Twenty years since the fall of the Berlin Wall

August 19, 1989 hundreds of East Germans “attending a demonstration called the Pan-European Picnic, escaped into Austria from Hungary by storming a border gate that had been opened as a symbolic expression of unity.”[1] This was one part of an enormous mass movement which engulfed all of Russian-occupied Eastern Europe in the revolutionary year of 1989. As a result of this pressure, Hungary – then part of the Russian dominated Eastern Bloc – was forced to open its border with Austria, and thousands of East German workers – who could acquire visas to visit Hungary or get to Hungary through Czechoslovakia – took advantage of this hole in the “Iron Curtain” to pour across, into Austria, and from there into West Germany.[2] The pressure of this movement of millions, the pressure of a mass movement for democracy and freedom, ended with the November 1989 physical destruction of the Berlin Wall separating East and West Berlin. When that wall came down, a new era in world politics began.[3]

Before these momentous events, one theme dominated world politics – the competition between the United States and what was then called the U.S.S.R. – the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (which dissolved in 1991). This rivalry was labeled “Cold” only because it did not erupt into a “Hot War” as did the earlier rivalry between Germany and Great Britain, a rivalry which was at the core of the charnel houses of World War I and World War II.

But Cold or Hot – it was terrifying. Three generations grew up in the shadow of the bomb – the nuclear weapons which were deployed in their thousands by both sides in the Cold War – living with the ever-present possibility of nuclear confrontation between the West (led by Washington) and the East (led by Moscow).

The 1980s in Eastern Europe opened with the great working class uprising in Poland in the early 1980s, creating the ten million strong union Solidarność, which by 1989 had been able to push aside the authoritarian Stalinist Communist Party and take governmental office.[4] This was the spark for the mass movements which were to sweep aside Stalinist rule throughout Eastern Europe.

East Germany, like Poland and the rest of Eastern Europe, had been run as a one-party state since being incorporated into the Russian sphere of influence after World War II. The Berlin Wall itself had been erected in 1961 to prevent East German workers escaping to the West. Its construction was an open condemnation of the failing of the so-called “Peoples’ Republics” of Eastern Europe. Its fall was a direct result of the democratization movements that were happening throughout Eastern Europe in the 1980s – moving from Poland to Hungary and Czechoslovakia – which allowed a way out for East Germans who wanted to escape authoritarian rule.

The collapse of the Berlin Wall symbolized the end of the Moscow-centred bloc and the end of the Cold War. The disappearance of the Russian bloc saw authoritarian regimes dissolve, first in Eastern Europe, then in Russia itself.

Now a story like this, in any other circumstance, would be inspiring for everyone on the left. Socialism began as a campaign for democracy and the right to vote.[5] Socialists are always campaigning for an increase in rights and political freedoms. Socialists have always historically identified with mass workers’ movements such as the one represented by Solidarność, and with movements for democratic rights such as those that swept Eastern Europe in the 1980s.

But this story was different. Russia called itself communist. Its East European satellite states called themselves communist. Liberal politicians and theorists had argued that the Cold War was a contest between capitalism in the west and communism in the east, and most on the left agreed. So in the wake of the 1989 collapse of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of these “communist” states – the confusion in much of the left was extreme. Accepting that these regimes were, in some way, socialist, post-capitalist or “workers’ states” drove many on the left into confusion at what they saw as the victory of the market over the state. Instead of joining in the celebrations, and dancing on the fallen wall, many on the left looked on in horror. By contrast, there was a triumphalism among liberal, pro-capitalist theorists. Francis Fukuyama talked about the “end of history”.[6] The argument was pounded home that 1989 proved the superiority of the market and capitalism over the state and socialism.

There was just one problem. The regimes in Russia and Eastern Europe might have been dominated by the state – but they were in no way socialist. Socialism is not about state power, but about the power of the working class and the oppressed. It is not about the suppression of democracy, but about the extension of democracy from the state to the economy. We need to not just elect members of parliament once every few years, but to elect our bosses, our administrators, our judges.[7] The key institution of socialism is not the state bureaucracy, the Politburo, the Party or the Central Committee. The key institution is the workers’ council – an institution of mass working class democracy and accountability. The outlines of this kind of direct democracy were sketched first by the workers of Paris in 1871, and then again by the workers of Russia in 1905 and 1917. A brilliant but short-lived sketch of a workers’ council state occurred in Budapest, Hungary, during the magnificent 1956 uprising against authoritarian rule and Russian occupation.[8]

Russia had seen viable workers’ councils for a few months after the revolution of 1917. But they had quickly disappeared in the cauldron of civil war, imperialist blockade and resulting starvation. The regime which emerged under the leadership of Joseph Stalin in no way resembled the hopes and dreams of those who toppled the Czar in 1917. It was not socialist but state capitalist.

At the end of World War II, when Russian troops occupied much of Eastern Europe, Stalin installed regimes modeled on his own. These regimes had the label communist. But like Russia they were best understood as state capitalist – economies run by the state, enmeshed in competition with the rest of world capitalism through the mechanism of the arms race.[9]

Those on the left who understood this – those of us who had said “Neither Washington Nor Moscow” through the long Cold War – had supported the great Polish uprising led by Solidarność and did not mourn in 1989, but joined in the celebrations when the wall fell.

Read next – “Eastern Europe: Western Europe’s poor Second Cousin

© 2009 Paul Kellogg

References

[1] Fernanda Santos, “Recalling the Day that Ripped An Opening in the Iron Curtain,” The New York Times, May 4, 2009, p. A.18
[2] Richard A. Leiby, The Unification of Germany (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1999), p. 28
[3] For a useful collection of background material, see The Center for History and New Media, “Making the History of 1989” (Fairfax, Virginia: George Mason University).
[4] For a gripping account of the origins of Solidarnosç, see Colin Barker and Kara Weber, Solidarność: From Gdansk to Military Repression, (London: Bookmarks, 1982).
[5] In the 19th century in Britain, for instance, socialists trace their movements origin to the struggle for the franchise led by the Chartists. See John Charlton, The Chartists: the first national workers’ movement (London: Pluto Press, 1997). For an overview of the centrality of political democracy to the left and the workers’ movement (again limited to a focus on Britain), see Paul Foot’s last book, Paul Foot, The Vote: How it Was Won and How it was Undermined (London: Penguin, 2005). Lars Lih has documented that the struggle for political democracy was far more central to the political orientation of the Russian Bolsheviks than is commonly understood. See Lars T. Lih, Lenin Rediscovered: What Is to Be Done? in Context (Boston: Brill, 2006), especially Chapter 2, “A Russian Erfurtian,” (pp. 111-158).
[6] Francis Fukuyama, “The End of History?National Interest, Summer, 1989
[7] This idea goes back to the great democratic experiment of the Paris Commune in 1871. Writing about this, Karl Marx described the “from below” institutions of mass democracy created by the Paris workers as “essentially a working-class government, the produce of the struggle of the producing against the appropriating class, the political form at last discovered under which to work out the economical emancipation of Labour.” (Karl Marx, The Civil War in France: Address of the General Council of the International Working Men’s Association in Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Collected Works Volume 51 (New York: International Publishers, 1986), p 334. The necessary basis for working class emancipation, then, is the direct democracy of the producing class. Through this political act – the completion of the democratic revolution, if you will – the producing class will be able to begin working out how to end economic exploitation.
[8] See Peter Fryer, Hungarian Tragedy (London: Index Books, 1997) and Chris Harman, Bureaucracy and Revolution in Eastern Europe (London: Pluto Press, 1974).
[9] Two Russian Marxists, Leon Trotsky and Nikolai Bukharin, provided the theoretical foundations for the theory of state capitalism. Trotsky himself used the term “degenerated workers’ state” to analyze Russia in the 1930s. But two of his most important books from the last years of his life are central in the understanding of the counter-revolution which shaped the new Stalinist regime emerging from the wreckage of Civil War. See Leon Trotsky, The Revolution Betrayed: What Is the Soviet Union and Where is it Going? (Garden City, New York: Doubleday, Doran & Company Inc., 1937), and the unfinished work (unfinished because of Trotsky’s assassination by a Stalinist agent) Trotsky, Stalin: an appraisal of the man and his influence (London: Hollis and Carter, 1947). Bukharin’s key work was Imperialism and World Economy (which really should be translated as World Economy and Imperialism), newly republished in Phil Gasper, ed. Imperialism and War (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2009). Leon Trotsky’s one-time administrative assistant, Raya Dunayevskaya, was one of the first Marxists to develop a worked out view conceptualizing the U.S.S.R. as a form of state capitalism. See Raya Dunayevskaya, “The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics is a Capitalist Society,” Internal Discussion Bulletin of the Workers’ Party, March 1941, and Dunayevskaya, “The Nature of the Russian Economy,” The New International, December 1946/January 1947. She was joined in this viewpoint by one of the 20th century’s most respected Marxist theorists, C.L.R. James. See C.L.R. James and Raya Dunayevskaya, “State Capitalism and World Revolution”, 1950. In the last decades of the 20th century, the theorist most closely identified with the theory of state capitalism was Ygael Gluckstein (Tony Cliff). See Tony Cliff, Russia: A Marxist Analysis (London: International Socialism, 1964).

Shed no tears for the SPP

Finally it has been publicly (if quietly) acknowledged that the so-called “Security and Prosperity Partnership of North America” (SPP) is no more. Stuart Trew of the Council of Canadians drew our attention to the obituary, finally posted on the official SPP site.[1] Truth be told, the SPP has been dead for a couple of years. The following obituary was written in October, 2007[2] – and if you ask yourself why this death been kept so secret, you open the door to many insights into the current impasse of neoliberalism.

OCTOBER 13, 2007 – In an extraordinary article, published in The Globe and Mail, long-time Globe columnist John Ibbitson declared that, according to the Trilateral Commission, the Security and Prosperity Partnership (SPP) “is defunct”.[3]

What a remarkable statement. It was just August of this year that thousands demonstrated in Ottawa and Montebello, Quebec, against the SPP summit. The anti-SPP movement rightly identified that the SPP was trying to codify the neoliberal assault on social services, wages and the environment, an assault that has been a hallmark of governments in the west since the 1980s.

Some are seeing the announced death of the SPP as a smokescreen. But we should take the report quite seriously. The Trilateral Commission, founded in 1973 by one of the biggest of the big capitalists – David Rockefeller – along with longtime adviser to U.S. imperialism, Zbigniew Brzezinski[4] – has been an important think tank for world capitalism for more than 30 years.

It is possible that the news out of the Trilateral Commission reflects the other aspect of the SPP – that its announcement, in 2005 was not just an attempt to continue the neoliberal assault, but also an attempt to save face after the collapse of the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA).

2005, the year of the SPP’s birth, was after all the same year the FTAA was supposed to come into effect. The FTAA was designed to be an institutional embodiment of the neoliberalism held so dear by successive U.S. and Canadian administrations – a neoliberal hemisphere under U.S. hegemony.

But the FTAA was made impossible with the rise of mass radical movements throughout the south of our hemisphere. The crucial turning point was the April 2002 attempted coup against the radical nationalist government of Hugo Chávez in Venezuela.

Chávez had been the only head of state at the FTAA summit in Quebec City in 2001, to oppose the project. Eliminating him from the scene would clear the way for the FTAA steamroller. But one million of the poor masses in Caracas made that impossible when they surrounded the presidential palace, forced a split in the armed forces, and forced the coup leaders to back down.

That opened the floodgates to a massive upsurge in radical movements in South America, including the election of Evo Morales in Bolivia, and the creation of the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA)[5] as an explicitly anti-neoliberal alternative to the FTAA.[6]

The FTAA was the real prize sought after by the U.S. and Canadian governments, and since its demise, they have been unsure of which way to turn in their attempt to pursue their agenda. John Ibbitson says that the reported demise of the SPP “is very bad news.” He is wrong. It is a sign of confusion and disorientation at the very centres of power in the leading capitalist countries of our hemisphere – the U.S. and Canada.

We need to take advantage of this confusion, and build movements in solidarity with the popular forces in the Global South, forces which have begun to carve out an alternative to neoliberalism.

© 2009 Paul Kellogg

References

[1] See Stuart Trew, “The SPP is dead, so where’s the champagne?rabble.ca, August 19, 2009 and “SPP.gov: A North American Partnership
[2] Paul Kellogg, “Is the SPP Dead?” in Paul Kellogg, PolEconJournal 2001-2007 (Toronto: authors’ collection), October 13, 2007
[3] John Ibbitson, “Say goodbye to North America’s special partnership,” The Globe and Mail, October 10, 2007, p. A.21
[4] Holly Sklar, “Trilateralism: Managing Dependence And Democracy – An Overview,” in Holly Sklar, ed., Trilateralism. The Trilateral Commission and Elite Planning for World Management (Montreal: Black Rose Books, 1980), pp. 1-2
[5] Since renamed “Bolivarian Alliance for Our Americas,” see “ALBA changes its name to Alliance,” ACN, Cuban News Agency, June 25, 2009
[6] Paul Kellogg, “Regional Integration in Latin America: Dawn of an Alternative to Neoliberalism?” in New Political Science, Volume 29, Number 2, June 2007, pp. 187-209

Missing the point on boycotting apartheid

Rick Salutin, well-respected columnist for The Globe and Mail, and rabble.ca has published a criticism of the campaign for boycott, divestment and sanctions against the state of Israel.[1] Below is one of the responses posted to his column when it appeared on rabble.[2] • It is not credible for Rick Salutin to paint all boycott campaigns with the same brush. U.S. sanctions against Cuba are an attack by an imperialist country on a small oppressed nation. U.N. sanctions against Iraq in the 1990s cost hundreds of thousands of lives and were the preliminary act in the horror that became the Iraq war.

The civil society movement to isolate South Africa through a campaign of boycott, divestment and sanctions was, by contrast, a movement against imperialism and war – a call to isolate a racist, sub-imperialist power. This is of a kind with the civil society movement to isolate Israel through a campaign of boycott, divestment and sanctions. Israel is a sub-imperialist power that is built on the basis of the racist exclusion and oppression of the Palestinians. The issue is — are we with imperialism and its allies, or with the oppressed and their allies in the fight against imperialism?

Salutin then changes the goal posts and questions the efficacy of such campaigns. That is something that has been discussed at length in the social movements. Very few maintain that BDS alone brought down apartheid. The key factor in the fall of apartheid was the generations-long struggle by the black people of South Africa themselves – from the uprising in Soweto to the magnificent illegal miners’ strikes. This movement received considerable support from others in Africa (and from the armies of Cuba), engaged in their own struggles against colonialism and racism. Finally, to the extent those of us in the West could play a role, it was through exposing our governments’ and corporations’ complicity by calling for boycott, divestment and sanctions.

And “self-righteous language on each side”? In what way can the use of the term “apartheid” be equated with the Israeli state banning the use of the term “nakba?” Both express a truth – that the Israeli state is based on the racist exclusion of the majority of the Palestinians. The reality of the mass ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians does in fact make 1948 a catastrophe (nakba), just as the ongoing exclusion, fragmentation, isolation and separation of the Palestinians is a fact that deserves the label “apartheid”. What unites both these terms is the way in which their use has been greeted with hysteria. We must not use the label “apartheid” or the term “nakba” – because these terms make it difficult for a complacent political class to continue to wallow in 61 years of willful ignorance about the reality of Israel’s oppression of the Palestinians.

© 2009 Paul Kellogg

References

[1] Rick Salutin, “Mr. Cohen doesn’t do Ramallah,” The Globe and Mail, July 24, 2009 .
[2] Salutin, “Mr. Cohen doesn’t do Ramallah,” rabble.ca, July 24, 2009

Toronto city workers’ strike: Silence on the left strengthens the right

During Toronto’s historic 39-day city workers’ strike, the left-wing members of Toronto’s city council at worst sided openly with the mayor, at best sat silently, and in the process opened the door for a newly-invigorated right-wing. It was a débacle several years in the making.

David Miller – Toronto’s mayor – was swept into office in 2003. A long-time member of the NDP, Miller – with a solid caucus of NDP and progressive councilors behind him – was a welcome change from the long run of pro-business Mel Lastman. Without question it has been a much better situation for workers and the poor in Toronto, to have a council headed by a mayor and council with links to the unions and to the NDP.

But there was always a tension. Where does progressive change have its roots? Do we fundamentally change our position in society through the good offices of friendly progressive councilors? Or is the foundation of our progress the mass action of the workers and social movements? Any examination of history will show that it is the latter – the mass movements – from which we win our gains. But there is a tendency, once in office, to forget the mass movements on which all progressive politicians stand, and to develop the illusion that progress comes from the work of a small progressive elite. This was reflected in the quiet withdrawal of Miller from the NDP in 2007. He was choosing the mayor’s office over the workers’ movement.[1]

Enter the confrontation between Miller and the city inside and outside workers. The 24,000 members of Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) locals 79 and 416 – were asking for a modest pay increase. But the issue around which the dispute came to revolve, was an old provision in their collective agreement, allowing retiring workers to “cash in” unused sick days.

This is a very small benefit – a few thousand dollars at the end of a long career is a small price to pay workers for years of service. It is also a benefit shared by police and fire-fighters in the city – a point that few opponents of the strike bothered to mention. But it became the rallying cry for an extremely organized anti-union right-wing on City Council.[2]

The so-called “Responsible Government Group” went into action from the first minutes of the strike. Profiled in the press again, and again, and again, right wing councilors like Case Ootes and Denzil Minnan-Wong, a pro-business section of council demagogically portrayed itself as “friends of the common person,” the working people inconvenienced by the withdrawal of city services.[3]

It is not hard to respond to this kind of conservative union-bashing.

• Where was the right-wing when we were fighting for childcare?
• Where was the right-wing when we were fighting for improved pension benefits?
• Where was the right-wing when we were fighting for improved health and safety?

They were of course, nowhere. But given a chance to lead an attack on Toronto’s unions – these right-wing councilors suddenly discovered their concern for ordinary people, putting aside for a moment their cocktail parties with Real Estate developers.

But for this simple response to the right wing to get a hearing, the response had to be organized by the left on council. There were people who were in a position to do just that. Adam Giambrone, Janet Davis, Paula Fletcher, Pam McConnell, Howard Moscoe – these are all individuals whose entire political careers have been bound up with the left and the workers’ movement. What we needed was a “Solidarity Caucus” to meet and counter the nonsense coming from the pro-business councillors.

But that would have meant breaking from David Miller. It would have meant showing up on the picket lines (which Moscoe to his credit did) and supporting the striking workers against the position of the mayor. It would have meant a political divide. So instead of solidarity, we got silence.

Sometimes it was worse than silence. July 8, Miller emerged from a closed-door briefing with council where by all reports, councilors – left and right – were united against the workers and in support of Miller.[4]

We risk paying a steep price for this in the months to come. There is contempt and hatred for Miller in the wake of the strike. But the most visible voice articulating this anger has been the pro-business section of council.

We know where this can lead, those of us who remember the years of then NDPer Bob Rae as premier of Ontario. He led a sharp attack on workers’ rights through the “Social Contract.” But NDP members of the legislature would not break from Rae. So the anti-Rae sentiment was captured by the Tories, leading to the brutal years of Mike Harris in office.[5]

Let’s not make the same mistake. We need a left on council and outside council to stand up and challenge Miller for his anti-union stance. We need the anger against Miller to be captured by the left and not the right.

An important step in this direction was the decision by the Toronto and York Region Labour Council to refuse to invite Miller to the annual Labour Day parade. A strike is a line in the sand. Miller stood on the wrong side, and must now pay the price.

© 2009 Paul Kellogg

References

[1] Donovan Vincent, “Miller won’t back any candidates,” Toronto Star, Sept. 9, 2008, p. A.16. The drift away from the NDP was visible much earlier. In 2006 Miller backed Liberal John Godfrey in that year’s federal election.
[2] John Bonnar, “Incomplete information turns the public against CUPE strikers,” rabble.ca, July 17, 2009
[3] Allison Hanes, “ ‘It’s getting harder with every day’; Councillors facing prospect of a long civic workers’ strike,” National Post, July 18, 2009, p. A.15 and Hanes, “Poll serves as warning to pols,” National Post, July 22, 2009, p. A. 10
[4] Brodie Fenlon, Jennifer Lewington, “Council determined not to yield as unions threaten long strike,” The Globe and Mail, July 9, 2009, p. A.10 and Alison Hanes, “Council supports city stance; United Front,” National Post, July 9, 2009, p. A. 12.
[5] For an overview, see Robert MacDermid and Greg Albo, “Divided Province, Growing Protests: Ontario Moves Right,” in Keith Brownsey and Michael Howlett, eds. The Provincial State in Canada: Politics in the Provinces and Territories, Peterborough: Broadview Press, 2001, pp. 163-202.