Issue 239 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published March 2000 Copyright © Socialist Review
Lessons of the past, fights of the future
I found Andy Brown's report on recent events in Ecuador fascinating (February SR). Although he is right to point out that the battles are just beginning, the indigenous Indians and organised working class have already achieved much since I was there with my partner last year.
Ecuador has incredible mineral and fishing resources, yet the living standards for the majority are little above subsistence. The economy has been bled by the multinationals, there is political corruption on a grand scale and the economy is crippled by debt.
The day we arrived in Quito a leading socialist politician with a record of standing up for workers and indigenous Indians was assassinated. Soon after, three army officers were arrested and dragged in front of the tv cameras to admit to being part of a plot 'involving drug-smuggling Colombian Marxist guerrillas'. While these details may seem a long way from British politics, underneath the issues and language were the same--words like privatisation, modernisation and globalisation hiding the reality of cuts in workers' living standards.
The Ecuadorian ruling class was going to make everybody, from the middle class down, pay for a crisis that it had created. At that time the Ecuadorian ruling class was looking for the dollarisation of its currency and a deal with the IMF, involving massive attacks on public services, a wage freeze and controlled inflation. In response the trade unions and the indigenous Indians, by far the most organised political force in the country, called a two day general strike, which the government declared a two day public holiday. Immediately queues formed outside the banks, as people wanted to withdraw their money. Two days later all banks were closed, only non-Ecuadorians could withdraw money and the value of the Ecuadorian currency halved overnight. Petrol prices quadrupled, causing instant and rampant inflation. It was like every movie I had ever seen on the Great Crash.
The general strike was total. The indigenous Indians dug up the roads, filled the ditches with petrol, and burned tyres. In Quito there were two days of demonstrations, attacked by police with tear gas.
One year later I find out that the pay of middle ranking army officers, like those dragged in front of the tv cameras, has been cut from US$1,000 to US$250, and that no withdrawals from banks can be made for ten years--stealing people's savings to pay the national debt. Industrial bankruptcies are widespread, yet the rich hold dollar accounts and remain unaffected.
However, there were no leaflets or papers on the demonstrations in Ecuador. There were no arguments for coordination. Nobody was raising concrete demands, even to extend the strike. There was no propaganda linking working class demands with other issues. The absence of a revolutionary socialist organisation was palpable. Organising the occupation of parliament a year later is a massive step forward. Hopefully a revolutionary current will crystallise to consolidate the lessons already learnt.
Nain raised another vital point--the effect it has had on those involved. Thousands of people, both here and abroad, have begun, once again, to discuss the question of the coup in 1973 and the Popular Unity government. Successive governments in Chile have said, 'We are all Chileans now, we must look forwards and not backwards.' But the arguments around reform or revolution have not gone away. It is movements like the one around Pinochet that make sure we remember the past and learn from it.
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John Rose's review of Enzo Traverso's Understanding the Nazi Genocide (February SR) echoes a view that the Holocaust 'had about it a madness, a deadly irrationality', even from the capitalist point of view. While it is undoubtedly true that the victimisation and murder of millions made no sense from the point of view of humanity, this view is flawed. It often leads towards one or all of the following arguments: a) that Nazism was something outside of and divorced from the capitalist system; b) that the Holocaust is not explicable in political, but only in psychological, terms; and c) that the Holocaust itself cannot be explained because it is impervious to rational analysis. I'm sure John had no intention of arguing any of these, but treating the Holocaust as irrational leads many to draw the above conclusions.
I would argue that the Holocaust was not an irrational phenomenon so much as a contradictory one. There was a twisted rationality behind each element of Nazi policy. But when the elements were combined together they clashed, giving the overall appearance of irrationality. If the end result seems to be madness, this does not mean the steps leading there can be explained in the same way.
The racism of the Nazis, abhorrent, objectionable and lacking in any scientific basis as it was, had an absolute political rationale in the way it divided the masses and provided a scapegoat which diverted attention from the real cause of crisis in Germany--the capitalist system.
Even in wartime, when labour was scarce, murdering certain groups had a rationale, not only for Nazis but for capitalists too. When millions of foreign slave and conscript workers were needed to keep the German war effort going they could best be controlled by racism. Scandinavian workers were put above French, French above Czechs, who were above Poles, who were 'superior' to Russians, leaving Jews to suffer the greatest maltreatment at the bottom. Labour scarcity was still a problem in the short term, but the long term Nazi aim in eastern Europe was to establish German colonies in areas that were to be cleared of millions of human beings. This was the Nazis' 'macroeconomic plan' which some industrialists enthusiastically endorsed.
The Holocaust is a disgusting example of capitalism in its most extreme, exaggerated and distorted form. As such it had a rationality for capitalism's counter-revolutionary advocates (the Nazis) in the same way that unemployment, the arms race and environmental destruction is rational for capitalists pursuing profits. That all of these kill or ruin our lives is equally true. But we let the culprits off the hook by suggesting they are not consciously and directly pursuing their own interests, however contradictory to themselves and to us this may be.
Thousands of protesters came to protest at the CGI's meeting in Jakarta on 1 February. The meeting was held to discuss the progress of development in Indonesia, and the plan to give more 'donations' requested by the Indonesian government.
The protest demanded abolition of previous debts and to refuse new ones. Other issues raised were rejection of the foreign debt bail-out and rejection of the transformation of private debt into public debt. The coalition had agreed that Indonesian people are not responsible for debt repayment for two reasons. Firstly, they had never been involved in the process of decision making, and secondly, it was only used for the interests of a few people, not for the majority, as said by one of the workers from the National Front for Indonesian Workers' Struggle (FNPBI): 'I tried to remember, when did I actually ask the CGI to give me money? I never did. But they asked me to pay it. How should I pay it? I work day and night but only get 7,000 rupia each day. I also have to afford the family needs.'
A day before the protest a seminar was held to explore how people viewed debt from seven aspects: labour, women, environmental, corruption and collusion, religious, poverty and human rights. Around 1,000 people turned up and participated. The recommendations on each issue were summed up as the statement of the coalition to be given to the CGI's representatives during their meeting.
After negotiating to meet a representative of the CGI and the Indonesian government, only the vice-president of the World Bank, Benjamin Fischer, showed up. The IMF and the major funder countries didn't want to meet delegates. Realising that they had been told a lie, the delegates walked out of the room.
When they were told what had happened the protesters became angry and started to yell at the military. Dita Indah Sari, the chairperson of the FNPBI, who was one of the delegates, told the masses to be patient and calm, and she added that Indonesian people had not lost yet, but shall continue the struggle for the sake of Indonesia's future: 'We will go home to consolidate ourselves and mobilise bigger masses to remind the government and capitalist countries that Indonesia's people have awakened to resistance. We will tell them that we will come back again.'
We are writing in response to Charles Shaar Murray's deeply pessimistic article about the state of modern music (January SR).
It seems that Socialist Review has followed the current trend, instigated by a blind music press and evolved by the lemmings at the Guardian, for sneering at the current music 'scene', and patronising the 'passive' youth. So you don't hear 'any innovation anywhere'? We advise pulling your head out of your arse and looking beyond your nose.
While writing this we are listening to the black and white riot of 'Free Satpal Ram' by the popular beat combo Asian Dub Foundation (ADF), the world's greatest band--official! Passionate and political, it unleashes a sonic orgasm that, in the words of top rock hack Steven Wells, careers up the spine 'like the North Vietnamese army piledriving through the paddy fields of the Mekong Delta on their heroic and utterly unstoppable final blitzkrieg sprint which ultimately ended in Saigon and victory!' It makes you want to dance, shout and burn down police stations all at the same time! Revelation!
And they walk it like they talk it, too: through their community music project, Adfed; the petitions and stalls at their gigs; and their protest outside the Home Office (with Mark Thomas and Primal Scream) at the continued imprisonment of Satpal Ram.
ADF are not alone. You want a 'radical departure' from 'cultural passivity'? Have you ever heard of Atari Teenage Riot? Or maybe the Digital Hardcore Revolution isn't radical enough for you? You claim to have been excited when you first heard hip-hop. Obviously you were not excited sufficiently to observe its evolution, or the supreme talents of Lauryn Hill would not have escaped your notice today. Meanwhile, Primal Scream still set these young hearts alight.
The explosion of innovative art that followed the Russian Revolution was described by Leon Trotsky as 'incompatible with pessimism, with scepticism and with all other forms of spiritual collapse. It is realistic, active, vitally collectivist and filled with the limitless creative faith in the future.' No doubt he would have balked at the sneering, superior tone of your article. No doubt he would have loved ADF.
Enjoy re-listening to your Van Morrison records, granddad. We're off to overthrow capitalism. See ya!
Daniel Evans and Peter Martin
I have only just got round to reading the Walrus column (November SR), but I cannot believe some of the comments expressed in it. Whilst I agree that the number of days lost through strike action can't always be a true indicator of the mood inside the working class, it is simply not the case that in 1989 'Thatcher was smashing everything in sight'. Nor is it true to say that during that year the level of strikes was particularly high. About 3.5 million strike days were recorded that year, compared to an average of 12 million in the 1970s and 7 million in the 1980s.
The political and economic situation and the industrial struggle rarely move in one straight line. It is worth pointing out that 1989 marked the beginning of the end for Thatcher--rows over Europe and the unravelling of the Lawson boom meant that, unlike the early to mid-1980s, her unpopularity became more profound and irreversible.
To describe the late 1980s as the darkest hour for the trade union movement is, I believe, also mistaken. True, around this time the seafarers and the dockers both suffered heavy and unnecessary defeats, but in 1988-89 there was more of a mood to fight than the first three years after the miners' strike.
Neither would it be true to suggest that all strikes during the late 1980s were going down to defeat. Workers at Ford and postal workers were involved in national strike action in 1988--neither group went back feeling defeated. In the summer of 1989 local government workers in Nalgo and public transport workers (on the railways, tube and London buses) took strike action which ended in partial victory. In the winter of 1989-90 the ambulance workers' dispute won massive public sympathy. The engineering workers involved in the drive for 35 hours campaign at the same time felt that they'd got something out of their dispute.
On the eve of Thatcher's tenth anniversary in May 1989 the very things she believed she had got rid of--strikes and inflation--came along to dampen any celebrations for her side. Back in the late 1980s the Socialist Workers Party was talking about new moods in the working class, and not only resilience but signs of slow but sure recovery in the trade union movement. Obviously the late 1980s weren't a great period--far from it. But it's stretching it a bit far to suggest (as the Walrus does) that it was the 'darkest period'.