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Lars Lih on Bolshevism

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95 years after the October Revolution, the CPGB invites you to join us to look back on an event that profoundly changed human history and which continues to inspire millions across the globe.

This London Communist Forum will not merely celebrate 1917. It will also interrogate the complex and conflicted legacy of the ‘Bolshevism’ that we on the far left have inherited. This has completely distorted our understanding of the very event that inspires so many of us.

The cults of Stalin, Lenin and Trotsky, not to mention the anti-communist prejudice of Cold War historiography, have skewed our understanding of the nature of Bolshevism as a political movement, the strategy it was pursuing and therefore the Russian Revolution as a whole. This meeting aims to re-Bolshevise the Bolshevik Revolution.

In a world that is increasingly plunging into turmoil and crisis, enormous responsibilities and challenges fall to those of us who still uphold the need for revolutionary change. That is why it is so important to rigorously study our history, so as to learn from the lessons of 1917.

Lars T Lih is a scholar and historian based in Canada. He is one of the world’s foremost thinkers on Lenin and the Bolsheviks. He has been at the forefront of rediscovering Russian revolutionary history, helping to scotch some of the myths about Bolshevism common to both the far left and anti-communist establishment thought. His most recent publications include a biography, Lenin (2011, Reaktion), and his ground-breaking study Lenin Rediscovered: ‘What is to be done?’ in context (Haymarket 2008).

Facebook event

Location: Calthorpe Arms, 252 Gray’s Inn Road, London WC1. Map

Starts: 19:30, Sunday 11 November 2012

Ends: 22:00, Sunday 11 November 2012

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General strike: Rebuild the movement

The call for a general strike to bring down the government is out of place, writes Mike Macnair

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The bulk of the far left sees the TUC October 20 demonstration against austerity as an opportunity to carry on an agitation for a general strike to bring down the government.

Socialist Worker headlines this week: “Out! Out! Out!” The accompanying text argues for a general strike and further escalation. “The magnificent strike on November 30 last year gave a glimpse of the power workers have, when taking mass action together. Strikes like this can drive the Tories into submission.”1

Last week’s headline in The Socialist read: “Kick out the ‘nasty party’!” The accompanying text claims (as the Socialist Workers Party has also claimed on other occasions) that “This is a weak government that we can kick out … The call for a general strike received huge support at the recent demonstration outside Tory conference.”2 (The Socialist says that the size of this demonstration was “thousands”; Indymedia reports 5,000, a lot smaller than the 30,000 or more who demonstrated in Manchester in 2011.3)

Socialist Resistance has published online its leaflet for October 20. “Step up the struggle! Strike against austerity!” are the opening headlines. But at least the leaflet flags up the party question in some way: “Demonstrations and strikes are absolutely necessary to stop austerity, as well as a massive and united movement of resistance. But we also need a political solution to our struggle so that we can have in government a party, like Syriza, which will reverse austerity …”4

Articles in the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty’s Solidarity do not display a consistent view. Martin Thomas’s introduction to the AWL’s coming conference is appropriately sober on perspectives:

 

On one level, unresolved capitalist crisis, which means continued depression at a global level and a high possibility of further economic dramas: for example, in the euro zone. In Britain working class conditions are being squeezed deeper and longer than in the 1930s or under Thatcher.

All that makes upheavals likely before long. Maybe not mass strike waves, which are more likely to come with some economic recovery than in the depths of the slump; but explosive local industrial struggles, street protests, and ‘molecular’ radicalisation of individuals.

On another level, Britain now has a period of working class lull following the setback on pensions on December 19 2011, which with each passing month becomes more like an outright defeat.

We cannot end the lull at will …5

 

On the other hand, Daniel Randall and Sacha Ismail offer ‘A workers’ plan to beat cuts’, which is in substance a general ‘action programme’ (a shortened and immediatised version of a party programme). After the introduction, it begins with:

 

No cuts to jobs and services: we need a massive campaign of industrial and political action against the cuts, starting now, not at some point in the future after the TUC demo.

Struggles must be fought around clear demands, and fought to win – not simply to express displeasure at some already-taken action of the bosses or government.

 

This is a slightly less explicit version of the ‘general strike now’ line of the SWP and Socialist Party in England and Wales.

It ends, as such programmes usually do, with “Fight for a workers’ government”. The formulations are muddled, but I am not concerned to criticise them here. The point is that the whole structure of the action programme, the ‘plan to beat the cuts’, supposes that the struggle is likely in the near future to escalate to the point of putting on the agenda the question of government – not in the sense of an early general election and handover of office to the Labour right, but in the sense of a left government, one which “could only take power on the back of struggles so wide-ranging that they would shake up (and, in all likelihood, break up) the current Labour Party to such a degree as to render it unrecognisable”.6

The Anti-Capitalist Initiative website has two articles by the same author, on the same day – John Bowman, October 14 – which are similarly schizoid. ‘After the march – will the TUC step up the action?’ is conventional general-strikism: “A one-day strike is ultimately a protest. It would need to be turned into sustained mass strike action to stop the cuts, and defeat a government that is determined to destroy the welfare state …”7 The piece headed ‘What should the TUC do?’ recommends a much more low-level set of policies to rebuild the trade union movement, but ends with “time to start matching fighting talk with real action that can win”.8

An awful lot of these far-left lines are written as if we were in the year 1974 – after the second miners’ strike had brought down Heath, and before the labour law ‘reforms’ of Wilson and Callaghan had succeeded in undermining the shop stewards’ movement – let alone, before Thatcher’s decimation of British manufacturing industry, the extensive robotisation of much that remains, the defeat of the 1984-85 miners’ strike and all that has followed it.

Where we are now is not on the verge of a revolutionary crisis. The task we face is not the immediate struggle to bring down the government, but to rebuild the workers’ movement. Strikes, including one-day protest general strikes, have a real place in that task. Slogans or strategies of a ‘general strike to bring down the government’ are right now simply unrealistic.

Where are we now?

To begin with the positive: ‘Marx is back’. The crash of 2008 and its long-drawn-out consequences have meant that the tendency of capitalism periodically to threaten the foundations of its own existence is back on the political agenda. This is one of the distinctive predictions of Marx’s critique of political economy, and it has meant that even the rigid control of the academic economics profession and of economic journalism by ‘neoclassical’ marginalists has not prevented a ‘Marx revival’.

I do not definitely say, as Martin Thomas does, that the capitalist crisis is ‘unresolved’. This may be true, but it may also turn out that enough of the losses have been externalised away from the ‘core countries’ through money-market mechanisms for there to be a new limited upturn or even a new bubble, on the basis of the extraordinary levels of money-printing that have gone on in the last period.

Secondly, the politics of class is back with a vengeance. Occupy Wall Street’s slogan against the 1% – the ruling class – resonated widely, even if the movement itself has largely withered, as all such spontaneist direct-action ‘spectacular’ projects do. Owen Jones’Chavs becomes an Amazon bestseller. Government chief whip Andrew Mitchell calling cops ‘plebs’ becomes, for a while, a political running sore. David Cameron finds it necessary to claim that he stands for “privilege for all” – a nonsensical slogan.

The Eurocommunist idea argued by the late Eric Hobsbawm and others, that issues of class are gradually being superseded by identity issues – gender, race, sexuality – as motivators of radical critique of the present order, has spectacularly proved itself false. Capital has shown in the last 20 years that it can be anti-racist, anti-sexist, etc, in its own way; what it cannot do is avoid waging war on labour.

The crisis and austerity accentuate the issue, since the Con-Dem government is determined not to waste the opportunity to push through attacks on welfare and privatisation of the health and education systems. The effect is an obviously corrupt government acting in the interests of its ‘1%’ paymasters at everyone else’s expense.

This context has necessarily produced a real, if as yet small, revival of militant collective action. Days lost through strikes rose in 2011 to the highest level for eight years. A large chunk of this was the one-day public sector action on November 30, but if this element of the 2011 figure is subtracted, there would still have been a rise in strikes.

Downside

On the other hand, if days lost through strikes have risen, they remain at historically low levels relative not only to the 1970s, but to any time since World War II. Union membership is around half where it stood in the 1970s. The level of organisation remains extremely weak: paradoxically, it is this weakness which has allowed the far left and militants linked to it to make gains in elections and conference resolutions in the official structures of the trade unions.

Since the 1980s, robotisation and so on have produced an extremely productive industrial sector, but one with a far smaller workforce (the natural result of increased productivity) dispersed in relatively small (in terms of numbers employed) workplaces. Large workforces and workplaces have become a feature mainly of the service sector and in particular of the public sector.

There has been a long-term trend away from full-time into part-time employment, which has been accelerated by the effects of the 2008 crash. In itself, this would be a good thing: communists favour shorter hours for each worker and on that basis work made available for all. But under capitalism, part-time working leads to impoverishment and welfare dependency. This is because the combination share of rent and mortgage interest in the social surplus product, the multiplication of competing financial ‘utility providers’ for gas, electricity and so on, and agricultural subsidy in the form of price maintenance and set-aside (the EU Common Agricultural Policy) elevates the cost of living relative to full-time wages; and it is considerably harder for part-time workers to organise collective action in the workplace than for full-time workers. Iain Duncan Smith’s massive attack on part-time workers’ benefit rights is about to kick in, with incalculable effects.

This is only one of a number of cuts and austerity measures which are either not yet introduced in practice or have yet to take their full effect. The result is that, though the Con-Dems have been talking down the economy and emphasising how bad everything is, the need for cuts, the ‘unsustainability’ of pensions, the welfare state and so on, Britain remains in economic stagnation. It is not – yet – in a real deflationary death spiral like Greece or, to a lesser extent, Spain.

Going along with this, although there is considerable hostility to the government’s cuts/austerity policy, this does not yet in any sense amount to a crisis of the political order. Polls show Labour under a rightwing leadership around 10% ahead of the Tories – normal in mid-term. The Tory vote at around 30% is holding up quite well. The Liberal Democrat showing at 9% is dramatically down on the party’s 2010 general election result, but not in complete collapse territory, given its regional distribution.9

As far as far-left electoral support is concerned, the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (run by SPEW with the support of the RMT union leadership and the episodic participation of the SWP) has been able outside London to achieve results comparable with the middle to stronger end of far-left candidacies under the names of the Socialist Alliance in 2000-05 and by the SWP under its own name and the rival Socialist Unity in 1976-78. It has not got beyond this level and shows no sign of mobilising activists on the ground sufficiently to do so.

Beyond this is the absence of the vision of an alternative to the system of capital. Marx’s diagnosis of the ills of capitalism may be ‘back’, but the alternative – socialism – is still in the shadow of Stalinism. The organised far left constantly reminds the broad layer of activists of Stalinism through its own bureaucratic-centralist internal practice, which generates both unprincipled splits and the duplication of bureaucratically controlled front organisations, which fraudulently pretend to be broad ‘united fronts’: Counterfire’s Coalition of Resistance, the SWP’s Unite the Resistance, SPEW’s National Shop Stewards Network, and so on. The unorganised far-left ‘independents’ and the anarchists are if anything worse: quot homines tot sententiae– as many opinions as there are individuals – forming thousands of sects of one member.

This Stalinist shadow also results in the unwillingness of the far left to actually propose anything more than immediate minimum demands, plus utopian fantasies of Keynesian management of national capitalism, which are disproved by the ability of financial sanctions to destroy the domestic economies of – in recent decades – Iraq, Zimbabwe and Iran. That unwillingness is reflected not only in the policies proposed by the Labour left, by the Morning Star’s Communist Party of Britain, by the SWP, SPEW and AWL, but also in the electoral platforms of strong left parties like Syriza in Greece and the Socialist Party in the Netherlands. This shows that it is not only a matter of electoral weakness, but of an underlying failure of imagination – the inability to conceptualise an alternative other than Stalinism.

Given these weaknesses, how on earth could we imagine that the question of the working class taking political power is immediately posed, in a way which would make the idea of a general strike to bring down the government an appropriate agitational idea? The problem is to rebuild the workers’ movement into one capable of posing the question of power: which, at the moment, it is not – even in Greece.

Rebuilding

Rebuilding the workers’ movement is a long and not straightforward task.

At the core of any workers’ movement are the trade unions. However, militants think in ways which are obstacles to rebuilding. Those above the age of 50 grew up in a world very different from today’s – a world of large, concentrated workplaces of full-time workers, under full-employment conditions, in which shop-steward workplace militancy could build the union. They transmit their ideas to the younger generations.

But high unemployment has become endemic; and the trend to part-time working and smaller workplaces has made union organisation problematic except for limited groups like railworkers and prison officers. Trade unions must therefore look to organise the part-timers, the casuals, even the unemployed. To do so they need to shift away from their focus on workplace organisation to district organisation. They also need to increase their emphasis on the welfare and educational roles of trade unions, as the state withdraws from this field.

However, trade unions alone are not enough. The importance of cooperatives and mutuals in redeveloping the institutions and traditions of working class solidarity is increasing and will continue to increase in the modern conditions of retreat from full employment and welfarism.

These activities sound banal and unexciting by comparison with agitating for the general strike. But it is the steady, long-term, banal and unexciting activities which create the conditions for broad layers to imagine themselves, rather than the ruling class, running society; and hence for mass actions which do begin to pose the question of an alternative to capitalism.

Alongside these activities is the necessity of working class politicalaction. This is grasped in a one-sided way by Socialist Resistance with its call for “a party like Syriza”; and in another one-sided way byThe Socialist, for whom it just means ‘Build Tusc into a new Labour Party’; and in yet another and equally one-sided way by the AWL – comrades Randall and Ismail characterise Labour as “woefully inadequate” (not pro-capitalist, comrades?) and argue for “fighting to restore Labour Party democracy”.

Randall’s and Ismail’s action programme has the merit of containing some democratic demands: annual parliaments, a worker’s wage and an end to “the assault on basic democratic freedoms” in relation to kettling, policing and free speech. But if they have done better here than the pure advocates of the general strike, they fail to grasp that rebuilding the workers’ movement demands a parallel political offensive against the active intervention of the capitalists in and against this movement through the legitimacy of parliament, the capitalist monopoly control of the mass media, and the corrupt ‘free market in legal services’ judiciary.

It is this fight against capitalist political control which demands a workers’ political party and workers’ independent media as part of the process of rebuilding the movement. A party is not just an instrument for elections and seeking office in government. Rather, intervention in elections, especially round democratic issues, are means to delegitimate the electoral system – and hence the government’s claim to a ‘majority’ – the media and the judicial system.

This question, however, is interlocked with the problem of democracy in the workers’ movement. A trade union controlled by bureaucrats, a cooperative by managerial tops, a Labour Party or SWP controlled by its full-time staff demobilises the membership and tends to weaken its own organisation.

But political loyalty to the British nation-state and the parliamentary constitution is the core of Labourist politics, both among Labour leaders and trade union bureaucrats, left as well as right. This loyalism inherently implies a party reliant on the capitalist mass media and subservient to its bidding. And this in turn implies the regime of bureaucratic-centralist control, and a consequent demobilisation and weakening of the movement itself.

By making unity with the trade union tops or with ‘broad forces beyond Marxists’ the precondition for unity with the rest of the left, the SWP, SPEW and other advocates of this approach in fact commit themselves to not doing in an organised way the work of ‘scandalising’ the political institutions, which is essential if we are to rebuild the workers’ movement.

The underlying need is to rewin our movement to the idea of solidarity and cooperation of the working class as a class, and recreate the institutions and practices which express this idea. This is why actions like the October 20 demonstration, why coordinated walkouts and one-day protest general strikes are useful steps towards rebuilding: they assert the common class interests of the working class.

They would be more useful still if they were organised on a continental scale, to reassert the common interests of the working class as a class across Europe; and, for example, to rebuild the May Day festival worldwide, in order to reassert our common globalinterests.

But the best should not be the enemy of the good. We should undertake the task of rebuilding the movement both in its banal and local aspects and also in whatever inspiring demonstrations of solidarity we can manage. By doing so we will create the conditions in which the working class in future will be able to take its destiny into its own hands.

mike.macnair@weeklyworker.org.uk

Notes

1. Socialist Worker October 20.

2. The Socialist October 11-17.

3. www.indymedia.org.uk/en/2012/10/501166.html.

4. http://socialistresistance.org/4047/strike-against-austerity-leaflet-for-download.

5. www.workersliberty.org/story/2012/10/17/getting-ready-upheavals.

6. www.workersliberty.org/story/2012/10/17/workers-plan-beat-cuts.

7. http://anticapitalists.org/2012/10/14/after-october-20-tuc.

8. http://anticapitalists.org/2012/10/14/what-should-the-tuc-do.

9. http://ukpollingreport.co.uk.

War threats intensify

It is clear that the Obama administration is preparing US public opinion for war, writes Yassamine Mather (first published in the Weekly Worker)

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Israel: ready to attack

 

On Saturday April 14 Iran will attend talks with six world powers. The US has indicated this is Iran’s “last chance” to avoid military intervention and the Obama administration is taking very specific demands to the talks as preconditions for further negotiations: for example, Iran “must immediately close” a large nuclear facility allegedly built underneath a mountain if it wants to avoid a devastating strike.

Other “near term” concessions to avoid a potential military conflict include the suspension of high-level uranium enrichment and the surrender by Tehran of existing stockpiles of the fuel, according to senior US officials. US secretary of state Hillary Clinton made the usual noises about time “running out for diplomacy”, while expressing “doubts” about whether Iran has any real intention of negotiating a solution. In other words, preparing US public opinion for an attack that is possibly already scheduled.

The preconditions put Iran’s Islamic government in an impossible situation and, although Tehran might use the talks to buy more time, accepting such conditions would represent such a terrible humiliation that it would be tantamount to political suicide for a dictatorship whose unpopularity continues to rise. But, there again, the US is hardly aiming to make life easy of the theocracy. In Tehran, some senior clerics are hoping that the 12th Shia Imam will make his reappearance even sooner than they are apt to predict.

As for Washington, in an election year the Obama administration has decided it cannot afford to look “weak” on Iran, as the Republican right ups the pressure for military action. To add to the pressure, the US navy has announced the deployment of a second aircraft carrier, the USS Enterprise, to the Persian Gulf region, where it will join the USS Abraham Lincoln. This will increase its ability to launch a massive air war on Iran at short notice.

Meanwhile, the Canadian Centre for Research on Globalization quoted political analyst Ralph Schoenman to the effect that Nato and the US are arming Israel with missile capacity in relation to a “projected and planned attack upon Iran”, According to Schoenman, Italy’s sale of 30 M-346 training jets to Israel is part of these preparations. And the Israeli military has gained access to airbases in Azerbaijan, according to Mark Perry of the journal Foreign Policy:

“Obama administration officials now believe that the ‘submerged’ aspect of the Israeli-Azerbaijani alliance – the security cooperation between the two countries – is heightening the risks of an Israeli strike on Iran … senior diplomats and military intelligence officers say that the United States has concluded that Israel has recently been granted access to airbases on Iran’s northern border.” One “senior administration official” is quoted as saying: “The Israelis have bought an airfield … and the airfield is called Azerbaijan.” [1]

The Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz is even more terrifying: “The roulette wheel continues to spin and the ball falls into a different numbered slot every time. Following defence minister Ehud Barak’s estimate that around 500 Israelis will be killed in the event of a counterattack by Iran, Israel air force performance analysts have recently published a study calculating that around 300 Israelis will die if Israel launches a war against Iran.” The paper criticises the Israeli government for its “obsession” with an Iranian “hypothetical nuclear bomb”, allegedly “forgetting the threat” of Iranian and Syrian chemical weapons. It calls on Netanyahu to protect Israeli citizens against an Iranian assault: “So, dear Bibi, ahead of the hot summer, we’ve got a tiny request. Give us gas masks.” [2]

For most Iranians the war has already started. After months of denials the ministry of oil admits that Iran’s export of crude oil has dropped sharply even before the EU embargo from July has officially started. Insurers are showing growing reluctance to cover tankers carrying Iranian oil and refiners are said to be “increasingly wary” of crude from the country because of the threat posed by sanctions. China, India, Japan and South Korea are the four biggest buyers of Iranian crude in Asia, and all of them have cut imports.

However, Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, remains in denial, claiming this week that the country has enough capital reserves to go “two to three years” without selling oil. It is difficult to believe such claims, when the government’s efforts to improve the plight of the currency so clearly failed – the Iranian toman dropped to half of its value against the dollar in January 2012.

Iran’s car manufacturing industry is also facing a serious crisis after Peugeot Citroen, fearing the enforcement of US-led financial sanctions, stopped its trade in February. Iran was Peugeot Citroen’s second-biggest market in 2011 in terms of trade volume. However it came under increasing pressure after a US lobby group, United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI), called on the US Congress to investigate the French car company’s transactions with the Islamic Republic.

In addition, top financial institutions such as Société Générale and the Rabobank Group have stepped back from business with Iran in recent months, fearful of political risk and logistical difficulties covering every aspect of financial transactions (including areas not directly affected by sanctions). Smaller banks that are willing to continue business with Iran demand much higher fees. According to the Wall Street Journal, “firms and other intermediaries still brokering these trades are charging more than 6% per transaction for legitimate trade deals with Iran, on top of traditional banking fees … Other institutions involved in financing legitimate trade with Iran declined to speak on the record, saying they feared publicity could lead the US treasury to increase its scrutiny of their US-dollar operations.” [3]

The response from Iran’s pragmatist capitalist ayatollahs is clear: let us resolve our differences with the US. This week former Iranian president Ali Akbar Rafsanjani criticised the country’s current foreign policy – in particular the absence of formal diplomatic ties between Iran and the United States. In an interview with the Iranian International Studies quarterly journal, Rafsanjani stressed the importance of direct talks with the US.

Rafsanjani said that in a letter to ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, he had urged the former supreme leader of the Islamic Republic to “resolve” seven outstanding issues while he was still alive, one of them being the poor state of US-Iranian relations: “I wrote that our current approach, which is to not talk or have any ties, cannot continue. The US is the world’s leading power. What is the difference, in our view, between Europe and the US, or between China and the US, or between Russia and the US? If we negotiate with them why can’t we negotiate with the US? Holding talks doesn’t mean we’re surrendering.” [4]

Iranian allies?

The Iranian regime, the Shia occupation government in Baghdad and Iran’s allies in the Lebanese Hezbollah are all following events in Syria with great concern. The fall of the Assad regime would be a serious blow to the Shia camp and Tehran feels more and more isolated in a Sunni-dominated Middle East. For the last three decades much of the Arab media has blamed Iran for meddling in internal Arab affairs – not only in Iraq, but also in Lebanon and Bahrain.

In Palestine Hamas has distanced itself from both Iran and Syria. Strengthening its relations with Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, it has denounced the Syrian regime’s crackdown on its opponents and stated that it would stay ‘neutral’ if Israel attacked Iran. As a result of this shift Hamas is now getting a highly negative press in Iran, which hopes that at least it will be able to rely on Hezbollah. However, even there the relationship is not what it used to be.

In June 2011, Lebanon’s new prime minister, Najib Mikati, formed a government in coalition with Hezbollah. While Israeli and US officials are keen to exaggerate the role of Hezbollah, the reality is that financial, political and therefore military power remains firmly in the hands of Christian and Sunni parties. Iranian finance might have helped Hezbollah set up a social-service network in the Bekaa valley, allowing it to recruit fighters and acquire an arsenal of rockets, but there is no comparison between this and the multimillion-dollar investments by Saudi Arabia and Gulf Cooperation Council countries in Lebanon.

Hezbollah was set up in 1983, under the Iranian ‘reformist’ premiership of Mir-Hossein Moussavi (currently under house arrest) and some Hezbollah leaders have longstanding relations with Iranian clerics and revolutionary guards currently out of favour in Iran because of their support for the ‘reformist’ movement. In fact, wary of the instability in Tehran since 2009 and a slashing of Iran’s annual budget for Hezbollah by 40% in early 2009, Hezbollah has been forced to impose austerity measures, reducing salaries and staff numbers and placing many construction projects on hold. In addition the party is being challenged at home by the indictment of several of its members for the murder of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri.

All in all, Hezbollah is not as powerful as the US and its allies claim and, although in the event of a military attack on Iran it will do what it can to support a Shia ally, the organisation is not in a position to prove an effective deterrent to military attacks. This is why raising false hopes about the ability of Hamas or Hezbollah to stop an attack on Iran is so misplaced.

Genuine solidarity with the people of Iran has to come from anti-war forces beyond the Sunni-Shia divide in the Middle East. We in Britain and elsewhere need to raise awareness of the current situation in Iran and the region so as to build an effective anti-war campaign. Next weekend’s school organised by Hands Off the People of Iran in London will be an important part of such an effort.

Hopi’s opposition to war and sanctions, as well as to the Islamic Regime, is attracting new support in Britain and abroad. Iranian comrades in Canada joined the anti-war protests last month in Toronto, where Hopi posters were prominent, and this prompted discussions and debates with the Canadian anti-war alliance. When I debated James Clark of Toronto Coalition to Stop the War in a TV broadcast, he agreed with many of the points we have raised over the last few years. A further debate is planned and we hope to make similar interventions in Vancouver and Montreal. Hopi’s principled position is also supported by a number of Iranian leftist activists in Chicago and Washington. Over the next few weeks we intend to widen our activities in North America – opposing war, while building solidarity with Iranian workers, students, the women’s movement and Iran’s oppressed national and religious minorities. The April 21-22 London school will hopefully feature an online session to coordinate solidarity with activists in North America.

In France the collective around the journal Carré Rouge has played an important role in introducing Hopi to the French left. Translations of many Hopi articles in both the printed and online versions have helped us gain supporters in the French-speaking world. We hope this cooperation will lead to Hopi meetings in France and Belgium.

Marathon support

This Sunday, April 15, 40 runners representing Workers Fund Iran will take part in the Vienna marathon to raise money for the charity.

Workers Fund Iran was set up in December 2005. It aims to reduce and relieve poverty amongst Iranian workers (employed and unemployed), who are victims both of the economic policies of the Iranian government and the sanctions imposed by imperialism. It aims to put at the centre of its activities the need to rebuild international solidarity – directly, with the workers of Iran. WFI is involved in many fundraising activities to support its work, ranging from social gatherings to solidarity cricket. Yet another WFI tradition is perhaps the ultimate test: marathon running. Last September WFI participation in the Berlin marathon raised well over €500.

Over the last few years Workers Fund Iran has sent funds to a number of working class families, including contributing to the medical expenses of a well known trade unionist, and helping with the housing costs of a number of working class families particular badly hit by the poverty that is affecting large numbers. Of course, WFI has very limited resources. However, every penny collected in the UK is sent to Iran – the charity’s administration and management is run on an entirely voluntary basis.

As the war threats intensify, it is more important than ever to extend our solidarity. Please be generous in your sponsorship of our runners. Go to https://www.charitychoice.co.uk/workers-fund-iran-11724/donate, where your contributions will be gratefully received.

Notes

1. www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2012/03/28/israel_s_secret_staging_ground.

2. Ha’aretz April 8: www.haaretz.com/print-edition/opinion/a-tiny-request-on-the-eve-of-an-iran-war-1.423197.

3. http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052702303299604577323601794862004.html.

4. http://en.irangreenvoice.com/article/2012/apr/04/3586.


Galloway shows what can be done

How can the left make the most of the Bradford West result? Peter Manson joins the debate (first published in the Weekly Worker)

ImageGeorge Galloway’s tremendous win for Respect in Bradford West has given the left a real boost. Standing on an anti-cuts, anti-war, anti-establishment platform, he swept to victory with a huge 55.9% share of the vote.

It is fair to say that this result took everyone by surprise – apart from the Respect campaigners on the ground, who began to realise within the last week or so that they had an excellent chance of winning. I have to admit that I was among those who thought Galloway would do well to save his deposit – especially after his failure to get elected to the Scottish parliament last year, where the Coalition Against Cuts list he headed in Glasgow picked up only 3.3%.

But at least I was not caught out quite so spectacularly as Paul Routledge in the Daily Mirror. The early edition the day after the election carried a short piece on his political chat page headed “Imran races to victory”. This began: “By the time you read this, Imran Hussain will have been declared Labour MP for Bradford West … I would put my best shirt on a win for Ed Miliband’s candidate in the by-election. Local boy Imran will make a good MP. And I would put my second best shirt on the Tories coming third behind either Ukip or Respect, with the Lib Dems nowhere … These are real votes cast by real people, who have considered Osborne’s budget and the scandal of cash for access to number 10. Their verdict counts” (March 30).

It seems those “real people” also considered the main alternative – the party that had held the ‘safe’ Labour seat of Bradford West for four decades – and decided they did not like it much. But at least Routledge was right about the Tories coming third – although it has to be pointed out that the UK Independence Party (3.3%) did not do quite so well as Respect. As for the hapless “local boy”, Imran Hussain, his main attribute was that he was indeed “Ed Miliband’s candidate” – a Labour yes-man through and through. The rebellion against all three main parties was one of the reasons why he lost, and why the Labour vote slumped to 24.99%, compared to 45.26% at the 2010 general election.

However, there was a rebellion against something else too: the local patriarchal networks dominated by Muslim ‘community leaders’ and businessmen, who had previously delivered the British Asian vote to Labour. Indeed one of the biggest cheers at Respect’s 1,000-strong pre-election rally on March 25 was for Galloway’s call to break with what he called “village politics”: we must “shatter this mafioso grip”, he urged. Hussain, the deputy leader of Bradford council, epitomises such “village politics”. Indeed he inherited his seat in Toller ward from his father!

Labour’s video of its local pre-election rally features lots of speeches in Urdu – something that does not go down too well with the Asian youth, whose first language is English and who consider themselves British first and foremost. And it was the youth that fired the Respect campaign, which saw a high proportion of first-time voters inspired to go to the polls (including many who were not so young).

The pro-Galloway bandwagon developed spontaneously, with many parts of this overwhelmingly working class and often drab constituency coming alive thanks to the dozens of self-made banners, proclaiming, “Vote Galloway” or “Vote Respect”. A large part of the Labour Party local machine, including the election agent, switched to Respect. When Radio Four went to Manningham Labour Club the day after the election, it could only find one person who had voted Labour!

Although the constituency is only around 40% British Asian, the mass switch by Muslims from Labour to Respect and the spontaneous mobilisation of young Asians was undoubtedly a key factor. But Respect won the most votes in all six of the constituency’s wards – including the mostly white working class Clayton and Fairweather Green and the semi-rural Thornton and Allerton, where the Tories usually see off Labour in a two-horse race.

It is all the more remarkable that the local population rejected the patriarchal networks so firmly when you consider that it was those very patriarchal networks that first enabled Respect to get off the ground in the London borough of Tower Hamlets. It was largely due to them that comrade Galloway was elected in Bethnal Green and Bow in the 2005 general election and Respect became the official opposition to Labour with 12 councillors in 2006.

Freak result?

However, Respect had not suddenly appeared from nowhere in Bradford, which was one of the very few cities where the party still had a functioning branch – in fact much of its activity (such as it was before the by-election) had been in this constituency. In 2010 its two council candidates were both in Bradford West (they picked up only a couple of hundred votes each) and in that year’s general election Respect won a meagre 3%, just behind the British National Party candidate. The local branch had a few dozen, mainly Muslim members and had sometimes been able to put on large meetings.

However, ‘official optimism’ aside, in early March very few Respect comrades seriously thought Galloway would be able to pull it off. For example, when a public meeting was called to announce that he would be putting in his nomination, many thought the attendance would be 10-15. But over 50 turned up, even before the campaign had begun. Once it got going though, it really struck a chord in a city where unemployment has suddenly doubled and there was a mood of real anger.

Much of the media has put it all down to peculiar local circumstances combined with Galloway’s underhand campaigning methods – there was a large Muslim population, Galloway played up his own religious convictions (he is a Catholic) and stressed his opposition to the occupation of ‘Muslim countries’. While all that is true, it cannot explain the absolute majority won in a seat where only a minority is Muslim. In any case, it was Imran Hussain who appealed to British Asian voters on the basis that he was the only Muslim contesting; and it was this that Galloway disputed, when he claimed that as a god-fearing teetotaller he was more entitled to the votes of believers than his opponent.

At the March 25 pre-election rally Galloway made frequent religious references and asked the mainly Muslim audience how any believer thinking of backing Hussain would be able to “explain on the last day” why they voted for those who “invade other people’s countries” and slaughter thousands. But it would be foolish to put his victory all down to this factor – just as it is plain silly to allege that Galloway somehow “played the race card” by appealing to voters (both Asian and white) on the basis of solidarity with imperialism’s victims who happen to have dark skins.

On April 1, when Galloway addressed a crowd of over 2,000 at his victory rally in Infirmary Park, he stressed the two main themes of his campaign, which distinguished Respect from the Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties. First, there was Respect’s opposition to austerity and cuts: “All three parties believe that ordinary working people should pay the price of the crisis”, not the “bankers and financiers who caused it”. Secondly, all three believe that “Britain has the right – the duty perhaps – to occupy other countries”, whereas Respect opposes “British imperial repression”. All this tapped into the mood of working class resentment. He also picked up huge support from students (the university is located in the constituency) for his opposition to tuition fees.

Where next?

Many comrades, including myself, have assumed that Respect is not much longer for this world. Its leadership has been engaged in a lengthy debate about its future following Galloway’s dismal failure in Glasgow and the loss of most of its councillors. With the national council split between those who wanted to effectively wind up Respect as a political party in favour of the Respect Foundation ‘think tank’ and those who wanted to continue contesting elections ‘when the circumstances are right’, a compromise was arrived at whereby the Respect Foundation and Respect now exist side by side. Even though Galloway was in the latter camp, after Glasgow it seemed like just a matter of time before his NC opponents would win the day.

But Bradford has changed all that – at least in the short term. According to Clive Searle, Respect national secretary, the organisation had about 640 paid-up members before the by-election campaign. But in just two days following the election Respect received over 1,000 telephone enquiries and about the same number of emails. Almost 300 new people paid their membership subscriptions via the website out of a total of 700 who had downloaded the application form. While around 30% of these enquiries came from Bradford itself (where scores joined during the campaign), the rest are from all over Britain.

In other words, Respect has probably doubled in size virtually overnight. Its de facto leader is back in parliament, having dominated the news for several days, and it is quite likely it will win more council seats in May’s local elections – certainly in Bradford, where it will contest every ward. In Galloway’s words, “Respect is here to stay”.

However, that statement sits a little uneasily alongside another theme of the campaign: the “treason” committed by New Labour against the working class. At the pre-election rally Galloway said: “I am real Labour. I’m only not in Labour because Tony Blair expelled me.” In his victory speech following the count he condemned the cuts assault and warmongering of the three mainstream parties. However, while he did not give a toss about the Tories and Lib Dems, “I do care about the Labour Party.” He urged it to “turn away from the path of treason set by Tony Blair” and “be a Labour Party again”. It should “stop taking your supporters for granted”.

Comrade Galloway is a left Labourite and it is clear that Labour remains his natural home. You could easily envisage a situation where he was invited back into the fold – just as Ken Livingstone was quickly forgiven for standing as an independent for London mayor against the official Labour candidate in 2000. Blair had rigged the selection process against Livingstone, the obvious front-runner, who stood as an independent and was elected as mayor anyway. When it became clear that Livingstone would defeat Labour again if he stood once more as an independent in 2004, Blair swallowed his pride and readmitted him into the party.

So where does Galloway’s triumph leave the left? Socialist Worker agrees that “his win is a boost for the left in Britain. It underlines the potential for building grassroots opposition to Tory austerity” (‘How Respect won in Bradford West’, April 7). However, Alex Callinicos goes further in an article entitled ‘The key lessons of Bradford West’: “But the power of Galloway’s appeal is also a sign of the residual strength of Labourism. Labour and its counterparts have embraced neoliberalism. So it is quite inevitable that challenges from its left will often be most effective when couched in the political language of traditional social democracy.

“A radical and revolutionary left that plans to have a future has to start by acknowledging the achievement of Galloway and Respect. They have re-opened an electoral space to the left of Labour. We now have all to work together to ensure that this great second chance isn’t wasted.”

It is true that, in a sense, the win has “re-opened an electoral space to the left of Labour”. But if you think that left candidates contesting the May 3 local and Greater London Authority elections will automatically be able to ride on the back of Galloway’s success you are badly mistaken. While he has demonstrated that thousands can be won to vote for a leftwing platform, they will not just vote for anyone – even if their challenge is “couched in the political language of traditional social democracy”, as comrade Callinicos seems to be advising.

The Socialist Workers Party statement welcoming Galloway’s win ends in this way: “The Bradford West by-election should encourage all of us fighting David Cameron’s government of millionaires by strikes, protests and demonstrations – as well as those campaigning for the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition at the May 3 elections” (www.swp.org.uk/statement/galloway-election-victory).

This wisely stops short of claiming that Tusc, with its smattering of SWP candidates, should be able to reap the benefit. The problem, as I am sure the SWP recognises, is the question of viability. People voted for Galloway in such large numbers because they believed he could win. Will they take the same view of Tusc? Of course not.

So how does the left become viable? By pretending to be Galloway-style old Labourites, as Callinicos implies? That has been tried and failed umpteen times. We need to end the crippling divisions that so debilitate our forces. However, neither the SWP, Socialist Party in England and Wales nor those leading any of the other left sects shows the slightest interest in seeking to overcome those divisions through organisational unity on a principled basis.

Unity for the sake of unity is not good enough. Usually it amounts to subordination to a section of the trade union bureaucracy or, failing that, to the politics of the trade union bureaucracy. Hence, we need to work out a clear Marxist programme to put before the working class, including in elections. It is only Marxism, not social democracy, that has answers – most of all at a time when the system of capital itself has been seen to fail by so many. We need to operate according to the principles of genuine democratic centralism, where competing tendencies are free to put forward their own ideas in public and openly fight to become the majority, while at the same time uniting their separate forces like a fist behind common actions.

In that way we can become a force to be reckoned with. We can become viable. In that way we might be able to “ensure that this great second chance isn’t wasted”.

peter.manson@weeklyworker.org.uk

Communist University 2011

A week of discussion and debate for a thinking left

Our annual school – Communist University – takes place in a world in flux. The near hysterical euphoria that surrounded the election of Barack Obama in 2008 has evaporated, as US foreign policy is characterised by aggressive continuity – for all the flatulent talk of “change”. Change has come to the Arab world – from below. Millions have risen in defiance of batons and bullets in a revolutionary fight for democracy and freedom.

In the UK, we have see the first stirrings of revolt from the trade union movement against austerity and cuts, with the gargantuan March 26 demo and the coordinated strike action on June 30. The movement across the rest of Europe is further advanced. We have seen huge mobilisations in Ireland, Greece and Spain. The battle lines are drawn.

Given its explanatory power and practical programme, Marxism has huge potential in this period – a potential that is irresponsibly squandered by the sectarian in-fighting and opportunism of the Marxist groups. Communist University points a way out of this mess. Over eight days of intense and open discussion, comrades from a variety of left political backgrounds teach and learn from each other. Differences between comrades are debated in a fiercely partisan way – but without the fear of ‘excommunication’ characteristic of the confessional sects that inhabit much of the rest of the left. The aim is clarity to show the relevance of contemporary Marxism to the huge battles the workers’ movement is facing.

Come and join us this year and make your contribution to the job of politically tooling up our side. Speakers include: Moshé Machover (Israeli socialist) Mohammed Reza Shalgouni (Organisation of Revolutionary Workers of Iran) Owen Jones (author of Chavs: the demonisation of the working class) Camilla Power and Chris Knight (Radical Anthropology Group) Hillel Ticktin (Editor of Critique) Yassamine Mather (chair, Hands Off the People of Iran) Jack Conrad and Mike Macnair (CPGB) Anne Mc Shane (Weekly Worker Ireland specialist)

Saturday August 13 – Saturday August 20
Raymont Hall, 63 Wickham Road, New Cross, London SE4

20-minute walk from New Cross tube station (East London line), 5 minutes from Brockley railway station – there are trains leaving London Bridge Station every 10-15 minutes.

Class consciousness rekindled

Esen Uslu reports on the massive May Day demonstration in Istanbul


For the first time since 1978 workers in Turkey celebrated May Day 2010 by marching to Taksim Square, the traditional rallying point of the militant working class. Hundreds of thousands gathered in a peaceful, legal rally after decades of bans.

Historically the attitude of various governments towards May Day demonstrations has been indicative of their own insecurity and, ironically, that applies to the soft Islamists of the AKP government. The AKP (Justice and Development Party) is undoubtedly under huge pressure and is desperately looking for allies as it attempts to resist the pro-junta right.

When the Turkish nationalist bourgeois republic was established in 1923 amid the ruins of the Ottoman empire, the nascent government was in an unenviable position. On the one hand, it was the continuation of the military and civilian bureaucracy of Ottoman rule and consequently had to bear the weight of the atrocities committed against the non-Muslim peoples of the empire: the 1915 Armenian genocide; the forced dislocation of Greek Orthodox Christians from Western Anatolia; and the subsequent mutual population exchange between Greece and Turkey.

On the other hand, the new government – located in Anatolia, not the industrial and commercial centres, such as Istanbul and Izmir – had managed to survive by allying with the Soviet Union, despite their mutual dislike. May Day in 1923 was celebrated in Istanbul with the participation of workers’ organisations, but in Ankara it was organised as an official occasion. And, as the years passed, the independent working class movement and trade unions were suppressed, and the Kurdish national struggle developed into a revolt which was brutally suppressed.

In 1924 holding May Day rallies became an offence punishable by long terms of imprisonment. And, when in 1926 Turkey adopted a new penal code based on Mussolini’s, involvement in the organisation of any independent working class event became punishable by death.

The first May Day rally following half a century of such repression was massive. Held in Istanbul in 1976, it was organised by the Revolutionary Trade Union Confederation (Disk) with the participation of all progressive people. It was an anathema for the reactionary and fascist forces.

Bloody May Day

A year later, the 1977 Istanbul May Day rally was brutally dispersed by gangs organised and armed by the intelligence arms of the state, who fired upon the 500,000 crowd. This caused tremendous panic and, as people sought to escape, the security forces in their armoured vehicle, with sirens blaring, drove into the crowd and launched stun grenades. Thirty-six people were killed – crushed under the wheels of the armoured vehicles or shot. That operation marked an important milestone, paving the way for the military junta to take power in 1980.

Despite all the odds, a similar sized crowd courageously showed their defiance by demonstrating on May Day 1978 in the same square with renewed determination. The rally was marked by the forceful demand of the illegal Communist Party of Turkey for the century-old ban on its existence to be lifted.

In early 1979 state-sponsored terrorist atrocities committed against Alevis and Kurds in Maras and other cities led to the declaration of martial law by the civilian government. Holding a May Day rally in Istanbul was prohibited. The trade unions opted to hold it instead in Izmir, which was not under martial law at the time. Despite the ban the leaders of Workers Party of Turkey (TIP) attempted to march to Taksim Square, despite the curfew in Istanbul. Dozens of militants were bundled into police vehicles.

In 1980 the trade union centre decided not to hold a single, central May Day rally, preferring to hold several rallies in provincial centres. However, the masses were already feeling the effects of the initial shock waves of the impending catastrophe and the rallies were quite small in number. Later in the year the military junta took over and banned all May Day rallies without exception.

Until 1988 no attempt was made to organise anything on May 1, but even in that year things were frustrated by the arrest of the trade union organisers. In 1989 police opened fire on small groups trying to reach Taksim Square, and one student was killed. In 1990 a similar attempt was made and one girl was paralysed after being shot by the police.

The next attempt to organise a May Day event was made in 1993 and for three years very restricted rallies were held in Istanbul in different locations. In 1996 one was organised in Kadikoy and the police again opened fire, killing three people.

Since then every year police have brutally suppressed any attempt to hold a rally in Taksim Square. The most they were prepared to permit was a commemorative gathering in a corner of the square, where a small contingent of trade union representatives were allowed to honour the martyrs of May Day 1977.

Changed climate

This year the AKP has felt the need to win public support for its proposed constitutional amendments. It is continuing to defend its corner against the nationalist-racist, reactionary, pro-junta forces, which are represented in the political arena by the fascist Nationalist Action Party (MHP), as well as the so-called ‘social democratic’ Republican People’s Party (CHP), while their covert support is found in the military and civilian bureaucracy.

However, government policy has vacillated between political gestures – the so-called ‘overtures’ to Kurds, Armenia, Alevis, Christian minorities, etc – and its reactionary instincts and inclinations. It readily adopted the repressive measures suggested by the national security council, consisting of army tops and government representatives: for example, the recent rhetoric about deporting thousands of illegal workers from Armenia has marked the end of the ‘Armenian overture’. Similarly a series of court cases against Kurdish guerrillas, who were invited back from the mountains of Iraq and allowed into the country with much fanfare last year, but are now accused of “conducting propaganda of a banned organisation”, marked the end of the ‘Kurdish overture’.

Despite the claims of the liberal press that the AKP is the only democratic force in the country that is capable of breaking with the bad old ways, the gap between the rhetoric and actions of the AKP government is widening and its false liberal credentials are being exposed by the day. It has been walking a tightrope. It is in this context that we should view its sop to the working class of declaring May Day an official holiday and allowing the trade unions to hold a joint May Day rally in Taksim Square. The police and security forces were held back.

And the trade union-organised rally won huge support. A generation of old militants who had taken part in the demonstrations in the same square in the 70s returned to commemorate their fallen comrades and show their grandchildren where they were on Bloody May Day 1977. The nostalgia of the older generation aside, the younger generation finally felt something had been achieved.

However, the demonstration showed the left in its true state – in tatters. Its fragmented parts, neither willing nor able to organise unitedly, were exposed as what they are – relics of a bygone age, each distinguished by their separate slogans of yesteryear. Their efforts to support practical working class struggles are deflected and warped.

All in all, though, May Day 2010 marks a positive step towards a new consciousness. The working class is frustrated by the impotence that fragmentation produces. It is not content with curtailed trade union and political rights graciously conceded by the ‘liberal’ AKP. It will not be bought off by the palliatives of the government and demands, instead, genuine, substantitive change.

Working class militants will continue to call for a secular and democratic republic. They will continue to uphold the national rights of the Kurds and fight for an end to discrimination against all minorities. Their task is more than ever to bring all these forces together in an organisation that looks beyond the horizons set by the bourgeoisie.

The working class of Turkey must strive for greater unity in struggle with its counterparts across the globe. It must move beyond simple economic demands, and embrace the democratic culture of the international working class in the battle for the most advanced politics and organisational structures.

It was right to put safety above profits

James Turley argues that there is more to the Eyjafjallajökull volcano than disruption to tourists


The disruption caused by the gigantic ash column over Iceland is another monument to the idiocy of capitalism. With the skies of western Europe a no-fly zone for a week, a not so remarkable natural event has provoked a very human sort of chaos.

British newspaper headlines were for days dominated by the plight of stranded holidaymakers, pushing even the election campaign off the front pages. Yet volcanoes erupt frequently enough, famously so in Iceland, and sometimes with really severe consequences in terms of destruction and loss of life. But aviation, weather and safety experts warned that the huge plume of volcanic ash bellowing out from the polysyllabic mountain of Eyjafjallajökull and covering much of western European airspace would reduce pilot’s visibility and damage their aircraft. There are many potentially adverse consequences – the external plating can be eroded, fuel lines can get clogged up, and in the extremely hot temperatures of a jet turbine the ash can fuse into a hard and glassy substance which reduces engine power. The worst-case scenario is nothing short of a 10,000-metre plummet to almost certain death.

Not surprisingly then, closing airspace affected by a volcanic eruption is a requirement under international safety regulations formulated by the International Civil Aviation Organisation when a red alert is issued. ICAO  insists that there is “no definition of a safe concentration” of volcanic dust when it comes to  aircraft. True, most planes would surely have made it through the Eyjafjallajökull dust without disaster striking, but it is believed that, within the larger ash cloud, there will be pockets of particularly dense concentrations of particles that could cause severe damage.

As the no-fly ban ticked by one day after the other, airline bosses sought to throw doubt on the warnings and the need for the shutdown. British Airways sent a lone aircraft from London to Cardiff in order to ‘prove’ that is was safe (proving nothing, of course). And the Tory media joined in the campaign. The London Evening Standard accused the chief executive of the Civil Aviation Authority of “blundering” over the flight ban and held him responsible for costing the British economy £1 billion. Transport minister Lord Adonis was put on the defensive by the Tories, and the government did everything it could to appear to be doing something decisive …. aircraft carriers, fleets of busses in Spain and all. However, after six days the ban on flying was officially lifted, as meteorologists announced that the Eyjafjallajökull dust had considerably thinned, by 80%, making it safe to reopen airports for business. The sting in the tail being, of course, that the airline bosses are now demanding compensation from the taxpayer … having failed to take out sufficient insurance cover to compensate for their losses.

So what to make of the Eyjafjallajökull crisis? The first unignorable fact highlighted by all this was the sheer complexity of modern society. Air travel in western Europe, for a start, is not simply a matter of convenience for holidaymakers – the disruption had all manner of knock-on effects in the economy and social life at large, from missed hours at work or school to cancelled meetings and appointments. Talks over the Greek International Monetary Fund bailout were disrupted and foreign delegations had to abandon plans to attend the state funeral of erstwhile Polish president Lech Kaczynski.

Perishable goods, typically flown from their point of origin to markets far afield, were stuck on the ground – and, as is their way, perished. An article in The Guardian on Kenya (April 20) pointed out that exports of flowers and other plants to Europe account for $3 million a day’s worth of trade – every day that flights into Europe are cancelled, Kenyan farmers and capitalists literally lose that amount of money. In lean economic times in the global periphery, this means livelihoods are at stake.

Underlying this is the second incontestable fact – though the objective tendency is for the world to become more integrated, the greater the overall social complexity, the more the infrastructure that supports it is apparently rendered unresponsive. The airline industry alone was left making a loss estimated at £130 million a day, because it makes greater sense from the capitalist point of view to invest in more planes and more flights than to adopt anything like a contingency plan for when catastrophic disruption to air travel does arise – such as when a volcanic eruption coincides with an unusual weather pattern.

Regarding the transport of goods, it is obviously true that any commodity whose use-value is strictly time-limited – Kenyan flowers, for example – are transported by plane if they are to go more than a certain distance, or they are not going to be transported at all. No mode of production will change that. All the same, is Europe really the most sensible destination for African flowers – or Africa really the most likely source of flowers for European customers? There is no underlying geographical reason why this trade route exists – only the contingent machinations of the capitalist world market has made it so. A fortiori, there is no reason why a few lost export crops – luxury goods at that – should necessarily result in the sharpening of rural poverty in a country. Yet the vicissitudes of international trade under capitalism make it so. For goods more important to human existence than ornamental flora, it should go without saying that they should be transportable using different means – and, indeed, nobody in Britain is starving, as only 2% of our food imports are flown in. Some production lines in Europe are at a halt, however, for want of raw materials, their owners’ short-termism backfiring just as has the airlines’.

All this results from the submission of vital conditions of production – the sustenance of a global infrastructure capable of bringing people and things alike to where they are needed – to the deepening anarchy of a system in secular decline. From the perspective of the individual firm the main thing is reducing costs and maximising profits in the short term. Hence the overdevelopment of certain means of transport, such as aircraft and roads, and the underdevelopment of railways, inland waterways, ocean shipping and airships. For example, the government wants to a third runway at Heathrow to go ahead, as if the endless expansion of air travel was inevitable, beneficial and sustainable. However, the logic of capitalism demands exactly this course. From the perspective of society as a whole the results can be entirely irrational. Leave aside the danger of runway global warming, there is the tendency to push a particular line of development to breaking point. A banana may have arrived in Sainsbury’s from a freight plane or a refrigerated ship – but which is chosen is determined entirely by profit maximisation. And in the dog-eat-dog world of capitalism this produces a funnelling effect, as everyone seeks to reduce costs to the minimum. With that comes the danger of breakdown occurring with even the slightest unexpected disruption.

Changing this requires planning on a grand social scale. It requires the ability to act consciously in response to social and natural impulses. Capitalism makes much of its innovation and dynamism, a consequence of its inability to sit still – but the ‘pure’ economic logic of capitalism imprisons what dynamism it does have in the individual firm, and has consequently given rise to ‘disaster management’ bureaucracies, such as the American Federal Emergency Management Agency, to step in when market failure truly is not an option. A capitalist firm can fly thousands of tourists to the far ends of the Earth in a day, but to evacuate a flooded city, it turns every time to the state. State bureaucracies, meanwhile, are hardly the most alert and responsive organisations imaginable.

The Eyjafjallajökull volcano should remind humans that they are at the mercy of nature. We are part of and dependent upon nature. This eruption, which has not caused any disastrous lava flows or even much disruption within Iceland itself, is by no means a social catastrophe. However, should we reach a climate warming tipping point, by contrast, entire ecosystems will be upended; instead of dealing with stranded air passengers, we will face the possibility of the extinction of the human species itself.

If capitalism is unable to get people around without clogging the air with planes, then it is liable to come up short when faced with the apocalypse. We need not be at the mercy of nature, though it is always ready to throw us a curveball. Under class society, however, we truly are, and coming to a more healthy relationship with the world around us depends on our ability to supersede capitalism.