Forest of Dean & Wye Valley

Archive for October, 2011|Monthly archive page

East Germany & the Fall of Communism – reply to the responders

In C.Spiby, Readers on October 7, 2011 at 10:03 am

by C. Spiby

My article on East Germany and the failure of communism drew some interesting responses. Here I intend to reply to some of the points raised, including Diana Gash’s communication which can be found on our letters page.

Of course, in an essay of such wide-reaching scope as the nature of modern socialism, it is difficult, if not impossible to give much depth. Some points had to be made fleetingly as not to offend the dreaded word-count.

The thrust of the article was to ask the question of whether this was the time to rehabilitate the legacy of the great socialist tradition from the legacy or tyranny perpetrated by the likes of Pol Pot, Mao and Stalin. This being a vehicle to reflect on the past as a means to inform the present.

I argued that yes it was and moreover that – for British communists and socialists alike – the place to realise the socialist agenda was in the Labour Party.

And to do so now, possibly more than ever in at least my lifetime.  I was criticised, rightly, for not making this absolutely clear. So let me re-state it.

The Labour Party is now at a crossroads; if we do not make it our own now, then I for one feel the cause of modern British socialism is lost for at least a generation. A new leader, following a huge electoral defeat which has favoured vile right-wing agenda in the ConDem Government. These are all the ingredients necessary to urge a new generation of left-wing resurgence.

I am not for one moment suggesting that the Labour Party is to be hi-jacked as a communist party. But I have personally resigned from the Communist Party of Britain precisely to help re-boot Labour from within, rather than build the movement outside it (as the CPB’s own programme advises). Both positions are valid. But less so, I feel, is that of the separatists.

We can argue over the right path to socialism until we are red in the face. But only a mass movement will truly take the first steps in government. Although I was accused of ‘timid conclusions’ – I think this denies the struggle of the journey ahead of us.

I showed that the narrative offered by the works I cited (books and movies) is that Marxism will always bring about a totalitarian state. But this is not true – the whole of socialism is built on Marx, and I argued that while Marx can only foresee a socialist revolution through violent change, other paths show that this need not be the case.

I was criticised on drawing on the example of faith leaders. True, as an atheist, this is a trite thing to do, but here I hoped to show the innate nature of socialism. Perhaps I would have better used Robert Axelrod’s 1984 scientific work ‘The Evolution of Co-operation’.

My survey of the GDR was limited to about 3 books and 3 films. Most came out negatively, but the interesting point in the responses is that no-one rushed to defend even the defensible elements of East German life. Rather, the criticisms were aimed at my intended target – the nature of the debate for today’s society in Western Europe. Diana seemed at once enthused and concerned, also recognising the new zeitgeist for socialism – this is the dialectic in action.

But she remains concerned about Labour’s recent past. Rightly so. I have not voted Labour since the war on Iraq. I would have struggled anyway on issues like foundation hospitals, PFI, PPP and forcing mothers back to work rather than supporting their decision to stay at home, were that their choice. These policies, however, were New Labour. With Ed rather than David, we have the opportunity to bring the Party back to the left
both by contrast to this hugely unjust Tory government and the fact of the Unions’ backing of Ed as the new leader. With no programme yet, this is OUR chance. And also, I have been impressed with Bruce Hogan. On the Wye side Hamish Sanderson considers himself a socialist. And councillors like Armand Watts for Bulwark talk my language. Then there are good local citizens like Di Martin who have stood and won as councillors for Labour driven by the causes socialists would recognise as theirs. This is the chance to re-seed the foundations, while the right attacks our most precious wins such as the NHS; this is the home for our best defence.

My brief reference to the likes of the SP and SWP was a crude ruse to dismiss their input into the laying of those foundations in this new breed of Labour. That is not to devalue the role these groups have in local campaigns and in the debate on socialism, but their influence is – clearly – on
the outside of where the real challenge lies for the mass movement.

If, like me, you really believe in socialism, then join us.

This could be our last chance to claim the Party back for ourselves. You could stay in the SP, SWP or – as I was – in the CPB. But these parties will not ever win a seat in Parliament and therefore cannot truly hope to reflect the wishes of the mass of working people. Yes, we might feel uncomfortable in taking a place alongside people who supported New Labour, but look beyond them and we see others who feel the way we do like, say, John McDonald, and we only have to remind ourselves that the LP was the home of Tony Benn to see that the Labour Party is still the rightful place for socialists.

The answer may not appeal to the radicals. But for those of us who have trod the line of radical politics for so long, coming to real party of the mass movement IS in itself radical.

The debate about communism’s rehabilitation is due. But it is for nought if the people are not with us. The GDR offers examples of warnings and evidence of where things went right like social cohesion. But that debate is only a debate. The point is to change the world.

The Lib Dems will be nowhere in the next General Election. Their members need to join the Labour Party (re-join in some cases) to realise their dream of a social democracy. Their rightful place is in a democracy that puts social values first. And anyone who cannot see that modern British socialism doesn’t seek to achieve a similar goal is out on their own. Only a united front of socialist-driven Parliamentary power will be able to  hold the Tories and big business to account. Forget New Labour – it is up to us to ensure that social welfare drives the party not the end of boom and bust, the slaves of a shallow affluence which has left our Party dwindling and our country morally bereft. I mean, could you ever previously imagine a discussion, policies even on competition in the NHS?

That’s why you can either join the fight. Or talk about it while being defeated – at best –in the odd skirmish on the periphery.

{please feel free to Comment here or write or e-mail us}

READERS’ LETTER: Communist East Germany & British Socialism Today

In Readers on October 3, 2011 at 11:43 am

Dear the Clarion

I wish to make a response to Carl‘s article from the Clarion, July issue, entitiled ‘East Germany, and the fall of Communism’.

I read the article with interest; the quote from Rowan William’s Easter address was particularly relevant given that the most heartfelt and cogent condemnation of the  current Coalition policies has once again come from the Church. Today, we are not used to people with much to lose speaking unpopular truths.  A reminder of the South American Liberation Theology movement when brave priests defied the Vatican, engaged in politics, and worked to feed people  and keep them safe before looking after their spirituality.

So true, that Socialists must always see the struggle in terms of the current times and conditions however constant the goals may be.  Marxist principles remain but as Carl pointed out the thinking must be revised to suit our age.

I have found the final statements in the article extremely thought provoking.

For the minority of people in the Country who are actively engaged or seriously interested in politics these are exciting times.  Opportunities for change seem more possible than for some long time.  The excitement one feels can seem vicarious – the very conditions that are giving rise to such possibilities are causing acute anxiety and misery for many people and those who are already poor are right to feel afraid. The need to join with other like minded people and ‘do something about it’ has never felt more urgent.

Apparently, the feeling is that the most effective path to change is to join the Labour Party and influence policy and thinking from inside the ranks. I can see how attractive this may seem to people who have been members of minority groups or Partys. The thought of belonging to a mass Party and enjoying the benefits of campaigning from such a secure base is perhaps inviting. The idea of debating with right wing Labour stalwarts, winning the arguments and making a difference to people’s lives is a great challenge.

BUT I am curious to know what has happened to the Labour Party to make this possible?

I totally agree that the conditions outside are conducive to progress but see little or no change inside.  Some people have always held the view that it is better to work from inside. I was one of them for very many years, until as members we were expected to register our links with Socialist groups and it was made very clear that we were not wanted in the Party.  Dave Nellist, a tireless MP and a committed Socialist was thrown out of the Party and his job for his beliefs and his actions.  Some people chose to remain inside and have held fast to principled and humanistic values.  Sadly they have been unable to rise through the ranks and their influence inside the Party has been small despite being inspirational in many campaigns. Jeremy Corbyn and Tony Benn to name two. Tyler Chinnick in his ‘Cuts’ article makes fair comment about Labour’s  appallingly weak opposition to the havoc being caused by the Government.  So far Ed Milliband, despite some promising words, is not looking like a man who is about to prepare his Party to take on the worst aspects of Capitalism.  Socialists know that this is what is needed if poverty is to be eradicated and justice and equality is to be achieved.

From my, possibly jaded, perspective the energy and the action is coming from elsewhere. from small local groups, from single issue campaigns and from a growing sense of outrage amongst people who have little faith left in mainstream political structures.  If these people are to be politicised it seems unlikely that they will be drawn towards old style Party meetings and the beaurocracy that goes with them. Hopefully, the Trades Unions will support growing grass roots opposition to what is happening and this in turn may influence Party politics.

As a member of the Socialist Party, formerly The Militant, I was somewhat dismayed to see that Carl had bracketed us together with the SWP in terms of our level of maturity and at some stage would be interested to know why.  The SP has a good record of standing  in local  and national elections and when elected, of building good reputations for their hard work in protecting services. Members are encouraged to be active and take up positions in their workplace Unions and give unflagging support to worker’s struggles. They have a good education programme and young people are encouraged to speak out and organise campaigns on issues which affect them. The SP has a policy of working together with other groups, of course with the agenda of influencing direction, and has strong and active links with overseas workers.  I believe that any Socialist would find it difficult to fault the aims of the Party.

My response to Carl’s article was not meant to turn into an  advert for the SP  but more a difference of opinion on the Labour Party being the ‘only one true place for British Socialists’.

DG, Coleford (Forest of Dean)

Murdoch – end of empire?

In A.Graham on October 3, 2011 at 11:37 am

As accusations of telephone hacking at the “News of the World” spread like wildfire, it suddenly seemed that triumph for Rupert Murdoch, boss of its parent company News Corporation, had turned to disaster.

It all erupted just when it seemed as if his bid to become sole owner of the TV satellite company BSkyB was in the bag. By the beginning of July, the Government had all but given the go-ahead to Murdoch’s bid for the remaining shares in the TV company.

Then came fresh revelations of hacking at the News of the World that reached right to the top – to the desk of Rebekah Brook, former editor of the paper, and latterly chief executive of News Corporation. Recent charges against the paper (and by implication its editor) are emotive. They include the hacking into the phone of murder victim, Millie Dowler.

MURDOCH’S REALM:

Rupert Murdoch, who arrived in Britain from Australia many years ago to buy up the ailing Sun newspaper along with the mass circulation News of the World, has built up a formidable global media empire. He is now an American citizen (where he also owns newspapers and TV stations including the Fox News channel).

In the UK he built a cosy relationship with Margaret Thatcher. In return for his support, she helped him to build up his media empire in Britain – to the point where it was claimed that no party could win an election unless it had Murdoch’s backing (a claim that Tony Blair certainly seemed to believe).

According to a feature by Independent columnist Matthew Norman, Thatcher “politicised the police by using them as a political truncheon at Wapping, as with the simultaneous miners’ strike”.

WAPPING:

The events at Wapping in the mid-1980s were directly related to Murdoch’s successful attempts to get rid of the  “troublesome” print unions and to bring in strike-breaking workers in their place. He used Thatcher’s new anti-union legislation to out-manoeuvre the print workers and hammer them into the ground. Over five thousand workers lost their jobs – and received no redundancy pay. For years afterwards his print works surrounded by razor wire fences were known as “Fortress Wapping”.

In his article, Matthew Norman suggested that at that time an implicit agreement came into being between Murdoch, Thatcher and the police (what he described as a “tripartite partnership”). Now it’s not up to us to suggest that any such relationship has continued – but the Metropolitan Police were significantly tardy in taking seriously any allegations of phone hacking at the Murdoch press. It was claimed that it was one “rogue individual” – and once he had become the sacrificial lamb, any enquiry by Scotland Yard lapsed.

Here it might have gone no further, if it hadn’t been for the persistence of certain sections of the non-Murdoch press, the Guardian in particular. But still the police dragged their feet until as revalations mounted, they had no option but to act.

CAMERON’S ROLE:

And what of Cameron’s part in all this? Now, how the Murdoch media empire conducts its business is its own dubious affair. And David Cameron is his own man. But could it be possible that he had thoughts of re-kindling the relationship that Thatcher enjoyed with Murdoch?

Cameron hired ex-Murdoch man, Andy Coulson, as his media su
premo (every Prime Minister has to have one these days it seems). And, in retrospect, he may regret attending a party at the home of Murdoch’s daughter, in the company of Rebekah Brooks. At the time, though, he claimed that he was merely visiting the home of a constituent. And he was also keen to ensure that Murdoch’s bid for full ownership of BSkyB was taken out of the hands of Vince Cable and given instead to a more pliant member of his Government. It has since been revealed that he met up with Murdoch’s executives no less that 26 times since becoming PM.

Cameron has now (no doubt reluctantly) announced a full independent enquiry into News Corp’s internal workings. Such an enquiry is long overdue – Meanwhile, the story continued to unravel. Later developments include Murdoch’s abrupt decision to cease publication of the News of the World, and the arrest of its former editor (and Cameron’s one-time press aid), Andy Coulson.

Then came the news that Murdoch was withdrawing his bid to take over bSkyb – and that Rebekah Brook had resigned her position as chief executive of News International. Sir Paul Stephenson, Chief Commissioner at the Met, has had to step down – and rumours suggest that the Murdoch empire in the UK may be under threat. As they say, watch this space!

CAMERON’S ANGRY SOCIETY:

In A.Graham on October 3, 2011 at 11:31 am

Who’s save from the cut and burn policies of the ConDem government? Certainly not our future pensioners!

ANGER – and protest – are now becoming a hallmark of Cameron’s “big society” as more and more of the Government’s repressive policies are unveiled. And on Thursday, June 30, public sector workers made their feelings felt about the attack on their pension rights.

A range of public sector unions, including civil and public servants and teachers, took action in a one-day strike. Although the Government, predictably, tried to down play the impact of this day of action, there is no doubt that anger and determination prevailed in the many demonstrations held across the country.

PENSIONS AT STAKE:

The issue was pensions. Until now, public sector workers have been assured of a relatively secure and adequate pension provision when they retire. Through their working lives they have been able to pay into a superannuation fund, backed by their employers in the public sector, which has allowed them a degree of peace of mind when they reach retirement. And that, most would surely agree, is how it should be.

Now, under new Government proposals, they will have to work longer, pay more into the pot – and at the end of it all receive a smaller pension.

No wonder public sector workers are outraged at these proposals. And no wonder so many of them supported the strike, as a means of showing their anger – as well as drawing attention to the Government’s plans.

The Government’s response has been that public sector pensions are “no longer sustainable”. They have drawn attention to the contrast between many in the private sector, whose pension provision has declined significantly in recent years, resulting in many falling way behind those in the public sector.

So, rather than attempting to safeguard the pension rights of all, our Government has preferred to drag down those who work in the public sector – seeking the lowest common denominator when it comes to providing for old age.

“DEFERRED WAGES”:

The pensioners’ movement sees the money paid to old folk in their retirement as “deferred wages”. Most of us, one way or another, pay into the pot during our working lives in order to ensure some level of security and a quality of life when we retire.

We pay through the work we do, as well as the taxes we pay. We pay national insurance, as well as the more specific superannuation schemes found in the public sector. And many of those who can afford it may well pay into private insurance schemes as well.

SOCIAL DIVISIONS:

What the issue of pensions means is that class and income divisions in society are carried on beyond retirement into old age. The wealthy take their wealth with them – and no doubt live to a ripe old age. Those who have worked hard all their lives on more modest incomes may well struggle to make do when they retire. The State pension these days is often only just enough to help them to survive.

No doubt the top ranking bankers, whose reckless gambling with the money invested by the public, will have no financial worries when they retire. Neither will the top politicians.

If we are to believe the weasel words of the Cameron Government (and its supporters in the right-wing press), we can no longer afford to “support” the growing number of elderly people in our society. The implication is that once we reach a certain age we become a drain on society. We no longer contribute anything to wider society, we degenerate rapidly into a state of dependency, and are (by implication) merely a burden on the rest of society. That’s why we must now all work longer and pay more for our own old age.

WRONG:

These assumptions are wrong on a number of counts. First, there have been studies to show that even with increased life expectancy we can still afford to pay decent pensions. It’s just a matter of the allocation of resources.

And, second, after retirement pensioners continue to pay taxes. Taxes are based on levels of income, not on whether a person is working or not. Not only that but many pensioners continue to keep themselves occupied doing unpaid work which often oils the wheels of the voluntary sector on which Cameron’s notion of the “big society” depends. These are the people who now have the free time to work in charity shops, or to volunteer to help others less fortunate than themselves.

Declining health and dependency may well catch up with us eventually – but what sort of society would refuse to help those who need it, on the grounds that “we can’t afford it”? Or, perhaps, we could resort to a mandatory programme of euthanasia to end the problem of old wrinklies at a certain age? All paid for out of our taxes, of course.

The shadow of the IMF

In A.Graham on October 3, 2011 at 11:28 am

David Cameron positively glowed with pink-cheeked satisfaction when the International Monetary Fund gave its endorsement to his “slash and burn” approach to our economy.

You can see where they’re coming from. These days getting the IMF’s seal of approval is like being endorsed by Shylock. Yet it was founded with the best of intentions.

It’s come a long way since it was first set up towards the end of the war – in Bretton Woods, New Hampshire, USA, in July 1944. Its aim was the stabilisation and re-building of the world economy after the slump years of the ‘thirties and the economic disintegration caused by war.

Economists like J. M. Keynes backed the idea. But what was to emerge in later years was something very different from the original ideals of the IMF. Loans came to be given to those in need under strict conditions. Usually it meant the restructuring of a country’s economy and the sale of public assets. Resources in “Third World” countries were plundered at the behest of the IMF.

Examples abound. After the Haiti earthquake disaster, the IMF gave a loan of $100 million – on condition that public employees would be refused any pay increases, and the price of electricity was raised. In Tanzania, the IMF loan came with the condition that the country’s water supply was sold off. In Bolivia, the government was told to sell off its oil and water.

And so it goes on. For some time now, the IMF has been accused of merely acting to further the interests of Western (mainly US) capitalism. But one critic goes even further.

Joseph E Stiglitz (a leading economist and former senior Vice-President at the World Bank) said:

“When the IMF arrives in a country, they are interested in only one thing. How do we make sure the banks and financial institutions are paid. It is the IMF that keeps the speculators in business.”

A harsh verdict from someone who knows what he’s talking about. An old saying springs to mind: “beware of Greeks bearing gifts”. Except ironically in this case it’s Greece that is bearing the brunt of the “bail out” imposed by the IMF and the EU.

So when the IMF tells Cameron and Osborne that they’re following the right policy, we need to see this in the context of the Fund’s track record. And who would really want a helping hand like this?

 

What is “the State” – and why is under attack by Cameron?

In Editorial on October 3, 2011 at 11:24 am

According to his own propaganda, David Cameron’s declared mission is to cut back on the “Big State”, and replace it by the “Big Society”. State control of services, of provision for our citizens, is to be cut back to the bare minimum – to be replaced by an amorphous concept where our general wellbeing is provided by eager volunteers who will work willingly for the good of all.

The reality is of course very different. And it it also dodges the question – what do we mean by “the State”? According to the Oxford Compact Dictionary, “the State” is a “political community under one government”, or alternatively, “civil government”. However we define it, it is the glue that holds our society together, and we diminish it at our peril.

INVOLVEMENT:

Of course in any healthy democracy, it should involve us all participating in the political process. That should go without saying. What is worrying, though, is the fact that since the bleak years of Thatcher (when the concept of the State was last under attack), the proportion of the population bothering to vote has dropped significantly. And the number of us who are actual members of political parties has dwindled to a mere fraction of the population. This has affected all political parties, but in Labour’s case, membership is now under half what it was in 1997 – despite an increase in the number joining since the last election. Union membership, too, has seen a long-term decline – at a time when jobs and working conditions are under attack.

These are worrying signs for those who are involved in politics, and in the defence of what remains of our Welfare State. In the short term this trend might not concern the Camerons and the Osbornes of this world. They live in their own little political cocoon, bolstered by their own hype, whilst they cut and slice the fabric of our society under the pretext of “cutting the State down to size”.

THE WRITING ON THE WALL:

The impact of their policies will last for generations and we, as a society, will be all the poorer for it. Once social provision has been abandoned, the Health Service been transformed into a structure to serve the needs of the big multinational “health” corporations, and pensions that are meant to provide security in our old age have been cut back to the minimum, then it will be difficult to return to the kind of society in which the State provided for the wellbeing of all in a participating, caring society.

We have been warned. As Polly Toynbee wrote in the Guardian at the end of April, “few yet realise the scale of the conservative revolution in progress. Professors Taylor-Gooby and Gerry Stoker have just revealed that by 2013 public spending will be a lower proportion of GDP in Britain than in the US.”

Yet, for many, Cameron’s smokescreen still hides the true intentions of his Government. Whilst his promotion of the “big society” has been met by general cynicism, the wider claims that we must cut public spending to the bone to eliminate our deficit are still widely accepted. And his attacks on “the State” are not being countered.

Yes, there has been opposition to his policies. Protests by students, by trade unionists – and mass opposition to the Government’s NHS reforms have hit the headlines. But so far these have been fragmented. The fact that so few of us join political organisations – and the growing number who don’t even both bother to vote – is all grist to the mill for the Conservatives and their tacticians. Sadly this goes for many in the Lib Dem leadership as well.

MODERN TIMES: The Dinosaur Column

In Dinosaur on October 3, 2011 at 11:18 am

News of whose World?

So the News of the World is no more. Whether there were many mourners, at the funeral I don’t know. As far as I’m concerned, it died many years ago – in 1969 to be exact, when it was bought by Rupert Murdoch.

The original News of the World, the one I remember as a naive young dinosaur, was born in very different times. It first appeared in 1843, when Queen Victoria was on the throne, and the face of journalism was very different. Oh, yes, reporters and readers liked their scandal even then, but there were no phones then to be hacked in to; and obscenity laws restricted how the news was presented.

The News of the World then was a large broadsheet style newspaper, with pages of closely-packed columns. By the time I got to know it, it seemed to have changed very little in its layout and type-style. Archaic in appearance might be a way to describe it. One speciality was its coverage of the law courts, reporting particularly the more salacious offences – some of which, of course, are no longer illegal in our more enlightened days. And as a young innocent, I found much of the reporting a bit obscure. Statements like, “an act of intimacy took place in the back of a motor car” meant little to me at the time.  But the paper enjoyed mass sales throughout the country.

When Murdoch bought it, there was instant shock and horror. “The News of the World is an institution, as British as roast beef”, snorted one commentator. A brash Aussie incomer was no fit custodian of its heritage. But Murdoch wanted to expand his Australian press empire and gain entry to the British market –  and what Murdoch wanted, he got. The News of the World as I’d known it as a young dinosaur, faded into memory. And, as they say, the rest is history.

By the way, it may be worth noting that the Sun (which was next on his list of acquisitions) was the successor to a very different newspaper – the Daily Herald, once owned jointly by Odhams Press and the trade unions. It was effectively the paper of the Labour Party, enjoying a mass, working class readership, and once boasting George Lansbury as its editor. But finally its owners decided to change the title, and re-brand it to try to tune in to the new consumer-based lifestyles of the 1960s. It was a flop. Circulation declined to below the million mark, and by the time Murdoch bought the title, it was on its last legs.

The days before mobile phones:

I can remember the days when the only people authorised to listen in to our phone calls were those employed by such bodies as the Special Branch or Military Intelligence. As far as I know, that’s still officially the case.

Back then it was called “telephone tapping”, and members of such sinister subversive bodies as CND or the Committee of 100 would take great delight in trying to spot the tell-tale signs that their phone had been tapped. I was told that there was often a tell-tale click when the tapping took place. Some more imaginative folk swore they heard heavy breathing from a third party whilst they were chatting away quite innocently. Sometimes fake demos would be arranged over the phone, just to see if the police would turn up (and often they did until they got wise to what was going on).

Now it seems that with all this modern electronic, digital gadgetry, anyone can get in on the act. All you need is the right equipment and the know-how – plus, presumably, some way of identifying your target. All right, I admit it. I don’t really know how telephone hackers carry out their business. But as a method of doing the dirty on some unsuspecting victim, it’s a technological breakthrough compared to raking through their dustbins.

Sell off? No thanks!

According to a recent poll involving 7,007 folk in the Dean, only seven raised their heads above the parapet to declare their support for the Government’s plans to privatise the Forest.

That amounts to just about half a percent. On the face of it, it’s hardly a percentage at all – more of a slight blip. But Forest Research, the body given the task of analysing the results, expressed a degree of caution. Because of the conditions under which the poll was taken it might not be totally “representative of wider public opinion” they said.

But be that as it may, it did show the way that the wind was blowing as far as forest folk are concerned. And it’ll do for me.

Dinosaur