Issue 222 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published August/September 1998 Copyright © Socialist Review
US car workers on strike
All the signs this month are of a world plunging into crisis. Recession has moved rapidly from the Far East to Russia and, as predicted, to the Latin American economies. There are signs of industrial contraction in Britain and even the US will be unable to escape the consequences of financial devastation on a world scale.
In addition there is a growth of political instability which will only be further exacerbated by economic crisis. Bill Clinton's attacks on Sudan and Afghanistan, in response to the embassy bombings in Nairobi and Dar-es-Salaam, lead to the dangerous possibility of war and to heightened opposition to US imperialism throughout the Islamic world and beyond. The world's flashpoints--for example in Kosovo or in the tension between India and Pakistan--are as dangerous as ever.
Yet the crisis and drive to war also lead many workers to question the values and ideas with which they are constantly bombarded. The events of the past month increasingly reveal the failure of the market to deliver, and the contradictions caused by total reliance on the market system. They also show the hypocrisy of the western leaden in their backing of Clinton and in their condoning use of weapons of mass destruction against targets in two of the poorest countries in the world.
There is a feeling of impatience that the market has failed and that the world's rulers have no answers. This has been reflected in a surge of struggles: the big strikes of US workers where there have been a number of important victories, the protests in recent months in Russia, where many workers have not been paid for months on end, the strikes in South Korea, and the revolution which overthrew the dictator Suharto in Indonesia and opened up a popular movement there.
Closer to home, the strikes which have broken out in Scotland over the summer are symptoms of a much greater malaise: there is a bitterness with New Labour over exactly the sorts of issue which concern workers in other countries. This bitterness has developed into a frustration with the lack of leadership coming from the trade union leaders in defending their members, rights against the attacks of the bosses and their New Labour friends.
These strikes, which have begun to involve unofficial action on a scale not seen for years, tie in with the anger over issues ranging from PFI to Stephen Lawrence. They show the shape of things to come.
The Russian revolutionary Lenin characterised the time during and after the First World War as one of 'wars and revolution'. It could be said that the period opening up now will see similar developments, as the failure of free market capitalism has a direct and devastating impact on millions of people around the world. Such a period presents both opportunities and challenges. It requires above all a level of organisation and of ideological clarity. As the world changes, and groups of workers and the oppressed everywhere begin to organise opposition to the old order, the steps that they take are often hesitant. Workers still hold on to many of the old ideas as well as accepting some of the new. These ideas coexist alongside one another. Workers who make a revolution or organise a general strike may still accept some of the ideas in society which lead them to make compromises with the system rather than to fight it.
In such circumstances, socialists need to be able to argue for an alternative to the old workers' parties. These were based on gradual reform of the system and could find a purchase when the system was able to deliver. This is less and less the case -- and the need for the revolutionary transformation of society is becoming clearer to a much bigger minority around the world.
In periods of flux, such as the present, it is possible to build a revolutionary alternative. That requires both the ideas which can challenge the priorities of the market and the bankruptcy of reformism, and the organisation which can link those workers who want to fight to change the world into a powerful alternative to Labour and to the market.
Defending jobs and services
Any doubts that the union leaders had last year about Labour's good intentions towards them must by now have been swept away. The unions are expected to fund Labour, but in return they will receive very little. Anger is mounting among their members over attacks at work and over welfare and privatisation. But the union leaders will do their best to stop this surfacing at this month's TUC Congress and later at Labour's own Blackpool conference.
They are still desperate to prevent rank and file anger from breaking through in the way that it has begun to do in a number of local disputes. They still hope against hope that they can squeeze from New Labour the sorts of concessions which might keep their members happy.
However, the contradictions in their position make it hard to sustain, given the direction of government policies. Firstly there is total reliance on the workings of the market to deliver better wages and conditions. This has led government spokespeople to advocate worsening of rights at work in the name of 'flexibility' and increasing competitiveness. They base all their assumptions, for example over Welfare to Work, on the expansion of the British economy although all the signs are of contraction.
The detailed and tortuous consensus agreed by the Low Pay Commission on the minimum wage meant that it was set at virtually the lowest possible figure. Even this was not accepted by the government.
The white paper on rights at work, which at present gives some opportunity for unionisation and for the right to union representation in grievances at work, is subject to frantic lobbying by the employers. There is every sign that the new Minister for Trade and Industry, Peter Mandelson, will accede to at least some of their demands.
Despite promises from Labour leaders while in opposition, acceptance of the market also means continuing with the Tories' privatisation programme. Labour is even daring to privatise areas such as air traffic control (which it opposed under the Tories), the London tube and the mass of public housing stock.
The other major problem facing the unions is the question of public sector pay. Government spending projections are based on further holding down the wages of local government workers, health workers and teachers. These groups of workers are already seeing comparable private sector wages moving much faster ahead.
There is very little compromise apparent on these questions- either the government gives in or the workers are forced to face further attacks. These are the fault lines along which clashes can erupt.
The lobby of this year's Labour Party conference is already attracting very widespread support. The bigger it is, and the more backed by a wide range of union branches, the more likely it is we can build an opposition to these attacks and organise a fightback.
Elections to the Labour Party's National Executive Committee (NEC) at its conference towards the end of this month will be one of the few opportunities for members to display their approval, or disapproval, of the first 15 months of the New Labour government.
The two main groups of candidates for the six NEC places are the Blairite 'Members First' slate, backed by the party leadership, and the centre-left 'Grassroots Alliance'. Previous successful left wing candidates to the NEC including Dennis Skinner, Ken Livingstone and Diane Abbott, now all MPs, have been excluded from standing.
The Grassroots Alliance opposes many of New Labour's policies. Its candidates are in favour of improving the welfare state, increased funding for health, education and transport as well as progressive taxation. Although the left of the labour Party is still fairly weak, the Grassroots Alliance represents a welcome challenge to the right wing policies of the Labour government. The six candidates include Mark Seddon, editor of Tribune, and Liz Davies, who was blocked from standing as a candidate for the last general election. Despite being backed by her local constituency the party leaders told a series of lies to prevent her selection. The Grassroots Alliance is not solely made up of left wingers. One of the candidates, Andy Howell, has passed through cuts and redundancies as a local councillor In Birmingham.
The Labour leadership is rattled by the threat of the centre-left opposition to the Blairite slate and as a result it is resorting to slander and devious tactics to try and get their loyal candidates elected. The Members First candidates have also had access to considerable resources. They have taken out half page advertisements in the Observer and the Guardian
The General Secretary of the Labour Party, Tom Sawyer, despite assurances from his assistant that party officers would remain neutral over the election campaign, has attacked Grassroots Alliance candidates. Concerns over the introduction of telephone voting, which was never discussed by the NEC, were raised by Liz Davies. Tom Sawyer accused her of 'slur and innuendo' over the complaints The right of the party has even tried to label the Alliance as 'hard left' and Trotskyist, opening up a full scale debate on the letters page of the Guardian. A recent editorial in the Guardian backed the Grassroots Alliance candidates. One letter writer, backing Members First, said the paper had made a 'giant step from critical friend ... to outright opposition' to the New Labour government.
There will be little debate over Labour's policies at the conference this year, as any chance of direct confrontation between delegates and MPs has been practically eliminated through the 'Partnership in Power' document which was rushed through at last year's conference.
Where there is contention, for example over key policies such as health, crime, welfare reform and Europe, the debates will be held behind closed doors to which the media and public will be denied access. Clearly, the Blairites are scared that growing dissent within the party over sticking to Tory style policies could have a damaging effect on Blair's standing in the opinion polls.
There will be some debates on policy, based on reports from Labour's National Policy Forum, but dozens of critical resolutions have been excluded. These include opposition to university tuition fees, increases in prescription charges and limits on trade union recognition. The report to conference has been compiled by a few members of the forum, elected in January. Since then they have not reported back to the rest of the forum who have had no idea about what constituency parties have sent in nor what reply they have been given. Most of the motions to the conference will be very general and delegates will only have the opportunity to support the motion or send it back to policy making committees. Local branches and trade unions will no longer be able to submit amendments.
It seems as though the New Labour 'modernisers' want to stifle any debate within the party, despite the fact that many members are angry and disillusioned over the general direction of the party. Further indication of members' dissatisfaction can be seen in the drop in Labour Party membership, from 405,000 in January of this year to 394,000 in August. A further fall of 36,000 is expected by the end of the year.
The farcical nature of the conference will add further to the bitterness felt by many, both inside and outside the Labour Party, over the government's numerous U-turns and broken promises since its election in May of last year.
The British Library has threatened to introduce an annual £300 charge for all its readers. The threat has produced great anger and is compounded by the fact that it was launched in the middle of the holiday season when many regular readers are not around to protest or add comments to the discussion paper.
The Campaign to Keep the British Library Free held a packed meeting in London List month. The meeting attracted 250 people, many of whom were ordinary people outraged by the plans. The charge will restrict access to many independent historians, novelists and poets, making knowledge accessible only to the well off or those sponsored by business, institutions or the government.
Charging at the British Library could have a knock on effect to other central reference libraries and affect a much wider section of people. The London School of Economics introduced charges five years ago for its nominally public library and now nearly all London college libraries have followed suit and imposed a charge.
Karl Marx, who used the library extensively to research his important book Capital, would never have been able to pay a fee. The charges will be a barrier, not only to the work of independent writers, but also to the attempt of those without wealth to understand and change the world.
Contact the Campaign to Keep the British Library Free, c/o 26 Alkham Road, London N16 7AA.
'The Omagh bombing last month which resulted in the death of 28 people has marked a significant shift in the political situation in Ireland and the dead end of military Republicanism. The sheer scale and horror of the bombing was matched only by its utter futility. The backlash against the bombing highlights the complete bankruptcy of traditional Republicanism. Its strategy has failed to address the problems of the people of Northern Ireland, and this was one reason why the peace process came into being In the first place. After Omagh more and more people are beginning to question the strategy.
The bomb was planted by the Republican splinter group, the Real IRA, which is opposed to the Good Friday Agreement. In response to the wave of anger that followed from ordinary working class people- both Catholic and Protestant-the Real IRA has been forced to call a ceasefire. It Is a measure of how much things have moved on that the strategy pursued by groups such as the Real IRA and the INLA (which has also been forced to call a ceasefire) is now so completely isolated. 'The Omagh bombing has had a significant impact on the Republican movement', said Michael, a socialist who lives In Omagh. 'Now more people are questioning what is the way forward. Not only that but people are looking back at past bombings and wondering how much people have suffered.'
The day after the bombing over 1,000 trade unionists demonstrated In Derry; in Belfast thousands of people queued for hours to sign the book of condolence and a rally there on the Tuesday lunchtime attracted over 5,000 people. Books of condolence have been opened up in virtually every town in Ireland, north and south of the border, as people express their outrage and sorrow. John Varian was one of the people queuing up to sign a book. He spoke for the feelings of many when he said, 'It's unbelievable that someone could do this to ordinary working class people going about their everyday business-why should they suffer?'
The response shows the depth of feeling there is for peace in Northern Ireland from both Catholics and Protestants. This was seen in the overwhelming vote in favour of the Good Friday Agreement earlier this year. The brutal murder in July of the three Quinn children, firebombed while sleeping, brought a wave of revulsion and disgust which saw most Protestants distance themselves from the Loyalists thugs who carried it out. This isolated the Orange Order hardliners at Drumcree who were trying to march down the Catholic Garvaghy Road. Loyalists can no longer automatically whip up sectarianism to guarantee support. When Ian Paisley turned up at the funeral of one of the Omagh victims and attacked Republicans he was shouted down by ordinary people.
If the military wing of the Republican movement often no way forward, the other wing of the Republican movement around Sinn Fein's Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness has shown how determined it is to make peace with the system at all costs. The decision to criticise the Omagh bombers shows how committed Sinn Fein is to the constitutional road. It means Sinn Fein is prepared to sit in the Northern Ireland cabinet which could mean overseeing cuts in spending and welfare, and could lead to cooperating with the police forces both north and south of the border.
The response of both British and Irish governments has been to use the Omagh bombing to introduce yet more repression despite the ceasefire having been extended as a result of it. Bertie Ahern the Irish prime minister, has announced new measures to curb the right to silence, as well as extending the maximum period of detention. The Blair government is to recall Parliament to introduce similar measures, including allowing a court to convict someone suspected of being a member of a proscribed organisation simply on the basis of a sworn testimony from one police officer. These measures will result in greater police surveillance and more telephone tapping and will greatly increase the powers of the police and the army. All past evidence shows how repression is used primarily against those people who fight back against discrimination and the system. It does nothing to improve the lives of ordinary people.
The bombing has shown a wide opening for class politics amongst both Catholics and Protestants and tremendous opportunities for socialists. This was seen most clearly in Omagh itself. For years the local hospital has been threatened with closure. On the day of the bombing It was unable to cope with the number of casualties. Yet not one politician has even mentioned the possibility that the hospital may stay open or that it may get more funding despite the fact that it will have to treat the victims of the bombing for years to come. In the nearby town of Dungannon, 10,000 people demonstrated last year against cuts in the local hospital (which also dealt with many of the injured from the bombing). In all his announcements Blair has said nothing about reversing the cuts.
'The feeling is that most people don't trust the politicians,' argues Michael, 'We've had them all here but they have promised very little. Most people in this town voted for the Good Friday Agreement, but really there is not much hope that the new assembly will change anything. People are asking questions and I think we are going to see a lot more of that. Especially If Sinn Fein Is in the cabinet cutting services and jobs.'
The opening of class politics can lead to political turmoil on a scale not seen for many years in Northern Ireland. It will he up to socialists to provide the answers to many of the questions now being raised.
The human toll from Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic's offensive in the province of Kosovo is appalling. Nearly a quarter of a million people have been driven out of their homes. over 40,000 have crossed the border south to Albania. Serbian police, army and paramilitary units stormed into Kosovo in February to crush the separatist fighters of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA). About 90 percent of Kosovo's population of 2 million are Albanian and their support for independence from Serbia has grown since 1989 when Milosevic removed the province's autonomy and began a systematic campaign of repression.
Over the last six months the Serbian forces have adopted a scorched earth policy: moving from village to village, scattering the inhabitants.
The KLA, which only two months ago controlled large areas of central Kosovo, was in full flight by the end of August.
And from the western leaders, who between 1992 and 1995 told us that Milosevic and the Serbs were the sole source of the war in Bosnia, comes scarcely a word.
The reason is plain. Behind the bluster about 'Serb atrocities', western governments have been working to ensure that the KLA is weakened and fails to win independence for Kosovo. Clinton, Blair and Kohl may not be ecstatic that the Serb army has overrun all of Kosovo, but they are enormously relieved that the KLA does not have the upper hand.
Fred Abrahams from Human Rights Watch describes the attitude of western diplomats in Kosovo. 'They are telling journalists that the west has turned a blind eye to Serb abuses in order to force the KLA to the negotiating table.'
They did more than rum a blind eye. The Swiss government cooperated with the US to freeze millions of dollars in KLA bank accounts in July. The German government said It would follow suit. Every western government said it opposed independence for Kosovo and denounced the KLA as 'terrorists'.
The great powers want to preserve the existing carve up in the Balkans. US diplomat Richard Holbrooke says in his new book, To End a War, that the Dayton peace agreement which he negotiated deliberately avoided mention of Kosovo.
Western governments fear that independence for Kosovo will call the division of the Balkans into question. It could lead the Albanian minority in neighbouring Macedonia, for example, to demand independence. That in turn could lead to border disputes between Bulgaria, Greece and Albania.
Other states opposed the KLA for even more direct reasons. Turkey, a member of Nato, has tried to maintain influence in the Balkans since the collapse of the Ottoman empire in 1923 by claiming to be the protector of the Albanian Muslim minorities there.
But the Turkish government rounded on the KLA If Kosovo was entitled to independence from an oppressive state then why not the oppressed Kurdish minority in south east Turkey?
So the KLA which called for Nato intervention against Serbia, was left to fight alone. Despite sabre rattling from US secretary of state Madeleine Albright, Pentagon officials told journalists last month, 'We need to tell the KLA that the cavalry is not coming.'
In fact, US and Nato forces are already intervening heavily in the Balkans. They have a military presence - 20,000 troops in Bosnia and forces In Macedonia and Albania engaged in 'military exercises'.
CIA agents kidnapped two Islamic activists in the Albanian capital, Tirana, with Albanian government help, in June.
They have a diplomatic presence: US diplomats are frantically trying to prevent a dispute over the stationing of and aircraft missiles in southern Cyprus in November from spilling over into conflict between Greece and Turkey.
The tragedy of Kosovo is a product of decades of big power intervention and support for rival, bloodsoaked nationalisms in south east Europe. That will only end when workers and peasants break from their rulers and reject the nationalist poison.
The economy is collapsing, inflation is growing, there is low pay and unemployment. But somehow we are surviving. The situation in Kosovo is also quite shitty. The television and mass media are giving very little information and telling lies. But we know what is happening. People are not in a really nationalistic mood. A lot of Serbian people and workers do not hate the Albanians and feet a little sympathy for them. But mostly people are afraid of another war --- 80 percent of all new soldiers are sent to Kosovo. A tot of my friends are there and no one is older than 21. People don't want another war. Some independent organisations have organised activities and distributed leaflets against the war.
I'm absolutely against the war and I will not go to Kosovo to shoot poor Albanians.
In 1974 Kosovo became the seventh republic in the Yugoslav federation. And then the hatred started. Some Albanians who had wanted to break away from Yugoslavia started to work on it The police began to terrorise them, but the Albanians started to terrorise Serbs, so a lot of Serbs ran away from Kosovo,
I'm not talking about all Albanians. The genocide that took place - if we can call it that-was carried out by Albanian extremists and it was an answer to the police genocide against Albanians. This lasted for over ten years and then Yugoslavia spill: up and the Montenegro bourgeoisie started real terror against the Albanians and they are now fighting for their freedom.
In the fast few months there were some signs of moves towards autonomy in the regions of Vojvodina and Sumadija-Pomoravge. I support this but not totally because we are maybe more far from revolution, but maybe it would be good to decentralise Belgrade's absolute power.
The only solution of all problems in Yugoslavia and everywhere is the revolution of all the exploited, terrorised, tortured and there will be no more wars. hatred, exploitation. Revolution is the only solution, the only way out
A tot of young soldiers have died in Kosovo and I'm really sorry and angry at the same time. All of those boys are 18,19 or 20 years old. I am 19 and if I didn't pass my faculty entrance exam I would be sent to Kosovo. It is very bad what the police are doing to the Albanians, Them are a tot of examples of Albanian villages where all the people are buried. It is really bad,