Issue 199 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published July 1996 Copyright © Socialist Review


Editorial, asylum, Ireland, defence spending, Russia, obituary, Middle East


While earnings are rising at around 3.75 percent a year, shareholders have seen their dividend payments shoot up by 10 percent. No wonder, then, that there is plenty of feelgood factor in the stock market, which has risen by 16 percent over the past year, but not much cheer for everyone else.

Rather the opposite, in fact. All the estimates for economic expansion in the coming year have been revised downwards, because of poor export figures and lack of investment. This means that any economic recovery can only be temporary, according to the accountants Coopers and Lybrand, who predict worsening trouble for the economy following an election. Increases in consumer spending have been hailed as a sign that recovery is about to lift off. But these have proved less strong than at first thought, and have been accompanied by another downturn in manufacturing industry, which itself was supposedly the secret of recovery only a few months ago.

Dominating the attitudes of millions of people is the sense of insecurity and doubt about the future which pervades most working class families ≠ as well as substantial sections of the middle classes. Most people are uncertain about their jobs. They also feel their earnings under pressure from higher tax burdens. The insecurity is a result of the untrammelled workings of the market, as companies 'downsize' or 'restructure' and thousands of jobs go as a result. The more concessions have been made to big business, the further they have gone in attacking the conditions of their workers.

One reason the Tory government is so hated is that it has done everything in its power to aid this process, helping the bosses while launching every assault that it dares on working people. No wonder its popularity remains at record low levels and that for most people a Labour government seems inevitable.

Yet Labour too is going out of its way to reassure the capitalist class that its interests are totally safe with Tony Blair. Even the very limited assurances given to trade unionists by labour in recent years are up for grabs. So a minimum wage which is sufficiently high to make any real difference to substantial numbers of low paid workers is still on the distant horizon. John Smith's commitment to give workers employment protection against unfair dismissal from day one of their employment is only the latest policy to be abandoned. Shadow minister David Blunkett justified this by claiming Labour had to balance between fairness to workers and the needs of a 'flexible' labour market. Yet it is this deregulated market which has produced the problems facing workers in the first place. Labour leaders spend much of their time praising entrepreneurs and accepting that nothing can be done to control the market. But now is exactly the time when Labour should be arguing something different. The City of London and big business are probably as reassured as they are ever likely to get faced with the prospect of a Labour government ≠ which they will always regard at best as a lesser evil.

It is no surprise that there are the beginnings of opposition to Blair resurfacing within Labour. Grumblings of protest over Labour's policies on education, crime and the beef war can begin to crystallise. Most Labour supporters will not want to launch overt opposition before an election, but are storing up grievances for the future. This will be especially so among trade unionists, who have been asked to abandon everything they were once promised by Labour in return for nothing.

The current postal dispute, and the one day strikes on the London tubes, are an indication that even in the pre-election period some workers will fight back. However, it is becoming increasingly apparent that to challenge the employers' policies and the priorities of the market, we cannot rely on Tony Blair or the election of a Labour government. He has made it very clear that his priority is to give the market rein and hope that the economy expands and workers get some benefit. The last two decades have shown what a vain hope this is≠and how workers need a different sort of party if they are to challenge the priorities of the system.

Asylum: Back in the dock

Peter Morgan

At last year's Tory Party conference, Peter Lilley announced that the government had decided to withdraw social security benefits from asylum seekers. In June the policy was struck down by the Court of Appeal which called it unlawful and 'uncompromisingly draconian'.

So severe was the attack on basic human rights, the judges concluded, that the government was even rejecting a Poor Law court ruling from 1803 that declared 'poor foreigners' were entitled to state relief 'to save them from starving'. And one judge went so far as to say that many of the refugees were being left so destitute that 'no civilised nation could tolerate it'.

It was already clear that the denial of benefits was forcing many refugees onto the streets, dependent on food parcels and emergency shelter. One Cameroon woman who had been relying on food parcels lost her baby in the eighth month of pregnancy. As Claude Moraes, director of the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, said, 'We feel it is no exaggeration to say that the secretary of state, Peter Lilley, was attempting to starve asylum seekers out of the country.' Even the highly conservative appeal judges could not put up with such treatment. They then inflicted another defeat on the Tories who acted unlawfully by denying asylum seekers council housing.

In the face of such opposition from the courts it would not be unreasonable to expect the government to accept defeat. But the response of Lilley, scared of yet another setback if he fought the judgement in the highest appeal court≠the House of Lords≠has been to try and force the benefits cuts through by adding them to the Asylum and Immigration Bill currently in its final reading in the House of Lords.

The Tories claim that thousands of 'bogus asylum seekers' come to this country lured by the 'honey pot' of benefits. In fact, as all the refugee groups show, the number of applications simply rise and fall in relation to the changing conflicts around the world≠this is why there has been such a large increase in asylum seekers from Nigeria and the former Yugoslavia. People who are forced to seek asylum in Britain arrive in the most desperate circumstances, often the victims of torture or persecution. On arrival they face interrogation, harassment and risk being put on the first available plane back to where they came from. Now the government is trying to make the first point of entry as the only time when benefits can be applied for. If asylum seekers fail to do so then, for whatever reason, they lose all right to benefits.

The result of constant attacks on refugees and asylum seekers is that Britain is now one of the most difficult countries in which to gain entry. Of the 20,990 people whose cases were decided in 1994, only 825, or just under 4 percent, were granted asylum. The Tories claim this is a measure of success, cutting down on 'unnecessary public expenditure'. In fact the monetary savings at stake≠about £200 million a year≠are trifling in the context of the £90 billion social security budget.

The motive is much more political. The Tories have fought each general election over the last 17 years on a platform of clamping down on illegal immigration. They have introduced successive legislation that attacks the most vulnerable in society. Once again, they are trying to play the race card to reverse their miserable standing in the polls≠a desperate but nasty measure≠in the run up to the next election.

Ireland: Dead end street

Judith Orr

A settlement in Ireland was to be John Major's crowning achievement, to put him proudly amongst the world's 'peacemakers'. Yet despite all the fanfare and the specially designed negotiating rooms at Stormont castle what has been achieved ? The IRA bombed the heart of the shopping centre of Manchester in June, following from the massive docklands bomb in February which marked the end of the ceasefire. The all party talks have turned into 'multi' party talks with the decision to exclude Sinn Fein.

The Unionists have lived up to the most pessimistic predictions of bloody minded intransigence, staging walkouts and maintaining that they will refuse to sit down with Sinn Fein even if a new ceasefire is called. In short the peace process has got precisely nowhere. That the government still carries on with the facade that there has been progress shows just how desperate it is to salvage something from the mess.

But its own tactics are ensuring that a settlement appears as far away as ever. It seems intent on continuing its strategy of putting every obstacle in the way of Sinn Fein taking part in the talks, now saying that a simple reinstatement of the ceasefire would not in itself be enough to bring Sinn Fein to the conference table immediately.

This may keep the Unionists happy but it should be obvious to everyone else that there will be no guarantee of peace unless the Republicans are on board. In fact it was precisely because of 17 months of such prevarication that the ceasefire broke down in the first place. Even Major's tactic of forcing an election backfired when Sinn Fein increased its vote to 15 percent, proving that it still commands substantial support.

Much of British press coverage on the doomed peace process has concentrated on the crisis of the Republican movement, with speculation about the prospect of splits and questions about whether Gerry Adams can carry his arguments. It is impossible to tell how this crisis will be resolved. The history of splits in the Republican movement shows the untold damage that can be caused, and the leadership is loathe to let this happen. At the same time, contrary to popular assumption, the 'two wings' of the movement≠the militarists and the constitutionialists≠are not two totally separate, sealed camps. Both strategies have traditionally played a part in Republican politics, with many individuals shifting positions over the years.

But the calling of the ceasefire in 1994 did signify the admission that the military strategy had failed and had no hope of winning concessions from the British, let alone the goal of a united Ireland. Unfortunately for Adams, playing by the constitutional book has not made any appreciable gains either, hence the Docklands and Manchester bombs. For some Republicans, seeing Adams being feted in the US has not been enough to justify calling off the war, and clearly there is pressure for concrete results. Adams recently made a rare acknowledgement of the problems he faces in his own organisation. 'I want to see an end to armed actions. Some members of Sinn Fein, like those in other parties, may have a different view.'

The impasse in Ireland will not be overcome by any of the strategies coming out of Sinn Fein. The belief in the pan-nationalist front which all sides have in common is their internal fault line. This is all the more obvious now as the alliance includes everyone from John Hume of the SDLP, through the Irish government all the way to President Clinton. However, now even this looks shaky following recent attacks on Sinn Fein by the Irish government.

The past two decades have shown the woeful inadequacy of any branch of nationalism to address the very real problems of workers in Ireland. Neither the military strategists nor the supporters of the 'ballot box' represent a more radical outlook. Despite the illusions that some on the left had during the 1980s that Sinn Fein would evolve as a left wing movement in Ireland, there has been no development of any sort of class analysis which could begin to talk to both Catholic and Protestant workers.

The lack of such an alternative underlies the current crisis. While the politics of Northern Ireland are dominated by the bigotry of Unionism≠personified by Ian Paisley≠on the one hand, and nationalism on the other, there is no hope of a lasting solution. The only possibility of breaking out of this logjam lies outside the conference rooms at Stormont and among ordinary workers, Catholic and Protestant. Both have the most to lose if violence returns to the north and the most to gain from a united struggle for jobs, a decent welfare state and an end to repression.

Defence spending

One group of people will avoid the problems of public spending cuts in the next two months. Directors and shareholders of the big defence companies are being showered with new orders worth up to £12 billion.

Announcements are expected which award defence contracts≠for a new Eurofighter plane, cruise missiles and anti-tank missiles≠to British firms.

The reasoning behind the timing and who gets the contracts is transparent. Ministers hope that the awards will boost manufacturing industry and preserve jobs in the approach to the election. In order to do so they are prepared to spread the contracts around various firms throughout the country, thus attempting to increase their electoral support in some areas.

They are also prepared to award the contracts exclusively to British firms or European consortia including British manufacturers≠thus excluding some of the world's biggest arms manufacturers in the US.

The US firms are obviously annoyed. The Financial Times reports: 'US defence contractors are dismayed that pre-election politics has intruded into Ministry of Defence competitions. The department is likely to exclude high profile American equipment from the current order bonanza.'

Such arguments between different capitalists are unlikely to worry socialists unduly. But there are two real scandals here.

The first is the excessive hidden subsidy which the government is all too happy to cough up for the arms industry, while denying it to investment in most other areas. Why could such money not be put towards a decent railway infrastructure, for example?

The second scandal concerns the priorities of the system. The chairman of the British Medical Association has said that the NHS is 'sinking like the Titanic' and needs £6 billion extra funds≠half of what is being planned for these few defence projects alone.

The defence industry is wasteful and bloody, producing ever greater weapons of destruction. The health service is universally popular, providing free care for everyone. Most people want to see more money being spent on it.

But while funds are constantly available for defence spending, there is always pressure of cuts in health spending. These are the Tories' priorities, but are also echoed by Labour, with Tony Blair refusing last month to make a commitment to real increases in health funding. No doubt he will say not a word against the defence contracts.

Russia: No holds barred

Dave Crouch

As Russia prepares for the run off between the two main presidential candidates, Boris Yeltsin and Gennady Zyuganov, in July, the main surprise is that Yeltsin is still in the race, and even favourite to win.

In the first round in June Yeltsin took 34 percent of the vote and Zyuganov 31 percent. Third place with 15 percent went to General Alexander Lebed, who stole nationalist votes from both Zyuganov and the fascist Zhirinovsky.

Six months ago Yeltsin's chances seemed minimal. At the general elections in December the government's party received a mere 10 percent of the poll, while Zyuganov's Communist Party took first place with 22 percent. Yeltsin's rating slumped to only 8 percent.

A combination of populism, cash, ruthless media manipulation and the lack of a genuine opposition has enabled Yeltsin to make a rapid recovery. He stole the Communists' clothes by sacking unpopular liberal ministers in January and appointing hardline nationalists, and then by announcing union with Belarus. He threw money at the problem of unpaid wages and announced an end to conscription. He made enormous concessions to the Chechen resistance, promising to pull Russian troops out by the end of August, and thereby engineered a ceasefire.

Meanwhile the television and press conducted a no holds barred campaign in Yeltsin's favour, helped by the appointment of a compliant director to head one of the state television channels and the cooption of the director of a major independent channel into Yeltsin's election team.

The media were greatly assisted by the main object of their vilification, Gennady Zyuganov, whose People's Patriotic Alliance is easy meat. Accusations of extremism have stuck because the Alliance leadership includes odious figures who are open about their love for Stalin. In terms of economic and social policy, Zyuganov was reduced to complaining that Yeltsin is already enacting the Alliance programme.

After a period of hesitation the ruling class opted to jump on board Yeltsin's rolling bandwagon, resulting in massive cash donations from big business. In mid-June, however, the extremely shallow nature of Yeltsin's support≠based mainly on opposition to the Communists≠and the depth of discontent among the population once again split the fragile unity in the Yeltsin camp wide open, bringing simmering internal feuds to the surface.

A minor intrigue within Yeltsin's entourage resulted in a major scandal and a 'palace coup' with the sacking of three senior figures≠Korzhakov, Soskovets and Barsyukov. All this followed the forced resignation of defence minister Pavel Grachev after General Lebed was appointed secretary of the all powerful Security Council.

The composition of Yeltsin's government has changed frequently over the last five years in response to different attempts to tackle the three main problems confronting the ruling class: coping with the economy, restoring Russia's imperial might, and maintaining a grip on power. This situation has created volatile and competing interest groups within the state who battle for the president's ear.

Korzhakov, head of Yeltsin's personal security force, had called in May for elections to be abandoned and for the formation of a government of national unity with the Communists. The slenderness of Yeltsin's lead after the first vote clearly pushed Korzhakov and his supporters to overplay their hand. This was used by their opponents, led by disgraced privatisation minister Chubais, to demand that Korzhakov be sacked.

The result has been trumpeted in the press as the defeat of a 'coup attempt', the routing of the 'war party' in the government and a victory for democracy. Claims such as these must be taken with a large pinch of electoral salt.

It is nonsense to think that the removal of four figures means that the state is now free of people who want to continue the war in Chechnya, which, lest it be forgotten, began with the enthusiastic backing of liberals and hardliners alike. Moreover, Chubais and his supporters have heaped praise on General Lebed for his decisive first steps in the government.

Lebed is a tough talking veteran of the Afghan war, a man who praises Chile's General Pinochet, argues that parliament should be disbanded and appointed by the president, and as recently as 3 April called the peace plan for Chechnya 'a shameful retreat', the 'betrayal of a great country and a great army', and demanded 'a total victory to crush the [Chechen] scum'. In 1992 he led Russian troops into Moldavia to back the creation of the puppet Transdnestr Republic and strengthen this strategic bridgehead.

As for defeating a coup attempt, it is obvious that Yeltsin himself, like Gorbachev before him, packed his cabinet with hardliners, thereby preparing the ground for another attempted crackdown. Yeltsin has already disbanded parliament once≠with the bloody consequences of October 1993.

Whoever wins the election on 3 July, certain things are clear. The economy is in a dreadful state, set to shrink again this year by 4 percent. The coffers are empty after Yeltsin's electoral spending spree and an effective tax strike by big business, which has robbed the state of huge sums of money.

Any attempt to honour the agreement to withdraw Russian troops from Chechnya means a defeat for the army≠entirely unacceptable to the Russian ruling class at present≠and the inevitable attempts to circumvent it will mean a resumption of the war with the army doubly demoralised and the enemy rested and refreshed.

The fragile nature of an electoral victory for either candidate and the scale of the crisis confronting him will likely mean concessions to the vanquished: Yeltsin is already suggesting that the Communists take the ministries of labour and social security, while a Communist victory would probably leave Lebed and several current ministers in place. The alternative scenario is a direct grab for power by those who lose out.

In either case, the real problems that affect the lives of millions will be left untouched by these elections, which have been a cynical power struggle between equally corrupt and right wing groups whose policies are virtually indistinguishable.

Obituary: Edwin Murambiwa

Alex Callinicos

We learned with sorrow of the death on 11 June of the Zimbabwean revolutionary socialist Edwin Murambiwa. Edwin was a leading member of the International Socialist Organisation of Zimbabwe, which is part of the same international political tendency as the Socialist Workers Party. Aged only 36, he fell victim to the Aids epidemic which has cut short the lives of so many young men and women in Zimbabwe and other African countries. He left behind a wife and two children to whom we express our sympathy.

Edwin became politically active as a student at the University of Zimbabwe in the late 1980s. By then, nearly ten years after the Zimbabwe African National Union-Popular Front had come to power under Robert Mugabe, the regime had become corrupt and complacent. While leaving basically untouched the highly unequal structure of economic power inherited from the old white settler state, Mugabe used 'Marxist-Leninist' rhetoric to justify the establishment of a one party state.

Starting with a student anti-corruption demonstration in 1987, the university became a key centre of open and militant opposition to the regime. With the trade unions' tentative backing student activists mounted a series of demonstrations and rallies which played a crucial role in blocking the government's drive to a one party state.

Edwin was in the thick of this struggle. He was also one of a number of student activists whose experience led them to question the official identification of socialism with the ZANU-PF regime and the Stalinist states.

When the ISOZ was founded at the beginning of the 1990s Edwin was one of its founder members. Anyone who attended one of the group's meetings, or heard him speak during the SWP's Marxism '93 week of discussion in London, will have been struck by his lucidity and depth of knowledge. I can remember, just as the butchery in Rwanda was beginning in April 1994, listening to Edwin calmly offering a clear Marxist analysis of the murderous divisions between Hutus and Tutsis.

Building a revolutionary socialist organisation in an African country whose rulers do not willingly tolerate opposition isn't easy. Some of the veterans of the student struggles fell by the wayside. But not Edwin. As the government forced through an IMF-endorsed Economic Structural Adjustment Programme, with disastrous effects on the living standards of workers and peasants, the ISOZ has pushed into more open activity. It has denounced the fake solution of 'black empowerment'≠creating more black bosses≠now backed by ZANU-PF as an alternative to challenging the power of capital, and condemned bitterly Mugabe's gay bashing antics.

Edwin played an active part in all this. He edited the ISOZ's paper Socialist Worker till his eyesight became too poor for him to carry on. Even during his last days in hospital he was still thinking of the organisation. He was never satisfied with each issue of the paper, always looking for ways of improving it. But when, two days before his death, the comrades placed the latest issue of Socialist Worker in his hands, he finally expressed satisfaction, saying, 'Now I think I've done my job.'

Edwin Murambiwa lived and died a revolutionary socialist. In that sense, his real job≠getting rid of capitalism≠remains. It is up to the rest of us to finish it.

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