Saturday, February 6, 2021

Letter from Austria (1966)

From the February 1966 issue of the Socialist Standard

Like many other parts of Europe, Austria has been celebrating a jubilee— the twentieth anniversary of “the liberation from the autocratic rule of Hitler Germany’’. We have for months past been reminded of the marvel of reconstruction, the rebuilding of the City of Vienna, in a thousand variations we have been told of the “Austrian Miracle”, praised for our industry, the return of prosperity, and the country's great reputation in the world both East and West.

Remember the tragedy of Vienna, devastated by War and thrown into a chaotic state, without transport, gas, electric or water supplies. Women with pails and bottles trekked to the Vienna Woods to get water from the springs there, while old people and children ransacked the forest for fuel. In the city, the fire brigades just could not cope with the fires which raged everywhere. The police force ceased to function for a time and looting was rife. As the Arbeiter-Zeitung of April 27th last says: —
  Deserted flats looted; the ordeal of tens of thousands of women outraged by demoralised and degraded soldateska; what the old and sick suffered in those days beggars description. With no hospital transport, the death rate rose enormously; the dead were packed in paper and transported on improvised vehicles to the cemetery, or unceremoniously interred in the nearest park.
  And now we are bidden to admire the wonderful reconstruction, including that of the army, which celebrated the day of peace and freedom by holding the greatest military parade ever in Austria.
Had the collapse been caused by an earthquake or some other blind force of nature, bitter memories of the ordeal would understandably be eclipsed by the general satisfaction and pride in the speedy work of reconstruction. But it is the capitalist class who have good reason to rejoice. Indeed, eleven thousand of them can now show taxable incomes of a million schillings a year, while in Germany, the “patriotic zeal” has produced sixty-six thousand millionaires.

For the workers it was not so much the impulses of patriotic fervour as the urgent need to find employment and earn wages again, that compelled the destitute to take up any dirty and miserably paid jobs in the way of clearing up the mess and setting the factories and services going again. What indeed has the working class to show after those twenty years of toil? The same sort of poverty and insecurity as before the war; a worse housing problem, not to mention the fear of yet another war.

The question we should in any case ask is: Why had this tremendous work and painful healing of the awful wounds become necessary in the first place? The responsibility' for the catastrophe must be sought within the structure of modern capitalism throughout the world—it was not due to some force in nature beyond the control of man. And so it should also be asked, if such horrors are foreseeable and preventable, why were they not prevented? Because quite clearly capitalism’s top luminaries, the supposed experts on social affairs, are quite powerless to do so. The system they are running is bigger than they, which explains why they have not fulfilled their election pledges or solved any of the major social problems.

And when the war came along, they were caught up in its maelstrom and look an active part in. or helped to organise the orgies of massacre and devastation. Some also committed “atrocities” and were eventually tried, convicted and hanged. How then can the mass of humanity—the “non-expert” and “non-educated"—continue to trust leaders and “Personalities”? The answer is that they will do so, with continuing misery, until they realise that what they need are not “great men" but Socialist knowledge and the self reliance arising from it.

No blind forces of nature can be blamed for the destruction of Warsaw. Rotterdam, Stalingrad, Dresden, Hiroshima and Coventry, the devastation of London, Berlin and Vienna. Responsibility for this must rest squarely with world capitalism. This system exists for the profit of a privileged minority, not for the benefit of humanity as a whole.

Obviously, then, there is nothing surprising, mysterious or inexplicable if periodically such a system of inherent glaring contradictions and evils runs amuck and plays tricks on normally intelligent people, “intellectuals” and “non-intellectuals” alike, who operate, serve, and vote for it. It breeds war and strife in which the masters use every device to stimulate antagonism and hatred between the world's workers who are to do the fighting.

As our pamphlet The Racial Problem so aptly put it:
  From the cradle to the grave, they are subjected to a mass of propaganda which deadens their minds, works on their prejudices, and endeavours by every means possible to turn their thoughts away from the real cause of their troubles—capitalism, with its wages and money system.
Rudolf Frank

Voice From The Back: Poverty and Wealth (2011)

The Voice From The Back Column from the February 2011 issue of the Socialist Standard

Poverty and Wealth

American patriots like misguided patriots elsewhere in the world are fond of holding up “their” country as a paragon of fairness and equality, but where is the equality in the following figures quoted by the ultra patriotic CNN? “The richest 1% of U.S. households had a net worth 225 times greater than that of the average American household in 2009, according to analysis conducted by the Economic Policy Institute, a liberal think tank. That’s up from the previous record of 190 times greater, which was set in 2004” (CNN, 23 December). The truth is that the USA like every other country in capitalism has a wide gap between the haves and the have-nots.

Poverty and Ill-Health

It is often claimed by supporters of the NHS that while poor people may live in sub-standard housing and experience economic insecurity they have at least access to excellent medical care, but this is a complete fallacy. “Maternity services are close to breaking point and care for mothers is worsening, the UK’s leading midwife warns in a dramatic plea over the declining state of childbirth on the NHS. Labour wards are struggling to give women the proper quality of care under the ‘relentless’ pressure of a record birth rate, staff shortages and increasingly complex births, says Cathy Warwick, general secretary of the Royal College of Midwives” (Observer, 2 January) So you are exploited inside capitalism but at least you were born unlike some members of the working class that were even denied that by capitalism’s drive to cheapen production – and even reproduction.

Poverty and Sex

Every Hollywood romantic screenplay and lots of popular songs depict the magic of love but for many members of the working class the reality is much more sordid. “A fifth of homeless people have committed ‘imprisonable offences’ to spend a night in the cells and more than a quarter of women rough sleepers took an ‘unwanted sexual partner’ to escape their plight, new research out today shows. A survey of more than 400 rough sleepers by Sheffield Hallam University reveals the desperate steps taken by the homeless to find shelter…Unwanted sex has become a way out of homelessness for many. One in seven men and 28% of women had spent a night or longer with an unwanted sexual partner to ‘accommodate themselves’” (Guardian, 23 December). The reality behind the Hollywood fantasy and the pop song magic is that poverty destroys even the best of human aspirations. It is not the sort of thing Frank Sinatra would sing about – is it?

Poverty and Credit Cards

One of the jibes often thrown at socialists is that the concept of world socialism is an idea that has been outgrown by the 21st century. We are constantly being told that we live in a new modern society where far from suffering the poverty of the 19th century members of the working class now have bank accounts, credit cards and mortgages. This rosy portrayal is hardly backed up by recent figures released by the charity Shelter. “Nearly one in ten of those in private rented accommodation used their credit card to cover the housing bill in the year August 2010, while about 8 per cent of mortgage borrowers did the same, the housing charity said. In many cases, residents struggling to make ends meet have withdrawn cash from their card to pay housing costs, pushing them deeper into debt” (Times, 6 January). Charity claim that two million now use their cards to pay their housing costs. This is hardly the new poverty-free society that its supporters claim.

It's Not Cricket

As children if we happened to be born in England we were taught about “sizzling sixes over the tuck shop roof” and nonsense about “play up play up for England chaps” and other such foolishnesses about cricket. If you happened to watch the England v. Australia cricket matches on TV you may have seem grown-up children still indulging in that nonsense. They call themselves “the Barmy Army” and who are we to argue with that adjective? Behind the worthwhile sporting endeavours of all the cricketers concerned lurks the usual sordid commercialism of capitalism. “This week, the England and Wales Cricket Board will try to capitalise on the first Ashes victory in Australia for 24 years by auctioning the rights to sponsor home Test matches from 2012. It is talking to a number of potential replacements for the current sponsor, npower, in the hope of netting up to £5m, 25% more than the previous deal” (Observer, 9 January). You may have seen it as a great 3-1 victory – they saw it as a great commercial opportunity. That is capitalism for you.

The craziest border in the world? (2011)

From the February 2011 issue of the Socialist Standard
All borders are mad – it goes with the territory – but perhaps the world’s craziest border is that between India and Bangladesh.
The very existence of the border is itself an act of madness, even in nationalist terms. This can best be seen on the western section of the border. On the Bangladeshi side of the border, Bengali speaking farmers tend their crops. Whilst on the Indian side of the border Bengali speaking farmers tend their crops! Linguistically, ethnically and culturally the people of Indian West Bengal and Bangladeshi East Bengal are identical, differing only in religion. The Islamic religion forms the sole basis of Bangladeshi nationalism, the state’s only reason for existence, the only reason for the existence of the border. Nationalism based on religion is a lie compounded by falsehood: the lie of the mythical nation overriding all real class interests; the childish falsehood of the big man in the sky. In any case, neither Bangladesh nor India are religiously homogenous – around one fifth of the population of Bangladesh are Hindu, despite years of oppression, and a similar proportion of Indians are Muslim – making India the world’s third largest Islamic country.

The line of division between India and Bangladesh has its origins in the 1947 carve up of Imperial India. East Pakistan, as Bangladesh was known until 1971, was constructed in great haste from the districts of the Province of Bengal with a Muslim majority. Whilst West Pakistan (current Pakistan) had a reasonably coherent frontier – deserts, rivers and mountains – East Pakistan was an amorphous blob with no clear geographical divide. The border line is, to say the least, wiggly.

An enclave is a fragment of one country entirely enclosed by another. Approximately 80 percent of the world’s enclaves can be found along the northern stretch of the India-Bangladesh border. There are 92 Bangladeshi enclaves in India, 21 of which are counter-enclaves (i.e. Bangladeshi enclaves located in an India enclave within Bangladesh). India has 106 enclaves in Bangladesh including three counter-enclaves, and the world’s only counter-counter-enclave. The latter, an enclave within an enclave within an enclave, is a jute field near the village of Dahala-Khagrabari. The enclaves range in size from 26 km2 to a mere 53 square metres (Upan Chowki Bhaini, the smallest international enclave in the world).

Within the enclaves, known locally as Chitmahals, life is not pleasant. With the exception of one or two of the larger territories which have always been reasonably well organised, the fragments are outside the state system, their 70,000 inhabitants, known as the Nowhere People, effectively abandoned. Censuses are not taken, electoral rolls not made up and taxes not collected. There are no proper roads, no hospitals, schools and police force. The enclaves are hives of ignorance, poverty and lawlessness, their inhabitants robbed, raped and murdered with impunity, a poor life experience even in terms of the rural subcontinent. Without a visa inhabitants cannot legally cross the border to go to school, hospital or market. However since they cannot obtain a visa without visiting the ‘mainland’, residents are effectively prisoners within their tiny fragments of land. The Latin root of the word enclave, inclavatus, meaning shut in or locked up, is indeed appropriate.

An additional 50,000 former inhabitants of the Indian Chitmahals are resident in India proper. Some left during or immediately after the 1965 Indo-Pakistan war, but most have fled during the last decade as community relations have deteriorated. These individuals are in a particularly poor plight, being recognised neither as Indian citizens nor as refugees and thus not being entitled to national benefits, such as they are, or international relief efforts.

The enclaves date back to a treaty of 1713 between the Maharaja of Cooch Behar and the Mughal Empire (the latter was taken over by the British in 1765 but Cooch Behar endured until 1949, one of the last princely states to cede to India). In Raj days, the existence of the enclaves was a mere matter of land ownership since there were no trade barriers and the enclaves were economically self-sufficient in any case. Only with the post-colonial carve up, did the Cooch Behar enclaves become at all significant. A territorial exchange was first proposed in 1958, and agreed by a 1974 treaty between India and Bangladesh however this was not ratified by India, which had most to lose and was hobbled by an unstable political situation. Recently the position of the largest enclave, Dahagram-Angarpota, has been improved by the creation of the Teen Bigha corridor, a neck of land transferred from India to Bangladesh in 1992. Access however is only permitted during daylight hours.

Economically the effect of the division has been devastating. The border cut the great metropolis of Calcutta from its eastern hinterland, no mean factor in that city’s decline, and elevated the minor provincial town of Dacca to capital status. India’s highly productive north east was left isolated from the rest of the state – the rail link between Calcutta and Assam was severed in four places and not restored until a quarter of a century later. Particularly affected by the dislocation has been the area on the eastern section currently known as Tripura. Tripura has a 856 km border with Bangladesh but is linked to the Indian mainland only by a neck of land which narrows down to a mere 60 km wide. Illegal trade in this area alone amounts to some $1.5 billion per annum – a tidy sum of duty lost to the governments concerned. Across the whole border around 100 people per year lose their lives mostly due to anti-smuggling actions – the Indian Border Security Force in particular has a tendency to shoot first and ask questions later.

In the last ten years, the Indian government has been erecting a fence along the border. The chain link construction topped with barbed wire stands 3.6 metres high and, with 3406 km authorised, will be by far the longest enclosed border in the world. This is a mighty construction task running from the mangrove swamps of the south, through rich farming land to the forests and mountains of the north. Approximately 50,000 people have been made homeless by the erection of the fence. Although the suppression of terrorism is a stated aim (United Liberation Front of Assam rebels and various Islamist groups use Bangladesh and India respectively as safe havens), smuggling is a more important motive.

Immigration too is a factor in the erection of the fence. Poverty stricken Bangladeshis are migrating in droves to the newly developing lands of northeast India – it is estimated that there are around 20 million Bangladeshis illegally resident in India. Goaded by aspiring political leaders, the Assamese are particularly wary of being ‘swamped’ by migrant Banglas and have exerted considerable pressure to ‘stem the tide’.

The erection of the barrier has not been unchallenged. In places, the construction runs close to or on the border, contrary to a 1974 treaty between Bangladesh and India which banned building in the proximity of the border. This has led to clashes between the Bangladesh Rifles and India’s Border Security Force with casualties inflicted on both sides.

A subcontinental Common Market between India and Bangladesh has been proposed and this would indeed make a certain degree of sense. However the degree of political ill-will makes an end to the division unlikely in the near future. Socialists are often reviled for their unrealistic utopianism in opposing ‘natural’ national divisions. Only by individual case studies can we find out how unnatural and insane such national divisions really are.