of which Amin writes? It should come as no surprise that there is a certain fogginess at this stage of history. One of the most successful strategies employed by today’s capitalism – aided by its cheerleader politicians and journalists – has been to convince us that neoliberalism is without ideology. It’s a question of, “that’s just the way things are.” Lost in the fog also is the influence of sections of the European Left which took such pride in its refined analytical capacity. The old Soviet Union was variously declared; real socialism, a degenerate worker’s state, a deformed worker’s state, state capitalism, a workers’ state with bureaucratic deformations . . . . Political parties, not to mention pubs, were so defined. The search for ideological exactitude in human behaviour can be exasperating at times, not to mention beneficial to the Right.

In Nicaragua Sandino is proudly remembered for his words, “Only the workers and the peasants will go all the way to the end.” Yet when he rejected Marxism in the 1930’s he also stepped back from any ideological identity. Some say he was of the anarcho-syndicalist tradition. The general was influenced by mysticism and had some contact with mystical and spiritual organisations.(14) An accomplished organiser, insurgency soldier, and inspirational leader, he left behind a political tradition favouring the poor. But he left little by way of a body of political ideas with economic and social structures on which to build a system of governance. Almost 80 years after his death his latter day followers seem to have little in the way of an ideological compass. Indeed, it appears to be the case that the die has already been cast to present Daniel Ortega as the party’s candidate for president at the 2016 elections. Not for the first time, questions of internal democracy and personality cult are raised.

The expression of ideology might be written up in libraries or drafted during conference discussions. But the ground work is done by men and women struggling with the powers that be and interacting with each other. Just now all seems quiet in Nicaragua. It’s almost like Yeats said, “The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.”(15) Another internal challenge is to increase the variety of political options available to a long suffering people. The MRS has emerged from a section of a previously existing political class. Outside of those who have at one time or another come through the university education process, this party has at best patchy support among the popular, urban based classes. Daniel and the FSLN are seen as representing stability. That is pleasing to some, particularly those in government backed employment. For those not so fortunate the situation described as stable is seen more as stagnation; no work, little prospect of work unless they are identified as FSLN supporters, work that is often poorly paid.

Further away, the Arab Spring is still a work in progress. But it does show that mounting discontent will eventually have its day. Contrary to what the opposition to the FSLN often claim Nicaragua is not under a dictatorship. Neither is it a country which lives and breathes contesting political ideologies. Marxism is seldom spoken of; since the 1980s socialism seemed to have been forgotten until Hugo Chavez put it back on the agenda. But Nicaraguans, even at the level of formally uneducated and relatively uninformed poor, will speak of what is fair and just. Students, pensioners, transport workers and retired solders have all taken to the streets in popular protest during recent years. How the Sandinista government handles this discontent will affect the balance of support it can expect at the polls.

In a wider world, at least in Latin America, Fanon’s “wretched”, are awakening with new options. This is principally through the creation of structures such as ALBA – which is the Spanish word for dawn. Are Nicaragua’s old leaders able to rise with a new dawn, capable of stretching beyond stability and moving state and society along the road of transformation? Right now it looks like the present leaders, safe with apparent stability, have travelled as far as their hearts and minds permit them to go.

Notes and References

  1.  In 1995 a new party split off from the FSLN calling itself Movimiento de Renovación       Sandinista /Sandinista Renovation Movement (MRS).
  2.  Former members of the Contra, their families and sympathizers stopped using the name Contra and formed a political party called the Partido Resistencia Nicaragüense / Nicaraguan Resistance Party in 1993.
  3.  Zimmermann, M. 2000 “Sandinista Carlos Fonseca and the Nicaragua Revolution” Duke University Press  Chapter 3 The Cuban Revolution 1958-1961
  4. Unión Nacional Opositora/ National Opposition Union (UNO) A group of opposition parties from the right, centre and left of Nicaraguan politics formed to oppose the FSLN at the 1990 elections.
  5.  MPLA   Movimento Popular de Libertação de Angola / People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola
  6. SWAPO  South West African People’s Organisation
  7. FRELIMO      Frente de Libertação de Moçambique/ Mozambique Liberation Front
  8. Pashard. Vijay, 2012 “The Poorer Nations- A Possible History of the Global South” Verso Page 112
  9. Espejo, R. Harnden.R 1989 “The Viable System Model – Interpretations and Applications of Stafford Beer’s VSM” John Wiley and Sons  Page 56. Stafford Beer worked with the Popular Unity government on modernizing Chile’s economy prior to the 1973 military coup.
  10. Amin, S. 2008 “The World We Wish to See – Revolutionary Objectives in the Twenty-First Century” Monthly Review Press  Page 15
  11. The Wretched of the Earth is the title of book written about the Algerian war for Independence against France. Its author, psychiatrist Frantz Fanon from the Caribbean island of Martinique, was one of the movement’s leaders.
  12.  Friedman, Mike.  020308 Nicaragua: The First Year of the Ortega Government – A Balance Sheet
  13.  Envio March 1990 Issue Number 104
  14. Mysticism was having something of resurgence during the 1920s and 30s. Sandino had ties with the Magnetical-Spiritual School of Universal Commune, which was founded around 1911 in Argentina and had followers in Mexico.
  15. Yates, W. B. 1919 “The Second Coming”

Socialism finding new strength in East and Central Europe

Fraktion DIE LINKE zeigt Sparpaket die Rote Karte

Bill Bonnar looks at the slow rebirth of the left in Eastern and Central Europe

Between 1989 and 1992 the peoples of central and eastern Europe abandoned ‘already existing socialism’ to enthusiastically embrace capitalism. Whatever the Left’s collective critique of this model of socialism it represented a catastrophic defeat for the Left internationally and a general discrediting of the entire idea of socialism. Two quotes probably summed up the feeling. ‘The socialist experiment which began in 1917 ended in 1989 and ended in failure’. (Martin Jacques, Marxism Today, 1993). ‘The collapse of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical disaster of the 20th century’. (George Galloway, 2010). The purpose of this article is not to delve into the reasons why after 40 years of socialism people flocked in their millions to welcome the free market system but rather to analyse where we are now. For the sake of this article it will not cover the Soviet Union, Yugloslavia and Albania but instead cover the former GDR, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria. It will look at why socialism in these countries collapsed, what the experience of capitalism has been and where the Left is in these countries today.


The starting point must be to look at how socialism arrived in these countries. Germany, alongside Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria were part of the axis powers defeated primarily by the Soviet Union and then occupied. Poland had been divided between Germany and the Soviet Union. In none of these countries would the people have seen the Soviet Union as liberators. Only in Czechoslovakia were the Red Army treated as such. It is also interesting to note that again, only in Czechoslovakia was there a mass basis of support for socialism in the shape of the Communist Party which was probably the largest and most influential party in the country in 1945. Therefore in most of these countries socialism was imposed rather than welcomed.

From the start socialism was interconnected to Soviet security considerations. Given the experience of invasion during two world wars the Soviet Union wanted to create a security zone; later named the Warsaw Pact. This, rather than any ideological commitment to socialism was the Soviet Union’s prime concern. Evidence of this can be seen in Greece. After the war Greece was certainly ripe for socialism. The Communist Party was the largest party in the country. Ellas, a left wing partisan movement linked to the Communist Party was in effective control of large areas. Socialism had mass support while the monarchy and capitalist parties were divided and in crisis. Yet the Soviet Union put enormous pressure on the Communist Party not to take power a delay which allowed the Right to recover and emerge triumphant with the active support of Britain and America. It was later revealed that this was part of a secret deal between the Soviet Union, America and Britain in which the West ‘could have Greece’ while the Soviet Union ‘could have Romania’. Romania, rather than Greece was more useful to the Soviet Union as a buffer state. It is also worth pointing out that the primary reason for the Soviet interventions in Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968 was the belief in Moscow that these countries were about to pull out of the Warsaw Pact.


The second reason was in the nature of the socialist system which emerged in these countries. This can best be described as an authoritarian model of socialism; socialism without democracy. I am aware of the conflict inherent in this but bear with me. In the immediate post war years these regimes were overtly Stalinist in nature modelled closely on the Soviet Union. When Stalin died the Soviet Union developed a post Stalinist regime which removed the worst excesses of Stalinism while retaining the same authoritarian system. The countries outlined above followed a similar path with the exception of Romania. The lack of democracy created a specific problem. Authoritarian political systems are essentially rigid in nature fixed in a moment in time. However this doesn’t mean that the societies they preside over are unchanging. The irony is that these regimes oversaw the social and economic transformations of their societies for the better. War shattered, often pre-industrial economies were transformed into modern industrial system. Housing, health care, education and social care were greatly improved. Material living standards rose beyond all measure. While society was transformed the political system remained unchanged. What’s more the regimes saw all challenges to their system as a threat to be repressed, ruling out the possibility of reform. The exception to this was Czechoslovakia in 1968 when a movement to transform the system into ‘socialism with a human face’ was led from within the Communist Party only to be crushed by a Soviet intervention.


The lack of democracy also created something else. Democracy is a very efficient political system because it is not fixed. As the economic and social base of society changes a democratic political system will adapt to these changes and change accordingly thus moving at one with society.

At the same time if individuals or groups have grievances they have the opportunity to resolve these grievances in a democratic system. With an authoritarian system there is often nowhere to resolve problems so they fester and link up with other grievances and soon the grievance becomes generalised against the system. This was very much the experience in Eastern Europe.

By 1989 it could be said that socialism collapsed because it had no mass basis of support; the exception being in Bulgaria where the collapse of socialism was greeted by a general air of disbelief.


As could have been predicted the introduction of capitalism proved well short of being the ‘promised land’. The initial impact was a generalised economic collapse as industry after industry closed down. Hitherto extensive social provision was decimated while living standards plunged. Some countries such as Bulgaria and Romania have remained in this phase. The other countries have recovered a point although this development has been very uneven. Twenty five years on all these societies suffer extreme economic and social problems many largely unheard of under socialism. At the same time the world economic crisis caused by the banking disaster battered these economies exacerbating many of these problems.

What has been the political response to this? The political spectrum basically divides into three; the Radical Left, the Centre and the Radical Right. The Centre Parties emerged strongly in the initial post socialist period embracing the new age of capitalism. Some described themselves as Centre Right emerging into prominence in the dying days of socialism. Some called themselves Centre Left often emerging from the wreckage of the Communist Parties to reinvent themselves. In reality these parties were essentially the same, sharing the same policies, agendas and objectives. As the capitalist dream has foundered, so have the fortunes of these parties. All are currently in crisis. In response there has been a marked rise in parties of the Radical Right most notably in Hungary with Jorbick. These parties have proved popular with their heady mixture of right wing nationalism, racism and xenophobia and their authoritarian solutions to their country’s problems. Their message is simple and effective. With the failure of socialism and western style capitalism a radical alternative is necessary.

Rebuilding Socialism

For the parties of the Left the past 25 years have been extremely difficult. The collapse of socialism wasn’t just about the ending of a specific socio-economic system in these countries it destroyed the very idea of socialism. For the Left to progress is had to develop a coherent critique of the previous system, remain true to the basic principles of socialism and relaunch the socialist project with a vision of socialism very different from the past.

In Poland, Slovakia, Bulgaria and Romania the socialist left remains very weak with little or no parliamentary representation. Various Democratic Left/Social Democratic Left /Green Left type parties have emerged with one overwhelming thing in common; their rejection of anything which can be described as socialist. The exception has been in the former GDR and the Czech Republic.

When Czechoslovakia split between the Czech Republic and Slovakia the Czech Communist Party (called the Communist Party of Moravia and Bohemia – KSCM) emerged. What was initially striking was its refusal to drop the name Communist. This has led to various attempts to ban the party, in fact its youth wing was banned between 2006 and 2010. The party remains firmly committed to the ideas of socialism although has developed a strong critique of the previous socialist system. Instead their programme envisages a democratic model of socialism with a variety of forms of social ownership replacing the idea of universal state ownership. They are part of the European Left and the Nordic Green Left Bloc in the European Parliament. With around 100,000 members they have consistently polled well in elections making a breakthrough this year in the recent parliamentary election with almost 15% of the votes (741,000 votes – 33 seats) and finishing the third largest party. Their strongest base appears to be in former industrial areas and the party retains a strong ‘workerist’ identity.


The success in the Czech Republic is matched by the situation with Die Linke (The Left) in Germany whose strongest base is in the former GDR. In the recent parliamentary election they emerged as the third largest party with almost 9% of the vote and 64 seats. In Berlin this rose to around 12% and in other parts of the former GDR its vote often ranges from 18% to 24%. Formed in 2007 from an alliance of what was left of the old East German Socialist Unity and a left breakaway from the Social Democratic Party they have around 65,000 members. Interestingly the rise of Die Linke has also been accompanied by increased state supervision similar to the Czech Republic with around a third of their parliamentarians under investigation.

What has become obvious is that the crisis of socialism in 1989 was quickly followed by a ‘crisis of capitalism’ which is still very much on-going. This has led to rise to radical forces which now challenge the existing status quo. In the Czech Republic and in the former East Germany that challenge has come from the Left but elsewhere it has come from the forces of the Radical Right; some of whom are openly fascist. The best example of this is the Jobbik Movement in Hungary which recently polled almost 20% of the vote. Jobbik are openly fascist even to the extent of some of their members wearing paramilitary uniforms and insignia modelled on the Hungarian fascist movement of the 1930’s. They glorify Hungary’s inter war fascist leader, Admiral Horthy and are openly racist and anti-Semitic. The rise of Jobbick and similar movements are not difficult to explain. For millions of East Europeans the failure of socialism was followed by the failure of capitalism. The rise of authoritarian, right wing movements who blame internal forces (national minorities) and external forces (the EU) for their country’s problems is perhaps inevitable.

The situation in these countries remain s volatile with countries like Bulgaria and Romania resembling ‘third world failed states’ to quote the Guardian from some time ago. What is clear is that capitalism is simply unable to resolve some fairly major problems and is directly to blame for many others. Socialism remains discredited although probably less so with the passage of time. There is certainly evidence that some of the older generation look back fondly to a time of economic security, good social provision, full employment and greater equality. However, it requires a younger generation, not encumbered by anti-socialist baggage, to rebuild the socialist movements in these countries.

Europe – What should the left say?

European flag
European flag









Bill Bonnar looks at the choices facing socialists over the referendum on EU membership.

For the Left it used to be fairly simple. When it came to membership of the Common Market the position was one of unequivocal rejection and a call for British withdrawal. The Common Market was an institution specifically set up to protect and extend the interests of monopoly capitalism. For those who embraced the different versions   of a British Road to Socialism which was almost all of the Left from the Communist Party to most of the Labour Party Left this would be impossible to implement while Britain was part of the Common Market. Withdrawal was a key part of any Left programme.  However as the Common Market has evolved into the European Economic Community and then the European Union it has also evolved from simply an economic union to become a political, social and cultural union which required a more sophisticated response from the Left. At the same time, opposition to the EU, which historically was centred on the Left, is now driven by the Right across Europe.

The economic structure of the EU has not changed from its inception; in fact it has developed to embrace much of the neo-liberal agenda inflicted on Europe over the past 30 years. Its core purpose; to defend and extend the interests of monopoly capitalism remains unchanged. But this is not the whole story. In many parts of Europe, particularly Germany, the social democratic consensus remains strong and that agenda has woven itself into the fabric of the EU much to the hostility of successive British governments. This has created the idea of a social Europe where a broad range of measures have been introduced over the years. These include measures on worker’s rights, the minimum wage, health & safety, women’s rights and measures to protect the environment. In themselves none of these are earth shattering but given the experience in Britain over the past 30 years it has been precisely these areas which have been under attack. Those trying to resist the neo-liberal onslaught have often tried to use Europe as a counter balance; this particularly true of the TUC.

A major turning point was the signing of the Maastricht Treaty in 1980 from which something quite startling has occurred. This treaty allowed for the free movement of capital and labour across the EU without reference to borders. It was a measure to facilitate the interests of capitalism on a European wide basis but as a by – product has created something additional; one of the largest cross migrations of people in history. Since 1980 literally scores of millions of people across Europe have migrated within the EU. French moving to Spain, Spaniards moving to Italy, Italians moving to Germany and the biggest migration of them all; British people migrating all around Europe.  It is now reckoned that around 4 million British citizens live and work or are retired in other EU countries. In recent years this has been added to by mass migration of people from central to western Europe forging  more of a European identity; particularly among young people who tend to comprise most migrants.  As an aside, how many people have noticed in Britain the way migrants from eastern Europe have replaced those from the Indian sub-continent as the new migrants of choice to be hated by papers like the Daily Mail. This recent migration has also affected the character of many cities particularly the major capital cities of Europe. More than ever cities like London, Paris, Madrid and Rome have become international centres; European rather than national capitals. This more international and cosmopolitan picture is something to be welcomed by a European Left uncomfortable with being identified with ‘national’ movements.

In turn, this mass migration has fuelled a reaction from the far right. In many countries, mass movements of the radical right have emerged in recent years; examples being Jobbik in Hungary, the Freedom Party in Austria, Northern League in Italy, Golden Dawn in Greece, National Front in France and our own UKIP. At the centre of the programmes of all these parties is strong opposition to the EU driven by racism and xenophobia fuelled by  mass migration resulting from the Maastricht Treaty. Opposition to the EU used to be the almost exclusive property of the Left. Now most Left organisations across Europe accept, to a greater or lesser degree, membership of the EU while almost everywhere else  opposition is  being led by the Right.

This poses a major strategic dilemma for the Left none more so than in Britain. If a referendum was to be held tomorrow on Britain’s membership of the EU, what would the rival YES/NO campaigns look like? The No Campaign would be a festival of reaction. With a direct appeal to British patriotic feelings it would be a campaign driven by xenophobia and racism and cheered on by the most reactionary sections of the British media. It would be a campaign marching to the tune of Rule Britannia and wrapped in a great Union Flag. It would also be a campaign supported and financed by those increasing sections of the capitalist class who no longer believe that membership is in their interest. Any attempt by the Left to organise an alternative No campaign would simply by squeezed out. The YES campaign would certainly be more progressive sounding. Common European identity, rejection of narrow nationalism and stressing the social and cultural advantages of membership. It also likely that progressive opinion in Britain would coalesce around the YES campaign with reactionary opinion doing the opposite. For the Left, being on the YES side of the divide would certainly feel more comfortable.

In Scotland, this debate takes on a particular focus. Again, if a referendum was to be held tomorrow opinion polls would suggest that England would vote overwhelmingly for withdrawal while most people in Scotland would vote to retain membership. Why is this? In part it is because European migration to Scotland has been proportionately less than in many parts of England. Also, immigration is ranked as much less of an issue in Scotland and is generally seen in positive terms. On the economic arguments for or against membership while a case can be made either way as to whether Britain has been a net beneficiary of EU membership the situation in Scotland is more clear cut. Scotland has been a significant beneficiary particularly through the European Structural Fund. A key plank of the Better Together Campaign was that an independent Scotland was a threat to Scotland’s membership of the EU. This has now been completely turned on its head. It may well be that such membership can only be guaranteed by independence.

Where does all this leave the Left? To go back to the beginning. The Left’s economic analysis of the EU is as relevant today as when it was first formulated. The EU is a capitalist club with institutions and procedures designed specifically to promote the interests of monopoly capitalism on a European level. In fact many of the reforms over the years have been aimed at strengthening this raison detre.  Of course, another way of looking at this is to ask the question; what did we expect? The EU is composed of capitalist economies whose interests are reflected in the institutions of the EU. For this to change the individual and collective economies of these states would have to be very different.

As for the social changes ranging from the social charter to the emergence of more of a European identity; there is much that the Left would be broadly in favour of while recognising that we are not talking about a socialist Europe here.

On the issue of whether Britain should retain its membership in the eventuality of a referendum the Left should support a YES vote. This does not invalidate our critical analysis of the EU but simply recognises that this is as much a strategic and tactical issue as it is an issue of principal. Any approach we adopt has to take into consideration the objective conditions which help inform that approach. To put it simply, the Left cannot be a single voice in a choir of reaction.

At the same time the left must project an alternative vision for Europe. The ultimate aim is for a socialist Europe; part of a socialist world and we should not shy away from proclaiming this even if it sounds idealist and a bit utopian. If we don’t believe in this why are we here? Short of this we can present a picture of a different kind of Europe in the short to medium term. This would centre on the following;

Democracy; the current institutions of the EU are undemocratic and even anti-democratic in nature. Even the elected European Parliament is hardly a shining example of a democratic body. We should support measures to strengthen the European Parliament as a counter weight to the other institutions; making it more accountable and relevant.

Social Cohesion; many countries in Europe are well ahead of Britain in terms of equality, workers’ rights, social provision and environmental protection. The very best examples of these should be established as a standard and enshrined in a new European Charter.

Immigration; Fortress Europe should be ended and the myth that Europe would be swamped by countless millions of migrants from outside be challenged. The cross migration within Europe has been an overwhelmingly positive phenomena; there is no reason to believe that increased immigration from beyond Europe’s borders would be any different.

Regulation; The EU was established to regulate the European wide interests of capitalism in the interests of capitalism. Regulation can also involve the opposite. An example of this would be bringing in regulation to curtail the massive tax avoidance by multi-national companies across the continent.

Vision; It is clear that the current crisis in the EU is in part because people increasingly do not buy into the vision of European unity as currently constituted. We need to come up with an alternative vision perhaps borrowing the slogan from a related campaign;  ‘Another  Europe is Possible’.

Because successive governments, fearing the result, have resisted a referendum on EU membership it is becoming clear that such a referendum is now inevitable. All that remains to be decided on is the detail of the question and the timing. To an extent this has let the Left off the hook in agreeing a position on EU membership. It no longer has that luxury.


France: One year after Sarkozy’s defeat: an anticapitalist view

"Le Front de Gauche, c'est le front du peuple"

John Mullen is an activist in the Gauche Anticapitaliste, part of the Front de Gauche (Left Front). In this article he looks at the first year of Socialist Party President, François Hollande.

One year ago, in May 2012, we were celebrating the defeat of an arrogant right-wing president, Nicolas Sarkozy. François Hollande, newly elected, immediately took a thirty per cent wage cut for himself, promised to tax the rich, give the vote to non-French residents at local elections and take French troops out of Afghanistan.

How is it then that one year later, Hollande’s popularity has plunged faster than anyone thought it would? According to recent polls, only 24% of French people trust him to change things for the better, a lower score than Sarkozy ever had. The liberal weekly Le Nouvel Observateur carried the headline this month: “Is Hollande done for?” Such is the atmosphere of political crisis that Nicolas Sarkozy, who has kept out of politics for a year, is thinking of a comeback.

The main reason for all this is Hollande’s seeming incapacity to do anything effective while unemployment figures are standing at least eleven per cent (the highest for 14 years), tens of thousands are being made redundant and living standards are dropping. Also, the recent discovery that Hollande’s budget minister was himself hiding millions in a Swiss bank account and lying about it in parliament caused a huge uproar in a country where distrust of politicians  was already at a very high level.

Hollande in the European Union has supported the institution of stricter rules on budget deficits which are the excuse for ever-harsher austerity measures in several countries. In France, he is clearly opposed to any real resistance to ruling class priorities. His government refused a bill which would have given an amnesty to a number of trade union activists charged with offences linked to strikes, and last week he declared to 300 businessmen he invited to his home that the “first duty” of the government was “to stimulate the entrepreneurial spirit”. While rafts of redundancy plans destroy many thousands of jobs (in oil, tyres, steel, cars and elsewhere), Hollande insists there is nothing a government can do about this, since the market is King. He has ruled out nationalization of industries to save jobs, and the new law he passed, making it easier for bosses to sack people and harder for workers to oppose their sackings at an industrial tribunal, was actually initially drafted by the MEDEF, the bosses’ federation!

Social budget cuts and deregulation continue apace. Reducing the cost of social services to the ruling class is at the centre of attacks on workers worldwide : One of Sarkozy’s major victories was to push through a law which meant people had to work longer for their pension, despite millions going on strike over the issue. Now, Hollande is already saying more sacrifices “are necessary” and 76% of French people do not trust the present government “to guarantee the future of retirement pensions” (which for the moment are considerably higher than in countries like the UK after Thatcher and Blair). We are expecting a major government attack on pensions soon.


This doesn’t mean that Hollande’s government has not made any reforms in favour of our class, just that his general policy is in support of the dictatorship of market priorities. One very important reform was the recent legalization of gay marriage. This change came mostly, initially, from the Socialist party itself. Once the Right began organizing enormous demonstrations against marriage equality, gay organizations mobilized in favour of the law, and almost all the radical Left moved into action to build the demonstrations.

In other areas, modest reforms have been carried through. A little more taxing of  the rich and better health insurance for the poorest, for example. The government has hired thousands more teachers, is opening far more nursery school places and has moved to stop richer parents choosing more privileged public high schools outside their local area. They have had more social housing built, limited some rent rises and improved retirement pensions for those who started work very young. A ministry for women’s rights has been set up, and women no longer have to pay part of the cost of an abortion. To please another constituency, they have reduced taxes for small businesses and given consumer organizations more power.

On questions of racism, the record is extremely poor. While a law was passed to make it much easier for foreign students in French universities to work in France, other even more important promises have been abandoned. Hollande had said he would make police officers give a receipt whenever they checked someone’s ID papers in the streets, so as to improve the present situation where Black and Arab people are often checked several times a week in Paris and you never see White people being checked. The interior minister, Manuel Valls, abandoned the idea because he says he trusts the police. As for the right to vote for immigrants, this promise, first made by the Socialist Party in 1981, has been abandoned. Meanwhile Valls is carrying out a policy of demolishing Roma encampments, and the numbers of unauthorized immigrants being given papers are no higher than under Sarkozy.

Worse still, the government seems keen to use Islamophobia to gain support. A recent court case where a tribunal found in favour of a woman sacked from a private crèche because she wore a Muslim headscarf was the excuse for the president to insist that he would examine the “need” for a law to stop women wearing headscarves from working with young children ! Interior Minister, Manuel Valls has declared that “The veil, which stops women from being what they are, will always be for me, and should be for the French Republic, something to combat.” In this atmosphere, criminal damage to mosques and to Muslim cemeteries is becoming commonplace.

Resistance on the industrial front

Faced with the social-liberal government, the Trade Union leadership is divided. Several unions have signed away workers’ rights in order to support a ‘left’ government, while others have been organizing resistance, if sometimes rather lukewarmly. There have been several radical strikes over the last year: airline staff, railway workers and television company workers, for example. An important car factory North of Paris has seen a strike lasting several months against its closure, and other fights against redundancies have been highly visible. Local teachers’ strikes against understaffing and arrogant management are not uncommon. And a national mass one-day strike and demonstration against austerity was well-followed, if not at the level of five years back. What is sorely needed are some clear victories for workers in order to inspire further resistance.

Naturally enough the fascist National Front is hoping to gain from the crisis and the disaffection with established parties. It has managed to modernize its image with its new leader, Marine Le Pen, got over six million votes in the presidentials and intends to use the local elections in 2014 to rebuild its weak activist organization, which has not yet completely recovered from the battering it took fifteen years ago from anti-fascist movements, a defeat which led to a damaging split in the FN. The traditional Right is now deeply divided over whether to begin alliances with the fascists.

Left Front

Anti-fascist campaigning is therefore crucial in this period, but only the rise of a Left alternative can brake the rise in fascist influence. And indeed, the situation has led to a sharp rise in political activity by those who don’t think that capitalism can be overthrown any time soon, but who think radical changes can and should be made through a combination of trade union and street struggles and electoral politics (that is to say, there has been a revival of what Marxists usually call Left reformism).

This is what is behind the rise of the Left Front (Front de Gauche), a political bloc including two big parties – the Communist party and the Left Party (Parti de Gauche), and six or seven smaller organizations of a few hundred each, mostly anticapitalist groups and including three organizations which split one by one from the New Anticapitalist Party over recent years.

Its main spokesperson, Left Party leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon, has thrilled millions of workers who want to fight with his impressive capacity to sum up the anger they feel.  “Immigrants aren’t the enemy, bankers are!” he declared, and has several times wiped the smug smiles off the faces of conservative journalist interviewers with devastating critiques of the political establishment. “We need to sweep away those in power” he said. Socialist Party reps accused him of dangerous rhetoric which could only help the far right, but were left red-faced when Mélenchon brought out a 1930s Socialist Party poster which carried… exactly the same slogan!

The Front de Gauche is popularizing, with impressive creativity, proposals for left reforms in the interests of workers, for example a ban on redundancies in firms which are making profits. Mélenchon says that social-democracy across Europe has abandoned the workers’ interests and calls for the establishment of a maximum salary, retirement at sixty and a big rise in the minimum wage. Around the country a series of dynamic public meetings and teach-ins keep the political alternative in the public eye. A major conservative daily newspaper, Le Figaro, is asking in its readers’ poll this week ” Is Jean-Luc Mélenchon a political danger for François Hollande ?”.

Naturally, Mélenchon’s ideas include all the contradictions of wanting radical change through the state and without social revolution. In particular, he defends the supposed ‘positive rôle’ of the French army abroad and France’s position as a nuclear power, and believes in the possibility of a revolution “through the ballot box”. In the long-term, in the struggle to overthrow capitalism, no doubt he will not go all the way. But for the moment, the role he plays is very positive, galvanizing and encouraging both workers’ struggles and the struggle for a Left alternative on many questions of great importance for workers.

The Front de Gauche is an umbrella alliance in which each organization keeps to its own principles. The Communist Party is by far the biggest component. A contradictory organization, sections of it concentrate on running town councils and on electoralism, while others are very much involved in trade union and other resistance actions. The Parti de Gauche (which split from the Socialist Party in 2009) has become more of a dynamic activist organization over the last year. It now has 12 000 members and can be seen recruiting students on university campuses, something the activist Left has not been strong on of late. The smaller organizations which are part of the Front de Gauche, each with two to five hundred activists, have been working closely together to form an ‘anticapitalist pole’, an ‘eco-socialist current’ within the Front de Gauche. A joint bulletin produced by six of the organizations, including mine, is making this joint work visible.

Taking the Bastille

The Front de Gauche called a mass demonstration for the 5th of May, one year after Hollande’s election, to demand real left policies, and constitutional change. The demonstration was led by contingents of trade unionists from recent and ongoing strikes and found a tremendous echo. Hundreds of coaches came from around the country. A carnival atmosphere reigned in the Place de la Bastille, with thousands of placards and posters carrying such slogans as “It’s time for the people to take power”, “We will not give up”, “Finance markets are the problem, not the solution” and “Wages are the solution, not the problem”. Many people carried brooms to represent the need for a clean sweep of politics and policies. (Photos at ). This collective expression of anger was a great success, and must be only the beginning. Recent dynamic protests against nuclear power and against the building of a new airport confirm that the desire to fight back is widespread.

If the Front de Gauche represents right now the centre of gravity of resistance politics in France, the revolutionary New Anticapitalist Party maintains significant activist forces. It is considerably smaller than it was a few years ago, principally because much of its leadership insisted that Left reformism could not exist or revive and therefore the NPA had nothing to say to activists close to the Front de Gauche except that the Front de Gauche would never fight against Socialist Party policies, an opinion which has proved to be hopelessly out of touch with reality. In a positive move, the NPA participated in the demonstration on the 5th of May, despite some sectarian articles in its paper. The other main revolutionary organization in France, Lutte Ouvrière, denounced the demonstration as “fomenting illusions” in the possibility of reform from above.


As readers are probably aware, Islamophobia, rooted in a very old French Left tradition of hostility to religious believers, remains rife across all the Left in France, including the Front de Gauche and the New Anticapitalist party. In the Parti de Gauche there are several leaders who would like to see Muslim headscarves banned in workplaces where children are present, for example. The minority of Left activists who want to fight Islamophobia is however bigger than it was ten years ago when headscarves were banned from high schools. At Sunday’s demonstration a ‘collective of Front de Gauche activists against Islamophobia’ gave out leaflets calling for a rally against further islamophobic legislation.

The coming months will see if the widespread anger Hollande faces can be transformed into effective action against government policies and against redundancies.

Will the real European Left stand up?

Manifestation du Front de Gauche [ 18 Mars , Bastille ]

This article by Murray Smith was written as a contribution to the debate around the Left Unity initiative which followed Ken Loach’s call for a new left party, and in response to a contributor who instead argued for building the left within the Labour Party. Murray is a member of the anti-capitalist party déi Lenk in Luxembourg, and of the Executive Board of the Party of the European Left.

Having followed with sympathy the emergence of Left Unity and the possibility of a new party of the Left being launched, I read with interest the two-part article by an anonymous figure, who may or may not be called Michael Ford, which may or may not be a pseudonym. I’m sure we’ll find out. For the purposes of this article, I will refer to him as Ford. In any case, whoever wrote it, the aim of the article is clearly to try and discredit the perspective of building a new party to the left of Labour and validate that of working with/within the Labour Party to drive it to the left. There will undoubtedly be many replies to Ford from people who are directly involved in politics in Britain, which I am not at present. However, an important part of Ford’s argument is to try and demonstrate that the political forces to the left of social democracy in Europe don’t amount to much, either politically or in terms of their support. In doing so, frankly, he paints a picture which has little relation to reality. This is what I want to take up (1).

At the end of the first part of his article Ford writes: “The traditions of the British labour movement are in many respects worse than those in the countries listed.  That can be debated, but they are unarguably enormously different.” That is certainly true. The British labour movement  has features which are unique in Europe. In particular, this is true of the Labour Party, in the sense of trade union affiliation and the role of the unions in the party. But is the difference absolute or only relative? If you compare Britain with France it looks pretty absolute. If the comparison is made with Northern Europe (Scandinavia, Germany, the Netherlands…), it is much less so. In those countries you have mass social-democratic parties which have historically had the loyalty of most of the working class and mass, unitary trade unions which have supported these parties. Quite a different picture to that of Southern Europe with mass communist parties and divided trade unions and where the (electoral) dominance of social democracy dates only from the 1970s. Nevertheless there are significant parties which are not only to the left of social democracy but are clearly anti-capitalist in both Northern and Southern Europe. They are stronger in the South than in the North, but that is to be expected.

Filling the space on the left

Let us look at what is common to the whole of Europe. The first thing is that social democracy is now, and has been for some time, part of the neo-liberal consensus. Not without internal tensions, in some cases. The second thing is that as a result, globally and with ups and downs, but overall, it is losing support from its traditional supporters and a space is opening up to the left. Now a space is not the same as a vacuum, which as we know Nature abhors, and which will be filled automatically by something or other. The space to the left of social democracy consists of people, real living people who have had enough of parties which betray their hopes, which no longer defend them but attack them. As a result they may be open to a party or parties which offer another perspective, one that breaks with the neo-liberal consensus. Whether this possibility becomes reality, and to what extent, depends on politics – on political action, on the ability of anti-capitalist forces to come together and to offer political perspectives.

Of course the space to the left of social democracy has never been empty, nor is it now. There are the Communist parties or their successor parties; there are the various far-left groups, mostly Trotskyist; there are the Greens, which in some countries at least are to the left of social democracy.

Communist Parties

First of all, let us look at the Communist parties, because the way in which Ford approaches them is the most at variance with reality. He writes: “Communist parties have disappeared or been reduced to the margins (with a few exceptions) and, in the case of many of the former ruling parties, openly converted to social-democracy and, hence, variants of neo-liberalism”.

The second part of his statement is certainly true as regards most (but not all) of the former ruling parties in Eastern Europe. The first part is a strange thing to write in 2013, though Ford is not alone in holding this opinion. Ten, twelve or fifteen years ago I thought that the West European Communist Parties would either disappear, become social-democratized (or become satellites of social democracy) or subsist as diminishing and marginal “orthodox” sects. That is not the course events have taken. The only West European party to have simply gone over to social democracy (and indeed beyond it) was the Italian Communist Party, at the price of an important split. The only party to have simply dissolved is the British one. There is a series of parties which consider themselves orthodox but which in most countries are quite weak and marginal, with the notable exceptions of the Greek (KKE)and Portuguese (PCP)parties. Then there are those communist parties which are part of the Party of the European Left (EL).

This is the Euro-Left which is the main target of Ford’s criticism, so let us deal with that. In the first place, he writes at one point: “on the basis of this short summary [in which he covers Greece, France, Italy and Germany, M.S.] we can say that the euro-left is hardly decisive outside Greece, that it polls less than when it was explicitly Communist in times gone by…”. In times gone by…well, the times when it was enough to be explicitly Communist and to defend “Soviet socialism” have indeed gone by, and they’re not coming back.  At another point, in relation to France, he writes: “the Left Front polls less than half of the vote secured a generation or so ago by the PCF”. You have to go back to 1978 to find the PCF polling more than 20 per cent in a national election. Since then, in that “generation or so” rather a lot has happened: the neo-liberal offensive, a change in the relationship of class forces within countries and on a global scale, the collapse of the Soviet bloc, the ideological offensive, “the end of history”…That does not only affect the European Left.  The Portuguese Communist Party, which is explicitly Communist (as, by the way, are the French, Spanish, Austrian, etc.) and not part of the EL, was getting 15-20 per cent in the 1970s and 80s and less than 10 per cent from the early 90s until 2011. Of course, not everything can be explained by the broad objective factors mentioned above. Political choices can make things better or worse. The PCF paid a certain price for its participation in the Jospin government from 1997-2002 and also from an ill-conceived presidential campaign in 2007. Conversely, it has benefited from its role in the 2005 referendum campaign, from its increasingly clear differentiation from the Socialist Party and from the strategy of the Left Front.

Europe’s Anti-Capitalist Left

Now let us take up “hardly decisive outside Greece”.  In fact, Greece is the most advanced point of a tendency towards the strengthening of parties to the left of social democracy which is also evident in other countries. In Denmark the Red-Green Alliance was formed in 1989 (not the best year to launch an anti-capitalist party, one might think) by the Danish Communist Party, the Danish section of the Fourth International, Left Socialists and Maoists. It has been in Parliament  since 1994 and has patiently established itself as apolitical force over the years. It is now stronger than it has ever been ever been with over 10,000 members . At the last election in 2011 it won 6.7 per cent of the vote and 12 MPs. In the latest opinion poll it has 14.9 per cent, as against 16.1 per cent for the social-democrats who head the centre-left government. In Portugal the Left Bloc was formed in 1999 by forces from Trotskyist and Maoist backgrounds along with a current from the PCP. From there it grew rapidly and progressed at each election until 2011, when it suffered a serious setback in elections conducted under the shadow of the Troika, falling to just over 5 per cent. In the latest opinion poll the Bloc has 8.8 per cent and the PCP 12.1 per cent, a total of 21 per cent. Fortunately the PCP is not as sectarian as the KKE and there is some collaboration between it and the Left Bloc.

In Spain the Communist Party is the core of the United Left, which was established in 1986 in the continuity of the campaign against Spain joining NATO. Its record has been somewhat chequered over the years. However in the last period IU has progressed in the national elections in 2011 and in regional elections and currently stands at around 16 per cent in the opinion polls. This is not an automatic result of the crisis; it is the result of a clear positioning to the left of social democracy on the one hand, presence in all the movements of resistance to austerity and other a willingness to work with the new social movements, not always without problems.

Concerning France, it might have seemed, in the 1990s, under the stewardship of Robert Hue and with the PCF’s participation in the Jospin government from 1997-2002, that the PCF was destined to become a satellite of the Socialist Party (PS) and/or to disintegrate. However that is not what happened – although Hue and a few followers subsequently left the PCF and now constitute a small group which is precisely a satellite of the PS. Through a process of political clarification that was not always easy,  under Marie-George Buffet as national secretary from 2001-2010, succeeded by Pierre Laurent, the party began to be rebuilt, with a clear differentiation from the Socialist Party and readiness to work with other forces on the left. This was first clearly seen in the campaign against the proposed European constitution in 2005. It was crystallized with the formation of the Left Front in 2009.  With this orientation the PCF halted its decline and began to recruit from 2005 onwards. In the 2012 elections not only did Left Front candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon get 11 per cent in the presidential election (the best vote for a candidate to the left of the PS since 1981), but the results of the legislative elections, where most of the candidates were PCF, were in 90 per cent of constituencies superior to 2007. The Left Front has progressed in each election where it has stood (European 2009, regional 2010, local 2011, presidential and legislative 2012). It now involves nine organizations, including not only the PCF and the Left Party, formed by Mélenchon when he left the PS in 2008, but three organizations from an LCR-NPA background.

And of course it is not just about elections; on May 5 a demonstration called by the Left Front mobilized well over a hundred thousand people – a massive expression of protest against the austerity policies of Hollande.


A final word on the PCF: I attended its 36th congress in February as an observer. To put it very succinctly, what I did not see was a party that was in crisis, aging, shrunken, without a strategy and thinking of nothing else but how to get into government. In other words, not what has been the staple fare of commentaries in the bourgeois press and by some on the left for quite a few years now. What I did see was a party full of confidence, with many young people, whose discussions centred on how to organize the fightback against Hollande’ s policies and build a political alternative. Of the delegates, 20 per cent were under 30 and 30 per cent had joined in the last five years. And of course three-quarters of them were wage-earners.

The examples above show the reality and the potential of forces to the left of social democracy in Europe. But there also some problems. Since its breakthroughs in the 2005 and 2009 federal elections and in regional elections in the West, Die Linke has experienced difficulties and setbacks. In the first place there are objective reasons.  At the present time a large part of the German working class is enjoying prosperity and is not so open to the discourse of the Left. There are also problems of integrating the components of Die Linke in the East and the West. In the East the PDS was one of only two former ruling parties in the Soviet bloc not to embrace the process of capitalist restoration (the other was what is now the CPBM in the CzechRepublic).  As a result it has a solid base of support over 20 per cent in several Lander and a network of local councilors. In the West the forces coming from the SPD and the radical Left had to start pretty much from scratch, with the exception of Oskar Lafontaine’s base in the Saar. As things stand now, however, the situation is difficult but certainly not catastrophic and unless there is a very big upset Die Linke will keep its parliamentary group. In Italy the situation is much worse. The participation of the PRC in the Prodi government from 2006-08 cost it much of its electoral support, including, but not only, because of its backing for sending Italian troops to Afghanistan. In 2008 it lost all its parliamentary representation, split almost 50-50 and has since then been in difficulties, waging an unsuccessful campaign in what was admittedly a very difficult election in February. It must also be said that none of the three left groups which split from Rifondazione in 2006-08 has since made any impact. It will not be easy to rebuild the Left in Italy, but Rifondazione remains the starting-point.

Syriza and Greece

The case of Greece and Syriza merits a few remarks. Since Syriza made its electoral breakthrough in 2012, everyone on the left in Europe has had to sit up and take notice. But Syriza did not fall from the sky. Its central component, Synaspismos, is a product of a complex process of splits and realignments in the Greek communist movement that began in 1968. And the Syriza coalition (now in the process of becoming a party), which was created in 2004, and drew in currents from Eurocommunism, Trotskyism and Maoism, was the result of a political choice by Syriza; Nor was the success of Syriza a mechanical effect of the crisis. It was the result of a political orientation that combined an absolute refusal of austerity and the diktats of the Troika and the proposal to other forces on the left to form a government of the Left – a proposal refused by both the Democratic Left and the KKE.

How does Ford characterize the European Left politically? “The euro-Left parties stand to the left of contemporary social democracy in advocating more radical measures, in varying degrees, to tackle the economic crisis. They are, on the other hand, constitutional and electoral parties – they do not aim at revolution.  Their measure is electoral support which they seek to secure through advocating pro-welfare and egalitarian policies which broadly mitigate the effects of the slump on the working-class. Their ultimate aim may be a socialist society (although this is not always clear), but it is to be attained primarily by parliamentary means.  Broadly they disown the record of socialism and revolutionary politics in the twentieth century”.  And elsewhere “they are explicitly reformist”. And, pride of place for this one, “the summit of the ambitions of the Left parties Europe-wide at present is to secure enough parliamentary seats to be considered a coalition partner in a government which would be dominated by the “old” social democratic parties”. Firstly, of all, broadly, in my experience, these parties do not disown the record of socialism and revolutionary politics in the twentieth century. They may interpret it more or less critically, and not all in the same way, and often not exactly as I would, but they certainly do not disown it. Perhaps Ford means that they do not agree with his version of that record, which on the basis of various references in his document, seems to be rather neo-Stalinist. Secondly, concerning the “summit of their ambitions”. Perhaps Ford would like to explain why Syriza refused to consider a governmental alliance with any pro-memorandum party, including PASOK; why the RGA only gives critical support to the Danish centre-left government from the outside but did not join it; why, above all, the PCF voted last year, on its National Council, in a special conference and by an internal referendum, not to take part in the present SP-led government (the referendum of the membership produced a vote of nearly 95 per cent against participation). Of course, in the recent past the PCF (in 1997-2002) and the PRC in Italy have participated in such governments.  Those were not in my opinion positive experiences.  More importantly, it seems clear that they are now considered by most members of the parties concerned as not to be repeated, though it would be foolish to rule out any governmental alliance with social-democrats under any circumstances. It would, however, be more true today to say that the ambition of the parties of the EL is to change the balance of forces on the left, to replace social democracy as the dominant force. Thirdly, the objective of going beyond capitalism and of a socialist society is not in doubt. Let us see what the French Communist Party says about it:

“To those who speak of moralizing capitalism in order better to keep it, we say that the enterprise is vain and that the manoeuvre will not work.

Money has no conscience. Capitalism is incapable of offering any other perspective than the enslavement of the vast majority of human beings.

To those who call on us to be reasonable and who propose to regulate capitalism, we say that it is an illusory goal. Without the will to take power from the financial markets and the big capitalists, experience has shown that there is no significant result. There is a contradiction that is increasingly unbearable between capitalism and social progress, between capitalism and democracy, between capitalism and cultural development, between capitalism and ecology, between capitalism and peace.

That is why we talk about revolution. A social, citizens’,peaceful, democratic revolution, and not the taking of power by a minority. A process of credible and ambitious change, aiming to break with the logic of the system. That is why we speak of communism, a communism for a new generation”. (Extract from the political resolution of the 36th congress of the PCF, February 2013, my translation).

(I have quoted this because it is particularly clear, coming from one of the main parties of the European Left. But the aim of replacing capitalism rather than reforming it is shared by other parties, formulated more or less clearly).

Now you can, if you wish, say that the PCF is reformist. But on the basis of the above, you can hardly accuse it of being simply in favour of a modified form of capitalism. And as for reformism…Perhaps Ford has a very clear idea about the demarcation between reform and revolution in Europe today. Quite a few other people think they have. I think things are rather more complicated than that. There is the small detail that there has never been a socialist revolution in an advanced capitalist country with a more or less long tradition of bourgeois democracy. Never, nowhere. The strategy and tactics for making one will have to be developed in the course of the struggle and they will be very different from Russia in 1917, not to mention China, Vietnam, Cuba, Yugoslavia. They will certainly involve a combination of mass mobilizations and battles on the electoral terrain and in parliamentary institutions. That will involve in particular winning a majority in elections based on universal suffrage, and not only once. In fact it is difficult to see a revolutionary process that does not involve a left alliance winning an election. All of that will be the subject of debates based on experience, and no one has a blueprint. Rather than establishing an a priori cleavage between reformists and revolutionaries it is better to look at what anti-capitalist measures a left government should take and how, how to mobilize support for them, how to counter economic sabotage and political pressures from the Right, etc. Not to mention what kind of a post-capitalist society we envisage.

Of course there are other forces on the left in Europe apart from the EL. But it is there that there is a dynamic and an opposition to neoliberal capitalism that presents an alternative on a European level and seeks to build a European social and political front.

Apart from the “orthodox” Communist parties I have mentioned, there are far-left organizations which remain outside broad fronts and coalitions like Syriza, the United Left and the Left Front. They tend to be somewhat marginalized as a result but continue to play a role. The NPA, after a promising start, paid a heavy price for not having understood the dynamic of the Left Front. But it still has some forces and is not, under its present leadership, opposed to common actions with the Left Front, as on the May 5 demonstration.


To conclude, just a few words on Britain. The failure of attempts to create a new force to the left of Labour are well-known. But the potential is there, as was clearly shown by the success of the SSP before the train wreck  of the Sheridan affair. Not only electoral success, but trade union support and even affiliation. And there are reasons for past failures. Arthur Scargill will go down in history as a courageous and principled working-class leader. But the failure of the SLP, which had real potential, was essentially due to his sectarian and Stalinist conception of how to organize the party. As for the Socialist Alliance-Respect sequence, both the SWP and the Socialist Party played extremely negative roles, as they also did, in alliance for once, in the crisis of the SSP. As for TUSC, it’s not a party, it’s not meant to be one, it’s meant to not be one, and it fulfils that role perfectly.

Ford says that “if the new Left Party succeeds, it will certainly represent a sociological first”. Maybe it will. It wouldn’t be the first win against the odds. Who would have bet on the success of a disparate collection of leftists in Denmark or Portugal? Or that Syriza would go from 4 per cent to 27 per cent in a few months? And you have to start with what you have. No new Arthur Scargill is on the horizon. Nor is any split from Labour. Leaving aside the Greens, there are three left organizations with memberships in four figures, say between 1,000 and 2,000 – the CPB, the SWP and the SP. None of them is likely to play a positive role in building a new party, to put it mildly. So if you have a few thousand signatures and eighty or a hundred local groups, that’s what you start with. Or you could give up and join the Labour Party. But I’ll leave the argument against that to others.

(1)   For an overview of the new parties of the Left in Europe and a detailed look at several of them, see Kate Hudson, The New European Left, Palgrave Macmillan, 2012.


Argentina: political outlook at the start of 2013

La Juventud del MST marchando en Buenos Aires

The year 2001 saw an uprising in Argentina as citizens rejected all of the old parties and took to the streets. Hyperinflation, unemployment and the near collapse of the Argentinian banking system led to mass demonstrations and ‘piqueteros’ blockading roads around the country. New social movements sprang up with neighbourhood assemblies and many workplaces were occupied and turned into workers co-operatives.

As this movement ebbed, the old parties re-established themselves. The current government of Christina Fernandez de Kirchner comes from the Peronist tradition and represents a particular strand of this tradition. This tendency is nationalist but left of centre. This government has nationalised important energy resources but has run into problems around their attempts to control currency exchanges and in the last few months demonstrators have returned to the streets both from the right and from the workers movement as the economic situation has deteriorated.

In this article Alejandro Bodart and Mariano Rosa, two leading members of the Movimiento Socialista de Trabajadores – MST (Socialist Workers Movement) outline the current position in Argentina, the battles that are coming and the prospects for building a political alternative. The MST currently works within a broader coalition called Proyecto Sur (Project South) and has a number of members elected to state assemblies in Argentina.

Setting, conflict and elections

A first definition of the situation in Argentina serves to put things in place: the international crisis did not stop, nor the effects it has on our economy.

Industrial activity fell, led by carmakers and metalworking. The building sector had already reached a low in 2009, but that trend is now more pronounced. Inflation remains high and price controls are a fiction that cannot cover a nonexistent policy of industrialization accompanied by the complete lack of controls over large price makers. The parallel dollar soars, and the fall in the stock of that currency at the Central Bank, shows that large companies doubt the force of government to take care of business.

As for state finances, the situation is similar. Desperate for their emergency-election – this year there are parliamentary elections – and for economic reasons, the national government continues to cut funds to the regions, causing further strain on already beset provincial finances. There are several districts with financial difficulties, including the Province of Buenos Aires. Governors seek carbon taxes, while refusing to eliminate tax breaks on big banks, corporations and landowners. State and teachers’ salaries, pensions and social assistance programs are already feeling the effect of these decisions.

With things as they are, what comes next is the fight over who gets to pay for the crisis in our country. At the top, governments are scrambling to see who is responsible for most of the adjustment to be applied. Underneath, workers and the people gather fury over wages that are never enough, struggle against cuts in salaries, or loss of family allowances. There exists social conflict, and a teachers’ nationwide strike is on the cards. The truck drivers’ union marches – this is quite an important union. And trade unions opposing the government are calling for a CTA-CGT mobilisation, for March 14.

Government Setback

Last year ended with the confirmation of two key political points. The national government suffered severe setbacks, receding in popularity with many of their voters. This is important enough by itself and will have multiple consequences. But there are other factors that go along with this. That is that the governments declining popularity was seconded by the people’s rejection of the main policies of the bourgeois opposition. None is seen as an alternative to solve a situation that is worsening for most. That’s because, in addition to not offering solutions to the structural problems that we live with every day, they also govern against the people.

The combination of these factors provides an overview of great political debate, where millions are seeking a change, not convinced by the options provided by the current system. This can be seen in any conversation on the street, at work, in the schools and colleges.

 Electoral battle, and the alternative

Whilst we cannot discount sudden changes in the situation (given that since 2001 we live with a permanent social tension), the more likely outcome is that of an electoral battle which expresses the changes which erupted last year. This does not minimize the social conflict and the importance of mobilizing that the workers and the people are developing and will surely continue throughout the year. But it provides a tremendous opportunity to those who want to bring about change in the country. The worn out state of the old, presents a huge opportunity for an alternative political force to become strong and move forward as an alternative to the government and the right-wing opposition.

This may be the case with the candidacy of Senator Pino Solanas at the Capital, for the Movement South Project (Movimiento Proyecto Sur) which we, as the MST, are part of as its anti-capitalist wing. An achievement in the city could lead to a positive phenomenon with social influence. So, with our main leaders all around the country, we are committed to develop Proyecto Sur thoroughly, and fight any attempt to transform it into a new centre-left force. It would be really positive if – in this course of events – other anti-imperialist forces would also come together, that is, social movements and those left currents who – abandoning sectarianism – join us to fight for a fundamental change, in unity.

Three tasks for the coming months

A very important one is to support and participate actively in the struggles of workers and the people, contributing to the emergence of new leaders who replace the old ones within trade and students’ unions, or social organizations. It is a vital and present task, to guarantee that the thousands who come to fight come to recognize the usual traitors.

At the same time you have to accompany it with anti-systemic transformation proposals to end the sufferings of the underdogs, defeating the double discourse of ruling capitalists and old recipes that have already sunk us before.

Finally, we must be able to build an alternative to fight for these causes. And the election battle is a major challenge in this field. Here, as in the struggles, currents and their leaders are tested. And the results influence the daily fight.

The political landscape makes us very optimistic about the potential for progress in each of these areas. The international context does as well, with the peoples of Europe in the streets facing their capitalist governments.

To carry out all these tasks, across the country, it is essential to strengthen MST within Proyecto Sur. That is why we invite workers, young people, neighbours, social activists, artists, intellectuals, retired citizens, to join us and together build a party that is seriously determined about these objectives. It is our future that is at stake. No time to lose.

Alejandro Bodart, General Secretary – Currently Deputy – MST.

Mariano Rosa, National Secretary of the Socialist Youth – MST

North Africa after the Arab Spring


Bill Bonnar looks at the current situation in North Africa’s diverse states in the wake of the momentous events of the Arab Spring.

When we talk about the impact of the Arab Spring, this has impacted most in the Arab states of North Africa. This covers the vast Saharan region and comprises Morocco, Western Sahara, Mauritania, Mali, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt and Sudan. Although all these states have marked differences they also have much in common. They share much in the way of a common history and culture shaped by the desert nature of their environment. Predominantly Arab and Muslim they have all been shaped by the impact of colonialism and the post-colonial settlements. They are also societies where modernism and tradition can conflict in dramatic ways. The Arab Spring began in Tunisia and the following is a brief account of its impact on the above countries.

Tunisia – as stated earlier the Arab Spring officially began in Tunisia with the protest against police corruption and lawlessness sparked a nationwide movement for change. This movement forced the removal of the president and his immediate entourage and the holding of democratic elections. The resulting government, although Islamic in character, has pledged to protect Tunisia’s secular system.

Egypt – Mass protests led to the removal of the Mubarak dictatorship and the holding of elections. This has revealed a deeply divided society split between Islamic fundamentalist groups and an alliance of liberal, secular and non – Muslim forces.

Libya – an uprising in the east of the country supported by Nato led to the violent overthrow of the Gadhafi regime. The country is now government by a weak dependent regime while large parts of the country are effectively ruled by local militias.

Mali – An armed uprising in the north of the country supported by various Islamic fundamentalist groups led to the collapse of the central government and the military intervention of French forces primarily to protect French economic and strategic interests in the region.

Morocco – mass demonstrations led to the resignation of the government and forced the king to produce a new constitution agreeing some democratic reforms.

Western Sahara – controlled by Morocco there has been a dramatic increase in pro-independence activity and for the main opposition force; Polisario.

Mauritania – the country has witnessed significant pro-democracy demonstrations.

Algeria – mass protests led to the lifting of a 19 year state of emergency and the introduction of a reform programme.

Sudan – the long running conflict between the north and south of the country led to the south breaking away to form the new state of South Sudan.

In the case of Libya, Egypt and Tunisia three of the most entrenched regimes in the region were overthrown while the process of change is still very much under way. Few would have predicted the above just two years ago; what the next two years will bring is open to speculation.

At the heart of all the current conflicts is the fault line that runs through all Arab Muslim societies; the conflict between Islamic fundamentalism and secularism. Within this there is the conflict between conservatism and modernity, between progress and reaction, between democracy and authoritarianism, between Left and Right and around the issue of women’s rights and the rights of minorities.

Since all the above countries came into existence as modern states two broad visions of how society should be have emerged. The first is a society shaped by the values and institutions of an Islamic state. An Islamic state is not and can never be a democracy. Democracy implies that power rests with the people and that people will be responsible for how society is organised. In an Islamic state power rests with God and it is God who ‘orders the affairs of men’ usually through his chosen representatives; the Mullahs and Imams. The creation of an Islamic state is not just about how society is organised it also imposes a moral order on each individual sanctioned by law. The experience of Islamic states in the modern world is that they tend to be socially conservative, defend existing wealth and power, are authoritarian, intolerant towards minorities and institutionalise discrimination against women. The Left sometimes fall into the trap of mistaking the often anti-western radicalism of Islamic fundamentalist groups as something they can ally themselves to. Yet the reality is that the aims of such groups are entirely reactionary and lead to the creation of a society that the Left could never reconcile itself with.

Nicaragua, Colombia and the Forgotten People of Saint Andrews

Sam Gordon reports from Nicaragua on the territorial dispute between Nicaragua and Colombia over the San Andrés Archipelago, Caribbean St Andrews. He outlines the background in colonialism, the impact on the ethnic group living there and the small matter of rich oil and fishing resources.

The International Court of Justice (ICJ) at The Hague, in the Netherlands, is often swept by icy gales from the North Sea. But sometimes at least, the daily work of the jurists there gets to focus on sunnier climes, such as the Caribbean islands known as the San Andrés Archipelago.

That was the case in November of last year when the ICJ ruled that this group of islands and cays (low islands and sandy banks) were part of the national territory of the Republic of Colombia. The case was brought to The Hague by Nicaragua and contested by Colombia. As the court had already ruled that the three principle islands of San Andrés (St Andrew), Providencia (Providence) and Santa Catalina (St Catherine) belong to Colombia it came as little surprise that the smaller islands were confirmed as Colombian also.

What did very definitely cause a stir was that the surrounding seas were ruled as the maritime territory of Nicaragua. Colombia was not one bit pleased. Here in Nicaragua the mood after the ruling was one of national delighted, which lasted all of about 36 hours.

On the face of it this looks like a grudge that has rumbled on for centuries between the two countries and has been finally and definitively settled. However, matters in this part of Latin America are seldom that straight forward. And there is also the case of the people in this affair that nobody seems to be talking about.

More than likely the islands were first inhabited by Miskito fisher men and their families from the Atlantic coast of what is now Nicaragua. Then in 1620 English Puritans set up a colony.  Finding the land fertile and well watered the godly Puritans soon added African slave labour to their bounties. Although, judging by the last names of the present day inhabitants at least some of these Puritans were Scottish. It’s common in Central America, even to this day, to refer to any British influence as English.

How did all this Start?

The century and a half that followed saw a general squabble among European powers; particularly the British, Dutch and Spanish, for dominance in this part of the Atlantic. Countering this, British colonies of North America threw off the colonial yoke. Then, encouraged by this movement and the aspirations that swept in with the European Enlightenment, Spain too began to lose its grip on her colonies south of the fledgling USA. But by the time this happened Spain had already laid claim to the islands of the San Andrés Archipelago.

The struggle for Colombian independence from Spain definitively took shape in 1810. At that time modern Colombia did not exist as a nation state. It was part of a bigger territory known as New Granada, part of the Spanish empire in the Americas. But in 1822 Colombia claimed San Andrés as part of its new state.

During those turbulent times claims were made that rumble on today almost as if it all happened yesterday. As part of this process at least two regional identities have emerged in what is generally accepted as Latin America. The greater portion of the continent is referred to as South America.

However, from the northern border of Colombia, through Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Guatemala and Belize the regional identity is Central American. Perhaps a note of caution should be added. Although part of the Central American land mass, Belize, where English is the official language, some would say the cultural identity is closer to the English speaking islands of the Caribbean.

Cultural and language identities apart, one physical reality can’t hide what for some has become a problem.

The San Andrés islands are closer to Nicaragua which is in Central America than they are to Colombia, which is in South America. Now add another dimension to that situation. The South American republic’s claim of maritime territory extends north wards absorbing San Andrés, pushing into what many considered Central American waters.

To Colombians, national territory is a particularly sensitive issue. In 1903, not surprisingly with pressure from the US Marine Corp, Colombia lost its northern state. This became the nominally independent Republic of Panama. By 1914 the Panama Canal, under US control, was built and opened. Thus the Atlantic and Pacific oceans were linked and opened to world shipping. But that’s another story.

The Nicaragua Connection

Nicaragua’s claim to sovereignty of the archipelago rested on the disputed validity of an agreement signed in 1928. With the Euerra-Barcenas Border Treaty Nicaragua accepted Colombia’s claim to the islands. This was ratified again in 1933. However, since the Sandinista Popular Revolution of 1979 this agreement has been called into question and repudiated. This is a view that has found favour with Liberals and Conservatives in Nicaragua, even after the revolutionary Sandinista government lost the 1990 election and spent 16 years in opposition.

The reason the treaty has been considered invalid by so many Nicaraguans is that it was signed when Nicaragua was occupied by US marines. At that time the ruling classes in Nicaragua, as represented by their two political parties, the Conservatives and Liberals, were in civil dispute.

The Conservatives could be said to represent ‘old money’. That is; traditional, land owning classes with an inward look on the national economy, strong on the Catholic Church and maintenance of the social order as it was and as far as they were concerned, ever would be. Historically their base has been located on the Pacific side of the country, around Grenada in the south of the country.

The Liberals were the ‘new money’. Their home turf was around the university city of León, also on the Pacific side of the country but much further north. They had an economic perspective that was much more export inclined. Never far removed from the hierarchy of the Catholic Church, history shows that their sons and heirs formed the officer class of the emerging military establishment.

These warring factions represented instability for foreign investors, most notably US investors. From what we now know of US foreign policy it is hardly surprising that President Calvin Coolidge – remembered for his words, “The business of America is business” – sent in the US marines to facilitate a move towards a US interpretation of democracy. The logging and other companies such as Standard Fruit were facing difficult times. And Nicaragua was in Uncle Sam’s back yard after all.

Someone in Nicaragua who didn’t see the unfolding events that way was Augusto Sandino. He and his followers waged an insurgency war – before such movements were thus labeled. So, Nicaragua signed the border treaty with Colombia at a time of particularly weak national government, occupation by a foreign power and an internal war of resistance against foreign aggression.

The Colombia Connection

We haven’t been given an account of the internal discussion of the jurists at The Hague but they didn’t accept the Nicaraguan argument that the 1928 treaty was invalid. The undeniable fact that the archipelago is approximately 220 Km (136 miles) off the Nicaraguan coast while lying  775 Km (480 miles) from Colombia doesn’t seem to have entered the case.

Given the decision of the ICJ it’s clear that Nicaragua lost out on its efforts to gain sovereignty of the archipelago. If, indeed, that was ever its intention. Yet the government made great sounds of delight. Why so? It seems more understandable that the social media ether was ringing with bitter recrimination from sections of the Colombian populous.

At a second glance Nicaragua has been granted a large track of Caribbean maritime territory which it had no claim to before. So what happened?

The answer to the second question comes from the chambers of the fifteen ICJ jurists holding court back on the shores of the North Sea. The 1928 treaty appears to have given much emphasis on the 82nd meridian, or line of longitude. This line runs north-south and lies west of the archipelago. The treaty gave territories west of the line to Nicaragua while those to the east, which includes the disputed islands, belong to Colombia.

The truth of the matter is that Colombia has assumed and practiced the public administration of the archipelago for decades. The islands were run as an integral part of the Colombian state. What can and has been questioned is the quality and purpose of that administration.

The Line from The Hague

Times have changed since the border treaty was signed, which is now almost beyond living memory. Apparently, in the 21st century, jurisprudence has also changed. The ICJ now places greater emphasis on the idea of a continental shelf. That has been defined by Article 76 of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). As far as the law is concerned a continental shelf is the sea bed and muddy depths that extend from a country’s coast line, usually for about 200 nautical miles, but not the deep ocean floor.

Draw a line going eastward from the Nicaraguan shore for 200 nautical miles and you go past, farther east, than the archipelago. To some that would put San Andres under the sovereignty of Nicaragua. But remember that the ICJ upheld the treaty that gave sovereignty to Colombia. The islands are now beyond dispute – at least legal dispute – part of the South American republic.

But economics goes beyond – perhaps deeper- than the law. Nicaragua has got no more land but has acquired a lot more sea. It’s not a question of, “There’s gold in them there hills.” But word has it that, “There’s fish under them there waves and maybe oil beneath them there muddy depths.”  For Nicaragua, the second poorest country in the western hemisphere, that’s something to be delighted about. As the ICJ’s legal ruling is final and without appeal, despite the huffing and puffing of Colombia, that should point to political stability.

The People Nobody is Talking About

The islands which make up the archipelago cover an area of approximately 57 km² (22sq. miles), just a fraction smaller than the island of Mainland in the Orkneys. Estimates of the population vary but one source, said to be based on a 2005 census, says there are close to 60000 inhabitants, 18000 to 20000 of who are said to be Raizales.

These are the descendants of European puritans, Afro Caribbean slaves and indigenous people from Central America. Given these census figures it’s clear that the Raizales are a   minority marked from the Spanish speaking Catholic majority with their strong ties to main land Colombia. The Raizales have their own Caribbean Creole with influences from English and Africa languages. A good many are able to communicate in Spanish.

Their main political expression comes through the Archipelago Movement for Ethnic Native Self Determination (AMEN S-D). A starting point for finding more about the history of the Raizal and their troubled relationship with their Colombian colonisers is

Amen S-D claims to have a copy of a secret document of the Colombian government. This shows how Colombia has intended, since the late 1970s, to irradiate the Raizal identity and way of life, not only from the Colombian state but from San Andrés itself.

At this point it’s worth taking note of the warning President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela gave regarding the regional role Colombia was assuming, when he compared Colombia to Israel in the Middle East.

Like the Zionist state, Colombia is well equipped with the latest US military hard ware.  Colombia is also operating on another low intensity, yet belligerent front. It has used religion and language to marginalise the Raizales. It has pushed them off their ancestral land and  encouraged South American settlers, so reducing Raizales to a minority people shunted to the edges of the local economy. And so denies them nationhood.

How will it all End?

Soon after The Hague ruling FARC representatives at peace talks with Colombian government representatives in Havana were asked for their views on the ICJ decision. But they said they preferred not to comment at this stage.

The Caribbean costal region of Nicaragua is separated into two autonomous regional areas, called North Atlantic Autonomous Region (RAAN) and South Atlantic Autonomous Region (RAAS). In many ways both these regions show language and cultural trends more closely identified with the islands of the Caribbean.

In recent years, under the present Sandinista government, road, air and river links between RAAN and RAAS and the Pacific and central zones of Nicaragua have improved. This seems to have quelled the sporadic talk of independence for the two regions. The ICJ ruling on San Andrés is unlikely to make any great change in that situation.

In the year 2000 roughly 10% of the Caribbean Sea, the part occupied by the San Andrés Archipelago, was designated the Seaflower Biosphere Reserve by the United Nations Scientific Educational and Cultural Organization (UNSCO). The area’s coral reef, dry tropical forests, unique terrestrial and marine flora and fauna gained international recognition.

Any off shore petroleum exploration and production is not welcomed by AMEN S-D.

Much of the traditional way of life of many of the Raizales has its economic base in fishing. The ruling by The Hague guarantees the islands and therefore Colombia, a 12 mile territorial limit in the now Nicaraguan waters, surrounding the islands. Nicaragua’s President Daniel Ortega says he will respect the traditional fishing customs of the island people.

But the greater oceanic area surrounding the islands may offer a greater threat to the Caribbean environment. While Nicaragua doesn’t have any real fishing fleet of industrial scale on the Atlantic coast it does have trade and cooperation partners with countries possessing sizable fishing industries.

Most notable are Russia, Japan and Taiwan. Riskier than direct development, exploitation if you prefer, of the fish stocks of these seas is the threat of indirect fishing through rent. If agreement were reached on the exploitation of these fishing grounds, between liquidity strapped Nicaragua and a third party fishing nation, a question has to be asked.

Who will monitor, oversee, and hold to account the operational activities of international fishing? If self regulation in banking is anything to go by sustainable fish stocks and the accompanying biosphere diversity are under threat.

Meanwhile, land purchase, hotel and resort development for high end tourism by non San Andreans continues. So too do decreasing living standards, low paid jobs and greater Colombianisation of the Raizal people. But since it’s all on a tropical paradise, under clear blue skies, no one is supposed to complain.

Catalonia Looks to Independence

Nosaltres decidim / We decide

Bill Bonnar on the emergence of a powerful independence movement in Catalonia

In January 2010 a Conference was held in Barcelona under the title; The Struggle for Socialism in Nations without a State. Sponsored in part by the Left Republican Party of Catalonia it included representatives from left parties from the Basque Country, Galicia and elsewhere. I spoke at the Conference on behalf of the Scottish Socialist Party; one of several meetings and events I attended in the course of a week of activities. Not surprisingly the conference was dominated by representatives from Catalonia. Perhaps the most interesting thing to emerge was the commonality of discussion. In particular, that independence should not be seen as an end in itself but as a means to an end. What was important was not just independence but what kind of independence. The Left, while being part of the general campaign for independence, had to forge a distinctive Left vision of what that independence would look like. Not surprisingly several key themes emerged. That the new independent state should be a republic, that it should have an economic system based on sustainable growth with a strong public sector, that environmental concerns should be a high priority, that the government should pursue policies aimed at the eradication of poverty and inequality and that it should pursue what was referred as a progressive foreign policy. While it was recognised that taken together this did not add up to socialism it was seen as a good starting point.

That was then. Nearly three years later it is clear that real advances have been made particularly in the Basque Country andCatalonia. In September nearly 2 million people brought Barcelona to a standstill in a demonstration in support of independence. This followed various opinion polls which show between 40% and 50% support for independence and a general trend for this to be increasing. What makes these polls interesting is that an increasing number of non-Catalans seem to be supporting independence. More than half the population of Catalonia is made up of Spaniards and nationals from other EEC countries. This was always seen as the guarantee that in any future referendum pro – independence voters would always be in a minority. This appears to be changing. The economic crisis which is engulfing Spain is fuelling movements for change and in Catalonia it is fuelling the desire for independence.

Like independence movements elsewhere there are different streams to this movement. A large part of this is cultural in nature around the language and culture of Catalonia. It would be like the independence struggle in Scotland being based in and around the Gaelic movement. The movement is very broad based with even some reactionary element directed against non-Catalans. The alternative is provided by the Left. Typically there are a number of Left organisations of which the most prominent is Esqerra Republicana de Catalunya (Republican Left of Catalonia). The party, under a different name, rose to prominence during the Spanish Civil war as part of the coalition which formed the Republican Government. During the Franco dictatorship it suffered violent repression before re-emerging and reforming in its current format.

It currently has ten seats in the Catalan Parliament and expects to make gains in elections later this year.

The party’s political positions were laid down at its 1993 Conference and contained in its Statement of Ideology.

  •  Esquerra – commitment to a Left agenda on social and economic issues.
  • Republican – commitment to the establishment of a modern republic forCataloniaand the rest ofSpain.
  • Catalunya – the creation of a united Catalan state based on the historic Principality of Catalonia . This includes  the current region of Catalonia and a neighbouring region in France.

On 28th November fresh elections will be held for the Catalan Parliament with every possibility of a pro-independence majority emerging. In part this is due to a hardening of attitude among those parties which have hitherto settled for devolved government. Most of these parties have now moved towards a more pro-independence position although are vague about the details. The most likely outcome will be a referendum on independence. The very fact of calling for such a referendum will provoke a political crisis with the central government in Madrid already declaring such a referendum would be illegal and refusing to recognise the result in advance. To say the least this would take the country into uncharted territory. The specific proposal on independence will largely depend on the balance of forces which emerge after the election in November; full independence or a kind of independence lite. This will also be shaped by the outcome of the referendum. The larger the majority for independence the more ambitious the pro-independence forces will be. It will also place the Madrid Government in an impossible situation with its non-recognition stance impossible to maintain.

The outcome could also have a dramatic effect on the rest of Spain; particularly in the Basque Country. With a powerful independence movement, increasingly led by the Left, the momentum provided events in Catalonia could overwhelm the Spanish Government hence their determination to hold the line.

While there are obvious similarities between the independence movement in Scotland and Catalonia there are also major differences.  The movement in Catalonia is very much centred on language and culture which can and does create tensions within the country.Catalonia has a recent history where the country suffered severe repression aimed at destroying Catalonian identity which has created an intense hostility to Madrid. Lastly, the Catalan vision of independence embraces a region in France. Securing that region is, at the moment, simply off the agenda.

The increasing likelihood that that Catalonia will become independent would prove an immense confidence booster to the struggle for independence in Scotland. Given that the No Campaign in Scotland will rely heavily on negative campaigning, having the example of small country successfully breaking away from a larger state can only have a positive effect on the campaign.