“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 mrzine.monthlyreview.org
  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.