Category Archives: International

Communist University 2013

COMMUNIST UNIVERSITY 2013

August 12-18, south London

Preparations for the Communist University, our annual school, are well advanced and the 2013 timetable features some outstanding speakers on key issues. The CPGB website will be regularly updated with tweaks to the timetable and profiles of our speakers, but here are a few who have confirmed so far and the subjects they will be addressing:

* Adam Hanieh is a lecturer in development studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London. He is author ofCapitalism and Class in the Gulf Arab States and a member of the editorial board of the journal, Historical Materialism. At our school, Adam will be speaking on ‘The political economy of the Muslim Brotherhood’ on Wednesday, August 14. For comrades’ interest, he opened on‘The capitalist crisis and the Arab Spring’ in November of last year at a gathering organised by the Kurdish Academic Forum.

* Hillel Ticktin is one of the leading Marxist political economists in the world. Originally from South Africa, he left the country to avoid arrest for political activism. After some time working for his PhD in the Soviet Union – where he again attracted the disapproval of the authorities – he began teaching at the University of Glasgow in 1965, and in 1973 he co-founded Critique: Journal of Socialist Theory, an independent, scholarly Marxist journal. Comrade Ticktin has been a regular atCommunist University over years and a frequent contributor to our paper. He will be presenting three sessions for us in August – ‘Capitalist crises and the causes’ (Wednesday, August 14), ‘Capitalism: terminal crisis or long term decline?’ (Thursday, August 15) and ‘Socialism or barbarism’ (Saturday, August 17).

* The left’s response to the global crisis of capitalism has been essentially Keynesian. So the title of our morning session on Friday, August 16 – ‘Does Keynesianism offer an alternative to austerity?’ – is apposite for all those who regard themselves as Marxists, or revolutionaries of some stripe. It is presented by the CPGB’s Mike Macnair, a member of the party’s leadership and a frequent contributor to the Weekly Worker. Mike has written and spoken on this subject in the past and it is clearly one that we need to keep returning to given the left’s stubborn insistence that this non-Marxist (actually anti-Marxist) politics is a supportable ‘alternative’ to capitalist austerity.

* OnTuesday, August 13 Mike Gonzalez will be discussing with Nick Rogers the question, ‘After Chavez: where next for the Bolivarian revolution?’ Mike has written widely on Latin America from the state capitalist perspective of the International Socialist tradition of Tony Cliff. (See his Che Guevara and the Cuban revolution). He is a historian, a prolific author and literary critic. For a time, he also was the professor of Latin American Studies in the Hispanics department of the University of Glasgow. He was videoed speaking on ‘The politics of water’ at a Socialist Workers Party (Ireland) event in November of last year.

*Yassamine Mather is an Iranian socialist in exile in Britain. Her political activities on the Iranian left started in 1980s Tehran and later in Kurdistan. In exile, she has been on the editorial board of the monthly journal Jahan and a member of the coordinating committee of Workers Left Unity Iran. She is also a member of the Centre for Socialist Theory and Movements (Glasgow University) and the deputy editor of the journalCritique. Since 2007 she has been active in Hands Off the People of Iran (HOPI).She will be speaking in a debate on feminism(s) with Camilla Power.

*Camilla Power is a senior lecturer in evolutionary anthropology at the University of East London, with a particular interest in female coalitionary strategies, ritual and early human kinship. She uses modern Darwinian selfish-gene sexual selection theory to understand the origins of symbolic culture. She is a leading member of the Radical Anthropology Group and has spoken frequently at Communist University. She will be speaking in a debate on feminism(s) with Yassamine Mather.

*

Comrades attending Communist University for the first time often remark that its culture is very different to other left schools. For example, writing in the Weekly Worker Paul Demarty regrets the “cosy diplomatic speechifying” that generally characterises the annual Marxism school staged by the Socialist Workers Party. This flows from a tacit “diplomatic arrangement” between the event organisers and the ‘star’ non-SWP speakers – the “horse trading” consists of “the SWP granting the speaker a large and enthusiastic audience in central London. In return, the speaker offers the SWP an implicitendorsement of the image it wishes to project: a non-sectarian, unifying force on the radical left, offering up its resources to ‘build the movement’.”

Our school actually makes an effort to explore real differences between comrades, to give critical minorities the time and space to make their arguments and to challenge comrades’ pre-conceptions. We are genuinely out to educate, in other words – both ourselves and others. In the lead up to last year’s CU, we made this video with the CPGB’s national organiser, Mark Fischer, to give comrades a feel for the event.

For booking and venue details, go here. Main Communist University 2013 Index here.

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Anti-war anniversary: Party with all-round strategy needed

Moshé Machover looks back at a decade of anti-war protest. This is an edited version of his speech to the March 9 ‘Ten wasted years?’ school, organised by the CPGB

Moshé Machover (photo credit: David Isaacson)

Moshé Machover (photo credit: David Isaacson)

The high-water mark of the anti-war movement was the great demonstration of February 15 2003, the biggest that I have participated in – and I am sure that is true for many others here too. It did not stop the war and it would have been very surprising if it had, but nothing very much seems to have come out of that movement. The question is why?

Of all the similar wars of intervention – what have been called ‘slaughter for humanitarian purposes’, perpetrated on behalf of the US-led ‘international community’ – the Iraq war was the only one that generated such protests. The first I can recall was Kosova in 1999, over which much of the left was confused; then there was Afghanistan in 2001; more recently there has been Libya, Syria and Mali. Remarkably also in the case of Libya much of the left was divided, and again it is worth asking why.

Some have claimed that the big Iraq demonstration 10 years ago was responsible for preventing war against Iran today. I think this is highly doubtful – there are many other considerations. Of course, the march was not without use – just the feeling of being in such a big crowd is a good thing. But my question is, why have we been unable to repeat such large demonstrations?

The attitude of the organised left – in Stop the War Coalition it was mainly the Socialist Workers Party and later the section of the SWP that split to form Counterfire – is that the anti-war movement provides an opportunity not to assert the revolutionary socialist view, not to assert a Marxist analysis of the impending war, but to use this movement for ‘leverage’. I mean leverage in the sense of using a small weight to move a larger one. A small group hopes to use the movement in order to move a much larger public through some kind of ‘united front’.

In my first real political activity I was sent by a Stalinist-Zionist movement to collect signatures for a worldwide peace petition during the cold war. Some communist parties were very small, but could ‘lever’ a lot of peace-loving people through these organisations. Of course, the Stalinists had no intention of making a revolution – they were about defending the Soviet Union – and on these terms the peace petition worked quite well. They did get leverage through a whole series of organisations that are very reminiscent of the types of bodies run by the SWP, Counterfire and so on that we have today. There was the Democratic Youth Movement, which had a succession of festivals in the ‘people’s democracies’, the Democratic Women’s Movement and a whole series of fronts for the various CPs.

But there is a price to pay for this doubtful privilege: you have to moderate your own analysis, as those people you are trying to lever are not entirely stupid: they do not want to be manipulated and they are prepared to form this kind of long-term alliance only provided that the left does not say things that they strongly disagree with. In February 2003 you could see SWP posters and placards, but there were many more Liberal Democrat placards – and, of course, Lib Dem support vanished not long after that – and there were also very big Islamic groups taking part.

Now, I am not implying in any way that far-left groups should not have taken part in this huge demonstration or in other anti-war movements. But they should have used the occasion to put forward their own specific revolutionary-socialist analysis of the situation. What was missing was a distinct, working class, leftwing presentation. The far left felt it had to adapt to what its bourgeois partners were thinking about the war.

Anti-war arguments

Some of the people who march against war are pacifists, who just think that war is bad. Again, I am not saying that we on the far left should not concur that war is a horrible thing, but this is not the mainargument – it is an additional, a supporting argument against war.

Others have opposed some interventions because they say they lacked ‘international legitimacy’ or ‘legality’. In the case of Iraq it was clear that, as Blair stated, there would have to be a second United Nations security council resolution, so even in his terms it was not legal. And this actually influenced a lot of people: the Liberal Democrats opposed the Iraq war (until it actually began) on the grounds that it was illegal. Had the UN passed a resolution making the invasion legal, then they would have had no argument. Again, it is not a bad idea to point out the illegality, but this is not our main argument.

Then there are those who oppose war because it is so expensive. In fact this ‘cost of war’ argument is made not just by those who oppose wars, but also by those who wage them. There is a certain conflict of interest here, because war is very expensive, especially in these times of austerity, when so-called ‘defence’ budgets are being cut. But there is also the so-called ‘defence’ industry, which does not want to cut back.

Some people oppose war on the grounds that aggressor states have evil or unjustified aims. In the case of Iraq it was a very widespread argument that what the Americans were really after was Iraqi oil, which is to some extent true, but I do not think this was the main reason for the intervention and this certainly should not have been used as a main argument by Marxists. For example, the only resource Afghanistan had going for it was lapis lazuli, used for blue dyes!

Another argument made against the Iraq war was that Saddam Hussein did not have the weapons of mass destruction which he was accused of stockpiling. But suppose that he did! And, by the way, no-one was seriously claiming that Iraq had atomic weapons. The term ‘weapons of mass destruction’ is in itself deceptive: it lumps together hydrogen bombs and mustard gas. And when Blair said that Iraq possessed WMD he was talking about poison gas. Again, what if Iraq did have this?

The problems of these arguments about the secret, evil intent of the aggressors are twofold. One, there may not always be obvious ‘evil intent’; the reasons given for war and intervention may be semi-convincingly depicted as humanitarian, as in the case of Libya. These rebels in Benghazi are going to be slaughtered so ‘we’ must save them. If your main argument against the imperialists’ intervention is that they are doing bad things, but this is not immediately apparent, then you are disarmed. And this is actually what has happened to a lot of people on the left – not just the usual suspects, but people who ordinarily should know better. They are confused and have justified (or semi-justified) the intervention in Libya.

On the other hand, if you are not ready to justify the intervention on such grounds but want to oppose the war on the basis of ‘good versus evil’, then you are pushed into actually idealising the victim of the aggression. This is very obvious in the case of Iran, where some of the bigger masses that the left groups seek to leverage are devout Muslims, who are not averse to a harsh theocracy. It is not that the planned American-Israeli war against Iran is ‘good versus evil’ in the way it is portrayed in the bourgeois pro-war press, but merely a reversal of this position – suddenly these regimes become staunch ‘anti-imperialists’.

I think that the lesson of all this is the need to organise independently – not in the sense of refusing to act together on a specific issue in a tactical way with people who have other motives. But one should do it in a way that does not inhibit us from putting forward our own analysis.

Who and why

The question then is, what should be our main argument against these interventions? At this point I cannot resist telling you a story from the Talmud. The Talmud is a huge compendium of Jewish legal and theological disputations ranging over several centuries, but it also contains various stories. Some of them are just fairy tales, but others are reports of actual events. One of them recounts a discussion between three sages towards the end of the 2nd century in Palestine, which was then under the rule of the Roman empire. The discussion was over the attitude that should be taken towards the Romans.

The first sage says that the Romans are not so bad. They build markets, bathhouses, bridges. They bring civilisation. The second sage keeps quiet in the discussion. The third sage says, look, it’s notwhat the Romans do, but what they are doing it for. They build markets as places for lodging whores. They build bathhouses for their own enjoyment, and they build bridges in order to collect tolls, to tax us. So don’t look at what is done: look at who does it and why.

According to the story, a fourth sage overheard this conversation, blabbed about it, and it got to the authorities. The first sage who praised the Roman empire was not touched. The second sage who had kept silent was sent into internal exile. But the third one had the death sentence passed against him and he had to go into hiding. I think this is a very instructive tale, which has a moral lesson.

The question is not whether or not the purported immediate aim is good or not – to save the rebels or whatever. The question is what the bigger picture is about: why are these wars being waged? You can make a whole list of interventions carried out for ‘humanitarian purposes’. It is a system, a method – although this method of justifying war is relatively new, a post-cold war phenomenon.

All the big wars in modern times, up to and including World War II, had been between the major capitalist countries over the competitive division of the world between themselves, over who could become the ‘top dog’ of the imperialist hierarchy. I think another war of this type is unlikely, at least for the foreseeable future. It may arise again – no-one can prophesy with certainty – but if it does it would be entirely catastrophic, given the weaponry that exists. So the last one in history for the time being is World War II.

Then during the cold war the world was divided, polarised, between the two main superpowers. They had a whole series of agreements to achieve this – Yalta, Tehran, Potsdam. In the period from 1945 through to the collapse of the Soviet Union and its satellites, wars were tools for the policing by the respective superpowers of their own mutually agreed spheres of influence. There were also conflicts between the two big blocs in cases where the borders were not sufficiently clearly defined – Korea certainly was a war of this kind and Vietnam arguably so. But additionally there were wars within the blocs, where one power would exercise itself militarily within its domain and the other superpower would not intervene. For example, the USA and its allies did not intervene when the Soviet Union made a regime change in Czechoslovakia in 1948, or when it intervened very forcefully in Hungary in 1956. Some Hungarian rebels called for American intervention, but that did not happen, as it was contrary to the established agreements and would have been destabilising.

Nor did Stalin intervene when the west crushed the resistance in Greece. Immediately after World War II, the Greek Communist Party and its resistance movement were as important as they were in Yugoslavia. But in Yugoslavia the west did not intervene and allowed the partisans to take power, while in Greece the imperialists, Britain mainly, did intervene, because, according to the agreements between the two major powers, Greece was in the western domain. Stalin not only did not intervene, but he actively betrayed his communist allies in Greece.

That period ended in the early 1990s with the collapse of the Soviet Union, and now we have a world which is structured differently, with one major power at the summit of the capitalist pyramid. It is not a case of the ‘imperialist countries’ versus ‘the colonial countries’ – each state has a role within this hierarchy. It is an intricate system, but certainly there is a top dog. And that top dog would like to assert its right to police the world as it wishes. So, instead of two domains, where in each case there is a major power policing its own backyard, we have one world, one domain, with one superpower that claims, along with its major allies – not least Great Britain and Israel – that it has the right to police the whole world.

Strategy

It is on these grounds that imperialist war must be resisted. It is part of the capitalist system – and a vicious and dangerous part from the point of view of revolutionary socialists. What the US is trying to do is to legitimise and to normalise its role as world policeman, and it is this that we ought to oppose. This is the major argument that I think the left should put forward in opposing wars.

We should never support a war undertaken by our own ruling classes. Often they are undertaken for domestic reasons. Kissinger said of Israel: it has no foreign policy, only domestic policy; and this is actually true of most states – their foreign policies result from internal class contradictions.

Of course, there are additional arguments that are useful to mention in each case, but this main argument applies just as much to Mali, Syria and Libya as it applied to Iraq and will apply to Iran. It is in principle incumbent on the left to oppose this role of world policeman. Why? Because we know what would happen if there were the possibility of socialist revolution anywhere: this world policeman would bring its power to bear against us. That is why it is essential to build up our opposition both practically and theoretically in order todelegitimise these police actions.

Finally I think it is important to distinguish between a ‘single issue’ form of opposition and one based on class analysis. It is the difference between protest and the presentation of an alternative. In order to do protest you do not really need a single, mass organisation based on the working class, and armed with a socialist programme. All you need is an organisation like STWC, which resists bad wars. Then you have another organisation to resist the cuts.

But in order to actually present an alternative you need an all-round theory, an all-round strategy. You need an organisation, a party. A party that is not just about protests, but whose main purpose is about presenting an alternative to the existing order of things.

(This article was first published in the Weekly Worker)

 

Joining forces against war and expulsions

Milton Keynes Hands Off the People of Iran and the local Stop the War Coalition group joined forces for a meeting on the threat of war against Iran reports Dave Isaacson (this report was originally published in the Weekly Worker).

Moshé Machover (left) and Dave Isaacson at the meeting. Photo: © Brian Robinson.

Comrades from the Hands of the People of Iran campaign in Milton Keynes have responded to the recently escalating sanctions and war threats against Iran by working closely with the local Stop the War group to build opposition to any imperialist intervention. We worked together to organise a joint Hopi/STW public meeting to discuss these issues on Monday May 28.

Over 20 people attended, which for a town such as Milton Keynes is reasonable. The meeting was addressed by Israeli socialist Moshé Machover, who is also a member of the Hopi steering committee. He gave an excellent opening, looking at the reasons why policymakers in the US and Israel want to see a change of regime in Iran and why some actively favour the methods of war to achieve such an aim. Moshé examined the long-term strategic interests of Zionism in Israel in particular. He argued that these interests flow from the fact that Israel is a certain type of colonial settler state, based upon the total exclusion of the indigenous population, to the extent that this can be achieved (unlike some other settler states such as South Africa and Algeria, where native peoples were needed for their labour-power).

With Israel’s determination to scupper any hopes that Palestinians have for an independent sovereign state on the one hand, and the Zionist nightmare of ‘demographic peril’ (the fear that the growing Palestinian population will increasingly outnumber Israelis) on the other, the very presence of the Palestinians is intolerable to Zionism. Comrade Machover explained that the solution that many Zionists have longed to put into practice is to simply expel the Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza: ie, ethnic cleansing.

Indeed the current Israeli prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, is on record telling students in a speech at Bar-Ilan University in November 1989 that “the government had failed to exploit politically favourable situations in order to carry out ‘large-scale’ expulsions at times when ‘the damage would have been relatively small. I still believe that there are opportunities to expel many people’.” Israeli provocations that lead to a regional conflagration involving Iran and the US could create just the “politically favourable situation” Netanyahu wishes for – a sideshow while they ethnically cleanse the Palestinians.

Moshé’s talk was well received and there were some very interesting questions which prompted further discussions on issues such as the current conflict in Syria, Israel’s own development of a nuclear arsenal, and an assessment of the Occupy movement. One speaker expressed scepticism about the scale of the ethnic cleansing Moshé argues Israeli politicians would like to carry out. He felt that such a thing would just not be acceptable in this day and age. Moshé responded that it is precisely our job to make sure that such acts are made unacceptable, and indeed made impossible, through our collective opposition. To achieve such aims we need political organisation and a programme.

Everybody I spoke to left feeling that the meeting had been a success. Everyone took home Hopi literature and many bought a copy of the Weekly Worker or of Moshé’s new book – Israelis and Palestinians: conflict and resolution. As well as Hopi and STW, the local Palestine Solidarity Campaign branch was also present with a stall. These are all good signs that people are taking the issues seriously and want to learn more.

As Moshé explained at the end of the meeting, this summer is a particularly dangerous one for the Middle East. We must keep a close eye on the situation and do all we can develop the ideas and organisation we need to pose an internationalist and socialist alternative to imperialism and Zionism. Hopi is very clear: we stand in solidarity with the Iranian people – not their regime – and oppose all sanctions and war threats. In Milton Keynes we will continue to work closely with the local STW group (which incidentally displays none of the sectarianism towards Hopi that we have experienced at a national level). It is also worth mentioning our gratitude to Milton Keynes trades council, an affiliate of Hopi, who financed the meeting with a £100 donation.

Audio files of the opening speech and answers to questions at the meeting are available to listen to on the HOPI website. Thanks to Brian Robinson for producing the recordings.

Iran: imperialism finds new pretext for threats

Yassamine Mather

As Iranian workers went out in remarkable numbers for May Day, a new dispute over some small islands in the Gulf shows that despite apparent progress on the nuclear question a new source of tension has been found. Yassamine Mather of Hands Off the People of Iran reports (first published in the Weekly Worker).

A week can be a long time in politics, but in Iran it can seem more like a year.

Last week, as news agencies were reporting rumours of the regime’s possible retreat over its nuclear programme, the price of gold dropped on the Tehran exchange market – a clear sign of reduced tensions between western powers and Iran. The factional fighting of recent years also seemed to belong to the distant past, as figureheads of various factions of the regime, including those arch enemies, former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and the current incumbent, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, attended the meetings of the National Expediency Council. They even managed to smile for the cameras in a pre-arranged photo-shoot.

However, then came news of another conflict in the Persian Gulf – this time between Iran on the one side and Saudi Arabia and Gulf Cooperation Council countries on the other. Arab and US media reported that the Peninsula Shield Force, the military coordinating army of the GCC, had been carrying out military manoeuvres to “test harmony and coordination among ground, air and naval forces and their readiness”.

The military exercise was seen as a response to Iran’s continued occupation of three islands in the Gulf – the tiny Abu Musa and Greater and Lesser Tunb islets, near the mouth of the Straits of Hormuz, that was seized in 1971 by the shah after British forces left the region. Abu Musa, the only inhabited island of the three, was placed under joint administration in a deal with Sharjah, now part of the United Arab Emirates. They have since been a bone of contention with the UAE, which claims sovereignty over them.

While the dispute seemed to have been forgotten for most of the decades since, in the last two months the UAE has been mounting increasingly vocal demands for the return of their territory – with the backing of the GCC and the Arab League. This, of course, has brought an angry response from the Iranians, who vowed to “crush any act of aggression” and prompted a visit to Abu Musa by Ahmadinejad a few weeks ago. In Tehran the rumour is that even the supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, was not aware of the trip before it took place – on the eve of the international nuclear talks.

After Ahmadinejad’s trip to Abu Musa, the foreign minister of the UAE recalled its ambassador to Iran, claiming that it amounted to “flagrant violation” and an “occupation”. But things did not end there. The UAE succeeded in convincing the other Persian Gulf states to support it and the GCC issued a statement condemning the visit.

No-one can be in any doubt that the renewal of this dispute after 41 years is a pretext for a much wider conflict between Iran and the leaders of the Persian Gulf states, who nowadays are taking a prominent role in opposition to the Islamic Republic. The Gulf emirs are convinced that Iran is seeking to harness the forces unleashed by the Arab uprisings in order to destabilise their own internal control and, rather than wait for events to overtake them, have clearly decided to use the dispute over the islands as a lever to ramp up their hostility towards Tehran.

Of course, it is unlikely that the Gulf states will go to war with Iran. However, they have become an integral part of US plans for regime change in Damascus and Tehran. One option they are certainly taking up is increasing their support for groups opposing the Syrian and Iranian regimes. But, as the Saudis, Emiratis and Qataris try to vent their frustration with Tehran on Syria, they will almost certainly provoke Iran to adopt retaliatory measures. But over the last two weeks, without waiting for such a response, the US mainstream media have been portraying the dispute as yet another example of Iran’s ‘irresponsible warmongering’.

Most Iranians believe the issue of the ownership of the islands has surfaced now as part of the campaign to put pressure on Iran over its nuclear programme. They do not believe the Emirates’ claims to be acting independently in this matter.

Internal conflict

As most of the world was concentrating on elections in Europe, the second round of polling for the Islamic parliament, the majles, took place in Iran. Results declared on May 5 showed the Iranian president’s support crumbling, with ultra-conservative rivals consolidating their hold on the majles. Ahmadinejad’s supporters won only 13 of the 65 seats contested in the May 4 vote, further reducing his power base in the 290-seat legislature. The president’s opponents won 41 seats and this follows the victory of Khamenei loyalists in the first round of voting in March, when they had already secured an outright majority.

On the day the increase in that majority was announced, conflict between the president and the majles reached new heights, as the ‘integration committee’ rejected Ahmadinejad’s proposal to increase revenues from subsidy cuts – a move which could effectively block the implementation of the second stage of the subsidy ‘reform’ plan.

Ahmadinejad had presented the draft of the national budget bill for the Iranian year beginning on March 20 on February 1, in which it was proposed that the revenues from subsidy savings would be increased from about $44 billion to $110 billion. And last week the government decided to suddenly remove controls on energy prices to complete the implementation of the subsidy ‘reform’. The majlis voted to say this decision is illegal because it runs counter to the agreed ‘reform’, which allows for the subsidies on fuel, electricity and certain goods to be cut over the course of five years. Too deep, too fast. Majles speaker Ali Larijani started legal action against Ahmadinejad, at the same time as two complaints were sent to the judiciary, accusing the government of “incurring irreparable damage” to the economy by violating foreign exchange laws, “at a time when the country faces numerous sanctions”.

Clearly the short-lived peace between various factions of the Islamic regime, forged by the supreme leader, has already broken down – with serious implications for the president.

Meanwhile, US secretary of state Hillary Clinton urged India to do “even more” to cut its purchases of oil from Iran to keep up the pressure on that country to prove its nuclear programme is peaceful. As a result of sanctions, drugs for cancer, heart disease and several other ailments are now in short supply, according to the ‘reformist’ daily, Shargh. The shortage is the result of international sanctions against the Islamic republic, the implementation of subsidy cuts and foreign-currency exchange-rate fluctuations that Iran has experienced in recent months, claimed the newspaper. Supply of the affected drugs has reached “worrying levels”, it said.

May Day

However, the conflict is not restricted to infighting within the regime. This year, Iranian workers participated in a surprisingly large number of May Day protests – some organised through activist networks, and many more occurring within industrial complexes. After hearing of similar protests elsewhere, workers demonstrated outside the gates of their workplaces demanding action over low wages, non-payment and lack of job security. All these issues have been compounded by sanctions. Many workers held up placards saying “We are hungry”.

A small, impromptu gathering took place in the Kurdish city of Sanandaj. According to reports by the Free Union of Iranian Workers, on May 1 hundreds of workers congregated in that city chanting, “We are workers, we are hungry”, and “Workers’ solidarity”. Other signs read: “Bread, housing, liberty” and “Imprisoned workers should be released”.

May Day 2012 will be remembered as the day Iranian workers managed to raise their voice despite the difficult circumstances they face – not just in terms of the appalling economic conditions resulting from sanctions and the regime’s attacks, but also under circumstances of an increasingly repressive religious capitalist dictatorship. For Hands Off the People of Iran this means redoubling our efforts in solidarity with Iranian workers, to make sure their voice is heard above all the talk of war, sanctions and territorial recriminations.

yassamine.mather@weeklyworker.org.uk

Don’t forget the upcoming public meeting, ‘No war on Iran’ on Monday May 28th at the Fishermead Trinity Centre, Fishermead Boulevard, Milton Keynes. Speaker: Moshé Machover. Jointly organised by HOPI and MK Stop the War.

Iran: all options remain on the table

Rhetoric about Iran is all too reminiscent of the prelude to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, warns Ben Lewis (first published in the Weekly Worker)

On Monday February 20 parliament debated the prospect of military intervention against Iran. This against a background of increasingly bellicose rhetoric from the United States and Israel, as well as the recent report of the International Atomic Energy Agency.

The debate was initiated by Conservative MP John Baron, perhaps the only Tory MP who opposes an attack on Iran. His motion was simple and straightforward: “This house believes that the use of force against Iran would be wholly counterproductive and would serve only to encourage any development of nuclear weapons; and calls upon the government to rule out the use of force against Iran and reduce tensions by redoubling diplomatic efforts.” Malcolm Rifkind, Tory chairman of the intelligence and security committee, moved an amendment that completely changed its content. The amendment deleted everything except “This house” and replaced the rest of Baron’s motion with: “… supports the government’s efforts to reach a peaceful, negotiated solution to the Iranian nuclear issue through a combination of pressure in the form of robust sanctions, and engagement led by the E3+3 comprising the UK, US, France, Germany, China and Russia; and recognises the value of making clear to Iran that all options for addressing the issue remain on the table”.

It was perhaps no surprise that a cross-party consensus quickly formed around the Rifkind amendment, which was passed by an overwhelming majority of 285 to 6. Those who voted against the amendment were Labour MPs John McDonnell, Paul Flynn and Dennis Skinner; Jonathan Edwards of Plaid Cymru; Mark Durkan of the Social Democratic and Labour Party; and Baron himself.

That meant, of course, that an overwhelming majority of Labour MPs lined up for war. Michael McCann deserves particular mention: “diplomacy and sanctions should not be our only options – nothing should be ruled out”. Diane Abbott, who has often spoken out against war and occupation, voted for the Rifkind amendment: ie, in favour of “robust sanctions” and against clearly spelling out that military intervention was off the cards. But then Abbott is now one of Ed Miliband’s shadow ministers.

It would appear that we are now closer to some sort of strike against Iran than we have been for quite some time. Reinforcing the sense of urgency, Baron reminded us that, given “tough new sanctions, state-sponsored terrorism and naval forces in the Gulf”, this “may be the only opportunity” to debate Iran before an Israeli air-strike, perhaps even a “regional war”.

Baron’s speech in support of his motion criticised “yesterday’s failed policies” of “sanctions and sabre-rattling”. Contrary to the stated aims of those supporting them, he said, sanctions and threats of military action only had the effect of strengthening the regime, particularly the “hard-liners”. He also did a good job of pointing out the shortcoming of the IAEA’s report on Iran, highlighting that there is not a shred of “concrete evidence” of an Iranian nuclear weapons capability. Given the utter disaster that ensued following the questionable evidence concerning Iraq’s supposed “weapons of mass destruction” in 2003, we should be very wary of another disastrous war, said Baron. His request to foreign secretary William Hague to say where the evidence of Iranian nuclear weaponry could be found in the IAEA report fell on deaf ears.

That said, his case was significantly weakened by the fact that he questioned whether Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had actually called for Israel to be “wiped off the map” – apparently, the complexities of Farsi might mean that he was simply calling for “regime change”. The problem with this kind of apologia for the theocracy’s impotent rhetoric is that it buys into the ‘logic’ of the warmongers in Israel, the US and the UK: if the mullahs do want Israel “wiped off the map”, they must be prepared to launch a nuclear strike on that country, which means they must be developing the ability to do so, which means other Middle East powers will rush to develop nuclear arms themselves, which means there will be a “second cold war”.

Anti-war case

As Hands Off the People of Iran supporter John McDonnell was able to point out, the notion that the current sabre-rattling results from Israeli fears of a nuclear holocaust is frankly absurd. While it is “open to doubt” that Iran is close to having nuclear weapons, the issue “is really about nuclear capability – which is a threat only if one believes that nuclear weapons will be used”. And no-one does really believe that. If we are anxious about nuclear proliferation, he said, we have to “start with the root cause”, which is “Israel illegally gaining nuclear weapons”. The way forward had been spelt out by former British ambassador to Iran, Richard Dalton, said McDonnell, when he called for a “nuclear-free zone across the Middle East”. But that would mean facing up “the issue of Israel holding nuclear weapons”.

Comrade McDonnell pointed out that he is no friend of the regime: he has consistently tabled motions supporting campaigns like those of the Tehran bus workers and against the persecution of film director Jafar Panahi. But sanctions and the threat of military action “are strengthening the hard-liners in Iran and hurting the Iranian people, who are desperate to throw off the yoke of that theocracy”.

Sanctions represent “a siege of Iran”, which means we are “already at war by proxy”. As a result, Iran’s currency is collapsing, imports of grain are drying up and “people are becoming impoverished”. This is hardly “undermining the regime”. On the contrary, it is “hardening support for it by giving it the excuse that an external enemy is causing the impoverishment and hunger”.

Finally he referred to Israel’s “own domestic political agenda”: the “crisis atmosphere suits Netanyahu and the hawks who surround him”. Which was why there have been “covert military actions” carried out by organisations and individuals trained by Mossad. These acts “have prompted more terrorism around the world through Iran-sponsored attacks”, while the Israeli-sponsored “cyber-war” has “provoked even more retaliation”.

However, the eight-hour debate was dominated by the ratcheting up of threats. Labour MP Michael Mann was keen to draw on the example of Nazism and portray Ahmadinejad as the new Adolph Hitler. Apparently a recent conversation with one of his constituents who was present as the Nazis marched into Vienna had reminded him of Edmund Burke’s vacuous remark: “All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.” Absolutely sickening stuff.

With those on the ‘opposition’ benches going to such hawkish lengths, Rifkind’s case for leaving “all options open” sounded highly restrained by contrast. He made the rather odd point that if Baron’s motion were adopted then this would, paradoxically, increase the likelihood of military intervention against Iran. Why? Well, the Israelis would feel deserted by their allies and thus compelled to act unilaterally. At this point, John McDonnell intervened with a timely and well-aimed question: what sanctions would be imposed on Israel, were this to happen?

None, of course. In fact an Israeli strike might not be such a bad thing: “The Israelis acted unilaterally against Iraq when they removed the Osirak reactor, and both the western world and the Arab world breathed a huge sign of relief. It would ultimately depend on how successful the Israelis could be, and that is a separate question.”

That said, for the most part both Rifkind and foreign secretary William Hague were particularly keen on stressing two things: that the US was the “key country” in thinking about these questions (ie, the US will ultimately decide, and Britain will follow its lead) and that they would, of course, prefer a “peaceful” solution based on sanctions and “dialogue”: ie, negotiations with a pistol pointed at the head of those on the Iranian side of the table. After all, diplomacy requires “carrots and sticks”.

Rifkind stated that if it did come down to US-sanctioned military action, the “adverse consequences” would only be “relatively temporary”, with “short to medium-term” effects for a “few days, weeks or possibly even months”. The alternative, however, was the “permanent” prospect of an Iranian state with nuclear weapons. The circumstances under which such ‘pre-emptive’ military action might take place were, of course, a “military question” that should not be discussed in parliament.

According to Hague, “Our quarrel emphatically is not with the Iranian people” – although it is fine to wreck their lives through sanctions, it seems. No, “we want them to enjoy the same rights, freedoms and opportunities as we do and to live dignified lives in a prosperous society”. But “the Iranian government’s current policies endanger the interests of the Iranian people themselves, as well as undermining global security”.

This government celebrated the Arab spring a year ago by sending a delegation of British arms dealers around the Middle East – led by the prime minister – so they could ply their wares to a series of dictators. David Cameron showed himself more than willing to continue selling rubber bullets, tear gas and heavy arms to Kuwait, Bahrain and Yemen immediately after his visit to Egypt in February 2011. Weapons to be used against those fighting for some sort of “dignified” existence in the face of “appalling” abuses of their human rights.

Behind all the delusional, self-righteous crap, though, lies an undeniable drive to war. Labour rebel Paul Flynn made the obvious point that the debate and the rhetoric deployed by the politicians has a distinct feeling of 2003 about it. This should be of enormous concern to all of us committed to any notion of democracy and progress in the Middle East and beyond. Almost 10 years on, and after the trail of death and destruction in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, our rulers are now contemplating a repeat.

We must do our utmost to oppose any such intervention. What is more, we must highlight the real motives behind the rhetoric: the US, through its main regional ally, Israel, is attempting to regain full control over a region that is going through extremely rapid change. We need the biggest, most militant and most daring show of opposition to their project. At all times we must expose the duplicitous lies of ‘our’ leaders and strengthen the force that can stop wars and a further descent into barbarity: the international working class movement.

ben.lewis@weeklyworker.org.uk

No war on Iran! For regime change from below!

Make your voice heard against war and repression, urges Hands Off the People of Iran chair, Yassamine Mather

The war drums against Iran are beating ever louder. The new embargo on Iranian oil, to come into force on July 1, is only the latest in a long list of measures imposed by US and EU imperialism. It bans all new oil contracts with Iran, and cuts off all existing deals. Also, all of the Iranian central bank’s European assets are to be frozen.

We are told that the sanctions are designed to weaken the regime and “force Iran back to the negotiating table” over its nuclear programme. This is clearly nonsense:

  • In reality, the ‘nuclear danger’ is used by imperialism as an excuse to deal with an increasingly unstable situation in the Middle East. Imperialism has recently lost a number of friendly regimes in the region (like Egypt) and needs to reassert control in this oil-rich area. War is also a useful distraction from economic misery and the current crisis of capitalism.
  • Former International Atomic Energy Agency analyst Robert Kelly has debunked the latest report purporting to show that Iran is developing nuclear weapons. Of the three pieces of ‘evidence’ that are not out of date, two are entirely unverifiable, and one an obvious forgery (see http://hopoi.org/?p=1841). But the regime draws sustenance from these rumours: the threats against Iran help the theocracy to stay in power, neutralise the opposition and unite the people behind a regime under attack from imperialism.
  • The new sanctions will make it even more difficult for Iran, Opec’s second largest producer, to be paid in foreign currency for its oil exports (which were worth more than $100 billion in 2011). Previous rounds of EU and US sanctions targeting Iran’s financial system have already caused a shortage of foreign currency. A shortage of foreign currency means that Iran cannot import food at a time when food prices have already risen to astronomical levels. The Iranian rial has tumbled to a new low.
  • But the sanctions are unlikely to dramatically weaken the regime. The rich and powerful are able to protect themselves to a large degree from the effects. In fact, leaders of sanctioned regimes are almost always strengthened (and enriched) by sanctions.
  • However, the sanctions will mean even more misery for ordinary Iranians: many workers will not receive their wages in time (if at all) and even the BBC has warned that social security payments and the remaining food subsidies could be the first to be cut by a theocracy under financial pressure. This will only increase the hardship and miserable conditions that our brothers and sisters in Iran have had to endure for many years.
  • Further, the military provocations of US-led imperialism – assassinations, sabotage and preparatory military manoeuvres in the region – have also dramatically upped the tension in the country and are being used by the theocracy to increase repression.
  • As the examples of Iraq and Afghanistan prove beyond doubt, democracy can only come from below, from the people themselves. But a people driven to their knees by brutal sanctions are hardly in the position to overthrow dictatorship.

We know from history that sanctions are only the first step in wars being waged against ‘unfriendly’ regimes. A military attack against Iran is very much on the agenda. Should the regime really decide to close the Strait of Hormuz, this could happen sooner rather than later.

That is why it is so important that we side now with the people of Iran in their struggle against their own theocracy and the threats by imperialism!

Make your voice heard now! Send us a message in the form of an email, voice mail, short video or a photograph holding the poster pictured alongside (download from http://www.hopoi.org) and encourage your comrades and friends to do the same. We will post all messages on a special section on Hopi’s website and on YouTube, Facebook and other social media sites. Plans are also afoot for solidarity events, film screenings and fundraising events.

Yassamine Mather

Chair, Hands Off the People of Iran

office@hopoi.info

Mapping the alternative

The workers’ movement must begin to act on a European scale, argues Mike Macnair

The International Monetary Fund meeting in Washington at the weekend is widely reported to have come up with a larger sticking plaster for the euro zone debt crisis. The package is said to involve a 50% write-down of the value of Greek government debt (ie, a partial default); the quadrupling of the European Financial Stability Fund ‘fire-power’ – ie, its ability to lend to countries in trouble, mainly by technical means; and the recapitalisation of the euro zone banks, presumably by governments putting money into them (private investors are not likely to).

The result of this ‘official leak’ is that European bank shares rose sharply on Monday and Tuesday, pulling stock market averages with them, before falling back on Wednesday. We have seen over the past months a series of short rallies in the stock markets as ‘solutions’ are offered, which rapidly peter out, and this looks like the latest.

If the new plan is actually agreed, which is questionable, and if it succeeds, which is even more doubtful, its practical effect would be a very limited ‘haircut’ for creditors, but a large hit for north European middle class and working class taxpayers and public service employees and users.

The ‘haircut’ is limited because this is not a general write-down of debts, but only of the Greek government’s, which are actually rather small-scale by comparison with those of governments elsewhere (or the massive private debts which still burden UK and other housing markets).

The hit for the north Europeans comes from the nature of the scheme. An orderly general write-down of debts would at the end of the day penalise savers, pensioners, rentiers and rentier institutions (churches, endowed charities and so on). A ‘disorderly default’ meltdown would have extreme and unpredictable effects. This scheme, in contrast, would make the Greek partial default ‘orderly’ and erect a ‘firewall’ against ‘contagion’ affecting Italy, and so on, by committing large amounts of north European government funds. If the funds were merely borrowed or printed, the effect would be the ‘contagion’ in the financial markets the plan seeks to avoid. So the working class and the working middle classes (as distinct from the present recipients of private pensions) will be expected to take the hit in the form of yet more ‘austerity’ measures.

So more ‘austerity’ is coming. In this situation, the Coalition of Resistance has launched an excellent initiative: this weekend’s Europe Against Austerity conference. Since it is perfectly obvious that the capitalist regimes are (with some difficulty) endeavouring to coordinate their responses to the crisis on a European scale, it is not merely desirable, but essential, that the workers’ movement should try to coordinate our response on the same scale. Otherwise we are likely to be ‘defeated in detail’.

What should come out of this conference immediately is an agitation for a Europe-wide day of action of the same sort as the proposed November 30 common strike day, but on a European scale. This is a small step. A big European day of action would symbolise unity of the European working class against the austerity agenda. It would improve the confidence of our class in every country and serve notice on the capitalist governments that we are not willing to play their beggar-my-neighbour game of blaming ‘lazy Greeks’ or whatever.

Budget alternatives

But then the further question is posed: what policy should the workers’ movement put forward on a European level to deal with this crisis? What is the working class alternative?

The question is posed because the austerity-mongers are only likely to be defeated by a very broad movement of solidarity. The austerity-mongers do not wait quietly for such a movement to appear. On the contrary, they intervene actively to promote division. From one angle, they blame the crisis on ‘profligate governments’. From another, they attempt to set the ‘indigenous’ population against migrants.

From a third, they appeal to the domestic financial management of the petty bourgeoisie, employed middle class and skilled workers (who have some ability to save) as a model for the financial management of the state; and against the ‘spongers’ receiving welfare benefits.

From a fourth angle, they attempt to separate workers in the private sector (who have already suffered substantial wage, job and pension cuts in the first round of the crisis) from workers in the public sector who are to be the immediate target of austerity. Of course, they do not mention to the private sector workers the probable consequences in unavailable services, queues and the increased costs they will pay for privatised health, education, etc.

To build broad solidarity it is necessary to offer an alternative to these austerity-monger arguments, not merely to deny them. Hence, it is necessary not only to build broad solidarity and effective resistance, but also to promote an alternative vision in response to the financial crisis.

Much of what the left has written has been simple reporting of the attacks and resistance – last week’s Socialist Worker centre-spread provides an example (September 22). To the extent that it has gone beyond this, by and large the left has proposed a policy of ‘returning’ to a nostalgic version of the economic order of the 1950s-70s. This has several aspects. The simpler is the demand to tax the rich more heavily to pay for keeping the welfare state intact – a recurring line of the SWP since around 2000, if not before. The more complex is the demand for a return to Keynesian demand management and allowing the state financial deficit to continue to rise in order to stimulate the economy.

Both ideas are shared by some capitalists as well as by the Labour leadership – even if in less full-blooded form than they appear in, for example, Solidarity (September 22, September 28). Warren Buffett, as well as a group of French capitalists, have notoriously argued that they should pay more taxes. Keynesian or semi-Keynesian arguments against the austerity policy routinely appear in the pages of the Financial Times and similar publications.

These ideas therefore have the attraction of being a ‘line of least resistance’. They are ‘respectable’ and ‘realistic’ in a way that advocating the revolutionary overthrow of the state regime and rapid transformation of the economy towards some form of socialism is definitely not.

The problem is they are less realistic than they appear. In reality, to actually implement either policy would involve an overthrow of the current international state system. The capitalists may overthrow this system themselves if its problems get much worse: the big losers if they do will be the US, UK and their populations. The process of doing so will probably involve for everyone a drive towards war.

Surely, you may well say, this must be untrue. After all, in the ‘golden age’ of 1950-70 capitalism not only survived, but did far better than it has been doing recently, with regimes of Keynesianism and welfarism, higher taxation, a higher wage share, and more extensive regulation. And the transition from the welfarist-Keynesian ‘consensus’ of the 1950s-70s to the financialism of the 1980s and after did not involve the overthrow of any of the central imperialist states (many other countries did experience the overthrow of their nationalist or Stalinist regimes).

The reason is that the instruments of financialism were already present in the international state system created in the 1940s and entrenched in the constitutional orders of the central states, the United Nations and the first General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (Gatt). What changed with the rise of financialism in the 1980s was thus not a change in the constitutional orders of the central imperialist states and the global state system as such. It was merely that non-constitutional, economic concessions to the European workers’ movement and to the ‘third world’ nationalists, which had been made because of the ‘threat’ of the Soviet bloc, began to be withdrawn.

Tax the rich?

The simpler case is the demand to ‘tax the rich’. Back in 2009 the SWP responded to the budget with the proposal to “Take all the cash from the super-rich”: “Britain’s 1,000 most super-rich individuals are still swilling around in £258 billion … All their money should be taken off them. This, along with stopping military spending, could be used to fund our jobs and services, and ensure that ordinary people do not bear the brunt of the recession.”[1] I made the point in response that £258 billion is only slightly more than half the annual state tax take of £496 billion which was projected in the 2009 budget – small beer which would at most address the problem for a year or two.[2]

The more serious problem with ‘Tax the rich’ is reflected in a series of news items. The scale of the Greek government deficit is to a considerable extent due to the scale of tax avoidance and outright evasion, through the Greek wealthy (and upper middle classes) keeping assets ‘offshore’.

At the beginning of this year Nicholas Shaxson’s Treasure islands: tax havens and the men who stole the world was published in Britain. It is a striking journalistic exposé of the tax haven phenomenon and its scope. Meanwhile, this week’s Financial Times is running a series on ‘tax wars’: the tax loopholes created by double taxation treaties, and so on. Buffett complained that he pays a lower rate of tax than his secretary: not because the law is drafted that way, but because Buffett can afford to pay high-grade tax avoidance advisers.

Germany and Britain have entered into utterly unprincipled deals with Switzerland: the Swiss pay blackmail money to the British and German governments, but get to keep the anonymous bank accounts which are used not only for tax avoidance and evasion, but also to launder the bribes paid to ‘third world’ kleptocrats and the funds they have stolen from their own states.

Some Tory MPs are arguing for an early repeal of the 50p tax bracket introduced in the 2009 budget. They claim it will make Britain less attractive to high earners, and bring in little revenue because of increased avoidance and evasion. The Lib Dems reject this proposal, but on symbolic grounds – that reducing tax on the rich at a time of austerity would look bad. Their alternative, not part of the coalition agreement, is a ‘mansion tax’ on high-value houses. The chief merit of such a tax is that it would be a lot harder to avoid/evade than income tax (let alone capital gains tax and inheritance tax, which are close to being voluntary for the rich). The point is that, under the existing global legal order, the arguments for repeal actually have validity.

So how do we ‘tax the rich’ effectively? How do we even eliminate the loopholes? The answer is that to do so requires actually shutting down ‘offshore’: that is, the systematic violation of the sovereignty of a series of states guaranteed by UN treaties – and, in reality, by US backing. To do so would be seriously unhelpful to the UK budget, because the City of London’s financial operations are, in fact, part of ‘offshore’; and income tax on City incomes is a substantial component of the UK tax take.

At the level of the ‘real economy’ Britain imports vast quantities of food, since its agriculture cannot feed the population. The balance of ‘visible trade’ is in structural deficit, as it has been for decades – 95% of the fruit and 50% of the vegetables consumed in the UK are imported.[3] In 2005 the UK imported £6.6 billion of agricultural products and £18.5 billion worth of processed foods. It exported £1.16 billion in agricultural output and £8 billion in processed foods. Since food is – in relative terms – low-value, we are not talking about a small difference here. There is thus a yawning gap in the UK’s domestic food supply, which is made up by imports.

In total, with other products, UK material imports totalled £270 billion, while material exports amounted to £210 billion. The deficit of £60 billion is at least partly made up by the UK’s financial income from the City of London and from remitted profits: that is, from the UK’s role in the world imperialist system.[4] The food imports are therefore – at the end of the day – paid for by the ‘invisible earnings’ of the City, through income tax on City earnings redistributed to civil servants, NHS workers, local government workers through block grants, and in various forms of subsidy to other capitals.

The question posed is, therefore: is it worth British workers accepting being made very substantially worse off, and at the same time preparing for war with the United States, for the sake of a demand that the rich should pay higher taxation? The problem is not that the rich should not pay higher taxation; it is that the slogan comes up against entrenched institutions – the tax havens, double taxation treaties, and so on – created by US power in the post-war settlement, and still backed by the US and UK (a good many tax havens are actually UK colonies).

More immediately, it comes up domestically against the constitutional doctrine in IRC (Inland Revenue Commissioners) v Duke of Westminster that individuals are entitled to arrange their affairs to minimise tax and that taxing statutes must be construed in the way most unfavourable to the IRC. This doctrine could in theory be overturned. But not by merely legislating to change it: in this field, as in some others, the judges are like Humpty Dumpty: “When I use a word … it means just what I choose it to mean.” The doctrine is, moreover, given a semi-spurious constitutional foundation in article four of the Bill of Rights 1689, “That levying money for or to the use of the crown by pretence of prerogative, without grant of parliament, for longer time, or in other manner than the same is or shall be granted, is illegal.” To overthrow the doctrine would therefore require coercion of the judiciary and probably also of a large part of the broader legal profession.

It is not that we should not consider as an element of socialist strategy the need to create political legitimacy for coercing the judges and the lawyers, or to create military power which can stand against US blockade (‘sanctions’ and so on). Rather, there are two issues. The first is that it is clear that no single country could stand off US displeasure without receiving the sanctions treatment which crippled the Zimbabwean and Iraqi economies and is in the process of crippling the Iranian economy – and this is, if anything, clearer of Britain than of ‘third world’ countries, which have economies less immediately dependent on imports.

The second is that going up against the US for the sake of a radical overturn of social relations and building a new society would be worthwhile. But going up against the US (and sacrificing Britain’s status as US sidekick and licensed offshore centre) for the sake of the rich paying a bit more in tax? The game isn’t worth the candle.

Back to Keynes?

A return to Keynesian demand stimulus poses the same problems in a more immediate sense. The immediate response to the 2008 crash was, precisely, a temporary return of Keynesianism to respectability, with governments taking on massive debts and pouring liquidity into the financial system in the hope that it would feed through into the ‘real economy’.

To some extent these stimulus packages actually worked. Continued very low central bank interest rates and ‘quantitative easing’ – ie, printing money – in the US and Britain did avert meltdown and allow a partial recovery. Massive government infrastructure spending in China kept its economy growing substantially, and with it the economies of China’s suppliers.

Nonetheless, this policy met with political opposition and a reaction in financial markets. Regular Weekly Worker correspondent Arthur Bough argues on his blog that the political opposition is simply an ideological error on the part of the Tories and the Republican right (and presumably also the German Christian Democrats and other north European ‘hardliners’, though he does not mention these), reflecting dysfunctional political institutions and perhaps the ideology of the petty bourgeoisie; and that the financial markets are merely responding to the uncertainty caused by this failure of leadership.[5]

This argument is at least partially dependent on comrade Bough’s prior argument that we are in the middle of a ‘Kondratiev long-wave upswing’, with the result that there is not in any real sense a ‘crisis’, but merely a ‘slowdown’ in Europe and the US, reflecting a need for restructuring in the light of the rise of Asian capitalism.[6] As I have said before, I think Trotsky’s original objections to the idea of the Kondratiev long cycle were sound; in my view the destruction of the strategic autonomy of the British empire in 1940 and the explicit agreements made during that summer to hand over British overseas assets and debt claims to the US and to act in future as a subordinate of the US were the key to the ‘golden age’ long boom in the 1950s and 60s, together with the massive destruction of fixed capital in World War II and the very extensive state defaults afterwards.

The central question, however, is why there should be the ‘crisis of bourgeois leadership’ in relation to the economy. It seems to me that the answer is at root the same as that in relation to tax. That is, the post-war settlement under US leadership created entrenched institutions – essentially offshore and international money markets – through which US ‘superimperialism’ (Michael Hudson’s expression) operated.[7] These mechanisms were mitigated by the geopolitics of the cold war, but, as the forms of mitigation proved both to make the working class too powerful in the late 1960s-70s and to weaken the US relative to other capitalist states, they began to be abandoned.

But the institutions of offshore and international money markets take on a life of their own. (The phenomenon is perhaps analogous to al Qa’eda, originally a CIA-sponsored formation for the purposes of the war in Afghanistan.) To get rid of them or return them to a fuller subordination would require coercion and the overthrow of the treaty regimes created in the late 1940s.

Now consider the crash of 2008 and the response: that is, to replace unpayable bank debts with sovereign debt. After this response it is entirely rational for money market speculators to suppose that some sovereigns will prove unable to pay their debts, and hence to bet against the value of these debts. Given the scale of global financial market operations, which has for years been totally out of proportion to productive economic activity and on a scale comparable with the state financial operations of the larger states, the result is inevitably high volatility in these markets. It is not irrational in this context to imagine, as the Tories did, that there could be a run on the British gilt markets if austerity were not adopted. It may have been wrong, but it is not stupid.

It is also quite clear that British capital in its majority (by wealth) preferred a Tory government, complete with the austerity policy, to the possibility of a Labour government. This was reflected in party political donations in the run-up to the 2010 general election and in the extraordinary press campaign to denigrate Gordon Brown as an individual and to blame Labour for ‘fiscal irresponsibility’ (a very marked about-turn from 2008). Murdoch and co are only partially autonomous actors (as we saw in the collapse of the News of the World when advertising was withdrawn). The ideology of the petty bourgeoisie was exploited for this purpose, but it is unlikely that it was the real driving factor.

Let us therefore suppose a Labour government introduces a fully Keynesian turn based on expanded deficit finance or printing money – the policy of leftwing advocates of ‘back to Keynes’. It is quite ridiculous to suppose that this turn would not be met by a run on the gilts market and a large-scale flight of capital. This, in turn, bring us immediately up against the need to proceed to exchange controls, systematic violations of Gatt II, expropriations and a short-term move to directive planning – all this after the left has spread the idea that a Keynesian turn would not involve a revolutionary crisis, and by doing so has disarmed the workers’ movement when crisis does, in fact, appear.

The real reformists – as opposed to leftists pretending to be reformists for the sake of an imagined ‘united front’ – are aware of these issues, even if their arguments would not be those I have used. They would simply say that ‘the markets’ represent real absolute limits on what can be done. See, for example, Ed Balls’ speech to the Labour conference. The fake-reformist line remains unpersuasive beyond the far left, its immediate periphery and the former periphery of the old ‘official’ Communist Party, for whom the wish is the father to the thought.

Socialist alternative

The European workers’ movement is presented with the austerity drive and ‘crisis of bourgeois leadership’ at a moment when it is weaker than it has been at any time in the last 130 years. Union membership density is low. The mass parties have been hollowed out at the base and their leaderships to a large extent turned into apostles of a ‘kinder, gentler’ financialised regime, together with nationalism and bureaucratic control. The idea of socialism remains in the shadow of Stalinism, not only in the memories of the older generations, but in the experience of the younger generations of the functioning of the organised left groups and their inability – thanks to their bureaucratic centralism – to unite.

To say this is to say that the euro zone crisis and the austerity drive does not prima facie pose the question of the working class in the near future taking political power and ushering in socialism. The workers’ movement is simply too weak, irrespective of whether theorists like comrade Bough or Bill Jeffries of Permanent Revolution, who claim that this is a pure financial crisis under global long-boom conditions, or those who see a deeper structural crisis are right.

If the ‘crisis of bourgeois leadership’ tips over into generalised meltdown matters will be different: the question of power will be posed, whether the workers’ movement is ready for it or not. The most likely outcome would then be the creation of authoritarian nationalist regimes, but the one chance of avoiding that outcome would be for the weak workers’ movement to pose a radical reconstruction of society as an alternative.

The immediate future is therefore one of a combination of defensive struggles, with efforts to rebuild the workers’ movement. Nonetheless, it remains necessary to pose the question of an alternative social order and how to get there in order to rebuild the movement. The weakness of the movement results at the end of the day precisely from the fact that its dominant ideas of alternatives (nationalist, class-collaborationist and bureaucratic) have so spectacularly failed – but the advocates of these ideas remain in leadership positions and the ideas themselves have spread to such an extent that they dominate the far left which once opposed them.

Posing the alternative of a socialist reconstruction of society is therefore not an alternative to the immediate tasks of defensive struggles around individual ‘austerity’ issues and against governmental ‘austerity’ programmes. Nor is it an alternative to the equally fundamental task of efforts to strengthen collective self-help against the effects of the austerity measures: to build up the trade unions at the base, to organise the unemployed, and to develop cooperatives and mutuals. In the period of welfarist ‘affluence’ these elementary tasks of workers’ organisation have been allowed to wither away or – like the unions and the Co-op – reduced to bureaucratically controlled institutions.

Arthur Bough makes this aspect of the rebuilding of the workers’ movement the be-all and end-all. He draws arguments from Marx’s writing at the time of the First International, when – until the 1871 London conference – Marx was attempting to hold together an alliance with the Proudhonists, who were arguing precisely this line: workers’ self-help through cooperatives, as opposed to political action.

The problem is not that socialists should ignore or oppose cooperatives. Firstly, it is that the initial wave of cooperatives came at a time when land values were tending to decline (which they did between, roughly, the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1847 and the introduction of planning laws, agricultural subsidy and mortgage interest relief during and after World War II). Since then access to land has been very much more tightly rationed by the ruling class; by the 1980s the cost of keeping even trades and labour clubs in existence was leading to their being sold off to property developers.

Secondly, the problem is that the capitalist class and its state do not consistently recognise property rights and the state certainly does not refrain from interference in the economy in the interests of major capitalist bribe-payers. Comrade Bough’s own 2010 review of Nicole Roberts’ history of the cooperative movement in Britain makes the point: the state intervened against the cooperative movement and – by regulatory legislation – continues to intervene in favour of bureaucratic managerialism in cooperatives.[8] However difficult to achieve anything by political action it may seem, political action is the necessary accompaniment of both defensive struggles and cooperative self-help.

Nor is posing a socialist reconstruction of society an alternative to posing defensive demands like the restoration of trade union freedom; or, in the sphere of the budget, an end to overseas imperialist adventurism and cuts in military expenditure.[9] Rather, it is a necessary accompaniment to defensive struggles, cooperative self-help and defensive demands.

Europe

Another society is possible: one in which, instead of being driven to competitive ‘growth’ ending in cyclical crises, we aim for the fullest possible development of every human being: communism. The transition to such a society involves the rule of the working class: that is, the subordination of the private producers to the wage-earners, tending towards a society in which nobody gets anything other than a living wage and open access to public resources like the internet, education, health, housing, etc.

We collectively have written more about this aim in our Draft programme. I have written about immediate steps in this direction as a response to the financial crisis in previous articles.[10] Europe and united working class action in Europe is central to this possibility.

The reason why that is so is the reverse side of the points I have made above against ‘tax the rich’ and a return to Keynesianism as strategies. Karl Kautsky argued in The class struggle (1892) that the nation-state was a sufficient scale on which the working class could reorganise society as a cooperative commonwealth. The idea descended into ‘socialism in a single country’. Kautsky was already wrong, and the experience of the 20th century has proved the idea wrong. All countries are integrated in the world trade and financial system to a point at which ‘sanctions’ can cripple their economies.

In reality, the capitalist class does not rule through independent nation-states, but through a global hierarchical system of states. Before 1914 this system of states was centred on the UK; after the prolonged death agony of the British empire since 1945, it has been centred on the US. National solutions run up against the institutions of this world hierarchy, as I have shown in relation to ‘tax the rich’ and ‘return to Keynes’.

If the working class can develop common action on the scale of Europe, that is a whole different ball-game. A European ‘cooperative commonwealth’ would not be immune from US-led attack or blockade; but, unlike the former tsarist empire which became the USSR, it would start from high levels of productive capacity and of proletarianisation. A socialist Europe could be a real beacon for the world.

The Europe Against Austerity conference could begin to set this as a goal. Not an immediate goal; but a goal which could begin to re-inspire the workers’ movement with the sense that an alternative is really possible, not just a dream. Maybe it will not. Maybe it will cling to the blind-alley lines of least resistance round nationalism and Keynesianism. But what an advance it would be if the movement really began to act on a European scale and to pose the question of a socialist Europe as an alternative to the Europe of austerity.

This article was first published in the Weekly Worker.

Notes

1. Socialist Worker May 2 2009.

2.Budget: spinning, not turningWeekly Worker April 30 2009.

3. www.bbc.co.uk/food/food_matters/foodmiles.shtml.

4. Figures from www.uktradeinfo.com/index.cfm?task=eubackcast.

5. The long series, ‘The economy of analysis’, is still running: http://boffyblog.blogspot.com.

6. Present, with references to earlier posts, in the argument cited in note 5 above.

7. M Hudson Super imperialism: the economic strategy of American empire (New York 1972); N Bukharin Imperialism and world economy (1915).

8. http://londonbookclub.co.uk/?p=847.

9. See my ‘Crisis and defensive demandsWeekly Worker January 8 2009.

10.Responding to the crisisWeekly Worker October 16 2008; ‘There is an alternativeWeekly Worker March 24 2011.