Wednesday, March 2, 2022

Levelling Up (2022)

The Cooking The Books column from the March 2022 issue of the Socialist Standard

Introducing the government’s Levelling Up White Paper in the House of Commons on 2 February, Michael Gove declared that it ‘sets out our detailed strategy to make opportunity more equal and to shift wealth and power decisively towards working people and their families’.

Steve Baker, the Tory MP for ‘Singapore-on-Thames’, denounced the White Paper as ‘socialist’ and as a policy ‘that would not be out of place in Labour’s manifesto’ (bit.ly/3Ls1r6f).

Actually, it had already appeared in a Labour Party manifesto, that for the October 1974 general election, which ended:
‘We are a democratic socialist party and our objective is to bring about a fundamental and irreversible shift in the balance of wealth and power in favour of working people and their families.’
So Baker had a sort of point, except it is wrong to describe either Gove’s White Paper or the Labour Party as ‘socialist’. The Labour Party may stand for political democracy (though it is not organised democratically internally) but it has never been a socialist party. It used to once stand for nationalisation but that was only state capitalism. It has always talked about standing for redistributing wealth to working people but that’s reformism as it assumes the continued existence of the rich, and has never worked for long as the operation of the capitalist economy reverses any moves towards this, geared as it is to continually bring about the accumulation of wealth in the hands of a few.

Labour won the October 1974 election but, capitalism being capitalism, they were unable to deliver on that declaration. That was a year after the post-war boom had come to an end and the Labour government’s attempt to spend its way out of it led only to stagflation. Far from redistributing wealth in favour of workers the government tried to impose an incomes policy to keep wages down.

What Gove proposes is all smoke and mirrors. Shifting power to working people turns out to be giving local politicians more say in how central government money should be spent in their area, while shifting wealth to working people is not putting any money in their pocket but spending more on infrastructure, education, health and housing in the chosen areas instead of in London and the South East (whose ‘working people’ are presumably considered to already have enough wealth and power). Anyway, it’s not supposed to happen until 2030, by which time it will be only be remembered as another broken promise.

It is hard to believe that Gove, who had been a well-informed political journalist before becoming an MP, did not deliberately choose to use the phrase ‘shift wealth and power to working people and their families’. This would be to rub in the Labour Party’s face that the present Tory government had stolen their clothes. Already in an article in the Daily Telegraph on 1 January last year Johnson himself had praised the discovery of the AstraZeneca vaccine as an example of a successful collaboration between ‘state activism’ and ‘free market capitalism’. State activism is what the likes of Baker oppose (and mistakenly regard as socialism) but it’s traditionally been Labour Party policy.

As, having abandoned state capitalism as their long-term goal, Labour now accepts that the ‘commanding heights of the economy’ should remain in the hands of private corporations, it too accepts the operation of capitalist market forces. So, it really is ‘Labour, Tory, Same Old Story’. No wonder the Labour Party has nothing much else to do than criticise the Prime Minister’s personal behaviour.

Confusing nationalism with socialism (2022)

Book Review from the March 2022 issue of the Socialist Standard

The British Left and Ireland in the twentieth century. Edited By Evan Smith and Matthew Worley. Routledge. 2021. 186 pages. ISBN 9780367701468.

From the middle of the 19th century onwards, a view took hold in sections of radical opinion in Britain that support for the Irish separatist movement would promote social revolution in Britain itself and in turn hasten the establishment of socialism there. The supposition was that if Ireland regained its independence from England, then that would significantly weaken the British ruling class. The hope being that the overthrow of British rule in Ireland would deal such a blow to the confidence of the British capitalist class, and particularly its imperialist faction, that it would prepare the ground for socialist change in Britain. The natural extension of this idea was that the Left in Britain should support the campaign for Irish independence. After the Anglo-Irish settlement of 1921, that aim became modified to mean supporting the ending of British rule in Northern Ireland.

As a political theory, the concept doesn’t appear to have passed the test of history, at least judged from today’s perspective. Like Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland has just marked its centenary as a capitalist state. Over that period, it has had times of relative success and failure but its slow evolution to a fully independent capitalist state has never had any permanent or profound impact on left-wing politics in Britain. However as with many of these political theories, a case can be always be made for it at some level, meaning that it has never entirely been debunked and still has its adherents even today. This aspiration helps explain the enduring interest that a variety of left-wing groups have had in Ireland over the past 150 years or so and the book explores aspects of this relationship. At the outset, it must be said that the book is quite academic in nature and seems aimed at the reader with a very specialised interest in this topic. It consists of seven quite disparate chapters; five cover the period from 1900 to 1960 while the remaining two are associated with the more recent troubles in Ulster. The book does lack an overall narrative to put each chapter in a historical context and it is assumed that the reader has a good pre-existing knowledge of radical Anglo-Irish relations.

The classification ‘British Left’ is taken to exclude the Labour Party so the book just concentrates on what is more conventionally termed the ‘British Far Left’ consisting of a variety of ‘orthodox’ Communist parties and Trotskyist groups. The exclusion of the interactions between the Labour Party and Ireland from analysis has the unfortunate result that the more tangible and permanent manifestations of the British Left-Ireland relationship are not analysed. Seminal events such as the Blair Government and the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 and before that the Ireland Act (1949) of the Attlee Government are not discussed. Even the connections between the ‘far left’ of the Labour Party and Irish nationalism are not examined. This results in the somewhat strange fact that there is no mention of either Jeremy Corbyn or Ken Livingstone in the book, apart from a passing mention at the end of one of the chapters to the former. These must be two of the more well-known, recent left-wingers associated with the cause of Irish separatism and their omission is a weakness. Both men offered a critique of Britain’s policy in Northern Ireland which to the Tory tabloid press was equated to full-blooded support for the IRA’s campaign of indiscriminate bombing in British cities.

The focus on the operations of small groups from the ‘Marxist’ tradition of the British Left is mirrored in the book’s approach to politics across the Irish sea by a similar focus on very small and now defunct left-nationalist parties that have existed in Ireland over the last 100 years. There is very little analysis of Sinn Fein’s relationship with the British Left which is equally peculiar given that party can almost certainly claim to have been the standard bearer of muscular Irish Nationalism in the 20th century. So the most important relationship in this context existing between the (British) Labour Party and Sinn Fein is not discussed.

The book primarily deals with the very many, small left-wing groups that have existed in Britain over the last hundred years, most of them now disbanded and forgotten except by historians. One of the recurring themes is the uneasy relationship between the official Communist parties of both countries with the Communist Party of Ireland feeling at times patronised by the CPGB and the Dublin comrades being disappointed with the level of support given to them from London in their efforts to link the class and national struggles here. Most of the left parties in Britain did support, to some extent at least, Irish nationalism; this they tended to do with varying levels of commitment and enthusiasm; the orthodox Communist parties were more circumspect than many of the Trotskyist groups. For some of the latter groups, support for the IRA’s armed campaign was justified as part of the support given to national liberation struggles of colonised peoples and the idea from Lenin that even exclusively national liberation movements in the colonised world would spark socialist revolution in the home countries.

While in the main, the book only highlights the connections between leftists on both islands, there is some tangential discussion on how right-wing or conservative politics responded to this British Left – Ireland relationship. Two chapters explore the operation of anti-communism in Britain and Ireland. The first describes the actions of the Catholic Church and Catholic ideologues in fomenting cold war suspicions of the left-wing Connolly Association which enjoyed some support from politically aware Irish emigrants in Britain in the post-war era. Another chapter, from the same time, discusses the efforts of the establishment on both sides of the sectarian divide in Northern Ireland to dissuade workers from voting for ‘communist parties’ in the post-war period. One other issue that the book covers is the intersection of socialism and identity politics. Two chapters, separated historically by 60 years or more, deal with the impact of feminism on the relationship. The first considers the attitudes of British suffragettes to the Irish question in the Edwardian period while the second explores the outlook of British feminists to the plight of women republican prisoners in jail in Northern Ireland in the 1970s. Just as the main storyline of the book is concerned with enquiring into the association between national liberation and social change, these chapters include the extra question of whether women’s emancipation could or should be pursued separately to both or either national liberation and socialist revolution.

In summary, while the book itself seems scholarly and well-researched and sympathetic to the movements it describes, its remit is very narrow. From our perspective, the book is essentially a history of the futility of confusing socialism and nationalism in suggesting to workers that nationalism can be a pathway to socialism. The political groups and the actions they engaged in, that are listed in the book, were generally divorced from the concerns of the main body of the Irish people and entered little into mainstream consciousness. There is not much evidence of any lasting impact on politics in Ireland today. Also, the Republican movement itself in Ireland has moved between holding leftist reformist progressive positions to being quite a conservative, nationalist movement and provoking the question why it should be supported by people with socialist opinions.
Kevin Cronin

Letters: On the Abolition of Money in Cambodia (2022)

Letters to the Editors from the March 2022 issue of the Socialist Standard

On the Abolition of Money in Cambodia

Dear Editors

In a recent issue of the Socialist Standard Paul Bennett correctly identifies that money was not abolished in Cambodia during the brief regime (1975-1979) of the Communist Party of Kampuchea. Rather, senior members of the CPK suspended currency with the intent to revisit their decision at a later point. The defeat of the Khmer Rouge at the hands of the People’s Republic of China precluded any evaluation of their policies; that said, the presumption that currency was abolished remains a stalwart of the historiography of Democratic Kampuchea (as Cambodia was renamed by the CPK). More broadly, Bennett’s commentary addresses a fundamental question: What exactly was the economic system established under the Khmer Rouge?

For many scholars, the question is moot. As a self-professed Marxist-Leninist party, the Khmer Rouge were absolutely communist; what matters is the supposed variant of ‘communism.’ However, too often, the terms ‘Marxist’, ‘socialist’, ‘Maoist,’ and even ‘Stalinist’ appear as empty signifiers when assessing the policies and practices of the Communist Party of Kampuchea. As such, much of my scholarship documents the ‘actually existing’ social and structural relations executed—often literally—under the Khmer Rouge. I’m grateful therefore that Bennett calls attention to my recent article on currency in Democratic Kampuchea. By-and-large, we are in agreement; a possible point of divergence, however, pivots on my assertion that the resultant economic order of Democratic Kampuchea resembled more so a hybrid form of state capitalism and non-market socialism. You write: ‘But there simply cannot be a mixture of state capitalism (or any form of capitalism) and socialism: the former has money, wages, profits, the latter has none of these.’ Here, it is helpful to think beyond idealized abstractions of economic systems and consider the historical and geographical material realities of Democratic Kampuchea.

Although some people find the phrase ‘mode of production’ antiquated, as a concept it effectively underscores the observation that myriad relations of production can coexist, however uneasily. In the United States, for example, capitalism of a particular sort remains dominant; that does not preclude the co-constitution of localized forms of exchange, for example, the so-called informal economy. So too in Democratic Kampuchea, where senior cadre formulated a spatially variegated economic policy that separated foreign and domestic activities in word but not in practice. To posit Democratic Kampuchea as capitalist or socialist presents a false dichotomy, for although capitalism and socialism in the abstract are indeed contradictory, such an assertion misses the ambiguities of an economy in violent transformation. And therein lies the crux of my argument. The social relations that comprise productive, distributive, and consumptive activities do not materialize fully formed. And despite rhetoric to the contrary, the revolution that culminated in military victory on April 17, 1975 did not translate into a coherent whole. Whatever was unfolding in Democratic Kampuchea was certainly not a functioning capitalist society; nor was it a socialist society. Perhaps it is best to follow Vilfredo Pareto and conclude that the political economy of Democratic Kampuchea was like a bat, for in it we can readily see both birds and mice.
James A. Tyner


Reply:
You object to our statement that there cannot be a mixture of capitalism and socialism, and point out that within capitalism there can be different relations of production, such as the informal economy. Certainly, capitalism can include workers’ co-operatives, but these still have to operate within the overall capitalist set-up, with wages, prices and the need to make a profit.

The question arises, however, whether what existed in ‘Democratic’ Kampuchea can really be described as some kind of hybrid between state capitalism and non-market socialism. This boils down to: was the domestic economy truly an example of socialism? Our answer is simply that no, it was not. As your original article notes, the vast majority of Cambodians were subjected to long working hours, high production quotas and insufficient rations, resulting in exhaustion, illness and death. As their productivity increased, the plan was not to increase the food rations they received.

Plainly this was not non-market socialism. If anything, a more apt comparison would be slavery or some kind of forced labour system, where those who perform the back-breaking toil are ‘rewarded’ with just enough to keep them alive and working away, producing the surplus that the rulers could, in Cambodia’s case, export in return for foreign exchange.

The Khmer Rouge takeover indeed ‘did not translate into a coherent whole’, given the differences between internal and external policies, but there was no connection to socialism. We cannot say what would have happened if they had remained in power for longer than four years, except that they would not have introduced the classless, stateless, moneyless society that you note Marx envisaged. Apart from the fact that such a socialist system will have to be global in scope, Cambodia lacked the essential conditions of being able to produce an effective abundance and having mass support for such a revolutionary change. – Editors


Sanctioned

I was recently sent on a ‘business course’ as part of the government ‘helping’ me back into employment. So after stomaching a week’s worth of nauseating bollocks about the virtues of capitalism, I informed the class that ‘earning’ a right to exist entailed being legally thieved off on a daily basis while making some parasitic cunt rich (not the exact words I used, but the words I wanted to use). For my trouble I was removed from the class and sanctioned. So there you have it. In this country of ‘free speech’ and ‘democracy’, it’s a sanctionable offence to speak the truth.
John Lakin, 
London

Sri Lanka: capitalism unable to provide economic security (2022)

The Material World column from the March 2022 issue of the Socialist Standard

Across the world, workers are enduring the consequences of capitalism’s inability to deal with its many problems. Sri Lanka, the island state of 21 million people, is one more country to add to the long list where our fellow workers are facing deep insecurity in the coming months.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa declared Sri Lanka to be in an economic emergency but has done little to ease people’s plight. Workers have to bear the brunt of the economic crisis by themselves due to the lack of effective social protection. It is working people who make the economy. 2020 figures show the garment workers brought in US$5 billion and tea plantation workers US$1.4 billion. Yet, most lead precarious lives forced to shoulder the effects of budget cuts on education, health care and public transport.

Sri Lanka is entering a humanitarian crisis caused in part by the impact of Covid. The World Bank estimates 500,000 people have fallen below the poverty line since the beginning of the pandemic. Within the tourism sector, more than 200,000 people lost their livelihoods. Once bringing US$4 billion to the country, the tourism industry is struggling to stay afloat. By October last year, it brought in just US$82 million. From close to 2 million tourists in 2018, the island nation received just 160,000 in 2021.

High government spending and tax cuts eroding state revenues, vast debt repayments to China and low foreign exchange reserves are also important factors.

The government printing money to help pay off domestic loans and foreign bonds has created overall inflation of 12 percent in December and those escalating prices have left many basic necessities unaffordable. Food prices rose by a record 22.1 percent in December. Supermarkets have for months been rationing milk powder, sugar, lentils and other essentials as banks ran out of US dollars to pay for imports.

A top agricultural official warned of impending famine and requested the government to implement an orderly food rationing scheme to avoid such a scenario. He was fired within hours of making the appeal.

The food crisis was worsened by the government’s April 2021 ban on agrochemical imports with an intention of switching agriculture to being organic. The policy was reversed in November after crop yield falls and protests by farmers.

Sri Lanka has a huge foreign debt burden. It owes China more than $5bn and last year took an additional $1bn loan from Beijing to alleviate its financial crisis, which is being paid in instalments. Struggling to pay back Chinese loans, it has handed over the majority share of the Hambantota port to a Chinese state-owned company on a 99-year lease.

In 2022, it will be required to repay an estimated $7.3bn in domestic and foreign loans. However, as of November, available foreign currency reserves were just $1.6bn.

The former central bank deputy governor W A Wijewardena warned the country was at substantial risk of defaulting on its repayments, which would have catastrophic economic consequences. In one article (tinyurl.com/2dsf9rzv), he attributes a reason for the crisis to the acceptance of the now fashionable but fallacious economic idea called the Modern Monetary Theory (or MMT ) that argues that there was nothing wrong in governments running budget deficits to create employment, output, and prosperity. Assured by the advocates of MMT that this does not affect inflation or exchange rates, the government allowed various measures of the money stock to rise excessively, Wijewadena says:
‘Credit to Government from the Central Bank and commercial banks – a method of inflationary financing – increased by Rs. 3.7 trillion or by 159% during end-2019 to end-November 2021. Correspondingly, money supply increased by Rs. 3 trillion or nearly 39%.’
The outcome of the increase in the money stock was an undue increase in the demand for imports, prompting the government to impose import controls even on raw materials. It affected the production of goods and services. Sri Lankans are now going hungry.

The government hopes to settle their past oil debts with Iran by paying them in tea, sending them $5m worth of tea every month in order to save much-needed currency.

It has introduced temporary measures, such as credit lines to import foods, medicines and fuel from India, as well as currency swaps with India, China and Bangladesh. However, these loans have to be paid back at high-interest rates, and simply add to the debt burden.

Sri Lanka’s history has shown that capitalism has not provided economic security. In response to the high prices and excessive money-printing, workers are going on strike demanding higher wages to compensate for the spiralling inflation, as in the health service whose strike the government has declared illegal (tinyurl.com/55tw2ayh). Several powerful trade unions in the country, from postal workers to railway workers, from teachers to doctors, have started demanding higher pay and are threatening to launch massive strikes unless their grievances are met.
ALJO

Proper Gander: Where the wealth went (2022)

The Proper Gander TV column from the March 2022 issue of the Socialist Standard

Since the financial crisis and through austerity, Brexit and then the pandemic, we’ve had to get used to the effects of the economy at its most volatile. Reminding us of the depressing years from 2008 onwards is BBC Two’s documentary The Decade The Rich Won, which would more accurately be titled ‘Another Decade The Rich Won’. This two-part programme has an all-star cast of politicians, economists and government advisers who tell us how they navigated the last decade’s fiscal turbulence. Instead of a narrator, captions in block capitals flash up on the screen to pull the story along, accompanied by urgent-sounding ominous music.

The documentary begins with the government’s ‘bailouts’ of hundreds of billions of pounds to banks such as the Royal Bank of Scotland. Without this intervention, we would have faced ‘financial armageddon’, according to then-Governor of the Bank of England Mervyn King, and with this intervention, the wealthiest got even wealthier. It’s explained that this is because the bailout funds stayed with the banks, rather than flowing through and boosting the economy. So, an alternative strategy was tried: quantitative easing. This tactic (credited to King and then-Chancellor of the Exchequer Alistair Darling) is when the Bank of England ‘creates money’ to buy government bonds from financial institutions, which then have more funds to lend out to people and businesses. Between 2009 and November 2020 the impossible-to-visualise amount of £895 billion went through the UK’s quantitative easing plan, with more paid out by other countries’ central banks. The effect of this was an increase in the value of assets, and consequently, according to hedge fund head honcho Paul Marshall, the ‘owners of assets have all made out like bandits’. Marshall isn’t the only city bigshot interviewed for the programme who knows exactly how capitalism works, and in whose interests. Private equity supremo Guy Hands says it’s obvious that wealth attracts more wealth, regardless of what the government recognises. If they and the other economists featured didn’t already know this when quantitative easing was used in 2009, then they would have learned it when the same pattern recurred when the strategy was used after Brexit and again when the pandemic hit.

The super-rich haven’t only benefited from bank bailouts and quantitative easing, but also from shrewd management of their tax affairs. The tax havens where the elite stash their cash were revealed in the Panama and Paradise Papers, leaked to German reporters Bastian Obermayer and Frederik Obermaier. Alongside these revelations, companies such as Vodafone, Amazon and Starbucks were outed as paying little or no tax to the UK government, which at that time was implementing its austerity measures. Then-Prime Minister Theresa May wagged her finger and said to these corporations ‘I’m putting you on warning. This can’t go on any more’, although nothing was done because her reduced-majority government became distracted by Brexit, according to ex-minister and senior aide Gavin Barwell. A more fundamental reason (not given in the documentary) is that governments see high profitability as good for the economy, and therefore are reluctant to impose a heavy tax burden on corporations which would reduce the amount of profit they make.

While the richest grew and held on to their massive amounts of money, millions of people were struggling because of job losses, insecure ‘gig economy’ contracts, rising house prices, shrinking wages and cuts to government funding of services. The widening inequalities of wealth led to the normalisation of food banks and global protests. The programme features some of the campaigners with UK Uncut (a direct-action group targeting corporate tax dodgers) and also the Occupy movement. When asked what the movement achieved, Tina Rothery, one of its members says ‘so much… Occupy pulled the conversation back… to real humans’, although she also admits they didn’t offer solutions beyond this. Another way people reacted to the establishment letting them down was by voting for Britain to leave the European Union. Brexit created more financial instability, responded to with more quantitative easing which again boosted the elite’s coffers.

Some of the interviewees who represent the status quo are more candid than might be expected because they’ve since retired or left their previous careers. For example, Mervyn King (now a life peer) says it’s ‘deeply unfair’ that banks get bailed out when in financial trouble, but other businesses wouldn’t. Ex-Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, who looks like he’s still recovering from his spell in government, tells us there was no debate about further cuts to public spending, as the coalition agreed they would be necessary, despite his talk of ‘difficult decisions’. The Chancellors of the Exchequer (Alistair Darling, George Osborne and Philip Hammond) all seem to be sticking strongest to the decisions made during their tenures. In contrast, Gary Stevenson, a Citibank trader between 2008 and 2014, has shifted his views because of his experiences during those years. As an ‘interest rate trader’, he discovered he could make a fortune by betting on the economy getting worse and as a result became Citibank’s most profitable trader in his area. Realising that economic crises have led to increases in the value of the capitalist class’s stocks and assets, Stevenson felt guilty and left his job. He now works as an economist campaigning against inequality, although the documentary doesn’t mention his proposal to remedy this by placing a time limit on property ownership, thereby forcing the elite to sell their assets, which no government would agree to.

The Decade The Rich Won shows that the way the economy works has enabled the capitalist class to prosper through the turmoil of recent years. The wealth owned by UK billionaires has risen by 310 percent since 2010, little of which has trickled down to those of us scraping by on low incomes. The documentary is worth watching not only because it’s a grim reminder of how capitalism functions but also because it reveals the views of those in prominent positions. Their openness now makes the spin we heard last decade – ‘we’re all in this together’, ‘stronger economy, fairer society’, ‘aspiration nation’, ‘strong and stable leadership’, ‘a country that works for everyone’ – sound even more hollow.
Mike Foster

The almost-war in Ukraine (2022)

Blogger's Note:
A version of this article originally appeared on the WSPUS website as long ago as the January 30th of this year, and events in the past week have obviously overtaken both the article and its title. The March issue of the Socialist Standard was going to press when Russia invaded the Ukraine.

From the March 2022 issue of the Socialist Standard
They told us that 16 February would be the day that Russia was going to invade Ukraine. But diplomatic discussions continued. What had happened? Did Putin really intend to go to war? Or were what appeared to be war preparations merely a means to exert pressure and win concessions from the West?
Developments within Ukraine
Ukraine has been in the grip of civil war since the coups of 2014 — the Ukrainian-nationalist coup in Kiev and the west and the counter-coup in the east.

The split between western and eastern Ukraine goes back to the 19th century, when Ukraine was divided between the Austro-Hungarian and tsarist empires. Eastern Ukraine, where the country’s industry is concentrated, is mainly Russian-speaking and depends on economic ties with Russia, while western Ukraine is oriented toward Europe. Yanukovych, who was president in 2010—2014, tried to hold Ukraine together by developing closer economic relations with both the EU and Russia, but the EU insisted that he choose – he could not do both. As a representative of the east Ukrainian capital and its Party of Regions, he could not afford to break ties with Russia. This placed him at loggerheads with west Ukrainians, who aspired to join an idealized ‘Europe’, and in 2014 he was overthrown.

The ‘Maidan’– the movement that overthrew Yanukovych – began with peaceful mass protests against corruption, but developed into a violent struggle between riot police and extreme Ukrainian nationalists. The regime that emerged, with the support and guidance of Western politicians and propagandists, was semi-fascist in spirit despite a thin democratic veneer (for a fuller analysis see ‘Ukraine: popular uprising or fascist coup?’ tinyurl.com/mr3m689x).Its hostility to ethnic Russians and citizens of mixed ethnic identity and a massacre of Russian activists in Odessa struck terror in the hearts of easterners, who responded with the ‘anti-Maidan’ – an uprising against the Maidan.

The anti-Maidan also began with peaceful demonstrations and even shared certain themes with the Maidan, such as a concern with corruption. But it too was taken over by militaristic nationalists – Russian nationalists in this case. The process went furthest in the two easternmost provinces, where there emerged breakaway mini-states called the Donetsk People’s Republic and Lugansk People’s Republic, supported and manipulated by the Russian government and Russian nationalist organizations.

The new Ukrainian government conducted an ‘anti-terrorist operation’ to crush the DPR and LPR and reincorporate their territory. The civil war dragged on spasmodically, without decisive results. Two million people fled the war zone and became refugees.

Whole communities in parts of Ukraine resisted the draft, unwilling to sacrifice their sons in a cause of no concern to them. Immunity to nationalist propaganda is especially characteristic of people with mixed ethnic identities, such as Ukrainians long resident in Russia and children of Russian-Ukrainian marriages. Most people in eastern Ukraine see no contradiction in identifying simultaneously as Russian and Ukrainian (in many places they speak a mixture of the two languages called Surzhyk). When interviewed, residents of the war zone are inclined to blame both the Ukrainian and the Russian government.

Russia and its ‘near abroad’
A key security requirement for Soviet leaders was that the USSR be surrounded by a belt of states that were either allies or at least ‘friendly neutrals’ (like post-war Finland). ‘Friendship’ entailed willingness to develop economic and cultural ties, consult regularly with the Kremlin and refrain from offensive propaganda campaigns. Above all, it meant not joining hostile military alliances like NATO.

This attitude was inherited by leaders of post-Soviet Russia, except that now the belt of friendly neighbours had to consist mainly of other post-Soviet states. Due to their shared Soviet and tsarist heritage, these states are felt to be less ‘foreign’ than countries beyond the old borders. The two zones came to be referred to as ‘the near abroad’ and ‘the far abroad’.

It is no longer regarded as essential that all former Soviet republics belong to this ‘friendly neighbourhood’. It is now accepted as a fact of life that the Baltic states are going to remain ‘unfriendly’. However, such tolerance does not extend to the three large inner states of Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine. Belarus and Kazakhstan remain ‘friendly’ but since 2014 Ukraine has not behaved in a ‘friendly’ manner.

This has an immediate impact on Moscow’s approach to border issues. When the Soviet Union broke up in 1991, the internal administrative borders between its ‘union republics’ suddenly turned into interstate borders, even though they did not closely reflect the pattern of ethnic settlement. The international community nonetheless soon began to treat them as no less inviolable than any other interstate borders.

The Kremlin too accepted these borders, but not unconditionally. Borders with ‘friendly’ neighbours were accepted, however anomalous they might seem, because border issues were not felt to be important enough to justify spoiling good relations by raising them. Thus, Russia has never objected to the inclusion in Kazakhstan of large areas in the north and east with predominantly Russian-speaking populations, and has lent no support to attempts at secession by Russian nationalists in those areas. Nor did the Kremlin contest Russia’s border with Ukraine until 2014, when the overthrow of Yanukovych was quickly followed by the annexation of Crimea, thereby reversing Khrushchev’s transfer of the peninsula from Soviet Russia to Soviet Ukraine. For the Kremlin, the anti-Russian stance of the new government in Kiev also justified support of the secessionist ‘people’s republics’ in eastern Ukraine.

NATO expansion
The eastward expansion of NATO, especially when it extends to the ‘near abroad’ and right up to Russia’s borders, is a bitter grievance of Russia’s power elite. That is because it violates the security requirement of a ‘friendly neighbourhood’ deeply embedded in their psyche. It is also because it violates the verbal promises made by Western politicians to Gorbachev that if he allowed Germany to unite and united Germany to remain in NATO then NATO would not expand ‘an inch to the east’. These promises were ‘forgotten’ under pressure from American arms manufacturers, whose sales were flagging due to improved relations with Russia and who sought new markets in Eastern Europe. (For a detailed account see Andrew Cockburn, The Spoils of War: Power, Profit and the American War Machine, Verso 2021, Chapter 6.)

Hence the feeling of Russian leaders that Russia – and they personally — have been deceived, swindled and humiliated. It is surely understandable that there should eventually come a time when as a matter of self-respect they say ‘enough is enough’ and ‘take a firm stand’ in defence of core state interests as they perceive them.

Russia first ‘took a firm stand’ against NATO expansion when it invaded Georgia in 2008, partly in order to prevent Georgia from joining NATO. As Georgia has still not joined NATO, that war – together with Russia’s subsequent recognition of the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia — may have achieved its purpose, although Georgia may have remained outside NATO even without Russian intervention. The invasion of Georgia provided a precedent for the confrontation with Ukraine when it adopted the goal of joining NATO.

The recent crisis
Thanks in large part to Western arms supplies, Ukrainian forces in the east grew strong enough to make it seem likely that they would succeed in breaking the stalemate and penetrate core areas of the DPR and LPR. Residents of these areas feared what might then happen to them, especially as the forces facing them contained Nazi formations like the Azov Battalion. Russian commentators too envisioned a scenario like the massacre of Moslems at Srebrenica during the Bosnian war, in which case Russia would be morally obliged to intervene.

Russian spokesmen often promised that Russia would not be the first to violate the status quo. However, a major Ukrainian offensive against the DPR and LPR would be regarded as a violation of the status quo and Russia would respond forcefully to any such ‘provocation’. Kiev took the view that it has a perfect right to move against secessionists on its own territory. So each side would be able to blame the other for starting a war.

However, there was no guarantee that hostilities would be confined to eastern Ukraine. The concentration of Russian forces in southern Belarus, close to the border with Ukraine and just 120 kilometres from Kiev, prefigured a possible blitzkrieg to install a ‘friendly’ government.

Many signs appeared in recent weeks of a deep division within Russia’s power elite over the expediency of invading Ukraine. Two senior army officers, one retired from the defence ministry and the other from the General Staff, publicly warned against the prospect of protracted occupation of a hostile population. The main threats to Russia, they declared, are internal ones like corruption and demographic decline. Prominent civilian experts likewise argued – as Andrei Kortunov, director of the Russian International Affairs Council, was quoted on St. Petersburg Online (fontanka.ru) – that ‘any analysis shows that war is to Russia’s disadvantage’.

The prospect of cancelation of Nord Stream, the pipeline through the Baltic Sea to bring Russian natural gas to Germany, is likely to have pulled the huge gas corporation Gazprom into the anti-war camp.

The main advocates of war seem to have been officials of the security services, more concerned with the threat to the regime posed by Colour Revolutions than with broader national interests.

Even the most ‘democratic’ governments, having decided on war, suppress public expression of anti-war opinion. So the fact that it was possible during the recent crisis in Russia openly to oppose any resort to war shows that Putin was not committed to military action. He may have been keeping his options open until the moment when a decision had to be made. (The high level of mobilization of Russian troops could not be sustained for long: they had to be set in motion fairly soon or else demobilized.) Or he may have never intended to go to war at all, resolved in advance to content himself with whatever gains the crisis might yield.

Russian gains
The Ukrainian crisis was accompanied by intensive diplomacy, involving mainly Russia, the United States and major European member states of NATO (Britain, France, Germany). Much of this diplomacy remains secret. But clearly NATO has agreed to take some account of Russian security concerns and revive the stalled process of European arms control. On January 12, after a hiatus of two and a half years, the NATO—Russia Council reconvened in Brussels.

Western governments have affirmed the continuing validity of the NATO—Russia Founding Act of 1997 and the Minsk Protocols of 2014 and 2015. Kiev and its unconditional supporters inside NATO have been lobbying hard to consign these agreements to oblivion, thereby releasing Kiev from such unpleasant obligations as granting a special status to the areas controlled by the People’s Republics.

Russia has obtained no guarantee against Ukraine joining NATO, but it is conceivable that France or Germany, which take pride in maintaining a certain autonomy from the US, secretly promised to block Ukraine’s admission – requiring, as it does, a consensus of existing members.

The Russian parliament (State Duma) is now asking Putin to recognize the breakaway Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics as independent states, maybe as a step towards their subsequent annexation to Russia (as happened to Crimea).

Our attitude
Socialists need feel no great temptation to take sides in disputes between Russia and Ukraine. In both countries wealth is concentrated in the hands of wealthy capitalists known as ‘oligarchs’ who own the mass media and control political parties. (One difference is that Russia under Putin, unlike Ukraine, has acquired a state strong enough to limit the rivalry and political power of the oligarchs.) Corruption remains rampant in both countries, despite the best efforts of Maidan and anti-Maidan activists. Human and democratic rights exist on paper, but just try to exercise them and you will find yourself at the mercy of nationalist vigilantes and paranoid security agencies. Fascist groups are actively engaged on both sides. The anti-nationalist Left is weakened by the depth of ethnic and religious divisions and the continued association of ‘socialism’ and ‘communism’ with the Soviet past.

As always, we urge our fellow workers in Russia and Ukraine to reflect. Where do their true interests lie? With ‘their own’ oligarchs and politicians? With the oligarchs and politicians on the other side? Or with one another?
Stefan

Abolish the Wages System and . . . (2022)

From the March 2022 issue of the Socialist Standard

One short way of presenting the aim of the Socialist Party is to say that we wish to abolish the wages system. Four words of course cannot say everything, but their implications are very wide-ranging in terms of the kind of society we stand for.

This is because the wages system is at the very heart of capitalism. The vast majority of the population have to work for an employer in return for a wage or salary, or have to rely on someone else who does so. Even many so-called self-employed are in practice in a similar situation, as they also need to work for a living. But socialism will do away with this: do away with being forced to perform work that is often boring or dangerous or pointless, and that is undertaken at the behest of and for the benefit of the employer. Instead, the principle of ‘from each according to their ability’ will apply: people will do work that, as far as is possible, will be made interesting and challenging and rewarding and varied and useful, with working hours reduced from now.

Doing away with employment and working for a wage will also involve a fundamental change to how society is organised. Under the present system, the reason why most people have to do waged work is that this is the only way they can get access to the money needed to pay for food, housing, etc. A small minority of the population (less than one in a hundred) own and control the means of production, the land, raw materials, machinery, factories, warehouses, offices, shops and the rest, while those not in this elite group are forced to work for them. This is known as a class division: the capitalist class own the means of life, as is sometimes said, while the working class do not own them and so must work for the capitalists. Abolishing the wages system will imply putting an end to this class system, with its attendant inequality, poverty and exploitation.

Working for an employer involves working for the employer’s profits, which is how the capitalists become so wealthy. Production, then, takes place to make a profit, so only goods and services that are likely to result in a profit will be produced. That’s why there can be unemployed building workers while at the same time there are people who are homeless or living in crowded or substandard accommodation: building homes for these people will simply not be profitable. But ending the wages system, employment and production for profit will mean that houses, along with everything else, will be produced in order to meet human need. It sounds like a simple idea, but it will have major consequences for how society is run and how people relate to each other. It also means that there will be no making goods that are substandard or even dangerous. And with no employment, there will be no unemployment, nobody trying to survive on meagre state handouts.

And if goods and so on are produced to meet human need and wages no longer exist, it will follow that money has no role and there will be free access instead. If you want some fruit and veg, just go along to your local shop (or whatever name is used) and take what you want. Obviously you aren’t going to take more than you need. The same will apply to other foodstuffs, clothes, DVDs, books and all the rest. People will not need to pay to use the train or bus, or to visit the dentist or go on holiday. There may — especially at first — have to be restrictions on free access, perhaps for housing, but ensuring that everyone has a decent roof over their heads will be a priority. The general principle here will be ‘to each according to their needs’.

There will also be no role for government, which nowadays exists to serve the interests of the capitalist class. Administrative functions, such as mending potholes or providing public libraries, will still exist, but the vast machinery of armed forces, police, courts and prisons will have no place. Without a wages system and class division, there will be no rulers, no elites or privileged people, no inequality. People will just work together for the common good.

A society such as this will not be able to exist in just one country, but it will not be international either, as this would imply that nations still existed. Rather, it will be global, with no countries or borders or passports or visas. One worldwide system, without wars, where environmental and climate-related issues can be addressed properly, with no interference from considerations of profit.

So abolishing the wages system does not just mean doing away with your wage packet or salary advice. It also means there will be no employment or classes or money or government or countries. This will therefore have tremendous and entirely positive results for the whole planet and all its people.
Paul Bennett

Not Revolution at All (2022)

Book Review from the March 2022 issue of the Socialist Standard

Ripe for Revolution: Building Socialism in the Third World. By Jeremy Friedman. Harvard University Press £28.95.

This book covers attempts to build so-called socialism in developing countries. Case studies deal with Indonesia, Chile, Tanzania, Angola and Iran, each supported by a great deal of detailed documentation. It is not about socialism at all, of course, but still contains a lot of useful information and interesting discussion, about such topics as rivalry between the rulers in Moscow and Beijing, and the use or not of parliament.

The examples are very different from each other. In Indonesia the ‘Communist’ Party (PKI) was not in power, but Russian aid was supposed to help build heavy industry and so increase the role of the working class. Sukarno’s dictatorship eventually resulted in the killing of perhaps half a million PKI members and supporters. In Chile Allende ‘saw himself as creating a completely new model of socialist revolution’, but he was not in full control of the Congress and was able to do little more than nationalise the copper industry. The end in 1973 was another coup and thousands of deaths. Nyerere in Tanzania claimed to want socialism without class struggle, but his agricultural reforms (‘forced villagization’) led to a drop in production and massive food imports. In Angola there were competing ‘liberation movements’ and from the mid-70s there was a combination of ‘political Leninism with a mixed economy’, resulting in a ‘Leninist oligarchy’ that skimmed profits and preserved its political power. Despite its vast oil resources, the country exemplified ‘Leninist capitalism’, where a kleptocracy justified itself on the grounds of national development. Iran shared with Indonesia the influence of Islam, but land reform was not implemented, and the idea that an Islamic state would mean a more just economic system proved baseless.

Friedman concludes that the Russian rulers’ idea of state-led industrialisation did not deliver what was promised, and so the market had to be re-introduced (not that it had ever gone away). He talks briefly about various definitions of socialism, but does not refer to the idea of a classless stateless global society. He sees the ‘Leninist model of politics’ as an enduring legacy, and a number of organisations built on such lines still hold power in southern Africa. The Cold War did not end so clearly in the less developed parts of the world, but the claim in the final paragraph that ‘the attempt to build a socialist future in the Global South was real’ is simply unsupported. Rather, there were attempts of various kinds to expand the role of capitalism (not necessarily state capitalism), with Russian and/or Chinese support. The book is a useful reminder that non-Bolshevik efforts to build ‘socialism’ also existed and failed.
Paul Bennett