Russia and Georgia – Background and implications of a five day war

August 26, 2008

By Rob Jones, CWI in Moscow

Introduction

The world’s press had their attention diverted from the glitter of China’s Olympic Games as the conflict between Russia and the Caucasian republic of Georgia over the small breakaway region of South Ossetia suddenly escalated into a nightmarish military conflict.

After weeks of growing tension in South Ossetia’s capital, Tskhinvali, Georgia’s President Mikhail Saakashvili sent troops to seize the region. Over the night of 6th and 7th August Georgian troops attacked Tskhinvali and five other towns with automatic weapons and artillery. Claims vary on the number killed in the initial stages of the fighting. A Russian journalist said the South Ossetian capital had been badly damaged. “The town is destroyed. There are many casualties, many wounded,” Zaid Tsarnayev told Reuters from Tskhinvali. “I was in the hospital yesterday where I saw many civilian wounded. The hospital was later destroyed by a Georgian jet. I don’t know whether the wounded were still there”. Both South Ossetia’s president, Eduard Kokoiti, and Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, have claimed that over 1500 people, mainly peaceful residents were killed during the attacks. At least 15 Russian “peacekeeping troops” based in Tskhinvali were killed.

With the Georgian troops having initially seized the town, Russian troops, headed by a huge column of heavy tanks, crossed the mountain passes from Russia into South Ossetia, ostensibly to defend the people of the area. Fighting again broke out in Tskhinvali and for days, both Russian and Georgian military spokesmen claimed control of the city. Both sides used aviation. Russian troops then moved out of South Ossetia, occupying the city of Gori and attacking military and economic targets throughout the rest of Georgia. Gori ended up in the same state of destruction as Tskhinvali. Many were killed or wounded in these attacks. The Georgians also claim that Russian aircraft bombed ships in Georgia’s Black Sea Ports and that the oil and gas pipelines crossing the country were also attacked.

Saakashvili declared that Georgia was in a state of war, announced the call up of reservists and the immediate withdrawal of the country’s contingent from Iraq. Georgia has 2,000 troops there, the third biggest contingent after the US and Britain,. Huge diplomatic pressure was put on both sides to tone down the conflict. The US came out openly hostile to Russia, with Condoleezza Rice in effect holding Saakashvili’s hand throughout the conflict. The EU tried to be more bi-partisan, with Merkel and Sarkozy shuttling between the two capitals trying to find a compromise. Iran, which borders on the Caucasian region, offered to arbitrate in the dispute, whilst China called for a ceasefire “which is the traditional response during the Olympic Games”!

Now, although many Russian troops remain in Georgia, the fighting war appears to be over. But the world has dramatically changed.

Regional tensions escalated

Long-running tensions in the region around Georgia escalated considerably after the end of 2006 in parallel with the increase in tensions between the US and Russia internationally. What the Russian government called the “frozen conflict” heated up as a result of a number of factors. Military exercises near Tbilisi in July of this year, involving over a thousand US marines, Georgia’s continued attempts to join NATO, (although the last attempt was pushed back at the beginning of this year) and Georgia’s open support for the US missile defence system based in Eastern Europe have all played a role in bringing the conflict closer.

Not coincidentally a nasty racist campaign had been launched by the Russian authorities against Georgians living in Russia towards the end of 2006, supposedly after the Georgians arrested four Russian spies. The government imposed an economic boycott of Georgian goods, mainly wine and brandy. As a result many cafes and bars “ran dry”. At the same time harassment of Georgians living in Moscow was stepped up dramatically – passports and work permits constantly checked. Russian TV showed hundreds of Georgians, who were supposedly ‘illegal’, being loaded onto ‘Ministry of Emergencies’ aircraft for deportation. Many hundreds more were sent by train.

The question of NATO has acted to polarise opinions on both sides. Saakashvili had made the entry of Georgia into NATO a key policy of his administration. He was therefore bitterly disappointed that the application was pushed back (together with the Ukraine’s) at the Bucharest Conference earlier this year. Some analysts have suggested that he therefore decided to attack South Ossetia in order to attempt to push NATO into action on Georgia’s side. This is an unlikely explanation. Saakashvili’s government has been meeting increasing economic difficulties. For the majority of the population, the promises and hopes of the Rose Revolution that somehow Georgia would join the West with its high living standards and freedoms, have been dashed. As opposition to his rule grew, protesters began to come out on the streets Saakashvili, in early November 2007, used police and troops to attack demonstrators in Tbilisi and declared a state of emergency. Then, in an attempt to cut across this growing opposition, Saakashvili announced an early presidential election and a referendum on when to hold parliamentary elections in January this year. While he was re-elected the opposition accused Saakashvili of “subtly rigging” January’s election. These events led at least some European powers to begin to try and distance themselves from Saakashvili. It is therefore more likely that Saakashvili, rather than following a well thought out strategic plan, was actually desperately trying to find a way out of the corner into which he had been forced.

A key turning point for the Russian government was the recognition of Kosovo independence in February of this year. This was a blow to Russian interests in the Balkans as it saw an openly pro-US Kosovan government granted recognition against the wishes of Russia’s historical ally Serbia. Russia’s ruling elite reacted with venom spitting through clenched teeth. The then still Russian president, Putin, stated that, “The precedent of Kosovo is a terrible precedent, which will de facto blow apart the whole system of international relations, developed not over decades, but over centuries. They have not thought through the results of what they are doing. At the end of the day it is a two-ended stick and the second end will come back and hit them in the face”.

Russia’s envoy to NATO, nationalist politician and long time Kremlin insider Dmitri Rogozin was even more explicit. This decision, he stated means that: “We too would then have to proceed from the view that in order to be respected we must use brute force, in other words armed force”. This comment follows on from his earlier comments concerning NATO expansion, in which Rogozin stated: “As soon as Georgia gets the promise to join NATO from Washington, on the next day the real process to separate these two territories from Georgia will begin.“

Following the recognition of Kosova, Russia lifted the economic restrictions it still had in place against Abkhazia and South Ossetia and activated its attempts to strengthen its support in the republics. The sixth months from February to August this year saw a steady increase in incidents provoked by both sides including flights into the no fly zone and shooting incidents. In the weeks before Saakashvili’s attack on Tskhinvali, Russia sent scores of “railway troops” into South Ossetia, ostensibly to restore the rail link with Moscow. This was interpreted by Tbilisi as a hostile act on sovereign territory, and indeed it helps to explain how the Russian army could get tanks and troops into Tskhinvali so quickly.

Hypocrisy – the first sign of war; truth – the first victim

As the Russian leadership point out, the US is unbelievably hypocritical when it attacks Russia for going in to Georgia. After all the war in Iraq is illegal and just as brutal. But the outbreak of open warfare in the second week of August saw even more incredible hypocrisy and propaganda on both sides. Suddenly the US is against self-determination, although it supports Kosovo independence. Russia supports self-determination although it has waged two brutal wars to prevent Chechen independence. The western that is pro-Georgian press put almost purely the pro-Saakashvili position. Almost no attention was paid to the initial attack by Georgian troops on Tskhinvali. The town was subjected to heavy artillery bombardment leaving many of the civilian population dead. 12 Russian “peacekeeping” troops were also killed. After the Russians sent tanks into Georgia, the press was dominated by the Russian occupation. Only after the initial five days war was over did articles start appearing, for example in the English Guardian suggesting, in a one-sided way, that the US was responsible for the conflict.

The Russian press towed the Kremlin line to a man. Columns reported on the suffering of the population in Tskhinvali but not a word was said about Russian troops moving into Georgia, or the vicious attacks on Gori. Exaggerations and rumours were reported with no independent checking. The claims of Kokoiti and Russian foreign minister Lavrov that between 1,600 and 2,000 civilians were killed in Georgia’s initial attack are taken as read. However ‘Human Rights Watch’, after surveying hospitals, talks of less than a hundred being killed. But this was enough for Russia to send the troops in. During the five days, Russian tank columns were spotted throughout Georgia. At the same time pro-Russian witnesses swore blindly they had seen columns of NATO troops moving through Georgia. Reporters on both sides who tried to be “objective” were victimised. A reporter for Russia’s world service, “Russia today”, tried to send reports from Tbilisi reporting on Russian attacks but was forced to resign. Reporters from western papers who attempted to go to South Ossetia through Russia were threatened with the sack. Varying terminology on both sides such as the “fascist” Saakashvili, the “genocide” of the Ossetian people, “aggressors” or the “Stalinist” Kremlin are thrown around to play on emotions and hide the real issues and distract from the grave human catastrophe taking place.

So what would socialists say?

Socialists base themselves on what is beneficial or detrimental to the working class and poor people. We reject attempts to analyse the situation in an empirical way – that is, ‘Who fired the first shot?’ Nor do we base our standpoint on national interests – that is, ‘Who is pro- or anti-imperialism? Who is pro- or anti-Russia (which itself is already an imperialist state)?’

Many lefts, especially from a Stalinist tradition, have chosen to give critical support to Russian capitalism, on the basis that Russia and its allies are the best defence there is in the world today against unbridled US imperialism. This is based on the pessimistic assessment that the international working class is incapable of uniting and struggling to overthrow capitalism. They still imagine they are backing a “lesser evil”.

Lefts with a reformist leaning and others speak of the need for a “neutral” force to oversee peace-keeping in the disputed regions. Calls are made for UN or OSCE troops to be used. However, as the experience of the former Yugoslavia or Rwanda show, these contingents also defend the policies of their own governments and are not capable of maintaining peace. Indeed the worst massacre of the conflicts in the Balkans, at Srebrenica took place while UN peacekeepers looked the other way.

In particular, the position facing revolutionary Marxists in Russia is hard. There is incredible pressure in society to support the Russian actions. All sorts of questions are thrown at us – “How else are we supposed to defend the rights of the Russian passport holders?” “Why shouldn’t Russia stand up to US imperialism and its Georgian puppet Saakashvili?” “Surely if the people of South Ossetia want to unite with North Ossetia, they should have the right?” “Russian troops are in Georgia just to ensure that the Georgian army is disarmed and can no longer attack us?” “Socialism is abstract, something has to be done now.” These questions have to be answered, but we also understand that, sometimes, socialists must adopt the longer view, rising above emotional responses and take a firm position in the long term interests of the working class.

Who should be defended?

The whole tragedy of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the restoration of capitalism is that there was no independent working class organisation capable of offering a programme to end the horrors of Stalinism and capitalism. As a consequence, the working class has become divided; social degradation and ethnic division have become the norm. This is no surprise. This is in the nature of capitalism. Even “modern, civilised” states such as Belgium, Britain and Spain have not succeeded in solving the national question. But in the former Soviet Union the newly developed capitalist elites have not baulked at consciously using ethnic conflict to further their aims.

Socialists need to speak out, not in favour of the defence of one nation or ethnic group against another, but in favour of the rights of the working class of all ethnic groups against their oppressors. This means, notwithstanding the aggressive policies of the Saakashvili government, we should give no support to the Kokoiki government in South Ossetia, based on KGB and army representatives and financing itself through smuggling and the black market, with the support of its Russian paymasters. Just as Saakashvili is a pro-American stooge, the Kokoiti government is a mafia government, defending mafia interests with the backing of Russian imperialism. We therefore call for the unity of the Ossetian, Russian and Georgian working class in defence of their common interests.

What does the right of self-determination mean?

As seen in the events around South Ossetia (and Kosova), the question of self-determination is used hypocritically by both sides. So-called leaders do not mean self-determination for the working class and poor, just for those who have armies and powerful friends. As genuine socialists, we defend the right of self-determination and fight against all forms of national discrimination and oppression through organising working class and international solidarity. As Kosovo and South Ossetia demonstrate, under capitalism there is no possibility of a nation being genuinely independent. Seeking the support of one or another imperialist power is no solution. Developing an independent working class force capable of challenging and overthrowing capitalism – nationally and internationally – is the only way to guarantee the right of self-determination. On the other hand, socialists do not always advocate separation and even when we do work to build the solidarity between and unity in action of the working class of all nationalities.

In South Ossetia, we have to ask which South Ossetia has the right to self-determination? Should South Ossetia join with North Ossetia, within the Russian Federation or as an independent entity? Should part of South Ossetia break away from another part (along ethnic lines) leaving the Georgian part in Georgia and the Ossetian part in Russia? Or should the people who live in South Ossetia be forced to return to the “status quo”? In each of these variations, we can say clearly that the fundamental economic and social problems of the region will not be solved unless capitalism is overthrown, So long as capitalism remains the region will still be subject to the permanent conflict of the world’s imperialist powers for control of the oil and gas pipelines, that repressive and nationalist governments will attempt to divide people along ethnic lines in the interests of the rich and powerful.
We support a genuine right to self-determination based on the rights of the working class and poor in society to decide where they wish to live. This can only be determined when the working class and poor have established their own organisations capable of defending their interests. At the same time self-determination of one group should not be at the expense of another. We therefore support the right to autonomy or independence of any groups within a federal or confederal structure if they so desire. While the maximum unity of the working class in the struggle for socialism, in the genuine and not Stalinist meaning, is our aim we are sensitive to national feelings. Thus if, for example, South Ossetia decided to become independent, the Georgian population within it should have the right to be autonomous or independent, if they so wish.

Who can defend the rights of workers?

Many now argue that at least the Russian army will defend the rights of South Ossetia now. But during the course of the last twenty years, the army (either in its regular form or through irregular units) has shown that it intervenes in the region in the interest of one section or another of the Russian ruling elite at the cost of ordinary people of all nationalities. In the Abkhazia context, it participated in the massacre of Georgians, for no other reason than that they lived in the wrong place. No attempt has been made to counter the recent statements of Kokoiti that Georgians living in Ossetia should not be allowed to return. In no way can the Russian army be said to have defended the rights of Chechens through two brutal wars, nor has it been able to ensure peace in Ingushetia or North Ossetia. Indeed it was the bungling of the army chiefs that worsened the Beslan catastrophe.
During the present conflict, by occupying Gori and attacking ships in Georgian ports, the Russian army has shown it is defending the oil and gas interests of Russia’s capitalist oligarchs.

It may be possible that for a short period, to create an image of stability, the army will be seen to defend the local population (at least those who have not been prevented from returning) but it will soon return to its normal role of defending the interests of the Russian ruling class.

In other such conflicts, we have raised the need to establish workers’ defence forces. But in these conditions they should not be simply “narodnii opolchentsi”, (people’s defenders) formed to defend residents of a particular area. As such they would just become ethnically-based militias. We need to argue that workers’ defence forces should be multi-ethnic, formed to defend workers and the poor from attack, whatever their nationality and under the democratic control of the working class.

Can the question be solved under capitalism?

It is too crude to say that the national and ethnic conflicts in the Caucasus are entirely the result of capitalism. The legacy of Stalinism and its bureaucratic approach to the question of nationalities has clearly left its mark in the region. However it has been the restoration of capitalism that has left the region so desperately poor, under the control of warring factions struggling to control oil and gas routes and subject to the never ending conflict between imperialist powers. If proper homes and jobs, a decent health service and education, pensions are to be provided for all, irrespective of nationality, then the struggle for self-determination has to be linked to the struggle against capitalism. If workers were to be sufficiently organised to take political power in any of the republics in that region, then the nationalities map would be dramatically re-drawn as the improvement in living standards and the possibility of genuine self determination would mean that ethnic groups would be able to cooperate and not be in conflict with each other.

Is this realistic?

Some will say, “Yes, that’s nice but we need to do something now!”. The problem is that there is no realistic solution as long as the region is dominated by the likes of Saakashvili, Kokoiti or Kadyrev and by their imperialist backers in Washington and Moscow. Of course we would welcome any short-term easing of the problems but have to warn that, to reach a genuine solution, capitalism has to be driven out of the region.

To achieve this the socialists’ programme is based around:

– a call on all worker and left activists in Russia, Georgia and South Ossetia, and of course in other countries, to demand that military activities are immediately halted. Workers cannot rely on the uncontrolled actions of their governments, diplomats or intervention by some outside forces to solve the conflict, they can only rely on their own forces.

– the withdrawal of all Russian and Georgian troops from South Ossetia and oppose troops supplied by other capitalist states. We call for the formation of trans-ethnic workers’ defence forces to defend workers and poor people from attack, whatever their nationality, and under the democratic control of the working class rather than so-called peace-keeping forces.

– for the right of South Ossetia and the other unrecognised republics to self-determination without military intervention.

– for united action by the working masses of Georgia, Russia and South Ossetia to overthrow those governments who wage war against ordinary people and to drive imperialism out of the region.

– the nationalisation under democratic workers’ control and management of the oil, gas and other natural resources in the region and the pipelines through which they are transported and for the use of the income from these for overcoming poverty in the region.

– an emergency construction programme and job creation to provide homes and incomes for all refugees of all nationalities in the region, under the control of democratically elected committees.

– the establishment of governments which will defend workers’ interests, overcome poverty and ensure peace.

– for a democratic socialist federation of the Caucasus.

Without this there can be no long-term solution for the conflict over land and resources.

What future now faces the region?

Whatever the final outcome of the current military manoeuvrings, nothing has been resolved. Georgia continues to be ruled by a clique set on forcing Abkhazia and South Ossetia against their will back into Georgia. Saakashvili has made a serious error in attacking South Ossetia in the way he did. Now many western leaders are realising that he is an unreliable ally. The US could not get NATO to agree to fully back him, and, if Obama wins the US Presidential election, US foreign policy tactics may change. Saakashvili will find himself with declining support at home and held at arm’s length by the world powers. Some opposition leaders in Georgia have issued the call for elections to replace Saakashvili, but these will have no purpose if Saakashvili is just replaced by another set of neoliberal politicians. There is an urgent need in Georgia to build a genuine left wing alternative to Saakashvili.

In Russia, the “Medvedev-Putin” tandem has won a Pyrrhic victory. This will not be a repeat of the success of Putin’s presidency after he waged the second Chechen war. On the one hand the whole Caucasus region will be more unstable as a result of these events, demanding even greater resources to “control” the area. But also the conditions no longer exist for a further ten years of economic growth. The US, EU and Japan are now experiencing a slow-down or recession. A further major fall in oil prices would hit the Russian economy hard. There was already a sharp decline in foreign investment into Russia even before these events. Finance Minister Kudrin says that as a result of the war $16 billion of foreign investment has fled the country. Although for a period there may be a temporary strengthening of the regime, this is unlikely to be permanent. If economic conditions worsen, in a couple of years people could well look back and say that the South Ossetia war was a turning point. The only question is whether a serious left wing alternative capable of capitalising on this can develop in time.

In the Caucasus as a whole, the situation is dire. The struggle by imperialist powers for control will be even more bitter. The building of the gas pipeline is now under question as the investors are unhappy about the instability. The apparent success of Russia in bringing Saakashvili to book may encourage the Azeri regime to try and wrest Nagorno Karabakh back under its control. The conditions now exist throughout the Caucasus for the explosion of a Balkan type of war, involving not only the regional powers but the major imperialist ones as well.

Internationally, the older imperialist powers find themselves in a much more difficult position. For two decades imperialism has been trying to gradually develop relations with Russia while maintaining their own superiority. Now it finds it has created a monster that is difficult to control. NATO is divided on how to react. On the one hand, Poland, the Ukraine and the Baltic States rushed to Georgia’s defence. The US anti-missile defence system will now go ahead in Poland and the Ukraine. In reply, Belarus and Russia have announced they will build their own system in opposition. Calls have been made within the G8 to once again return to G7. The US is finding itself in opposition to some of the European capitalists over how to deal with Russia. And in the United Nations the US will find it much harder to carry its position, as Russia will be more willing to use its veto. Whilst the international organisations such as the UN and OSCE are reluctant for their peacekeeping troops to be pulled into the Caucasus, refusal will leave Russia in control. The imperialist powers are being dragged into the Caucasian powder keg.

But the conditions internationally are not the same as those at the start of the nineteen nineties, when the Balkan wars started. Then the Soviet Union had just collapsed, capitalism appeared to have won the ideological war, the world economy was growing steadily and the workers’ movement was disorientated and leaderless. Now, people are beginning to question capitalism more and more, the world economy is in a dire state, the workers movement internationally is beginning to flex its muscles.

The lessons of this nightmare situation in the Caucasus must be learned and the way opened for new generations to establish socialist cooperation on the highest scale.

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Russia and Georgia, A background to the crisis – Georgia 1990 -2004

August 26, 2008

By Rob Jones, CWI in Moscow

Georgia gained independence from the Soviet Union when the latter broke up at the end of 1991. The first years of independence were painful. The country had as president the former anti-Soviet dissident and nationalist writer, Zviad Gamsakhurdia. He leaned on the widespread mood of opposition to the centralised Soviet Union to become head of newly independent Georgia, but his rule proved to be not only nationalistic but far from democratic.

Georgia was racked by the economic and social collapse that affected the states of the former Soviet Union as they attempted to restore capitalism. In fact, it suffered the worst collapse of all of them with a 70% drop in production. Gamsakhurdia preferred to rely on nationalism rather than attempt to defend living standards for all those living in Georgia. His supporters demanded that “Georgia should be for Georgians” although at the time over 30% of the population were non-Georgians. The national minorities, in particular, the ethnic Russians and groups such as the Ossetians, had always been more pro-Russian than pro-Georgian and began to get concerned for their own position. Pro-Russian movements were deliberately whipped up to undermine the Georgian government, sometimes by the Russian state, as part of a conscious policy, and, just as often, by rogue elements within the Russian state and Russian nationalist politicians such as Russia’s current envoy to NATO, Dmitri Rogozin.

Unhappy with the lack of progress with economic reforms, other sections of the ruling elite moved against Gamsakhurdia. Three ministers resigned, calling him a “demagogue and totalitarian”. The army divided into pro- and anti- Gamsukhurdia factions.

Most analyses of this period contain no clear description of what the real nature of the differences within the Gamsakhurdia government were, as the authors either treat history as a conflict between personalities or because they look at the question through the prism of their own national interests. But in general, throughout the ex-republics of the former Soviet Union at that time, the ideological disputes within the ruling elite centred on the best way to restore capitalism – through neoliberal “shock therapy” or a slower, state-regulated approach à la China. They often, but not always ran parallel with the conflict between pro- and anti- Russian interests.

On the level of the newly independent republics, these conflicts were complicated by clan interests. In Georgia’s case, neo liberals who expected the declaration of Georgian independence to lead to the rapid restoration of capitalism found themselves in conflict with Gamsakhurdia’s nationalism.

During the period of economic stagnation before the break-up of Soviet Union, when the conditions were ripening for the restoration of capitalism, the working class was unable to form its own political organisations with a revolutionary Marxist ideology that could have offered a genuine alternative to Stalinism and capitalism – a real socialism based on workers’ control and management, freedom and democracy, national self-determination and internationalism. Instead of taking society forward through a political revolution, the lack of a working class alternative led society backwards into capitalist restoration, with all the horrors that that entailed.

In Georgia, the divisions within the ruling elite led, in December 1991 to a coup d’état against Gamsakhurdia. After a week of fighting in Tbilisi, a military council took control of the country and appointed as president probably Georgia’s only real ‘elder statesman’, former Soviet foreign minister Eduard Shevardnadze. While without the direct involvement of the Russian government of the time, this coup took place with at least the participation of some of the most reactionary elements of the Russian state. Although Shevardnadze often caused difficulties for Russia, he waged a repressive campaign against former supporters of Gamsakhurdia and by the end of 1993 further armed conflicts broke out into a civil war affecting the west of the country. Azerbaijan, Armenia and Russia all intervened to support Shevardnadze when it appeared that Gamsarkhadia might gain control of the Black Sea ports, and thus threaten their export potential. In return for his at least temporary victory, Shevardnadze ensured that Georgia joined the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). Whilst he essentially had a pro-western position he managed mostly to maintain workable relations with Moscow.

South Ossetia and Abkhazia

Tensions between South Ossetia and Georgia began to increase before the collapse of the USSR. With his nationalist rhetoric, Gamsakhurdia proposed that the only language to be recognised should be Georgian. Ossetians have their own language and this provoked the South Ossetian leaders to appeal to the Soviet government for support and even recognition as a separate state. In response, the Georgian government moved to abolish their autonomous status within Georgia. Tensions grew and clashes developed, which eventually broke out into brutal, largely ethnically-based conflicts. At the end of 1991 ethnic clashes in South Ossetia left over a thousand dead and huge population shifts. Over 100,000 Ossetians were forced to leave Georgia (23,000 from within South Ossetia and the remainder from the rest of Georgia). They went to North Ossetia and the basis was laid for an ethnic conflict there as the Ossetians were allocated homes once occupied by Ingush people.

The ensuing Ingush-Ossetian War claimed hundreds of lives. At the same time, over 23,000 ethnic Georgians were driven out of Ossetia after their schools and homes were burned to the ground.
In Abkhazia, where the ethnic make up was much less homogenous, the war which broke out there was absolutely brutal. After the Georgian military seized hold of Sukhumi, they introduced a regime based on the exclusion of non-Georgians from power. This led to a flow of refugees from the city and the ground was laid for horrific ethnic conflict. The Abkhazians, with the support of significant sections of the Russian state responded to the Georgian attacks with ethnic attacks of their own. Within 18 months at least 10,000 ethnic Georgians had been brutally murdered, whilst a further 200-300,000 Georgians were forced out of Abkhazia. Many Georgians of course were opposed to the nationalist policies of their government, just as in the same way many Abkhazians opposed the ethnic cleansing. Indeed, it is wrong to even call the separatist forces purely Abkhazian. The hard core was made up of mercenaries from the North Caucasus with the later notorious Chechen, warlord Shamil Basayev, and his bandits playing a central role in the massacres of ethnic Georgians. These thugs did not care who they killed. On many occasions they slaughtered Abkhazians who attempted to protect their Georgian friends and neighbours or who refused to join them. One report from ‘Human Rights Watch’ says “Out of a group of 12 front line soldiers, 2 were Abkhazian, 2 were Armenian – 1 Armenian locally from Sukhumi, 1 from Yerevan who was too young to go fight the good fight in Karabakh – and the rest were either from the North Caucasus or from places like Siberia. What were they motivated by? Looting. They had been promised houses with tangerine gardens. They had been promised cars”.

Whilst the official Russian government policy was to call for an end to the conflict and for peacekeeping troops to be engaged, at key moments the involvement of Russian forces, mainly aircraft and special troops was critical. This is how ‘Human Rights Watch’ describes the attack on Abkhazia’s capital, Sukhumi, following the peace agreement signed early in September 1992.

“The Abkhaz separatists along with their allies were forced by the agreement to hold their advance and heavy bombardment of the city. The Georgian side was reassured by Russia that Sukhumi would not be attacked or bombed if the Georgian army would complete its withdrawal. The Georgian troops along with their tanks were evacuated by the Russian military ships to the city of Poti. The city was left without any significant defence. A large number of civilians stayed in Sukhumi and all schools were re-opened on September 1st. However, Abkhaz separatists, North Caucasian Volunteers, Cossacks and Russian special forces attacked Sukhumi on September 16 at 8 am. This marked the beginning of 12 days non-stop fighting around the besieged Sukhumi with intense fighting and human loss on both sides. Georgians who stayed in the city with some weapons were left without any defence from artillery or mechanised units. The city was mercilessly bombed by Russian air forces and separatist artillery. On September 27, the city fell as units of Abkhaz, Russians and Confederation of Mountain Peoples of the Caucasus (CMPC) stormed the House of the Government of Abkhazia. One of the most horrific massacres of this war was waged on the civilian population of Sukhumi after its downfall. During the storming of the city, close to 1,000 people perished as Abkhaz formations overran the streets of the city. The civilians who were trapped in the city were taken from their houses, basements and apartment buildings.”

These actions put into perspective the cynical statement of Russia’s then foreign minister, the pro-western neoliberal Andrei Kozyrev, at the UN General Assembly at the end of the war: “Russia realises that no international organisation or group of states can replace our peace-keeping efforts in this specific post-Soviet space”. Georgia was forced to accept a ceasefire to avoid a large scale-confrontation with Russia. The government of Georgia and South Ossetian separatists reached an agreement to avoid the use of force against one another, and Georgia pledged not to impose sanctions against South Ossetia. However, the Georgian government still retained direct control over substantial portions of South Ossetia, including the town of Akhalgori. A peace-keeping force of Ossetians, Russians and Georgians was established with the support of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

Abkhazia and South Ossetia – de facto but unrecognised independence

Although unrecognised internationally, in effect Abkhazia and South Ossetia gained de facto independence, just as Chechnya gained de facto independence at the end of the first Chechen war until Yeltsin and Putin decided to end the insubordination at the start of Putin’s presidential election campaign in late 1999. In Chechnya, the Russians handed power to a renegade war leader. When he died in a bomb attack, his son took over and has effectively established a police state in Chechnya. In South Ossetia’s case, the Russians nominated the St Petersburg, based wrestler-turned-businessman, Eduard Kokoiti, as President. He returned to South Ossetia to put together a government team including Head of Armed Forces General Anatoly Barankevich, who leads the South Ossetian armed forces with soldiers mainly from North Ossetia. As Head of the South Ossetian KGB (still called KGB) he appointed a former head of the Kabardino-Balkaria FSB (Secret Service). (Kabardino-Balkaria is one of Russia’s small Caucasian republics and the FSB is the successor of the KGB in Russia).

Whilst Russia leant on Kokoiti and used South Ossetia as a means to pressurise Georgia, it did not want to encourage South Ossetia to go too far. It was already struggling to control instability throughout the Russian North Caucasus. If Chechnya had almost been brought under control under Kadyrev, it was at the cost of spreading discontent to the neighboring regions. Ingushetia, Dagestan, North Ossetia became zones of almost constant bombings and armed attacks. The North Ossetian town of Beslan gained worldwide notoriety after the school siege was incompetently handled by the Russian state, leaving hundreds dead. It needed to avoid further instability.

The South Ossetian ruling elite, however, used the autonomous republic’s position to their own benefit. No real economic activity was possible in the isolated state in one of the poorest regions of the northern hemisphere as indicated by the scale of South Ossetia’s GDP – just $15 million. The elite, however, ensured that they had enough to live on by developing smuggling into a business. When the population objected, they diverted attention by blaming Georgia. The success of the smuggling business was due to South Ossetia’s location in the Caucasus region, squeezed between Russia in the North, Turkey, the Black Sea and Europe in the West, Iran to the South and Central Asia to the East. As Georgia does not recognize South Ossetian independence, it does not put up border and custom patrols. The only route between South Ossetia and Russian North Ossetia is through the Roki tunnel under the Caucasus. Travel through this is controlled by the Russian state. It does not take much speculation to understand why the Russian army today is so keen to control Gori, which has traditionally been the first staging post on the smuggler’s route.

The Caspian energy corridor

With Russia’s economy beginning to grow and the oil and gas prices on world markets rocketing, naturally South Ossetia found itself subject to an increasingly bitter struggle for power and influence between the world’s imperialist powers. As Ronald Asmus, director of the Brussels Transatlantic Fund commented in the Herald Tribune, “There are those who say that this is really about Russia and the rules of the game for Europe writ large for the Caspian energy corridor”. Both the US and the EU grew increasingly worried about Russia’s growing influence on the oil and gas market. They decided to use the region around Georgia as the only possible transit route between the oil rich Central Asian and Caspian regions and Europe that by-passed both Iran and Russia. There are now three international oil lines running through the Caucasus with a further gas line planned. These enter the Black Sea through the Georgian ports of Kulumi and Poti and the Abkhazian port of Sukhumi. The BP-operated Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan line alone has a throughput of over a million barrels of oil a day. The pipelines are located in neutral zones in which so many metres to either side of the line are considered international property. In turn, the Russians are planning-through a joint project between Gasprom and Italy’s ENI – to build the South Stream pipeline through the region to try and maintain some control over supplies. The equation is quite simple, the larger the proportion of oil and gas supplies flowing through the Caucasus is controlled by the west, the weaker is Russia’s grip on Europe’s energy market and, of course vice versa.

In June 2004, tensions once again rose as the Georgian government launched a campaign against smuggling in the region. Dozens died in the subsequent wave of hostage takings, shootouts and bombings. A new ceasefire agreement was reached but both Moscow and Tskhinvali complained about the Georgian military build-up. They kept quiet however about the increase in the Russian military budget in the same period.

The Rose Revolution

This is the background to the wave of “coloured revolutions” that spread like wildfire across the region in the middle of the last decade. In broad strokes, starting with Serbia, through the Rose Revolution in Georgia, the Orange Revolution in the Ukraine and the Tulip Revolution in Kyrghistan, these movements developed in countries in which there was widespread discontent with the state of the economy, social degradation and corrupt and undemocratic governments. Because of the absence of working class and left wing organisations capable of mobilising this discontent in a socialist direction, western orientated neoliberal politicians, with the backing of considerable financial and ‘polit-technological forces’ (‘spin doctors’) were able to parasitically use the popular discontent to overthrow the old broadly pro-Russian regimes. Threats by the western powers to encourage similar “revolutions” were used to essentially blackmail Azerbaijan’s president Akiyev and Kazakhstan’s president Nazarbayev to make concessions to western economic interests before the elections. As soon as agreement was reached, the US pulled the financial plug and money for the opposition dried up.

Shevardnadze attempted to balance between the US and Russia. In 2003, for example he signed big deals with Russia’s Gasprom and Russian Energy, effectively giving them control of Georgia’s energy market for 25 years. This so annoyed the US, they threatened to stop building the pipelines and stop financial aid. In the end Shevardnadze then signed another agreement, this time with the US which meant that US troops could enter and leave the country without visas, and army units, aircraft and ships could cross Georgia’s borders in any direction without restriction. For this right the US agreed to pay annually $75 million – 10% of Georgia’s budget, which is supposed to go to reforming the army to NATO standards. But by this time the US had become increasingly unhappy with Shevardnadze. He could not be fully controlled and the money they were pumping into the country just disappeared into corrupt pockets.

In 2004, following obviously rigged elections, Shevardnadze was overthrown in the Rose Revolution and replaced by the Harvard-trained Mikhail Saakashvili. Saakashvili and his ally, Nino Burdzanadze, represented an alliance between anti-Russian, pro-US Georgian nationalism and neoliberalism. From his first day in power, Saakashvili expressed his determination to bring Abkhazia and South Ossetia back under the control of Tbilisi. He demanded that the status of the “international” peace-keepers be changed to reduce the influence of Russia over the breakaway regions and waged an international campaign in defence of the “territorial integrity” of Georgia. This in itself was sufficient to raise the ire of Russia, but having come to power with the open backing of the US, Saakashvili clearly allied his government with the defence of US interests. Georgia applied to join NATO, troops were sent to Iraq and the main road from Tbilisi’s airport was renamed “George Bush Street”, Saakashvili stepped up the campaign against black market trading. One analyst described how “He closed the market in Ergneti, which was an outlet for contraband passing through South Ossetia, but also a point of sale for agricultural products from the regions of Tskhinvali and Gori. This vast black market constituted, in neutral territory, a place of precious exchange, the only economic integration of a highly divided region. Since its closure, all contact between Georgians and Ossetians has become more difficult, leading to an exacerbation of the alienation between the two sides. In Tskhinvali, as in Gori, many see this closure as a major mistake in the region.”

At the same time Saakashvili won a major victory in Adjara, a third breakaway region that had been Shevardnadze’s power base. He managed to essentially blackmail the local government to accept his conditions. Believing he could repeat his success and fully restore Georgia’s territorial integrity, he directed his attentions towards South Ossetia. However, international pressure held him back, but the relative stability of the previous years was disrupted.

Russian divide and rule

Once the Russian government realised the implications of Shevardnadze going, in order to maintain its position it stepped up its use of one of the oldest weapons in the imperialist arsenal – divide and rule. The leaders of the three breakaway republics were encouraged to strengthen their borders with Georgia to prevent “disruption spilling over”. They were then invited to Moscow to discuss “improving their relations with Georgia”. However, Edward Kokoiti, in South Ossetia, saw this as a chance for his breakaway territory to link up with Russia. Naturally the Georgian government saw this as a threat and stepped up their protests against the increasing Russian economic and political presence in the region and against the uncontrolled military of the South Ossetian side.

This is the background to the November 2006 referendum organised by the Kokoiti government. The question asked in the referendum was, “Do you agree that the Republic of South Ossetia should retain its current status as an independent state and be recognised by the international community?” This has been interpreted by Russian chauvinists, including Kokoiti, as meaning “South Ossetia should merge with North Ossetia in the Russian Federation”. The results of the referendum are however much more complex. According to the election commission there was a turnout of 95% with 52,000 people (99.9%) voting yes. These figures are clearly fraudulent. The whole population of South Ossetia is only about 70,000 and about 25% are Georgian. The majority of Georgians did not have the right to vote. So it is stretching the imagination to say that 52,000 voters participated.

The reality is that the referendum is just another in a long series of fixed votes organised by the Kremlin. For example, the so-called international observers from front organisations were organised by Modest Kolerov, head of the Russian Presidential Administration’s Directorate for Inter-regional ties. His deputy, Oleg Sapozhnikov, organised the international press centre in Tskhinvali. He is an experienced organiser, he was also responsible for running a similar press centre in Transdniestr, two months earlier! One of the most active observer groups was the Kremlin-organised youth group “Nashi”. As in the Russian Presidential election, it was responsible for organising the exit poll!

According to the Electoral Commission of Alternative Elections set up by Tbilisi, 42,000 voters turned out for the elections held in the region’s territories under Georgian control. According to authorities in Tskhinvali, the voters numbered only 14,000. In the alternative presidential election, Dimitri Sanakoev, the favorite candidate from Tbilisi, took 88% of the votes. More than 90% of voters voted for a return by South Ossetia to Georgia by way of a federation. These figures are obviously just as fraudulent. Needless to say, the Russian press reported only Kokoiti’s referendum, the Georgian press Sanakoev’s.

However, the two referendums reflect the reality of South Ossetia in the days before the war. On the one hand, Georgians populate the villages around Tskhinvali and nine new settlements have been established between Tskhinvali and the Roki tunnel, linked to the Tbilisi-controlled areas by a single path. The area to the north of the new villages was controlled by the Ossetian militias. This situation makes the statement by Kokoiti on Saturday, August 16, that Georgians will not be allowed to return, sound like a call for ethnic cleansing. Indeed there have been reports of Georgian homes being torched.

On the other hand is economic reality. Although the Russian North Caucasus is one of the poorest regions with average incomes (as opposed to wages, because there is practically no work) in the region of a hundred euros a month, the situation in Georgia is even worse. This explains why so many Ossetians have applied for Russian passports. (A Russian passport is an internal document, as opposed to the foreign passport, which allows for travel abroad.) Holding an internal passport entitles the holder to citizenship, and thus to pensions, which are more generous than the Georgian equivalent. Indeed in the referendum campaign in 2006, agitation mainly combined calls to “Build the Grand Alani” (an ancient empire once founded in Ossetia) with attacks on Georgia for its past aggressions and comparisons of how much better life is in Russia.

A clear understanding of questions like national conflicts can be arrived at only on the basis of patiently in examining facts. Clear analysis and readily understood programmes can then lead to the rapid building of the working class forces capable of ending capitalism with all its evils and rivalries and laying the basis for a future harmonious socialist society – nationally and internationally.

Marxism and climate change – the debate continues

August 15, 2008

Responding to the comments made by JL in the previous post, SB replies:

JL says; “I don’t think that pointing out that the Earth is currently undergoing a warming, which will negatively impact on the lives of millions of people, is painting a picture of a doomsday scenario.” I agree entirely that it is not, in fact that was precisely what I was pointing out – just saying that would not be to paint such a picture. However, to state, as we have in the pages of ‘The Socialist’ that manmade CO2 emissions are the cause of that warming, and to imply that we may already have reached a ‘tipping point’ in CO2 in the atmosphere from which we cannot recover – in other words that Capitalism may already have destroyed the Planet – is most certainly painting such a scenario, and is hardly likely to inspire anyone to Socialism, or indeed any other activity other than depression, lethargy and nihilism.

He goes on to say: “Our role as socialists must be first and foremost to tell the unvarnished, warts and all truth to the working class.”  That is true, but we do not, and indeed cannot, know ‘the truth’ unvarnished or otherwise, about the impact of manmade CO2 emissions, we only ever hear one side of the story – one dimension, day-in, day-out, in the Capitalist Media. As Marxists our ‘duty’ is to look at the whole issue, at the science and the implications, to reach a rounded-out dialectical analysis – which is why we should welcome a debate on the issue and not attempt to do it down.

“No serious scientist now claims that global warming is not happening and that human activities is not the main cause of it. Even supposed ’sceptics’ such as the Danish economist Bjorn Lomborg accept that it is happening, though play down it’s potential impact.” This is rather missing the point, no-one can deny that there is an ongoing warming trend occurring, it is a simple fact, but the data quite simply contradicts the idea that this has any direct connection to CO2 or any other ‘greenhouse gas’ indeed the warming experienced in the past 50 years – some 0.7 degrees Celcius is broadly in line with what one would expect from the ongoing warming trend at this point in an ‘inter-glacial’ period.

“The impact though will be serious. Low-lying land will be flooded, and the area of land available for agriculture will shrink.” Of course the impacts will be serious, though they have certainly been overplayed by many hysterical ‘models’ which would have much of Britain already under rising sea levels. “All alternative theories as to why the planet is warming (which, on average, it undoubtedly is) have been discredited.” To make a sweeping statement such as this is certainly not constructive and frankly wrong, it is simply not true, models of – for example – solar activity against evidence of warming and cooling taken from ice core data, correspond far more closely than any showing C02 or other greenhouse gases in correlation, which simply do not match up. ‘All other theories’ have received almost no funding for research and have been quite simply drowned out amidst the shrieking of the ‘greenhouse effect’ lobby, which has rapidly become an industry in itself commanding billions of dollars annually in research grants, a very unscientific and profoundly Capitalist approach to ‘research’.

Where this statement is simply wrong, however, is when one looks at the regular periods of glaciation and inter-glacial periods throughout the entire geological record of the planet. The geological record, and Ice-core record, show periods of cooling and warming as regular as a heartbeat or the ticking of a clock. As close as we can judge, from records dealing with such huge epochs, we are in a warming period which has been going on for several hundred years – manmade CO2 emissions, or no manmade CO2 emissions. This is not a theory – it is a fact, supported by far, far more concrete evidence than the spurious tissue of assumptions and half-baked observations which make up the ‘manmade CO2’ as cause of global warming ‘scientific’ theory.

Once again, I reiterate however, the point of my article, that whatever the cause is largely irrelevant. We should not let differences over the cause divide us. What is relevant, and far more pertinant, is the fact that only Socialism can provide the system of motive change to save lives and save humanity from the results of global warming, whatever it’s cause. We should not get bogged down in doomsday ‘the end is nigh’ prophesies, but give the inspiration to people to transform society and make it better. We need to provide positive answers rather than being negative and defeatist in the face of such challenges – we, as a race, united, can surmount all obstacles and harness nature by working with it, rather than exploiting it.

Reply by JL:

I don’t believe that we have already reached a tipping point in dealing with climate change, although it is clear that certain tipping points may be reached within the next few decades if decisive and radical action is not taken to drastically cut carbon dioxide emissions, probably by as much as 90%.  I also don’t believe that these tipping points signal a ‘point of no return’.  They simply worsen the problem by acting as a positive feedback, and further increasing carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere.  They certainly will not destroy the planet, which will carry on existing until the Sun devours it in its death throes in a few billion years time.  It will have an impact on humanity though, probably contributing to a significant population decline due to drought, famine, or a combination.

SB says that “As Marxists our ‘duty’ is to look at the whole issue, at the science and the implications, to reach a rounded-out dialectical analysis – which is why we should welcome a debate on the issue and not attempt to do it down.”  I agree that there should be debate on important issues, and in fact there has been on this one, in the pages of ‘The Socialist’ and on this website.  However, this is almost equivalent to giving space to an argument over the merits of Darwinian evolution, such is the consensus among the scientific community around the science that points towards the recent (and future) planetary warming having a human cause.  The solar activity theory that SB cites as an alternative to the anthropogenic warming theory was pretty much the last alternative theory standing.  It has been discredited though, as studies have shown that the cosmic rays, affected by solar activity, are not linked to the recent increases in temperature – they have been fluctuating while the overall warming trend has been occurring.  For more information see http://www.newscientist.com/blog/environment/2008/04/sunset-on-cosmic-rays-theory.html and http://environment.newscientist.com/channel/earth/dn12234.

It is important to make a case for the reductions in emissions of carbon dioxide regardless of whether the warming has a human cause, though it will be difficult to make the case if it we do not demonstrate that it does.  It would be a bit like trying to build support for a campaign to repeal of the Law of Gravity.

Capitalists and their political representatives have in fact been straining every muscle to try and suppress the idea that carbon dioxide emissions from industry and transport is causing a planetary warming.  The actions of the oil industry friendly Bush in the US and corporations worldwide in trying to discredit climate change science are notorious.  Few world Governments enthusiastically accepted the idea that the capitalist system, through its overproduction, anarchy and waste, was contributing to a possible environmental disaster.  Only public pressure and the growing realisation by some capitalists that it might have an impact on profits (the Stern Report is an example of this thinking) has led to some attempts to combat climate change, however ineffectual and limited they may be.

It is clear that capitalism will not reduce carbon dioxide emissions significantly, if at all.  Any measures they may take will not hit profits, but will be paid for by working class and other poor people across the world.  This will be through ‘Green taxes’ for using cars and aeroplanes, and also through an increase in the cost of food and other essentials.  We must oppose these measures and also seek to ensure that preventing or mitigating climate change is accompanied by material development in the Third and First worlds.

This cannot be done on the basis of capitalism, where short term profit and exploitation is all.  It must be done on the basis of international socialism, where a democratic economic and environmental plan will ensure production of essential goods is done in an environmentally sustainable way, waste is eliminated, and transport, electricity generation and industry is made clean and green, and a servant of the worlds peoples.

Marxism and climate change

May 4, 2008

Below is an article by SB. The views contained in the article are not necessarily the views of the Socialist Party. We publish it here in the spirit of democratic debate. Below SB’s article is a response by JL.

There has been an interesting debate in the pages of the Socialist recently on the issue of manmade CO2 emissions and the issue of ‘global warming’ or ‘climate change’- whilst it is useful to discuss such issues, and how we as a Party orientate ourselves towards them, there is a danger that we may be coming to a confrontation unnecessarily over the debate. What is needed is to view the discussion from a rounded out Marxist perspective and to look at how, as Socialists, we can move the issues beyond what may be a largely meaningless, not to mention diversionary, discussion to some conclusions which may not be as divisive as the debate itself.

I recently found myself arguing with an ‘eco-warrior’ handing out leaflets produced by a private company part funded by the multinationals such as Shell & BP on the virtues of giant wind turbines – to be sited on a hilltop close to Tiverton, the man seemed genuine enough, indeed claimed to be a Socialist, but he failed to see the irony in his doing the dirty work of Capitalism promoting a ‘one size fits all’ solution to sustainable energy. It is no coincidence that recently Randall Swisher, executive director of the American Wind Energy Association, a Washington-based industry group said; “Shell and BP see wind as an increasingly important part of the energy industry. They are looking to continue to grow,” …. “They want to look for new opportunities, and wind is clearly in their sights.” In other words, they have invested in wind, and now wind is the one ‘sustainable’ they are pushing, even though wind alone is anything but sustainable. This goes to show that Capitalism is incapable of creating sustainable energy, it will always go for the easiest, cheapest option – at the expense of workers and the environment.

In Geological terms, the current period we exist in is an ‘Inter-glacial’ – in other words we are between Ice Ages, the whole period of recorded Human History – the past two thousand years or so – has been within this ‘Inter-Glacial’ phase – named the ‘Holocene’, it has largely been characterised by warming temperatures – with the exception of brief regressions in temperature known as ‘climate events’ – the most recent of which ended approx 300 years ago, from which we are still recovering – temperature wise. In any given ‘Inter-Glacial’ Geological period there arrives a ‘tipping point’, in other words a point beyond which the warming trend ends, and a cooling trend commences – this tipping point is characterised by a period of higher temperatures. In the last such period before our own known as the ‘Eemian’ interglacial began sometime between 130-140 thousand years ago with a warming phase of uncertain duration taking the planet out of an extreme glacial phase, into conditions generally warmer than those of today. Warming into the Eemian may have occurred in two major steps, similar to the most recent period of warming.

Whatever the contribution of manmade carbon dioxide or other greenhouse gas emissions may make towards this warming trend, it is going to happen anyway. It was happening before we commenced the industrial revolution, and it will continue even if we halt all further manmade emissions. What’s more, at some stage, whatever we do, the cycle will turn back on itself and a cooling trend will commence, probably within the next two to three thousand years.

We must also ask ourselves as Socialists what do doomsday prophesies achieve? Do we really think that we can win people to Socialism by telling them that the human race and Capitalist industrial development may already have destroyed the environment and therefore the future? Why would anyone bother with Socialism – or any other form of society – under those circumstances?

Rather as Marxists we should be pointing out that both safeguarding the environment for the future of Humanity and coping with the impacts of inevitable ‘climate change’ can only be effectively dealt with, and planned for, by a Socialist Society, organised on a global scale, which could address those issues and effect necessary change across the earth, seas and skies. A society which could ensure our future sustainability, utilising all our resources and technology effectively and efficiently for the benefit of the whole human race and the whole planet.

Response –

SB is correct that, under capitalism, there can be no solution to the environmental problems that we face. The massive corporations that rule the world economy are concerned first and foremost with maximising their own profits. Any moves towards environmentally friendly practices, such as investing in renewable energy, are purely because they either see a profit in those ventures themselves, or profit in appearing to be a company that cares about the environment. Only a democratically planned economy which invests massively in renewable sources of energy and plans sustainable production (of food and other goods) close to where it is needed will lead to a society that is sustainable in use of resources and pollution.

I don’t think that pointing out that the Earth is currently undergoing a warming, which will negatively impact on the lives of millions of people, is painting a picture of a doomsday scenario. Our role as socialists must be first and foremost to tell the unvarnished, warts and all truth to the working class. No serious scientist now claims that global warming is not happening and that human activities is not the main cause of it. Even supposed ‘sceptics’ such as the Danish economist Bjorn Lomborg accept that it is happening, though play down it’s potential impact. The impact though will be serious. Low-lying land will be flooded, and the area of land available for agriculture will shrink. All alternative theories as to why the planet is warming (which, on average, it undoubtedly is) have been discredited.

It is true that warming periods have occurred in the past, but not at the rate that the temperatures are rising now. It is also being increasingly accepted in the scientific community that humankind has been reponsible for planetary warming for many thousands of years before the industrial revolution, as a consequence of the rise of agriculture and consequent land use changes. We now have, as humans, considerable impact on the environment, and have disrupted long standing natural cycles. The fact is, that the dominance humankind has over the planet could actually lead, with correct planning (as a counterpoint to the extreme anarchy and disorganisation that is a feature of the capitalist system), the climate could be stabilised at conditions suitable for those living by the coast (around 10% of humans) and agriculture.

SB rightly points out the cynicism of capitalists and their representatives in Governments and the UN. Conversely, many in the environmental movement are incredibly naive, and act, as the ‘eco-warrior’ in Tiverton, as useful idiots or patsies for big business. We need to point out that it is very unlikely that the inefficent, profit-obsessed, anarchic and wasteful capitalist system will be able to solve the worlds environmental problems. A socialist society based on a democratically planned world economy will be able to tackle the huge tasks of dramatically reducing carbon dioxide emissions, and reducing pollution and deforestation. We must campaign for positive measures to be taken on the environment and link them to relevant and immediate issues, such as the price and availability of food, quality public transport and the need for public services to be local and convenient, rather than remote and inconvenient.

A positive socialist programme on the environment, highlighting the benefits of moving towards renewable sources of energy and a low carbon society, will serve as a contrast to those in the environmental movement who seek to impose an environmental puritanism on people, particularly less well-off people who won’t be able to afford to maintain their standard of living with extra ‘green’ taxes on everything, while the well-off continue to consume and travel as before.

90th Anniversary of John MacLean’s famous speech against capitalism and war – selected extracts

April 14, 2008

It has been said that they cannot fathom my motive. For the full period of my active life I have been a teacher of economics to the working classes, and my contention has always been that capitalism is rotten to its foundations, and must give place to a new society. I had a lecture, the principal heading of which was “Thou shalt not steal; thou shalt not kill”, and I pointed out that as a consequence of the robbery that goes on in all civilised countries today, our respective countries have had to keep armies, and that inevitably our armies must clash together. On that and on other grounds, I consider capitalism the most infamous, bloody and evil system that mankind has ever witnessed. My language is regarded as extravagant language, but the events of the past four years have proved my contention.

The Class War

He (the Lord Advocate) accused me of my motives. My motives are clean. My motives are genuine. If my motives were not clean and genuine, would I have made my statements while these shorthand reporters were present? I am out for the benefit of society, not for any individual human being, but I realise this, that justice and freedom can only be obtained when society is placed on a sound economic basis. That sound economic basis is wanting today, and hence the bloodshed we are having. I have not tried to get young men particularly. The young men have come to my meetings as well as the old men. I know quite well that in the reconstruction of society, the class interests of those who are on top will resist the change, and the only factor in society that can make for a clean sweep in society is the working class. Hence the class war. The whole history of society has proved that society moves forward as a consequence of an under-class overcoming the resistance of a class on top of them. So much for that.

I also wish to point out to you this, that when the late King Edward the Seventh died, I took as the subject of one of my lectures “Edward the Peacemaker”. I pointed out at the time that his “entente cordiale” with France and his alliance with Russia were for the purpose of encircling Germany as a result of the coming friction between Germany and this country because of commercial rivalry. I then denounced that title “Edward the Peacemaker” and said that it should be “Edward the Warmaker”. The events which have ensued prove my contention right up to the hilt, I am only proceeding along the lines upon which I have proceeded for many years. I have pointed out at my economic classes that, owing to the surplus created by the workers, it was necessary to create a market outside this country, because of the inability of the workers to purchase the wealth they create. You must have markets abroad, and in order to have these markets you must have empire. I have also pointed out that the capitalist development of Germany since the Franco-Prussian War has forced upon that country the necessity for empire as well as this country, and in its search for empire there must be a clash between these two countries. I have been teaching that and what I have taught is coming perfectly true.

I wish no harm to any human being, but I, as one man, am going to exercise my freedom of speech. No human being on the face of the earth, no government is going to take from me my right to speak, my right to protest against wrong, my right to do everything that is for the benefit of mankind. I am not here, then, as the accused; I am here as the accuser of capitalism dripping with blood from head to foot.

The Women and Children

So far as the government’s responsibility for the murder of women and children is concerned, the reason for my statement is perfectly obvious. They have been accusing the Germans of killing women and children in this country. Perfectly true. Of course bombs dropped in Germany have not killed women and children, marvellous to say! But that apart; we had the government getting hold of the food supplies immediately prior to and immediately after the New Year, and creating a shortage. The government was therefore responsible for the queues.

Women were standing in queues in the cold, and women had died of what they had contracted during their standing in the queues. The women had died therefore in consequence of the action of the government, and I threw the responsibility upon the government—and I do so still.

We know that women and children—human material—have been used up inside the factories, and the housing of the working class in this country has been so bad, and is so bad today, that the women and children of the working class die in greater proportion than the women and children of the better-to-do classes. I have always pointed out that the death rate among the working classes has always exceeded that in the better-to-do districts.

Problems Ahead

If one side or the other wins, then the revenge will come, as France today is seeking revenge after the drubbing she got in 1871. Realising that we, as representatives of the workers of the world, do not wish one side or the other to be the victors, we wish the status quo prior to the war to be re-established. If the workers are going to do that, then it means that they have to adopt methods and tactics entirely different from the methods which would be adopted, or could be adopted under normal circumstances. Abnormal lines of action must be taken such as our comrades in Russia took. The very circumstances of the war forced in upon the Russian workers committees and their national soviets the line of action which they adopted, and the only way we could do it would be to adopt methods peculiar to the working-class organisation in this country in the interests of the workers themselves.

The suggestions I made were intended only to develop revolutionary thought inside the minds of the workers. I pointed out at the meeting on the 20th that representatives of the police were present, and therefore if the workers were going to take action themselves, it would be absolutely foolish and stupid for them to adopt the suggestions I had given them. I only gave out these suggestions so that they might work out plans of their own if they thought fit to take action to bring about peace. I was convinced, and I am still convinced, that the working class, if they are going to take action, must not only go for peace but for revolution. I pointed out to the workers that, in order to solve all the problems of capitalism, they would have to get the land and the means of production.

I pointed out to them that if capitalism lasted after the war, with the growing size of the trusts, with the great aggregations that were taking place, with the improved machinery inside the works, with the improved methods of speeding up the workers, with the development of research and experiment, that we were going to have the workers turning out three, four and five times as much wealth as they had done in pre-war times, and a great problem would arise—a greater problem than ever before—in this country of disposing of its surplus goods on the markets of the world, not only of getting markets for these surplus goods, but of getting the raw materials. We see today in the committees appointed by the government that they are anxious to get control of the markets of the world in order to exclude the Germans.

The Rush for Empire

Our government has already appointed a Land Organisation of the Board of Trade and of the Foreign Office whereby it is going to plant agents here and there throughout the world, so that in a scientific method British products may be thrown on to the markets of the world. This is scientific method applied to commerce internationally as well as nationally. These preparations are being made, it is being said, for the purpose of carrying on the war after the war. Nobody denies that there is going to be a war after the war, an economic war between the Germans and their friends, and the British and the Americans and their friends, and there is going to be a war between the nations and the respective governments will take care that, as far as they can, their capital will be planted in areas over which they have control.

You have, then, the rush for empire. We see that the Americans already have got one or two of the islands in the West Indies, and I understand that America has also got hold of Dutch Guiana. It has also been suggested that Mexico be brought into the American States. Britain herself is looking after her own interests. She has taken the German colonies, she is also in Mesopotamia and in Palestine, going there for strategic reasons, but when Britain gets hold of Mesopotamia, Palestine, and Arabia, she will use them for her own ends, and I do not blame Britain for that. Britain has got many troubles.

We see Japan also on the outlook. Japan has been trying repeatedly to get control of Northern China. She would also like to get a great big chunk of Siberia. Even today we see the tentacles being sent out, all anxious to grab more and more power. We know the secret treaties and disclosures made by our Bolshevik comrades. We know that these nations have been building up their plans so that when the Germans have been crushed they will get this territory or that territory. They are all out for empire. That was absolutely necessary for the commercial prosperity of the nations.

All the property destroyed during the war will be replaced. In the next five years there is going to be a great world trade depression and the respective governments, to stave off trouble, must turn more and more into the markets of the world to get rid of their produce, and in fifteen years’ time from the close of this war—I have pointed this out at all my meetings—we are into the next war if capitalism lasts; we cannot escape it.

Britain has the wealth. Britain did everything she could to hold back the war. That necessarily had to be the attitude of Great Britain, but in spite of all Great Britain’s skill or cunning, there has been war. I have heard it said that the Western civilisations are destroying themselves as the Eastern civilisations destroyed themselves. In fifteen years’ time we may have the first great war bursting out in the Pacific—America v. Japan, or even Japan and China v. America. We have then the possibilifies of another war, far greater and far more serious in its consequences than the present war. I have pointed that out to my audiences.

Nothing to Retract

In view of the fact that the great powers are not prepared to stop the war until the one side or the other is broken down, it is our business as members of the working class to see that this war ceases today, not only to save the lives of the young men of the present, but also to stave off the next great war. That has been my attitude and justifies my conduct in recent times. I am out for an absolute reconstruction of society, on a cooperative basis, throughout all the world; when we stop the need for armies and navies, we stop the need for wars.

I have taken up unconstitutional action at this time because of the abnormal circumstances and because precedent has been given by the British government. I am a socialist, and have been fighting and will fight for an absolute reconstruction of society for the benefit of all. I am proud of my conduct. I have squared my conduct with my intellect, and if everyone had done so this war would not have taken place. I act square and clean for my principles. I have nothing to retract. I have nothing to be ashamed of. Your class position is against my class position. There are two classes of morality. There is the working class morality and there is the capitalist class morality. There is this antagonism as there is the antagonism between Germany and Britain. A victory for Germany is a defeat for Britain; a victory for Britain is a defeat for Germany. And it is exactly the same so far as our classes are concerned. What is moral for the one class is absolutely immoral for the other, and vice-versa. No matter what your accusations against me may be, no matter what reservations you keep at the back of your head, my appeal is to the working class. I appeal exclusively to them because they and they only can bring about the time when the whole world will be in one brotherhood, on a sound economic foundation. That, and that alone, can be the means of bringing about a re-organisation of society. That can only be obtained when the people of the world get the world, and retain the world.

Why rural workers need socialism

April 10, 2008

AS RURAL workers feel capitalism’s effects acutely, the Socialist Party’s influence is spreading into rural parts of England and Wales.

RURAL POVERTY is endemic in Britain. The decline of agriculture, the increasing malign power of the supermarkets and closures of services linked to deregulation and privatisation exacerbate the problem. Capitalism is the root cause.

As well as unemployment, low wages and a crippling shortage of affordable housing, public transport is in a woeful state. Privatisation has led to closures of many more rail links; bus privatisation has had similar effects.

Some towns and villages only get one bus a week to the ‘big’ town. If you live in a village and cannot afford a car, life is difficult. Local services such as general stores, post offices and pubs are disappearing from the countryside faster than it took ‘law and order’ toffs to break the hunting ban.

Meanwhile the running down of Post Offices and the mass closure of rural, semi-rural and suburban post offices has led the service’s reliability and frequency to decline.

‘Second homers’ (who often pay reduced council tax on a second – or third or fourth – home) have invaded rural areas and created vastly increased house prices and ghost towns/villages.

The lack of council housebuilding (in south-west England alone 15,742 are sold off per year and not replaced) and the decline of service, industry and agriculture sectors means many people cannot live and work where they are born. The rural south west has the highest number of homeless families outside the south east – the average house price is eight times the average household income!

Other people, such as the shipyard workers of Appledore, North Devon, cannot live in the town they work in. The place suffocates under a mass of pottery and craft shops for posh weekenders in what was once a proud maritime industrial town.

This has led to crushing poverty in places like Cornwall, where the low price of tin has destroyed the tin-mining industry. Lost jobs are replaced by low-paid ‘McJobs’ either in shops, call centres or in tourism.

Supermarkets

Tourism, so often touted by capitalists as a way of replacing well-paid unionised jobs, offers insecure seasonal work at rock-bottom wages (some barely legal, some not legal) with as little holiday entitlement, sick pay/leave etc. as the employer can get away with.

Dairy/cattle farmers predominate in the south west; many struggle to get by if they own small farms. Supermarkets find these small farms easy to squeeze and intimidate. They make unreasonable demands especially in terms of price.

Failure to comply often results in farmers being ‘blacklisted’ – no supermarket will deal with them again. Combined with the isolation of farmers from each other and the uselessness of the agribusiness-dominated National Farmers Union (NFU), the supermarkets have a stranglehold.

Only the nationalisation of the supermarkets could ensure food which is produced in the interests of the whole population and not to boost the supermarkets’ profits. Food quality and safety is at present subordinated to the pursuit of profit, which dictates that food looks good if nothing else.

Ensuring that only good-looking food arrives on the shelves involves wasting food that isn’t deemed attractive enough and the indiscriminate use of chemicals, which may be harmful to human health and the environment.

A nationalised supermarket industry would be able to provide cheap and nutritious food and a guaranteed income for farmers both in Britain and in the third world.

In many villages (in Cornwall, the north-east and Scotland especially) fishing is a vital industry, providing jobs for other services (such as boat repairing). However, the productivity of the seas is falling, because the numbers of fish are.

The Newfoundland fishery, previously one of the world’s most productive, is now barren. The North Sea and North Atlantic are heading that way. The primary reason is over-fishing, which the large trawlers contribute to disproportionately.

The quotas imposed by the EU Common Fisheries Policy do not stop this, but instead drive the small boats to the wall. This has the effect of economically and socially depressing the fishing villages.

The only answer to these problems is a democratic rationally planned economy where fishing is maintained at an optimum level to maximise yield while sustaining (or increasing) fish stocks and the numbers of fishery workers.

The market’s logic is to distribute resources based on what’s profitable. It is not profitable to run rural bus services, post offices, schools, hospitals and shops. When the market is king, the rural working class will suffer from a poverty of services as well as jobs, housing and money.

A planned economy is the only way to ensure that people living in rural areas have access to these things which are their right.

This article was originally printed in ‘The Socialist’ in 2006.  A resolution (drawn up by Devon Socialist Party) dealing with rural poverty was discussed and passed at the Socialist Party’s Congress in 2006.

Low pay – the Devon way?

January 6, 2008

A quick glance at the property sections of local newspapers will reveal fairly modest flats, houses and beach huts being touted for ridiculous sums of money – £200,000 here, a million quid there. This might suggest there is a lot of money in Devon – and there is, in the hands of the mainly middle and upper class types who treat Devon as a holiday break or retirement area. The rest of us who are live and work here all the year round make do with rather more modest wages that certainly pale in comparison to the cost of housing we have to endure.

The reasons for the cost of housing in this part of the world are many and varied. The selling off of social housing, the re-emergence of landlords colluding with rent increases, profiteering private house builders, not enough houses being built and the role of second home owners, are some of the most significant. They are all linked in one way or another, united by their common heritage of Thatcherism, starting with Thatcher, then Blair and now Brown, with a hostility to and the attendant attacks on the public sector and welfare state putting into effect the neo-liberal economic policies that have led to the ever-widening and grotesque gaps between the poor and super-rich.

Average wages

But it’s pay that concerns this article, and the high cost of housing only exacerbates the problem. So what are the figures? Well, according to Office for National Statistics, the national average (median) wage is £23,580 per year. The average (median) yearly wage for Devon (excluding Plymouth and Torbay) is £20,518. For Plymouth it is £22,560, and for Torbay it is £19,410. For the areas covered by the district councils for Mid Devon, North Devon and Torridge the average annual wages are £18,846, £18,848 and £16,574 respectively. Even Exeter, with a large hospital, a university and local government offices doesn’t beat the national average wage. No district in Devon does. However, that is only part of the picture.

Part-time work

The figures I have just given you are for full-time work. A significantly higher proportion of jobs in Devon are part-time compared to the UK as a whole (29% versus 25%). The average annual wage for part-time workers in Devon is £7,301. Nationally, the average is £7,501 per year. In North Devon, where 36% of all jobs are part-time, the average annual wage is £6,437. The figures for Torbay and Plymouth are £7,282 and £7,355 per year respectively. This is a problem in Plymouth where 28% of jobs are part-time. It’s an even bigger problem in Torbay where 35% of jobs are part-time.

Hourly pay

The same pattern emerges for hourly pay. The national average hourly rate for full-time jobs is £11.12. It is £9.28 for Devon (excluding Plymouth and Torbay). But as we have seen, part-time work is more significant in Devon than elsewhere. Do the figures get better here? Well, yes actually, but not much. Compared to a national average hourly wage for part-time work of £6.99 per hour, Devon comes in with £6.92, Plymouth £6.72 and Torbay £6.24. Significantly, the three areas with the highest percentages of part-time work – North Devon, Torbay and Torridge – have the three lowest hourly rates for part-time work. North Devon’s average is £6.21 per hour (I never even saw anything near that, nor did and do many people I know), Torridge’s comes in at £5.54 per hour (and £7.24 per hour for full-time, again the lowest out of Devon, Plymouth and Torbay).

Types of jobs in North Devon

These data give us one possible explanation for low pay on the whole – more part-time work. This also suggests greater temporary, agency, seasonal and casual work. In North Devon, for example, according to 2001 data, 10% of employed people work in hotels or restaurants. The figure for England as a whole is 5%.

Why are these jobs lower paid

Part of the reason lies in the nature of these jobs. Working in shops and hotels or holiday parks is likely to be temporary and/or seasonal. The jobs are largely unskilled and require no qualifications, and so the employer can get away with paying a pittance, as there will be plenty who will be prepared to take the wage. Temporary or insecure work also discourages workers from organising in trade unions to fight for better pay and conditions at work. Trade union membership is considerably lower for temporary jobs compared to permanent jobs.

The benefits of trade union membership

According to the Trades Union Congress (TUC):

“In private companies the union “mark-up” is 6p in the pound for manual workers and 4p in the pound for white collar staff.”
“The average union member gets more paid holiday than the average non-member. Two out of three union members get twenty-five days or more paid leave a year. Only one in three non-members enjoy this much holiday.”
“Non-union members are twice as likely to be seriously injured at work.”

According to the ‘Oxford and Cambridge Careers Handbook’, which I came across when researching this article, “almost every improvement in workplace conditions – for example, equal pay laws, stronger health and safety legislation and statutory redundancy pay came about following pressure from trade unions.” You only need to look at countries such as those in south-east Asia without free trade unions to see what effect the lack of trade unions has.

Below is yet another table which underlines the points I’ve just made about union members being paid more, though the declining ‘trade union wage premium’ (how much better paid unionised jobs are compared to non-unionised jobs) is interesting and is probably due to declining trade union membership and a decline in collective bargaining, which helps to secure higher wages:

Levels of trade union membership

In the UK as a whole, in December 2006 (the latest figures available), 28% of all employees were members of trade unions. In the south west as a whole, 25% of all employees were members of trade unions. Nationally, trade union membership in hotels and restaurants is 6%, and in agriculture, hunting and fishing is 9%. The graph below outlines the levels of unionisation in different types of employment quite clearly:

So, the low levels of unionisation in the workplaces more commonplace in Devon is a fairly clear cause of the low levels of pay and conditions. Longer hours worked by workers in Devon is another indication of the low levels of union organisation. For example, 26% of male workers and 9% of female workers work over 49 hours a week in Devon, compared to 24% of male workers and 7% of female workers in England as a whole.

Low wages, who benefits?

Generally speaking, employers will try to keep the wages of their employees as low as possible. Bigger profits can be made two ways – decreasing the pay of workers and making the workers work more productively (either by changing work practices, investing in new technology, making them work more for the same amount of pay or a combination of these). In the public sector, employers try to keep wages down in order to satisfy budgetary constraints placed upon them by Government. Occasionally in response to shortages in certain key jobs or Government ministers messing up (the GPs’ contract comes to mind) public sector employers will willingly increase wages but these cases are the exception rather than the rule, as the current ‘pay restraint’ being forced on postal workers, nurses, civil servants, soldiers, firefighters, police officers and teachers by Brown and Darling shows. In a strange turn of events, this pay restraint doesn’t apply to MPs, Government ministers, chief executives and the heads of privatised public services such Allan Leighton and Adam Crozier of the Royal Mail.

Lower rates of union membership in Devon – why and what effect does it have?

We have seen that trade union membership, by virtue of collective bargaining and industrial struggle, results in better pay. And Devon does not have good pay, or high trade union membership. Why does Devon not have very high trade union membership? Part of the reason is the temporary and unskilled nature of many jobs, part is the size of the workplaces that are inherent in certain jobs.

There is a higher proportion of smaller workplaces in North Devon compared to England as a whole, and a lower proportion of the larger workplaces in North Devon compared to England as a whole. What difference does this make to pay? As you can see from the graph below, which pits the average yearly wages against the percentage of workplaces that have at least 200 workers in the UK as a whole, the south west as a whole and each individual local authority area, there is a positive relationship between having more larger workplaces and the average wage in the area. In other words, the higher the percentage of large workplaces in an area, the higher the wages are.

The relationship is not particularly strong, but there is a relationship all the same. Of course, it may just be that skilled workers (which are higher paid) happen to work in bigger workplaces – car plants, hospitals and universities for instance. But then there are the counterexamples of packaging plants, call centres and light industry involving basic assembly as unskilled jobs taking place in large workplaces and car repair, butchery and catering (chefs) as skilled jobs taking place in small workplaces. It may well be that it is a combination of level of skill and size of workplace influences trade union membership.

Three clear factors that influence whether a worker is likely to be in a trade union or not. Women under 24, working part-time in a small private sector workplace are not likely to be in a trade union (particularly if neither of her parents were in trade unions either, a factor that apparently is significant regardless of the politics of the parents or their offspring). The data for the south west may even overestimate trade union membership levels – the data is for the fourth quarter of 2006, so doesn’t even include seasonal work, which is far more likely to be non-unionised, due to its temporary nature and concentration in sectors of work such as hotels and restaurants and cafes which have appallingly low levels of unionisation.

Immigrants don’t lower wages, employers do

Another factor that many people believe will increasingly work to reduce wages in Devon and the rest of the country is the immigration of workers from Eastern Europe, some who are prepared to work more than British-born workers for less pay. Allied to this is the fact that more competition for jobs will enable employers to reduce wages and worsen conditions as well as making the jobs less secure due to the ready supply of potential replacements. These fears are grounded in experience to some extent but many of the recent immigrants are working in jobs where there are serious shortages such as electricians and plumbers, and the largest group – the Poles – are according to some research more minded to join trade unions and take part in militant action to defend pay and conditions than British-born workers) are grounded in some reality and experience. For decades Devon has suffered from low pay and yet has seen only a small influx of foreign workers during that time, tells us that there isn’t an inevitable link between the two. Only unscrupulous politicians and troublemakers like the BNP will spread lies like this for their own ends. Likewise, they cynically use powerless immigrants as scapegoats for housing shortages, high school class sizes and NHS bed shortages – but these things are a result of deliberate government policies, to undermine public services, introduce privatisation and line the pockets of their big business friends

Concrete steps need (and are being) to be taken to unite British and non-British workers to fight together against the bosses for better pay and conditions. This, combined with the founding of a new left party, which the Campaign for a New Workers’ Party and initiatives such as the electoral challenges planned in London and Liverpool by the RMT (transport workers) and FBU (firefighters) unions respectively, as well as the rise of local parties such as the Peoples’ Voice in Blaenau Gwent and anti-cuts campaigns, will help to cut across the support for the far-right BNP and destroy that organisation. The founding of a new party based on socialists, campaigners and rank-and-file trade unionists has to be linked to an upsurge in union membership and action.

Joining a union

Desperate to stem decreasing membership numbers, the instinct of right wing trade union leaders has been to reduce union subs and merge with other unions to form so-called ‘super-unions’. While these are not necessarily bad measures, they do tend to ignore the reasons why workers join and leave unions.

All over the country workers join unions that are active in defending and advancing their interests. Trade unions who fight for their members tend to increase their membership much more. The Rail and Maritime Transport Union has increased its membership since the election of its socialist General Secretary Bob Crow, because it has democratic structures allowing members a greater say in the running of the union and its members are prepared to take action to defend their working conditions and pensions etc. Four unions that have been involved in struggles of differing magnitudes over the past few years are the FBU, the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS), the Prison Officers Association (POA) and RMT unions. They all have left wing general secretaries and leaderships. They also have democratic structures and autonomy given to local branches and their members.

As we saw with the facts and figures earlier in this article, it is in the interests of all low paid workers to join a union. The evidence suggests that wages, terms and conditions are likely to improve as a result – even more so when we all stick together and refuse to be bullied or browbeaten by our employers or their mangers and foremen.

If you would like more information or advice about joining a union contact us by emailing socialistpartydevon@gmail.com.

This article was written by JL, a member of the Socialist Party in North Devon

Plymouth Power! A book review of Todd Gray’s ‘Blackshirts in Devon’

January 6, 2008

There may be many Devonians alive today who probably don’t even realise they have grandparents or great grandparents who are heroes/heroines, There are no statues or plaques in their honour or anniversary tributes but there should be. Perhaps the new Tory Council could arrange a ceremony on the Hoe!

We know a great deal about the effects of the Second World War on places like Exeter and Plymouth but little about the pre-war struggles against the home-grown variety of fascism. A book by Exeter-based historian Todd Gray tells the story at last – ‘The Blackshirts in Devon’.

Gray uses a wide variety of sources to put the story together – local police and Labour Party branch secretary reports, newspaper coverage and national Home Office material. He also provides a wealth of detail from Devonian fascists themselves – letters, newspapers and journals. Unfortunately, there is one major gap in the book – the stories told by anti-fascists, especially how they organised against the fascist threat. Despite that, Gray has given us a fascinating slice of Devon history.

Nationally, Oswald Mosley founded the British Union of Fascists (BUF) in 1932. Within a year BUF branches had been formed across Devon, the first in Plymouth in July 1933. There were small numbers of BUF members in places like Exmouth, Torbay and North Devon and these relied heavily on a few national BUF organisers to keep them going. It’s clear, though, that wherever the BUF attempted to spread their propaganda, there was often local opposition – in Sidmouth an angry crowd threw a fascist into the river.

The main centres of BUF activity were Plymouth and Exeter. According to local police and Labour Party reports, the Plymouth Branch had over a thousand members at its height in 1934. We don’t know what these members’ levels of commitment were. There were various options – regularly buying BUF newspapers and journals, taking part in branch meetings, attending major public meetings, donating regularly. Some may have just joined to gain access to all the facilities available at the large headquarters in Lockyer Street. In the beginning there were about 50-100 active members who organised and attended outdoor meetings, sold newspapers in the street and acted as stewards at street and larger public meetings. In all this seriousness, there were lighter moments in the book – Plymouth BUF members were forced to change their uniforms as they were being mistaken for tram conductors!

Plymouth BUF met with opposition from the start. As the months went by this grew in numbers and temper, heckling and harassing at virtually every public event organised by the fascists. This constant harrying wore the BUF down. This can be seen by charting the number of stewards they were able to muster at certain meetings. In February 1934 they had about 60. On April 6th (in the Octagon) there were 14 and at a September meeting at Prince Rock only 3 were available. For most of 1934 the police were having great difficulty in keeping order at all. At one point (on June 13th 1934), they were unable to cope with such a large and hostile crowd of anti-fascists without the intervention of a passing navy patrol!

A BUF branch had existed in Exeter since late 1933 and became the main centre of fascist activity in Devon after the Plymouth branch’s collapse. There was a brief flurry of activity in 1936 and 1937 but they made little headway – partly because of organised opposition by local anti-fascists but also because as the War loomed, the increasing association of the BUF with German Nazism damaged their credibility even further. The Exeter Branch became so weak and ineffective it was forced into joint activity with Dorchester fascists.

Gray acknowledges the effect of anti-fascists in reducing the possible influence of the BUF in Devon but concluded that changes in tactics as a result of decisions made in London by Mosley were the main reason for the decline – he mentions the adoption in Plymouth of the violent tactics employed by the BUF in the East End of London, resulting in the loss of the Plymouth branch in 1935.

But large-scale opposition had already severely dented the BUF influence in Plymouth by the end of the summer of 1934 – witness the substantially reduced numbers of stewards the BUF could muster by then. Plymouth BUF had become so beleaguered by the anti-fascists that a last desperate bid to bolster them was made by arranging a public meeting addressed by Mosley in early October 1934, along with importing violent BUF toughs from other parts of the country, particularly the East End of London. This led to more violent disorder, including a confrontation in the Market Square on October 11th. The Western Morning News reported that about 10,000 anti-fascists were present. As a result of these disturbances, three fascists were imprisoned at Exeter following assault charges. By November 1934 the Plymouth BUF had virtually disappeared, thanks to the efforts, all told, of thousands of Plymothians.

All these events took place about seventy years ago, so what is the relevance of the book now? Well, it finally acknowledges the role of thousands of un-named and unknown Devonians who decided to do something about the fascist poison in their midst. Most of all, though, it’s a testimony to the power the working class has when we are united and act together in enough numbers.

The fight against the fascists of today, the British National Party (BNP), has to be led by the working class ourselves, as it was against Mosley and the BUF in the 1930s. We can’t rely on fine words from MPs, councillors, trade union or religious leaders, sports or showbusiness types. Especially if these people support the anti-working class policies of one of the three main political parties, which have been mainly responsible for people voting for the BNP in the first place! Only the working class has the power to crush any fascist threat, just as only the working class can really change the world for the better.

Book review by DL, a supporter of the Campaign for a New Workers’ Party

The smoking ban

December 31, 2007

July 2007 saw the start of the ban on smoking inside public places – except for private members’ clubs and the House of Commons. The ban has had a relatively larger impact on working class and mentally ill people. For the mentally ill smoking is an important crutch – and the dangers of smoking are often the least of their problems. For the working class, it’s just one more indignity. From the relative warmth inside a pub having a drink and a fag, now that winter’s here we’re banished like lepers out into the dark, often cold or damp outdoors.

Socialist organisations in this country have said virtually nothing about this ban, one that mainly affects working class people and their ability to socialise in in the way they’ve being doing for hundreds of years. I wonder how many people spend less time now in public places and retreat to their own private sphere at home – and is this a good thing?

Even if working class people gave up cigarettes, many are only likely to seek alternative means of artificial comfort – be it increased alcohol use or drugs – because of the pressures of everyday existence.

I suspect that privately many socialists approve of the ban on public health grounds and, from the evidence from Ireland since their public smoking ban started, it is true that the number of bar staff with chest and throat problems has declined.  But the whole issue of smoking and other public health concerns such as diet, obesity and lack of exercise, has mainly been concerned with individual responsibility and people’s apparent refusal to change their lifestyles in the face of overwhelming evidence that it would improve their health. 

This approach is often seen as killjoy Puritanism or preaching, because it doesn’t even begin to acknowledge the stresses and strains of everyday life that lead many working class people to smoke, drink too much or eat fatty ‘comfort’ food.  Apart from that, the public health ‘scares’ provide a convenient smokescreen (excuse the pun) for the fact that gross inequality in Britain is much more responsible for the poorer health generally and shorter life expenctancy of working class people than smoking or eating chips.  The brutal truth is that a rich smoker is likely to live longer than a poor non-smoker.

Perhaps a compromise solution is possible. To protect bar staff, smoking could be banned from the vicinity of the bar and to protect other customers, a smoking area with effective air conditioning could be provided. Maybe this could be introduced via a system of granting ‘smoking’ licences to a certain percentage of pubs in each town, city or group of villages.

This article was written by DL, a supporter of the Campaign for a New Workers’ Party and health worker.  The Socialist Party does not necessarily endorse the views contained in the article, but publishes the article because of our commitment to discussion and debate within the left and workers movement.

Inequality – the human cost

November 15, 2007

INEQUALITY – THE HUMAN COST

by DL, an NHS worker and supporter of the Campaign for a New Workers’ Party

Public Health in Devon

The most recent Annual Report of the Devon Directors of Public Health (‘Health in Devon’, December 2006) makes shocking reading. Acknowledging the persistent health inequalities in the county, it states ‘Recently published data from the south west public health observatory indicates a life expectancy gap of 18 years between the people living in the healthiest geographical areas of Devon, and the unhealthiest’. Yes, 18 years, in picturesque, sunny Devon, in the fourth richest country in the world. 

The report does acknowledge that the following factors can contribute to poor health:  Poor access to education, training and skills; inability to secure employment, low income and poverty, poor housing and poor access to health and other mainstream services. This is particularly the case in some areas of Devon that are amongst the 20% most deprived in the country – parts of Barnstaple, Bideford, Ilfracombe, Newton Abbot and Teignmouth. This list would also include parts of Plymouth and Torbay but these areas are covered by their own Public Health Directors separate from the rest of Devon. 

Despite listing the other contributions to poor health, it only recommends that local Primary Healthcare Trusts and other organisations plan and allocate resources based on national priorities –  encourage eating more fruit and vegetables, giving up smoking, reducing obesity, improving sexual health, reducing harm from alcohol and substance misuse and improving mental health. All very worthy no doubt and with the best of intentions.  

Public health failure

Unfortunately, the truth is that, despite all the time, effort and money already spent on various public health and other initiatives down the years, of the whole of Europe, Britain still has the highest rates of obesity, teenage pregnancies, sexually transmitted diseases, one of the highest rates of alcohol abuse and heads Europe in the amount of drug abuse (according to a 2006 report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development).  

Putting the emphasis on public health promotion and/or tackling just health inequalities is clearly failing but this only makes health care and government people merely try harder to ‘get the message across’ or ‘raise awareness’.  

Even now, despite the abject failure of these approaches, virtually every week on the TV and in the newspapers, we have some organisation or individual going on about what we need to do to improve our health, announcing more initiatives and resources to reach people with the same old messages. This comes across almost like missionary work and no doubt, in private, the mask sometimes slips and the despair takes over – ‘they’re too thick’, ‘they don’t want to change’.  As if we haven’t worked out by now that smoking and obesity are bad for us. For many working class people smoking, alcohol, drugs and junk food are all short-term crutches against the pressures of everyday life – that’s the reality. The long-term is not something many working class people are inclined to dwell on. That’s why no-one should really have been surprised this year when it was reported that women in Rotherham were passing chips to their children at school – for the poor, tastier ‘comfort’ food is much more preferable than more expensive salad-type alternatives. 

Inequality – the biggest killer of all

The main reason for all these seemingly unsolvable problems is the gross social and economic inequality between rich and poor – which is wider in Britain than in any other European country. Two recent books provide substantial evidence to back this up – Michael Marmot’s ‘Status Syndrome’ and Richard Wilkinson’s ‘The Impact of Inequality’. These books are – or, rather, should be – political dynamite. 

Marmot and others undertook an extensive piece of research into the health of seventeen thousand staff working in Whitehall civil service departments. Even amongst just those white collar office staff, the gaps in ill health and life expectancy between those in the lowest grades and those in the highest followed a consistent pattern – even taking into account such matters as smoking, diet and amount of exercise.  

Marmot points out that “’Adjusting for these risk factors explains less than a third of the social gradient in mortality from heart disease” and that ‘whatever the level of risk factor, being a low grade is worse for your health than being of high grade…For mortality as a whole, taking all causes together, the social gradient in mortality was nearly as steep in non-smokers as it was in smokers. A similar conclusion applied to other risk factors’ (Marmot, p44-5) 

Marmot then posed the question: ‘if these aspects of lifestyle account for less than a third of the social gradient in mortality, what accounts for the other two-thirds?’ (Marmot, p45)  

He presents compelling evidence that health follows a social gradient – in other words, the higher the status in society’s pecking order, the healthier someone is likelier to be. 

Even though the health effects of inequality do weigh down heaviest on the poorest in society i.e. the working class, it’s not poverty as such that has the most drastic effect on health, but the extent of the gap between the poorest and richest in society.

It isn’t about just income differences either, although it certainly true that since incomes widened over the last quarter of the last century, life expectancy in Britain has slipped compared with other countries. Other measures of social ranking are of relatively greater importance –the type and grade of job we do, level of education reached and the area we live in, especially one which is run-down, dirty and generally unpleasant, with an atmosphere of mistrust, little community activity/spirit, an ever-present threat of violence and widespread crime (often un-reported now): ‘Social position has overwhelmingly powerful consequences…Living in a working class area it is impossible not to confront the presence of a powerful force touching all of our lives; whether it be a force that drives one to steal, be violent, use drugs, suffer mental illness or be quiet, resigned to misery, or, the most usual response, going out to forget one’s problems (with drink or drugs), there is something at work in society that has affected the working class very deeply, that has created fear, insecurity and disillusionment’ (Wilkinson, p66). And politicians seriously wonder why so many people don’t bother to vote anymore!

Illness and the working class

The long-term stress and strains of living in a society that has such divisions in wealth and resources between people, affects the health of working class people the worst: ‘The psychological experience of inequality has profound effects on body systems. The evidence…suggests that this may be a major factor in generating the social gradient in health’ (Marmot, p7), ‘Sustained, chronic and long-term stress is linked to lower control over life circumstances’ (Marmot, p109). 

Wilkinson has identified the specific biological mechanisms involved: “The accumulated physiological costs of …secondary effects of chronic stress have been called ’allostatic load’. The term is used to refer to the long-term physiological changes resulting from exposure to chronic arousal. It is marked by higher basal cortisol levels, higher blood pressure, increased insulin resistance, increased tendency for blood clots, abdominal obesity, and suppressed immune function, among other problems. The higher the load, the greater the risks of cardio-vascular disease, cancer, and infection, and the faster the decline in mental functioning in old age” (Wilkinson, p278). Furthermore, ‘Social problems – such as violence, drug use, depression, teenage pregnancy, and poor educational performance of schoolchildren are rooted in the same insecurities, anxieties, and other sources of chronic stress as those that affect our ability to withstand disease, the functioning of our cardiovascular and immune systems, and how rapidly we age’ (Wilkinson, p20) 

Apart from an unnecessarily shortened life for so many people, that life itself is often of poor quality. A major consequence of inequality is the lack of control over key aspects of life, at home, in the area we live and at work – where many people experience soul-destroying, boring, low paid work that is demanding and sometimes dangerous – yet they have little or no control over this. Constant money worries and the threat of unmanageable debt add to this unhappiness. 

Working class people are much more likely to suffer from depression (particularly women), be on the receiving end of acts of violence and other crime, binge-drink and use drugs. For men in poorer areas, their perceived low status in society fuels the anger and frustration that lead to the high rates of homicide and violence and increased risk-taking (leading to a relatively greater incidence of accidents and sexually transmitted diseases). Respect (or lack of it) is a crucial factor in this – the lack of more tangible markers of status, such as money, jobs, housing or cars means that other ways to assert self-worth, pride and dignity have to be found.  

It is the unfortunate reality that the lower the social status, the fewer the resources, the more bitter the need for men in particular to grab what they can and, at the same time, cling desperately to the illusion of superiority over someone in virtually the same position, particularly women or an easily and readily identifiable rival/enemy e.g. a racial minority Or, failing that, the need to keep or extend your control over ‘your own territory’ against a rival gang.   

Inequality also has powerful effects on the family life of poorer working class people – the increased stress leading to greater marital conflict, domestic violence, maternal depression and children with behavioural problems. Teenage pregnancy rates are also a direct result of inequality and low social status. 

Suicide

Even the one relative recent public health ‘success’ story – the falling number of people committing suicide – is tempered by the fact that, according to Ian Banks, President of the Men’s Health Forum, ‘These figures confirm that social class is the biggest single factor for suicide among young men. It is almost exclusively among the lowest income families that suicide is taking place.’  Also, it’s not so much a public health success story but curiously a result of the extent of inequality. Wilkinson explains: 

‘Perhaps surprisingly, suicide is one of the few causes of death that actually tends internationally to be lower where there is more inequality…Suicide and violence tend to move inversely: in more aggressive societies with more social conflict, people are more likely to blame others when things go wrong, but in societies where the social order is seen as just and has a high degree of moral authority, people are more likely to blame themselves. It is as if, in a more pronounced status hierarchy, people have become more defended against shame in order to maintain their self-esteem against the shame inflicted by low social status. In [poverty stricken] Harlem…suicides were the only important cause of death found to be lower, rather than higher, than elsewhere in the United States’ (Wilkinson, p167) 

New Labour, Tory and Liberal Democrats – spot the difference

People working in public health, those who develop social policies or run local and national government could acknowledge the cold, hard reality of all this, which might mean being forced to actually do something effective about the situation.  

This won’t happen. The three main political parties are all committed to the social and economic policies (neo-liberalism) that have been responsible for this state of affairs. New Labour has been in power for 10 years. The New Labour Governments and the previous Tory ones introduced policies that have led to the obscene gap we now have between the rich and poor in this country. 

What if…

Both Marmot and Wilkinsons’ evidence showed varying degrees of inequality  within and between many countries at different times over the past few decades. What this proves is that the level of inequality we have in Britain isn’t inevitable and that even small changes in the gap between the poor and the rich lead to very real improvements in peoples’ lives. The strong link between homicide rates and levels of inequality is powerful evidence for this.

‘…re-distributing income from rich to poor improves health no matter the mechanism’ (Wilkinson, p143)

     

 

So it isn’t just stupid daydreaming to imagine what life really could be like, for many millions of people in Britain and elsewhere, if there was a drastic reduction in inequality.  

We would experience the effect in so many ways – many more people would be healthier and living longer, there would be much less reliance on artificial means to escape from what had been the misery of life, less alcohol and drug related crime, murder and violence, less abused and battered women, fewer broken homes, more contented childhoods, less racial tension and greater educational opportunities for working class children to reach their true potential. Isn’t that worth fighting for?

‘What good does it do to treat people’s illnesses…then send them back to the conditions that made them sick?’ (Michael Marmot, at a ‘Tackling Health Inequalities’ conference, London, October 2005)