Category Archives: frontline

Republican Socialist Solidarity

Independence Demo

Below we are posting the statement agreed by the RSA Steering Committee in London on Feb. 14th in response to Cameron and Osborne. This is followed by a statement of solidarity sent to republican socialist organisations in Scotland by Steve Freeman, member of the Republican Socialist Alliance and Left Unity Party in England. He was a speaker at the ‘After the UK – the future of 4 nations’ session at the RIC national conference in Glasgow on 23.11.13.



The Tories are facing their Waterloo. As the rivers flood and their credibility sinks the Tories and the whole British Establishment are preparing for their final battle with the people of Scotland. The Prime Minister’s speech at the Olympic Park in East London launched his appeal for the people of England, Northern Ireland and Wales to back the Tory war effort. George Osborne, the Chancellor joined in a co-ordinated pincer movement to sabotage the Scottish economy in the event of a Yes vote. The Hammer of the Scots was soon backed up by the discredited Clegg and the discreditable Miliband.  

The SNP government has offered to keep the pound and pay homage to the British monarchy in exchange for control of Scotland’s assets. But with the pound stolen, the obvious retaliation is to end the monarchy and become a republic. But Scottish business, which backs the SNP government, fears a republic will unleash the forces of “people power”.



This week has seen the British Establishment step up their war against the SNP government plan for constitutional change to be put to the Scottish people in September 2014.

The Prime Minister’s speech at the Olympic Park in East London (February 7 2014) launched the attack by appealing to the people of England, Northern Ireland and Wales to back the Tory government in this struggle by appealing to British patriotism and commending the bloody history of the British Empire.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer (February 13 2014) supported by Clegg and Miliband threatened to sabotage the Scottish economy by refusing the option of a currency union in the event of a Yes vote. This ‘united front’ of the three main Establishment (or monarchist) parties is the kind of unity which occurs, as in the Falklands war and the Iraq war, when the political class believe the fundamental interests of the state are at stake.

Whatever view we take of the SNP government plan for Scotland there are certain demands which the left in England, Northern Ireland and Wales must support.

We call on the labour movement, trade unions and socialist organisations, and the people of England, Northern Ireland and Wales more generally to support:-

1.  The right of the Scottish people to self determination.

a) The right of the Scottish people to a referendum without threats of economic sabotage or covert action sanctioned under the UK state’s Crown Powers.

b)  The right of the Scottish people to form an independent sovereign democratic state.

2.  A yes vote in the referendum

We will support those in Scotland who are calling for a democratic republican and internationalist approach to the referendum. We note this approach is being taken by the Radical Independence Conference which is critically supporting a Yes vote in September 2014. We will urge support for this approach by all progressive forces in England, Northern Ireland and Wales.

Regardless of the outcome of the referendum organised by the SNP government, we will support those in Scotland who intend to continue the struggle for self determination to secure an independent sovereign democratic social and secular republic with the closest voluntary relations with the people of England, Wales and Ireland.

3.  People united  

We call on all labour movement, trade unions and socialist organisations in Scotland to support those in England, Northern Ireland and Wales who defend their right to self determination and the sovereign rights of the Scottish people to republican self government.

Steve Freeman, 13.2.14


Scotland, Democracy and Socialism

Washing Line Wish 

The prospect of independence for Scotland raises many vital questions related to the constitutional and democratic framework such a new state could create. Ben Wray is a member of the International Socialist Group, an activist in the Radical Independence Campaign and works for the Jimmy Reid Foundation as a researcher. In this article, written in a personal capacity, he examines some of these questions.

In this essay on democracy, I am going to work backwards. I’m going to start by looking at the ideal  democracy for a socialist. I’m then going to look at what would be positive, intermediary steps in our current context that would help work towards this ideal future, as well as extending democracy to improve people’s lives in the here and now. I will look at this in the context of the independence referendum next year. Continuing the reverse order, I am then going to look at the SNP’s vision for democracy in an independent Scotland, which is the dominant one within the independence movement, and examine to what extent this will advance the cause of democracy and what the limitations of it are. Finally I’m going to end up at where we are now with Britain’s ‘representative democracy’, which I am going to define as ‘neoliberal democracy’.

The intention of this structure is to show a red thread that runs from our overall goals to our immediate tasks, that connects the socialist theory to the practical realities of our political context. In looking at it this way, hopefully what will become clear is that socialists cannot just engage in propaganda for a socialist democracy, but have to play a leading role in agitating for democratic advancement under capitalism and building coalitions and alliances with others who want to do the same.

This ‘war of position’ strategy, to put it in Gramscian terms, is the only way for socialists to build up the forces and the credibility in which our socialist democratic model will be on the agenda. Democracy is both our goal and our strategy, as Leon Trotsky put it “Socialism needs democracy like the human body needs oxygen”. This isn’t to say revolutionary changes aren’t also necessary, but like all previous transformations, the overcoming of capitalism will be part revolution and part transition – such is the dialectic of history.

 Socialist Democracy

Democracy is at the heart of the socialist idea. Under capitalism, democracy is limited to a specific political sphere of elections every four or five years, whilst the economic aspects of life are dominated by the dictatorship of capital. Socialism eradicates the division between political and economic spheres of life: workers have democratic control over where they work, students over where they study, communities over where they live, and so on. And it is at this level – worker, student and community participative democracy – where elections take place for delegates to represent them at local, regional, national and international level. Those representatives are immediately recallable and their decisions revocable based on the democratic will of the majority.

How do we decide at what level decisions are made? Quite simply, enfranchisement should be based on the extent to which one is affected by the decision. Local parks affect people most in that particular communtiy, ditto schools, roads, sporting facilities and so on. Decisions over international trade will usually affect those at the national and international level and therefore delegation from community and worker level will be required.

What about when democratic council’s of people contradict? So for example, over pricing of goods which affects workers and consumers? Or the disposal of waste which affects workers, the wider community and the international community in terms of environmental harm? Worker’s councils are not the only form of council that will exist, they will coincide with consumer councils and environmental councils which will seek to come to common agreement, and if they can’t it will be delegated upwards to representative bodies that can come to agreement.

Therefore socialism is about a transformation of democracy, where participative democracy and a new, more accountable form of representative democracy combine into a coherent whole where accountability, responsibility and, ultimately, power starts from the bottom up.

Of course, we do not know exactly what a socialist democracy would look like until we get there. The whole idea is premised upon the creative energies of ordinary people to shape their own future, and therefore it is not just impossible but also contradictory to our methodology to say ‘this is exactly how socialism would work’.

Neither is there one vision for a socialist democracy. My very basic outline above takes more from the ‘participative economics’ school like Robin Hahnel and Michael Albert, but other socialists would have extensive criticism’s of Hahnel and Albert. The details are not important here, what is important is to identify socialism as being about the democratisation of economic, social and political life so that inequalities are undermined by a structure that puts everyone on an even level with equal access and distribution of wealth and power.

Transitional steps

How do we work towards this goal of a socialist democratic model? We should have learned by now that simply to proclaim it will never be good enough. There has been a long tradition of propagandism in the British socialist movement going back to the Social Democratic Federation in the 19th Century who, much to the annoyance of Marx and Engels, shunned struggles in the real world as ‘a distraction’ in favour of study circles and public forums that proposed a socialist future without providing any realistic strategy to get there. More recently, British Trotskyism has raised ‘the programme’ up as the pinnacle in socialist thinking. Trotsky had written ‘The Transitional Program: The Death Agony of Global Capitalism and the Tasks of the Fourth International’ in the context of a struggle between socialists and fascists across Europe during the 1930’s recession and an imminent second world war. Many Trotskyists have followed this model dogmatically, which was specific to Trotsky’s context where socialist revolution was on the agenda, and the results have been continual failure.

Propagandism has failed because it does nothing to relate to the political context as it exists in the real world. It is abstract and utopian and, therefore, entirely unconvincing to the vast majority of working class people.

The majority of people do not make political choices based on ideologies and programmes, but on answers to the most important problems they are facing in the here and now. Our aim therefore should be to find answers that are feasible given the political context and at the same time point the way towards our ultimate goal. If we can prove that our answers are better than others, then they are more likely to listen to what we say the next time we propose something. At the same time, if we can implement some of our transitional measures, they should by their very nature help to empower and embolden working class people to go further.

We therefore need transitional, or intermediary, steps. Steps that may seem very limited compared to our aims but taken in the context of the political situation as a whole, may be perceived as extremely ambitious to most people.

So, what would these transitional steps be specifically in terms of democracy in the context of the Scottish independence referendum?

Industrial Democracy: 

The empowerment of workers is the cornerstone of a socialist democratic model, but proposing workers control of all industries is not something that could feasibly happen in the present context of hyper-neoliberal Britain. We therefore have to propose measures which extend the democratic rights of workers and trade-unions and, where possible, propose a model of public ownership which is democratic and bottom-up.

The bare minimum is that workers rights in Britain should be able to match the best standards in Europe. Britain has some of the worst employment rights in Europe and is 26th out of 27 on a measurement of worker-participation, only ahead of Lithuania. A new Jimmy Reid Foundation paper proposes an industrial democracy model for Scotland which includes basic trade-union and employment rights: universal collective bargaining rights for recognised trade-unions regardless of the trade-union density existing in the workplace, full rights to strike and picket, compensation rights over unfair dismissal and employee buy-out rights. It also includes worker-participation and board-level representation rights: day-to-day staff-related affairs would be run by joint committee’s of staff and management and workers and trade-union representatives would be entitled to 1/3rd of seats on company boards with the same rights as other board representatives such as full access to company accounts.

These measures proposed do not fundamentally challenge property relations, but should be seen in the current political context. The situation at Grangemouth for example, where trade-unions were trampled over and workers were lied to and Royal Mail privatisation where the government privatised quicker than workers were able to strike. In this context these proposals are a step towards workers democracy because they mean the idea of workers having a say in how companies are run is registered on the political map. Once workers start becoming used to having a say, it is more likely they are going to want more. Therefore measures which strengthen trade-unions and embolden workers can only be positive.

In terms of public services, Andy Cumbers new book Reclaiming Public Ownership outlines extensively how democratisation of public services is not only fairer, but more efficient.  In bigger insitutions, like the NHS, where there has been cases of management bullying and worker exhaustion, in NHS Lothian for example, staff councils should elect representatives to sit on the board, along with input from service users who should also have representation. The idea is to build a structure which breeds a culture whereby those who do the work believe they are the ones who shape how it is organised.

Smaller organisations such as mutuals and co-operatives should be encouraged where workers can run enterprises themselves.

 Radical Decentralisation

This notion of self-governance should be extended to local democracy. First, in terms of using national resources for the collective interest. For example if you look at the renewables industry, whilst it may only be profitable for companies to organise on a national basis, it is easier and cheaper for many communities to supply their own energy because the wind blows and the sun shines where they live. In Denmark, 80 per cent of the wind energy sector is community owned.

Secondly, in terms of organising the distribution of public services. Local councils in Scotland are not really local and therefore are not really democratic as there are few lines of accountability between the citizen and their representatives. Scotland has the least local ‘local democracy’ in Europe. Subsequently, private capital and local councils are often in league with each other, which is why many are rightly sceptical of a ‘localism’ agenda if it means putting more power in the hands of local councillors.

Instead what we need is radical decentralisation of government, whereby we have a community-led local government allowing people in the area to dictate what their public investment budget is spent on. This is not the big society, which is a cover for cutting budgets and asking the voluntary sector and community activists to deal with the fall-out. It is saying instead that a much larger proportion of taxes should be allocated to people to spend in their communities, which in turn will create more jobs and a bigger tax revenue to re-invest again into their community. This doesn’t mean national government isn’t neccesary to deal with national issues and to redistribute wealth from rich to poor and from wealthy areas to poorer areas. But much of our lives is spent in the community we live, and that should reflect itself in governance terms.

There are healthy precedents for this in Brazil. Cities such as São Paolo and Porto Alegre have organised a section of their public investment budget by ‘participatory budgeting’: Communities meet up to discuss their local investment needs  and delegate people to state their case for investment. Over 80,000 people, overwhelmingly from the poorest parts of the city, participated in participatory budgeting meetings in Sao Paolo and they radically improved access to public services in the periphery of the city which had previously been cut off. One of their major focuses was housing, and since they had 40% of the city investment budget they could back it up with action. They reported that:

“In addition to working on slum upgrading in 30 slums…31,000 housing units in 2002 distributed as follows: 9,000 mutirões, 3,000 city center projects, 3,000 risk zones, 1,000 social locations, 5,000 state program, and 10,000 federal program.” 

Local democracy has to be transformed into community empowerment, and whilst all the resources of a local area are not going to be in the hands of the community overnight, the budgetary power of the state should as much as possible be in the hands of those it is suppose to be spent to help.

National Government and political parties

Finally, we need to have intermediary measures to address politics at the national level in Scotland. I will discuss the limitations of Holyrood more in the next section, but here what is important is to challenge the dominance of a political class running government forever. Politicians aren’t liked, they aren’t popular and they aren’t trusted. The problem is that the Right currently have a more coherent answer to how to solve this than the Left – have fewer politicians. Cutting back on politics is popular because of the unpopularity of politics, but of course all that would do in this context is put more power into the hands of civil servants, of accountancy firms and of capital. The left needs to have an answer about politics and political parties, and the first part of the answer has to be that we need a citizen’s democracy.

The Electoral Reform Society Scotland (ERS) recently organised an event based on participatory democracy techniques to look at how democracy could be improved. The report mentions many laudable ideas like 50/50 gender balance, but the main idea that came out of it was for a second chamber made up of citizen’s. Their final report, titled ‘politics is too important to be left to politicians’, argued that:

“This ‘National People’s Forum’ would be made up of randomly selected citizens’ who would serve a set term. Various recruitment methods were discussed, ranging from elections to jury selection type methods, to lotteries, perhaps at a constituency level. A further suggestion was that members of the chamber should be recruited from elected town meeting or community councils…Overall, the idea was that sitting in the second chamber would be seen as a form of service to the community…the idea of ‘democratic leave’ was also considered as a means of facilitating participation.”

Creating a citizen’s democracy where candidates serve one term would take out the poison of party politics and bring in more genuine grassroots participation into the national parliament. In British Columbia, a federal state in Canada, they introduced a system similar to that proposed by the ERS to decide on a new electoral system. This citizens’ chamber started off with majority support for the measure proposed by the media, but after a process of deliberation amongst one another and consultation with experts and constituents through town hall meetings they decided on another system which was of a more radical nature.

A citizens’ chamber is a form of ‘mini-public’. A mini-public is when an accurate cross-section of the population is brought together to discuss and debate an issue and come to a decision on it, like jury duty but it can be organised through various means. Wouldn’t mini-publics be a much better form of consultation for politicians than just listening to lobbyists and carrying out the occasional ‘public consultation’ which sets questions in a way to get pre-determined answers? If every parliamentary committee had to seriously consider the verdict of a mini-public which had three months to genuinely deliberate an issue, it gets round the problem of the same voices from the media to lobbyists to civil servants who churn out reason after reason about why radical proposes can’t be done and how they’re unpopular, but they don’t have any serious measure of what people actually think.

There is another aspect to national politics which has to change. There has to be an ideological acceptance that the only way for a democratic society to exist is if there is an equal society. Redistributive measures through taxation, therefore, are essential to create a more equal economic balance of power which can create the only circumstances for a more equal democratic balance of power over the long haul. The evidence for this is laid out in detail in The Spirit level and there has been no serious intellectual argument against it.

We all know, however, that ideological issues are contested ground, to put it mildly. Socialists will always start from a position of weakness, as the class we aim to stand up for are not in power. Therefore the role of political parties cannot be ignored in the democratic argument. Parties that are not democratic in themselves cannot genuinely claim to support a democratic society. This should not be mistaken for the over simplistic argument that parties must themselves organise in the way they want society to organise, ‘be the change you want to see’, as it is commonly put. This misunderstands the purpose of a party, which is not to find the best way to run their local nursery or university, but to defeat other political parties in a political battle in order to get the sort of democratic changes we want in society on the table. This takes a whole different sort of method to get the desired results than a democratic process which is about running society.

Nonetheless, for socialists to have any chance of competing our standards have to be somewhat higher than the mainstream parties in Scotland. Labour reached new lows in Falkirk when they decided to kick Unite members out and suspend the local parties democratic rights so that Miliband could please the right-wing press. The SNP are little better on this score, known for being hyper-centralised so much so that only a handful of people seem to have any input in their independence strategy (when you ask most SNP MSP’s they seem to have as much idea as I do about what the leadership are doing/thinking). Both SNP and Labour have policy which means if they don’t like a local candidate it is the right of the party centre to eliminate the decision of the local branch and change the candidate.

We need a real people’s party that reflects the demographics of Scottish society. This means far more women, more ethnic minorities and more working class people standing for positions in the national and local leaderships than is the case in the mainstream parties. A worker’s wage as practised by the SSP when they had MSPs at Holyrood is also important. Representatives must also be accountable to the national leadership and to the branch/constituency group they are elected from – rogue MSPs are not an option for the left, they need to be more disciplined than any other section of the party to the democratic decision of their fellow members at local and national level. Clear evidence of failure to be accountable should threaten their candidacy the next time an election comes around, no matter how popular they are. Representatives should set an example with mini-public meetings in their constituency – they should be seeking to find out the answers of their community after deliberation of their policies.

Democratic accountability should not just be held on representatives in a proper’s people’s party. Ordinary members should be responsible for continual renewal of the organisation so that it doesn’t become stagnant. Democracy can’t flourish in a stale environment because it doesn’t reflect an engagement with real social forces anymore, just those who have built up loyalty to a party. Therefore a continual process of engaging new people, attempting to teach them new ideas and skills and at the same time learning new ideas and skills from them is essential.

Finally, there are the policies and political practise of a genuine people’s party. If a party is to claim to believe in the ability of the majority to run society it needs to argue for that in the here and now, as I have outlined above, and do so in creative ways which are engaging, but more importantly it needs to prove in practise that it is going to support self-governance. A people’s party should be actively involved in co-operatives, housing associations and new practical forms of empowerment not because we believe it will overthrow capitalism, and not to recruit to our particular party, but because it is a good example and with good examples comes the possibility for change and learning.

Equally, we have to be willing to build alliances and coalitions with those from other parties to win improvements in democracy; sectarianism towards Labour, SNP, Greens and so on doesn’t show a willingness to put people before political loyalties. Some of the best moments in the SSP was when the party won support for measures on a cross-party basis at Holyrood despite its size, because it showed it could punch above its weight to get measures through which helped working class people.

We evidently don’t have a party with the ambition to do this or the roots to do this on any sort of national scale at the present moment. But the case for a party will not go away just because it hasn’t worked before, because the need for it is glaring – we just have to do it better, with better ideas, better organisation, a better internal culture and better tactics and strategy.

‘Scotland’s future in Scotland’s hands’?

The independence referendum presents a context in which the intermediary steps proposed above for Scotland have a chance of getting a hearing. Creating a new Scottish state presents greater opportunities to define its form than the entrenched interests in a British state that has not significantly changed since women won the vote in full in 1928. But the dominant independence vision, set out in the White Paper on independence, comes from the SNP and when it comes to democracy it is not particularly radical.

There are good things. The prospect of worker-participation on boards has been raised. They have made it clear that the first term of an independent Scotland would shape a new constitution, which whilst perhaps not the best way to write a consitution it at least has an element of deliberation between all parties represented.

But the overwhelming democratic argument is the main pitch for the Yes side as a whole: ‘Scotland’s future in Scotland’s hands’. Every time the Scottish electorate go to the ballot box, they’ll get the result they voted for, unlike the British system which regularly churns out government’s Scottish voters specifically voted against, like with the present tory-liberal coalition government. The slogan also refers to the fact that Scotland as a nation will have its place in the world, being able to have its distinctive input into international organisations and international debate.

It would be silly for socialists in the independence movement to staunchly reject this argument. It is true that there is a clear distinction between how the Scottish electorate votes and the governments that are elected in Westminster, and therefore that basic democratic deficit should be closed and Scotland will benefit from it closing. Additionally, the proportional representation system is just much more democratic than the first past the post system in Britain because a far greater proportion of the electorate are represented.

But what we should take issue with is the extent to which this argument represents a transformation in democracy. I would argue that such a change is of a quantitative substance, rather than a qualitative one. By this I mean that a Scottish representative democracy in Scotland is more representative and more democratic than the British system, but it will not in and of itself mark a fundamental shift in the form of democracy we have in Scotland. Because of this it will not mark a transformation in how the majority of Scottish people involve themselves in the political process, i.e they involve themselves passively and leave most decisions up to a political class. That will not qualitatively change just because ‘Scotland’s future is in Scotland’s hands’.

Evidence of this is in the launch of the Scottish Parliament in 1997, which was also seen by many as an opportunity for a transformation in democracy. As it has turned out, voter participation in Holyrood elections is as low and often lower than UK elections as a whole. Furthermore, as a Reid Foundation report pointed out recently:

“over 70 per cent of the Scottish population lives on an income lower than the average salary of £24,000. Of those who have influenced parliamentary committee’s (excluding elected politicians) only about three per cent have an income lower than the national average.”

Additionally, private capital’s access to Holyrood could be considered even greater than at Westminster. Lobbying forums like the Scottish Parliament-Business Exchange and the Futures Forum open up parliament to business in a way that other interest groups cannot compete with. The Lobbying Bill going through Holyrood will help to limit this, but the facts of the past decade or so of Holyrood still remain – it has by no means been a transformation in Scottish democracy.

Independence can create a space in which it is possible for a qualitative shift in democracy, but the same class inequality of wealth and power will remain unless the left gets organised to make sure the interests of the majority of Scots are forced to the front of the agenda in a new Scotland. The re-emergence of the left in the independence movement through the Radical Independence Campaign and the Common Weal project can only help that post-referendum process take off.

 Britain: neoliberal democracy

Looking at Britain can help to understand what we don’t want to become in an independent Scotland. Britain is one of the oldest ‘representative’ democracies in the world, yet it has slipped far behind democracies the world over in terms of actually representing the will of the people. Stuart Wilks-Heeg, the author of a recent report by Democratic Audit on democracy in Britain, has gone as far as to question “whether it’s really representative democracy any more?”

Wilks-Heeg’s report compared British democracy to other OECD countries on various scales and found it well behind. On all indicators of a democratic systems’ representativeness Britain was in ‘catastrophic decline’.

In another report titled ‘The crisis of the British Regime’, Adrian Cousins takes statistics from various opinion polls to analyse the trust and belief that the public have in British political institutions. The results are stunning.

Two examples will suffice here: The “percentage who ‘almost never’ trust the British governments of any party to place the needs of the nation above the interests of their own political party” has risen from 10% in 1974 to 40% in 2009; whilst the “percentage of respondents who believe there’s a ‘good deal of difference’ between political parties” has declined from 82% to 12%.

Interestingly, whilst trust in politics, banks and the police have hit rock-bottom, trade-unions have remained the most trusted in opinion polls out of the institutions of modern Britain.

More broadly, it’s clear that as neoliberalism has become increasingly hegemonic, democracy has waned. It’s not difficult to see why this would be the case: since profit is king, the need for the mass of society to engage critically with the general organisation of things is unnecessary.  The role of the citizen is to be as functional as possible within this framework. So university courses are increasingly departmentalised, so that we bring our children up to be, say, fantastic chemical engineers, but to not know or care about why they are doing the chemical engineering and for whom they are doing it.

Neoliberal politics is, therefore, a tool of governance, not representation. We elect parties who we think will be most effective at managing the capitalist economy, and the problems that come with it. When Blairites endlessly bang on about Labour being ‘a party of government, not protest’ this is what they mean: that the task of politics is to most effectively run a system in which corporations rule the economy, poverty and growing inequality are facts of life, and so on. The ruling ideology is the only possible ideology that can rule.

We should stop calling our Westminster system a ‘representative’ democracy because the government elected does not intend to meet the will of the people and does not receive votes of the overwhelming majority of the people. We should instead call it neoliberal democracy: yes there is a vote once every five years, but the vote is strictly for the party who the electorate believe is best at governing a neoliberal economy. No wonder voting turnout is in steady decline.

Political parties must fit into this neoliberal democratic framework: just as the choices for the electorate are limited to different brands of neoliberalism, so are the competing leaderships within the main parties.

It is complacent and elitist to understand this disengagement as being all down to ‘apathy’, a commonly used term by political people to rationalise how shoddy their democratic system is without having to take any responsibility for its shoddiness.  The reality is that many more people than thirty years ago will sign a petition, participate in a boycott or join a demonstration. These same people just don’t believe that the ‘democratic’ system and its political parties are going to really represent their wishes. It’s not so much that people are apathetic about the political system, it’s that the political system is apathetic about them.

Wilks-Heeg puts the increase in political disengagement into its proper context:

“Over time, disengagement skews the political process yet further towards those who are already more advantaged by virtue of their wealth, education or professional connections. And without mass political participation, the sense of disconnection between citizens and their representatives will inevitably grow.”

Inequalities of wealth breed inequalities of political power, and vice-versa. Consequently any transformation in democracy has to be willing to start challenging the division of life between political and economic, democracy and jobs, representation and participation. At the top of the British system, the elite knocked down these divisions a long time ago for themselves: there is a revolving door between the economic elite and the political elite at Westminster. It’s the task of socialists to back policies and actions that will help knock down those divisions for the rest of us.


Socialism is about the empowerment of the working class to govern society. This is easy to believe in, what is much more complicated is to engage in a process that is actually going to help us get there. Our starting point must be to support measures which help empower and embolden the working class right now. Independence is one of them, but in and of itself it is limited unless it’s connected to a more radical project of democratic transformation which begins to break down the division between politics and economics.

The neoliberal democratic model attempts to reduce politics to a game of which fraction of the political class is best at governing a hyper-capitalist global economy. Therefore measures which strengthen the hand of workers, communities and bring citizens into the fold at a national level are helpful to the struggle for a socialist society. As part of the independence movement socialists have to be confident about our view that ultimately we need to eradicate class division and the rule of capital over labour, ordinary people can run society themselves for the good of everybody. At the same time, we have to be willing to listen, engage and build alliances and coalitions alongside other forces who will support more limited reforms in the here and now. As Marx said, ‘democracy is the road to socialism’ and we won’t get very far down that road unless we stand beside other progressive forces to start building towards that better future now.

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.

“Green Fields of France”


As politicians prepare a ‘celebration’ of the First World War, Bill Scott looks at a song which remembers the horrors of the trenches.

Green Fields of France

Words & Music: Eric Bogle

Well, how’d you do, Private Willie McBride,
D’you mind if I sit down down here by your graveside?
I’ll rest for awhile in the warm summer sun,
Been walking all day, Lord, and I’m nearly done.
I see by your gravestone you were only 19
When you joined the glorious fallen in 1916,
I hope you died quick and I hope you died clean,
Or, Willie McBride, was it slow and obscene?

CHORUS: Did they beat the drum slowly, did they sound the fife lowly?
Did the rifles fire o’er ye as they lowered ye down?
Did the bugles sing “The Last Post” in chorus?
Did the pipes play the “Floors O’ The Forest”?

And did you leave a wife or a sweetheart behind
In some faithful heart is your memory enshrined?
And, though you died back in 1916,
To that loyal heart are you forever nineteen?
Or are you a stranger, without even a name,
Forever enshrined behind some glass pane,
In an old photograph, torn and tattered and stained,
And fading to yellow in a brown leather frame?


Well, the sun’s shining down on these green fields of France;
The warm wind blows gently, the red poppies dance.

The trenches have vanished long under the plow;
No gas and no barbed wire, no guns firing now.
But here in this graveyard it’s still No Man’s Land;
The countless white crosses in mute witness stand
To man’s blind indifference to his fellow man.
And a whole generation who were butchered and damned.


And I can’t help but wonder now, Willie McBride
Do all those who lie here know why they died?
Did you really believe them when they told you “the cause?”
Did you really believe that this war would end wars?
Well the suffering, the sorrow, the glory, the shame,
The killing, the dying, it was all done in vain,
For Willie McBride, it’s all happened again,
And again, and again, and again, and again.


David Cameron is planning a “celebration” of the First World War next year on the centenary of its start in 1914. For once we can all agree with Establishment cynic Jeremy Paxman that this demonstrates once and for all that Cameron is “a complete idiot”. What next? A celebration of the anniversary of the Black Death’s arrival in Europe?

The truth is that the First World War was one of history’s greatest tragedies – the sacrifice of a generation of, mainly, European young men at the altar of imperialist hubris with absolutely no underlying redeeming rationale. The causes of the Great War were not an assassination in Serbia but an ever escalating arms race by all of the “Great Powers” coupled with an imperialist lust for more land, resources and power that could only ever have had one outcome.

In the first three months of the war the ‘Allies’ (Britain, France, Russia) suffered a million casualties. By the spring of 1915 both sides were bogged down in trench warfare on the Western Front, the muddy and bloody fields of Flanders.

The military commands of both sides were employing the tactics of a mid-19th century war with troops armed with 20th century weaponry. Yet it had been evident since the time of the American Civil War, some 50 years earlier, that sending masses of men across open ground against well defended positions would simply lead to massive casualties. Since that time barbed wire, machine guns and quick loading rifles had made the already costly tactic of frontal assault a suicidal one – but still the old duffers in overall command, safely sited miles from the front where the actual fighting was done, commanded their troops to “go over the top”.

The Battle of the Somme, where “Willie McBride” most probably fell, epitomises the horror and futility of trench warfare. The Battle started in July 1st 1916 and lasted until November of that year. Douglas Haig the British commander had come up with the battle plan to relieve the pressure on the French army which had suffered horrific casualties of its own, and was on the point of mutiny, after the German “Spring offensive” at Verdun.

Now Haig intended to prove that Britain was as prepared as Germany or France to sacrifice its young men’s lives for the sake of national pride. On the first day of the battle the British suffered 60,000 casualties – probably more than all the casualties that the British army has incurred in the near 70 years since the end of the Second World War. By the end of the battle, the British Army had suffered 420,000 casualties. The French lost another 200,000 men and the Germans nearly 500,000. The gains – at the end of the Battle the Allies had advanced just over 6 miles from where they had started at a collective cost of 200,000 young men for each mile of the advance. Yet the Somme marked only the mid-point of the First World War. Another 2 years of useless slaughter were still to come.

The First World War may seem like ancient history today nearly a century later, but its impact on people’s view of the world and on Scotland itself is still being felt. The sheer scale of the slaughter is staggering. There were over 37 million casualties (military and civilian) directly attributable to the war with over 15 million deaths and 22 million wounded. This includes almost 9 million military deaths and about 6.6 million civilian deaths.

The support to their home countries’ involvement in the war given by the Labour Party (and other social democratic parties in Europe ) split the socialist left. Throughout Europe a few principled socialists stood out – in Scotland, McLean, in Ireland, Connolly, in Germany, Luxemburg & Liebnecht and in Russia Lenin & Trotsky. All suffered for their beliefs and activity – in prison, exile or death. However as the scale of the slaughter became clear many of those in the working class who had at first supported the war were sickened by it and began to resist its continuance. This opposition to the war led to the Easter Rising, Red Clydeside, the Russian Revolution and the German Army’s mutiny – which effectively ended the war.

The impact of the First Word War in Scotland was profound. A total of 147,609 Scots were killed during World War One. That means that a fifth of all Britain’s war dead came from a nation that made up only 10% of its population. In total, when including the maimed and wounded, Scotland suffered a quarter of all British casualties. That’s more dead and wounded per head of population than any other country involved in WW I other than Turkey & Serbia – which were actual theatres of war where land armies clashed and civilians became caught up in the fighting.

Scotland was a country in mourning in the aftermath of the war. Its steady population growth throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, which had taken place despite the Clearances, was halted and reversed. Virtually no Scots family was left untouched by loss and the massive outpouring of grief that the Great War occasioned is captured in stone in the National War Memorial which was built in Edinburgh Castle. Visit it and read the seemingly unending list of the names of the fallen and weep at the absolute waste of human lives and national potential. Scotland has had no difficulty in remembering the fallen of the First World War but perhaps David Cameron should be careful that he doesn’t stir up memories of the unfairness of the scale of our needless sacrifice when compared to other parts on the “United” Kingdom. In WWI, 27% of Scottish troops mobilised were killed, compared to 12% for British forces overall. One might ask why that difference exists. It couldn’t have been because Scots troops were seen as more expendable by the British High Command, could it?

This song was written by one of Scotland’s greatest exports Eric Bogle, the folk singer and writer now located in Australia. It sits alongside another of his compositions, “Waltzing Matilda”, as one of the great anti-war songs set in the aftermath of World War I. Read Sebastian Faulks’ “Birdsong” to get a picture of the living hell that was the Somme and if you can try to catch a screening of “Joyeux Noel” this Christmas. Based on real incidents it captures the camaraderie of Scots, German and French troops during the unofficial Christmas truce that broke out in the trenches in 1914 and the efforts that the military command made to crush the truce and its memory. It’s a true commemoration of an unnecessary tragedy rather than a grotesque celebration of an immense bloodbath.

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.

Cleaning up the City – Unionising London’s Cleaners

Cleaners Strike at Societe Generale

Attempts to unionise cleaners in the City of London have shone a spotlight on an exploited group of largely immigrant workers. Gregor Gall, Professor of industrial relations at the University of Bradford looks at how the campaign was built.

At the very base of the union movement, new life is being injected into it by the offshoot of a very old organisation. The Industrial Workers Great Britain (IWGB) emerged out of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW, or Wobblies) in Britain after differences of opinion about strategy and tactics. The IWW whose slogan is ‘one big union’ for all workers began life in the United States in 1905.

Existing and operating on less than a shoe-string budget, the IWGB is organising groups of cleaners, particularly in London and especially amongst migrant workers. This is a great testament to the activists involved because organising workers who are particularly vulnerable and insecure, and whose first language is not English is a particularly challenging task.

Striking at the City

Last week, IWGB cleaner members went on strike at the Barbican Centre in London which is owned by the City of London Corporation. The significance of choosing that particular for strike action was that it was the polling day for the City of London Common Councilmen elections.

The cleaners are employed by the sub-contractor, MITIE, and are paid the minimum wage of £6.19. They have been campaigning for the London Living Wage of £8.55 per hour since 2012. The strength of feeling amongst the 32 cleaners was shown in the strike ballot which saw a 71% turnout with a 100% yes vote.

But the cleaners are also campaigning to be treated with respect and dignity at work because they have experienced management behaviour which is often, in their words, ‘offensive, intimidating, malicious and insulting’. Indeed, the IWGB has undertaken an Employment Tribunal case for one pregnant cleaner whose ill-treatment was such she was taken to hospital after being found collapsed and bleeding in the toilets.

London Living Wage

Although the City of London Corporation holds more than £1.3bn in its account which is there to ‘benefit … London as a whole’, it has told the cleaners that they must wait until 2014 before it applies it support for the London Living Wage to its contract with MITIE. Along the way, MITIE has tried to deny the cleaners and IWGB members access to the IWGB.

Last year July, cleaners at the John Lewis Partnership at its flagship Oxford Street store struck to support their claim for the London Living Wage. The 33 workers, again organised by the IWGB, are employed by sub-contractor, Integrated Cleaning Management (ICM). They won a pay rise of 10%, taking their hourly pay to £6.72 but this was still short of the £8.55 London Living Wage. But there was also a sting in the tale as ICM reneged on its commitment to work towards paying the London Living Wage.

The IWGB is also active in organising cleaners at the offices of the large European Bank, Société Générale, in London. Again they are employed by a sub-contractor, Initial Facilities. The cleaners there were successful in gaining the London Living Wage. But there was another, and bigger, sting in the tail as Initial cut their hours by half and forced them to increase their work rate so that they cleaned the same amount of floor space in 50% less time. They ended up being worse off than they had been before the pay rise. Moreover, many who protested against this were suspended from work and non-union cleaners were brought in.

The IWGB has also recruited and organised cleaners at the Tower of London, Schroder’s bank in the City, the Guildhall, Exchange Tower, Canary Wharf and at the St Georges University of London and Capgemini in Vauxhall.

Reaching New Layers of Workers

The IWGB is attempting to show in practice parts of the rest of the union movement that not only can what are commonly described as ‘difficult to organise’ be unionised but that they can be unionised in such a way where they play a greater than usual role in their own organising. But, of course, this takes guts and determination as well as a long-term orientation to do so.

It is not that other unions are not organising cleaners as the work of Unison with the cleaners at Senate House, SOAS and Birkbeck college shows. Unite has also organised cleaners at the House of Commons amongst others.

But what the IWGB shows is that so much can be done with so little in terms of resources. If the same method of using their greater resources was applied to their work in the sector by the established unions then, presumably, so much more could be achieved.

Critically, the union movement might then get to a point where it could start having an ‘industry effect’, namely, that as most of the major cleaning subcontractors recognise unions and pay union rates, the disincentive to undercut on terms and conditions is removed because a common floor of wages and conditions is established. What they compete on is quality of service.

Frontline Issue 21 – Building a Better Left in Scotland

Frontline 21This issue of Frontline focuses on a crucial question. Can the left in Scotland unite? Frontline recently hosted a meeting on this topic which brought together participants from several groups. To build on that discussion we asked participants to write for this issue of Frontline outlining their views.

A Better Scotland is Possible… and a Better Left
Frontline editor Alister Black reflects on this journal’s recent meeting on left unity in Scotland and looks at the challenges ahead.

Socialist Unity – Pushing the rock over the hill?
Allan Armstrong, of the Republican Communist Network, and Editorial Board member of Emancipation & Liberation, examines the renewed shoots of socialist unity in Scotland, and some of the remaining pitfalls and possibilities

The SSP and the fight for a Better Left in Scotland
Scottish Socialist Party co-spokesperson Colin Fox reflects on the lessons of the rise of the SSP and the way forward for the Scottish left today.

Left Renewal in Scotland – View from the ISN
The International Socialist Network is a new group bringing together socialists who have recently left the Socialist Workers Party. In this article Raymond Watt outlines the view of ISN supporters in Scotland concerning the way forward for the left in Scotland.

Out of the Ghetto: why detoxifying the left is the first step to revival
Cat Boyd and James Foley are activists in the International Socialist Group and have played leading roles in the Radical Independence Campaign. In this article, which is taken from the book ‘Time to Choose’ and published online for the first time here, they address the issues around reviving the left in Scotland.


Europe – What should the left say?
Bill Bonnar looks at the choices facing socialists over the referendum on EU membership.

A Marxist Case for an Independent Scotland
Eddie Cornock writes on the Marxist arguments for independence.

Democracy, Oppression and Socialists
Norman Lockhart of Tweeddale/Borders SSP looks at how the left can best take up the cause of oppressed groups in society

Cleaning up the City – Unionising London’s Cleaners
Attempts to unionise cleaners in the City of London have shone a spotlight on an exploited group of largely immigrant workers. Gregor Gall, Professor of industrial relations at the University of Bradford looks at how the campaign was built.


Will the real European Left stand up?
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.

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


Naked: Institutional fear and bodies in public spaces
Artists, film makers and academics from Scotland and Argentina recently collaborated on a project which used the case of the Naked Rambler to explore different ideas of ‘nakedness’, and reactions to bodies seen as out of place. Dr Sarah Wilson of the University of Stirling writes in this article about some of the surprising responses to Argentinian filmmaker Syd Krochmalny’s project and some of the issues it raises in terms of access to ‘public’ space and the fear and self-censure provoked by risk management practices in the workplace.

Democracy, Oppression and Socialists

womenmarchNorman Lockhart  of Tweeddale/Borders SSP looks at how the left can best take up the cause of oppressed groups in society

More or less conscious of the connection for many years socialists have seen a close identity with the struggles of the oppressed and those trying to transform the exploitation of the unfair economy that is the basis for capitalism. So we try to build alliances that can unite the various forces in joint action. However it is worth going beyond the mechanical economic links and also looking at some practical measures that socialists can take to advance this process.

There are also people like Sharon Smith in USA who are developing a wider Marxist appreciation of the oppressed. Generally organisations since the ‘60s have been restricted to seeing that special measures are appropriate in the case of for example Youth, LGBT, Black and ethnic minorities as well as Disabled. However the oppression of the majority gender, Women, is central to addressing the whole issue of oppressed groups for socialists. The consequences of getting it a bit wrong are widespread and severe. This applies in general to working class practice so many unions e.g. RMT, UNISON, UNITE now have some form of internal groupings for women, youth,  blacks & gays etc

There has been a big change in trade unions and campaign organisations so that it is common to find recognition of women gay black organisations inside unions that are more or less self organising to ensure their needs are addressed.

Left Failings

It is socialist organisations that have failed to meet our own standards especially in Britain this century.

Some of the most obvious examples have been where individuals have been the highlight of weaknesses in our parties as we have not been able to address them. One of the reasons for this has often been the attitude to internal democracy and the political culture that dominates as a result.

The SSP brought together much of the different positive and negative experiences of comrades originally from different organisations. A few notable examples without attaching details would be the WRP and Healy, Respect and Galloway and of course the SSP and Sheridan all have left a bitter trail of damaged personalities and parties. Now this damage is being repeated in the SWP where the limits on internal democracy have had disasterous consequences for the left’s reputation.

Highs and Lows

Clearly it is not enough to combat the impact of bourgeois ideology and culture to only make technical guarantees of representation both internally and publicly but also take steps to encourage their practical implementation. The SSP executive for the last year has had virtually zero representation of the women only places besides the other posts are overwhelmingly male. The recent conference of the party has not made any significant differences. This in contrast to the time when it had 4 women out of 6 MSPs. A high point that illustrates what is possible and on which more can be built.

Socialist politics often still confines itself to making a mechanical economic connection between class struggle and the obvious allies of the oppressed in capitalist society. Recent history of the left parties in Britain suggests this might be a step forward in consciousness and cadre education.

Forces such as trade unions as well as businesses and parties in  society did change in appearance. More genuine attempts meant this was often in structure as well so that gender balance in committees and educational caucus groups became considered a norm of campaigns and organisations.

However during the last 25 plus years we have seen this being reversed or absorbed by capitalism or even become integrated as a part of niche marketing.

Turning it Around

It is worth noting that societies that have started to transform and have paid attention to gender balance have only been successful where it has been a permanently recurring feature of political life.

A small starting measure for consciously trying to transform campaign organisations, parties etc would be to actively encourage the formation of different minority and oppressed caucus for all the groups but particularly to address the set back to women’s liberation since the marked successful changes in late 60s early 70s.

This is only to start a cross gender debate about how to reactivate consciousness raising that also recognises that while it might appear harder in this defensive time it is also when we need to be an attractive option for those about to start fighting back.

A gentle introduction to feminist issues for socialist might be debates stimulated after watching a DVD of the film Dagenham since that dispute was so instrumental in getting Equal Pay on the agenda while the film Vera Drake could stimulate a wider debate about class nature of abortion.


Naked: Institutional fear and bodies in public spaces

The Naked Soul (1)Argentinian artist Syd Krochmalny’s recent project ‘The Naked Soul’ explores different ideas of ‘nakedness’, public space and justice drawing on the case of the Naked Rambler here in Scotland. Dr Sarah Wilson of the University of Stirling writes in this article about some of the surprising responses to Krochmalny’s project and some of the issues it raises in terms of access to ‘public’ space and the fear and self-censure provoked by risk management practices in the workplace.

A recent art performance involving the projection of a video in a public place in Edinburgh raises key questions regarding freedom of expression, ‘public’ space and how it is controlled in contemporary Scotland. The video (‘The Naked Soul’) was made by Argentinian artist, Syd Krochmalny. Syd was invited to Scotland to give two seminars (one at the University of Stirling and one in the University of Edinburgh), an exhibition and to create this art work. After months of discussion, the resultant video draws on Biblical and philosophical texts, poetry and Scottish history to reflect on the case of Stephen Gough, the ‘Naked Rambler’, who spent over 6 years in Scottish prisons. It highlights different ideas of ‘nakedness’, attitudes to the body, imprisonment as a response to bodies seen as out of place, and ultimately of the kind of society Scotland is and could be. Do we want a society in which debate and ideas are valued as, we are often told, during the Scottish Enlightenment? Or one in which notions of ‘freedom of expression’, the ‘public’ and of dialogue are decaying in the wake of an all-encompassing institutional fear of controversy and the bureaucratisation (and potential criminalisation) not only of protest, but of any public gathering?

In the beginning was the word. And the fears provoked by the word. The ‘Naked Soul’ refers to the Greek myth of the origins of justice recounted by Plato. But the inclusion of the word ‘naked’ on our application for permission to project in public was ‘alarming’ to Council officials though I assured them no naked genitalia would be shown. Indeed, much less of the body than in many television programmes and advertisements, than on the covers of lads’ mags freely displayed in most supermarkets, than in the flesh during stag or hen party antics. In conjunction with the word ‘naked’ however, even arms and legs can become dangerous. A visceral fear of ‘offence’, of something ‘inappropriate’ seemed to pervade. It seemed an excuse to veil the fear of nakedness itself.

Don’t Push the Boundaries

Yes ‘freedom of expression is important’ but we don’t want anything that ‘pushes the boundaries’ said one official awkwardly, anything ‘offensive’ or ‘inappropriate’. Our first idea was to project the video onto the statue of the Scottish Enlightenment philosopher David Hume in the centre of Edinburgh in front of the High Court of Justiciary.  This attracted an aggressive response from the sculptor (backed up by implied threats from Edinburgh artistic and legal Establishment ‘heavies’  based on interpretations of Copyright Law that ignored established Scottish customs of hanging traffic cones on public statues and of rubbing Hume’s toe.) The sculptor’s representative suggested that if we didn’t believe in the aura of a work of art such as this sculpture, we should consider projecting onto a poster with the words ‘David Hume’ on it. In spite of having accepted a commission from an organisation with a definite political purpose (the Saltire Society), the sculptor himself employed Kant’s argument of the ‘Kingdom of ends’ and ‘art for art’s sake’ against the idea of temporarily projecting anything not only onto ‘his’ work but also onto the space around it.

Political Debate

The idea of political debate in a public place, or even of public space itself, seemed to be disturbing for artists, public bodies and others. It was suggested that ‘as a matter of courtesy’ we should ask the permission of the courts if the projection were to hit ‘their’ walls. Naïvely, we suggested that the walls of public buildings might be seen as ‘public’ property and not ‘theirs’. ‘That sounds like sedition’ was one response. Commercial suppliers were also frightened of causing ‘offence’. A company of equipment suppliers suggested we do something less ‘political’, concerned that they might lose contracts if they were seen to be ‘involved’. A Council official then suggested that one way to appease local artists and the ultimate local commandment of ‘Thou shall not interfere with the traffic even minutely… except during the commercially successful Festival’ was to transfer the projection to a local cemetery in which no one had been buried for over a century. Of course, this would also be a transfer to a less visible public place. This official in a public institution happily engaged in discussion around the project, but was afraid of censure from superiors concerned to ‘manage’ risk rather than encourage freedom of expression or dialogue. ‘I don’t want to get a call from the local newspaper about this’. No one was unhelpful. Most were interested in the project and wanted to chat. But as employees they knew well the contemporary concern of institutions to avoid anything ‘controversial’. They were scared and preferred to pass the decision onto someone else.

Monument to Thomas Muir, democratic martyr in New Calton Cemetery
Monument to Thomas Muir, democratic martyr in New Calton Cemetery

But the cemetery which contains David Hume’s tomb was, we realised, a good location for a project related to myths around death and judgment. A liminal place, for souls banished from too public places: Jews originally, transported activists such as Thomas Muir, prostitutes, Naked Ramblers perhaps, and artists wishing to explore certain issues (while still not offending against another British commandment ‘Thou shalt not show willies in public places least not outside of a commercial context’). Sorted we thought, with the blessing of two Council departments. But unbeknownst to us, the cemetery took us outside of the invisible boundary lines of these two departments and inside those of another, according to whom, even though Old Calton Cemetery functions more now as a tourist attraction than as a ‘live’ cemetery; ‘The families of the dead might be offended’. The idea of offence takes multiple forms and multiple spaces then.  We’d seen no sign of mourners in amongst the detritus of local drinkers, which we offered to clear. How many people might be the descendants (or the potentially offended) of these people buried over century ago?  What kind of offence related to never known ancestors might this be? How far might such offence travel over time? The project was coming to resemble its subject: the banishment of the (nearly) naked body to the margins, the fear of sexuality and death. But still there was no official response, yes or no. The official processes left us hanging despite several phone calls; with the blessing of some departments, but passed to others who did not respond. Was this silence the result of miscommunications….or a type of silence intended to silence, to lead us to self-censure? …..better to not engage in anything ‘controversial’, right? An effective silence too. It was beginning to get to me. I realised that I, too, was scared.

Managing Risk

Our final no came through an unexpected but revealing source. The afternoon before the projection, a university press official phoned the Council media department which suggested the Council did not know of our previous negotiations, or that we had been directed to the Cemetery by Council officials, and stated that the cemeteries’ department’s response was a definite ‘no’ (not that anyone had told us this). Rather than questioning this process or broader theories of freedom of expression or notions of public space, the increasingly cautious and commercialised university, too, preferred to avoid anything ‘controversial’, anything that might tarnish its monolithic, clean ‘brand’.  A university officer suggested that the video would be better shown in a more ‘private’ space, such as, in his view, the university itself. The Council media department’s gratitude to the university press office was obvious in an email ‘thanks for the heads up’; two institutions managing the risk posed by employees and their pesky, creative ideas.

Furious, and animated by an Argentinian who could not quite believe that this was happening in the country of Hume and Smith, we went ahead. After the cemetery we projected in the AugustineCentralChurch. In contrast to other institutions, this church honoured its tradition as a place of public dialogue and welcomed us with open arms. Here, at last Syd was shocked and impressed by an Edinburgh institution!

Is Another Scotland Possible?

We are left though with many broad questions at this crossroads in Scottish history. Is another Scotland possible? One in which the body provokes less official fear and revulsion, and in which children are not taught that the naked body is exclusively sexual or something perverted? One in which the many intelligent, creative workers within institutions –whether in the public or private sector- are allowed space to engage with ideas and spaces around them without fear of censure? One in which dialogue is welcomed, rather than ended by risk management practices in institutions relating to (potential) ‘offence’ to a few and the reaction of powerful media outlets? More broadly, can a society administered, explicitly or otherwise, through such a state of fear and self-censure, in which words such as ‘inappropriate’ and ‘controversial’ are used to close down rather than to open debate, be truly democratic? If democracy is constructed through dissensus, then does the aversion to such debate within some Scottish institutions reveal a latent timidity, and from an Argentinian perspective, proto-fascist, spirit at their heart? The spirit of the Scottish Enlightenment may still haunt CaltonCemetery, but it seems to be well buried in today’s institutions and (increasingly privatised) public spaces.