Communist Party of Britain

Emir Kusturica’s 1995 very long film Underground might look to some like a searing critique of ethno-nationalism, but it actually replays and reinforces the very nationalist tropes it parodies. The biggest clue as to how we should read the film can be seen in the director’s own political trajectory; when the film was released, Kusturica was known internationally as being of Bosnian Muslim background, but he quickly evolved into a self-declared Serbian patriot. He later began work on a little Serb-nation theme park Drvengrad, a joint project with the ethno-fascists of Republica Srpska, stumping up over ten million Euros to fund it. The mystery is now why Kusturica’s post-Yugoslav tragic-comic revelries would ever have been seen as ‘socialist’; he has traced his own journey from the old Stalinist socialism in one country under Tito to something that is much closer to the red-brown plague politics of Vladimir Putin, now the model of choice for ex-leftist one-nation partygoers.

The subtitle of the film, by which it was known in much marketing was ‘Once Upon a Time There was One Country’, which speaks to the desperate hope of a return to a united Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, perhaps, but is actually a long lament for the impossibility of such a hope. And insofar as it yearns for the past, it is for a Yugoslavia dominated by Belgrade, as is clear from the decision by Serbian RTS television to show the original 5-hour version (which was cut for the cinema audience) as a five-part mini-series.

The film begins in 1941 in Belgrade, where two near-do-wells boast that they have enrolled one of their friends in the Communist Party, and the first part of the film takes us through underground resistance to the Germans during the war, including time suffered by the main character after being caught and tortured. Part two moves from World War to Cold War and confusion about whether our main man is still alive or dead, during which he is commemorated with a statue erected for him. This confusion is compounded by time underground – this is one underground referred to in the title of the film – and our heroes journey above ground at one point into a film set, which leads them to believe that the war with the Germans is still raging. Part three takes us through the 1990s Yugoslav civil wars. In the final scene of Underground, the musical folk drift into the seas while a cynical narrator speaks to camera, telling us that once upon a time there was one country.

There are plenty of deaths, rumours of death, and bizarre revival of those who should have been corpses in this film, but none so bizarre as the organisational revival of British tankie-Stalinism in the form of the Communist Party of Britain (CPB). If Kusturica’s fantasy-film pins its heavy-handed metaphorical narrative on the link between the lives of individual characters and the life of a nation – here the Serbian nation as the real core of old Yuguslavia – so the CPB makes a big deal of its role as the voice of the British people in a ‘United Kingdom’ floating free from the European mainland while actually functioning as a little-Englander outfit to which Scotland must remain attached in a subordinate position.

The Stalinists in the old communist party, the original ‘Communist Party of Great Britain’ made a big deal about their own unity, with a supposed absence of the kind of splits that beset the pesky trotskyites (while flirting with the idea that Britain should be ‘Great’ again, viewing their ‘British Road to Socialism’ not only as a template for non-revolutionary class-collaborationist politics in Britain but a model for their comrades in other parts of the world). What united them all the while until their demise under the guidance of the Eurocommunist ‘Democratic Left’ which took hold of the levers of power in the party in 1991, was actually their loyalty not to Britain as a nation but to the Soviet Union. Shed-loads of their daily newspaper the Morning Star would be bought by the Soviets in return for shed-loads of cash. There was some rationale for this craven subordination to Moscow until 1989 and the disintegration of the bureaucracy there, for the CPGB was defending what they thought was socialism; it was important to line up with the socialist ‘camp’, and so ‘campism’ as an international political strategy, which then played into national politics, made perfect sense.

There had actually already been splits from the old CPGB, the exodus of members following the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956 (which boosted the ranks of the Trotskyists in Britain) being a case. Disgust at the disloyal Eurocommunist loosening of ties with the Soviet Union led a small group of ‘tankies’ – Stalinists who resolutely supported every armed invasion by Moscow – whether it was East Germany in 1953, Hungary in 1956 or Czechoslovakia in 1968 – formed the nucleus of the Communist Party of Britain, CPB, as early as 1988. The problem was that ‘campism’ quickly – with the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the transformation of Russia into a fully-fledged capitalist country under Putin – turned into the defence of one camp of imperialism against another, into what has been termed ‘Zombie Stalinism’.

The CPB then succeeded in wresting control of the People’s Press Printing Society through bureaucratic manoeuvres and mobilisation of new share-holders, and so now once again it has the Morning Star as their daily mouthpiece, also a mouthpiece for a motley crew of misguided fellow-travellers wishing for the old days and transphobes wishing for a time when men were men and women women. The crisis in the far-left since the 1980s – control-freakery at the head of many organisations, and desperation in the wake of neoliberal consumerist new mass media that they could not control – has also led some old activists to flock to the Morning Star and then into the CPB; hardened Trotskyist organisational skills plus bankrupt ‘campist’ politics is a recipe for disaster, nationalist red-brown disaster.

This politics is driven by campism and by the Putinite international networks of Stalinist organisations. Thus, we are told by the CPB and the Morning Star that Bashar al-Assad, the butcher of Homs, is a peace-maker, and this because the Syrian Communist Party (Unified) has been rewarded with a seat in government for playing go-between between Moscow and Damascus. Regime after regime is cheered on, ranging from China (where the Hong Kong protesters are portrayed as dupes of the West) to Nicaragua (where the crackdown by a government dedicated to private property is defended on the grounds that some protesters are linked to imperialism). This campism finds its way down on the ground to backing for trades union bureaucrats who spend their organisational energies on protecting their own jobs.

And it leads to the idea that little island Britain, by which they mean England steered from London, of course, should go it alone; they are for a ‘united kingdom’ against Scottish independence. Now we have the old ‘British Road to Socialism’ dusted off, with the ‘socialism’ bit airbrushed out and effectively replaced with Boris Johnson (or by Jeremy Corbyn playing the nationalist card, if his circle of tankie-advisors that assiduously shield him from his old Trotskyist friends have their way). Putin has been pushing for the break-up of the European Union for many years, and in the CPB he has the perfect political tool here to support that aim; and the Morning Star does its bit, publishing articles by those who once proudly declared themselves to be for neither Washington but Moscow, calling for what is laughably called the ‘LeFT case’ (Leave, Fight Transform) in which international trade would, they promise, be with China and Russia.

These guys really are the bitter fruits of socialism in one country. As with the characters in Underground, they have forgotten nothing and learnt nothing, repeating old international alliances, their ‘campism’, while repeating the call for old national alliances that are designed to ensure that Britain remains a capitalist state, that never comes remotely close to the ‘communism’ they sing and dance about.
This is part of the FIIMG Mapping the British Left through Film project.

 

Georgia

The October Revolution in Georgia was late-coming, the Russians bringing Soviet rule arrived in 1921. Stalin, born in Georgia, had something to do with the twists and turns of this process, the revolution marked by manipulation and brute force that presaged what was to happen to the October Revolution in Russia itself. The way this overturning of feudal and capitalist rule occurred also introduced severe political-economic distortions into this small republic south of the Caucasus mountain range, a country smaller than the size of Scotland. Georgia is surrounded, in clockwise panoramic sweep, by Russia to the north, still a prison-house of nations which includes, on the Georgian border, Abkhazia on the Black Sea, North and South Ossetia, Chechnya and Dagestan, then Azerbaijan to the south east, and then, around along the south border, Armenia, Turkey and Ajara, another controversial, barely acknowledged enclave, back on the Black Sea. The Black Sea is west, and the capital Tbilisi is quite far over in the east of the country. The S1 highway from the coast to Tbilisi and beyond has signs to Ankara back west one way and Teheran east to the other, indication, if we needed it, that this place celebrates itself sometimes as the meeting point between Eastern Europe and West Asia, sometimes as the centre of the world.

The end of Soviet times also came late, shadowed again by relations with Russia to the north. Eduard Shevardnadze, First Secretary of the Georgian Communist Party had been appointed by Mikhail Gorbachev as Soviet foreign minister in 1985 to oversee the dismantling of the Cold War, correlate of Glasnost and Perestroika, and had then appointed himself Head of State in Georgia ten years later, in 1995. The kind of fake ‘socialism’ that was established in Georgia lasted way after the collapse of the Soviet Union, until the so-called ‘Rose Revolution’ of 2003. Five years after that the Russo-Georgian war in 2008 saw bitter defeat, with Russian-occupied Abkhazia, which had already been lost in an earlier bloody border dispute in the 1990s, now joined by South Ossetia, an occupied enclave which can be seen from the S1 highway. Russia moved the border further south a few kilometres recently, closer to Tbilisi, a show of power. That long historical arc of imposed ‘revolution’ and then late ‘counterrevolution’ which brought liberal democratic multiparty rule gives to Georgia a particular cultural-political complexion, and particular contradictions which continue to erupt in protests that have an uncanny continuing mostly covert relationship with Russia under Putin.

Stalinism

Josef Vissarionovich Djugahsvili was born in Gori in the centre of Georgia, in the Russian quarter of the town, in 1878 or 1879, depending on who you believe and when it was convenient for celebrations to mark significant birthdays after he assumed complete power at the head of the Soviet bureaucracy. Djugashvili, later Stalin, studied, with a scholarship, to be a priest in the Georgian Apostolic Autocephalous Orthodox Church – Orthodox Christianity was then the state religion – at a seminary in Tbilisi, enrolling in 1894, expelled five years later. He then worked for a couple of years as an accountant, record-keeper, bureaucrat at the Tbilisi Meteorological and Geophysical Observatory for a couple of years before going underground. It was then, from 1901 onwards in the Caucasus and Russia, with spells in prison in Siberia, that he honed his skills as organiser, staging bank robberies and mobilising workers on strike in Batumi on the Black Sea coast and in Baku, capital of Azerbaijan. The Stalin Museum in Gori is one of the few places in Georgia where you will find outright celebration of your man.

Georgians in control of state power in Tbilisi from 1921 through to 2003 were always in close contact with their compatriots in Moscow, whether that was Stalin himself at the beginning or Shevardnadze at the end, and the massive Italianate Museum in Gori was built next to Josef Djugashivili’s birthplace – a little house protected by a mausoleum-style structure round the corner from the Stalin train – in 1957, a year after Krushchev’s speech denouncing his former paymaster. The Museum was officially closed in 1989, year of the fall of the Berlin Wall and effectively the collapse of the Soviet Union, but slowly opened again on Stalin Avenue without fanfare, and so that’s where the tatty memorabilia of Soviet Georgian times is to be found. Elsewhere in Georgia, questions about Stalin get evasive answers or a frosty reception. You won’t find much post-socialist nostalgia in Georgia, and neither has Trotskyism taken root there, for various reasons rooted in the early history of the old regime.

This question of Stalin and the Soviet period in Georgia is resolutely avoided and bypassed in bizarre appeals to a past golden age of Georgian culture when, if we are to believe it, this was Colchis, site of the Golden Fleece, quest of Jason and the Argonauts, with Golden Fleece festivals appearing in the early 21st century to mark this. Georgian wine is relentlessly marketed as being fruit of the oldest wine in the world, evidence dredged up of wines dating back 6,000 years, and this alongside special double-editions of BBC Radio 4’s ‘Food Programme’ celebrating the wine and, we are told there, vegetarian food which is all the more widespread because there are so many Orthodox Church festivals during which meat and fish is prohibited. The Shotis Puri bread is still fresh-baked on the interior wall of kilns in local bakeries, as is the honey-bread around Surami on the S1 highway. The home-made wines cooked up in huge earthenware underground ‘qvevris’; this cottage industry production, together with some of the larger chichi wine estates, now replaces the much-resented and much muttered about standardisation of wine under the Soviets.

There are many different communities, including Christians, of course, and Muslims, especially in the south closer to the borders with Azerbaijan and Turkey. There are also local long-standing Kurdish communities, Yazidis. In Batumi on the border with Turkey, now a tourist playground for Arab-state visitors as well as Russians venturing south from Abkhazia just up the coast, there is an Ali and Nino ‘Statue of Love’ to commemorate the fictional characters in the popular novel by Kurban Said, a Romeo and Juliet-style romance between Ali the Azerbaijani Muslim and Princess Nino his Georgian Christian lover. The story of Ali and Nino is supposed to speak of toleration, but actually, first published in Vienna in 1937, speaks more of the poisoning of personal relationships as a function of imperial great-power conflict. Despite the oft-repeated claims that this was one of the few places in Europe to welcome different competing Jewish communities – and there are still two rival synagogues close by each other in Tbilisi – the famous ‘mountain Jew’ communities no longer exist, and the wooden synagogue in Kulashi was empty, as was the nearby Jewish Museum set up by an ex-policeman and, it turned out when the caretaker came to open it up, mainly devoted to links with Israel.

This area around Kutaisi, now the main decaying post-industrial base for the region, had been the site both of the Guria peasant rebellion in 1904, one in which something like a commune had been set up, and site of some of the key protests leading up the Rose Revolution nearly a century later. The caretaker for the Kulashi synagogue who showed us around wore a large wooden crucifix. Stepping back past the legacy of Stalin and Stalinism also enables the question of Stalin’s own antisemitism to be politely overlooked. A ‘New Communist Party’ was founded in 2001 by Yevgeny Dzhugashvili, the grandson of Joseph Stalin, and stood in parliamentary elections, but only in Ajara in the south-west of the country, a provocation linked to Russian attempts to stoke a local secessionist movement in the area around Batumi on the Turkish border, a secessionist movement designed to put further pressure on the Tbilisi regime.

Stalin, unfortunately, is intimately linked with the history of the ‘socialist’ years of the regime, and in a much deeper way than in Russia, where there were at least a few years of freedom, of experimentation with new ways of living that the October Revolution opened up. In Georgia, one route to ‘socialism’, that of the social-democratic Second International was opened up by the bourgeois-democratic ‘February’ revolution in 1917, but then shut down again. There had been Marxist groups in Georgia going back to 1892 with the formation of ‘The Third Group’, and there were peasant rebellions (with the Guria uprising ranking at one time as high as that of the Paris Commune among Russian Marxists as an inspiration) but revolutionary organisation became closely tied to the internal debates and splits in the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party (RSDLP). That party, the RSDLP, split at its second congress, in London in 1903, into the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks. Then this split, despite or because of Stalin’s activities in the Caucasus, resulted in the formation of a strong Menshevik party, the Georgia Social Democratic Party, and a smaller but more militant communist party, Bolsheviks.

The Russian February 1917 formation of a Provisional Government is marked in Stalinist historiography as a ‘bourgeois democratic’ revolution because it accords well with a quasi-Marxist ‘stage’ theory of history in which there must first be a bourgeois-democratic stage – which in Russia would be the unfeasibly quick implantation of capitalism – before the socialist stage in October later that year. The Bolsheviks seized power in Russia, but in Georgia elections for a Constituent Assembly designed to lay the foundations for a bourgeois-democratic republic went ahead, and the local Menshevik ‘Georgia Social Democratic Party’ won by a large majority. The new regime rapidly made diplomatic and trade links with the German occupying forces and then with the British who replaced the Germans at the end of the First World War in 1918. The German and then British forces were keen to work with the Menshevik government as one that would guarantee the protection of large private property, foreign investment and, crucially, support for General Denikin’s Volunteer Army, one of the invasion forces worsening the Civil War inside the new Soviet Union. (Denikin died in Ann Arbor, Michigan, in 1947.) The Bolsheviks in Georgia understandably needed to defeat Denikin and bring the Russian October Revolution south in order to protect it, and launched several coup attempts against the Menshevik regime before the Red Army finally entered the country in 1921. It is this period between 1917 and 1921 that is vaunted by contemporary supporters of the Second International as a bold ‘experiment’ in Georgian democratic socialism.

What is undoubtedly the case, and with grave consequences for the formation of the new Soviet republic in Georgia, was that Stalin was already mobilising his supporters inside Moscow to prevent Lenin and Trotsky from realising what was going on, and inside Georgia to install a regime that would, avant la letter, be Stalinist. The invasion force was led by one of Stalin’s loyal compatriots Sergo Ordzhonikidze, already a bad sign, and despite Lenin’s explicit orders that the Red Army should act with respect to the Georgians and try and win their support, Stalin pressed ahead. The head of the Cheka, Lavrentiy Beria, was moved from Baku to Georgia in 1920, and then appointed by Stalin to oversee counter-insurgency strategy, setting up the local secret police. The Red Army invasion of Georgia led prominent Second International social democrats, such as Karl Kautsky, to leap to the defence of the supposedly ‘democratic socialist’ regime and launch a tirade against Bolshevism in 1921 after his visit to the country, and it led Trotsky, as head of the Red Army, and one-time Menshevik himself, to respond to Kautsky in 1922, thereby implicating him, Trotsky, in Stalin’s manoeuvres in his own homeland.

The legacy of the Soviet era is visible in the bureacratised processes through which you must pass if you are off the usual tourist routes. For example, in the town of Gurjaani in the far-east of the country, there is a health resort with mud baths, the sulphurous wet earth bubbling up from the ground in a public park. The Soviet-style concrete cultural centre in the centre of town is an empty wreck. We have been in mud baths in north Greece near the border with Bulgaria – an informal stroll through the showers and down into the immense thick brown puddles with frogs lounging around the edge – but this was entirely different, entirely medicalised. No one spoke English, and we spoke neither Georgian nor Russian; and so through a complex convoluted sign exchange we mimed that we wanted to visit the mud baths and were directed to the administrative buildings where our passports were demanded of us so we could register for our visit to the ‘clinic’. The options at Resort Akhtala included an apartment for one day at 10 GEL, a good deal, or ‘Electric Mud’ also at 10 GEL or, a little more expensive, a ‘Rectal Swab’ at 12 GEL. We just wanted the plain mud experience. It was there that the typical Soviet system of obstacles and loopholes came into play; we did not have passports with us but, they indicated, we could perhaps remember the numbers, and then, after we had registered, we went to the clinic where our blood pressure was taken – no other medical history was possible in the absence of a shared language – and we were ushered into the waiting corridor. Men and women were taken separately and put in large warm porcelain baths where we lay for 20 minutes before we were taken out to have our showers. We lay in the baths, four baths arranged in the room, and watched the clock.

The metro system in Tbilisi is typical post-Soviet design, with very little advertising, a grim if tidy journey from the centre out to the working-class estates where friendly drunks roam the streets helpfully misdirecting you to your small bed and breakfast which looks, in the booking dot com picture as if it is a palace when it is actually tucked behind a small unpainted wooden gate at the end of a cul de sac. In our case, the gate sign was painted during the day after we arrived; we had appeared, to the extreme surprise of the owner, as his first ever guests; we were distracted by the men with qvevri-wine while the women stripped the room of its inhabitants and bedding and prepared it for us. On our last evening we were invited to dinner and watched the family dance to music videos on the lap-top in which old Georgian melodies were matched, on the screen, with images of partisans fighting in the first war against the Russians in Abkhazia in 1992. Many booking dot com photos of places in the country-side depict gangs of men in wife-beater string vests standing by beat-up cars glaring at the camera. Refurbished cars are a main export product, and many cars have bits missing, matching the state of the roads, including the pot-holed Tbilisi bypass in spitting distance of the South Ossetia border.

The legacy of the Soviet era is also very much present in ongoing hostility to Russians, of which there are still many in the form not only of occupiers of twenty percent of Georgian territory in the north of the country (and threats to lop off another portion, Ajara in the south-west, but also of Russian tourists). If you don’t speak Georgian, then you will be asked if you speak Russian, and when you say you do not, there will often be a palpable sense of relief and, probably as a counter-reaction, extreme friendliness. The spa town of Borjomi, now in a national park, has been a favourite watering-hole (as it were) for Russian visitors since the mid-nineteenth century. There are 150 springs in the area, rediscovered by the Russian army returning home from fighting Turks and developed as a summer residence by the viceroy of the Transcaucasus Grand Duke Mikhail Nikolayevich Romanov, brother of the Tsar between 1862 and 1871, an ambitious colonial project. Smudged photos of Tsars and Tsarinas and various other notables, including Chekhov and Tchaikovsky, adorn the run-down villa adjoining the central spa area which ejects sulphurous water, and through the gates of the Ekaterina Park you can trek a couple of miles to bathe in the waters at an open-air pool, also now still full of Russians. The men laughed, and none of the women tending the kids even smiled. Just north of Batumi on the coast we shared a balcony that stretched the length of our accommodation with three jolly Russian women who laughed a lot, until four in the morning, during which they drank and sang, and replayed recordings of their singing on their mobile phones.

Capitalism

The collapse of the Soviet Union and then the Georgian Rose Revolution, have opened up at least two competing cultural-political tendencies, both of which are riddled with their own contradictions. The first, following from the privatisation of state resources and the capitalisation of cultural assets, is an intensification of neoliberalism. There are offices and scam companies aplenty in Tbilisi adorned with NATO and EU paraphernalia, a promise that the locals can get a piece of the economic action by really being part of the west. One of my new Facebook friends who ran a bed and breakfast in Georgia now sends me messages inviting me to invest in this or that new ‘American’, he says, firm, one which is guaranteed to give a good profit return. Tourists, from Russia, Turkey, Israel (to name those we met and compared notes with) as well as from Western Europe, will pay at some point to drink qvevri wine and eat cheese and walnuts and maybe more depending on how much they are willing to spend at a staged ‘supra’. This sometimes elaborate meal, the supra, which should include speeches by the host and guests, is packaged and sold as an authentic Georgian folk experience, though it is possible, on occasion, to stumble across a small house with an image of a qvevri on a board hanging outside the gate and have some real fun. At one wine-cellar we were given wine, cheese and walnuts in set pomegranate paste, a speciality that you see hanging from stalls at the side of the S1 highway, but we had to hurry because a coach party of Latvians had already booked in for their supra.

Our worst experience was near Sighnaghi, a fortress town near the border with Azerbaijan, where the supra was led by a US-American guy called Paul. He was a retired businessman in a funny black hat (ethnic, but the type of which we saw no one else around wear) who had managed to discover some tendentious connection with his Georgian heritage after the Rose Revolution and had moved out east to make a killing in the concrete-construction business while running supras for the tourists as his hobby. Here was neoliberalism in action; iron-laws of the market protected by the state for new colonial enterprises to buy up local industries and sell them on. Not everyone was out to fleece you, and we were given Shotis Puri bread for free in villages when we peered into the bakery; an old guy in the ethnographic museum in Sighnaghi wanted money, but not Euros because he already had some of those, he was just collected the notes. Here was clear evidence, in reverse, that Trotsky was right when he formulated the law of combined and uneven development that underpins his theory of ‘permanent revolution’. There is no fixed unfolding sequence to the stages of history – as if there must be primitive communism characterised by scarcity and misery, then the rise of class society, with slavery and then feudalism and then capitalism, and only then socialism and a return to full communism characterised by technological success and abundance – but a potentially uninterrupted process by which one form of struggle can ‘grow over’ into the next. It is potentially uninterrupted, but it is often blocked, as it is when the Stalinised Communist Parties that hold the ‘stage’ conception of history to be true ensure that it is, and prevent bourgeois-democratic independence movements fulfilling their task by also turning socialist.

The ‘stage’ conception was ruthlessly implemented as a distortion of Marxist politics by Stalin, but before that, here in this part of the world, the Menshevik Georgia Social Democratic Party tried to put the brakes on historical development. One of the paradoxes of supposedly ‘anti-Stalinist’ Second International praise for the Georgia ‘experiment’ is that advocates of this Menshevik approach themselves also tell us quite clearly that a leap into the task of socialist revolution would have been too fast, too soon. Not for nothing was Georgia one of the sites of debate about the so-called ‘Asiatic mode of development’ as a way-station and exception to Marx’s own discussions of the transition from feudalism to capitalism in different parts of the world. Now, as a social-democratic political orientation that keeps itself carefully inside the limits set by bourgeois-democratic neoliberal capitalist society in Georgia, we see historical stages of ‘development’ run as if backwards. Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution escaped from that rigid grid, and helps us make sense now of how quickly this supposedly ‘socialist’ society could transform itself into a neoliberal one.

The second cultural-political tendency at work in Georgia now is, in some ways, worse. Here there is a most peculiar alliance between the far-right – a political force intent on wiping out both the legacy of socialism and the liberal reforms that ease the transition to neoliberalism – and the Orthodox Church. This is not to say that every Christian believer in Georgia is allied with the far right, but this is an intensely religious country in which the tolerant and mystical tradition covers some more dangerous fundamentalist movements. This is not to pretend that religion was simply ‘repressed’ when it was a Soviet Republic, and that it then erupted again when the lid was taken off, any more than to it is to say that ancient wine varieties waiting to flourish found a way to do so after the mean times. In both cases we need a clearer, more elaborate, historical-materialist account of the way that countervailing political-economic forces at any particular moment are constructed.

At a supra in Kakheti, a schoolteacher told us, with the aid of a neighbour who spoke some English, that we must visit Mtskheta to the north-west of Tbilisi because, she said, Jesus Christ himself had visited it when he was in Georgia. Our translator, who was a retired academic from the department of sociology in the University of Tbilisi, wasn’t so sure this was true. In the wooded country-side outside the village of Akhasheni just north of Gurjaani, we sought out one of the Orthodox monasteries. People were mystified when we made the sign of a cross and pointed into the distance, indicating that the place we were aiming for was much too far away. Eventually a man we asked took pity on this, turfed his family out of his car, and drove us five miles or more along the bare drought-hit river into the trees, and then into a glade where a little cluster of houses stood around an old church. He dropped us and waved goodbye, and, while we were worrying about how we would get back we ventured into the church. An Orthodox priest with a big beard and big black hat came to meet us, and, grinning the while, gave us a tour, and showed us beautiful gold-edged but unfinished paintings of saints in the small dining room. There were, he said – I said ‘said’, this was in sign language – three of them, three priests living there, the others were out that afternoon. He made us some instant coffee, offered us sweets, and then gave us sweet wine, and finally, thank the lord, made the sign of driving a car, after which he drove us back to the main road. These are the religious fundamentalists who, in the cities, are mobilising their flock to protest against the liberalisation of drug laws – possession and consumption of cannabis was legalised in Georgia in 2018 though it is still illegal to cultivate or sell it – and these are the guys who are behind some of the most vicious Georgian stuff now going on.

Three years before, far-right activists wearing rings of sausages around their necks and wielding skewers stacked with slabs of meat attacked the ‘Kiwi’ vegan café in a quiet side-street of the capital Tbilisi. ‘Georgia for the Georgians’, a rallying cry for a range of religious nationalist groups and hard-core Nazis, had been centre-slogan for demonstrations in Tbilisi over the previous weeks. Fascist meat-eaters would not like this place, true; one large poster on the wall read ‘Seahorses against Gender Roles’. Up the hill nearby there was a sticker on a lamppost that read ‘FCK NZS’. Over the last couple of years vegetarianism has been on the nationalist radar along with gay rights, both seen as ‘Western’ imports, and each functioning as strange signifiers of all that is bad and foreign in a small country that has historically defined itself at as the crossroads of the West and Asia. Most recent protests have been against Russians, joyfully reported by Radio Free Europe, the peculiar paradox here being that while such rhetoric is very easily activated among a population with understandable antipathy to Russia, there is good evidence that Putin has been funding some of the far-right groups involved (as he has been in funding Jobbik in Hungary and Le Pen in France).

So-called ‘tradition’ in Georgia, as in other places is, in reality an ‘invention of tradition’. Authentic buried national forces do not lie buried beneath the surface as mystical anti-Marxist writers ranging from Madame Blavatsky (who visited the Borjomi spa town in her time) to George Gurdjieff (who settled with his followers briefly in Tbilisi in 1919 before relocating to Batumi) would claim. Marxist accounts of the ‘invention of tradition’ are designed to show us how what appears to be so deep within a culture is actually constructed and reconstructed according to present-day needs. Neither is there a naturally-unfolding irreversible process of change running through identifiable stages of political-economic development over the course of history. Instead, as Trotsky argued, there are strange leaps, and now we know that there are also strange reversals of fortune, of progressive movements and of societies that seemed once to have been able to break from capitalism and build something better. Those leaps and reversals are also always structured – they do not happen in a mystical way independent of human collective agency – and our task is to understand how they are structured.

The invention of tradition and our understanding of what ‘revolution’ is in Georgia is riddled with paradoxes, and that uncertain ambiguous character of the country is at stake in the new definitions of politics and identity raging there now in the wake of what was once mistakenly called ‘socialism’, but which was but a caricature of what we hope for in the world.

 

This is one of the Socialisms series of FIIMG articles

 

 

 

Modi 2.0: Whither India?

This interview with Mohkam Bai, a socialist feminist visiting Manchester from India was conducted in June 2019 by Ian Parker

Could you begin by saying a bit about yourself and where you are coming from?

I am born and raised in India when secularism was still an ideal, the Congress was a dominant and domineering actor on the political stage, and universities were liberal spaces or even openly Leftist. I have noticed over the last twenty years a dramatic shift in politics from inadequate welfarism to open neoliberalism. I have witnessed the rise of the Hindu Right on the double platform of conservative religious nationalism on one hand, and global capitalism on the other. As a feminist, socialist, and environmentalist, the alarming bells are ringing disturbingly loud!

So that brings us to the present context, the elections last month. Can you sketch out the specific background for that, an election in which Modi triumphed for the second time?

Let me give a little bit of context to orient the discussion here. The 2019 General Elections was meant to elect 543 MPs into the lower house of Parliament and thus constitute the 17th Lok Sabha. The 543 MPs are elected from single member constituencies through the first past the post method every five years. A party or coalition requires to win 272 seats to form a government, and Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won 303 seats on its own. This is 21 more seats in the Lok Sabha from its electoral performance in 2014 (an increase of 6 % in vote share). Together with its allies in the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), it has placed 353 MPs in the Lok Sabha.

Narendra Modi has been thus re-elected as the Leader of House and Prime Minister of India. In 2014 he himself stood in the elections from 2 constituencies: Vadodara in Gujarat, a BJP stronghold, and Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh, and won both. He chose to vacate the Vadodara seat to comply with election rules barring a MP from representing two constituencies and instead retained his seat in Varanasi. In 2019 he stood for elections in Varanasi and won again.

And what of Congress?

The Indian National Congress (INC) formed alliances with regional parties in Jammu and Kashmir, Bihar, Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra, Karnataka, Jharkhand, and Kerala, but it did not form an alliance in states where it is in direct contest with the BJP. These states include Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Rajasthan, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, and Chhattisgarh, and it fared extremely poorly in these states without forging alliances. Overall, the INC has won 52 seats, and the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) 91. The UPA seat tally is an increase of 26 seats from 2014. UPA gains are attributed mostly to Tamil Nadu where they took 33 seats, Punjab where they increased by 5 seats, Kerala where they were up 7 and Jammu and Kashmir where they took 3 seats. However since the INC failed to secure the conventional 10% of seats, the Lok Sabha remains without a definitive opposition in 2019.

Rahul Gandhi was the leader of the largest alliances in the UPA in both 2014 and 2019. He himself stood for elections in 2014 in Amethi, Uttar Pradesh, an INC stronghold, and won. In 2019 he contested from two constituencies, Amethi and for the first time, Wayanad, Kerala, also an INC bastion. While he won the Wayanad seat, he lost his existing seat in Amethi to BJP’s Smriti Irani. Modi and Gandhi’s personal electoral performances say much about how their parties performed generally in the 2014 and 2019 general elections. Gandhi standing for election in Kerala is meant to reserve a spot for him in the Lok Sabha… Uttar Pradesh is clearly lost to the INC while Kerala is still voting for socialism and communism. Gandhi’s candidature in Wayanad is a signal of how sweeping the ‘Modi wave’ actually is!

Perhaps one more thing to note here is the importance of Uttar Pradesh in the Indian elections. It consists of 80 constituencies, and thus has a huge influence on the composition of the Lok Sabha. It is why the leader of both the ruling party and the opposition contest the elections from constituencies of Uttar Pradesh. Both BJP and INC have fared for the worse in Uttar Pradesh this time: BJP is down by 9 seats totalling to 62 seats in 2019, and INC is down by 1 seat to only 1 seat in Uttar Pradesh. The only opposition to BJP in Uttar Pradesh was the alliance called Mahagathbandhan between the Samajwadi Party (SP) and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP). To put it simplistically, SP’s core voters are ‘backward’ Yadavs, and BSP’s are Dalit Jatavs. While the Muslim vote went mostly to the INC, there has been a “consolidation of the upper castes [Brahmin, Rajput, Vaishya, Jat, Other], the Kurmis and Koeris, and the lower Other Backward Classes (OBCs) behind the BJP was far stronger than the consolidation of Jatavs, Muslims and Yadavs” (The Hindu, May 26). Uttar Pradesh elections demonstrate quite clearly how caste politics translates into numbers on the floor of the Lok Sabha. Muslims have traditionally supported the INC because of their secular and pro-welfare stance, so no big surprises there. However, there is a consolidation of the Hindu vote behind the BJP now. This is the change we are seeing in the Indian election results today.

And what of the mainstream left, the Communist Party?

There isn’t one communist party in India, but several, such as the Communist Party of India (CPI), the Communist Party of India (Marxist) or CPI(M), the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) or CPI(ML), the All India Forward Bloc (AIFB), and the Revolutionary Socialist Party (RSP). In most elections they come together in the Left Front. Their heyday was in the 1990s and early 2000s, and in 2004 General Elections, the Left Front had won 59 seats! However today it has been restrained to three states in the country in the state assembly of Kerala, West Bengal, and Tripura. However in the general election, the situation is far more stark: CPI(M) has one seat with Alappuzha, Kerala, the RSP won the Kollam seat, also in Kerala which is part of the ruling INC-led United Democratic Front of Kerala, none in West Bengal or Tripura.

In 2019, Kerala has gone to the Congress-led UDF again with 19 out of 20 seats. Both of Tripura’s seats have gone to the BJP. However it is in West Bengal that the washout of the Indian Left is particularly alarming for socialism, since it is BJP that has won all the constituencies that used to traditionally vote for the Left Front. The Hindu Right in West Bengal under the BJP-led NDA went up from 2 out of 42 seats in 2014 to 18 in 2019. There are at least two factors that have contributed to this steep rise of popularity of the BJP: one, an anti-incumbency factor against the Trinamool Congress and the Left Front, and two, the BJP has mobilised the threat of the outsider in West Bengal, the Muslim migrant and refugee from Bangladesh and Burma.

Who particularly is under threat here?

You have to understand that the ‘Modi 2.0’ election campaign was organised around the question of national security, playing on the threat posed by the Muslim, both within the country as well as outside. The Muslim is the largest minority in India at 14% or 172 million people. However on both sides of the country lie Muslim-majority countries, Pakistan and Bangladesh, that the Hindu Right self-righteously claim as their own land that has been snatched by Muslim interlopers. In February 2019, after a suicide bombing in Pulwama in Kashmir, the border skirmish between India and Pakistan saw the much-feted surgical strike in Balakot, Pakistan. Sweets were distributed in India on the declaration of this apparent glorious victory of the Indian army, and it clearly contributed to the image of BJP being both decisive and triumphant in the months leading up to the general elections in April. However the India-Pakistan skirmish is an old political game played by both sides. On the other hand, the fear of the Bangladeshi migrant and Burmese refugee has been carefully played through the promise of the national implementation of the National Register of Citizens of India by the BJP in its 2019 manifesto. Currently this National Register is only implemented in Assam that differentiates the real Indian citizens from “illegal immigrants from Bangladesh” who were calculated to be almost 4 million people in Assam. So this is the Muslim threat: a perception of an alarming rise in population of Muslims in India such that all Muslims are coloured green in envy at their perceived ability to spread or reproduce.

Hindu nationalism is directed particularly against Muslims?

Well, yes and no.

There has been significant and sustained violence against the Muslim citizens of India. According to a database maintained by the portal IndiaSpend, 287 hate crimes incidents have been reported since 2009. Of these, 30% of mob lynching attacks are in the name of cow-protection, 14% are to protest inter-religious relationships, and 9% are spurred by allegations of religious conversions. In cases of religious violence, Muslims, who comprise 14.2% of India’s population, were the victims in 62% of cases. In contrast, Hindus who comprise more than 80% of India’s population, were victims in only 10% of these cases. There has also been an increase of violence against Christians with 15% of hate crimes committed against Indian Christians, who only comprise 2.3% of the population.

Additionally, with respect to cow-related hate attacks, victims were usually Muslims and Dalits, the so-called ‘untouchables’, or both. More than 90% of cow related crimes have occurred after 2014 when the BJP first came into power. It is interesting to note that cow-related attacks have been carried out against not only Muslims but also Dalits who have been historically consumed beef as part of their diet. This is symptomatic!

If we look at one of the flagship programmes launched by the BJP government immediately after coming to power last time in 2014: the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan or Clean India Mission was aimed at cleaning up the streets, roads and infrastructure of India’s cities, towns, and rural areas by eliminating open defecation through the construction of private and public toilets. According to a survey conducted by the Research Institute for Compassionate Economics (RICE), 44% of rural people over two years old in rural Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Uttar Pradesh defecated in the open in 2018, compared to the 70% of rural people in the 2014 survey. However, almost a quarter of people in households with latrines nevertheless defecate in the open, which has remained unchanged since 2014. This means building more toilets has not changed the percentage of people who participate in open defecation. Why? Because cleaning toilets is not considered the work of most savarna communities. The Clean India Mission is really an ingenious scheme to depict open defecation as a hygiene issue, when the truth is that the caste system has traditionally collared a group of people into cleaning up the shit of the country. The lack of accountability towards keeping India clean does not stem from the lack of toilets, but from an ingrained refusal to take care of our own dirt sustained by notions of ritual purity in the caste system. A more effective route of cleaning India up would be investing in social reform schemes that work to demolish the caste system that makes a community of people responsible for cleaning the shit and dirt of the rest of the country. These Dalit communities are expected to clean the toilets and drains of savarnas, and yet consider themselves fortunate to be assimilated in the consolidated Hindu identity being forged by the Hindu Right? This is a con-job!

Nevertheless, this is a con that has been partially successful in the general elections of 2019. The vote share of the BJP has increased from their victory in 2014 to their undisputable victory in 2019. The NDA has secured a vote share of 45%, compared to 38% in 2014. In contrast, the vote share of the INC remained the same at 19.5%. With the help of its regional allies, INC has increased its seat tally but without influencing the elections in any significant way. According to reportage in the Times of India, minorities such as Muslims, Sikhs, and Christians have not shifted their vote with any appreciable difference from 2014, and in fact have voted the NDA down in 2019. They have voted for the main opposition to the BJP in their respective states, be it Congress or any other party or alliance (Assam, Bihar, Gujarat, Karnataka, Kerala, MP, Maharashtra, Odisha, Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu, Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal, Delhi, Jharkhand, and Telengana). In contrast, a votebank consolidation is visible from the Times of India reportage that upper castes, OBCs, Dalits, and Adivasis have voted in greater proportion in favour of the BJP. If in 2014, 36% of this collection of castes and tribes voted for the BJP, but in 2019 it is 44%. It is here in these numbers that you can see the consolidation of a singular Hindu identity being carved out by the BJP. This is where the real problematic of the General Elections of 2019 lies.

Why do people vote for the BJP?

Well, one issue, a potent ideological issue, is that of ‘development’. This was one of the two main platforms that the BJP stood on to come to power in 2014 (the other being nationalism). The BJP made more than a hundred promises in the previous general elections to develop and modernise the entire country based on the claims of what it had achieved in Gujarat under the Chief Ministership of Narendra Modi in the 2000s. Their claims of development in Gujarat were disputed by independent observors even in 2014. However now we have 5 years of BJP rule at the centre, and the question of what the BJP has done is not very clear. Unemployment in this period has fallen to a 45 year low at 7%. Their position in this election was that 5 years were not enough to make the impact they had promised in 2014 given decades of Congress mismanagement and corruption of the country. So the BJP has asked for another 5 years to show impact. It’s an emotional appeal that asks the voter for trust and confidence in their national project.

In the meanwhile there has been extremely expensive advertisement of development schemes and policies they are promoting. So some key and much-touted schemes have been the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan (toilet-building) in 2014, PM Awaas Yojana (free or subsidised housing), Jan Dhan Yojana in 2015 (no frills basic savings accounts), Ujjwala Yojana (free gas cylinders for the poor), MUDRA yojana in 2015 (loans upto 10 lakh to non-corporate, non-farm small and micro enterprises), PM Sahaj Bijli Har Ghar/Saubhagya Yojana in 2017 (household electrification), Ayushman Bharat in 2018 (healthcare), Beti Badhao, Beti Bachao Yojana, Make in India, Digital India, and Skill India. And OK, so that looks impressive. However some of these schemes have been put in place by earlier governments that have been renamed or tweaked under the BJP regime.

At any rate there is evidence of some action of the part of the BJP government between 2014-2019. People have either been beneficiaries of one or more of these schemes, or are hopeful that they will be beneficiaries in the future. There is hope that the government will fulfil its promises to bring economic prosperity to India. Nevertheless is it justifiable exchange for the crackdown on civil liberties? I do not think so. According to a survey conducted by Pew Research Centre, India ranked 4th in the world in 2015 for the highest social hostilities involving religion.

We would also expect a rollback on ecological measures under these neoliberal conditions.

Yes, of course! Environmental clearance procedures have been systematically weakened, with the fast-tracking of crucial environmental impact assessments, continued short shrift to public hearings, and bypassing of provisions requiring consent of local communities. Air pollution in cities and industrial areas has become worse, such that now 22 of the 30 most polluted cities of the world are in India. Moreover despite over Rs. 20,000 crores being spent on cleaning the Ganga in one of BJP’s flagship programmes, Namami Gange, data shows that pollution levels are worse than before.

According to the People’s Agenda 2019, since 2014 the central government has repeatedly set in place policies that allow for the grabbing of the lands of tribal people and forest dwellers, and that also tries to protect officials from any consequences for doing so. There has been an acceleration of the speed of forest clearances, with more than 57,000 hectares cleared between 2014 and 2016 alone. The People’s Agenda documents how in 2016 the Compensatory Afforestation Fund Act (CAMPA) was passed, giving complete power to forest officials to plant trees on people’s lands, build tourism projects and ‘development’ projects, etc. without even informing forest dwellers – the law does not even mention forest rights. CAMPA promotes monoculture afforestation which destroys the rich variety of flora and fauna, and also adversely affects the livelihoods and food security of Adivasis. Furthermore, the BJP government is currently trying to amend the Indian Forest Act, which will result in giving forest guards the power to shoot people without facing any prosecution. Our forests are the biodiversity hub of the region, and their traditional custodians have been the Adivasis and other forest dwellers. Attacks on the rights of the Adivasis is an attack on ecosocialism.

As a feminist, how do you think the women of India are voting?

The fact of the matter is that more women have voted for the BJP in this election than before. The recorded voter turnout was greater this time at almost 69% of the 900 million eligible voter-base, and more women have voted in this election than ever before. In 9 States and Union Territories women outnumbered men in casting their votes. So the greater electoral victory of the BJP can be attributed to the involvement of female voters. The noteworthy exception is Kerala where more female participation took the election result in the other direction. It was in Kerala that the BJP had opposed the Supreme Court verdict that allowed women to enter and pray in the Sabrimala Temple. The “female voter turnout this time was 78.8%, higher than the 76.47% for men. In 2014, the figures were almost even at 73.84% for women and 73.96% for men” (Economic Times, May 20).

On one hand, it is not surprising that women vote in similar ways to their male counterparts. After all this is how votebanks work; a family, tribe, or community vote together to ensure a certain electoral result is reached. In patriarchal contexts, women would anyway follow the lead of the head of the family or community. On the other hand, it is goes to show that a left feminist formation is not working on the ground to mobilise women to place women’s and feminist issues as the basis for political representation. There is no strong feminist votebank operating in the country.

What forces of resistance are there?

You need to understand that the left is fractured, it has been broken, and we need to rebuild spaces for progressive political imagination. To bank on resistance from the left looks bleak. I would say that one important space for resistance will be the Muslim community, not because it has an progressive programme as such. The Muslim communities of India have not come together in any significant way to bring out a political imagination for the country since Independence, and have fallen behind on nearly all development indices. However they have been successfully othered and alienated. Therefore it could become the still-intact base for political resistance. With memories of the 2002 pogroms not yet forgotten, Indian Muslims can see what Hindu nationalism means. It means the creation of a new society that renders citizens into originals and fakes, into first citizens and second citizens. However the political battle must include shifting the discourse of Hindu-Muslim division as the keystone that holds the religious nationalism of Hindutva upright. Hindutva or Statist Hinduism would like to posit that the Muslim threat needs to be defeated to create an ideal State.

Let’s be clear about this: the Muslim is the political scapegoat of the Hindu Right, the convenient smokescreen to obfuscate the political reality of the so-called largest democracy of the world. What we are seeing here is a particular kind of religious nationalism in Hindutva. It is succeeding at building a consolidated Hindu identity out of thousands of castes hailing from different regional territories and with varying political affiliations. So the Hindutva campaign is not actually against Muslims – Muslims are its collateral damage. This form of religious nationalism is actually an elimination of the genuine on-the-ground struggle of the so-called subalterns, the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, the Dalits and Adivasis. Consolidation of Hindu identity is predicated on the subordination of the subaltern to the ‘savarna’ or high caste identity. This is not some progressive politics of unification, but an erasure of difference, of radical alterity posed by the figure of the Dalit and Adivasi, who are also the ground for a political imagination for ecosocialism in India.

My analysis is that Muslims represent today a formation that is a base for new kinds of political mobilisations. It puts them in a very vulnerable position, but it is necessary not to fall into the discourse of Hindutva and see themselves as the victim of Hindutva. Let’s remember that Indian Muslims are not pure victims. The Muslim communities are often patriarchal and upper caste as well. They have participated in and perpetuated the caste system and class system of India too. In my opinion, they pose no ideological challenge to Hindutva. The real opposition can be posed by those who vote for the Hindu Right against their own best interests, in particular Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes, and women. Indian Muslims must realise that in working for rights and opportunities for these historically disadvantaged groups they can find their own way out of the alienation they face today.

 

You can read and comment on this article where it originally appeared here

 

 

 

Hugo Blanco

Hugo Blanco is in Manchester on 25 February 2019, but who is Hugo Blanco? 

Hugo Blanco is an inspiration to revolutionary ecosocialists. Born in Cusco, once capital of Tawantinsuyu and now in Peru, in 1934, his first struggles were school protests. He travelled to Argentina, where he abandoned university to work in a meat-packing factory in La Plata, and his encounter with the Fourth International eventually led him back to Peru where he became a factory and then peasant organiser. He was arrested in 1963, and was in prison in Peru in the notorious El Frontón prison off the coast until 1970. After some years in exile, in Mexico, Argentina, Chile and Sweden, he returned to Peru to be elected to the Constituent Assembly there. He was deported to Argentina, to return and stand for the Peruvian Presidency, elected to Peruvian Congress where he served from 1980 to 1985. The years since he has been actively involved in land struggles, escaping government and Shining Path assassination attempts, publishing the activist magazine Lucha Indigena, and recently leading street protests against amnesty for Fujimori in the streets of Lima.

This man is beaten back and then up he pops again; he has been a tireless militant, building many radical movements against exploitation and oppression, uniting industrial and rural workers in joint struggle. I still have a poster of him that I had on my wall as a student, of him angrily resisting court officials after one of his many arrests, this one after his participation as a member of the Partido Revolucionario de los Trabajadores in a broader organisation Frente Obrero, Campesino, Estudantil, y Popular. FOCEP had gained 11% of the vote in the elections and the Peruvian state was determined that Blanco pay for that. Now we have a book that honours this life of enduring struggle, and honours it by telling us of the unfolding political context and the role of organisations Blanco helped build in order to further resistance. This is a book to marvel at and learn from. This is Blanco’s history, but also our history as part of a revolutionary tradition that has traced a parallel path, a path we should be proud to say connects with his at many crucial points.

I have set out the very brief version of his political biography here. What Derek Wall does is to flesh that out with details of his life that draw attention not only to the incredibly diverse kinds of struggle that Blanco has been involved with around the world but also aspects of his personal life. These details enrich the narrative. We learn, for example, not only of the role of the Fourth International in the international campaign to release him from prison – that I knew when I had the poster pinned up – but also of the later financial appeals for medical treatment, operations Blanco needed after lingering injuries to his head and back, results of severe beatings by police and army and prison guards. It is a miracle he has survived so long; he is, as Wall points out, someone with more than a cat’s nine lives.

The book is packed with anecdotes that have a strong political charge; did you know, for example, that Blanco was in Chile during the coup against Allende, and that he managed to escape because he was not on a death list, not on a death list because he was critical of the regime as reformist rather than one of its supporters? The accidents and ironies of history are traced with a steady hand in this book that allows us to see better how political lives are necessarily entwined with personal experience and personal costs.

You will be awestruck as you read this book, it is the kind of book you can give as a present to someone beginning to learn about politics as an introduction to what ecosocialism is about in practice, and you will sometimes laugh too, bitter radical humour. We learn something about the influence of Leon Trotsky, but also about José María Arguedas and José Carlos Mariátegui (from whom the phrase ‘shining path’ comes) and, why Blanco ‘viewed the collectivist nature of the Inca Empire, despite its undemocratic character, as an inspiration for the creation of communism in Peru’. And we learn how important women’s resistance to patriarchy has been to Blanco as well as indigenous resistance to despoliation of their land. Wall quotes Eduardo Galeano writing that one of his fourteen hunger strikes, when Blanco could go on no longer ‘the government was so moved it sent him a coffin as a present’.

This book is beautifully written, with some great turns of phrase which sum up key debates; speaking of Blanco’s interest in alternative systems of political organisation, that of the ayllu in pre-colonial times, Wall pits this against a false choice often posed to us in which ‘One alternative is the purity of inaction’ and ‘the other is action that reforms a system so as to conserve it’. Hugo Blanco is about action, action linked to genuine transformative change.

This must have been an extraordinarily difficult to write, for Wall has a triple-task here; to tell us about the life of Hugo Blanco, yes of course, but also to tell us about the history of Latin America, from the arrival of the conquistadors to the new imperialist subjugation of the continent, and, more, to tell us how revolutionary traditions and organisations of resistance, including groups affiliated to the Fourth International were built and how they split, and sometimes merged again. What drives this book forward is that Wall wants to explain, is a passionate and thoughtful author, takes pains to neatly sidetrack into some doctrinal disputes, but always in order to return us to the same question; what is to be done, and what did Blanco do in those different situations.

Another strength is that the writing of this book, it is clear, has also been as collaborative as the political life of its subject. Those who have followed Wall’s postings and pleas for help on social media over the last year will know this well. Blanco refuses honours that are directed to him alone, always preferring to draw attention to collective organisation, to others who were also co-workers. He knows that he owes his life to this common struggle; Wall describes an occasion when he was arrested, when peasants blockaded the bus he was being taken away in, forcing his release. And, the flipside of his, we see him on trial claiming responsibility for deaths in an exchange of fire with officers when the ballistics evidence says otherwise; Blanco is protecting his comrades. Wall too has drawn on the expertise of others to piece together this account, and has been very lucky to also be able to draw on Blanco’s own memories.

As Wall points out, many of the indigenous, peasant and ecological struggles that are at the heart of Hugo Blanco’s life, and reason why he left the Fourth International, actually prefigure many of the political developments inside the Fourth International in recent years; Wall writes that ‘Both the Trotskyist and the indigenous elements of his politics have fuelled his resistance.’ This book is the best of green and red politics. Few political figures have managed to trace a path that is true to both. Hugo Blanco did that, and so does this book.

 

You can order the book here.

 

Register for the meeting with Hugo Blanco and Derek Wall in Manchester here

 

This article first appeared as a book review here, where you can comment on it

 

 

Commons: Auroville

Auroville is a futuristic city, at least that was the plan, and its fate tells us something about the nature of utopian projects and about ‘the commons’. The commons were once our collective natural resources – land, air, water, energy – in the past, and are still there to be reclaimed together for the future. The commons will be ours again, taken from their enclosure as private property, and they ground every communist project. The commons were already there in many attempts to build utopian universal communities around the world, and there are glimmers of the commons now in many places, including in Auroville in south India. At its centre is the Matrimandir, of which more in a moment.

Auroville in Tamil Nadu is a couple of miles north of Puducherry, the old French colonial enclave of Pondicherry, ‘Pondi’ as it is still commonly known, French until 1962. The new city was set up barely six years after the French left, founded in February 1968. It is marked by its time and place in the history of colonialism and in the post-colonial imagination as an escape from the ravages of capitalism, as is every utopian attempt to implant a community on what is so often viewed as empty land. Auroville made the parched red countryside bloom, and its success and limitations tells us something about the nature of the struggle for the commons today as it celebrates its half-century. The sign on the highway welcomes visitors and invites those confused by the contemporary world to the future.

In some strange way this ‘city of the dawn’ has its roots in anti-colonial struggle. Sri Aurobindo was one of the leaders of the movement against British imperial rule, and took refuge in Pondi in the early twentieth century to avoid arrest, turning to a spiritual life which is commemorated in the Aurobindo Ashram, still there in the French quarter known as ‘White Town’. After Sri Aurobindo died his partner Mira Alfassa, a French national from Morocco known as ‘The Mother’ gathered together followers to keep a legacy alive that would, she claimed, be spiritual, universal, as opposed to religious or ethnically particular. The Mother directed the construction of Auroville, and her image is still very much present there.

Auroville was founded on 28 February 1968 as a new city that was planned to have 50,000 inhabitants serving, its founding Charter says, the truth of the Divine Consciousness, as a ‘bridge between the past and the future’ devoted to human unity and belonging to nobody but humanity alone. This new city would link past and future with skyscrapers (one of the signs of high modernity in the 1960s) and electric walkways, self-sufficient with already an ecological consciousness, and so it still does today bring together its citizens, self-defined ‘Aurovillians’, from nearly fifty countries. It has taken root as a new commons on Tamil land.

In some ways Auroville expresses the hopes of early resistance to enclosure of land, insisting that no single person should have private ownership of it, hopes that were present in communities around the world, and in the heartland of British colonialism in the Diggers movement. The claim to the commons today speaks of anti-colonial and anti-capitalist struggle across Latin America, keys into the specific and universal struggles of women, and so the claim to the commons is also a feminist claim.

These hopes are expressed in the discontents of liberal researchers, with ‘commons’ as an index of refusal of enclosure in academic life, and in the ideological battle over the supposed ‘tragedy of the commons’, the false lesson drummed into us that the commons will always be destroyed by competitive individual interest; the commons are at the core of red green politics. It is clear that the commons have to be seized back in common struggle which is also necessarily feminist and anti-colonial struggle, and that this endeavour cannot be quickly bypassed by taking supposedly empty land and building the future there. Our future is always haunted by the past, by the commons, including in Tamil Nadu.

Auroville was blessed with the approval of liberals in the late 1960s. The inauguration of the science-fiction city which was to have a golden globe at its centre – the Matrimandir which appears in the publicity sent out to lure new settlers in (and completed just as The Mother left her physical body) – was attended by world leaders, including from India, who were flown free of charge by Air France, and it was soon recognised by UNESCO. There is a scale model of the Matrimandir in the Visitor’s Centre. The plan of the inside of the Matrimandir shows the two winding walkways that lead visitors from the base of the sphere to the central meditation chamber at the top.

The land was bought from residents of 14 Tamil villages, and there have been sustained efforts to bring locals as well as foreign settlers together through schools and development projects. The break with religion, and a drive to universality that might even also be secular, was later formalised in a split with the Pondi Ashram. There were disputes over the governance of Auroville. The Indian government stepped in so this part of Tamil Nadu now has separate Indian State administrations not only for the Union Territory of Puducherry (a special deal brokered to lever the French out in 1962) and Kalpetty nearby (another former French enclave which is now the site of the University of Puducherry) but also for Auroville itself.

One of the stories told by Aurovillians today is that everything changed after the 2004 tsunami which immediately left 7,000 dead on the nearby coast, and which Auroville mobilised for in a number of different projects focussed on the area around Serenity Beach. But it is not clear that everything was perfect before then. There were already conflicts between Tamil residents of the main village Kuilapalayam which adjoins the Auroville central area, refusal by Tamils unwilling to redefine themselves as the kind of universal subjects Auroville desired them to be, unable to afford the fees demanded to buy into what was held out as a common universal future on land that had been bought from them.

To become Aurovillian is not easy; apart from the money, proof of economic self-sufficiency as well as a down-payment on allotted accommodation, there is a two-year probationary period during which time there is assessment of how well the applicant fits with The Mother’s dream-scape. There are now just under 3,000 Aurovillians, quite a deal less than the 50,000 projected, and in early 2018 resources were being poured into preparations for the fiftieth anniversary celebrations when Hindu nationalist Indian prime minister Modi faced some harsh questions about what the place is giving back in return for the generous state subsidies for so many Westerners, whether or not they think they have left the West.

The concordance with the Indian state which is devoted to neoliberal development as well as to the fuelling of hatred against religious minorities was problematic enough back in 1968, and now it may well operate as the final dose of poison that pretended to be a remedy. The drip-drip poison of enclosure has been present from the start, and there are plenty of quasi-state administrative measures in place to prevent this being dealt with. There are elections on the basis of personal choice and personal networks, but no parties, no policy differences aired and no platforms for change, something which runs alongside the prohibition on religion. There are also assembly meetings, but very little collective debate, and today the different national groups speak with each other rather than across the community in what should be the dialogical basis of the commons.

The most recent estimates are that there are nearly 400 French-origin Aurovillians, just over 200 German, 150 Italian, and then under 100 Dutch, American and Russian, with most other nationalities represented in single figures. There are over 1000 ‘Indians’, the largest group, but these are lighter-skinned middle-class origin citizens who were able to buy their way in. This colonial enclosure of Tamil village land is, in some senses, internal colonial enclosure as well as the expression of a Western neo-colonial dream. The Tamil villagers, of which 6,000 work in Auroville servicing the community, are being pressured to sell more of their land, something they resent, and there is a rise in crime which some blame on Kuilapalayam village.

The Indian citizens of Auroville are Hindu, and there are images aplenty in the private spaces as well as in the public entrepreneurial projects which help fund Auroville. Aurovillians are permitted to bring whatever religious symbols they wish into their own homes. The only Muslim Aurovillian has recently died, and so ‘universal’ here is another particular sign of enclosure (apparently The Mother did not like Islam). This implicitly Hindu religious iconography which is prevalent around the public grounds of the Auroville complex is subordinate, however, to evolutionary utopian science-fiction semiotic promotional advertising.

The narrow dirt track paths are being replaced with brick and tarmac roads – the main one of which was ready to welcome Modi – and there has been an exponential growth of private cars since the tsunami, private cars and mobile phones and even, hard for a 1968er to comprehend, separate gated communities. And the ecologists are on the back foot, with a proliferation of throwaway non-recyclable goods appearing in Auroville. It seems that on this common land which was bought from Tamils and enclosed to protect itself from the Tamil villagers, and whose labour it relies on to keep going, there are few common projects. Instead it is every man for himself, expected to live and let live and, better, encouraged to be an entrepreneur with a business from which a sizeable cut will go to the central authority. Businesses now include Australian spirulina, Austrian paper, Israeli wind-chimes and Tamil dolls (all of these national designations dissolved, of course, into an overarching ‘Aurovillian’ universal identity, and a host of organic cafes for the tourists who come to marvel at what has been done and what may be. The futuristic architecture of Auroville speaks of the hope of the commons but also of enclosure, a paradox built into the land. There is a simple graveyard with futuristic marble monuments surrounded by grassland.

How do we make sense of this place? There are some clues nearby. There is a Romain Rolland Library in Pondi with stacks and piles of disintegrating books. French author Romain Rolland (who corresponded with Freud), was a Western intellectual whose own local legacy in the library, common space for reading and writing and debating, is itself precarious in neoliberal times. Among the books on the shelves is a copy of the Samuel Smiles 1859 classic Self-Help. Samuel Smiles was an active supporter of the Chartists in the early nineteenth century but drifted toward Victorian liberalism, and his book Self-Help is a celebration and injunction for citizens in capitalist culture to pull themselves together so that all that would be left of the hope of the commons would be a collection of individuals and interest groups. So it is with Auroville, from its radical past, such as it was, the limited room for manoeuvre it had is being closed down, enclosed. The lesson being that you can’t just create the ‘commons’ anywhere you like as some kind of giant self-help project; you have to do it as a common project that actively includes all of the oppressed to claim what is ours of right on this earth.

 

You can download a version of this report with pictures and bibliography here

If you liked this then you will like Revolutionary Keywords

 

 

 

Democratic People’s Republic of Korea

The DPRK was founded in 1948 in the north of the Korean peninsula after a bloody national liberation struggle against Japanese occupation. The annexation of Korea by Japan in 1910 had been followed by brutal subjugation of the local population, and although those bitter years of colonial oppression were brought to an end with the help of the Soviet Union, the formation of the DPRK was as an independent state led by the Korean Worker’s Party (KWP) under the leadership of Kim Il-sung. The local Communist Party apparatus in the years immediately preceding the founding of the DPRK had been directed by Moscow, in line with the Comintern policy of utilising local parties around the world as diplomatic tools of the bureaucracy, but was quickly absorbed into the KWP, as were the local people’s committees across the north. This was one year prior to the seizure of power by Mao in China, note. Soviet forces were withdrawn in 1948, and the DPRK was then on its own, despite some continuing trade links and imports of fuel and food, isolated, forced to be self-reliant, an extremely compressed impossible attempt to construct socialism in one country. Or, worse, only part of a country, the only consolation being that it was the north that was centre of heavy industry with a head-start over the more rural south.

Supreme Leader Kim Il-sung intended Seoul, which is south of the 38th parallel, to be the capital, not Pyongyang, which is to the north of that line. There were uprisings in the south against military rule culminating in a rebellion by the Jeju islanders which was crushed and a dictatorship was established in South Korea under Syngman Rhee, actively supported by the United States. The US henceforth underwrote the regime in the south of the peninsula, and although its own military was formally withdrawn in 1949, covert operations and a build-up of forces preparing for war against the DPRK continued from its base in occupied Japan. The 38th parallel was the line drawn across the country by the US, the new colonial masters in the region after the Second World War, and then transgressed, the trigger for the Korean War 1950-1953, a further ordeal for the DPRK in which much of the material infrastructure was bombed to bits, and so successful defence of the regime in the north entailed further deep costs, not least to the internal structure of the regime. Defence and closure against external enemies intent on destroying an independent state which declared itself to be socialist, enemies that really were intent on the restoration of capitalism in the north, necessarily led to defence and closure against internal enemies, and so it was that the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea took the form it has maintained until the present day.

Trotsky once pointed out that each specific country operates as a particular combination of factors at play on a global scale. Complete independence of any nation state once capitalism took hold as a global system is an illusion, in some cases it is an unavoidable illusion that sustains national liberation struggles that then gives way to a process of building economic and political ties and international solidarity. The Soviet Union had at its disposal the Comintern, the remains of the Third International, to buttress Stalin’s own ridiculous anti-Marxist claim to be building socialism in one country, and political-military manoeuvring and then ‘peaceful coexistence’ were the international conditions for that bureaucracy to survive until 1989. The DPRK did not even have that, and so the illusion of independence became more dangerous, more toxic to the population even when that illusion was fed to its people as if it were a panacea.

That practical impossibility of socialism in one country – political-economic isolation – was accompanied by another kind of isolation, with deadly consequences. The formation of the First, Second, Third and then Fourth Internationals was predicated on the revolutionary Marxist understanding that successful combat against capitalism and its eventual overthrow depended on the accumulation of experiences from diverse parts of the world, from parts of the working class and from among its allies. Anti-capitalist struggle is complemented and enriched by the experience of anti-colonial movements, anti-racist movements, and by women’s liberation and sexual liberation, ecological struggle and other dimensions of resistance against exploitation and oppression. Such heterogeneous complex political experiences must be drawn from across the globe so the working class itself can come to realise in its own practice the way in which its specific circumstances are intertwined with the operation of those multiple elements on an international level. Among the consequences of isolation, and as an insidious feedback loop in which the problem is reconfigured by the regime as if it were a virtue, are some weird aspects of representation of the regime both to the outside world and to its own people, a double-edged duplicitous self-representation.

Representation

‘Mysterious’, that’s the word for it offered by the Chinese plain-clothes policeman at the northern border. It was meant as a question, provided as a possible answer to another question he had just posed to a shifty-looking group of Westerners at the small border town: ‘Why do you want to go to North Korea?’ That it might be ‘interesting’ as a first answer did not satisfy him. Border security has been tightened in recent years by China, fearful of what the consequences might be if the DPRK regime falls hard, not only because floods of refugees might head further north and to the west but also because the social unrest might also spread, infect and unsettle a carefully managed transition to capitalism guided by Xi Jinping. At the end of the 1990s after severe famine in the DPRK, what is described by the regime as ‘The Arduous March’, there had been some incursions into Chinese border towns across the Tumen river to the north; some desperate DPRK soldiers had come across, held up households and taken stuff back across the border. China does not want this to be a sign of things to come.

You can only get into the DPRK as part of a carefully-managed tightly-controlled group in which you will be accompanied by two guides and a driver. Even on ‘individual’ tours, you will be visiting as one of a gang of four. Our group had been briefed in Beijing on what not to do. Don’t take photos of the military, and don’t take photos of any construction sites because those are administered and staffed by the military. Take pictures of the beautiful scenery, but don’t take pictures of the little people, particularly of those pushing heavy loads on their bicycles or those working on the roads, for such images could be used as propaganda against the country. Don’t refer to ‘North Korea’, that is disrespectful because the DPRK views itself as a regime in the north attempting to make links with the south, and that means that you should not wear the T-shirt you’ve just bought for which the tour company made the mistake of showing an image only of the north of the country, it should have depicted the whole of the peninsula. Take photos of your itinerary because that might be confiscated at customs because the print-out lists key national monuments as if they are tourist sites when, of course, they are no such thing.

Members of the group had already signed a declaration to this effect on signing up, and also agreed not to publish images taken or any written account of their visit before it was vetted and approved. On another parallel tour the same month a hapless Western tourist joined a Chinese group only to be whisked around the Pyongyang monuments on a bus that refused to stop to allow the visitors to get off and have a look around. He complained and showed the tour itinerary on his phone to the local guide who snatched the phone away and started checking through it. When the group got to their hotel that evening, the lone Westerner was asked by the receptionist to go to a room up the corridor where three men in black suits were waiting for him; they questioned him about why he was there and what his problem was. The interrogation ended with him signing a declaration that he would not speak or write about what had happened to him and then he was invited to fill out a customer satisfaction questionnaire – when he put the wrong answer a new sheet was put in front of him until he marked ‘good, very satisfied’ on all the items. Then he was free to go.

We were told not to ask local people, including the local guides, what they thought would happen when Respected Marshal Kim Jong-un, the current leader, died because that would confuse and upset them, and, of course, we should refer to the leaders of the three generations – Kim Jong-un, Kim Jong-il and Kim Il-sung – with respect; not, for example, ever to refer to ‘fat Kimmy’. The main guide in Pyongyang told us that this was a chance for us to put aside our preconceptions and really see how things were in the DPRK, told that ‘seeing is believing, right’. No, dead wrong. The DPRK is a perfect working example of how ideological systems of rule wherever they are, in the capitalist or so-called socialist world, cannot be so easily dispelled by simply seeing things as they really are; to ‘see’ here in the DPRK, particularly as a tourist, is to see what is staged. This tourism is no mere façade. Tourism and foreign investment are priorities for the regime, with more resources poured into impression-management than school-education or distribution of vaccines. The service sector now runs at a third of GDP after mining and just above agriculture and fisheries. Most foriegn trade, over ninety percent, is with China – minerals and some armaments out, and fuel and food in. I spoke to an INGO aid worker back in Beijing who viewed tourists as unwitting voyeuristic parasites colluding with the regime’s agenda and effectively obscuring what is really going on. You need some political-historical theoretical grasp of the reality that is being presented to you in order to go beneath the surface, and to go beyond the liberal platitudes served up in smiley crinkly-eyed benevolent BBC travel programmes, Michael Palin’s recent tour east being a case in point.

The visitor circuit around Pyongyang and down to the Demilitarized Military Zone (DMZ) at the border with the Republic of Korea to the south was tightly-orchestrated, a closed circuit, from the main hotel for foreigners, a forty-three story total institution with restaurants, pool, bowling and barbers, down to the restaurants populated only by other tour groups. One of our group bought a new hat with a red star on the front at the DMZ and lost his old cap somewhere along the way, perhaps at lunch. The following morning our second local guide, the minder, turned up on the bus wearing the old cap, and handed it over – it had been retrieved by another tour group from the restaurant where we had eaten lunch, its owner identified and returned to our group guides.

On another occasion, second example of the closed circuit, one of our group had done a runner. Don’t wander off, we had been told back in Beijing, only move around as a group, and if you do wander off it won’t be you who gets into trouble but your guides. This guy had already made a break for it on the first evening from our hotel in Hoeryong but had turned back after finding there was nothing to see down the dark road leading off into the unknown, turned back to find the guides looking less angry than very relieved. Anyway, on his second outing during the day-time near a monument we were visiting our intrepid explorer had wandered into a park, encountered some locals, and made it back again before anyone noticed. As if. At our next stop barely an hour later he was stopped by our guides, and his camera examined. He had been spotted, someone had informed the authorities, and he was quickly tracked. It was clear that if we had got away we would not have got far. One of our guides, an older KWP member with some clout among the locals, accompanied a couple from our group back to our hotel by taxi, but only after ten cars had refused to stop on the street and after protracted negotiation at another hotel. Taxi-drivers were unwilling to take foreigners on board.

And if we had got out, how would we have talked with the locals, about what, practised choice Korean phrases we had rehearsed together on the bus, which included the rather useless ‘Saranghamnida’ (‘I love you’), or what? We did talk to some school-kids, staged encounters in classrooms, but these were rather limited and closely monitored. Schools and educational extra-curricular institutions were a key selling point on the tour; as one of the Kum Song Youth Publishing House puts in the title of one of its pamphlets, Child is King of the Country. We were told that illiteracy does not exist, which might be true. I asked one boy about twelve years old what he had for lunch and he thoughtfully rolled out a list of dishes, all of the food items he knew the English names for. In another school, four school-girls fourteen years old asked me how popular the British Broadcasting Corporation was. They had been told, and this phrase was repeated to us at least twice by our main guide in another part of the country outside Pyongyang, that the Korean people should ‘keep their feet firmly planted on the ground and look over the wall’. They did look over the wall, but what they saw was also filtered in a particular way, corresponded with a DPRK-centred view of the world; a common misconception inside the DPRK is that most people around the world speak Korean.

A guide, an older and more trusted working-class KWP member, a more trusted minder than the younger middle-class main guide, told me that he liked Russian films and some English films; the three English films he named were Bend it like Beckham, Titanic and Love Story. Our main guide later said he was surprised that The Lion King was not in this top three. The KWP guy told me that there was a nice river cruise in Pyongyang, but he had never been on it. At one point he said he had never been outside the DPRK, though he told someone else that he had been to China fifteen times the previous year. When they were on their own, away from the main group as we walked around a monument or wandered around the country-side and were encouraged to take photos of the beautiful scenery, and when they were drawn into more detailed conversation about their lives, guides looked over their shoulders as they spoke, literally looked around and over their shoulders. There was a double-problem for those of us keen to search out the contradictions, peer through the cracks, try to look behind the scenes. One aspect of this double-problem was the deliberate staging of what we would see as foreground and at the edges, and the other aspect was the insidious layering of deception on self-deception, protection of the image of the DPRK and self-protection of those who might be punished for leaking something else between the lines. We kept in mind two warnings, and you should too.

Deception

The first warning is in the Russian documentary about the DPRK available on Netflix called Under the Sun. It is, yes, a rather hypocritical exposé from the vantage point of the Putin regime that itself relies on a muddling of truth and lies to cover over its full-blown embrace of the free-market, but anyway what we see in the documentary is a chilling staging of ‘everyday life’. It transpires that the father does not actually work in the factory he is shown in, and neither does the mother work with the bemused colleagues she is shown chatting and joking with. The cheap trick the Russian crew pull as they film these encounters is to keep swapping the memory cards in their recording equipment and to keep the cameras rolling between and after scenes. So, we see father giving wise guidance to his workers referring to grading of textiles, and then him being instructed by the minders to specify the cloth weight in more detail. They tell him how. The scene is re-shot. We see mother being given an award for hard work, and then, between takes, her colleagues being told to laugh more, with more enthusiasm. We see the family having dinner, and the father telling his daughter that she is at a good school, and then, as the camera keeps recording, the minder coming into shot to tell him to say it again, but to say it is a great school. When the parents tuck the daughter up at night it is not in her own bed, but one readied for her by the DPRK production team. Seeing is not believing, and it is not even clear what they themselves believe.

The second warning is to be found in the South Korean Suki Kim’s 2014 account of working in a Christian college on the outskirts of Pyongyang Without You There Is No Us: My Time with the Sons of North Korea’s Elite. Suki Kim gets into the college by posing as a teacher, and the college itself keeps going in the DPRK by promising not to evangelise to the students, the crème de la crème of Pyongyang high society being groomed for leadership roles in the regime. This itself is profoundly paradoxical, for Christianity as such is a no-no in the DPRK, the religion practically wiped out after the regime was instituted back in 1948. Pyongyang had actually been a cultural centre for Christianity in Asia, known in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as the ‘Jerusalem of the East’. The regime now hedges round this history and its legacy in claims that Christians do participate in one of the two minor political parties, the Korean Social Democratic Party, and tourists are sometimes even taken to a church to prove how open and tolerant things are. The other minor party, the long-standing Chondoist Chongu Party which brings together followers of Confucian and Shamanist Chondoism, had at one time during peasant uprisings in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries more members than the Communist Party and was an important base for resistance to the Japanese occupation. These two minor parties now participate in the Democratic Front for the Reunification of the Fatherland led by the KWP. Other parties did also once contest elections, including one party which represented Buddhists, but these were already hollow shells.

We visited a Buddhist Temple in mountains in the north-east of the country and a couple of monks wandered around. It was here that we first saw evidence of the increase in internal tourism – mainly wealthy Pyongyangites come to see their country cousins – and they dressed up in the Buddhist regalia to have their photos taken. At another site a guide had apparently made the mistake of greeting one of the ‘monks’ as ‘comrade’, an embarrassing slip which threatened to blow the gaff, to reveal to the tourists that these orange-robed guys are actually dressed up for the part, part of the regime, not Buddhists at all.

Back to Suki Kim’s account of teaching the elite, one in which she becomes increasingly demoralised as it becomes clear that she cannot believe one word the boys say, whether that is what they think about the regime or what they did that morning. She can see with her own eyes that they were out on one side of the campus when they tell her they have been somewhere else. In some cases it might be that they simply do not know what the right answer is and are filling in the blanks for a curious foreigner asking awkward questions. There were some awkward moments also for us in the same vein.

We visited a museum in the north-east of the country devoted to Mother Kim Jong-suk, Kim Il-sung’s wife, mother of next in line for the leadership, the rather more seedy-looking dark-spectacled Kim Jong-il. We were told by the local guide that Kim Jong-suk gave birth to Kim Jong-il in 1942, and the common story here is that Kim Jong-il was born in Mount Paektu, the ur-site of the Korean nation celebrated interminably in the popular song ‘We’ll go to Mount Peaktu’ – the refrain came up from the streets in the middle of the night, to encourage the workers working on the bridge, we were told, and recurred in every school-child performance, including by the three year old creepy automatons being trained for later work on dance and Karoake shows for tourists in the restaurants. Kim Jong-il was actually born in the Soviet Union, which makes more sense since this is where Kim Il-sung was then regrouping the liberation forces before 1948. We were then told that Kim Jong-suk died in 1949, a year after the liberation and formation of the DPRK, and we noticed that this was incredibly young, age 32. Awkward question for the guide; I asked ‘how did she die?’ and was told, after some blushing and shuffling of feet, that this was ‘unknown’. Another guide later answered the question by saying she died as a result of complications in the birth of Kim Jong-il, but then this would mean she took seven years to die. Look, the issue here is not only the lies as such, not what is concealed, but the very process of concealment. All of the paintings of Kim Jong-suk in the museum showed her smiling, none of the photos showed her so. We could not be sure in what sense the first encounter between Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-suk was, as was claimed, love at first sight.

None of the guides knew whether Kim Jong-un, Kim Jong-il’s fourth child by one of his lovers, was married or not (he is, to Ri Sol-ju) nor whether he had any children (he has at least one, Kim Ju-ae, and perhaps two others, though it is not clear if these were by his wife). Not a whisper about the wives chosen for Kim Jong-il by Supreme Leader Kim Il-sung, let alone the lovers, and not a hint, of course, about Kim Jong-il’s first-born Kim Jong-nam who was heir-apparent until he made a botched attempt to visit Disneyland in Japan in 2001 and met his maker in Kuala Lumpur International Airport sixteen years later. You won’t find this information online in the DPRK because in place of the internet there is a closed-circuit ‘intranet’, the Kwangmyong. We were shown students busy on computers in Schoolchildren’s Palaces and Houses of Study, but they were either working on the smart-art paint-shop software or watching online study programmes. In some cases the kids arrived in the room after us to take their places in front of the screens, and we had to persuade ourselves that they had always already been making use of the generous electronic resources. We were shown foreign-language books available for study, which included Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets and the Diary of Anne Frank. Who chose those to show us, and who were they hoping to impress?

For the elite things are a little different, perhaps a little closer to what we were being shown, but perhaps actually very different from what we were being shown. Linkedin recently published data showing that that social media platform is still the medium of choice for wealthy North Koreans, even though they are migrating from Facebook to Chinese sites like Weibo and Alibaba. Although there is no internet access for the ordinary folk and the poor tourists, and no international phone link outside Pyongyang, there are four different kinds of mobile phone SIM card, one of which will give complete international access to data. That is not for the little people.

This is the kind of thing that was maddening for Suki Kim in the Christian college. She does not know who or what to believe by the end of her time there. Or perhaps we should not believe what Suki Kim says, and mark her account down as imperialist propaganda. Maybe she is the one telling the lies. You cannot believe what you see or hear, whoever it is who is showing or telling you. Welcome to the DPRK.

Repression

1948 was a military victory, the DPRK could have been born in no other circumstances at that time, at that place, and the military are at the core of the regime. Questions to the local guides and minders about compulsory military service were also awkward, opening out onto awkward silences and a refusal or inability to answer the direct question about how long it was. Eventually, we were told that that was a ‘secret’. Later I said that I had heard that it was nine years, and another guide told me that some friends had served two and some had served seven years. A younger guide who was not, it seems, yet a KWP member because he had not done his military service had escaped it because, he said, if you were a ‘genius’ you were excused; if you had learnt Chinese or English that would be useful for tourism work – a significant choice of example – it would be a shame, he said, if that knowledge was then lost or time wasted.

Go to work and get married. We were told that divorce was rare, and difficult, though not so, it seems, for the Kim dynasty. On one occasion, a figure of 0.5 percent was cited for divorce in the DPRK, and this was contrasted with the south where it was, we were told, 50 percent. One guide had a friend whose wife had gone back to live with her mother five years ago, but she had not been able to divorce her husband. The husband had apparently been controlling rather than directly violent. We were told that Korean men are ‘intense’ and want to be in charge in the home. There are no domestic violence services or refuges. The DPRK authorities claim that the number of rape-convictions per year is in single-figures, so no problem there. This goes against recent Human Rights Watch research which documents widespread sexual abuse by officials alongside general repression. A foreign aid worker with nearly ten years experience inside the DPRK told me that military service was hell, and this is aside from the network of camps for those who have fallen out of line. The notorious camp in Hoeryong in the north-east has reportedly been closed, but there are others scattered around the country in rural areas. We saw prisoners wearing striped clothing working on the railroad supervised by guards, but then that is not such a big deal if prisoners have been put to work after a fair trial.

There are no lawyers, questions about legal training were met with incomprehension. You do not need lawyers to complicate the process when you have an efficient justice system. There are no lesbians or gay men in the DPRK, they simply do not exist, they are a Western phenomenon, and so it is unnecessary to have laws against them. I asked about mental health provision. The good news is that there no mental hospitals or even old asylums. The bad news is that when I asked what happened to people with such problems, my question was met with another question, ‘prison?’ In all my time in the DPRK travelling through thousands of kilometres of road in the countryside and in cities and walking the streets, I saw only two wheelchair users, elderly men who could both have been honoured war veterans, and no disabled people or with Down syndrome. Difference is erased, invisible at least from public space. An INGO worker told me that services for the elderly are almost non-existent, even if the official retirement age is 60.

There are different internal passports. The right passport will get you quickly waved through the numerous checkpoints in the countryside or through police checks in Pyongyang, the wrong one will see you held up, repeatedly held up. One passport, for Chinese-Koreans, is quite useful now because that not only marks you as a registered minority – this in spite of claims that Koreans constitute a homogeneous pure nation – but as a minority with access to trade networks. Chinese-Koreans, along with the elite – I was shown photos of sleek DPRK citizens in Beijing restaurants – travel abroad, surf backwards and forwards across the border. Russian as a second-language in schools has now been replaced by Chinese and English. Another passport, for Japanese-Koreans, is more problematic. Those who were lured to the DPRK with the promise of a better life, and as themselves following through on critical reception of Japanese propaganda, understandable reaction to the blatant lies told against the DPRK in Japan, were useful for a while, but now they are suspect, tracked, many regretting the move, displaced and marginalised.

Socialism

In one of the middle schools a group of school-girls, running out of questions, asked me what my favourite colour was. I said ‘red’. ‘Why?’, they asked. ‘Because I am a communist’, I said. Blank looks, nothing. It was in their living memory, surely, that there were statues of Marx and Lenin in Pyongyang, but those monuments were ‘temporarily’ removed for refurbishment in 2012 and never replaced. The word ‘socialism’ still appears in the constitution of the DPRK and in the little books of Kim Jong-un’s aphorisms as well, of course, in the writings of Kim Jong-il and Kim Il-sung, texts that cannot be so quickly and easily erased, but Marxism itself has been explicitly replaced, transcended by Kim Il-sung’s own guiding philosophy, one signalled in many of the slogans on the public buildings and on the roadsides as ‘Juche’. The tallest stone tower in Pyongyang is the Juche Idea Tower, topped with a glowing red ersatz flame, but if you ask what exactly Juche is you won’t get any further than a statement that it means ‘self-reliance’, and if you trawl through the books about Juche on sale in the souvenir shops you are led in circles around the same kind of claim. While Marxism is concerned with the ‘material’, a guide told me when I pressed, Juche is concerned with thought. ‘So, it is idealist’, I said, and she agreed, yes, of course, it is idealist, and so it is.

Juche means that we can do anything if we are self-reliant. This is socialism in one country gone mad. We are not subject to the ‘material’, but can alter it, and it is ‘man’ who will carve out a destiny for himself, making the world, the natural and social world, serve man better. The little pamphlet Juche Idea: Answers to Hundred Questions published by the Foreign Languages Publishing House and dated the year Juche 101 (that is 2012 Western calendar, that is, 101 years after the birth of Kim Il-sung) tells us that ‘man is the master of everything’. But there is a twist. If you think of society as being like a giant organism, the pamphlet continues, and this is no mere ‘as if’ metaphor being evoked here for we are directly told that homogeneous Korean society is an organism, then there must be a ‘brain’ guiding it. That brain is the leadership, a ‘top brain’ as the pamphlet puts it. Everything is explicitly hierarchical, top-down.

Some of the stranger formulations by the guides on the coach in the north-east now began to make more sense. They would tell us, for example, that Kim Jong-il ‘read the mind of the people’, discovered what they wanted, and then directed them to build a road, and so they did, or that Kim Jong-un ‘read the mind of the people’ and, in line with that, advised them to build a new monument to Kim Jong-il and Kim Il-sung. It is not clear whether the guide really believed this as he said it, and there were moments when he looked a little embarrassed telling us, telling us while the other guide, his minder, a KWP member, watched him. Alongside Juche runs the repetitive ridiculous evocation of Mount Paektu as mythical point of origin, part of the same nationalist ideological package.

You can get into the DPRK as a Christian, as Suki Kim’s college outfit clearly shows, and they are probably playing a long game, but you have to keep shtum about it. You declare what cameras and phones you have at the border as well as what foreign publications you have on you, and you are specifically asked if you are carrying any Holy Bibles. We were told by one foreign guide – and even the foreign guides are accompanied by local guides, remember – that a Christian tour group recently visited, declared their Holy Bibles at customs, had them signed in and then signed the same number out. The local guides were apparently bemused by this, commented that it was downright strange that there was all this singing on the coach about baby Jesus; ‘Well’, our foreign guide telling us this story, commented, ‘I wanted to say, what does that mindless adulation remind you of?’

Juche looks at first sight like a quasi-spiritual belief system, and then it would be tempting to treat the DPRK population as bewitched followers of some kind of cult, attributing their leaders with supernatural powers. That seemed to be the Michael Palin line as he gently pushed his interviewees to admit to some possible faults in their leaders or shortcomings of the system, things that could be fixed, perhaps with a little dose of democratic freedom. Actually, the ‘Juche Idea’ texts and the garbled repetition of key phrases by the embarrassed guides would rather indicate that it is the kind of belief system that works because everyone is assuming that everyone else plays along with it; no more than that, but no less powerful for that.

Transition

What the turn to Juche as a full-blown alternative to Marxism does indicate, among other things, is that full-blown transition to capitalism is on the way. The leadership are preparing for this, and, whether they read the minds of the people or not, there are plenty lower down the food chain who are itching for it, even already carving out a space for it. One of the guides discovered that one of our tour group was involved in company research and asked for contacts for foreign investment options to help build a local tourism and hotel business. The same guide also made a proposal of marriage to another member of the group, noting that he very much liked the country she came from, and so he was clearly keeping his options open.

This guy was pretty symptomatic of the rising entrepreneurial middle class. He described his father as a ‘businessman’, and was puzzled when I was puzzled that there could be such things in a socialist economy. He told me his dad ran an ‘import-export’ business. For people like this, I was told, membership of the KWP is actually viewed nowadays as rather a hindrance. The good moral standing of KWP members and the moral surveillance and regulation of their lives that goes with it, inhibit the construction of more opportunist networks of money and power, networks that tie the two things together. These two elements of DPRK life are intimately intertwined. Without money in the DPRK there is no power, and without power there is no money. In the DPRK now that is Chinese money, the currency of choice for most business being the RMB rather than the North Korean Won.

Many of the little kiosks along the side of the road and at the base of apartment blocks operating as little corner shops were private enterprises, loosened from state control by oiling their way to greater entrepreneurial freedom of manoeuvre by giving kickbacks to those immediately above them in the chain of command. We were told not to take photos of the large supermarket where middle-class Pyongangites were doing their weekly shop, and there was clearly bulk buying going on, loaded trolleys of goods that would then be taken to other smaller outlets and sold at a profit. There were well-stocked shops in Pyongyang selling a range of consumer goods – in the department store there was a furniture range called ‘IKEA’ – enterprises that the regime would prefer not be widely advertised outside the country; no photos of that please, we are socialist. I took a photo of a little shop selling kitsch fluffy toys in the ground floor of a large block on the way up to a restaurant and the shop-worker raced out and forced me to delete the photo. The shop was a franchise of a Japanese store chain operating illegally.

The existence of private enterprises of any kind was denied when I asked another guide, a KWP member, about them. ‘No’, she said, there is no private enterprise; these apparently private firms are all, finally, part of the state. And there is some truth in this. There is a loosening of the internal economic gear system, a preparation for fuller more explicit privatisation of enterprises, but as yet the decisive shift has not been made. This, while Kim Jong-un makes it clear that the DPRK would like to join the World Trade Organisation, and will abide by its rules, rules which we well know will entail privatisation of state organs of production and distribution along with education and welfare services. The question is not whether it will happen but when, how it will happen and how that process will be embraced or resisted by the masses of people who will lose so much when they might think that they are simply gaining more freedom.

Reunification

For all this, for all of the restricted access to the showcase educational facilities which are geared to gifted children, for all of the limitations on consumer choice, this is a political-economic system that has kept going as a space snatched away from the capitalist global economy, maintaining itself longer than did the Chinese regime as a socialised property regime, if not actually socialist, if but a bureacratised parody of what socialism should and could be. It is the longest-lasting non-capitalist space on the planet, and the key question is, when the regime falls, whether it will be to a more genuinely socialist democratic self-consciously organised Korean working class that looks outwards to make international links, or whether it will it fall inward, collapse Ceaușescu-style into a desperate competitive and nationalist grasping for goods, a grotesque parody of capitalism.

The bizarre fantasy peddled by the DPRK leadership is that rapprochement of some kind with the south will make it possible for there to be, as they repeatedly put it, ‘one nation, two systems’; capitalism in the south of the 38th parallel, though this is never actually named as such, as capitalism, and socialism in the north, socialism under erasure and already replaced with a self-reliant Juche regime still governed by whoever is the designated ‘top brain’. Kim Jong-un, educated in Switzerland and fond of Gruyere cheese, is probably putting his bets on a transition to soft symbolic rule in which there is a shift of balance between power and money, from brute power as such to money as a medium by which one can buy a freer life for oneself and one’s kids.

At the ‘mass games’ in the 115,000-capacity Rungrado 1st of May Stadium in October 2018, a proud acrobatic and musical display of DPRK history that commemorated 70 years of the regime, one that involved 17,000 Middle-School kids behind the display screens and 100,000 performers, there was a symbolically significant moment towards the end, a culmination point. A giant video image was screened across the side of the stadium showing Respected Marshal Kim Jong-un stepping over the DMZ line that divides north and south to shake hands with President Moon Jae-in of the Republic of Korea (ROK). What was curious about this crucial element of the display was not that there was applause, but that it was not more enthusiastic, not the ecstatic embrace of reunification that the official narrative would have it. It is quite possible that the toll of the years of separation and the cynicism of a people subjected to quasi-military discipline and surveillance is too heavy now for it to be so easily remedied. There is, I was told by one INGO aid worker, widespread resentment at the elite as well as widespread depression and stress. His bet was that if people had a chance they would string up the ruling family and care nothing about links with their compatriots south of the DMZ line.

This would be a betrayal of the history of struggle that gave birth to the DPRK and to the ROK. Indeed, the achievements of the Korean people in the north have already been betrayed. As Suzy Kim underlines in her 2013 study Everyday Life in the North Korean Revolution, 1945-1950, the people’s committees across the peninsula functioned until quite late on in the revolutionary process as self-governing organs of popular rule. These committees functioned at a local level and mobilised the mass of the population in political-educational projects as well as operating as distribution centres under democratic control with active involvement of women on an equal basis with men. The incorporation of the people’s committees into the DPRK state apparatus was much smoother than in the south were they were forcibly dismantled and many of the key activists imprisoned. This, Kim argues, helps explain how the DPRK regime gained much more popular legitimacy than the Syngman Rhee dictatorship.

For all of the problems in the north – democratic deficit being the least of it – it must be set in the context of the ROK to the south which has lurched from military regime to military regime interrupted by the April 1960 student uprising, mass protests in 1970 and the Gwangju massacre in May 1980. The war against the Japanese and then the US – the Korean War of 1950-1953 – were national liberation struggles which involved the overthrow of capitalism and consolidation against all odds of an infrastructure that could now be collectively seized by the people in what will undoubtedly be a dramatic transformation, perhaps, we hope, entailing what Trotskyists have traditionally referred to as ‘political revolution’ against the bureaucracy.

It is the history of popular protest and democratic self-organisation that links the people of the north of the Korean peninsula, with those in the south. Those in the south, temporarily perhaps, now have more room for manoeuvre than their comrades north of the DMZ line. The real revolutionary dynamic for reunification and the building of a genuinely socialist Korea is more likely to come from the south than from the north. Then the top-down Juche system and the ideological veneration of Mount Paektu will need to be swept away in a return to something much closer to the Marxism that underpinned those progressive independence movements in the first half of the twentieth century. A leap into the past will be necessary to really make possible a leap into the future.

Gary Rabectusan

 

This is one of the Socialisms series of FIIMG articles

 

 

BRITAIN: AGAINST AUSTERITY, BREXIT AND FORTRESS EUROPE

Britain is in the midst of a profound political crisis around the question of how to navigate ‘Brexit’. The outcome of the EU referendum in 2016 now sets the coordinates for the main political parties, none of which wanted the result, ‘leave’. The Liberal Democrats pushed for a referendum that they were sure would endorse ‘remain’ as a tactical manoeuvre within their coalition with the Conservative Party, and the Conservative Party split over the issue, a split that has led to recent ministerial resignations at the rate of more than one every six weeks. The Labour Party campaigned for ‘remain’, but cautiously so, with Jeremy Corbyn, the Party’s new radical leader, elected the year before, quite rightly responding to a journalist question about his enthusiasm for the EU that he was about ‘7 out of 10’ in favour of it.

Corbyn recognises well that the EU is a neoliberal power-bloc intent on privatisation, and very willing to collude with the US over trade deals like the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership which would have put the National Health Service and other welfare bodies in jeopardy. Socialist Resistance, the Fourth International in Britain, called for a ‘remain’ vote because the polarised debate was characterised by an intensification of xenophobia, an analysis that was confirmed by an increase in racist attacks immediately after the result was announced.

The election of Corbyn as Labour Party leader opened up new possibilities for resistance to austerity, with the Party increasing its membership, mainly among young newly-politicised activists, to over half a million; it is now the largest mass-membership social democratic party in Europe. This has had consequences for activists, including those from Socialist Resistance, who were active in the small ‘left of Labour’ party Left Unity (which was formed after a call by Ken Loach to defend the National Health Service as one of the historic gains of the working class). There are some marginal groups of revolutionaries who still stand outside Labour giving advice to Corbyn, but the main struggle now is inside the Party.

Members of Socialist Resistance are active in a new formation inside the party ‘Red Green Labour’ which takes forward ecosocialist politics that characterise the Fourth International in Britain. This was a distinctive political position that enables us to connect with anti-fracking movements and a range of other pan-European and international projects building the basis for a sustainable socialist future.

Corbyn is pitted against a right-wing Party apparatus that is intent on sabotaging his leadership. In the most recent Conservative ministerial crisis over the negotiations with the EU (in which Minister for Brexit David Davis and Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson both resigned), leading anti-Corbyn MPs spoke against a General Election, calling for support for Prime Minister Theresa May. There are calls for a second referendum and, on the left, for a ‘People’s Vote’. The priority now is to transform this call into a General Election and a vote for Corbyn. This is what Socialist Resistance is mobilising for as part of the Labour Party in England, while operating independently in Scotland (where our comrades have consistently called for independence and the weakening of the British State).

Corbyn spoke at the demonstration in London on 13 July protesting against the visit of Donald Trump, and in this mass mobilisation which brought together 250,000 people in London and many thousands more around the country, it was clear that many participants made a direct connection between Brexit and Trump. This was a demonstration against xenophobia and for free movement of peoples. Our struggle against austerity and for democratic rights for workers to organise takes place in sectors of industry; in catering and cleaning, for example, where migrant workers from Europe and beyond its borders are a significant part of the workforce.

The fight against Trump, and for a left-Labour government under Corbyn, is inextricably bound up with the defence of workers’ rights, and for links across Europe, and beyond Europe. Most of those who voted ‘remain’ in the EU referendum voted for this spirit of international solidarity that also breaks beyond the limits placed by ‘Fortress Europe’. It is only on that basis that the left can change the political coordinates, from xenophobia to a united struggle against austerity.

 

You can read this again in French here