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John Riddell: Democracy in Lenin's Comintern

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Financial Appeal

We're up and running! An appeal for funds to kickstart the IS Network

Financial Appeal

Greece: a coalition of left and right?


Greece: a coalition of left and right?

by Stuart King

What are we to make of the new Syriza led government in Greece? Within six hours of becoming the largest party in parliament it announced a government coalition with a right-wing anti-immigrant party – the Independent Greeks (ANEL).

Yet at the same time the first cabinet meeting announced a series of measures the international left could only dream about – suspending privatisation plans, re-instating sacked public sector workers, raising the minimum wage, providing free electricity to the poor, restoring collective trade union rights, extending health insurance to the third of Greeks living without it.

The European left rightly greeted the Syriza electoral victory with jubilation. Everybody who has watched and read about the disastrous impact of the EU imposed austerity measures on the life of ordinary Greeks could only cheer as an avowedly anti-austerity party came to power; one promising to end the misery that since 2008 has seen the economy shrink by 25%, has halved many peoples wages and seen unemployment levels rise to 25%, with youth unemployment anywhere between 50-60%, producing widespread poverty, debt and despair in the country.

It is not just a Greek victory that we are looking for. Greece can be the starting point for the rolling back of austerity measures across Europe, starting with the countries most deeply traumatised by these policies – Spain, Portugal and Ireland – and quickly spreading to the rest of Europe. The stakes could not be higher.

Why the coalition?

ANEL's Kammenos
Panos Kammenos of ANEL

None of this jubilation should make us blind to the problems of the new government or silent about them. Most socialists were shocked when they heard about the alliance with ANEL. And we should not hide it – it has damaged Syriza’s reputation and made winning the solidarity that Syriza needs from the left in Europe more difficult to achieve.

Many of us went to the recent London Greek Solidarity rally at Congress House (reported elsewhere on the LU site) expecting some explanation as to why Syriza had entered this coalition. There was very little said beyond one of the speakers saying we should blame the Greek Communist Party (KKE) not Syriza. Yet this argument does not hold up. Certainly the KKE is well known for its extreme sectarianism towards Syriza and the rest of the Greek left and was never going to join a Syriza led government. However there was nothing to stop Syriza forming a minority government something it was constitutionally allowed to do, and putting its immediate legislative programme to the parliament. Syriza is only two votes short of a majority and all the other parties would have to combine in a vote of no confidence to trigger a new election – a very unlikely prospect.

The coalition with the Independent Greeks is likely to be short lived. ANEL is a deeply unpleasant and racist, right-wing party that split from the conservative New Democracy over the terms of the Eurozone debt bail out. It is anti-German, anti-immigrant and a staunch supporter of the Greek Orthodox Church and its privileged position within the Greek state. Already Syriza has had to abandon its promise to separate church from state, not an unimportant issue in a country where last year a young man was sentenced to ten months in prison for satirising a deceased Greek Orthodox Monk on his Facebook page.

The prime basis of its coalition with Syriza is an agreement to campaign against the debt agreement made by the last government with the “Troika” – the Eurozone, IMF and ECB. It is not clear how far ANEL is willing to go along with all the economic promises made in Syriza’s emergency Thessaloniki Programme (see ) which Syriza has started to implement.

Challenging the EU

Its first week in office has seen Syriza taking immediate measures to alleviate poverty, debt and the tax burden on the working class and small farmers. It has, despite its coalition with ANEL, proposed giving citizenship rights to children of immigrants born in Greece (Obama granted something similar recently in the USA). Promptly fulfilling of its immediate programme is vital to show to its base and electoral supporters that it is capable of delivering on its promises.

Indeed there are some important lessons for Left Unity from Greece on how to organise ourselves. In the past period Syriza has built up an impressive network of support, not just by electioneering, but by its members being involved at every level in helping working class Greeks survive the ravages of austerity. Its involvement in the Solidarity for All movement of food banks, cooperatives and community organisation is just one example. Its national campaign for the laid-off Finance Ministry cleaners, the “revolt of the rubber gloves”, was another. Now it needs deliver to, and mobilise this movement in its struggle with the Troika – bringing the trade unionised workers, the small farmers, the communities, youth and unemployed into an organised mass movement that can defend and push forward a government in struggle with the IMF, the banks and the Eurocrats.

We should be in no doubt that the Syriza government has taken on a huge struggle. Much of its economic programme, including the measures already announced, rely for their financing on debt relief. If Greece wasn’t loaded down with paying off an impossible €320 billion in debt and the interest that goes with it, it would be running a budget surplus – it would therefore not have to make the massive cutbacks, swinging tax increases and sell offs of public property the EU is demanding of it. But the Troika is in no mood to offer debt relief fearing “contagion”, with other countries like Spain and Portugal demanding the same.

Syriza has already signalled that it is ready for compromise in its renegotiation of the debt. During the election campaign there was talk of demanding that 50% of the debt be written off but the new Finance Minister, Yanis Varoufakis, stated in a Radio 4 interview on the day after the election "We will create a rational plan for our debt restructure so that austerity ends; [We are not talking about writing off 50% of the nominal debt] - this [earlier statement] was just a bit of posturing from our side ahead of the negotiation. What really matters is that we now sit down and discuss a way in which the haircut to our debt is minimized. We do not want to pay back less than we can, but what we are saying is, [that] this debt repayment schedule, as we have in the moment, is completely unrealistic and utterly disconnected from Greek growth.”

Who holds the cards?

The question in any negotiation is “who holds the cards?” In this case the Troika has a powerful hand to resist the demands of the Greek people. Already they have put the standard measures into play they use against any debtor nation. There is a run on the banks as rich Greeks and businesses move their euros to safer countries notably Germany, building up euro liabilities for the central bank. The credit agencies are threatening to downgrade Greek debt pushing up interest rates on loans and bonds. The Troika itself is threatening to withhold its next tranche of loans and quantitative easing measures unless Greece sticks to its agreements.

But the Eurozone itself has reasons to compromise. The austerity programme has been shown to be a complete failure not only in Greece but throughout the Eurozone, leading to low growth, stagnation and potential deflation. There are powerful voices advocating a loosening of austerity to try and promote growth. There are political risk factors as well. The Euro leaders know that imposing harsh austerity in Greece has destroyed the parties they relied on for support. While Greece might be small, similar events could take place in Spain and even France with the anti-EU Front National riding high in electoral polls. The combination of far right and left parties coming to power and challenging the euro austerity policies and the union itself is the EU leaders’ worst nightmare and one they want to avoid at all costs.

This is why solidarity movements with the Greek people struggle against austerity are so important. The Greek Solidarity movement in London has done excellent work to bring the importance of Greece before the trade union movement on the basis that their fight is our fight too. A European wide campaign of support, especially in Germany and Spain, is absolutely essential to strengthen the Greek people in their struggle against austerity.

We should support the Syriza led government in every action they take that is in the interest of the Greek workers. At the same time we should reserve the right to criticise and ask questions where we think they are going wrong, as in the case of a coalition with ENAL. But we do it always as unconditional friends and supporters of the Greek struggle against austerity.

Syriza has chosen to try and work within the parliamentary and EU system to end austerity and transform Greece for the better. It is a political project that of necessity will lead to many compromises and retreats on policy. Many of us on the anti-capitalist wing of Left Unity believe that real change in Greece will only come about with a radical break from the system of capitalism. As the struggle unfolds in Greece we hope the masses themselves will take the fight against austerity into their own hands, establishing an anti-capitalist, workers government that can defeat austerity, bringing about fundamental change and providing a beacon for a United Socialist Europe.

This article first appeared on the Left Unity site


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Democratic revolution and the Arab Spring: addressing the myth of permanent revolution in Egypt

A recent article by the Revolutionary Left Current (RLC), a Trotskyite microsect with some members in Syria and abroad, entitled ‘The revolutionary left processes caught in the grip of reactionary forces’, strongly articulates some of the problems with the general take of traditional leftist forces to the ‘Arab revolutions’. Moreover, it starkly displays why the theory of ‘permanent revolution’, which was a genuine attempt by Trotsky in particular historic circumstances to establish a sociology of revolution, is now wielded as a dogmatic filter through which reality is squeezed – a mode of mere self-justification rooted in the mentality and posturing of the sect.

The actualities and material realities of the ‘Arab revolutions’ therefore play second fiddle to what is now, by any standard, an anachronistic dogma. If the left is to keep itself relevant as any kind of meaningfully ‘internationalist’ force, which is a big if, it has to engage with reality and the world as it is, as opposed to how it wants it to be. The dominant trends of the left when it comes to relating to the so-called ‘Arab spring’ have been either reactionary campism, wherein revolutionary forces and movements are subordinated to invariably vacuous ‘geopolitical’ stratagems rooted in the simplistic, binary worldview of Stalinism, or in the aforementioned sectish obsessions with ‘permanent revolution’, wherein revolutionary forces and movements are discarded, ignored and ultimately subordinated to dogmatic self-vindication.

For the purposes of brevity, I will only deal with the part of the article that deals with Egypt, but the authors’ erroneous take on the situation in Egypt, and the underlying ‘theoretical’ mechanics behind such error, applies to their take on all of the Arab revolutions. Moreover, I’ll also use this article to make general observations about the way these leftist forces have reacted to and interacted with the Arab revolutions. It should also be noted that this isn’t some mere theoretical quarrel – the authors of this article, the RLC, following their Revolutionary Socialist (RS) comrades in Egypt, were one of the loudest supporters of the counterrevolutionary Tamarod movement and the June 30 protests that led to the overthrow of the Egyptian democracy and the murderously brutal mass repression that is now being inflicted mostly on supporters of the democratically elected president Mohamed Morsi, but also on any dissenting forces, regardless of ideology.

This is important because it’s precisely these errors that led both RLC and their comrades, for all their pontificating about ‘reactionaries’ and their mass denunciations of ‘counterrevolutionaries’, to uncritically and enthusiastically support the counterrevolutionary forces in Egypt – right up to and indeed after the bodies started dropping. Indeed, as late as July 17, 2013, the RLC, once again mirroring their comrades in the RS, were calling the events of July 3 ‘a people’s revolution’. Moreover, while they briefly acknowledging and condemning the, erm, ‘murders committed against [the Muslim Brotherhood] by the army’, they were still massively optimistic about the overthrowing of democracy by a movement supported by every counterrevolutionary force in the country, from the former members and political remnants of Mubarak’s National Democratic Party (NDP) to high level members of the security forces. They even signed the piece off with ‘Viva the permanent revolution’. Oddly enough, they don’t mention any of this in the current article.

To put it as starkly as possible: in the eyes of the authors of this article, the democratic election of Morsi and his transitional government equated to a counterrevolution, while the overthrow of democracy by the most reactionary force in the country equated to a ‘revolution’. This isn’t merely topsy-turvy; it’s political insanity. So, while they have the barefaced audacity to say that the Muslim Brotherhood have not ‘made a deep self-criticism of its period in power’, which they classify as ‘authoritarian’ and ‘counterrevolutionary’, which I can only assume is how they characterise winning democratic elections and attempting to balance transitional democratic governance against a fundamentally anti-democratic ‘deep state’, they themselves have clearly not reflected at all on the folly that led to them supporting the actual counterrevolution.

As I mentioned before, the folly in question is mainly shaped by an adherence to the dogma of ‘permanent revolution’, but this is itself absorbed by the wider cliquishness, itself shaped by elitism, which afflicts the liberal and left forces that have been active in and around the Arab revolutions. The fundamental contradiction for these forces in Egypt was that while they were the ones who were media savvy, who had blogs and maintained websites, and who had a good relationship with certain sections of the regional and western media networks, this is pretty much all they had. Their participation in the January 25 revolution was mostly defined by all of this, but they had absolutely no social base whatsoever.

So, when this context is combined with their adherence to ‘permanent revolution’, which states that no revolution can be ‘complete’ or even a genuine revolution unless it is ‘socialist’, the reasons why these forces supported the counterrevolution should become a bit clearer. Nowhere in any of their output is the corresponding notion of democracy, and the notion of the Arab revolutions as national democratic revolutions against ‘secular’ tyrannies, taken as anything other than a mechanism of counterrevolution.

In Tunisia, the successful creation of a multi-party democratic system and the subsequent elections in which the Tunisian people participated freely, is treated as some sort of counterrevolutionary side show to these great movements of reaction, whether it’s the Islamists of Ennadha or the former regime forces of Nidaa Tounis, the two largest democratic forces in the country. It’s perfectly true that from a socialist perspective neither of these forces is particularly progressive, but then these are the forces that the Tunisian people, the people who overthrew Ben Ali, have chosen, namely because the revolution against Ben Ali was a national democratic ‘bourgeois’ one and not a socialist one. It’s one thing to make arguments against these forces from the left, but to term them as ‘counterrevolutionary’ somewhat misses the point.

The dimensions of this error in Tunisia are such that they can merely be dismissed as an inanity, but in Egypt, the error of selectively dismissing non-socialist forces, in particular, the democratically elected president Mohamed Morsi and the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP - the political wing of the Muslim Brotherhood) as ‘counterrevolutionary’, led these forces to enthusiastically support counterrevolution as ‘revolution’, while, to be crude about it, providing a small amount of ‘left cover’ to these mass counterrevolutionary forces. Indeed, one might go as far to say that these forces, overlapping with reactionary liberals and nationalists, as they did with the organisation known as Tamarod, came to see the post-January 25 democracy itself as ‘counterrevolutionary’; hence these later accusations that the parliamentary elections of 2011-2012, of which the FJP won by a landslide, and the subsequent victory of Morsi against the counterrevolutionary candidacy of Ahmed Shafik in the presidential election of 2012, were ‘fake’ and ‘unrepresentative’, which was the raison d’etre of the entire Tamarod campaign.

It’s here that the aforementioned elitism and cliquishness comes into play more decisively. The fact that the forces that the authors of this article see as being genuinely ‘revolutionary’ were extremely marginal was made flesh by the institution of a democratic system in the post-January 25 period. When for the first time millions of Egyptians cast their votes in these elections, these left forces gained absolutely no electoral representation, mainly because they themselves represent no one on the national level. The millions of Egyptians who voted and participated in the democratic elections did not appear out of nowhere – they were the ones who also participated in and supported the revolution against Mubarak. Indeed, they were the solid base of the revolution. The problem was that while the focus was on ‘The Square’, these media savvy and connected Cairene activists, with all their rhetoric, could hold forth, but when it came to the actualities of what was a national democratic revolution, they literally melted away into irrelevance. Given the chance, the Egyptian people overwhelmingly voted for what was the leading force, in terms of numbers, of the democratic revolution, which was the FJP.

These leftist forces gained absolutely no electoral representation in the parliamentary elections – the main opposition to the FJP was the Salafist Hizb al-Nour, the pro-military national liberals of Al-Wafd and the various different political parties that had been formed out of Mubarak’s National Democratic Party. After this, the ‘deep state’, having now to balance the maintenance of its own interests with a genuinely revolutionary democratic awakening, plunged it support into the counterrevolutionary candidacy of Ahmed Shafik in the presidential elections. Despite this, Mohamed Morsi of the FJP won a narrow but massively significant victory over Shafik in yet another victory for the democratic revolution over those forces that wanted to curtail and counter it.

It’s in the year that followed Morsi’s victory that the authors of this article have to portray the alleged rule of the Muslim Brotherhood as being ‘counterrevolutionary’ and ‘authoritarian’; indeed, the slogan was at the time that Morsi was no different than Mubarak or was merely a stooge of or collaborator with the military (others went further, of course, saying that Morsi was worse than Mubarak). Holding these positions necessarily entails a rather striking piece of cognitive dissonance – one must believe that Morsi was simultaneously the same as or no different to Mubarak, basically no threat to the ruling order, yet also worthy of the entire ‘deep state’, including every pro-Mubarak force in the country, from the security forces to the judiciary, mobilising against to overthrow. Of course, the easiest way to observe the difference between Morsi and a truly authoritarian and counterrevolutionary era is to just compare the one year of Morsi’s democratic rule, with the freedoms that this allowed, with the gravity and the brutality of the situation now after July 3 and under Al-Sisi, with even the most basic rights won during January 25 completely annihilated.

I’m not making the case that Morsi, in terms of his overall policy, represented a radical break from the politics of Mubarak, but the fact that he was a democratically elected leader who could have been removed democratically, was a genuine radical break from Mubarak, one that was, by its very existence, antagonistic to all the forces that Mubarak represented. However, in order for the authors and their comrades to fully justify their support for the counterrevolution, they had to make the case that Morsi and the ‘Muslim Brotherhood’ were somehow counterrevolutionary. On a brief side note, I put quotation marks around the name Muslim Brotherhood only because the Muslim Brotherhood were never in power. The government formed by Morsi headed by the non-politically aligned Prime Minister Hesham Qandil was, as a transitional government, mostly comprised of centrist technocrats who were neither members of the Muslim Brotherhood or the FJP. Moreover, Morsi never had majority control over any of the state apparatuses. Saying ‘the Muslim Brotherhood’, in all its sinister glory, was ‘in power’ is at the very worst a lazy overstatement and, as we have seen, at the very worst, an attempt at fearmongering.

But does the claim that Mohamed Morsi was counterrevolutionary really stand up? This once again depends on what you mean by ‘revolutionary’ in the first place, but given that the only observable dynamic of the revolution and counterrevolution in Egypt was between democratic and anti-democratic forces and not socialists and capitalists, then Morsi certainly wasn’t a counterrevolutionary of any conceivable kind. If we also remember that not one serious force in the country was calling for or capable of overthrowing the Armed Forces, then we also can’t blame Mohamed Morsi for the crime of being a civil democratic president working within the confines of the Egyptian state with the Armed Forces as a veritably praetorian ruling class, one that as an institution enjoys wide popularity among the public. Any elected force, socialist or not, would have had to reckon with the military upon what was within the limits of possibility. The different forms of antagonism that existed between Morsi and the Armed Forces are there for all to see, most notably his constant battles with the Supreme Constitutional Court, which worked on behalf of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces.

In reality, Morsi became a bête noire for all different kinds of forces in Egypt, while the anti-democratic opposition became a blank screen upon which the authors of this article and their comrades projected their own ideological obsessions and their own delusional and cliquish demands. So, June 30 and Tamarod became an uprising ‘of the working and popular classes’ against Morsi’s alleged ‘neoliberalism’, despite the fact that the main forces behind and supporting Tamarod were more neoliberal than the FJP, with the added dimension of being anti-democratic. For liberal feminists, the June 30 movement became about women’s rights (or what Trotksyites call a ‘social revolution’), despite the fact that the same forces that unleashed the rapists and sexual terrorists of the government-sponsored baltagiya (literally: hatchet men) on protesters were among the crowds that overthrew Morsi. For street vendors in Cairo, the movement became about how Morsi was responsible for the drying up of tourists, despite the fact that Morsi couldn’t control the security situation due to the dissent of the ‘deep state’. In truth, the major political forces behind Tamarod and June 30 comprised a constellation of anti-democratic actors, from within and without the state, with different motivations, but all united behind the overthrow of Morsi. The fact is that despite Morsi being socially conservative and basically supporting economic liberalism, it was the left that collapsed into the anti-democratic counterrevolutionary movement against him.

The forces that mobilised behind the Shafik campaign at first wanted to use democracy to stamp out democracy, but due to democratic awakening could not do so, so they then sought to plunge their resources into ensuring that all opposition to Morsi was contained within an anti-democratic vehicle that could be used to mobilise popular opposition to subvert democracy. Instead of the opposition to Morsi organising on a democratic basis, they began to, in conjunction with the mobilisation of the ‘deep state’, chip away at the already fragile foundations of the post-January 25 Egyptian democracy, but this time it would take the form of the revolution itself, i.e. it would use civil disobedience and it would occupy Tahrir Square, in order to institute what amounted to a counterrevolution.

This is the point that the authors of this article and their Egyptian comrades in the RS began to converge with the counterrevolutionary forces through the Tamarod movement, which despite being directly aided by the security forces, was at least on the surface of things a ‘grassroots’ organisation that united ‘youth activists’ behind a campaign to gather signatures to force Mohamed Morsi to step down as president. It’s in this context that the authors of the RLC blog and their comrades can with a straight face indicate that Morsi’s election didn’t count and wasn’t actually real democracy, scalding those who called the military coup a coup at the time as having a ‘lack of understanding’ of the ‘deep uprising to pursue the objectives of the revolution’ behind the security forces-aided Tamarod campaign to gather signatures to overthrow a democratically elected president. So, while the authors of the blog and their comrades discarded the Egyptian democracy, in which tens of millions of Egyptians participated, they then uncritically supported the Tamarod campaign, which subverted formal democracy by declaring, without any plausible verification, to have gained 22 million signatures calling for the military to remove Morsi or for Morsi to stand down.

At the risk of repetition, let's just take a moment here to understand the mechanics of this according to the authors of the RLC blog: formal democracy, which yields victories for the FJP and reveals the left-liberal Cairene elites to have zero national support, is considered by the latter forces and their comrades, such as the authors of the blog, to be wholly 'meaningless'. However, the Tamarod campaign, supported openly by counterrevolutionaries from Ahmed Shafik to the security forces, which claims without any credible evidence to have gained 22 million signatures calling for the democratic process to be subverted, and which holds joint press conferences in Cairo with the authors of the blog's friends in the 'Revolutionary Socialists' and 'April 6 Youth Movement' etc., is somehow to be taken as legitimate?

There was nothing analytical or even principled about this - the combination of this dogmatic and stupefying adherence to ‘’permanent revolution’ and the wider dynamic of elitism and cliquishness meant that groups were being swayed and pulled by all different kinds of reactionary and counterrevolutionary forces. This is why even days and months after the coup (which they refused to call a coup), they were still so enthusiastic about the counterrevolution, disseminating the bizarre idea that the July 3 coup was ‘anti-imperialist’ and that the major forces involved in the June 30 movement, which included Neo-Nasserists and opportunistic anti-MB liberals, to political forces formerly aligned with Mubarak’s NDP and members of the security forces, were somehow ambivalent or wary of the military.

Indeed, RS even issued a statement incoherently declaring those who correctly called the events of July 3 a military coup as being part of a ‘conspiracy’ between ‘the Brotherhood’ and ‘America’. Such was the extent to which they had been caught up in the hysterical ultranationalist conspiratorial surge of the June 30 movement, a group like the RS clearly failed to notice, or more likely simply didn’t care about because it didn’t fit the narrative, that the US itself had supported the overthrow of Morsi and, like the RS, had refused to call what occurred a coup. Due to their dismissal of the formal democratic system that had been won by the January 25 uprising and their selective designation of pro-democratic non-socialist forces, such as the FJP, as ‘counter-revolutionary’, plus the subsequent necessary pretence that the non-socialist Tamarod movement was connected to the working classes and progressive, the authors of this blog and their comrades ended up as one small but influential (especially in the west among socialists) component of what was a wholly counterrevolutionary movement. Even if some of the forces contained within the movement had genuine grievances against the Morsi government, the fact that they sought to join with the most reactionary anti-democratic forces in the country to overthrow a democratically elected leader renders their action as counterrevolutionary by definition.

The fact that these groups, including the authors, have sought to write their support for the counterrevolution in Egypt out of their own history is evident of the fact that they clearly have no will to self-reflect or engage with reality as it occurs. Instead of an engagement with any of the forces that comprise the democratic national revolutions across the Arab world, the authors of this blog continue on with sloganeering, denunciations and analysis based less on material reality and more on attempting to fit reality around a preconceived, ossified and anachronistic dogma. It’s in this dismal spirit that these forces continue to ignore those pro-democracy forces in Egypt, instead casually and ignorantly dismissing them all as the ‘Muslim Brotherhood’, dismissing them without any justification as being ‘sectarian’, just because, as with the post-January 25 democracy, the forces that they support are marginal and irrelevant. Indeed, it seems to have never dawned on the authors of this blog that the it’s precisely because the forces that march under the banner of R4BIA, formed out of supporters of Mohamed Morsi, are bearing the brunt of the brutal, murderous repression of the Al-Sisi regime precisely because they were and are the main proponents and practitioners of democracy in Egypt.

While the authors of the RLC blog condemn the repression of what they term as the Muslim Brotherhood by the Al-Sisi regime, in the final paragraph they declare, without a hint of irony, that ‘given the clashes and collaboration with the forces of reaction’, which is how they now term the Al-Sisi regime’s blood-soaked abolishment of democracy and its smashing of the main forces in support of democracy, the popular basis of which they uncritically supported and cheered on, that they have to ‘build and organise a popular alternative for the original objectives of the revolutions’. The fact that just over a year ago this group used the exact same language to describe the character and trajectory of the reactionary Tamarod movement should tell you that they are not even capable of discerning counterrevolution from revolution, let alone anything else. Those who support internationalism will be supporting not Islamism, but rather those forces that are struggling to establish democracy against those forces that have every interest in snuffing it out.

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Zombie Stalinism: 25 years later, who wants the Berlin Wall back?

Twenty-five years on, how has the fall of the Berlin Wall affected our analysis of Soviet Russia? How has what we have learnt changed our analysis of post-’89 Eastern Europe, Russia and the current situation in Ukraine?

The deepest discussions in the international workers’ movement about the relationship between dictatorship and democracy happened in the years after 1917 and either side of the fall of the Berlin Wall. In the 1980s, revolutionary Marxists faced a growing crisis of Stalinist power in the East, and of the Stalinist parties in the West. Unlike the 1930s or 1940s, the failure of the Stalinist states to deliver democratic rights was more visible to many workers than capitalism’s failings. That, coupled with the low level of class consciousness, meant that many aspirations of working people and our allies could easily be channelled into social democracy and other pro-capitalist avenues. The way that the USSR and the other Stalinist states misrepresented the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ meant that workers rejected it both East and West.

In the 1980s, working people around the world were looking for alternatives to the dogmas of Stalinism. Stalinism was the root of elitist schemes in which a paternalist and monolithic party excluded workers from power, on the premise that freedom of discussion opened up the possibilities for counter-revolutionary ideas. Because it reflected the common sense of the post-war imperialism, this notion spread beyond the Stalinist parties and into parts of the social democratic and revolutionary Marxist movements.

The search for alternatives took place largely outside these parties and flowed into the social movements. In the East and the West, class consciousness was deeply stratified and uneven. Struggles spilled out in many directions, picking up the movements and leaderships to hand, like flood waters flowing down the path of least resistance.

The paucity of open, democratic and accessible organisations on the left had two results. First, the anti-Stalinist movements had to find direction independently, much as early feminist movements rejected by the western Communist parties found their ways into the social movements: the Stalinist narrative saw independent movements only as counter-revolutionary. Second, the left could not learn from those movements if it failed to recruit from them.

Schemas and dogmas, however, were not the sole preserve of Stalinists. Many revolutionary Marxists equated socialism with states that used nationalisation to deprive imperialism of a toehold, regardless of the concrete power of the working class. That blind spot meant that some socialists found themselves quite adrift. Some ended up supporting state-capitalist enterprises that operated in order to intensify the profit system. Many found themselves disoriented when working class movements confronted states that opposed a larger imperialism or defended nationalised property. They focused attention on the crimes of imperialism, but failed to make solidarity with the masses when they confronted governments which simultaneously excluded imperialism and the people from power. This acquiescence to the repressive secret-police apparatus of the Stalinist states meant that some socialists underestimated the degree to which the Stalinist co-option of socialist rhetoric would channel working class struggles into trade union, church and democratic movements.

Some comrades found themselves caught in the political dead-end that Ernest Mandel, the pre-eminent leader of the post-war Fourth International, called “campism”. Writing in 1983, Mandel criticised those who subordinated the interests of the working class and the revolution to the interests of defending the camp of states that opposed Western imperialism. He pointed out that the bureaucratic leaderships of these states were often mortal enemies of national liberation movements and working class struggles.

This campist viewpoint was widespead in the Trotskyist movement, notably in the English-speaking countries, as well as in the social democratic and Communist parties. In 1986, for example, the US SWP wrote that the progressive character of the Russian states was “a far more weighty factor for the world revolution than the obstacles represented by the Stalinist bureaucracies”. Mandel’s position was the opposite: “The counter-revolutionary role of the Soviet bureaucracy weighs more heavily on world history than the objective positive effects.”

These dogmas made much of the left unable to understand the developments of the anti-Stalinist movements, and the reality of the new movements’ fragile foundations led many on the left into quite disoriented positions.

The fall of the Berlin Wall remains a useful yardstick for revolutionaries. The working class moves imperfectly, and works with the ideas and the leaders it has to hand. The left must celebrate and learn from its imperfect legacies, from the NHS to the unfinished struggle for equality and unity in Germany.

On the 20th anniversary Gareth Dale wrote in the International Socialism journal to remind us of  the revolutionary nature of the movement for unification in East Germany. Those struggles are outlined well in his trio of books on the end of the DDR. However, Dale showed an appreciation of his readers when he wrote, “Readers of this journal are unlikely to be participating in the twentieth anniversary celebrations of the ‘transition to capitalism’ in Central and Eastern Europe and it’s easy to see why.”

Ironically it is Gregor Gysi, spokesperson of Germany’s ex-Stalinist party, who struck a more useful note on the 25th anniversary. Speaking last week, he reminded the Bundestag that the fall of the Wall was a victory for the masses: they confronted a dictatorship and defeated it in order to fight for democracy.

The challenge for the left is to celebrate the fall of the Wall as a progressive, revolutionary accomplishment of the German working class. The East German masses took up the ideas they had to hand: pacifism and trade unionism. The peace movement provided the initial core for the New Forum, a movement eventually backed by 200,000 East Germans. It argued for participatory democracy to reshape society but, partly because the trade unions were state organs, it mobilised workers through a grassroots movement rather than through the workplace.

That said, trade union militancy has deep roots in Germany, which had been warped by the DDR to meet the needs of the state. With the movements for democracy came new labour struggles and the foundation of independent trade unions, starting in East Berlin, encouraged by the positive experience of the independent Solidarity union in Poland. There were also unsuccessful attempts to move the New Forum into the workplaces by demanding a general strike, as Linda Fuller mentions in her book Where Was the Working Class? Mathieu Denis and Gareth Dale have also written convincingly about the role of workers in the movement: something removed from pro-capitalist and campist narratives about reunification. We should not deny the mass, revolutionary nature of these movements because of the later failure to defend and extend the social state, or because of the collapse of heavy industry on both sides of the former border. The ‘counter-revolution’ in East Germany did not happen in 1989, but before the establishment of the DDR itself. The creation of the DDR, far from creating socialism, had replaced one brutal, repressive dictatorship with another.

Nor, as John Rees does, should we view the outcome of reunification primarily as a matter of shifting walls between camps of states. In Rees’s opinion, the mass movement in 1989 was doomed because of the absence of socialist ideas. On the Counterfire website, he writes, “When Russian leader Mikhail Gorbachev abandoned his East German satellite there was no social force that could resist the embrace of right wing West German chancellor Helmut Kohl. German unification would be a Western annexation, not the beginning of a social revolution...  The neoliberal offensive that took a huge step forward in Germany in 1989 has created a wall between the rich and the poor that is higher than ever, and more difficult to cross.”

This view is mistaken. Echoing Dale’s 2009 article in International Socialism, the revolutionary struggle in East Germany is discounted because of the prior absence of the ideal social force: a working class with revolutionary socialist ideas. The outcome is measured only in the partial attenuation of inequality between West and East, and the geopolitical defeat of Russia. For Rees, it seems, the development, success and memory of mass movements that ended the Stalinist dictatorships are nothing when weighed up against the expansion of NATO.

The same must be said of other struggles. Campism is alive and well, most clearly in relation to Ukraine and Syria. Some socialists have cultivated the absurdity of seeing Putin, leader of the Russian plutocracy that has used IMF diktats to suck wealth out of Russia, and his allies as governing an anti-imperialist bloc of states. The revolutionary struggles of the Syrian workers and peasants against the Syrian dictatorship are discounted by these comrades because US imperialism finds it expedient to oppose dictators who are independent of its sphere of control. In Ukraine, with a different constellation, some comrades are championing reactionary ultra-nationalists in the Donbass against a mass democratic movement. The nationwide Maidan movement took the path of demanding democratic rights and legal protections against corruption and oligarchical power. Because that movement mistakenly believed that an association with the EU was the most effective path towards those victories, some socialists discount the positive nature of the mass movements because one faction of imperialists benefits.

The reality is that mass movements do not always arise in the form of a working class acting consciously for itself. Whatever the level of class consciousness, factions of imperialism will try to co-opt, channel the course of and benefit from progressive movements. Transforming these capitalist factions into blocs whose interests outweigh progressive working class movements leads us to not celebrate the masses’ victories, but eventually to see them as counterproductive struggles which should be subordinated to the interests of neoliberal elites in Russia, Syria and elsewhere.

Socialists must learn different lessons from the fall of the Berlin Wall. The working class and its allies will never have perfect self-consciousness. Our task is to support its forward movement, preparing for the reality of the uneven and unknown path ahead, and never to mourn partial victories.

Ernest Mandel on state campism:

What lies today behind the argument of the ‘international relationship of forces’ is in reality the strategy of ‘state campism’, which tends to subordinate the interests of the working class and the revolution in a given country to the interests of defending this or that workers’ state, or the so-called ‘socialist camp’ of states in its totality. We do not accept that subordination in any shape or form – again not for ‘dogmatic’ reasons, but because history has proven again and again that any victorious spread of revolution strengthens the international situation of any and all workers’ states, because it weakens imperialism and international capitalism. Reciprocally, the defeat of revolution in any country, whatever may have been its origins or the pretexts for which it was sacrificed, weakens the international situation of the workers’ states and the working class.

So in reality, those who defend revolutionary self-restraint and self-limitation (including in Poland) do not defend the interests of the working class, the workers’ states, world socialism or world peace. They defend the interests and material privileges of the labour bureaucracy, even if this defence finds its ideological roots in the ‘dialectic of partial conquests’. In the bureaucratised workers’ states, these layers have become a monstrous ossified caste which rules despotically over society and oppresses the great majority of the working class. In open conflicts with that working class, they do not defend the workers’ state. They defend their privileges and their monopoly in the exercise of power, which are barriers on the way forward towards socialism. Likewise, when they oppose the international extension of the revolution, including with ‘pacifist’ arguments of the type ‘We do not want to provoke imperialism into launching war’ or ‘Destabilisation undermines peace’, they do not serve the interests of the workers’ state, of world socialism or of world peace. They serve the particular, conservative, anti-socialist interests of the bureaucracy. So there is no reason whatsoever to yield to these reactionary strategies and arguments.


Dale, Gareth, ‘A short autumn of utopia: The East German revolution of 1989’, International Socialism 124 (autumn 2009),

Denis, Mathieu, ‘Labor in the Collapse of the GDR and Reunification: A Crucial, Yet Overlooked Actor’, doctoral dissertation,

Fuller, Linda, Where Was the Working Class?, University of Illinois Press, 1999

Mandel, Ernest, ‘The Threat of Nuclear War and the Struggle for Socialism’, New Left Review

Rees, John, ‘Berlin: the wall that came down and the walls that went up’,

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Hong Kong: two weeks into mass protests

Another week begins in Hong Kong with people still blockading the streets in several areas of the city on Hong Kong Island and in Kowloon. There are talks about talks, but the protesters say they are not giving up their positions without something much more substantial than what the government is offering.

The first thing to note is that the term ‘Occupy Central’  being used as shorthand for the protests is not accurate. In the first place, the protests are not actually in ‘Central’ – the business district on Hong Kong Island. But more substantially, the organisation called Occupy Central didn’t initiate this round of protests, and is certainly not in control of it. Occupy Central was set up a year ago by a group of academics and others to plan a campaign around the government’s consultation on introducing universal suffrage for the 2017 Chief Executive election. It was to culminate – if the proposals from Beijing in response to the Hong Kong government’s report on the consultation were unsatisfactory – with a peaceful sit-in to block the roads in Central by a controlled number of volunteers who were trained in civil disobedience and agreed they were prepared to go to jail.

In the event, nothing like this took place. The Federation of Students called a week long class boycott, and Scholarism, the school students’ movement forged in the protests against ‘national education’ in 2012, called for school students to join in on the final day. Thousands of students held teach-ins close to the government’s headquarters in Admiralty and some decided to scale the high fences enclosing Civic Square, setting off a chain of events leading to Occupy declaring that the long-planned protest had started. After the police blocked access to the main site of protest, thousands of people who had come to support the students on Sunday 29th September spontaneously occupied the roads around Admiralty and began to besiege the besieging police. The police responded with pepper spray and 87 canisters of tear gas and displayed signs saying they would ‘fire’ if protesters didn’t disperse. It was unclear if they were talking about rubber bullets, and they later said they had not meant to display the sign at all, but altogether this violent response had the opposite effect to that intended. Thousands more supporters poured into Admiralty, having watched the scenes at dinner time on the TV (it happened about 6pm), including many non-students. A separate protest site sprang up across the harbour in Mong Kok in Kowloon, blocking Nathan Road, one of the main shopping streets and bus routes in the city, stranding seven double decker buses. The government recognised they had made a mistake, and the riot police were withdrawn. The police have kept a pretty low profile since, though there have been incidents of violence against protesters and some arrests, and there is, rightly, constant vigilance on the protests for signs of a police offensive.

On the Monday, teachers belonging to one teachers’ union, social workers and a group of distribution workers at the Coca-Cola plant in Sha Tin all declared they were on strike and it looked for a while as if industrial action might spread. But the groundwork for such action had not been done and so only a few groups of workers who are strongly connected with the anti-Beijing union federation, the HKCTU (which also organised the dockers who struck for 40 days last year), responded to its call to strike.

A week of street protests has ensued. As Wednesday and Thursday were public holidays, people could come out to join in and at various times there was a carnival atmosphere. Meetings went on all the time, with people taking turns with the microphones to express their thoughts. There was lots of singing, and at night people used the flashlight functions on their smartphones to create light shows. Volunteers distributed donated food and water and cleared rubbish, being careful to recycle.

Self-organisation has been impressive and this came to the fore on Friday, when bands of thugs started to try to break up the protests. This has been most common in Mong Kok, which is known for the presence of triad gangs but a group of masked men also attacked the outlying protest site in Causeway Bay.  The police made some arrests after being pressured to do so by protesters, and have revealed that some of those arrested do indeed have triad links. Other evidence that people were paid to take part has come to light, for example, some young men in a poor area came forward to say they received text messages offering them HK$800 (£65) for a day to harass and attack the protests and video footage shows a man boasting about getting money to do so. The attacks have been violent and deliberately provocative with people shouting things like “Your daughter should be raped!” and targeting women and girls with sexual assaults and harassment, adding to the evidence that these are not simply ordinary workers and small business owners angered by the impact of the protests on their livelihood. Protesters defended the encampments and rebuilt barricades, regrouping each time after the attacks.

The fact that the protests are self-organised and that the leadership of Occupy and even the students have little hold over them has been made clear as the leaders have repeatedly called for the Mong Kok and Causeway Bay sites to be abandoned and people to concentrate in Admiralty. Some people left but others took their place, arguing that to leave would embolden those who were trying to break up the protests. People are not waiting for someone to tell them what to do.  In Admiralty, too, debates are continuous about how to respond to police requests to bring food and medical supplies into the government HQ or facilitate police shift changes, or clear some roads. Sometimes roads are temporarily cleared, sometimes the requests are refused.

Clearly, however, the movement needs to be organised more systematically, or sooner or later it will be overcome by police and other violence, splits, fatigue and the repeated calls for talks to replace action, lest the movement lose public support. It also needs to spread from the streets into workplaces, through groups being set up which can debate what should be done next, and build to link the struggle for universal suffrage more directly with the economic and social issues which underlie the anger being expressed: low wages, absurdly high rents and scarce, cramped housing, long hours, abysmal social welfare and so on.  The task is very difficult; the genuine trade unions are weak, as is the left.

These protests have been fuelled above all by the absolutely correct perception that the Hong Kong government does not care in the least about what people here think or want. It is run by the rich, in their interests and on behalf of Beijing. Ultimately, the movement will have to be a cross-border one, of course. However, the talk on some sections of the international ‘left’ about the HK protests being funded by the US State Department or that they are destabilising China on behalf of US imperialism, or that Hong Kong people are just hostile to mainland Chinese and have an inflated sense of entitlement, is basically reactionary nonsense. Many people on the mainland are anxiously watching the Hong Kong protests, in spite of massive censorship. Many mainlanders in Hong Kong support the demands of the students and wish they had the relative freedom Hong Kong enjoys and people in Hong Kong have shown many times that they support movements for greater rights on the mainland. Though the feeling on both sides of the border may well be that Beijing will not budge, anyone who wants to see change in China should not be tempted to dismiss the Hong Kong protests as just a bunch of middle class liberals, or as a CIA plot, but see them as one element in the diverse battles being waged in the whole country.

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From referendum to revolution

Today voters in Scotland will go to the polls in unprecedented numbers. Steve Freeman argues that a victory for independence is a step forward for the working class, towards international socialism.

The Scottish referendum is a test for all socialists and communists. What has become much clearer to socialists in England is that there is a major and historic political struggle going on between the British ruling class and a section of the Scottish people who have lined up to support a Yes vote. Of course the British ruling class would not be a ruling class if it could not mobilise a section of Scottish society too. What is now clear is that the ruling class is not confident of being able to win. A ruling class that cannot rule is a ruling class in trouble. 

It is clear to me that ‘internationalists’ and democrats in England should be acting in solidarity with the national democratic movement in Scotland. But we should not simply follow the democratic slogans of the nationalists but put forward our own independent democratic slogans - hence the slogan of a Scottish Republic. If Scotland votes yes the question of a republic will arrive as one of the next items on the agenda. Then the British revolution will be arriving. Nobody will be more surprised by this than those who see themselves as revolutionaries. 

There are two ways of looking at the referendum - from revolutionary politics or from trade unionist politics - the distinction which Lenin made in What is to be Done? 

A revolutionary perspective sees the referendum as part of a bigger picture - the national question - of which there are many current examples across the world - Catalonia, Wales, Ireland, Ukraine, Palestine, Kurdistan and many more. These are all different cases, emerging in different places under different conditions; nevertheless the national question has revolutionary implications in the break up or rearrangement of state power. 

The national question is a revolutionary democratic question. This is in the ‘family’ of democratic issues such as racism, civil liberties, women’s rights, political or constitutional reforms and gay rights etc. Within the subset of political-constitutional issues are found for example self determination, republicanism, constituent assemblies, provisional governments, federal republics, national independence etc. Nobody who studies the Russian revolution could fail to see all these matters in play. 

The national question involves democratic struggle for democratic demands which has revolutionary implications for the power of the state. This does not mean that at any moment we will be confronted with a revolutionary struggle. For many years the struggle may be peaceful or even passive-absent. Marxism doesn't assess the revolutionary implications of any national question simply by looking the level of popular struggle or violence at any given moment. 

Marxists are not, as Lenin explained “tailists”, who simply follow behind the latest events. Today it is violent therefore we are interested! Tomorrow it is peaceful therefore we ignore it! Revolutionary politics is guided by revolutionary theory which liberates communists from the tyranny of the latest events. Revolutionary politics is informed by the theory of ‘democratic permanent revolution’. The application of this theory to particular concrete historical circumstances enables us to develop the necessary democratic demands and revolutionary programme. 

Revolutionary politics teaches us to see the revolutionary potential in the national question. I am not in this short piece to suggest a programme but point to the revolutionary method. Revolutionaries approach the referendum not as a single event that is going to happen next day, next week or next year. We approach it from the entire history of the class struggle in the modern epoch which includes what Marx thought about Ireland and Poland or how the Bolsheviks dealt with these matters in the Russian revolution etc. 

The national question is a democratic question. As Lenin argued, more democracy is not socialism but takes the working class on the right road. This is because the working class is the only truly democratic class in modern society. The working class may not have fully worked out democratic consciousness or theory. It may not have worked out its democratic programme. But the longer the struggle goes on the working class will gravitate to one side. At the beginning, rich Scots were solidly for No. This has not changed. The referendum is now on a knife edge because more and more working class Labour voters have moved to the Yes side. If Scotland votes Yes, then clear the decks - it is 'game on'.

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Statement of solidarity with the Syrian revolution

A statement of solidarity with the Syrian revolution has been released by the Syrian Revolution Support Bases, bringing together a number of international solidarity campaigns across the world. The statement discusses the two fronts of the revolution: against Assad’s dictatorship, and against extreme reactionaries such as the Islamic State. It condemns the imperial powers who have armed Assad and have backed reactionary groups to undermine the popular rebellion. The brutality of the counter-revolution in its various forms increases, rather than decreases the need for solidarity with the revolution.

As Syrians mark the first anniversary of the Assad regime’s chemical attacks on Al Ghouta, which caused the death of several hundred people, we the undersigned stand in solidarity with the millions of Syrians who have struggled for dignity and freedom since March 2011. We call on the people of the world to act in support of the revolution and its goals, demanding the immediate end of the violence and the end of the illegitimate Assad regime.

On the anniversary of the attack, August 21st, we call on supporters of the Syrian Revolution, and of the region wide and global uprisings for freedom, dignity and social justice, to organize events to denounce the atrocities, misinformation, lies and shamed silences, and to show solidarity, both political and material, with the ongoing efforts of grassroots Syrians. Syrian revolutionaries have continued to struggle for freedom despite the many obstacles they face. To kill the revolution, the Syrian regime pursued four strategies: 1) militarization of the revolt through a six-month long campaign of violent repression of peaceful protests 2) islamization of the uprising by targeting secular groups and empowering Jihadists, 3) sectarianization of the conflict through recruitment of an increasing number of Shia fighters from abroad, coupled with the targeting of Sunni areas, and 4) internationalization of the war by inviting Iran and Russia to play a central role. At the same time countries such as the United States, Saudi Arabia and Qatar backed reactionary groups to undermine the popular revolution.

The case of the “Douma 4” also shows that Syrian revolutionaries are fighting on two fronts. Four brave activists working for the Violations Documentation Centre were kidnapped in December 2013 by unknown masked armed men believed to be from Islamist groups. These activists were targeted because they consistently spoke out against all forms of tyranny and human rights abuses regardless of the perpetrator. Their kidnapping is a reminder that the Syrian revolution is not only against the Assad dictatorship, but also increasingly against reactionary and opportunist groups that oppose the objectives of the revolution: democracy, social justice and an end to sectarianism.

The first anniversary of the chemical attacks is an occasion to reaffirm the importance of the revolutionary process not only in Syria but also in the entire Arab World. The Syrian struggle against dictatorship, global jihadism, and imperialism from whichever quarter it comes, should not be viewed as local or even regional. It forms part of an insurrectionary moment in which the whole world has become the battlefield. The new developments in Iraq and the resumed war on Gaza have shown that the fate of the Syrian revolution is connected to the situation in the entire region. The struggle of Syrians for dignity, freedom, and self-determination cannot be delinked from the historic rebellion against Zionism, the Egyptian struggles against military despotism, the Bahraini uprising against dictatorship, the Kurdish struggle for self-determination, the Zapatista and other indigenous populations’ resistance against racism and neoliberalism, or the massive workers’ rebellions on every continent against crisis-driven austerity demands.

The Syrian revolution is at a crossroads, and Syrian revolutionaries are in desperate need of support as they fight on several fronts. A victory for the various counter-revolutions would make permanent the largest ethnic cleansing of our century, leave the country in ruins, and critically destabilise the region and the world. A victory for the revolution, however, would unleash long-repressed social and political aspirations throughout the Arab world and beyond.

To sign on to this statement please email: or visit

Full list of supporting organisations, and translations into several languages.

The Syrian Revolution Support Bases have also released a statement in solidarity with the people of Gaza.

There will be global demonstrations to mark the first anniversary of the sarin gas attack in East Ghouta. The London demonstration will take place on Saturday 23rd August, beginning at 2pm, and will march from Trafalgar Square to 10 Downing Street.

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