Women’s Seminar of the Fourth International

Alison Treacher reports back from her attendance at the women’s seminar of the Fourth International in Amsterdam where representatives from 28 countries discussed the current global capitalist crisis, ecological destruction, continued imperialism and new tensions within geopolitics.

We concentrated on the impacts on women, their lives and the resistance required in this new context. I will focus on women and migration and rise of the far right in national discourse and conclude with an account of the international, intersectional movement which saw 50 countries mobilise against violence against women, demanding environmental justice and workers rights.

Women and migration

The number of international migrants reached 244 million in 2015 for the world as a whole, a 41 per cent increase compared to 2000, according to UN reports. This figure includes almost 20 million refugees. Women migrate for many different reasons; fleeing war and persecution, as climate change refugees, or for economic reasons, seeking better working conditions for themselves and their families as their country of origin cannot provide decent employment.

These women face many challenges including dangerous journeys across borders and seas. We have seen the tragic loss of life in the Mediterranean sea of migrant women and children fleeing violence from Syria and other Middle Eastern countries. Another example is from Mexico where women face dangerous journeys seeking employment in the US. In Mexico and countries where organised crime and cartels are strong, women face the risks of sexual violence and abduction resulting in forced prostitution and slavery. At the seminar we heard heart breaking accounts from women from Mexico and Brazil speaking of disappearances, sex trafficking, organ trafficking and the desperate search of mothers for their loved ones.

In other countries, such as the Philippines, migration is economically driven, in which poverty, inequality and lack of opportunities force people to migrate for better opportunities. In the Philippines more than 10 million people work outside the country, the majority of these are women, working as in the UAE, for example, as domestic workers. The social impact of this level of migration is devastating with families separated and children being raised without their mothers. In the UK throughout the Brexit campaign we have witnessed how xenophobic campaigns are being used politically, to dehumanise migrants and present them as enemies, this was replicated Trump’s campaign in the US.

These challenges do not end when these women reach their destination country. According to a UN report, 2 out of 3 migrants’ destination is either Europe or South Asia. In countries such as Denmark and Italy, xenophobic campaigns have taken on the form of ‘feminationalist’ rhetoric which claims that migration is undermining the rights and freedoms of the women in the destination countries. The discourse of ‘feminationalism’ is closely related to homonationalism in which the xenophobic right is claiming that migration is a threat to the rights of the LBGT community.

It is important that we recognise these narratives and ensure we unpick them to reveal their xenophobic intent, and ultimately reject them from our feminism. In Italy in 2015 there were mass protests after a woman was raped on a beach in Rimini. The narrative quickly turned to the perpetrators nationality opposed to male violence against women. One activist from Non Una Di Meno stated that ‘We don’t want our bodies used for racist and xenophobic campaigns: rape is rape, regardless of the nationality of the rapist. We reject the culture of possession that triggers male violence and we do not accept the blackmail of fear … The streets of our cities are not savannas infested with predators from which we can defend only by renouncing the freedom to move … the majority of rapes occur among the domestic walls. The rapist is often a husband, a partner, a father, a cousin.’

A feminist perspective on immigration and migration is important so we are able to recognise these narratives and are prepared to call them out and reject them from our politics.

Women and the far right

As a consequence of the instability of global capitalism, the world has witnessed the resurgence of a more organised, influential far right. In Greece there is Golden Dawn, in France the Front Nationale and in the UK, UKIP. Their economic positions vary, however they have in common a fierce anti-immigrant rhetoric and islamophobic racism. In this new context we are also seeing new forms of fundamentalism increase, movements which cross state borders such as the Taliban and ISIS. The women’s seminar discussed how ‘theofascism’ is a useful term to describe these evolving groups. Religious fundamentalism is a core tenet of their ideology and this reaffirmed the necessity of the old demand for separation between church and state. Women in Ireland, Italy, Poland and Mexico have continued struggles over the rights of reproduction.

Nazila Kivi succinctly expressed the threat of this rise in the nationalism to women in her address to the Women’s march in Copenhagen. She states: ‘we know that people gendered as women are the first to suffer when nationalist and racist agendas win, because ‘woman’ as a concept becomes a metaphor for the nation. Our bodies, our right to self determination and our sexual and emotional desires are too contentious to be left in our own hands. That’s why, too often, our bodies constitute battlefields, war zones and objects to be conquered, literally and symbolically. The examples are plenty. It’s women who are raped in wars, it is women’s reproduction that is regulated in order to control or reduce populations.’

International mobilisations and the feminisation of protest

In this new context we have seen an increase in women’s resistance, arguably the feminisation of protest, and the birth of an international, intersectional women’s movement. This is a process seeing both increased participation and visibility of women and women’s issues being addressed in national discourse. In 2015 we saw in Argentina the Ni Una Menos, huge mobilizations against femicide and violence against women. In Italy and Poland we witnessed huge protests and strikes challenging religious and far right reaction which threatens their rights over their own bodies. In the UK we have witnessed women leading the way in many areas of resistance including housing, the E15 Mums and in the environmental movement with the Lancashire the Anti Fracking Nanas.

On the 21st of January, the day after the inauguration of Donald Trump, there were mass mobilisations across the globe. In the US the marches outstripped the mobilisations of the 2003 Anti War movement. These marches were initiated and led by predominately by women fearing Trump’s attacks on both women’s and migrant’s rights. Although Trump was the catalyst to these demonstrations the level of international response illustrates shared international narratives and anxieties which women face – including attacks on their rights over their bodies, freedoms and the way they wish to live their lives.

On the 8th of March we then saw the International Women’s Strike with mobilisations in over 50 countries; with the largest marches seen in Poland, the US, Argentina, Italy, Ireland and Spain. The marches called for the end to violence against women, the rights of migrant, disabled and LGBTQIA sisters, demanding both environmental justice and equal pay. The marches were a move away from institutionalised channels of resistance for example NGO’s, charities and individual forms of protest.

Cinzia Arruzza stated in her interview with Penny Duggan on the International Viewpoint site that ‘these mobilizations are showing a new increasing awareness of the necessity to rebuild solidarity and collective action as the only ways we can defend ourselves from the continuous attacks against our bodies, freedom, and self-determination as well as against imperialist and neoliberal policies. Moreover, they are acting as an antidote to the liberal declination of feminist discourse and practice.’

It is essential, moving forward, that the feminist movement doesn’t turn in on itself, and there remain many contradictions and contentions within the movement. It must recognise its diversity and our increased understanding of the social condition of cis and trans women, and layers of oppression which different women face, as a weapon as opposed to something which divides us. It is essential therefore that women who face multiple forms of oppression are ensured visibility and voice, within the movement.

Arruzza continues: ‘the only way to give birth to a truly universalistic politics is not by making abstraction from differences, but by combining them together in a more encompassing critique of capitalist and hetero-patriarchal social relations. Each political subjectivation based on a specific oppression can provide us with new insights on the various ways in which capitalism, racism and sexism affect our lives.’ Hence a Marxist Feminist perspective is vital for cohesion and coherence moving forward.

There has been much discussion about the use of the word ‘strike’ in these mobilisations and the emphasis on women’s seen and unseen labour. In France, two trade unions, the CGT and the SUD called a general strike at 3.40pm on the 8th an action highlighting the extra social reproductive labour women undertake, which, according to an ILO report, remains 2½ times more than that of men. In the US, the key slogan for the strike was ‘Feminism for 99%’ in reaction to ‘lean in’ politics which imply our only remaining challenge is to have more women in boardrooms. In Argentina the Ni Una Menos movement ignited around femicide but also highlighted the slowly inflicted violence of the capitalist system.

The movement and resistance in the UK was not as radical in demands as many of the marches across the globe. Our movement in the UK has unresolved tensions and contradictions, with trans activists and radical feminists sometimes not working together. This was a shared experience and other women reported there were intergenerational tensions with ‘old guard’ of feminist refusing to engage contemporary ideas.

Marxists can not just be observers in this movement. We need to push past the confines of individual intersections and finding a wider narrative which unites as all. It is only through a Marxist feminist critique of the current global crisis will we realise a universalistic politics which will cross borders and provide the international response required to challenge both gender oppression and capitalism.

 

You can read and comment on a version of this report that was published here

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CLR James film feast

The film Every Cook Can Govern: The Life, Impact and Works of C.L.R. James was released in April last year, and has been doing the rounds in meetings organised by different front organisations of the Spiked-online network, an ex-Trotskyist group led by the sociologist Frank Furedi and ubiquitous media pundit Claire Fox. It turned up in Manchester at the beginning of September at an event hosted by the Salon, and leaflets for the audience from ‘Worldbytes’ and ‘Citizen TV’ included the usual tell-tale Spiked lines on things like ‘economic growth and serious development for all’. No mention of socialism here, but the film itself is actually quite fantastic. The audience at the Manchester showing consisted, on my rough count, of members of at least six different activist groups. We were stunned at the unfolding story of CLR James, the revolutionary Marxist from Trinidad who joined the Trotskyist movement in the early 1930s and died in Brixton south London as an unrepentant activist in 1989.

The film traces a narrative arc from James’ love of cricket in Trinidad to his time in London and then, crucially, his experience of working class militancy in the Lancashire mill-town of Nelson. James lodged with the cricketer Learie Constantine and became active in the Independent Labour Party as a Trotskyist. We learn how it was the practice of class struggle and solidarity in the community that led James to revolutionary and so then to Trotskyist politics, and we are then taken through his experience of becoming a member of the Fourth International, which was formed in 1938, and then writing his classic text Black Jacobins and his play about the Haitian slave rebel Toussaint L’Ouverture which starred Paul Robeson in the leading role. The struggle against the US American and European ruling class and against Stalinism through the Second World War eventually leads us back to cricket as site of class struggle in James’ book Beyond a Boundary. We are then taken through interviews with his nephew Darcus Howe and interventions by Selma James, his partner and founder of the Wages for Housework campaign, to the end of his life.

The film doesn’t pull its punches, clearly locating James as a Marxist and revolutionary humanist in the best tradition of the Western Enlightenment, and it succeeds in opening up questions for activists today about our history and the place of colonialism and imperialism in contemporary capitalism. There is not time in just over two hours of a film that includes much unseen footage of James to cover all the aspects of his life.

There are two aspects that could have been stretched a little further. One is James’ continuing relationship with the Fourth International after the 1930s. The film notes that he visited Trotsky in 1939 and was still a revolutionary when he was deported from the US in 1953. What is not made clear is that James was part of an intense struggle inside the Fourth International as half of the ‘Johnson-Forest Tendency’ (James was Johnson and the Hegelian Marxist humanist Raya Dunayevskaya was Forest) which anticipated some early debates about the nature of the Soviet Union as ‘state capitalist’ and provided a platform for James’ argument that revolutionaries should support autonomous black self-organisation. He did not leave the Fourth International until 1949, and the FI can be proud to claim him as part of its history, a history of black struggle from which it has learnt much in recent years.

The other aspect concerns the way that James articulated the question of autonomous black struggle with standpoint and ‘identity’. It is clear that resistance to racism is necessarily bound up with the assertion of the common identity of the oppressed (as, for that matter, is working class struggle against capitalism). It is this concern with identity politics that the complex network of organisations around Spiked has spent so much time rubbishing in recent years, part and parcel of its hostility to the ‘nanny state’. It is intriguing and puzzling that James would be subject of a film documentary made by this group.

There are, it should be said, some very traditional and problematic aspects of the documentary format that the film follows. So, we have mainly young black women interviewing mainly white men who tell us how to understand James as a historical figure. Spiked community stalwarts like James Heartfield and Alan Hudson are dominant voices. There is a bizarre scene shot near Nelson where Alan Hudson and the young women are arrayed along one side of a picnic table. The jars of olives and other foodstuffs are turned so that the brand labels are hidden, while Hudson as the main figure in this last supper scenario is speaking into a microphone with a large Worldbytes sign stuck on it. Nevertheless, for all that, for all of the constraints of the format (and perhaps of the background guidance by Spiked in the writing, editing and format of the film), both Heartfield and Hudson speak as Marxists about a Marxist. This is a marvellous film, and you don’t have to be a supporter of ‘Citizen TV’ to love it.

 

You can also read this article and comment on it here

 

 

 

Fourth International: Marginalisation and its Discontents

The seventeenth congress of the Fourth International (FI) will be held in March 2018, and in preparation for this, the general line of three documents – on Capitalist Globalization, on Social Upheavals and a document toward a text on Role and Tasks – were approved by the International Committee in February 2017 to open the World Congress Discussion.

The sixteenth congress was held in 2010, with representatives from sections of the FI, sympathising organisations and visitors from over 40 countries. Some important organisational and political steps were taken. For example, a section of the FI was recognised in Russia, very significant for us, of course, and there was recognition of a shift of the centre of gravity of the FI to Asia. Politically, the trajectory of the FI toward an open inclusive revolutionary politics was continued; sustained discussion of anti-racist and anti-imperialist politics, sexual politics and feminism begun at earlier congresses was taken forward, and extended to encompass a conscious turn to ‘ecosocialism’. A number of key documents from 2010 are publicly available, and there is a documentary film record of the congress, mainly in French but with interviews with participants in different languages.

It is very difficult to briefly summarise the political line agreed in the three documents opening discussion for the 2018 congress. It is a little easier, perhaps, to do this by attending to some of the key programmatic differences that have been emerging in the past years, differences that revolve around contrasting balance sheets of the FI project to build ‘broad parties’. A lot hangs on this phrase, and some of the debate is muddled by exactly what constitutes a ‘broad party’, and what examples of success and failure by ‘broad parties’ should be mobilised to argue for continuing and deepening this perspective or for abandoning it. One reason for focussing on this particular aspect of the wide-ranging documents is that a Fourth International Opposition Platform has been formed to contest the ‘broad party’ approach and to contrast it with, they say, ‘building an international for revolution and communism’. Here I point to some of the problems with Opposition Platform approach, argue that a real revolutionary alternative actually lies in an extension of the perspectives elaborated in the three agreed documents, documents that require some amendment and nuance.

Between the lines

What are the stakes of this complaint about the failure of the ‘broad party’ perspective, and how useful is it? It is but one way into the debate that has now opened up and that will be carried out in sections of the FI around the world up to and including the congress in March 2018. The danger is that focussing everything around a false opposition between ‘broad party’ and ‘revolutionary international’ could obscure the many different political lines of agreement between comrades in very different contexts and organisations around the world.

The FI is not run on a ‘democratic centralist’ basis, and the agreed line of march at the congress has to manage a delicate balance between grasping a shared international perspective on the mutations of capitalism and neoliberalism on the one hand, and enabling the specific problems faced by sections and sympathising organisations on the other. More than that, there is a danger that the crucial political gains that have already been made in terms of anti-racist, ecosocialist, feminist and sexual politics could be overshadowed by this forced polarisation between the current international leadership and the opposition. On both counts, we have enough cases of sects and even ‘internationals’ that parade a ‘correct line’, littering the world with rhetoric to which no-one listens and which even provokes feelings of repulsion among new generations of activists suspicious of left parties of any kind. That is why it is necessary to bear those broader organisational and political issues in mind as we approach the documents and try to make sense of them and where they lead us.

The first document presents an overview of the development of new forms of imperialism, authoritarian regime and far-right forces, the threat to women, LGBT+ people, human rights and the environment, pointing out along the way that the demand for democracy ‘acquires a more subversive dimension that is more immediate than was often the case in the past’. It opens onto the second and third documents concerned with ‘the dynamics of popular resistance’ and ‘the conditions of construction of militant parties’.

The second document notes the shift in political geography from what the FI once called ‘the three sectors of world revolution’, the rise of the service sector and precarious employment, population displacement, and the development of different forms of resistance (new forms of trades unionism, self-organisation in cooperatives, debt struggles, ‘transversal’ peasant struggles, democratic and social justice movements, youth struggles, women’s mobilisations against violence, rape and feminicide, LGBT+ struggles, migrant and anti-racist movements, and protests against global warming). It points to successful mobilisations against dictatorial regimes and to defensive struggles, including against betrayals by social movements.

The third document warns against generalising a model for what the FI has to do, but rehearses the shift of orientation in the mid 1990s – the decision that ‘the perspective of building small mass vanguard parties based on the full programme of the FI had met its limits’ – and the shift a few years later to ‘a pluralist functioning that goes beyond simple internal democracy in a way that fosters both convergence and discussion, allowing for the functioning of a revolutionary Marxist current as an accepted part of a broader whole.’ It warns against ‘the elitist and or sectarian behaviour of far left groups in the social movements’, and even countenances ‘the dissolution of existing organisations’ (as has already occurred in the case of some sections of the FI) while ‘maintaining a framework of the Fourth International’.

Viewed through the lens of the ‘opposition platform’, we have three documents that continue a general line that has failed, and the prospect of dissolving our organisations in some cases into broader social movements evidently fills them with horror. Viewed from the perspective of the current international leadership of the FI, we have an opposition that is disappointed and impatient at the progress toward world revolution and which appears to believe that returning to the FI as a ‘world party’ which marks itself out from all the others will immediately solve the problems we face and will win recruits with the correct line. This line must, they say, break from ‘political forces or governments acting in the framework of capitalist management’, and work with forces with a ‘communist programmatic basis’ based on the working class as playing ‘a central role’ as part of a battle for a ‘transitional programme’ (embodied, they say, in the demand ‘No layoffs, for workers’ control over hiring’). Sections of the FI must be built as ‘revolutionary vanguard parties’ which aim at regroupment of revolutionaries internationally in the FI as a ‘world party’. There are complaints that the kinds of alliance that the FI has made in different countries have fostered the illusion that Western states could and should arm the oppressed.

The problem is that the problems we face are quite a deal larger than us, and we actually face a choice between a consistent approach to existing social struggles through which we gather around us activists who respect our engagement with different forms of politics, respect us enough to join us, and an opportunist tactical party-building operation which actually ends up making more enemies than friends among those who are actually doing more to bring about social change than we have been able to.

It is true that the ‘broad party’ approach could be seen as, and could actually be implemented in an inconsistent opportunist way, and that is the aspect of it that is homed in on by the Opposition Platform. Yes, the shift of allegiance from one contender for the status of ‘broad party’ could easily be read as some kind of way of merely going with the flow, abandoning our revolutionary compass points. That shift into the flow of most popular radical politics is what was once referred to in Trotskyist sect-jargon as ‘tailism’, tailing behind events, social movements or even leftist bourgeois parties.

However, the ‘revolutionary vanguard’ approach which confuses the vanguard with the party, and which leads to the party imagining that it is itself the vanguard, is actually the one most prone to inconsistent opportunism. That is the lesson we learn from comrades in struggle in the new social movements when they point to the way so many of the ‘left parties’ manoeuvre themselves in a way that is instrumentalist and dishonest when they aim to recruit what they view as the most ‘advanced’ sections of the movement and then use those new recruits as mouthpieces for their own revolutionary line.

Actually, ‘tailing’ behind is not at all what is meant by building a broad party (even if there have been occasional lapses in practice into the kinds of things the Opposition Platform fears). It is important, then, to clarify what it means and what it should mean in such a way that connects directly with the broader political and organisational steps forward the FI has made. This term ‘broad party’ covers a range of different social forms that include: anti-capitalist initiatives that problematise the concept of party as such; anti-racist and feminist mobilisations that involve the building of horizontal networks; intersectional initiatives that rework divisions based on sex and gender; and eruptions of democratic alternatives from within the heart of social democratic parties that connect with social movements. This surely is what the claim that democracy now ‘acquires a more subversive dimension’ means; these new social movements draw attention to the radical role of the demand for democracy, not merely as an expansion of bourgeois democracy but as something that challenges the undemocratic practice of ‘vanguard parties’. That demand is ‘transitional’, and then turns the demand for ‘workers’ control’ into something that is genuinely transitional.

One task in the discussions will be to acknowledge some of the missteps made by the FI – taking seriously some of the complaints of the Opposition Platform – while avoiding a retreat into the kind of ‘vanguard’ politics that has been discredited in new social movements and most working class organisations. The task here is to retain independence of movement in and alongside the movements we build, retaining our independence through participation in the FI. We will need to extract ourselves from the binary between ‘broad’ and ‘revolutionary’ which makes it seem as if ‘broad’ means political compromise and as if ‘revolutionary’ is a guarantee of the correct line, and orient ourselves within the new forms of struggle in such a way as to cut across the ‘broad party’ versus ‘vanguard party’ opposition. What capitalism is as such has mutated, and what it is to be anti-capitalist has also changed, and so it is from within a different map of global exploitation and oppression and with different compass points that we have to act. That much is clear in the FI documents, but another step needs to be taken within the framework they have laid out; in place of the Opposition Platform step back, another step that really is a step forward.

We need a more revolutionary approach to the question of ‘broad parties’ and to the building of social movements, movements that represent a qualitative shift from sectional protest to internationalist anti-capitalism. This approach needs to be based on an analysis of the wider effects of neoliberalism, of the return with a twist to the classical free-market liberal economics that existed at the birth of capitalism and on analyses of segregation of communities and political resistance.

The nature of neoliberalism

Neoliberalism needs to be grasped as comprising three elements, three key ideological and material mutations in global capitalism. The first, which is often fore-grounded in left analysis, is the stripping away of public welfare, something that is a traumatic shock to those used to state provision in some parts of the world, but not so strange to many parts of the world which have never had this public welfare. For most parts of the world, this aspect of neoliberalism is business as usual for capitalism, perpetual social insecurity and precarious economic existence in which women are expected to supply the care on an individual or familial basis that is not collectively provided. The second and third aspects are intertwined.

The second aspect is that the state, far from rolling back, actually rolls forward, intensifies in force. While any welfare provision is withdrawn, punitive sanctions are applied to those who fail to take responsibility for their own lives, and the securitisation of everyday life goes hand in hand with the transfer of powers to private security agencies. The second aspect of neoliberalism, then, is the intensification and distribution of police powers of the strong state, both through the concentration of powers in the nation state apparatus and through the delegation of authority to private companies or, in many parts of the world, private militias (including of narcotics and trafficking gangs). This second aspect is intimately bound up with misogyny, male violence, with the reinforcement of patriarchal authority structures.

The third aspect is the individualisation of everyday life, but far from heralding a simple return to classical liberal contract economics in which the worker is supposed to freely sell their labour power to an employer, this neoliberal version of individual responsibility carries with it a deep appeal to feelings of personal responsibility, so that women are not only made responsible for the care of families but made to feel guilty if they refuse that responsibility. We are all made anxious, made to feel anxiety as if it were only something internal to us.

This peculiar combination of welfare-stripping, intensification of state power and individualisation under neoliberalism has immense consequences for the capacity of the working class to resist austerity and violence, to build an alternative to capitalism. It puts misery onto the agenda of capitalist ideology and demands a response by the left to the misery experienced by those who live under capitalism today, misery which isolates and paralyses those who already suffer materially, misery which works its way in to the lives of those who try to resist what is being done to them.

Capitalism has always brought about the immiseration of communities and individuals, true. But what is being wrought now on a global scale is an ideological assault integral to neoliberalism which has material roots and material consequences. This is apparent, on the one hand, in the hypocritical appeals to ‘well-being’ and programmes of ‘mental health’ which include distribution of free pharmaceutical remedies for ‘mental illness’ in the developing world to hook populations onto medication which numbs their experience of oppression, and therapeutic self-help advice on television and in popular magazines which encourage each individual to ‘take responsibility’ for their distress and find personal solutions to what are actually political problems. It is also apparent, on the other hand, in the concern with personal solutions that are increasingly replacing collective action, in the ‘flight into therapy’ of some on the left (and in the feminist movement) who, disappointed with the prospects of political change, look to their own self-care and one-to-one care of others as the priority to enable them to survive. We should not underestimate either the way this impacts on left practice or the way some left groups react against it, closing themselves up and becoming more authoritarian.

One way of conceptualising this two-fold shift into the realm of the personal is to see it as a ‘feminisation’ of relationships (a very different and regressive stereotypical feminisation to the ‘feminisation of struggle and organisation’ that revolutionaries in the FI have been arguing for); feminisation because it is the taken-as-given commonsensical ideological qualities of women that are appealed to and harnessed in various governmental and NGO projects for ‘well-being’ and therapeutic change. There is, in sum, a widespread globalising ‘psychologisation’ of politics and of the experience and response to misery that we need to address. We need to put this on the agenda, alongside and interconnected with the other forms of social struggles, as revolutionary mental health politics (a politics that encompasses mobilisation of the millions in, or treated under the auspices of public or private mental health services). This question needs more work.

This neoliberal ‘psychologisation’ of individuals, communities and populations needs to be tackled in the context of three other related mutations of life under global capitalism which we can group all-too briefly under the heading ‘segregation’.

Forms of segregation

There are three aspects of this segregation, segregation that neoliberalism feeds and conditions, that each have consequences for the way we organise ourselves as revolutionaries. They are consequences that, on the one hand, make it all the more impossible for classic Leninist vanguard parties to operate and, on the other hand, make a distinctive revolutionary orientation by us to broad social movements even more crucial.

The first, which should be painfully obvious to all Trotskyists, is the fragmentation of the left. It is something we see all around us in the left as Stalinist politics goes into crisis after the disintegration of the Soviet bloc and of our own framework that conceptualised our work in ‘three sectors of world revolution’. The Stalinist parties, already in disarray as a result of the centrifugal effects of ‘socialism in one country’ and their adaptation to their own bourgeoisie under ‘Eurocommunism’, have lost their compass points. Some of the residues of those parties try to retain those compass points with ridiculous and dangerous support for Putin, for example, or campist allegiance to other pretend-left authoritarian regimes or movements (Assad, for example). This fragmentation is something we also see closer to home in the sectarian conflicts between different interpreters of Trotsky or Luxemburg, and in the proliferation of different national groups and ‘internationals’. This rivalry affects every activist who comes into contact with us, provoking questions about what we are really and what we stand for and how we are to be distinguished from all of the others who say almost the same thing. It is rivalrous fragmentation that is evidently not going to be solved by ‘regroupment’ initiatives to bring all the Leninist vanguard groups together.

The second aspect of segregation is to be found in the political diversification of what it is to be ‘revolutionary’. It is clear that the conditions for political resistance are giving rise to a multitude of formulations which differentiate the people from the ‘caste’ or the ninety-nine percent from the one percent. This proliferation of terms to describe exploitation and oppression should not be treated merely as ideological mystification, or as a misunderstanding of the underlying conditions that can be clarified with a healthy dose of correct Marxist analysis. The diversification of struggles reflects the diversification of different dimensions of power, around dimensions of ‘race’ or gender or sexuality or disability as well as around different experiences of class organisation.

The third aspect of segregation is the radical separation of different life-worlds, so that the revolutionaries in each group actually seem to inhabit a different mental universe from their rivals, and, worse perhaps, the revolutionaries live in a bubble and comfort themselves by finding reflections of the truth of their own particular analysis in the echo chambers of social media. This particular kind of segregation is one that also reinforces the sectarian hope that one correct revolutionary vanguard line will solve the problem, and the vanguard group that imagines that it has the solution itself cuts itself off all the more surely from the diverse contradictory social struggles that are happening around it. This is why participation in the broad social movements, and even, in some contexts, participation in the double reality of a broad party alongside revolutionary discussion in our own organisation as part of the FI is so vital. It is only this participation that will enable us to navigate and move across some of the boundaries that divide radically different radical life-worlds from each other.

We all now increasingly live in a world that has already for centuries of capitalism’s existence been grim reality for much of the population at the margins of the ‘developed’ capitalist world, a world of perpetual crisis, insecurity and precarious employment. Mass migration across national borders, internal dislocation as a result of various different strategies employed by neoliberal shock capitalism also means that the segregation that organises the experience of the oppressed and of the revolutionary left now occurs inside every major city rather than in ‘other’ exotic locations. That much is evident if we ask ourselves now, with the end of the ‘three sectors of world revolution’ framework that once guided our work, how many sectors of world revolution there are today. The answer is many, many and segregated, segregated in such a way that demands solidarity but which solidarity as such cannot repair, cannot put an end to.

With and in the margins

Instead of imagining that we can completely comprehend, control and predict the contradictory intersection of social struggles that will at some point give rise to challenges to the state and make visible the different forms of social organisation that already go beyond the limits of capital, we need to be open to the unexpected. That means working flexibly in diverse social movements, working in a world that is not organised as yet around any ‘core’ but which, in practically every version of resistance today, operates at the margins.

Here there is a further connection between the neoliberal psychologisation of misery under contemporary capitalism and the necessity for revolutionary activity in the broad social movements, and even in the building of broad parties. The Leninist vanguard approach which pretends to be revolutionary is actually not only a return to the past, but a return to a particular version of old left politics that is saturated in patriarchal vertically-organised disciplinary conceptions of organisation. It is the broad open inclusive approach of building horizontal alliances across the party and organisational borders that turns out to be the more ‘revolutionary’ option. It is revolutionary because it keys into the personal experiential misery of those subject to different intersecting forms of exploitation and oppression, and it addresses that misery instead of simply trying to patch it over with an appeal to macho instrumental control politics. It learns from different forms of anti-racist struggle, and particularly feminist struggles attuned to various strands of sexual politics, learns that with fragmentation, diversification and radical separation of life-worlds come isolation and hopelessness. Working with and collectivising those experiences is then ‘therapeutic’, not bourgeois individualising therapy but revolutionary social activity that empowers us in the very process of doing politics. We thereby turn our very marginalisation into a weapon.

We already know this, some of us, from the negative example of vanguard organisations that employ violence against their rivals or have been called out by women activists at the sexual violence that operates inside the party apparatus. That is why we take seriously the argument that the oppressed see power ‘from below’, and that autonomous self-organisation of the oppressed is crucial to the internal functioning of a revolutionary Marxist party worth the name. How we organise our own political debates, how we structure our own groups, has to be ‘prefigurative’, anticipating the forms of life beyond capitalism and patriarchy that we aim for in our broader political interventions. We must be of the margins and reflect that marginal diverse nature of the experience of oppression inside our organisations, not only in terms of the theoretical language we use to describe reality but also in terms of our practice, our relationships with each other as comrades.

Neoliberalism and segregation demand a political strategy that deliberately works at the margins. It may be, for example, that in some specific situations a group or, why not, section of the FI, could operate as a vanguard party of the old type, and succeed in quickly gathering together a cadre which has the confidence of significant sections of the working class. That should not be ruled out as impossible, but our overall strategy has to be open and flexible enough to include that as a possibility rather than impose it as a model. Inclusive open revolutionary politics is one that also enables us to approach the task of building broad parties of the left, parties and movements that bring together revolutionary Marxists with feminists and LGBT+ groups and anti-racist and migrant activists and, why not, those who still think of themselves as reformists or social democrats or autonomists.

In other words, we need to cut across ‘revolutionary’ and ‘broad’ party political divisions to intervene as real revolutionaries in such a way as to make what is broad into something transitional. That won’t be brought about by forcing formally correct transitional slogans on the movements we work with. That understanding of ‘transitional demands’ also needs to be worked through in practice in a quite different way in this new context of neoliberalism and segregation. It will be through our revolutionary practical engagement with those we do not fully agree with that we will learn from the margins and make the margins into a transitional force, a force that will build an alternative to capitalism from within its heart, anticipating the form of society we want to live in.

 

NSK’s Apology for Modernity

The NSK State Pavilion at the 57th Venice Biennale takes an unexpected and brave step, locating the NSK State in Time project in cultural-political context, taking responsibility for the resources IRWIN and other components of NSK have mobilised over the past years and giving response to some of the problematic aspects of the project. There has been a perpetual temptation on the part of some NSK State Citizens to imagine that this State in Time stands completely outside any geographical location. It is, after all, a State in Time as opposed to a State in Space. But this imaginary location of the State – and it must always necessarily be a location of some kind for it to exist – is symbolically anchored in a series of coordinates in which Western Nation States were born and through which Western States have offered themselves, sometimes imposed themselves as models for political organisation across the rest of the globe.

NSK State took shape first in Slovenia during the disintegration of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, harnessing modernist motifs – including the reflexively disruptive notion of the retro-avant-garde – to reconfigure national identity through a fiction, a series of fictions which borrowed from the imagery of statehood to disturb that imagery. How could it not, in that very deconstructive response to the symbolic forms of Western national statehood, borrow from those forms, using the stones from the master’s house and so bit-by-bit reconstructing the architecture of that house in its own image? The political project was the dissolution of the appeal of States in Space, but the conceptual-artistic project entailed, necessarily entailed, a replication of forms of Western modernity, its ideological texture which was named ‘Modernism’. NSK Citizens come from around the globe, yes, but in unequal balance and, whatever the fantasy of its Citizens, with unequal power. This much was clear from the entry into the State of the Nigerian Citizens who had bought passports in the hope that they might thereby gain access to Europe, to the West, even we might say, to taste the fruits of modernity.

IRWIN well know that no ‘metalanguage’ can be spoken, that is, that there is no pure neutral external vantage point from which we might speak about politics or Statecraft. We speak languages, always within them, inhabiting those languages, repeating their terms, implicated in them. We never speak a ‘metalanguage’ which escapes language as such. It is this sense of their being a location inside rather than outside language, the language of modernity, that IRWIN were taking responsibility for when they issued their Apology for Modernity. This is not the empty apology of the West – the standard hypocritical game of the Western States – but an apology with consequences, consequences which we must trace through together with those we make ourselves accountable to, to those who are routinely excluded from the Western version of the modern world. So, when IRWIN call for NSK Citizens to vote for this project, I vote yes.

Ian Parker, NSK Diplomatic Passport-holder

You can read this on the nskstate site and comment on it here

Spartacist League

Silence, Martin Scorsese’s 2016 historical drama, shows the search by Portuguese Jesuit missionaries for Cristóvão Ferreira, a real-life early seventeenth-century missionary who was captured and tortured in Japan and renounced his faith. The film begins with two young priests who hear with disbelief about this apostasy and decide to set off to Japan to find Ferreira, played by Liam Neeson, and discover the truth. The film traces their voyage to Japan and then their encounters with villagers who have converted to Christianity before being tracked down and punished by the authorities. Along the way, the priests learn something about the forms of resistance to local power that Christianity keys into in Japanese villages, and about the local forms of belief that might, they conclude, provide the natives with access to a God that is, perhaps, as authentic as that offered by the Jesuits.

A crisis point of faith and redemption in the film comes when Sebastião Rodrigues (played by Andrew Garfield), a character based on the real-life missionary Giuseppe Chiara, hears the voice of Christ telling him that the apostasy demanded of him by the Samurai is justified, it is Christian in fact, because it will thereby save the lives of others that he hears being tortured for their faith. The film is a complex theological as well as historical depiction of the role that Christianity played when the Jesuits in the seventeenth century functioned as the Pope’s foreign agents determined to install the rule of the Catholic Church around the world.

There is no such crisis of faith on the part of members of the Spartacist League when they arrive on foreign shores. The ‘Spartacist League / Britain’ was formed in 1978, but they no longer even have an independent web presence in Britain. Their publicity operations are handled direct from the US, and this might be because, just as they specialise in provoking splits in rival groups, they are susceptible to divisions and periodic purges in their own ranks. The ‘Sparts’ as they are not affectionately known (and there are audible groans of recognition from the rest of the left when they turn up outside a target meeting to pitch their stall) have their origins inside the US section of the Fourth International in the early 1960s. They are Trotskyists of a peculiar kind, quick to leap to the defence of the Soviet Union and then of China and North Korea. If the big Stalinist states they love to hate are today’s incarnation of the Catholic Church, then the Sparts are bit like modern-day Jesuits. They are willing to defend the indefensible in twisted dialectical moves that would defeat the imagination of modern-day theologians, exporting a weird version of US-American colonial Marxism. They act as the shock troops of their own version of the Vatican to spread the gospel, while bizarrely supporting oppressive states in order, they claim, to defend workers rights.

A quick glance at their newspaper Workers Hammer and the folded over pages of Workers Vanguard they like to carry around to tempt readers with exposés of the crimes of their enemies quickly reveals that their main enemies are actually other groups on the left. They target these rival groups as what they call ‘OROs’ (‘Ostensibly Revolutionary Organisations’) which they aim to destroy and then pick over the remains to feed their own organisation. Their papers were actually the best source of information on rival revolutionary groups for many years (a gap in the market that was then filled by the Communist Party of Great Britain – Provisional Central Committee’s dirt-sheet ‘Weekly Worker’). The groups on the left they most like to bait and break up are sections of rival internationals to their own International Communist League (Fourth Internationalist). For many years, the tagline of their forerunner organisation, ‘The International Spartacist Tendency’, was ‘Reforge the Fourth International’ (a slogan pinched by a member who was expelled and set up his own international later on).

One notorious foray by the Sparts into the heart of the beast was during the disastrous Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 when they recruited a villager in the Birmingham branch of the International Marxist Group (IMG, a forerunner of today’s Socialist Resistance and at that time British Section of the Fourth International) and formed the ‘Communist Faction’ to argue in a not-so-subtly-coded way for their line: Hail Red Army! Their attempts to provoke what they called a ‘debate’ over the question came to a head when a 1980 meeting of the IMG Central Committee called them on this and the valiant comrades happily admitted it, raising their fists and shouting ‘Long Live the International Spartacist Tendency’ before marching out the room.

It is partly because the catch-cry ‘police agent’ has had such a pernicious history in the British far-left (thanks, mainly, to the antics of the Workers Revolutionary Party who went for full-blown conspiracy versions of the accusation to attack other groups) that the left has been reluctant to name the Sparts as such. How could we know? But the softly-muttered consensus among members of most left organisations over the years that have been subjected to Spart tirades is that it is most probable that, if we look at the damage they have wrought among us, they surely must be financed by CIA. They are viewed as evangelists for a parody of Marxism configured as a creed to be spread from the United States, and they have often been lucky not to be strung up; their destructive interventions in left meetings are a wonder to behold (once) and then unbearable, driving away anyone coming close to Marxism for the first time. They are much-disliked, and it is understandable, perhaps, that they feel this distrust by the locals in their bones when they venture overseas. All the more so when they have targetted members of OROs by being very friendly, culturally inappropriate in the British left, with rumours that they then encouraged members to undergo psychoanalysis (a rather strange American pursuit).

The Sparts defend relics of the True Cross, putting the natives in their place when those natives dare to challenge the civilising influence of Marxist theory; one current favourite doing the rounds is their article reproduced from their South African outpost called ‘Against Black Nationalist Slanders of Marx and Engels’. They want to recruit the locals to build their organisation and spread the word, but they have been caught out more than once complaining at the backward nature of peoples who just don’t seem to get the message; in 1997, for example, the Pope of the Spartacists James Robertson was recorded as referring to Albania, the only Muslim country in Europe, as a nation of goat-fuckers. Robertson would be a good role for Liam Neeson or Andrew Garfield if it wasn’t that (unlike those two reactionary turncoats) James has kept the faith.

Actually, comparisons between the Jesuits, a canny crew with a sophisticated range of casuistical justifications for allying with the right or, more often, with the left, and the Sparts whose speciality is hectoring interventions which persuade nobody, are rather inaccurate. That’s what Scorsese’s film, if it really is about the Sparts, gets wrong. He should really have depicted his priests not as sophisticated sensitive souls agonising about the cultural differences that lead other people along their own path to salvation, but as all-too-certain raving evangelists screaming at would-be converts to bludgeon them into submission and obedient membership of their own cult.

This little group is actually nothing more than sectlet with a handful of members, and the resources of their base in the USA are getting overstretched as they continue to shrink. They are still good for a few minutes free entertainment on the fringes of a national demonstration, but you don’t find the Spartacist League around in Britain much beyond London these days, thank God, and their barking missionaries are usually mercifully reduced to silence.

 

This is part of the FIIMG Mapping the British Left through Film project.

Laos

The first advertisement over the walkway from the plane in Vientiane in January 2017 is for apartments in a gated community. Enclosure and privatisation are the watchwords in Laos now. Bounded by Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Myanmar and China, this land-locked country is clearly open for business, and under intense pressure from its neighbouring states, as it has always been. The capital is Vientiane, a relocation of the administrative centre from the Buddhist temple complex of Luang Prabang, both of which suffered from invasions and levelling of religious sites over past centuries by the Vietnamese, by the Burmese, by the Thais, and then by the French and the United States.

Laos is the size of England but with about a tenth of the population. The seven million people have bravely fought invaders and oppressors, and suffered a history in the last half century or so that saw about 10 percent of the population murdered by the US military. The Lao people fought alongside the Vietnamese in the Indochina War, and then, with the defeat of the US in 1975, the Pathet Lao seized power, ruling the new Lao People’s Democratic Republic (LPDR) through the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party (LPRP) ever since. The history of that bloody struggle is still very much present, still claiming new victims day by day. Laos is, for the size of its population, the most heavily bombed country in the world, an incredible two million tons of bombs were dropped on it by the US between 1964 and 1973. Many of those bombs were targeted at the areas around the Ho Chi Minh Trail which runs down the country next to the Vietnamese border, and the Johnson and Nixon regimes were able to deny involvement for many years while US military bombing runs decimated the population (literally ‘decimated’ it). US planes on missions across Laos would also often offload remaining weapons on their way back to base over other parts of the countryside in order to save themselves the risk of landing with live munitions on board. 30 percent of those bombs dropped on Laos failed to explode and they are now under the surface, often in the form of small cluster bombs the size of a tennis ball, and sometimes as complete bomb casings. There are 300 casualties a year from ‘UXO’, ‘unexploded ordnance’, and an unending task of tracking them down, as portrayed in the Australian documentary ‘Bomb Harvest’.

Alongside Dervla Murphy’s 1999 travelogue, the most detailed history is by Grant Evans in A Short History of Laos: The Land in Between. A revised expanded edition of his 2002 book appeared in 2012 shortly before he died (by which time he had become enrolled as an academic advisor and member of the Lao Academy of Social Sciences), but was published in Thailand, not in Laos. Grant Evans was former editor the Communist Party of Australia newspaper The Tribune, and so makes some astute political comments about the pressures the Pathet Lao were under before they took power in 1975 and then the machinations of the LPRP as it renegotiated its relationship with the Vietnamese Communist Party, the Thai regime and with China. Evans doesn’t shy from the issue of prison camps set up after 1975 nor from the racist revenge treatment of minority communities that were unlucky enough to have members enrolled the US military’s dirty war. These two books by Murphy and Evans provide the primary documentary resources for this account.

From 1978-1979 the government, urged by Soviet advisors (of which there were about 1,500 in the country by that point), undertook a disastrous agricultural collectivisation programme. The programme was cancelled within eighteen months after regional authorities had produced local returns showing that there were nearly 2,500 collectives formed. Part of the problem was the resistance by local farmers, and part of the problem was the bureaucratic nature of the exercise; local officials were keen to comply with the demand, but they did this by simply reporting numbers of collectives rather than actually doing anything with them on the ground. Agriculture and forestry counts for about 43 percent of production, industry and construction about 32 percent, and the growing service sector, which includes tourism, counts for just over 25 percent. The regime has its eyes on foreign investment but is, as always, the junior partner.

For example, the front page story of the 9 January 2017 Vientiane Times was that ‘Four foreign companies ink deals for use of Lao satellite’, but it turns out that China, one of the countries that will lease the satellite, designed, developed and delivered it into orbit. This is actually a Private Finance Initiative in which Laos pays China, which controls the technology, and then China makes use of the product. The same issue of the paper has more glowing reports about energy generation, one of the growing industry sectors in Laos, which aims to complete industrialisation, undergo its own industrial revolution, according to the government, by 2020. Electricity now accounts for over 10 percent of exports in vast hydroelectric projects, including the 2010 Nam Theun 2 dam, coordinated with China and Thailand. Garment output accounts for just over 13 percent, and timber nearly 16 percent. Copper and gold still accounts for over half of exports, and these private companies are the most lucrative legal entities in the country. The timber export figures are particularly unreliable. The army was told to make itself financially sustainable in 1988, and has set up a number of private partnerships, many of which are illegal; there are vast areas of the country that are no-go zones for visitors guarded by army personnel functioning as paramilitary protection forces for logging operations which then smuggle hardwoods out of the country.

This problem of deforestation was documented by the intrepid traveller Dervla Murphy back in 1999 in her book One Foot in Laos; she feared then that the situation was getting worse, and it is. There were parts of the countryside she couldn’t access, prevented by local town chiefs and militia, and she was warned that it was dangerous because of remaining guerrilla operations by disaffected minority ethnic communities, particularly the (H)Mong who are still distrusted because of the role they played during the Indochina war, mobilised by the US forces for counterinsurgency activities. There is some truth that these were a threat, and a prominent right-wing counterinsurgency battalion commander, Vang Pao, active in the country before 1975, was still aiming to overthrow the government at the time Murphy travelled in Laos. There were attacks around that time on government forces; even, in 2003, attacks on tourist buses on Route 13 from the capital to the old capital Luang Prabang, in an attempt to undermine the regime. However, with readjustment of US foreign policy, and Obama’s 2009 declaration that Laos (and Cambodia) was no longer Marxist-Leninist and so no longer a threat to the free world, these remains of the counterinsurgency have pretty well evaporated. Some activists from the émigré (H)Mong community in the US were arrested a few years back for planning a coup in Laos, a message to them as to where US interests now lay. Even Vang Pao saw the writing on the wall, and sent a message from exile on 22 December 2009 that ‘we have to make a change right now’, proposing peace talks. A Lao Foreign affairs spokesperson replied, reminding him that he had been sentenced to death in 1975, and pointed out that any peace talks could only take place after the sentence had been carried out. Vang Pao died in January 2011. There are still old anti-communist voices, of course, and whether the new Trump regime will be more sympathetic to them than Obama remains to be seen, but it seems unlikely.

In fact, it transpired that the main danger to Dervla Murphy during her travels came from state and para-state forces guarding illegal logging operations. Murphy also described the development of new highway schemes that, alongside the dam projects which displace local minority communities and the logging and mining operations, are ‘industrialising’ the countryside in accordance with private profit. Murphy can be accused of romanticising traditional rural life in Laos – a criticism that has been made of her other travel books – but she actually is quite right about the problem with the way this particular kind of industrialisation is taking place. For example, the 13 January 2017 Vientiane Times reported on its front page that the go-ahead had been given by the Vientiane People’s Council for a new highway that will cut along the edge of the city next to the Mekong. The artist impression image of the road shows toll-booths, and even this paper – a private enterprise that effectively functions as a government mouthpiece – reported over the following days the fury of local residents who were being told to give up land in return for a cut of the profits from what was explicitly being sold as a ‘Public Private Partnership’. Vientiane Times copy is vetted and, as Big Brother Mouse, a literacy NGO project points out, all books have to be approved by the government before publication. There are innumerable corporate control mechanisms to manage different civil society organisations that might pose a threat to the regime; Buddhist groups are registered and monitored by the state, for example, and Christian organisations have to operate under the auspices of the ‘Lao Evangelical Church’. There are no democratic institutions. In the 133-member National Assembly elections for the Lao People’s Democratic Republic, voters choose from 190 candidates selected by the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party. These 190 include four ‘non-party’ candidates from the ‘business sector’.

When the phrase ‘Public Private Partnership’ is used in Laos it is necessary to keep in mind that state sector employment has never been more than 1 percent (whereas it is roughly 23 percent in the UK and 14 percent in the United States). Conscription and the operation of local militia forces organised by the LPRP ensure the state apparatus runs without having actually to employ many people. What might easily be assumed to be state concerns, such as the ubiquitous outlets for ‘Beer Lao’, a quite nice lager made from rice, are actually all private; Beer Lao is made by Carlsberg, and the nearest competitor, pissy ‘Namkhong’, is made by Heineken.

The regime moved very rapidly after the first glimmerings of Glasnost, faster than many other regimes in the Soviet sphere of influence and behind the ‘Bamboo Curtain’. Explicit private finance initiatives were already in place in 1986 with the announcement of the ‘New Economic Mechanism’ – the final abandonment of any claim to be building a socialist or, still less, communist country – and in 1988 Laos opened up to foreign investors, shifting its focus from the Soviet Bloc to Thailand and then to capitalist China. This also meant loosening ties with Hanoi, and the remaining 45,000 Vietnamese combat troops were withdrawn from the country between 1988 and 1989. The LPDR withdrew support for the Thai Communist Party, hinted at repatriation deals of émigré activists with Bangkok, and this did the trick in facilitating new economic ties to the south, to Thailand. These possible extradition arrangements now extend to activists with the Thai Red Shirt movement. After shopping their old comrades in Thailand, the way was also open for deals with China (over extraction mining and hydroelectric dams). China repatriated 3000 Lao in 1997 that had been retained up to then as potential guerrilla irritants to the regime were they to be needed, and Jiang Zemin visited Vientiane in 2000, the first state visit by a Chinese premier to the country. A train-line between Vientiane and the Chinese border is on the books, and land enclosures have begun to seal areas of land and remove local inhabitants to make way for it. Photo-shoots of trade deals on the LPDR websites now show images of pudgy Lao government ministers in crumpled suits rather awkwardly shaking hands with their sleeker flashily-dressed Chinese counterparts.

There is a growing new middle class that races around in massive shaded-glass SUVs and which is linked to and protected by the regime. For example, the holiday town of Vang Vieng is popular not only with Australian, European and US back-packers but also with the wealthy kids of the apparatchiks in the capital. Most of the hotels are ranged along the right bank of the Nam Song river, but the left bank has become site over the last few years for unofficial restaurant sites which blare out heavy beat music through the night. The right-bank hotel owners petitioned the local mayor, who sent a letter of protest to the regional authorities to be forwarded to the capital. The left-bank rave sites were driving away guests unable to sleep through the noise, ruining their business, but the hotel managers have no recourse to the state. The cannot ask the local police, they said, because the police never act without a bribe, and in this case the police are reluctant to take action against the left-bank noise-makers because they are the sons and daughters of wealthy families in the capital linked to the regime.

The opening up of Laos for business, and correlative abandonment of any pretence of its aim to build a socialist society free of imperialism, has also been accompanied by the return of old ideological forms. For example, after 1975 there was an attempt to institute new forms of egalitarian nominations of identity. In place of the elaborate speech codes which respected and reproduced class and caste hierarchies, the regime promoted the use of ‘sahai’ (or ‘comrade’) as a form of address. A businessman back visiting Laos who had fled the country for the US in 1975, complained, while travelling on the bus from Vang Vieng to Vientiane, that things had changed in the country under the new regime, even that the language had changed so much that, he said, about seventy percent of it was now unrecognisable to him. What had been lost, he said, was the ‘depth’ of the old language, by which he meant that the markers of respect and contempt so that you know who you are speaking to in the chain of command weren’t now present in everyday speech. Even so, ‘sahai’ form has all but disappeared now, with ‘than’ (or ‘sir’) making a comeback, and also the ‘nop’ (the respectful bow of the head to superiors) returning.

Kaysone Phomvihane, leader of the Pathet Lao, died in 1992, and there were attempts after 1995 to build a personality cult around his image, but these attempts have failed. Memorial sites around towns with busts of Kaysone (busts manufactured in North Korea) have fallen into disrepair. It has been other statues of leaders that have been venerated with offerings of flowers on significant anniversaries instead, leaders like the historical royal personages Fa Ngum and Chao Anou, but also the more recent figure Prince Souphanuvong who worked actively with the Pathet Lao against the US but who marks some kind of lineage with the old monarchy deposed in 1975. Wealthy figures from the regime will now even appear in public as benefactors for hospitals or youth centres, making donations to good causes, symbolically re-enacting the monarchical forms they were supposed to have abolished.

A ceremony in December 2002 for the erection of a statue of King Fa Ngum (1316-1374) was attended by state officials, who clarified that this was not intended to signify, they said, ‘the revival of the monarchy’. Nevertheless, this event and the denial itself does indicate something of the way the regime is now stabilising itself. This stabilisation also entails recomposing relationships between the nation state and religion. Laos is a Buddhist country, but the monarchy was Hindu, with strong traces of Hindu imagery in Lao Buddhist temples. Now, if a new monarchical regime of any kind is to re-emerge it will be on the basis of a new compact with the Buddhists. The Pathet Lao and then the LPRP directing the LPDR had historically strong connections with the Vietnamese, with many inter-marriages in the course of the anti-colonial struggle up to 1975. That too is changing. Today it is rare to find leading figures in the party or state apparatus with Vietnamese partners, and there are rumours that it is difficult to obtain a powerful position in the economy or government if you are not ‘pure Lao’. (H)Mong youth in a literacy class in Luang Prabang complained of their marginalisation by the Lao. The Lao youth who participated in discussion wore full orange Buddhist robe.

There has been opposition to the regime since 1975, and not only from the disgruntled remains of the US occupation forces (of Vang Pao and the like). A ‘Social Democrat Club’ in Vientiane was formed and then rapidly suppressed in 1990. The Vice-Minister for Science and Technology, Thongsouk Saisankhi, complained that the LPDR was a ‘communist monarchy’ – a telling diagnosis of the problem – and called for a multiparty system. He was arrested and died in prison in 1998. In 1999 there were student protests in Vientiane which were violently suppressed. Since then, and with the fading of insurgent activities by the (H)Mong and other ‘tribal’ peoples, opposition has tended to shift to the NGO sector, to a quieter practical building of alternatives around questions of ecological sustainability and food security. But even these are dealt with viciously when they start to intrude on interests of corrupt private-state enterprises. For example, in 2012 environmental activists Sombath Somphone was abducted on a street in Vientiane, and hasn’t been seen since. His work in the Participatory Development Training Center that he founded continues. The complaints about his disappearance are bitter but cautious. Sombath’s wife Shui-Meng Ng, who still directs the project and works in the Saoban craft shop in Vientiane, emphasises that the work was not designed to be a critique of the regime but was on the basis of peaceful engagement with community issues. Dervla Murphy makes the interesting claim, in some of the later interviews in One Foot in Laos, that the matriarchal character of Lao culture has meant that while the male leadership of the state has collaborated with big business, the development of alternatives more in line with the original collectivist ethos of the Pathet Lao – a communist anti-imperialist and environmental ethos – is kept alive by the women in the apparatus organised through the Lao Women’s Union. Murphy’s book provides a more ecological and feminist account than Evans’ Short History of Laos, a good counterpoint to it.

The LPDR state flag (a white circle on a blue central blue strip edged top and bottom with red) is often accompanied by the LPRP (Pathet Lao) red flag with a yellow hammer and sickle emblazoned on it. So, there are symbols of the old socialism around aplenty, but little if nothing of the practice. The suggestion that Laos is a ‘deformed workers state’ or, more bizarrely, that, with China, Cambodia and Vietnam, it is one of four ‘socialist’ countries in the region is laughable, insulting to the people of Laos as well as to any historical political analysis of what is actually the case, damning with faint praise. One of the hotel managers in Vang Vieng shrugged hopelessly at the corruption of the local police apparatus and the futile petitioning for something to be done to protect their businesses. ‘Nothing can be done’, he said, we can only wait. ‘Well, you know’, he said, ‘it is a communist state’. Well, no, it is not. Laos is a capitalist country, a closed state locked into neoliberalism. There is, for sure, a history of struggle for communism here, but also a history of tragic failure, failure of a party that modelled itself on the Stalinist communist parties of the Soviet Union and China, and failure in a context of pressure that would have buckled even the most democratic and revolutionary of leaderships.

 

This is one of the ‘Socialisms‘ FIIMG series of articles

 

 

Trump: Ten brief notes

This is a perfect storm and perfect scene for the repetition of mistakes on the left as we scrabble around for good news to salvage from disaster. Here are ten points which sift through some of the reactions from the left, some of them quite ridiculous, and try to orient us to a better understanding of what has happened. Trigger warning: contradictions ahead.

  1. Trump is a cultural phenomenon. The culture that breeds it includes The Apprentice, the US TV show that Trump starred in from 2004. This glorification of ‘business success’ incites the audience to admire a wealthy bully who stands as an exemplar of what it is to have made it as an individual in US America, and what that requires in terms of competition and humiliation. Trump channels a greedy desire for victory over others and vicarious participation in a corrupt cynical politics that is predicated on making money. Trump needed pots of money to stand and win in this election, but, more than that, he needed a cultural assumption that the accumulation of money is a good as such.
  2. His victory reinforces existing institutional arrangements. The intervention of FBI Director James B Comey in the crucial final days of the vote indicates that the central power structures of the United States have been fermenting and crystallising for some time around a neo-conservative agenda. The claim that Trump’s power base lies in the redneck and poor and unemployed communities distracts attention from where the real danger lies. This is something that Clinton could not counter, because she herself was part of that same power structure which relies on and admires a central elite core with wealth backed by the threat of violence. The election of Trump represents a shift inside the apparatus, not so much a revolt against it.
  3. There is an invisible majority that is not for Trump. The popular vote for Clinton was over a million votes more than what Trump got. The electoral apparatus – funnelling of the vote in the primaries through the two major parties and then the count of the final vote through the colleges – guarantees a disenfranchisement of the poorest communities. This is a version of the ‘first past the post system’ in which key power brokers are able to facilitate a cascade effect which then overrides the popular vote. Trump has a mandate of about a quarter of the US American electorate, that is, an electorate which already excludes millions more people.
  4. There was a significant vote against Clinton and the State. Clinton did not deserve the popular vote that she got, and the distribution of the vote as it was – with about fifty percent of the electorate not voting – show that it was not so much that Trump won, but that Clinton lost this election. There was an astonishingly lower proportion of the vote among the Black and Latino communities, much lower than Obama got in the last election, and much much lower that Obama got the first time round. Some of those who voted for Trump must also be included in the revulsion against Clinton, though this was mistakenly directed at the ‘emails’ rather than her collusion in the coup in Honduras, for example. This means taking care not to demonise all those who voted for Trump.
  5. There was an alternative to two-party rule. There were a number of alternatives which included, if we disregard the libertarian right which was able to attract some of the protest votes, the Green Party which, with Jill Stein as candidate, was able to garner over a million votes, that is over double what the Greens got last time round, and, of course, there was Bernie Sanders. Bernie Sanders could have beaten Trump, and Sanders standing aside and handing over some of his votes and all of his energy to Clinton was a disastrous mistake. Trump would not have been loyal to the Republicans if he had failed to win their nomination, and Sanders should not have been loyal to the Democrats.
  6. Trump is worse than Clinton. But there is a huge debate over what exactly this banal statement actually means; whether it means that Trump is a Le Pen figure, a fascist, which might mean that the appropriate slogan should have been one borrowed from France ‘Votez l’escroc, pas facho’ (vote for the swindler, not the fascist). No, that kind of approach was part of the corralling of the anti-capitalist (and anti-racist and progressive ecological vote) into the Clinton campaign, and it actually demobilised people. The momentum of the Sanders campaign needed to be kept going throughout as an alternative, to show that resistance was possible, and to build a movement against Trump and what he represents.
  7. Trump is not a fascist. He is a populist, which is not to say that fascism itself does not play the populist game. He is a businessmen well used to starting with an extreme opening gambit and then negotiating down to realistic goals. In the first days he, quite typically for a neoliberal pragmatist, back-peddled on his opposition to ‘Obama-care’, on the building of the wall (it could be a fence in parts, he said, which it already is), on the number of migrants he planned to expel, and denied that he planned to register Muslims. But this is not reason to breathe a sigh of relief, for the destruction of health provision and racist measures will be implemented, but more ‘efficiently’, with the blessing of the Republicans. This will also include some bitter disappointments for trans activists who did support him. He reassured his allies in NATO that he would defend them. This is business, big business, though not exactly ‘business as usual’.
  8. This is a victory for racists. It is not business as usual because it is dripping poison into political debate, which is evident in the appointment of Breitbart chief Steve Bannon, a virulent antisemite and champion of white nationalism as a policy advisor. The appointment is symbolic, and the license for hate that Trump is willing to give to those who have been loyal to him during the campaign entails a particularly vicious form of symbolic violence. This is the symbolic violence of those who are determined to shift the debate onto their terrain so that objections to racism and sexism are to be viewed as ‘political correctness’. Racism is part of the equation which runs alongside sexism – the attack on abortion rights being one indication of this – and contempt for environmental concerns. Trump is not fascist, but he opens the way to fascism.
  9. Trump is now a Republican politician, with all that entails for foreign policy. The Democrats have historically been less protectionist than Republican administrations, and more interventionist. The two aspects go hand in hand, and this is what is behind the threat by Trump to make the NATO allies pay. Arms industry shares soared the day after the election, and this is because Trump is more than happy to tie support for dictatorships abroad with arms sales. It is when they pay, when it suits US-American big business interests, and when they put the money up front, that the new administration will back them up, against whatever enemies they choose, external or internal.
  10. This election is disaster not only inside the United States, but also globally. It signals a shift of foreign policy which, while admittedly less interventionist directly, will be willing to reinforce the power of dictators willing to do business with the US. That includes Putin, with applause in the Duma at the results, and, of course, Assad, for whom this is a green light to continue with his deadly assault on the left opposition to his regime, and it includes Saudi Arabia who will be the linchpins of a ‘Sunni triangle’ alliance with the murderous regimes of Egypt and Turkey, and China, whose praise for Trump has been muted as yet, but whose regime will also benefit. Antisemitism at home goes hand in hand with Christian Zionist support for Israel.

This all means that it is a grotesque mistake to see his election as a ‘chance of a lifetime’, as some on the left saw Brexit, or as an ‘opportunity’ for change in which the working class that supposedly supported Trump will supposedly abandon him when he does not deliver. No, this is, rather, as Trump himself declared, ‘Brexit, plus plus plus’, and is of a piece with a shift to the right globally, one which will encourage and strengthen the right in every single country. Yes, we do hope for opportunities in the midst of this new contradictory reality, but these will have to be built from the base up, inside the US and internationally.

These notes were prepared for Left Unity Manchester, and amended following a very useful discussion at a meeting, thanks to all those who participated, agreed, disagreed, and sharpened some of these points.