Russia 1917: the Women’s Day that shook the world

March 8, 2017 at 7:06 am (democracy, history, posted by JD, revolution, Russia, workers)

February 1917 demonstration

Russia’s February Revolution Was Led by Women on the March

How the downfall of the Romanovs finally came about 100 years ago

By Carolyn Harris
SMITHSONIAN.COM (republished at the US website SocialistWorker.org)

“I can’t remember a single day when I didn’t go hungry…I’ve been afraid, waking, eating and sleeping…all my life I’ve trembled-afraid I wouldn’t get another bite…all my life I’ve been in rags-all through my wretched life – and why?”- Anna, wife of a locksmith in The Lower Depths (1903), Maxim Gorky

When we think of the Russian Revolution today, the most well-known event is the Bolshevik Revolution in November 1917 when Vladimir Lenin and the Bolshevik Party seized power, laying the foundation for the creation of the Soviet Union. But 1917 was a year of two revolutions in Russia. First came the February Revolution, which precipitated the collapse of the ruling Romanov dynasty and introduced new possibilities for the future of the Russian state. (Note that below we use the Gregorian calendar dates, even though Russia used the Julian calendar, which was 13 days behind. That’s why the revolution happened in March on the former calendar, but in the titular February on the latter.)

The eventful month brought a too-little-too-late realization on behalf of the Czar, Nicholas II, that three years of fighting in World War had depleted Russian infrastructure. Soldiers faced munitions shortages and the cities suffered through food scarcity. A particularly cold and punishing winter exacerbated the situation. On February 17, Nicholas wrote to his cousin and wartime ally, George V of the United Kingdom, “The weak state of our railways has long since preoccupied me. The rolling stock has been and remains insufficient and we can hardly repair the worn out engines and cars, because nearly all the manufactories and fabrics of the country work for the army. That’s why the question of transport of store and food becomes acute, especially in winter, when the rivers and canals are frozen.”

In his letter, Nicholas assured George that “everything is being done to ameliorate the state of things” but he seems to have hoped that the spring thaw and the eventual end to the hostilities would solve the problem.

His hopes were misplaced, however, as his problems were about to get much worse, especially with his female subjects.

In the country’s urban centers, with men on the battlefield, women took on new roles in the workforce, as they did throughout Europe during the war. Between 1914 and 1917, 250,000 more women began working outside the home for the first time. By the outbreak of the February Revolution, close to one million female workers lived in Russia’s cities, but were paid half the wages of men and endured substandard living conditions. The journalist Ariadna Tyrkova wrote, “Day by day, the war has changed attitudes about woman. It has become increasingly clear that the unseen effort of a woman and her labour often support the entire economy of a country.”

Like the French Revolution in 1789, a bread shortage in the capital precipitated unrest. After long shifts in the factories, female factory workers stood in bread lines alongside other women including domestic servants, housewives and soldiers’ widows. In these bread lines, news and rumors about planned rationing spread. When Saint Petersburg municipal authorities announced on March 4 that rationing would begin ten days later, there was widespread panic; bakeries were sacked, their windows broken and supplies stolen.

As he had throughout the previous months, Nicholas once again underestimated the extent of the unrest and again departed for military headquarters more than 400 miles away in Mogliev, which is now in Belarus, against the advice of his ministers. In the czar’s mind, leadership of the military took precedence during wartime, and he was concerned by the mass desertions occurring in the aftermath of munitions shortages and defeats at the hands of the Germans.

The next day, March 8, was the annual celebration of International Women’s Day. The weather had improved and comparatively warm 23 degrees Fahrenheit temperatures and bright sunshine seemed to encourage crowds to assemble in public spaces. Since 1913, Russian revolutionary factions, including the Bolsheviks, had encouraged women to celebrate the occasion as an opportunity to build solidarity. ..At the textile factories, women went on strike and marched to the metal works to persuade the men employed there to join them.

An employee of the Nobel Engineering works recalled, “We could hear women’s voices in the lane overlooked by the windows of our department: ‘Down with high prices! Down with hunger! Bread for the workers!’ I and several comrades rushed to the windows…Masses of women workers in a militant frame of mind filled the lane. Those who caught sight of us began to wave their arms, shouting ‘Come out! Stop work!’ Snowballs flew through the windows. We decided to join the demonstration.”

By the end of the day 100,000 workers went on strike, holding banners that said “Bread” and “Down with the Czar.” The number of demonstrators increased to 150,000 by the next day. The crowds were swelled by the presence of curious onlookers from all social backgrounds. Street theatres performed scenes from plays including Maxim Gorky’s The Lower Depths, which was widely viewed as an indictment of the treatment of the urban poor under czarist rule.

Nicholas and his wife, Empress Alexandra, who remained at the Alexander Palace just outside Saint Petersburg with their five children, continued to underestimate the seriousness of the discontent. Alexandra was dismissive of the protestors, writing to Nicholas at military headquarters, “The rows in town and strikes are more than provoking…It’s a hooligan movement, young boys and girls running about and screaming that they have no bread, only to excite – then the workmen preventing others from work – if it were very cold they would probably stay indoors. But this will all pass and quieten down – if the Duma would only behave itself – one does not print the worst speeches.”

The Duma, the representative assembly Nicholas reluctantly granted following unrest in 1905, struggled to maintain order as the strikes and demonstrations continued. Duma chairman Mikhail Rodzianko telegraphed Nicholas at military headquarters on March 11, “The government is completely paralyzed, and totally incapable of restoring order where it has broken down…Your Majesty, without delay summon a person whom the whole country trusts, and charge him with forming a government, in which the population can have confidence.” Instead, Nicholas placed his confidence in the military reserves stationed in Saint Petersburg to restore his authority.

Though in past moments of revolutionary sentiment, the military had stood by its czar, by 1917, the armed force was demoralized and sympathetic to the demonstrators’ cause. The presence of large groups of women among the demonstrators made soldiers particularly reluctant to fire on the crowds. When the soldiers joined the demonstrators, as opposed to firing upon them, the end of the Romanov dynasty was near.

In his history of the Russian Revolution, Leon Trotsky, who joined the Bolsheviks in September 1917 and became one of the party’s most prominent figures, wrote, “A great role is played by women workers in the relations between workers and soldiers. They go up to the cordons more boldly than men, take hold of the rifles, beseech, almost command, ‘Put down your bayonets; join us!’” Instead of suppressing the demonstrations, the regiments stationed in Saint Petersburg joined them, expressing their own grievances against the Czarist regime.

In exile in Switzerland, Vladimir Lenin followed events in Russia with interest but he distrusted the growing leadership role of Duma, fearing that the result of the unrest would be the replacement of one privileged elite with another, with the workers and peasants again excluded from any real influence.

The involvement of the military in demonstrations against his rule finally persuaded Nicholas to take the unrest seriously. In the early hours of March 13 , Nicholas departed military headquarters by train to address the collapse of his authority in Saint Petersburg. He would lose his throne over the course of the journey.

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Corbyn’s Brexit fiasco

February 12, 2017 at 6:59 pm (Anti-Racism, Champagne Charlie, democracy, Europe, internationalism, labour party, reformism, stalinism)

Image result for picture Jeremy Corbyn Seamas Milne
Above: Jeremy and his anti-EU adviser Seumas

First off, let’s be fair to Jeremy: Brexit has split the Labour party’s voters 60/40 (the majority pro-Remain), and even a latter-day Harold Wilson would struggle to bridge the divide.

But Corbyn’s decision to back Theresa May’s Brexit Bill, regardless of whether any amendments were passed (none were) was simply craven, and ended up pleasing no-one. Imposing a three-line whip that was ignored even by Labour whips, made matters worse. His tweet that “the fight starts now” – after having supported May’s Brexit plan – was little more than risible.

Let us be clear, as Coatesy explains in a brilliant piece here: Brexit is, by its very nature reactionary, backward, isolationist, nativist and – ultimately – racist. Any leftist who thinks any good can possibly come of it (or that there is a “People’s Brexit”/”Lexit” or some such nonsense) is a delusional idiot.

Corbyn’s weakness, lack of passion and general incoherence during the referendum campaign and in parliament since, merely serves to confirm the suspicion that, as an unsophisticated non-Marxist Bennite surrounded by Stalinist anti-EU advisers like Milne, his heart was never really in the pro-Remain cause. Even the Economist picked up on this:

“Mr Corbyn did not make his first pro-EU intervention until mid-April, fully two months after Mr Cameron called the referendum. Since then he has been a bit player at best. When researchers at Loughborough University ranked the ten most reported-on politicians in the second half of May, he did not even make the list (partly by his own design: he had spent part of the period on holiday). By refusing to campaign alongside Tories—doing so would “discredit” the party, sniffs John McDonnell, his shadow chancellor—he has ruled himself out of every important Remain event and televised debate.

“When Mr Corbyn does bother to intervene, he is a study in reluctance. His ‘pro-EU’ speeches are litanies of complaints about the union. Voters should back Remain, he says, because the Conservatives would not negotiate the right sort of Brexit. On June 2nd he declared Treasury warnings about the consequences of leaving as ‘hysterical hype’ and ‘mythmaking’.”

The Corbyn leadership is evidently terrified of May’s and the Brexiteers’ charge that anyone who even questions a hard Brexit is defying the “will of the people” (if not an outright “enemy of the people”); in fact, of course, had the 52/48% referendum result been reflected in parliament last week, the government’s majority would have been 26, not the 372 that May achieved with Corbyn’s backing.

The idea that “the people have spoken” and the referendum result cannot, therefore, be opposed, needs to be nipped in the bud once and for all; by that logic Labour would simply give up whenever it lost an election.

The 23 June vote represents no fixed-forever “decision of the British public” which obliges Labour to give away the rights of migrant workers (and British workers and young people who want to work, study, or live in Europe) by abandoning freedom of movement. In fact, since some Leave voters wanted something like EEA status, even on 23 June there was probably a majority for keeping freedom of movement. Plebiscitary democracy — democracy via referendum snap votes, on questions shaped and timed by the established powers — is the thinnest form of democracy. Usually it just serves those already in office. This time a strong sub-section of those in office (Johnson, Gove, etc.) were able to surprise Cameron, in a public debate which was essentially Johnson-Tory plus UKIP versus Cameron-Tory, with Labour voices weak and incoherent (Corbyn) or ignored by the media (Alan Johnson, the Labour right-winger leading Labour’s Remain campaign).

That does not make it more democratic. The referendum excluded 16-17 year olds, excluded EU citizens living in the UK (though they can vote in local authority elections), was run on poor registers missing out seven million people; and such a narrow snap vote is no democratic authority to deprive millions of freedom of movement and probably impose new borders between England and Scotland and between Northern Ireland and the South.

All but the thinnest democracy includes a process of the formation, refinement, revision, and re-formation of a collective majority opinion. Without such a process, and without organised democratic political parties which collectively distill ideas and fight for them, democracy means only rule by whatever faction of the rich and well-placed can sustain itself through judiciously-chosen successive snap popular votes. It has almost no element of collective self-rule.

Labour should fight for freedom of movement, for substantive democracy and against Article 50.

The internationalist, anti-racist left may now have lost that argument, in part because of the weakness and political ignorance of Corbyn and his advisers. But there is a further battle worth having: instead of issuing a ludicrous and ineffectual “final warning” to those front-benchers who voted against May last week, Corbyn should do something about Frank Field, Kate Hoey, Kelvin Hopkins, Graham Stringer and Gisela Stuart, Labour MPs who voted against basic rights for EU citizens. And if Corbyn won’t act, Labour members should start organising to deselect these scumbags.

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Organising the Labour Party in Northern Ireland

February 12, 2017 at 1:08 pm (campaigning, class, democracy, Ireland, labour party, posted by JD, reformism, solidarity, Unite the union)

Leonie Hannan, Vice Chair of the Labour Party’s Belfast branch, spoke to the unofficial Momentum magazine, The Clarion.
For an open letter from Momentum supporters in Northern Ireland to the Momentum NC, arguing for their right to organise a group, see here. At present the Labour Party in Northern Ireland meets regularly, decides on policies, campaigns on issues and sends delegates to conference, but is not allowed (by the national Labour Party) to stand  candidates in any election.

lpni2

How has the Labour Party in Northern Ireland changed over the last eighteen months?

LPNI has changed in two main ways. First of all it has grown dramatically, from around 350 members back in May 2015 to over 3000 now. There was a first surge during and just after the leadership election in the summer of 2015 and then a second leap in membership prompted by the coup and the prospect of a challenge to the elected leadership.

This first change, in many ways, predicts the second – that the politics of the party here have shifted to the left and members have an appetite for active involvement in politics. It’s clear that people are joining because they are motivated by Corbyn’s leadership, his critique of society’s problems and the kinds of policies he is advancing. When the party was much smaller, it did not have the reach that we have now, it was in some ways quite de-politicised because the focus was trained almost exclusively on the right to stand in elections – which LPNI still does not have and which remains a very important issue for us.

However, despite this difficult context for Labour activism, now we are seeing new members who are primarily motivated by politics and the need to contribute to the Labour Party’s new direction – a direction which they see holds potential to address the serious problems facing society, problems that have been compounded by years of austerity and which have particularly acute ramifications in Northern Ireland.

What kind of people are involved and what motivates them?

Well this is the really interesting bit and points to how our increased membership can contribute significantly to our long-standing campaign for the right to stand candidates. LPNI attracts members from across communities, people who see the system isn’t working for them and who feel a profound disillusionment with sectarian politics. We have trade unionists joining us, we have BME members and many LGBT members too – who don’t always feel comfortable in some of the other political parties in this region.

We have members who might describe themselves as Republicans alongside those who hold Loyalist views and, of course, many in between and this is something quite unique in Northern Ireland. Something quite unusual and yet extremely powerful. For progressive politics to make an impact here, we have to draw people from across the sectarian divide around issues that affect all communities – the effects of poverty, loss of jobs, social, educational and health inequality, homophobia and racism and the continued repression of reproductive rights. The larger a party we are here in Northern Ireland, the more motivated activists we attract, then the greater pressure we can apply on the issue of our right to stand candidates. We are here, we are many, we are diverse and we need Labour representation.

Corbyn won 70pc of the vote in your nomination meeting – more than in his own CLP. Why such strong support?

He didn’t just win 70% of the vote at our meeting, he won 70% of the vote in the election itself. Moreover, he would have had an even higher share of the vote if the majority of our members had been able to use their vote. In the end, much less than a third of members could exercise a vote (because our membership is disproportionately new and therefore found itself subject to the NEC’s last minute rule changes). I just think this shows the way Corbyn’s political agenda resonates in Northern Ireland, which is a post-conflict society suffering deeply at the hands of its own power-sharing government and their implementation of Tory cuts.

In fact, at the nomination meeting, person after person stood up to say why they had been brought into politics (often for the first time and, for some, after decades of disillusionment with politics) by Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party. They saw this change as offering an opportunity to rehabilitate the Labour Party as a political party for ordinary people; a party that would not put the needs of corporations above those of struggling workers.

How does the LP fit into, or stand out from, the framework of sectarian politics and the constitutional conflict in NI?

As I mentioned, LPNI draws its membership from both communities and provides a much-needed space for non-sectarian politics. In fact, its growth in membership speaks not only to the interest in Corbyn, but also to the disillusionment with Stormont [the Northern Ireland Assembly]. Effectively we have a government made of false opposites – Sinn Fein and the DUP power share, they govern together and they implement the Tory agenda. Of course, engaging with the Labour Party doesn’t preclude having a view on the Union, but in the end the Good Friday Agreement ensures that any change would have to have the consent of the people.

What is your relationship with the trade unions?

We have a really strong relationship with Unite, who provide us with space for our meetings, who campaign with us on local issues and who resolutely support the project of standing Labour candidates in NI. There is really high trade union membership here in Northern Ireland, many as part of affiliated unions and so it is a real disservice to those affiliated members not to have the possibility of full political representation.

Please explain about this issue of standing Labour candidates.

Historically, the Labour Party has tried to remain neutral in relation to Northern Irish politics, preferring to sustain a relationship with the Social Democratic and Labour Party instead. The SDLP are sometimes referred to as a ‘sister party’ and attend Labour Conference.

However, there are a number of problems with the SDLP in terms of Labour representation. First, they do not (and cannot) attract support from both communities because of their status as a nationalist party. They have their origins in the Civil Rights movement and the Catholic community’s struggles in the 60s for equality. Today, their commitment to equality only goes so far, they describe themselves as a pro-life party and their spokespeople have continued a virulent attack on women’s rights by vocally supporting the current abortion law (women cannot even have an abortion in Northern Ireland in the circumstances of rape, incest, foetal abnormality or risk to a woman’s health – interesting considering the recent Polish women’s campaign).

Besides this key issue, the SDLP hold conservative views on a range of issues and just don’t offer a left-wing alternative to the ultra-conservatism of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP, founded by Ian Paisley). In these circumstances it is just not reasonable for the Labour Party to suggest that Northern Irish people should support the SDLP in the absence of Labour. I suppose the other simple point to make is that 3000 people didn’t just join the SDLP, they made themselves clear when they joined the Labour Party and I think they should be listened to.

What are the big issues the party, or its members, campaign/should be campaigning on over there?

Northern Ireland is an economically deprived region, a problem which fosters sectarian tension, and has suffered a series of devastating job losses. JTI Gallagher let workers go in May, Caterpillar announced job losses in September, cuts have been seen across the voluntary and community sectors, library service cuts and many more. There are also the same issues as elsewhere with un-unionised labour, which need to be tackled and LPNI is playing its part supporting worker organisation and strike action wherever possible.

The Momentum NC in February passed a document saying the organisation wouldn’t organise in NI. What’s your view on that?

We are writing a letter to the NC making our case for Momentum organisation in NI. The main point is that their decision not to organise is based on a a statement made by a Momentum national officer that Labour does not organise in NI. Well, as I have just explained – Labour absolutely does organise in this region and so there is no reason why Momentum should not also organise, especially so considering the motivation of the vast majority of our members. I regularly get forwarded emails received by Momentum from members in NI who are eager to be involved, the demand is there and it really should be met. Like the right to stand issue, it is a bit much to be told by people in England what we can and cannot hope to achieve over here in relation to Labour politics. Really, the people in England, both Momentum and Labour, ought to listen to the 3000 Northern Irish residents who are telling them very clearly what it is they need.

nilp

Northern Ireland Labour Party members protesting against cuts

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Previewing the Stoke Central By-Election

January 18, 2017 at 1:56 pm (class, democracy, elections, labour party, populism, posted by JD, reformism, UKIP)

Local lad Phil Burton-Cartledge (who blogs at All That Is Solid) concludes his series of articles on Stoke-on Trent in the light of the forthcoming by-election:

Previewing the Stoke-on-Trent Central By-Election

Finally, here’s the third installment on the Stoke-on-Trent politics special. We’ve spoken about Tristram Hunt’s career in The Potteries, and we’ve turned our attention to the local scene. Now it’s time to go all Mystic Meg and break out the politics astrology charts. For which party do the stars align?

Labour have got to be the favourites. Stoke-on-Trent Central was born a Labour seat, and the party will be stretching every sinew to ensure it stays that way until the Boundary Commission kills it. Labour has some very strong cards to play. Firstly, the membership. All the Stoke-on-Trent and North Staffordshire parties are active, campaigning organisations in-between elections. The bad old days of nothing happening unless we were asking for votes are long gone. Additionally, the combined membership of these parties are huge. Stoke Central itself is pushing 500, the other Stoke parties are more or less the same and nearby parties are, if anything, even larger. And we know people are going to travel from far and wide to help out. In short, a tsunami of Labour activists are poised to swamp the constituency, and none of the other parties will come close to matching it.

Read the rest of this entry »

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Open Letter to the Birmingham Board of the Labour Party

January 10, 2017 at 6:40 pm (campaigning, democracy, labour party, posted by JD, reformism)

labour-party-logo

From Momentum South Birmingham to the Birmingham Board of the Labour Party

Dear Comrades

Regardless of your views on the leadership election and the movement around Jeremy Corbyn, it is clear that the Labour Party faces a huge task locally and nationally. The polls are unlikely to be that out of kilter with reality and if there was a general election tomorrow in all likelihood the Labour Party would lose, and badly.

More specifically, here in Birmingham we also face big challenges. With the Midland Metro Mayor election next year and “all-up” council elections in 2018, we will need a large, motivated and dynamic ground operation to achieve the results we want. In particular with the Metro Mayor, the Conservative candidate, Andy Street, is clearly no fool and the contest will be a very tough one. Without a significant Labour presence on the streets and in our communities, we won’t win.

The Tories have vast amounts of money and plenty of friends in the media to help put their case. The Labour Party has the overwhelming case that exists for a democratic socialist society, obviously, but more prosaically, it’s huge membership, which has more than trebled nationally in just over a year.

That membership will need to be mobilised. And in order for it to be mobilised it will need to have a say in how the party is run.

It was therefore with huge disappointment that we learned that the Birmingham Board of the Labour Party voted to exclude all members who had joined in or after July 2015 from selecting our candidates for the 2018 local elections.

Two thirds of Labour Party members have been disenfranchised at a stroke. It is also worth bearing in mind that the next local elections after 2018 will be in 2022, so selection will take place in 2021. Therefore if you joined the party in July 2015 you will face a six year wait to select a council candidate. The national Labour rule is 6 months.

This cannot be right. There needs to be a freeze date, but the one imposed by the Birmingham Board is ludicrously excessive and smacks of cynical gerrymandering.

It is also self-defeating.

How do we expect to have a motivated membership knocking doors, delivering leaflets and taking the case for Labour candidates into our communities if we won’t even let that membership select those candidates? How will we build the big, lively, well-resourced campaigns that we will need to get Sion Simon elected in 2017?

Momentum South Birmingham calls on the Birmingham Board of the Labour Party to overturn the decision and instead have the usual six month freeze date. It is in our party’s interests to do so.

In solidarity

MSB

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Momentum: policy and purpose missing from OMOV debate

December 23, 2016 at 1:23 pm (democracy, labour party, left, posted by JD, socialism)

Funk Dooby/Flickr

By Edd Mustil at The Clarion blog

James McAsh has written a typically thoughtful and thought-provoking contribution to the ongoing debate within Momentum for Novara, to which this article is a reply.

I agree that the current debate is happening back-to-front. We are discussing Momentum’s structures without having openly discussed and decided upon the purpose of the organisation. When Momentum was founded in late 2015, it should either have been launched with a specific, well-defined purpose in mind, or come to an agreement on its purpose very quickly, but neither of these things happened. Meanwhile, the large numbers of people who were drawn into Labour politics by the Corbyn campaign’s victory started doing what came naturally: they turned up to their local Labour meetings, and they started meeting together as like-minded activists.

This quickly led to a situation where people developed a very strong affinity with Momentum as a name, an organisation, or (*shudder*) a “brand,” without having necessarily reached any agreement about what it was all for. Being a “Momentum person” could mean all sorts of things, politically, to different people. Ironically, this is similar to the situation in the Labour Party, where everyone professes to holding “Labour values” despite this being an ill-defined phrase which can mean twenty different things to ten different people.

It is this strong sense of ownership over the organisation on the part of its rank-and-file supporters, coupled with a lack of a clear definition of the organisation’s purpose, which has made a seemingly arcane debate about committees so bitter and fractious at times. The structures debate is a cipher for all sorts of other political disagreements. We should have first established our purpose and adopted a structure best suited to that purpose.

James ascribes two purposes to Momentum, both of which are reasonable, and both of which I agree with: firstly, strengthening the Labour left by training and mobilising support for left activists in the Labour Party, and secondly helping to win an electoral majority for the Labour Party. He argues that Momentum needs neither to discuss policy nor support strong local groups, and that delegate structures are therefore superfluous.

I have some sympathy with this argument. I know from first-hand experience locally that there is a real danger of the organisation becoming overburdened with committees, of people being turned off by too many long and sometimes frustrating meetings, when their political energies could be better spent elsewhere.

However, I disagree with James on both the question of policy, and local groups.

Firstly, on policy. Momentum of course exists to support the policy programme of the leadership, which has faced indifference or outright hostility from some sections of the party. But I do think we have a responsibility to further develop policy and take the discussions into the Party. We talk about being a grassroots movement. If the programme of the next Labour government is really going to come from the grassroots of the labour movement rather than a team of advisors (or – why not? – from both), then Momentum is perhaps uniquely placed to popularise the concept that the rank-and-file should be discussing and developing ideas and policies of our own to contribute to this programme.

The other reason I think we need to develop policy is simply the history of the Labour Party. I don’t doubt that Corbyn and McDonnell are genuinely committed to a radical social democratic programme, something not seen at the top of the Party for a long, long time, if ever. But the last hundred years of social democracy has been the graveyard of good intentions. All sorts of pressures are brought to bear on the leadership of our movement by what people these days call the “establishment” – I prefer the term ruling class. Whether this comes in the form of the trappings of parliamentary procedure, the need to conform to mainstream political opinion as defined by the press, or the hard muscle of global capital, our leadership will face pressures and they will require a supportive rank-and-file possessing thought-out, radical ideas and the ability to act to counter these.

This is not to be too prescriptive about the sort of ideas Momentum should discuss or adopt – but I do think it would be an abrogation of responsibility to simply leave this to the leadership.

On the question of local groups, I again have some sympathy with James’s position. I know that comrades in some areas have decided against setting up local Momentum groups for perfectly valid reasons. The last thing I would want us to do is impose a superfluous structure where local comrades feel it would serve no purpose. We don’t necessarily need layer upon layer of formal structures, and I actually think we should elect our national leadership by an all-member vote. But I don’t think we should extend this to running conferences or deciding campaigning priorities. This is politics by referenda; something that, as we all know, doesn’t always end well. We could end up with all sorts of contradictory policies and strategies which have been passed by simple votes without much thought, a mish-mash of political positions rather than a coherent sense of purpose.

The reality is that local groups already exist, have a life of their own, and have done hard campaigning work on the ground. I agree that it is, as a rule, better to convince local Labour Party organisations to run campaigns and do things under the Labour banner. But, ironically, in some places this could involve much more energy spent sitting in more meetings trying to get ideas for campaigning activity through the local Party, when a Momentum group could just crack on with it. Many people, including in the leadership of Momentum, talk of the organisation becoming a “social movement” and, frankly, we kid ourselves if we think that we can transform the deeply, almost purely electoralist nature of the Labour Party into a “social movement party” simply by getting some comrades elected to the local CLP General Committee. We kid ourselves even more if we think a social movement will be built by firing off emails about disjointed days of action on various issues.

It remains to be seen whether the twin goals of cohering the Labour left and “building a social movement” can actually be realised by the same organisation. The attempt to do so is something more or less without precedent in the history of Labour politics in this country. But if it is to succeed at all, vibrant local groups are the means to do it. Simply put, people drift away from any organisation if they don’t feel a sense of ownership over it, discuss things, or have input into its political direction. Local meetings and locally-run campaigning activity are key to this.

See also: Comrade Coatesy

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Martin Thomas writes to Jon Lansman

December 16, 2016 at 12:27 pm (AWL, campaigning, democracy, labour party, posted by JD, reformism, trotskyism)

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Martin Thomas is a prominent member of the Alliance for Workers Liberty; Jon Lansman founded Momentum.


Jon Lansman and Tony Benn in 1981

Dear Jon,

I’m glad to read your statement to the Guardian that you’re “not walking away from Momentum”. I hope it will help quiet the split talk from some high-profile people around Momentum – Paul Mason, Owen Jones, Laura Murray – since the 3 December national committee meeting.

I hope, even, that it means it may be possible to talk quietly, without media-provided megaphones and howling about sabotage, to discuss what adjustments or compromises can best keep Momentum on the road.

We are for unity. If we find ourselves on the losing side in some future votes about Momentum structure or policy, as we’ve found ourselves on losing sides in the past, we won’t split. We’ll only take up the democratic rights that every minority should have, to try to convince the majority.

As you know, I’ve sought you out for off-the-record conversations about Momentum, to find common ground and to clarify and explore ways of dealing with differences, since before Momentum was launched. I’m glad you agreed to those conversations, and disappointed that more recently you haven’t responded to requests for further talk.

This has to be an open letter; but it is also a letter, an attempt to restart dialogue.

You and I were effectively co-organisers of the Labour Party Democracy Task Force in 2010-11, when Ed Miliband made a promise (effectively, in the end, annulled) of an open review of Labour Party structures. We were also effectively co-organisers of the campaign against the Collins Report in 2013-14.

Further back, we worked together in the Rank and File Mobilising Committee for Labour Democracy in 1980. I was only a backroom activist, while you were the secretary of the committee, but the organiser of the committee, your partner in the day-to-day running of that campaign, was my Workers’ Liberty comrade John Bloxam.

Thus you know from long experience that Owen Jones’s, or Laura Murray’s, squalling about us as “saboteurs” and “sectarians” is nonsense.

We have never agreed on grand political philosophies. I am, or try to be, a Trotskyist, a revolutionary Marxist. As you said in an interview with me in 2014, you are “not from [our] political tradition”; if I understand right, you are a reform-socialist, a “Dererite” in the sense of the gradualist strategy advocated by Vladimir Derer (founder of the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy), but, unlike Derer, not a Marxist. Read the rest of this entry »

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Why Labour should support free movement and oppose Brexit

December 3, 2016 at 3:03 pm (Anti-Racism, AWL, democracy, Europe, labour party, populism, posted by JD, workers)

Labour must seek to persuade Leave voters, but make no concessions to nativism

By Martin Thomas

It is conceivable that within a year or so there will be no European Union, or not much of an EU, for Britain to quit.

In Italy, Salvini’s right-wing nationalist and anti-immigrant Lega Nord may be able to seize the initiative after the likely defeat on 4 December of prime minister Matteo Renzi in Renzi’s referendum on increased executive powers. Or it may be the Five Star Movement of Beppe Grillo, who has tacked left sometimes but who greeted Trump’s election with right-wing bombast. Trump, Grillo said, had defeated the “journalists and intellectuals of the system, serving the big powers. Trump has screwed over all of them — Freemasons, huge banking groups, the Chinese”. The Lega Nord wants Italy to quit the euro, though not the EU; so does Grillo; so does Silvio Berlusconi and his Forza Italia.

In Austria, also on 4 December, neo-Nazi Norbert Hofer may win the presidency. Next March and April, Marine Le Pen of the Front National could win the much more powerful French presidency. She is way behind in the polls at present, but then so was Trump for a long time. She wants France to quit the EU as well as the euro. Her likely second-round opponent, François Fillon, is not quite a “call out the border guards” type, but he is a social conservative, a Thatcherite, who rejoices that “France is more rightwing than it has ever been”.

The Netherlands also has elections in March 2017. Since Britain’s Brexit vote, Geert Wilders’ anti-immigrant PVV, which wants the Netherlands to quit the EU, has usually led the opinion polls. Maybe none of these dislocations will happen. 65 years of European capitalist integration, since the Coal and Steel Community of 1951, have created a web of connections with staying power. But even one upset, in Italy, France, or the Netherlands, could unravel an already-shaky EU.

Probably, in the short term at least, a looser free-trade area would survive, rather than a full return to frontier fences, heavy tariffs, and high military tensions, but “Brexit” as such would dwindle to a detail. If the EU survives on present lines, its anxieties and tensions will work against easy terms for Brexit. They will make “hard Brexit” probable whatever the Tories want.

Already many of the Tory ministers positively want “hard Brexit”. That will be regression. A break-up of the EU would be worse regression. It would increase divisions between the working classes of different countries. It would threaten the rights and security of 14 million people in Europe who live, currently as EU citizens, outside their countries of origin.

The new border barriers would make things even harder for refugees from outside the EU. The break-up would sharpen competitive pressures on governments to squeeze their working classes, and reverse the mediocre and patchy, but real, processes of social levelling-up which have come with the EU. It would expose each country more to the gusts of the world markets. Foolish is the idea, circulated in some parts of the left, that a break-up or partial break-up of the EU would be good, because all disruption of the existing system must be good.

Salvini, Grillo, Hofer, Le Pen, Wilders will not replace the EU’s neoliberalism by anything more generous. They will only add anti-immigrant and nationalist venom. The mainstream left, the “centre-left” as it shyly says these days, is alarmed, but unable to respond with flair.

In Austria, the Social-Democratic SPÖ has a coalition government with Hofer’s neo-Nazi Freedom Party in the Burgenland province. In Italy, the Democratic Party, the main remnant of the once-huge Italian Communist Party, is led by Renzi, whose drive for strong executive powers and anti-worker policy has given the right their opening. In France, on 25 October a poll found only 4% of voters “satisfied” with the record of Socialist Party president François Hollande, whose latest move has been to slash workers’ rights with a new“Labour Law”.

The choice, not just between progress and stagnation, but between progress and rancid regression, depends on the clumsily-emerging new forces on the left, like the Corbyn movement in Britain. We must stake out political ground, win arguments, rally people to principles, remobilise the labour movement at ground level, pull together into political effectiveness young people who still overwhelmingly reject the new nationalism and racism.

Neither the Corbyn-McDonnell leadership of the Labour Party, nor Labour’s biggest left grouping, Momentum, is doing well on this. In the run-up to the June 2016 Brexit referendum, John McDonnell said, rightly, that: “One of the fundamental rights the EU protects for its citizens is freedom of movement. I think this is critical. The right of working people to live and work where they choose is a hard-won gain of the labour movement… We should stand foursquare for freedom of movement in Europe. The right to travel and seek employment is a fundamental one”.

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Why are you so upset?

November 19, 2016 at 12:19 am (democracy, Human rights, immigration, Islam, Migrants, posted by JD, Racism, Trump, United States)


Above: the author’s choice of music to accompany this article

This post is important; never mind that it first appeared at Harry’s Place:

This is a guest post by Yasmin Baruchi

“You’re not the type of Muslim or immigrant the Brexit Leave or Trump Campaign targeted so why are you so upset?!”

This was the question my partner asked me, struggling to grasp why I would sitting in tears at 4.00am on Wednesday 9th November 2016 as “Brexit plus plus plus” became a reality and Trump was elected.

In the eight years we have been together, we have never needed to have a conversation about identity despite being an interracial couple. However, in the last week, it has never been clearer how as a South Asian Muslim heritage woman my experience of the world vastly differs from that of a White middle class man, despite how aligned and compatible we are in so many other ways. As my pain, despair and hopelessness grows on a daily basis, he became increasingly resigned. “It will be ok, it’s not that bad, you are being dramatic, don’t be so emotional” he said in exasperation reflecting the chosen attitude of our government that we must accept this, we need to give Trump a chance and this could be an excellent opportunity for a UK-US trade deal post Brexit.

What erupted as a result was a series of the most raw, passionate, and painful conversations we have ever had but also the most valuable. It allowed him to understand what few can unless they have experienced being part of a demonised minority and led me to overcome some anger and gain insight into why so many people are so resigned, even willing to accept what has happened and just get on with it.

I know people voted for Brexit as they did for Trump for a whole array of reasons, some complex and some simple. I still feel confident in saying that most did not vote for racist or xenophobic reasons. But the fact is that the extreme language, rhetoric and narrative employed by both campaigns was not enough to turn people away, that it was still acceptable, excusable or ignorable. If this same rhetoric was deployed against people we all personally cared about or we held in equal regard to ourselves, we would never have accepted it, no matter what great promises were on offer to compensate. It would have been condemned and rejected. And this has been at the root of my despair. When people are willing to accept these things being said about you at the very highest level in society, it devalues you as a human being and leaves you questioning your place in society.

“But that stuff wasn’t aimed at someone like you! People we know clearly identify you more as British as opposed to the immigrants in Farage’s poster or a Muslim” were my partner’s (failed) attempt to comfort me that I am wrong to question my sense of belonging. Besides the fact that as a society, we should never accept such scaremongering and scapegoating of an entire group of people simply based on their race or religion, no matter how unrelateable they are, I went on to explain why this is simply not enough.

Everything observable about how I act, speak, dress, and behave is what you would consider British. It’s how I have always identified. Yes, I am brown and obviously so but I am everything a “good immigrant” should be- integrated, educated, employed, not on benefits and I pay taxes. But that is not all I am. When my loving partner, friends, his wonderful family and even some of my own family look at the “breaking point” poster immigrants, or read the “Daily Mail” caricatures of “bad immigrants” and criminal refugees, they don’t see anything connected to them, and they certainly don’t see me.

But I’m reminded of my own history that makes up my identity and sense of self. Family members expelled from Burma with only the clothes on their backs, my grandfather who arrived in the UK, looking very much like those demonised, dehumanised young man in present-day tabloids, not knowing a word of English, wearing a karakul hat, and three pounds in his pocket. I’m reminded of my own father and uncles, similarly to an extent “good immigrants” if you ignore their choice of clothes on Friday that make them identifiable as Muslims- which due to blanket demonisation we know is not a desirable thing in the UK. They arrived, again not a word of English, their childhood interrupted to live in a country that was simultaneously welcoming and hostile to them in the 60’s and 70’s.

When I hear the rhetoric on Muslims and how it goes unchallenged, I think of my mother in her hijab and salwar kameez, her unconfident accented English and know full well that because we have let it get this far, there may be a thug on the street who could feel that she is a justified target of abuse. I asked my partner to consider how he would feel if the dress, and appearance of his own mother had been villifed to the extent that some individual could hurt her and the mainstream reaction was to rationalise it as a result of White extremism and carry on.

As we become immune and blind to the harm we are allowing to continue because it’s only directed to those that we feel we cannot relate to, it grows and it spreads. A case in point, is Steve Bannon’s comments in the US that there are too many Asian CEO’s in Silicon Valley. Suddenly the focus is no longer limited to what we have accepted to be dirty, poor, criminal, leeching immigrants, but “good immigrants”- the ones who are educated, talented, contributing to the economy, and why? Because they share characteristics in common with “bad immigrants”- their skin tone, their country of origin, the fact they are foreigners etc etc. How can this fail to alarm someone like me?

For those who perceive any of this as me making some sort of “bleeding heart” case for uncontrolled immigration, I want to be clear, this is not about immigration policy, or a denial of the issues that have arisen from immigration. This is about how we talk about human beings and the consequences of the language we gave a green light to by ignoring and not challenging. Not for a moment do I think everyone who voted for Brexit or Trump are bad, racist or xenophobic. Good, kind people were able to give their vote to a toxic divisive campaign because we’ve had a constant trickle of dehumanisation of certain groups of people that has not been challenged effectively and normalised.

What this normalisation has resulted in is a real panic in even people like me- who as a liberal secular, nominal Muslim has never before felt insecure or uncertain in her British identity. I now feel like my worth is not the same as my partner. Boris Johnson’s appeal for us to quit the “whingeorama”, the focus on how we can make Trump’s election a good thing for Britain’s economy, Theresa May just a week after Trump’s election, saying the “it is up to the United States what rules they put into place, in terms of entry across their borders, but we will be ensuring that “special relationship” continues…” without any comment or condemnation about Trump’s language on Muslims let alone the proposed Muslim ban itself has left me feeling hopeless. One wonders if May would be so pragmatic and willing to maintain the UK-US “special relationship” if Trump had spoken about a group she identifies with in the same way. It is difficult to draw a conclusion other than that to our government, some of us are worth standing up for more than others. How does this not devalue British Muslims- even the most secular, integrated, Muslims like myself.

And moving this away from myself and to the big picture, in this silence, this pragmatism, “business as usual” attitude we are pushing, things will get worse. For those that fear Islamist extremism, and for those like myself that counter and fight it, our work has become so much harder. The sense of isolation and alienation that is resulting amongst Muslims by turning a blind eye can easily be manipulated and turned in to anger, antipathy and violence. The victimhood complex Islamists have been peddling in our communities can now be presented as justified more and more by the day – they will say they warned Muslims that the “West” doesn’t truly care about us.

When will we start proving them wrong?

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Sanity breaks out in Momentum

November 4, 2016 at 8:46 am (democracy, labour party, left, posted by JD, reformism)

Image result for momentum

Unanimous Statement from Momentum’s Steering Committee

The Steering Committee recognises and regrets the discontent and frustration felt by Momentum members in recent days. Momentum’s democratic structures were always intended to develop. Unfortunately, this summer’s leadership election delayed that development, with all our energy being diverted into ensuring Jeremy Corbyn’s reelection.

The Committee recognises the need for a greater level of accountability and transparency from the leadership and administration of the organisation and will work to deliver that over the coming weeks.

Our path to democratisation, through our first National Conference in the new year, has not been sufficiently effectively communicated, leading, at times, to a breakdown in trust between different sections of our movement. There was not enough consultation and discussion with the diverse political and organisational traditions that exist in our movement. Pluralism is our strength, and all views must be properly engaged with.

After further discussion, the Steering Committee has agreed unanimously the following path for Momentum’s democratisation, which places unity, pluralism and member-control at its heart.

The National Committee, postponed from this Saturday, will take place on 3 December. We will ensure that this meeting is properly representative, including new elections for our liberation strands where necessary. A plan for ensuring this will be submitted and approved by the Steering Committee at the latest by 11 November.

A further National Committee meeting will be held in January before our Conference in February. Our Conference, involving all members of Momentum, groups and affiliated organisations, will decide our organisation’s long-term structure.

Taking into account the strong views on both sides of the OMOV (one member, one vote) vs. delegate for Conference votes, the Steering Committee has agreed on a recommendation to the National Committee of a suitable format. There will be both a physical delegates conference to thoroughly debate proposals submitted from the membership, and then OMOV voting on the proposals in the period after the conference. The details of this procedure will be determined over the coming weeks.

We know all levels of Momentum are committed to a truly inclusive and democratic structure and will make it succeed over the next few months.

H/t: Joe Baxter

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