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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.

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Resistance on the industrial front

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

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

Left Front

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

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

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

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

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

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

Taking the Bastille

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

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


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

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

Will the real European Left stand up?

Manifestation du Front de Gauche [ 18 Mars , Bastille ]

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

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

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

Filling the space on the left

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

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

Communist Parties

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

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

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

Europe’s Anti-Capitalist Left

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

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

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

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


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

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

Syriza and Greece

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


Paraguay’s Silent Coup

Fernando Lugo en Coronel Oviedo
Former Paraguayan President Fernando Lugo. Image fernandolugoapc on flickr

Alister Black looks at the lingering shadow of the dictators in South America

In 2008 the years of domination by the right wing Colorado Party, the party of the dictatorship, came to an end when a left wing bishop and liberation theologist, Fernando Lugo was elected President of Paraguay. Lugo promised change. He promised social reform to address the great inequalities in Paraguayan society and in particular he promised to tackle the central issue in Paraguay – land reform.

I visited Paraguay this summer a few weeks after the ‘parliamentary coup’ which overthrew Lugo. Driving through the streets of the cities like Ciudad del Este and Asuncion you could see some graffiti and posters denouncing the coup and calling for mobilisation. But the protests had begun to peter out. Speaking to Paraguayans many said they had voted for Lugo and opposed the coup, but all had criticisms of him. Most commonly they felt he had achieved little in the way of the change he had promised to bring about.

Yet Paraguay is also a country whose poverty and inequality is among the worst in the world (1) and this could be seen on every street. I passed a huge home that could only be described as a palace. It belonged to a former President, Cubas, and perfectly symbolised the corruption of the ruling elite. A few streets down a thriving ‘asentamiento’ of wood and tarpaulin homes was being built on occupied land by peasants coming in from the country seeking work. There were also some more permanent brick constructions with rigged up electricity and chickens running around the yard.

Understanding Paraguay

Paraguay is a relatively small South American country in terms of population but with a turbulent and violent history. It has suffered catastrophic wars which killed huge proportions of its people. The War of the Triple Alliance which Paraguay fought against Brazil, Uruguay and Argentina saw a possible 90% of the male population of the nation killed. The twentieth century saw the Chaco War over control of a semi-desert region where it was believed oil could be found. Britain played a bloody role in this conflict, encouraging it and arming both sides. Political instability led to a civil war in 1947 as different factions of the ruling class fought for control.

The instability ended in 1949 with the military dictatorship of Alfredo Stroessner and the Colorado Party. The Stroessner dictatorship lasted until 1989 and it was marked by international isolation (the few foreign embassies were from the likes of apartheid South Africa and Taiwan) and domestic oppression. One party rule also exarcerbated the corruption that came to plague the nation. Stroessner was ousted in 1989 by his son-in-law who had responsibilty for the nations borders and hence lucrative smuggling income. Fear of losing that post prompted the coup rather than any concern for democracy. There were some democratic reforms however, but the corrupt and deeply entrenched networks of the Colorado Party machine continued to dominate the country, acting in the interests of business and rich landowners.


The election of Lugo promised more substantial change. However the hopes of many Paraguayans and those outside the country, were dashed in June this year when Lugo was impeached by the Chamber of Deputies and the impeachment confirmed by the upper house, the Paraguayan Senate. Colorado had already tried multiple times to impeach Lugo. The votes were overwhelming, 76-1 in the lower house and 39-4 in the upper house. Crucially Lugo’s ‘allies’ in the centre-right Liberal PLRA party turned against him this time.

The vote followed controversial events in Curuguaty in Paraguay’s countryside. The failure of land reform had forced more peasant groups to seize land for themselves. One group were evicted by the courts and resisted their eviction resulting in the deaths of 11 peasants and 6 police officers. Exactly what happened is far from clear and there is no real evidence that the campesinos opened fire first.

This was the pretext for Lugo’s impeachment. Lugo was given just 24 hours to prepare his defence against vague charges of ‘poor performance’. No evidence was presented relating to the main charges around events in Curuguaty. The process was unconstitutional.

Lugo’s supporters in the trade-unions, social and peasant organisations demonstrated and protested but there was no mass movement to defend his presidency, as had been seen when Chavez faced a coup in Venezuela.

Lugo’s Programme

One of the key features of Lugo’s Presidency was that he had no party of his own but build a coalition called the Patriotic Alliance for Change whose largest component was a centre-right party, the PLRA many of whom actively opposed the more radical parts of Lugo’s agenda.

Lugo had promised to enact reform in four key areas, tax, land, the public sector and the judiciary (2). Land reform in particular is key in a country where 85% of the land is owned by 2% of the population. In recent years agribusiness, mostly from Brazil, has been buying up Paraguayan land to grow profitable soya. Soya makes up 40% of Paraguay’s exports and brings in $2 billion. In the process they have kicked thousands of peasants off the land. These same interests of course, vehemently opposed Lugo’s programme of land reform through their representatives in the Colorado party and the other parties.


The parliament consistently opposed Lugo. They blocked funding and cut back on existing programmes of health and social care. This made Lugo even more reliant on parliamentary allies to his right with a resultant dilution of his programme.

The media was deployed against Lugo. They raised issues around his character, particularly that he had fathered several children while still a bishop.

Another destabilising factor was the mysterious emergence of supposed leftist guerrillas, in what was a likely attempt to link Lugo to violent outrages, drawing in FARC, Chavez and anyone else they could throw in. Since the coup, the media has referred little to the so-called ‘EPP’ (Ejercito del Peublo Paraguayo).


Against this background Lugo stood little chance of carrying out his programme. This is particularily true because he failed to bring the movements which supported him together in a strong united front. Peasants, trade unionists, socialists, campaigners for democratic rights. Together they could have built a movement against the coup and in opposition to the right-wing parties of Colorado and PLRA who are two sides of the same coin.

Other leftist movements in the region have built powerful grassroots movements to defend and direct their struggle. Chavez and the PSUV are the best example but the Peronist movement of Argentinian President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner also has strong party and trade-union support and was able to draw on (or co-opt) the strength of the street movements and piqueteros of 2001.


Reaction from other South American states has been strong however. Left of centre governments of various shades such as in Venezuela, Brazil and Argentina know that they cannot allow this coup to go unpunished. The US has remained silent and has not condemned the coup.

Paraguay has been suspended from the Mercosur trading block and replaced with Venezuela, leaving Paraguay far more isolated and at an economic disadvantage whilst strengthening the other nations who now benefit from closer links and greater access to Venezuelan oil.

The removal of Lugo has been a set back for Paraguay but the underlying problems of poverty, inequality and corruption are worsening. To solve them Paraguay will need to build powerful social movements for change that can resist the machinations of the corrupt ruling elite.


(1) “by 2008 Paraguay was one of the most unequal countries in Latin America with a Gini coefficient of 0.58 (the US is 0.47) and with one of the worst landownership concentrations in the world: 1 per cent own 77 per cent of the cultivable land.” Francisco Dominguez http://www.redpepper.org.uk/paraguay-a-well-rehearsed-coup/

(2) http://www.e-ir.info/2012/08/09/the-lightning-impeachment-of-paraguays-president-lugo/ Peter Lambert

Greece, Spain Portugal – the arc of resistance to austerity hardens

Gritos en cartones.

As Merkel, Cameron and the EU bosses tighten the screws on the working class of Europe, many Europeans are stepping up resistance. Murray Smith focuses on Greece, Spain and Portugal.

It sometimes seems as if Europe’s sovereign debt crisis has been going on forever. But in fact it really only manifested itself in 2010, a result of the bailing out of private banks with public money and other public spending due to the crisis. And in May of that year Greece became the first country to ask for help and to receive so-called “aid” – really, it cannot be repeated too often, loans that must be paid back – from the now infamous Troika IMF-ECB-European Commission. This aid was conditional on Greece adopting policies of austerity and structural reforms, all regularly supervised by those who have become known as the “men in black”, the inspectors of the Troika… In an article in the Guardian on October 8, Alexis Tsipras, leader of the radical left coalition Syriza, makes two key points. First of all, the money lent to Greece goes into an escrow account used for repaying past loans and interest on them and for recapitalizing private banks. It cannot be used otherwise, for example for useful social spending. Secondly he writes: “we believe that their aim is not to solve the debt crisis but to create a new regulatory framework throughout Europe that is based on cheap labour, deregulation of the labour market, low public spending and tax exemptions for capital”. That about sums it up. Greece became the guinea-pig for these policies. It would soon be followed by Ireland and Portugal, who also applied for bailouts within a year. But Alexis Tsipras was right to say “throughout Europe”. The Financial Times on October 2 revealed the existence of a draft agenda already circulated to EU governments that “would require all 17 eurozone members to sign on to the kinds of Brussels-approved policy programmes and timelines now negotiated only with bailout countries”.

Those may be the plans that Brussels, Berlin and Frankfurt have for the whole of Europe, and we can see everywhere that that is the direction in which things are going. But for the moment they are only being applied in such  a brutal fashion in Greece, Portugal and Ireland, and also in Spain and to a lesser extent Italy, two countries which may in their turn have to apply for aid from the Troika. It is therefore important to look not just at the effects on those countries but especially at how their peoples have been able to resist. From this point of view the countries that we will look at are Greece, Spain and Portugal. It would take much too long to describe in detail the hundreds of strikes, demonstrations and occupations that have taken place in those countries and indeed in others.  But in the course of this year, and even particularly this autumn, resistance seems to have taken on a new scale and a new dynamic is some countries. We are seeing the development of an ongoing, permanent mass movement, in Greece and Spain certainly and perhaps also in Portugal.


Greece is unquestionably the country that has suffered most from the policies of the Troika, aided and abetted, it must be said, by successive Greek governments.  It is easy to cite the basic figures: 24 per cent unemployment, 55 per cent youth unemployment, wages and pensions reduced by around a third, deep cuts in education and health. It is also necessary to be aware of the daily human consequences, children going hungry, lack of medicines, homelessness, a dramatic rise in the number of suicides. These policies are accompanied by a massive propaganda offensive, seeking both to convince the population hat it is responsible for the deficits and has to make sacrifices and to instill fear of the international consequences of any policies that would break from the dominant neo-liberal mould. Clearly, for large parts of the population this discourse no longer works, people no longer believe it. And as popular opposition increases the government imposes its policies in an increasingly authoritarian and repressive fashion. And alongside the growth in support for the radical Left, there is the emergence of Golden Dawn, a genuinely neo-Nazi formation that is now, according to polls, supported by 12 per cent of Greeks.

In the three countries we are considering, where does the opposition come from, how is it structured? In fact in each country we have seen three sources of resistance, not in the same proportions: the trade unions, the parties of the radical Left (to the left of social democracy), autonomous movements of young people.

Greek Movement

Opposition in Greece began as soon as the country applied for a bailout, with a general strike called by the two main confederations GSEE (private sector) and ADEDY (public sector) on May 5, 2010. Since then there have been more than a dozen one-day general strikes and innumerable sectoral strikes. It is of course easy to criticize the trade union leaderships which do not go beyond such strikes and who for a long time remained tied to PASOK. Nevertheless these strikes objectively constitute one element of popular resistance. The second is constituted by mobilizations of youth, whose origins go back to at least 2008 and the killing by police of a young school student. Particularly under the impact of events in Spain (see below) this took on a particularly organized form in the summer and autumn of 2011, with occupations of squares. But it never took on the dynamic or the scale of the movement in Spain. One reason was certainly the role played by the radical anticapitalist Left. In the 2009 general election the Greek Communist Party (KKE) and the Coalition of the Radical Left (Syriza) won respectively 7.54 and 4.6 per cent of the vote, compared to nearly 44 per cent for the victorious social-democrats of PASOK. Hardly enough to make the capitalists quake in their boots. A few months later Syriza (or more exactly, its main component, Synaspismos) suffered a split to the right, leading to the formation of the Democratic Left. However as the crisis progressed and austerity made itself felt, from the autumn of 2011  opinion polls began to show a level of support for the three parties of the radical Left of around 30 and sometimes nearly 40 per cent. Given the deep divisions between the three forces, these results repeated in a general election could just have provided one more example of the inability of the Left to unite. But these divisions were not some kind of genetic defect of the Left. They had political roots, in the mind-boggling sectarianism of the KKE and the orientation of DL to be a left pressure group on PASOK. And Syriza dealt with the question politically, developing an orientation that was both radical and unitary. Proposing a government of left forces committed to breaking with austerity and repudiating the agreements (memorandums) concluded with the Troika. Syriza thus emerged as far and away the dominant force to the left of PASOK and the KKE and DL paid the price for their political positions. In the May elections Syriza became the second political force in the country, with over 16 per cent. Now the capitalists were really quaking in their boots. The full battery of European institutions and governments was deployed to campaign against the danger of a Syriza victory in June, a danger narrowly avoided, as Syriza, with nearly 27 per cent, came a close second to the right-wing New Democracy.  It is worth looking at the extent of Syriza’s support as revealed in that election. It was the biggest party among all those aged 18-54 (45.5 per cent in the 18-24 age group) and among workers of both public and private sectors, the unemployed, students and the self-employed. Not surprisingly Syriza was the first party in all the working-class areas, especially in Greater Athens, which has almost half the country’s population. It is also important to note that as PASOK’s support melted away (12.28 per cent in June) and the party began to implode many activists joined Syriza, including MPs and trade unionists. Similarly, the KKE which had taken 8.48 per cent in May and refused even to talk to Syriza dropped to 4.5 per cent. Syriza, which was established in 2004 as a coalition, is now engaged in a process that should lead to it becoming a party next year.


The existence of a force as representative as Syriza, a political alternative to the fragile coalition government, is the fundamental fact of Greek politics, and what makes the situation there different from any other country in Europe. Of course, if people were just sitting back and waiting to vote for Syriza in the next election, that would be a problem. But that is hardly case. The growth of Syriza is taking place in a context of ongoing mobilization. September 26 saw the latest (and the first since the elections) one-day general strike, with a demonstration of 100,000 in Athens and 15,000 in Salonika. The big battalions came from the public sector but there was a significant presence of the private sector, where to go on strike is much more likely to lead to workers being sacked. Even the employers’ organization recognized that 20 to 30 per cent of private sector workers joined the strike. And on October 8, in the face of an unprecedented police operation blocking off a large zone of Central Athens, thousands demonstrated against the visit of Angela Merkel.

Given the depth of the recession and the scale of the attacks, it is not inconceivable that the coalition government could fall – for example that its two weakest components, PASOK and DL, could be unable to keep their parties on board. Already cracks are emerging. On October 14 the Left Initiative current in PASOK demanded that the party quit the government. This in a context of negotiations with the Troika, which is now posing more demands, including increasing the working week from five to six days. The possibility of a left government led by Syriza is a real possibility. That would be an enormous step forward, but it would also be fraught with danger and difficulties. A left government would be subject to all sorts of economic and political sabotage and pressure, internally and externally. And Syriza is very conscious of the fact that at the present time there is no other country where the radical Left is in the same position as it.

New Movements

In Spain and Portugal, one of the main ways in which resistance has been expressed is through the appearance of new social-political movements organized by the young people who are among the main victims of austerity. This is an important development, which began in both countries in 2011. It is important, because young people are organizing themselves without waiting for parties or unions. But it should not be looked at in isolation or elevated into a panacea. In fact if we look at the recent mobilizations in Spain and Portugal we will see that unions and parties are involved, as well as the new movements.

Although Spain is not yet in the situation of receiving a bailout, the general opinion is that it will soon find itself in that situation. We could sum it up by saying that the economics (banks, sovereign debt) add up to such an eventuality, but Spanish politics militate against it, the Rajoy government being manifestly reluctant to be saved, that is to have conditions imposed and supervised by the Troika. In this respect Spain is actually no different from the three bail-out countries, all of whom resisted being saved for as long as possible. The reason is simple: when the men in black arrive to dictate austerity measures and structural reforms, it is electoral and social poison and it has already led to governments falling in Ireland, Greece and Portugal. It is not that the governments in question actually object to austerity and reforms, they simply want to do them in their own way in terms of their own national situation. Greece is already in a situation of limited independence, of being an EU protectorate. Portugal is moving towards the same situation. On the other hand international politics, the pressure of the EU the ECB and of course the markets are pushing Spain towards a bail-out, whose first and principal aim is to guarantee the repayment of loans and interest on them.

Spanish Crisis

If this happens to Spain it will exacerbate an already tense social and political crisis. Spain has already gone a long way in applying austerity policies and reforms. They began under the Socialist government of Zapatero in 2010 and have been continued and accentuated since the victory of Rajoy and the right-wing Popular Party in the November 2011 elections. The first striking result was the appearance in May 2011 of the indignados or M 15 movement, a movement of young people clearly related to Greek-style levels of unemployment (over 50 per cent for young people) and no prospects On May 15, operating via social networks, hundreds of thousands of young people occupied squares in towns and cities all over Spain, including Madrid and Barcelona. These occupations lasted for weeks while the indignados worked out their ideas. Finally they evacuated the squares and fanned out to engage in local campaigns. The movement was not linked to any political party. It would however be completely inaccurate to describe it as apolitical. It criticized not only the social and economic policies of the government but the limitations of the two-party system in Spain, demanding “real democracy” and produced positive proposals. These were expressed notably in a remarkable 16-point document adopted by the Madrid assembly in Puerta Del Sol on June 5, 2012.


The indignados never went away. They mobilized for the international day of action on October 15, 2011 and again in May 2012 on the first anniversary of the movement. But the focus shifted as the trade unions began to move. It has to be said that the role of the union leaderships in the first period of the crisis, under the Zapatero government, was less than glorious. But after the victory of the Right they began to move, with mass demonstrations in February and a general strike on March 29. As the unions came to the fore, the M 15 was part of the mobilizations, albeit with a definite distrust of the union leaders.

On July 19, the two main union confederations, the CC.OO and UGT, called another strike, involving smaller unions and social movements in its organization. A massive 3.5 million people demonstrated across the country. The July 19 strike had been preceded by the March for Dignity of the Asturian coal miners fighting to defend their mines and jobs, from the Asturias to Madrid. This autumn saw a new wave of mobilization, starting with a demonstration in Madrid of 500,000 people on September 15. Then an initiative came from the M15 movement, or rather from what appear to be radical spin-offs from it, Coordinadora 25S and Plataforma En Pie! (“Stand Up!”) On three successive evenings, on 25-26-27 September, up to 50,000 demonstrators tried to encircle the Parliament, calling for the resignation of the government and declaring “democracy kidnapped”. There were violent clashes with police. A mass demonstration took place the following Saturday, September 29.  On September 26 there was a general strike called by the Basque trade unions (linked to the Basque national movement, not part of the Spanish confederations). Unlike on March 29, the strike was not backed by the CC.OO and the UGT, so it was unevenly supported, depending on the sectors and workplaces. However the demonstrations were massive, with a high participation of young people. Further demonstrations took place all over Spain on October 7. Another one-day general strike is envisaged for November 14, the same day chosen by the Portuguese unions.


In Portugal, the first signs of autonomous movement among young people were seen even earlier than in Spain. On March 12, 2011 demonstrations against precarious work organized on Facebook brought 300,000 people into the streets, 200,000 of them in Lisbon. A week before, the organizers had hoped for a demonstration of 10,000…But subsequently there was a downturn in mobilization. In April 2011 Portugal applied for a bailout and a few weeks later elections brought a right-wing government to power committed to carrying out the terms of an agreement with the Troika. The Socialists, now in opposition, also backed the agreement. The two forces to the left of the SP, the Portuguese Communist Party and the Left Bloc fared badly in the elections. The PCP held its vote stable, but the Left Bloc lost half its votes and half its seats. Since then there have certainly been protests – two one-day general strikes, big demonstrations. But not on the scale of Greece or even Spain. Overall, up until recently a large section of the Portuguese people accepted austerity with a certain resignation, helped by an ongoing campaign in the media about how necessary austerity was and how things would soon get better. That all changed dramatically on September 15.  A national demonstration was called by a collective of 29 people. Word went out via social media in the same way as for the demonstrations in March 2011 and the M15 in Spain. The result was a million demonstrators across a series of Portuguese cities on September 15, including 500,000 in Lisbon – the biggest demonstration there since May 1 1974, a few days after the fall of the Salazar dictatorship. The reason for the breakthrough was a measure that had been announced in the government’s latest austerity package on September 7. It provided a particularly clear expression of who the government was helping and who it was hurting. The measure envisaged deducting an extra 7 per cent in social security contributions from workers’ salaries and simultaneously reducing employers’ contributions by 5.75 per cent. This was described by one observer as the last straw that broke the camel’s back. The government was forced to withdraw the measure but has announced new tax increases to replace it. But the genie is out of the bottle and since then there have been fresh protests.

Spain – Regions and Nations

In terms of the social situation, Spain is only comparable to Greece, which explains the scale of the ongoing mobilizations. But the crisis is also laying bare the country’s political fault lines. In particular it is underlining the limits of what is called the “Transition”, the period from the death of Franco in 1975 until the adoption of a new constitution in 1978. In at least three spheres: the national question (limited autonomy, no right to self-determination), the amnesty law (no prosecution for crimes committed by the Franco dictatorship), the question of democracy (no republic, but a “parliamentary monarchy”). Spain came out of the Transition with a considerable degree of decentralization, powers devolved to the regions. But the term “regions” covers the historic Basque, Catalan and Galician nations, regions with a strong identity like Andalusia, and ordinary Spanish provinces which were not even demanding the devolution they got. In fact the whole operation was an attempt to make granting statutes of (limited) autonomy to Catalonia and the Basque Country acceptable to the Spanish Right by wrapping it up in a general process of decentralization. The reality was however that both nations got rights in excess of those given to the Spanish regions. The Basques, but not the Catalans, got a statute of autonomy with the right to control their own tax revenues.

Under cover of the role of the regions in the overall deficit the Rajoy government is trying to recentralize, to repatriate powers to Madrid. But this is not just an economic issue. There is an offensive against Catalan identity and language, with provocative declarations from Spanish politicians, for example the Minister of Education talking about the need to “Hispanicize” Catalonia. The Catalan response was a massive pro-independence march of 1.5 million people in Barcelona on September 11, Catalan National Day. Faced with no concessions from Madrid the Catalan government has called a snap election for November 25 which may give them a mandate for a referendum on independence. The present Catalan government is certainly not on the left and applies its own austerity policies. It is also reluctant in its support of independence. But it is being pushed forward by the mass movement. And other, left independentist currents are developing and will stand in the elections. The national question is likely to become even sharper after regional elections on October 21 where the left independentists of EH Bildu are seeking to repeat their success in last year’s local elections in the Basque country. Even in the more conservative Galicia, an alliance between the local Izquierda Unida (IU, United Left) and a new movement ANOVA, which has been described as the “Galician Syriza” may make a modest breakthrough.

Spain is heading for a political and constitutional crisis and all the chickens of the half-baked Transition are coming home to roost. Not only is the government of the Popular Party, which was of course founded by former Francoists, revealing its deep-seated Spanish chauvinism, but officers of the Spanish armed forces, who under the Amnesty Law of 1977 were never pursued for crimes against humanity committed under the Franco regime, are making threatening declarations. Leading right-wing politicians are demanding that the statute of autonomy be suspended and the Civil Guard sent into Catalonia and the association of retired officers is threatening Catalan politicians with being tried by military tribunals for high treason.

In Portugal the situation is quite different in that respect, due to the way the dictatorship was overthrown by a revolution in 1974, the role the army played in it and the heritage of a revolution that, although it was prevented from becoming the socialist revolution many of its participants wanted, has left serious trace in Portuguese society. Thus, on 14 September, 2012, the Officers Association of the Portuguese Armed Forces (AOFA) adopted a declaration which affirmed that “‘the military can never be an instrument of repression for their fellow citizens, because according to the Constitution we swore to defend them”. It went on to make very sharp criticisms of government policies, difficult to imagine on the part of serving officers in most other countries.

Radical Left

The level of mobilization in Spain is fast approaching Greek levels, and hopefully resistance in Portugal will now grow stronger. The situation of the radical Left is obviously less advanced than in Greece, but far from marginal. In Portugal an opinion poll in September showed the PCP on 13 per cent and the Left Bloc on 11 per cent, a big improvement on 2011. Considering that relations between the two parties seem to be improving, that could be the beginning of a serious alternative. Furthermore relations, between the new social movement and the parties seem not so bad; several of the 29 people who made the call for the September 15 demonstration are Left Bloc members. On this level, things are more problematic in Spain. The United Left doubled its vote in  2011 compared to the previous elections and has now pretty much doubled again in opinion polls, at 12-13 per cent. It has sought to open out and had some success in collaborating with the M15; some figures from the movement stood on the IU lists in the 2011 elections, at least one being elected. However, the evolution of some sectors of the M15 towards what may be the beginning of political organizations may mean that developments on the left will be more complicated in Spain.

This article has dealt with three countries, which are the most advanced at this point. But of course that does not cover the whole scenario. Movements of resistance are weaker in Ireland and Italy, for reasons that can be understood in each case, but they exist and the situation could change quickly, particularly in Italy. Nor have we dealt with the situation in Central and Eastern Europe, where not only are austerity policies being applied in many countries, but there have been important movements of resistance, notably in Romania and the Czech Republic. One country however that deserves to be mentioned is France, where we may be seeing the lull before the storm. President Francois Hollande and his Socialist government are coming under increasing pressure to renege on their election promises and fall into line by applying austerity policies and labour and pension reforms. The odds are that they will gradually give in to these pressures. In this situation it is not unimportant that there is a strong opposition on the left. The Left Front, which had won four million votes in the presidential election, launched in September a campaign against France signing the Treaty on Stability, Coordination and Governance, usually called the Fiscal Pact, designed to set austerity in stone. This was a point on which Hollande had very clearly capitulated, in spite of his election promise not to sign the pact unless it was renegotiated. On September 30, 80,000 people demonstrated in Paris against France signing – a front involving not just the Left Front but other political forces, including the NPA, and dozens of trade unions and associations. The Greens, who are part of the government, decided to vote against and most of their MPs did so, as of course did the Left Front MPs. Very significantly, so did 20 Socialist MPs, 9 more abstaining, in spite of huge pressure from the party leadership.  The significance of the fact that the first national movement of opposition to a decision of the Socialist government came from the left was not lost on the political world or the bourgeois media. It augurs well for the future.

Hillsborough Disaster: Truth at last – now demand justice


Richie Venton, SSP national trade union organiser, is a Liverpool supporter and was the Merseyside regional organiser of the socialist organisation Militant from 1980-1992

Words can only begin to hint at what the Hillsborough Independent Panel’s Report signifies.
A victory for the truth over the pernicious lies poured out by police chiefs, press and politicians – who tried to frame the 96 who died that terrible day in April 1989.
A victory for the superhuman tenacity, courage and heroism of the victims’ families and other fans who have fought for justice for 23 years – overwhelmingly working class people, with no resources but a deep well of determination and strong principles.
Overwhelming relief and vindication, tinged with renewed sadness, for the families of the 96 who perished in this man-made disaster: at last their loved ones’ names have been cleared.
A new wave of bitter outrage at the revelation 41 of the 96 could still be alive today, but for the incompetence of the police chiefs, which meant only 2 of 48 ambulances that arrived actually reached the pitch.
A renewed unity and sense of their own strength in challenging the authorities – not just for the indescribably brave family campaigners, but for all Liverpool fans, and indeed the whole city’s working class population.
Fury, and for some, utter disbelief at the blatant, corrupt cover-up by police chiefs, as they crudely doctored documents and witness statements – with successive Tory and Labour governments aiding and abetting their inhuman smearing of the dead in order to camouflage their own responsibility for the slaughter 23 years ago.

Class hatred

And after an initial attempt to palm off the clamour for justice with 24 hours of apologies and a shift back to trivial ‘business as usual‘ in the media, this naked expose of corruption in ‘high’ places has now forced the Crown Prosecution Office and Independent Police Complaints Commission to initiate an unprecedented scale of inquiry into police officers and the football authorities, with the potential of it leading to charges of gross misconduct and even manslaughter.
At last, a generation later, some hope of justice for those who died and those who have tirelessly challenged the most monstrous lie-machine in modern Britain.
Whilst pressing for prosecutions of those responsible, and re-opening of the inquests on the 96, we should not lose sight of the wider and deeper implications of this appalling episode.
It reveals a system that is steeped in class hatred for working class people, with the establishment, all the various arms of the state, implicated – a brutal reminder of just how low these people in power are prepared to stoop to retain their power and privileges.

Millions shaken

In some respects a great deal that is in the Report was known already 23 years ago. But its great merit is to have documented 450,000 pages of documentary evidence, piecing together the horror story and bringing it all out in the open.
Millions of people have been touched by the revelations, shaken to the core in their assumptions about the police, press and ruling powers.
Back in 1989, many of us warned of a monstrous cover-up by the police authorities, senior judges, Tory government and the media – the various arms of the ‘establishment’. Little did any of us know that it would take a whole generation, 23 years, for the truth to come out, after successive Tory and Labour governments had helped to keep the lid on what was known to those at the top.

Police savagery

At the time, in articles in the socialist press, I branded the initial West Midlands police inquiry into the South Yorkshire policing operation at Hillsborough as being a case of the Devil investigating the actions of Satan.
Some of us had lived through the savage class brutality of the Tories during the miners’ strike four years before Hillsborough – with Thatcher’s use of South Yorkshire and other police forces as a well-fed, well-paid, beefed-up government militia that treated working class people as scum, rampaging like uniformed thugs in the pit villages.
But even veteran socialists are still gob-smacked at the crudely blatant corruption of the police, who altered 164 police statements – in 116 cases to completely remove anything critical of the police actions at Hillsborough.

Top rank forgers

>Senior police officers, including the subsequently knighted Sir Norman Bettison, and the solicitor representing South Yorkshire police, supervised the recording of junior police officers’ recollections of events that day. In contrast to the normal procedure of writing up their notes in official police notebooks – which can then be legally requisitioned as evidence in any court case – the police were instructed to write them on loose sheets of paper. Then they were doctored under the vigilant eye of police chiefs.
Later, these top-rank forgers offered the excuse that amendments were made to remove ‘opinion’ about the fans.
That was a cynical, dirty lie: the documents published by the Independent Panel reveal that not a single case of this happened; plenty of vicious ‘opinions’ about fans remained in the amended statements – but in 116 junior officers’ statements, all their original comments critical of the policing that tragic day were removed.
Similar corrupt doctoring of eye-witness statements by ambulance workers were conducted by the chiefs of the ambulance service.

Tragedy waiting to happen

This was literally a tragedy waiting to happen, mostly through a combination of the blatant failure of the football owners to invest in crowd safety measures, and the refusal by police chiefs to learn from and act on their own incompetent performance.
They had plenty of fresh warning: the very same FA semi-final, between the same Liverpool and Notts Forest, had been held at the very same Hillsborough ground the previous season, 1988. Overcrowding, lack of ground safety measures and incompetent policing had led to a near-disaster, with fans being crushed, but no fatalities.
But absolutely nothing was done to improve matters after the review of these events, either by Sheffield Wednesday’s profit-conscious owners or the heads of the South Yorkshire Police.

They framed the dead!

People at the match told me 23 years ago how they arrived to scenes of utter chaos at the turnstiles. Liverpool supporters had complained in advance about ticket allocation not reflecting the respective numbers from Liverpool and Nottingham Forest. There was no proper direction of fans to turnstiles, with only two policemen outside Leppings Lane!
Fans thronged into the middle terraces, even though the side terraces were half empty: stewarding was almost non-existent.
Overcrowding in the middle terraces was clearly visible by at least 2.30pm, or earlier; a clear half hour before the 3pm kick-off. But whilst doing nothing to address this, failing to usher fans into the plentiful spaces on the side terraces, the police officers in charge vastly compounded the crush by ordering the opening of Gate C (one of the Leppings Lane exits) – to reduce the logjam at the turnstiles, where it was clear fans would not gain access until at least 3.30.
Instead of delaying the kick-off, they tried to shove thousands of fans through Gate C as well as turnstiles like cattle, with the added disastrous result that Gate C led them straight down a steep tunnel and back up into the already-overcrowded middle sections.
And in their vilification of the dead and injured, the same police chiefs who ordered the opening of Gate C then told the media that afternoon that the gate had been broken down by fans – a malicious strand to their lies about “drunken, ticketless Liverpool fans” being the cause of the disaster.

Prisons not palaces

The root cause of this human tragedy was the way the football authorities regarded working class people as sources of vast profit, but also inherently violent thugs.
In the years before, there had been a sustained vilification of fans – and in those days football was almost exclusively the sport of the working class – by the media and government, branding them as hooligans, forging ahead with plans to introduce ID cards, in tandem with plans for ID Cards for the hated poll tax.
They built high perimeter fences, with narrow emergency exit gates that acted as traps rather than escape routes in any emergency…because they regarded it as an issue of crowd control, rather that one of crowd safety for people investing their modest weekly incomes in ‘the beautiful game’.

Profits before lives

The clubs failed to re-invest their profits in ground safety and comfort for the people who made the pools companies £661m profits from football the year before Hillsborough alone.
Many of the grounds were more like clapped out cowsheds, prisons with their perimeter fences, rather than palaces of entertainment. Hillsborough, capacity 54,000, had no proper medical facilities.
Fans had no say; football is like any other capitalist enterprise.
They fenced fans into pens, more accurately cages, like a sub-human species. The police were drilled to treat them with contempt, and arrests, rather than cooperate with supporters’ organizations in protection of crowd health and safety.

41 could have lived

As the crush began, the police stopped ambulances getting onto the pitch, falsely telling them that it wasn’t safe as the fans were rioting. That’s why many of the 41 who could have survived died that day.
Rows of police, three deep, were lined up outside the cages at the goalmouth where people were dying. Eyewitnesses at the time told us how police ignored pleas for help: shoving the fence back into position when fans desperately tried to smash it down as a means of escape; refusing to help a child gasping for breath who was passed over the heads of the fans; truncheoning a group of fans who managed to get onto the pitch to try and rip down the railings.
This callous failure to act as a rescue service largely lay in the previous training of police as unthinking, obedient servants of the police chiefs, who in turn deployed their forces on behalf of the Tories against mining communities and disaffected young people, and whose attitude to Liverpool working class people in particular was steeped in class hatred.

Tory hatred of Liverpool

It is no mere coincidence that the police mercilessly doctored the evidence in order to smear Liverpool fans and hide their own scandalous role. And Thatcher’s Tory government’s fingerprints are all over this monstrous frame up.
Only four years earlier, hundreds of thousands of the city’s working class, led in mass action for jobs and services by socialists, had inflicted a decisive defeat on the Iron Lady of capitalist reaction.
Mass demos of 50-60,000, general strikes and a determined, militant upsurge of workers united in action had won £60m in government funds to create massive improvements in jobs, housing and public services.
Liverpool was an inspiration to workers across the UK and beyond – and the target of ruthless revenge by the Tories and their media lickspittles.
They portrayed Liverpool people as violent dole-cheats, mindlessly militant, worthy of being taught a harsh lesson.
They discussed in the Tory Cabinet about organising the “managed decline” of Liverpool – something pursued through systematic workplace closures.
Thatcher made the trip north the day after the Hillsborough Disaster, 16th April 1989, to meet with South Yorkshire Police chiefs, no doubt to endorse their launch of a propaganda offensive against the victims. In part this was to protect her loyal protectors during the momentous class confrontation of the 1984-5 miners’ strike – the civil war without bullets – but it was further fuelled by Thatcher’s and the Tories’ desire to avenge their government’s defeat by the rebellious Scouse working class, led by socialists, in 1984.

Press vitriol

The demonisation of Liverpool’s working class came out in its full inglorious venom after Hillsborough.
The press didn’t even have the decency to wait until the dead were buried before spewing out their vitriol.
A Sheffield Tory MP, Irvine Patnick, passed the Sun a packet of vicious lies, peddled by police chiefs to a local Sheffield press agency (White‘s), which the Murdoch rag gleefully published. This accused Liverpool fans of being “drunken animals”, of “urinating on the dead and police”, of “mugging dead bodies”, of “assaulting firefighters”.
The Report confirms what we argued in 1989: this was a monstrous lie on a monumental scale – designed to blame the victims for their own deaths and stop awkward questions being asked about the role of the FA, the unsafe state of the football grounds, and especially the role of the police. In fact it further reveals that the police tested dead children for evidence of drunkenness.
Boris Johnson, the extreme rightwing Tory London Mayor who basks in a carefully created disguise of buffoonery, wrote in the Spectator magazine editorial that Liverpool “is wallowing in victim status” after Hillsborough.
Edward Pearce of the Times thundered “Liverpool is the world capital city of self pity…why are you treated like animals? The plain answer is that a good and sufficient minority of you behave like animals.”
The fangs of these Tory animals were revealed, and working class people should never forget that that is the true face of capitalist politicians and their pet press.

Re-open the Inquests

>One of the multiple bodies of the establishment knee-deep in this obscene cover up was the Crown Prosecution Services’ mini-inquests and Coroner‘s Court, presided over by the CPS’s Dr Stefan Popper.
The evidence at the mini-inquests was viciously slanted and selective, feeding the media’s line about drunken disorder by announcing the alcohol level in each of the victims.
Popper took an arbitrary decision to assume all the victims had died in the first few minutes of the crush, and therefore refused to investigate anything that happened after 3.15pm, the time the first ambulance arrived on the pitch.
This was instrumental in the cover-up; the 3.15pm cut-off time meant all evidence regarding the response of the emergency services (and therefore whether some of the 96 could have survived even after the crush) was ruled “inadmissible” by the Coroner‘s Court.
The Hillsborough Families consistently challenged this decision, but to no avail – until the Independent Panel’s documentation blew apart the authorities’ excuses for the 3.15 cut-off point.
The Coroner’s verdict for all the victims was ‘accidental death’, attributed to asphyxiation. The assertion was that nobody could have survived for more than a couple of minutes. That is perhaps the most cruel revelation of the Independent Panel Report: medical evidence, involving cloning of the brain, shows that 41 of those who died did not die almost instantaneously, but survived long enough to have been revived, given the right and punctual medical attention.
And other medical experts have subsequently estimated the toll could be as high as 58 out of the 96.
That fact has been deliberately buried for 23 years so as to avoid the finger of blame pointing at the incompetence of senior police and senior ambulance service officers – both of whom doctored junior staff statements to remove all reference to the appalling chaos caused by those in charge of the emergency response.

Labour betrayal of working class

One of the most appalling recent revelations, hot on the heals of the Independent Panel’s Report, is the documentary confirmation that the Labour government which replaced the Tories in 1997 sustained the cover up of the real facts, prolonging the pain and indignity of the victims’ families and the vilification of the reputations of the 96 by a clear extra 15 years.
Within five weeks of taking office, Labour Home Secretary Jack Straw had made up his mind there was no need for a further Inquiry into the causes of the tragedy.
Whilst assuring Hillsborough Family campaigners he would leave no stone unturned in seeking the truth, he cynically organised Labour’s own cover-up, in connivance with PM Blair.

On 5th June 1997 Straw wrote to Attorney General John Morris:
“I am certain that continuing public concern will not be allayed with a reassurance from the Home Office that there is no new evidence. I therefore propose that there should be an independent examination of the alleged new evidence by a senior legal figure.”
On 9th June he rammed home the same cynical calculation in a secret Memo to Tony Blair, fearing the public would refuse to accept their verdict from the government, and that it had to come from an independent source instead.
Late in June Straw met the hand-picked ‘senior legal figure/independent source’, Lord Justice Stuart-Smith, appointed to lead the review. Straw told him his officials had already looked at the case and concluded “there was not sufficient evidence to justify a new inquiry”. So he conveyed his scepticism to the judge before he even started his Review.
On 26th June, a Note of a discussion between Home Office Minister Alun Michael (Straw’s junior) with Des Parkinson, secretary of the Police Association of England and Wales, reveals that:
“Jack Straw was very concerned to avoid starting a hare running. As a result there had been some ‘creative thinking’ in the Home Office to find a way of testing the evidence without reopening the whole affair.”
This is in stark contrast to the weasel words of Straw in a statement to the House of Commons four days later, on 30th June:
“I am determined to go as far as I can to ensure that no matter of significance is overlooked and that we do not reach a final conclusion without a full and independent examination of the evidence.”
The Stuart-Smith Inquiry dragged out for seven months and predictably concluded there was no case for a new Inquiry – and utterly failed to investigate evidence that police statements from the fateful day had been substantially rewritten.
No wonder Margaret Aspinall, whose 18-year-old son James died, responded to these recent revelations by stating: “What he [Straw] did was deceitful. All governments let us down, not just the Conservatives.”

This was an appalling example of Labour’s betrayal of working class people in their devoted defense of all arms of the capitalist establishment.

Never again!

Successive Inquiries and successive Tory and Labour governments buried the truth, terrified of the backlash against institutions that the rich rely on to maintain their power. But they reckoned without the Hillsborough Justice campaigners, who were adamant in their demand ‘Never again – justice for the 96′.
This victory for working class people in exposing the truth should not be the end of the matter. Apologies without justice mean nothing. The Hillsborough families are rightly demanding the reopening of the inquests, which were part of the cover-up, with their ‘accidental deaths’ verdict. That, and the call for prosecutions of those who were in charge of this man-made disaster, are the next steps towards justice.
The apologies from the Sun editor of the time, some police chiefs (though even now, not all of them), Boris Johnson and David Cameron are too little, too late. They had little choice but to apologise, given the devastating impact of the truth revealed; not to do so could have led to the Tory government’s downfall, and irreversible damage to the standing of the police.
But already within 24 hours of the Report, there were signs they wanted to make this a one-day wonder of apologies, swiftly followed by days of distraction with stories of tasteless, intrusive pictures of topless Royals. For the sake of those who perished, they must not succeed.

Justice at last??

In the wake of the damning, irrefutable public exposé of the role of senior police in the Independent Panel’s Report, unprecedented investigations of serving and retired police officers and bosses of the football authorities has been launched by both the Crown Prosecution Service and the Independent Police Complaints Commission.
Those facing potential charges of gross misconduct or even manslaughter include Chief Constable Sir Norman Bettison, who had tried to dodge the full consequences of his role in the unforgivable cover-up by first of all apologizing whilst provoking fury with the remark that “Liverpool fans had made policing more difficult than it should have been”, and then by announcing his retirement on a full, generous pension next March.
The scale of the CPS and IPCC investigations have the potential, at least, of starting to bring about some measure of justice – although the public outcry at the revelations of the truth which has been instrumental in forcing this action from the authorities will need to remain as eternal vigilance to ensure justice is done.
And the mid-September Panel Report’s damning revelations to millions has been joined by the current flood of revelations about the despicable sexual abuse by Jimmy Saville, and in particular the cover-up by that pivotal wing of the media, the BBC.
Taken together, these monumental scandals mean the powers-that-be will be terrified of a complete meltdown in the public’s faith in the media, police, prosecution services, allegedly independent complaints bodies, judiciary and governments; hence their obligation to be seen to do something about it, even if it has taken them 23 long, cruel years to even start.

Monument to the 96

In continuing the struggle for justice, democracy, accountability and socialism, I stand by the words I wrote in April 1989:
“They are desperate to cover up the real culprits – the police, the Tory ministers, the football clubs who just want our ticket money. They do nothing about the clapped out, unsafe grounds, which are part of the whole rotten free enterprise system which the Tories and their press uphold…
The unity of working class people in this hour of sorrow cuts across the rivalries which big business fosters in order to reap profits…
The messages on the sympathy cards are careful not to appear controversial in deference to the bereaved. But the collective grief does not prevent the collective rage. The anger at the treatment of fans by the football authorities peeps through even in sympathy cards…
One day the silent, choked up rage of these two million people [the number who poured into Anfield to pay tribute to the 96 in the first week after the tragedy -RV] will be turned on the authorities responsible for this needless suffering and death. They will erect the best possible monument to the fallen 96 – a society where men, women and children can work, rest and play without fear of poverty or death for profit’s sake.”

Paul Robeson – Ol’ Man River

Paul Robeson
Paul Robeson

Bill Scott on one of the greats of working class culture

Ol’ man river, Dat ol’ man river
He mus’ know sumpin’, But don’t say nuthin’,
He jes’ keeps rollin’, He keeps on rollin’ along.

He don’ plant taters, He don’t plant cotton,
An’ dem dat plants’em is soon forgotten,
But ol ‘man river, He jes keeps rollin’along.

You an’ me, we sweat an’ strain,
Body all achin’ an’ racked wid pain,
Tote dat barge! Lif’ dat bale!
Git a little drunk, An’ you land in jail.

Ah gits weary, An’ sick of tryin’
Ah’m tired of livin’, An’ skeered of dyin’,
But ol’ man river, He jes’keeps rolling’ along.
Let me go ‘way from the Mississippi,
Let me go ‘way from de white man boss;
Show me dat stream called de river Jordan,
Dat’s de ol’ stream dat I long to cross.

O’ man river,, Dat ol’ man river,
He mus’ know sumpin’, But don’t say nuthin’
He jes’ keeps rollin’, He keeps on rollin’ along.


You might well ask how a show-tune written in a white lyricist’s approximation of 19th Century US Southern States Negro patois could ever be considered “radical song”.

The lyrics of Ol’ Man River were written in 1927 for the musical “Showboat” by Oscar Hammerstein. Hammerstein, who went on to write many more successful musicals in partnership with Richard Rodgers consistently wrote anti-racist themes into his work – particularly in the musicals “South Pacific” and “Carmen Jones”.

Thus despite “Showboat” being a commercial musical based on a, then, best-selling novel it had, for its time, radical and progressive themes. It questioned the Southern States’ “miscegenation” laws that forbade marriage between Black and White Americans.  It also bestowed a stoic dignity on the character of “Joe” a black ex-slave who acts as the musical’s “Greek chorus”. Such themes and serious roles for Black actors were new to American theatre and saw the otherwise highly successful musical’s performance banned in parts of the South.

So far so good but a song about stoic acceptance of one’s lot in life is hardly radical. But that can depend on the singer and the performer most associated with this particular song was black activist Paul Robeson.

Robeson, the son of a freed slave, was the first black man to qualify in law (cum laude) from Rutgers College in the USA and the first African American to play as an All American college football player.  He was also a world-renowned singer & actor, a leading civil rights activist and socialist. Robeson also had strong associations with the workers movement in Britain and Scotland.

Robeson first came to Britain to star in the London production of Show Boat in 1928. While performing there he met a group of unemployed miners who had walked to London to draw attention to the hardship South Wales had endured in the aftermath of the General Strike. This began a long association between Robeson and the miners union.

Robeson settled in Britain during the 30s and starred in a number of British films returning to the US to star in the first film version of Showboat (1936). He also starred in a number of plays in Britain such as Eugene O’Neil’s “Emperor Jones” including one production at Edinburgh’s Playhouse.  In 1938 Robeson sang in Glasgow at a benefit concert for the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War. Robeson also travelled to Madrid that year.  When he sang at the front for Republican troops the guns on both sides fell silent to listen to his magnificent bass voice.

1938 was also significant in that from that year forwards Robeson performed a version of Ol’ Man River that was radically different from Hammerstein’s original. Except for very minor changes the lyrics of the song as Robeson performed it in the 1936 film version of the show were those that Hammerstein wrote in 1927. But, when appearing on Broadway, Robeson and Hammerstein had violent arguments when, during a rehearsal, Robeson changed the line, “Tote that barge! / Lift that bale! / Git a little drunk, / An’ you land in jail…”, to ““Tote that barge and lift dat bale!/ You show a little grit / And you lands in jail..”.

Hammerstein objected to any mere performer, even one as gifted as Robeson, questioning his artistic creation. Robeson conversely objected to what he saw as a demeaning portrayal of Negroes getting drunk as an escape when they were more likely to be punished by the white “boss” for showing spirit and talking back. Robeson persisted though and sang his new lyrics in performance

However by 1938, and probably inspired by the resistance to Fascism shown by the Spanish and international working class,  Robeson made far greater changes to the lyrics that completely changed its meaning and delivery.

Instead of “Ah gits weary / An’ sick of tryin’; / Ah’m tired of livin’ / An skeered of dyin’, / But Ol’ Man River, / He jes’ keeps rolling along!”, Robeson now sang, “But I keeps laffin’/ Instead of cryin’ / I must keep fightin’; / Until I’m dyin’, / And Ol’ Man River, / He’ll just keep rollin’ along!

The changes made by Robeson shift the portrayal of Joe away from the resigned, stoic character who resents, but ultimately has to accept, the White Boss world that he lives in, to a character who will persevere, however great the challenge, to change that world.  Moreover Robeson not only changes the character of Joe but also the metaphorical nature of the “River” that he sings about. The river changes from an impassive, uncaring fixture of life to a massive force of nature representing the flow of time that will ultimately sweep away the White Boss system and the unjust laws like miscegenation that underpin it. In a few words Robeson transformed the song from tragic acceptance to heroic resistance. That’s entirely fitting because it was also how Robeson henceforth  lived his own life.

“The artist must elect to fight for freedom or slavery. I have made my choice. I had no alternative,” – Paul Robeson

Robeson first became a hero to the British mining community, in 1940 when he starred in the film Proud Valley as an American sailor stranded in Cardiff who finds work in a Welsh colliery.  In a story, suggested by Robeson himself, his character then leads a delegation of miners in marching to London to demand fairer working conditions from the Government.

In 1949 Abe Moffat, Communist  leader of the Scottish Miners Federation, invited Robeson to Edinburgh where he performed in a benefit concert for the miners at the Usher Hall. Afterwards Robeson visited Newcraighall pit canteen and sang the great American organizing song, “Joe Hill”, for the miners there.

Because of Robeson’s left-wing views the U.S. government denied him the right to travel (1952-57) and he was blacklisted from performing. Called before the House Un-American Activities Committee to repudiate his views and told that if he was a communist he might as well live in Russia he said –My father was a slave and my people died to build this country, and I’m going to stay right here and have a part of it, just like you”.

Robeson was subsequently banned from TV and performing in theatres or concert venues – not by law but by their owners. Even Robeson’s film and records were withdrawn from circulation to deny him royalties. But the Scottish miners were amongst those who did not forget Robeson’s past generosity.  They and the South Wales area rallied to his cause by staging pithead collections which raised several hundred pounds to send to the near destitute performer and his family.

Denied his passport Robeson defied the authorities and managed to participate in the 1957 Welsh Miners’ Eisteddfod, by singing via a transatlantic telephone link. In the concert’s finale the Miners movingly responded by singing -“There’ll Be A Welcome in the Hillside”.  He defied the US authorities again that same year when he sang from a park in Washington (State) to a paying audience of 40,000 over the border in Canada.  After an international campaign – called appropriately, “Let Robeson Sing!” – the Supreme Court was finally forced to reinstate Robeson’s passport in 1958.

Robeson then toured internationally both singing and acting (including singing opera in Moscow and playing Othello at Stratford Upon Avon).  But one debt was outstanding.  In 1960 he returned to Scotland at the request of Abe Moffat’s daughter, Ella Egan. He first sang from the Queen’s Park Bandstand to the crowd who gathered at Glasgow’s May Day Rally and later that month appeared in front of a rapturous audience of 20,000 at the Scottish Miners Gala in Holyrood Park. It was to be his last public appearance in Scotland as, scarred by the racism and blacklisting he had experienced, he suffered from depression and was a virtual recluse between 1963 and his death in 1976.

However Robeson’s influence permeated the Scottish, and American, folk revivals and the 1960’s Black Civil Rights Movement. Robeson’s long and happy association with the Scottish workers movement was also remembered fondly by his son, Paul Robeson Jr., when he accepted the invitation of Colin Fox and the Edinburgh May Day Organising Committee to visit Scotland and speak at Edinburgh’s May Day Rally in 2002. One can only hope that Robeson, his singing and his version of ”Ol Man River” go on to influence further generations of black and working class activists.

Independence Campaign – Tactics for Socialists

Socialists on march for Scottish Independence

The deal between Westminster and Edinburgh has truly launched the debate around the Scottish independence referendum. In this article Kevin Leetion looks at the options facing socialists, how to engage with the official Yes campaign, the prospects for a radical independence campaign and the relationship between the two.

With the independence referendum now less than two years away the respective campaigns are now underway. In the ‘no’ corner we have Better Together, the coalition of the three principal unionist parties who have reasoned that they should pool their resources and energy to argue for the maintenance of the United Kingdom. The opposite corner is mainly occupied by Yes Scotland, the official campaign endorsed by the SNP (as well as the SSP and Greens), which has been criticised by some for a stuttering start and inability to improve polling numbers. Some have also pointed to disagreements between ‘yes’ supporters as a sign of weakness and ineffectiveness. While there may be some validity in the first argument (although Better Together have hardly set the heather alight, so to speak, relying on relentless negativity and fear-mongering) the second somewhat misses the point. The ‘no’ campaign has been conspicuous by its unity: its rejection of universal benefits; its pledge to maintain nuclear weapons; its commitment to the current economic model and continued austerity. However, this is far from a strength.


Socialists now face a choice- where are our energies best spent and how do we organise ourselves? Is it right that the primary aim is to secure a ‘yes’ vote and that the political choices ought to be left to the first post-referendum election? If instead we believe that a socialist message is vital to ensuring that we actually get a ‘yes’ vote then what implications are there for our orientation towards other aligned and non-aligned independence supporters?

This is not the place to detail all the arguments for independence which have been well covered on the pages of Frontline and elsewhere, however, before deciding what to do we need to remember why we’re doing it. For this purpose, it’s helpful to think of three different types of arguments often cited in support of independence (it’s important to stress that this is not an endorsement of each and every one of the following arguments and is meant to be illustrative rather than comprehensive).

Why Independence?

The first of these we might categorise as inherent reasons- in other words, arguments that say that independence in and of itself would be an advance. This would include, inter alia, arguments like: independence is more democratic as decisions would be taken closer to the people affected by them; independence is the ‘natural state’ for a country and important for national self-esteem; independence would bring about the break-up of the British state which would be a blow to imperialism[i]; and the economic argument, if accepted, that Scotland is net contributor to UK and would therefore be financially better off. At the same time, some will argue that there are inherent reasons against independence e.g. the break-up of the British working class; the weakening of the Scottish voice on the international stage; and the opposing economic argument, if accepted, that Scotland is a net beneficiary and would therefore be worse off under independence. Supporters of independence may either counter that these assertions are subjective or baseless speculation, or would argue that they are outweighed by the positives.


A second set of arguments might be categorised as opportunity-based reasons- that it’s not so much independence that’s the aim, but the possibilities that are opened up that would not be available under the status quo. This might include: the greater likelihood of a abolishing the monarchy; that the Scottish electorate would be inclined to avoid the austerity policies of the Westminster consensus and make a socialist alternative possible; the creation of a fairer,  more democratic polity; and the use of funds for sustainable and egalitarian ends rather than wars of aggression.

Here there may be a degree of overlap with some of the inherent arguments. For instance, the possibility of rejecting Tory rule once and for all is predicated on the idea that independence is more democratic and allows us to make that choice. Indeed, you might say that the very opportunity for a country to build something different, whether it is carried out or not, is an inherent reason to support independence (an extension of the increased democracy argument). What distinguishes the opportunity-based arguments is that they will be in direct competition with those of independence supporters with different political perspectives. For instance, a right-wing opportunity-based argument might be the ability to build a low-tax economy with minimal business regulations in order to attract investment. Either way, these scenarios are not the inevitable consequence of independence, rather a sample of the colours available on the post-referendum pallette.

Changing Terrain

Finally, there are a set of considerations based on the idea that the political terrain of Scotland will change after autumn 2014 as a result not just of the referendum but also of the continuing economic situation that will continue to have the greatest impact on the most vulnerable. No matter the result of the referendum the SNP faces an existential crisis. What does the party that unites a membership and voter-base of hugely divergent political views do when the single issue uniting them disappears? Political realignment may not be immediate but the basis will certainly be there. As such, there are a number of tactical reasons for socialists to fight for independence which would include: independence having greater support amongst the working class and young; the opportunity to work with leftists in other parties (and none) who are, at the very least, people that want change; and the possibility to work on a campaign that asks fundamental questions about how the economy and society are organised and which will undoubtedly capture the public attention.

It would be cynical and dishonest for anyone to base their support for independence entirely on these considerations without accepting any inherent or opportunity-based arguments. Instead we might think of these as ways the left can maximise its influence and rebuild in the context of a campaign to which it would otherwise still be dedicated. There is a future for an organised left, no matter the vote, but there is no other campaign that is so central to the resurgence of the left over the next two years. This means we have to enter into relationships with other supporters in a non-sectarian manner and reach out to new activists.

The categorising of these arguments is not just a taxonomic exercise but a distinction that should help inform the tactical choices that are in front of us. If we are to accept that there are inherent reasons, any inherent reasons, to support independence, and that these outweigh the inherent reasons against independence then it follows that we should orientate our efforts to ensure a ‘yes’ vote. Similarly, if we accept any opportunity-based reasons then we also have to accept that they cannot become a reality without first securing a ‘yes’ vote. As such, one obvious consideration is how best we can ensure a positive outcome to the referendum.

Yes Scotland

There are some on the left who believe that this outcome can only be secured by a disciplined and united ‘yes’ campaign that must put political differences to the side in pursuit of the common goal.  However, there is a second consideration to the opportunity-based reasons for support. We cannot just presume that they will come to pass, neither can we presume that these issues can be dropped for the next two years and neatly picked back up again once the vote has been secured.  There will be pressure from both opponents and proponents of independence, many of whom make up the leadership of the independence movement, for the nascent state to pursue an economic and political model that will ensure there is as much continuity as possible. This can only be challenged if there is a momentum to push beyond the cosmetic change of flags towards substantial and lasting change. This has to be achieved not only by ensuring that radical alternatives are debated and support for them is built but also by ensuring that the campaign itself organises and meaningfully involves as many as possible. This not only increases to chances of a ‘yes’ vote (a friend, neighbour, or colleague is more likely to persuade you than one of the ‘great and the good’) but instils a culture of activism and democratic engagement that should bode well for the new Scottish state. If thousands of activists have actively contributed to securing a ‘yes’ vote then they should be less willing to subsequently sit back and be passive in the vital period following the referendum.

Of course, the importance of raising socialist politics throughout the campaign is not just about getting us in a position to continue the process of transformation beyond 2014 but is also, we would argue, more likely to secure a ‘yes’ vote in the first place. The ‘yes’ campaign needs the votes of those that have been disproportionately let down by the union and a succession of governments, people who are also less likely, in general, to vote. These are people who could be excited by radical ideas, by a vision of a country where their needs and interests are put first for a change. An anaemic, uninspiring, apolitical campaign is insufficient to gain independence.

So how do these considerations fit in with our organisational options? There are some who argue that we should focus our energies within Yes Scotland (YS). Certainly, it is by far and away the biggest organised component of the campaign, officially endorsed not just by the SNP but by the SSP and Greens too. They have already organised a large and successful pro-independence demonstration and have weekly activities in all parts of the country focussed on discussing post-independence options, speaking to undecided voters and gathering 1,000,000 signatures.

Radical Independence Conference

An alternative lies in the building of the Radical Independence Conference (RIC) as a means to propagate a leftist alternative to the official campaign. A start has been made with the inaugural conference due in November and well-attended organising meetings held in Edinburgh and Glasgow. It is noticeable from meetings thus far how many young people are involved, and others who are unencumbered by the negative experiences of the SSP split. In terms of building relationships and working with people who are crucial to the future of the left, the RIC is crucial.

YS is sometimes attacked as a mouthpiece of the Scottish Government, and there is a habit of conflating SNP policy with its own. At the very least, the RIC provides a space for discussing and promoting the opportunities presented by independence that a broad and ostensibly politically neutral campaign such as YS ever can. However, while YS certainly has to do more to convince people that it is not merely an extension of the SNP, the day-to-day work in which it’s engaged and the sheer scale of the campaign makes it integral to securing a ‘yes’ vote[ii]. While some may talk about building RIC so that it will come to lead the movement over the next two years this does not reflect the reality of the situation.  There is already a level of involvement in YS from people of all political persuasions that cannot be competed with within this time-scale. If the left had been in a stronger position over the last couple of years then perhaps this dynamic would be different but as it is the aim should not be to replace Yes Scotland, but to work critically and constructively within it, while simultaneously building RIC to push beyond 2014. To spurn the opportunity to work with thousands of activists, many with similar political views and ambitions as ourselves, would be nonsensical. If nothing else, how do we expect to propagate a radical message if we pass on the forum where we can work and build relationships with a sizeable number of people with whom we’d expect to find sympathy? A refusal to work with YS closes off avenues of engagement with pro-independence activists and considerably restricts our wider outreach- this is counter-productive in terms of securing a ‘yes’ vote, promoting a socialist alternative, and rebuilding the left beyond 2014.

Diverse Campaigning

The SSP has chosen to endorse both YS and RIC. This is right. While it is a challenge in terms of time and resources it is only this approach that can work. Indeed, there are even more organisations that are being built by socialist activists. The biggest of these is perhaps Women for Independence, which is working to address a problem not just with the campaign but with politics and society in general- ensuring that women have a voice. They are adopting an approach of listening as much as talking and include activists from across the political spectrum. Again, this is consistent with doing what needs to be done to secure a ‘yes’ vote while working with others with whom you can build positive relations going forward. Another smaller group, Trade Unionists for Independence, has the primary aim of building a network of activists to challenge the dominant arguments heard in the regional committees and branches of the unions, getting into areas where the SNP has limited reach and YS may not see as a priority.  Again, it is drawing together activists from different parties (including Labour) and none. Neither of these organisations see themselves as in competition with the official campaign, but do a job that complements the single YS objective of campaigning for a ‘yes’.

The aim for socialists is to create an environment where genuinely democratic and radical politics can take hold. To do that we need to work to get a ‘yes’ vote and promote radical alternatives- these are not mutually exclusive (the latter will contribute to the former). People need to mobilise and be inspired on a scale not seen in the last 10 years and that needs SSP members and others to maximise avenues of influence and get out to stalls and meetings. The campaign has started- we can’t get left behind.

[i] One might argue that the ‘break-up of the British state’ depends as much on the choices made after the referendum as much as the act of independence itself, in which case it should be considered amongst the arguments in the following paragraph.

[ii] A look at their website shows 30 official events for the month of November 2012 and there are likely to be even more organised locally by groups of activists, covering all parts of Scotland.

Review – Kicking Off Against Austerity

V mask at Occupy Edinburgh protest


‘Why it’s Kicking Off Everywhere – The New Global Revolutions” by Paul Mason (Verso, 2012)

Alister Black reviews a new book examining the new wave of struggle

Paul Mason has become well known as the economics editor of Newsnight. He couldn’t have picked a better time to take up that post, he certainly has had no shortage of material. From the collapse of Lehman Brothers onwards, the crisis of capitalism has played out across the globe. But Mason hasn’t just stuck to stock prices and Bank of England statements. He has chased the story from the boardrooms to the streets. In this book he looks at the origins of the crisis and examines the wave of struggles erupting across the globe from Tahrir Square to Greece to the council estates of London. Finally he puts forward a thesis about the new layers involved in struggle, the new forms that this struggle is taking and the problems facing these worldwide rebellions.

Mason argues that post-2008 we are living in a new era. With the state stepping in to prop up banks on a vast scale, economically speaking the neo-liberal idea of the ‘small state’ is as dead as Stalinist Marxism.

The economic crisis has left a new generation of young people who had been co-opted by the system with promises of rising living standards, now facing unemployment and a poorer standard of living than their parents. Mason raises the spectre of new generations of bitter graduates plotting revolution from their bedsits, not unlike Paris in 1879  “but with one big difference, today in every garret is a laptop” (1)

This new generation has used the tools at their disposal to organise and take to the streets of Cairo, Tehran, Madrid, Athens, London, New York and beyond.

Mason is a little vague and contradictory about just how informed this new generation are, at times talking about the volumes of theory to be found around the typical student occupation and at other times saying that activists only want tweets or wiki summaries of theory. In likelihood elements of both are true.

Social Networks not Gunpowder

Speaking of the widespread use of the Guy Fawkes mask of his revolutionary anarchist character ‘V’ from the ‘V for Vendetta’ comic and movie, creator Alan Moore said

“Today’s response to similar oppressions seems to be one that is intelligent, constantly evolving and considerably more humane, and yet our character’s borrowed Catholic revolutionary visage and his incongruously Puritan apparel are perhaps a reminder that unjust institutions may always be haunted by volatile 17th century spectres, even if today’s uprisings are fuelled more by social networks than by gunpowder. Some ghosts never go away.” (2)

For Mason, the victory, albeit temporary, at Tahrir Square proves another pillar of his thesis, that the network will always beat the hierarchy. The network in this case means the flexible and responsive networks built through social media sites like Facebook and Twitter. Another example could be the V mask wearing ‘anonymous’ network who have used computer hacking to attack targets of greed and oppression from the banks to the security services.

But the network in itself is just a means of communication and coordination. It allows certain tactics that can be used to respond flexibly but it depends on access to those networks. The question of ownership of those networks is also key. Facebook has a business model that is built on selling your data. Oppressive governments can try to tap or block networks. But the network is just a tool, it is neither the solution nor the problem. Perhaps the next step will be to have new social media applications that are more decentralised and anonymous.

The struggles themselves are based on material conditions and class antagonisms. Networks can be useful but in a class struggle organisation such as a trade union or political party it is necessary to have structures that are accountable and transparent. Possibly some of the traditional organisations will need to look to the flexible tactics of the networks to survive and outmanoeuvre anti-trade union legislation and belligerent employers.

Diverging struggles

Mason looks at how the different groups who are involved in struggles relate to each other. On the one hand traditional organisations such as trade unions and political parties and on the other the new ‘horizontal’ groups such as arose from the student struggles, the ‘Occupy’ movement and the likes of UK Uncut and Anonymous.

The former, on paper at least, have more power. It was the trade unions on November 30th 2011 who put millions on the streets and shut down most of the public sector in the pensions dispute. The latter however have more élan and flexibility.

Whilst they have common interests they can quickly diverge in the realms of struggle. Mason gives the example of the large TUC anti-austerity demo on 26th March 2011 where the mass of trade unionists were entirely isolated from both the peaceful UK Uncut sit-ins and the violent Black Bloc mobilisation.

He writes

“it was an advanced preview of the problem which youthful, socially networked, horizontalist movements would have everywhere once things got serious: the absence of strategy, the absence of a line of communication through which to speak to the union-organized workers. The limits, in short, of ‘propaganda of the deed’. (3)”

As struggles escalate that divide becomes sharper. In Greece it ended up with police leaving Communist union stewards to fight off anarchist youth who were trying to attack the parliament.

Building useful links that enable these groups to leverage each others strengths productively is key. Groups like the Coalition of Resistance can play a role in that (see Mhairi Mcalpine’s article elsewhere in this issue) but there is plenty room to build a wider unity.

A New Society

Mason looks at the Marxist idea of alienation and how Marx changed his views (for a more detailed view on this, this link is a good starting point). Mason argues that humanity has started to use the internet to build a ‘connected life’ and break out of alienation. He goes on to argue that this connectedness and collaborative aspects of information technology such as open-source software points towards ways a new society could potentially organise for the common good. This section is really just sketched out but contains plenty of food for thought.

Mason is very good at combining journalism and analysis to outline the context of the current wave of struggle and to outline some of the problems that have arisen. It will be up to those engaging in that struggle to sort these problems out and look to create new forms of organising that can unite all sectors of the movement.


(1) Paul Mason, ‘Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere – The New Global Revolutions’ page 73

(2) http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-16968689

(3) Paul Mason, Ibid, page 63