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Review: Workers resistance against Nazi Germany at the International Labour Conference 1933, by Reiner Tosstorff

Tue, 2021-09-14 04:18

Every year in June, representatives of the world’s governments, employers and workers come together for the International Labour Conference in Geneva. This has been happening more or less since the founding of the International Labour Organization (ILO) in 1919.

Back in 1933, just days before the conference opened, Hitler ordered the smashing of the German trade union movement. Union headquarters were attacked and seized, union leaders arrested, and the once-powerful German trade union movement was brought to its kness. In Berlin, the Nazi leadership decided to send the thuggish Robert Ley to “represent” the German workers at the ILO event.

But things did not turn out the way the Nazis planned, not least because Ley was an idiot, and blurted out gratuitous racist insults at Latin American countries and others. His actual words bear repeating:

“How come such idiot states have the same rights here as Germany and Italy? Just imagine: Cuba! Uruguay! Bolivia! How should I know what they’re all called, these South American idiots!”

In one sense, he was a forerunner of one 21st century American politician who ranted about “shit-hole countries”.

But it was not only Ley’s propensity to get drunk and stick his foot in his mouth that led to disaster for the Nazis.

Western governments and employers had no problem with a group of Nazi goons taking their seats in the ILO’s Workers’ Group. But the international trade union movement had other ideas. They denounced the Nazi “worker delegates” in no uncertain terms, refused to seat them on various committees, and treated them with contempt.

In the end, Ley and his cronies were forced to leave Geneva and return to Berlin. Later in the year, Nazi Germany quit the ILO. The world’s trade unions were the first to stand up to Hitler and challenge him at an international event.

These long-forgotten events are the subject of this remarkable short book published by the ILO (and available to download free of charge here).

In my view, this is a story that needs to be much better known, not least because of what it can teach us today. “Worker delegates” who are nothing of the sort routinely show up at the annual International Labour Conference, sponsored by their authoritarian governments.

One example is Jiang Gungping, representing the All-China Federation of Trade Unions, a state-controlled labour front. He was elected to represent workers on the ILO governing body back in 2014. Unlike in 1933, these phoney “worker representatives” are allowed to play their roles in the Workers Group — without dissent.

Eighty-eight years ago the leader of the French unions — who spoke on behalf of the world’s workers — said “jailers never have the right to represent prisoners”.

That was true then and it is true now.

In 1933, the world’s trade unions forced Germany out of the ILO – let’s do the same today to Iran

Mon, 2021-09-13 02:00

The Islamic Republic of Iran is a clerical fascist regime. It is essentially no different from the fascist regimes we know from history – Mussolini’s Italy, Franco’s Spain and most infamously, Hitler’s Germany. It is a regime that has no claim to legitimacy as it does not rule with the consent of its people. It rules by terror and terror alone.

In 1933, shortly after Hitler came to power, he crushed the German trade union movement and set up a state-controlled labour front instead. Only a few days after his thugs seized control of union buildings and jailed trade unionists, the International Labour Conference convened in Geneva. This conference, which is the decision making body of the International Labour Organization (ILO), is filled with representatives of governments, employers and trade unions.

That year, the Germans attempted to seat a delegation from the newly-created state labour front. The international trade union movement united to fight against this. While governments, including the British government, had no objection to Hitler’s Nazis being seated at the conference, the trade unionists blocked the seating of the so-called worker delegates from Germany.

As the leader of the French trade unions said at the time, “jailers never have the right to represent prisoners”. The entire German delegation was forced to return to Berlin, and the country withdrew from the ILO later that year.

As a recent book put it, “The ILO was the first international organization to refuse recognition to the Nazi dictatorship.” And this was done through the Workers Group of the ILO, without relying on governments or employers.

Which brings me to the present day.

The ILO still exists, the International Labour Conference still convenes every June in Geneva, and every year, the clerical fascist regime in Iran sends a delegation of so-called workers’ representatives to take their seats as part of the Workers Group. These delegates do not represent the workers; they represent the regime.

They are today, as were the German delegates back in 1933, jailers being given the right to represent prisoners.

This cannot continue. I believe the time has come to launch a massive grassroots campaign in the world’s trade unions, to demand that the Workers Group in the ILO — which is dominated by unions affiliated to the International Trade Union Confederation — repeat now what our comrades did in 1933.

We must demand that the Iranian regime free all political prisoners, and recognise the rights of workers to join and form unions of their own choosing, to strike and to bargain collectively.

Until that happens, that regime must not be given legitimacy, and its so called worker representatives must be turned away.

This is the text of my presentation to the online event sponsored by Free Them Now on Sunday, 12 September 2021.

Beyond refugees: What the Left needs to say and do about Afghanistan

Wed, 2021-09-08 02:57

Pictured: The German language version of the newsletter Fascism, published to fight against the Nazi and Fascist regimes by the International Transport Workers Federation.

Calls on Britain and other wealthy countries to take in Afghan refugees are absolutely correct. And those refugees should not be limited to people who worked alongside British soldiers and diplomats. Anyone at risk from the Taliban regime should be allowed to come live in our countries.

But is that the only thing that socialists can say? I think we need to be a bit more ambitious. Here are some ideas:

First of all, socialists have a role to play in the public debate. While mainstream politicians led by Biden and Johnson have demanded of the Taliban only that they deny bases to terrorist organisations and that they allow Afghans to leave, we on the Left should demand much more.

We should be rejecting the idea that there is some kind of “Taliban 2.0” and that they deserve a chance to show that they’ll be much more respectful of human rights, and in particular women’s rights, than they did the last time they were in power.

We must tell the truth. We must say loudly and clearly what every Afghan already knows: the Taliban is a clerical fascist movement and whatever small changes it may make to its rhetoric — especially when talking to the West — it will never be anything other than a murderous criminal gang. I hope that I am wrong about this, but I fear that this is the case.

While most European countries are at least pretending to care about the fate of the Afghans left behind, there is nothing of the sort going on in Moscow, Beijing and Tehran. The Russian, Chinese and Iranian regimes will be falling over themselves to win influence in the “new Afghanistan”. Those on the Left who still maintain some kind of links with those regimes — such as George Galloway and others who regularly appear on state-supported Russian and Iranian television channels, or the pro-Beijing Morning Star newspaper, should be called out.

And we are not limited to words. There is much that we in the labour movement can do to fight against the Taliban regime and support the Afghan people, even after the evacuation from Kabul. And I am not talking about returning foreign troops to Afghanistan any time soon. However, we can draw inspiration from our movement’s history.

During the darkest days of the Second World War, at a time when Nazi Germany occupied all of Western Europe and was allied with the Soviet Union, trade unionists played a leading role in building resistance among working people on the European continent.

As the legendary Edo Fimmen, head of the International Transport Workers Federation, wrote on the eve of the war: “If a war proves inevitable, we shall take up arms, not for love of our own rulers, but for love of our own class, and of our own country, which we desire to make a real home for those who work.”

Led by Fimmen and others, exiled union leaders now based in London made radio broadcasts targeting workers who lived under Nazi rule. They sent in union activists to help organise and stimulate resistance — including sabotage and intelligence gathering. They helped extract working class leaders who faced the danger of arrest, and brought them over to Britain. They persuaded sailors at sea not to return to their home ports, and instead to turn their ships to Britain, as many did.

Their story, which is still not widely known, is a remarkable one as pretty much the entire trade union movement in the world (the Stalinists excepted) rallied to the anti-fascist cause.

It should inspire us to think beyond the relatively easy gestures of solidarity and to focus on what contributions we in the labour movement can make to defeating the Taliban’s brand of fascism today, just as our comrades did eighty years ago.

This article appears in this week’s issue of Solidarity.

Review: A Slow Fire Burning, by Paula Hawkins

Fri, 2021-09-03 04:14

I really liked The Girl on the Train, Paula Hawkins’ first best-selling thriller, and approached this book with caution. One should always be prepared for disappointment following blockbuster books and their Hollywood adaptations. But I was not disappointed: this story has elements in common with the earlier book, including complex female characters who struggle to be heard. Hawkins makes these characters – who live and work in North London, not far from where I live — seem real. There is a murder mystery at the heart of the story, but I found that to be a relatively easy puzzle to solve. The challenge of the book is finding answers to people’s lives, to their problems, some of which go back to childhood. The fact that long after one puts the book down, one cares about those characters is testimony to Hawkins’ talent.

Review: The Invisible Land, by Hubert Mingarelli

Thu, 2021-09-02 06:12

Hubert Mingarelli was a brilliant writer of short fiction and this is the third novel of his I read this year. His previous books, set during the Russian Civil War and the Second World War, tell simple stories of small groups of men, with the horror and violence of conflict mostly in the background. This book, set in Germany in the weeks following the Allied victory in 1945, is quite similar. It tells the story of a photographer who decides to take a road trip with a British army soldier. He has decided to take pictures of German families, posed in front of their homes. He never explains to his driver or to us why he is doing this; it is not clear if he knows himself. Though a very short book, it moves slowly as nothing much happens. The two men drive around, they eat their rations, they sleep in their car, they experience the weather, they meet a few Germans. It is the least interesting of the three Mingarelli books, but probably still worth reading as he’s always a thoughtful writer, full of compassion for his characters.

Socialists in the age of Scylla and Charybdis

Wed, 2021-09-01 03:42

You will no doubt be familiar with the expression ‘between a rock and a hard place’. That phrase, apparently, has its origins in labour history. According to one online source, ‘the phrase originated in America in the early 1900s to describe a dispute between copper miners and the mining companies in Bisbee, Arizona’. Maybe.

It’s a modern take on the myth of Scylla and Charybdis, described by Homer as two immortal and irresistible monsters who controlled the narrow waters through which Odysseus needed to pass.

I thought about Scylla and Charybdis the other day while I listened to a relative in the U.S. describe a difficult choice she had to make. She was hosting a small group of people in her home, and in accordance with social distancing advice, had suggested they meet outdoors in her garden. But her friends insisted on meeting indoors, as the air quality outside had grown increasingly dangerous due to wildfires spreading across California.

The choice was to risk catching Covid indoors, or inhaling toxic smoke outside.

It’s 2021’s version of Scylla and Charybdis.

Of course we’ve always had viruses, and wildfires are nothing new, but there are particularly 21st century aspects to the dual crises of climate change and pandemics.

We know that climate change is caused by human beings and that late capitalism with its short-term, profit-driven agenda is largely to blame. And as for the pandemic, the lack of affordable, universal health care even in some of the richest countries, and the absence of health care for millions around the world, have done much to make the pandemic far worse.

When the great socialist thinkers of the 19th and early 20th centuries wrote their books, little attention was given to climate and health issues. Nothing could have been known about the impact of human effort on the world’s climate. And the rapid advances in science and medicine offered much hope in the fight against infectious diseases.

The early Marxists, most notably Karl Kautsky and his contemporaries, took for granted that as capitalism grew increasingly ripe for change, trade unions would grow more powerful, social democratic and labour parties would win the battle of ideas (and elections), and the world would transition to the promised land of a cooperative commonwealth.

Of course that is not what happened, and capitalism became increasingly ripe and then over-ripe to the point where the actual survival of humans on this planet is endangered.

Things have gotten so bad, with the pandemic, global warming and many other ongoing crises, that no serious person is suggesting solutions that are based on the ‘free market’. Vaccinating the whole world or doing what is needed to mitigate and possibly reverse climate change, will require state intervention and international cooperation on a colossal scale. The same can be said about issues like migration, growing inequality, persistent racism, sexism and homophobia, and a rise of deadly, fundamentalist religious cults. There is no ‘free market’ answer to any of these problems — and everyone knows that.

The American socialist author Michael Harrington used to say that there could be little doubt that the future would be collectivist. The only choice was whether it would be bureaucratic collectivist (like Stalinism) or democratic (like socialism). I think he had a point.

In this age of Scylla and Charybdis, socialists have a unique message which needs to be heard. And that message focusses on the kind of collectivist solutions being proposed for global crises — solutions which must be democratic and fair, for all people, everywhere.

Our vision of a shared future for humanity rooted in respect for the human rights of all has never been more relevant than it is today.

This article appeared in Solidarity.

Review: Super Human: The Bulletproof Plan to Age Backward and Maybe Even Live Forever, by Dave Asprey

Mon, 2021-08-30 10:02

Dave Asprey is famous (in some circles) as the guy who invented Bulletproof Coffee, which is both a concept and a business. A Silicon Valley entrepreneur, Asprey seems to be one of the first — if not the first — of a new breed of bio-hackers. As a young man he was quite sickly, showing many signs of premature ageing including arthritis. He decided to try out a few things — actually more than few things — which range from the reasonable to the completely bonkers. Some of these seemed to work. In this book, he has decided to share what he’s learned over two decades of using his own body as a guinea pig.

While the book seems to be evidence-based and heavily footnoted, Asprey is not a doctor and this is not credible medical advice. That doesn’t mean it’s not interesting: much of it is. The least-crazy things he suggests (like using a sleep monitor app on your phone, or taking Vitamin C supplements) are things I quickly adopted, at no risk to my health. Some of the later stuff is a bit too edgy for my taste.

I do however agree with his core idea that humans need not become decrepit in our 70s or 80s, and that we absolutely need to die by the age of 120. The ‘maybe’ in the title of his book shows that he’s not convinced that immortality is an option — and his own personal goal is a 50% increase over what is now believed possible. In other words, he wants to live to 180. I wish him luck, and I salute his optimism and ‘can-do’ spirit. I hope he’s right.

Review: Leopoldstadt, by Tom Stoppard

Fri, 2021-08-27 12:13

The problem with seeing Leopoldstadt – Tom Stoppard’s most recent and probably last play – is that so much is going on, there are so many characters on stage all at once, so many words are spoken — it’s very easy to get lost. And as soon as one begins to understand who all the people are and what is going on, we jump ahead twenty years or more to the next scene. Nevertheless, the play was gripping and deeply moving. Reading the text now, after seeing it performed, added a new dimension and new understanding. This is brilliant stuff.

Review: The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family and Defiance During the Blitz, by Erik Larson

Mon, 2021-08-23 04:58

There are literally thousands of books about Churchill. Erik Larson’s unique selling point seems to be his focus on Churchill’s family life, and in particular his weekends away from London during the Blitz. For me, this worked. It’s a compelling story, very well told, and though I thought I knew quite a bit about the period there is much that I didn’t know. Normally we are presented with a rather simple story of World War II: first the Germans were winning, then the Allies. But it was more complicated than that, with many false starts. For example, Churchill thought that the tide of battle had turned in North Africa — and then Rommel came along. And I was not aware of how ineffective the RAF and its legendary Fighter Command was at the beginning of the Blitz. The Luftwaffe, for all it ineptness, did surprisingly well. A very readable account of what must count as the worst year of the last century.

Review: Rabbit Hole, by Mark Billingham

Fri, 2021-08-20 14:09

Mark Billingham has earned his reputation as one of Britain’s best crime writers due to his series featuring Tom Thorne, a detective serving with the Metropolitan Police. From time to time, he writes books that are not part of that series, and sometimes these feature Thorne and other characters from his series in walk-on roles. Rabbit Hole is that kind of book. If I were to choose one word to describe it, that word would be ‘claustrophobic’. Set entirely inside a closed mental health ward in a north London hospital, the characters are pretty much all either hospital staff or patients who have been ‘sectioned’ (forcibly hospitalised) under the Mental Health Act. A murder takes place and one of the patients, a former police officer named Alice (she of ‘rabbit hole’ fame) decides to investigate. In his final remarks, Billingham mentions how difficult it was to write a book like this, and it sounds like he knows a bit about what life is like in these wards. Or rather more than a bit. Claustrophobic for sure, but also brilliant story telling and a wonderfully-drawn character in Alice.

Review: The Cellist, by Daniel Silva

Thu, 2021-08-12 05:20

Gabriel Allon has gotten older since the last time I read a Daniel Silva novel. The legendary art restorer / assassin is now the head of the Mossad (not called the Mossad in the book) and his opponents in this story are ruthless, powerful men: Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump (who are not called Putin or Trump). The Cellist is so closely tied into the real world that, as Silva admits in an afterword, he was forced to re-write the book’s ending following the events in the U.S. Capitol on January 6th this year.

Silva’s a good writer, the book is well researched and well paced. But there was too much, I thought, of the kitchen sink in it. There was art restoration, classical music, dodgy international bankers, references to World War II and the Holocaust, brave journalists, Russian oligarchs, Novichok poisoning, Q-Anon, and more. Many, many characters appear, some with brief walk-on parts, and even the eponymous cellist is not given much of a back story or explanation for her admirable heroism.

Still, any book that casts the Russian President as a modern-day Ernst Stavro Blofeld can’t be all bad, can it? (He does everything but stroke a cat.)

The BBC, Barry the Owl and the death of a union leader

Wed, 2021-08-11 04:47

Last Friday, the BBC News website ran a story with this headline: “A beloved owl who became a well-known resident in New York’s Central Park has died.” The story went on to say that “Barry the barred owl was flying low in search of a meal when it collided with one of the park’s maintenance trucks on Friday morning.”

On the previous evening, it was announced by the majority leader in the U.S. Senate, Democrat Charles Schumer of New York, that Richard Trumka had suddenly passed away at the age of 72. Trumka was the president of the AFL-CIO, the main national trade union centre in the United States and the equivalent of the TUC here.

The BBC website had nothing about Trumka’s death, not on Thursday and not for at least three days afterwards.

With all due respect to Barry the Owl, and without wishing to cause offence to his many friends and family, how is it possible that the BBC didn’t see fit to mention the passing of the AFL-CIO president?

While the American trade unions have been in decline for a generation or more, a decline not halted by Trumka during his twelve years in office, the AFL-CIO still represents 56 national unions with a membership of around 12.5 million people.

The AFL-CIO is smaller than it used to be, but is hardly insignificant. Among other things, it and its affiliates played a major role in bringing an end to the nightmare Trump years by electing Biden and Harris last November.

Trumka was part of the team of insurgents led by John Sweeney which defeated the AFL-CIO’s old guard leadership back in 1995. They inherited a moribund trade union movement in steep decline and despite their efforts, the decline continued over the next quarter century. Not only did the labour movement shrink, but it also split with a number of important unions breaking ranks to form an alternative centre called “Change to Win.” Change to Win includes several of the most powerful unions in the U.S., among them the Teamsters, the service employees (SEIU) and the communication workers (CWA).

By all accounts, Rich Trumka was a decent man, son of a coal miner and life-long trade unionist. The former president of the United Mine Workers, he was given the thankless task of steering the unions through the Trump years. The Biden administration has promised to enact new labour laws which will make it much easier to grow the unions again — but sadly Trumka will not be around to see something he campaigned decades to achieve.

As TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady wrote, “We have lost a brother today. Rich Trumka fought all his life for working class dignity and rights at work, in the US and around the world. He was the best of comrades to the UK trade union movement.”

Is any of this as important as the sad fate of “Barry the barred owl”? To the BBC, apparently not.

This article appears in this week’s issue of Solidarity

Review: A Covert Life: Jay Lovestone: Communist, Anti-Communist, and Spymaster, by Ted Morgan

Sat, 2021-08-07 10:34

Jay Lovestone, who is largely forgotten today, led an extraordinary life – much of it in the shadows. He was one of the founders of the Communist Party in the US, and rose to become its general secretary by the late 1920s. He survived the various faction fights in the Communist International until 1929, when he bet on the wrong horse. In supporting Bukharin against Stalin, Lovestone very nearly signed his own death warrant. He managed to escape from Soviet Russia and returned to the US, no longer having a political home. For a decade or so, he and few hundred supporters tried their best to curry favour with the Stalinists and be readmitted to the ranks of the Party. They failed, despite doing things like declaring the Moscow show trials to be free and fair. By the time Stalin and Hitler had signed their 1939 non-aggression pact, Lovestone knew that his time as a Communist was finished. He was recruited by David Dubinsky, the leader of one of America’s largest unions, to run international labour work, including building support for the US entering the war on the Allied side. Lovestone continued in that role, as the head of the American labour movement’s international work, for some three decades. His main job – indeed his only job – was to fight against the Communists that had previously been his comrades. Lovestone used the tactics of the Stalinists against the Stalinists. He was manipulative, deceitful and utterly ruthless. And once he started the work, he never looked back. He died an embittered and lonely man. Ted Morgan tells the story well, though he has a tendency to bounce around a bit and sometimes it’s hard to pick up the thread of Lovestone’s life.

Review: Into the Drowning Deep, by Mira Grant

Fri, 2021-08-06 06:39

Mermaids are lovely, aren’t they? I’m thinking the 1989 Walt Disney cartoon or Daryl Hannah in the 1984 comedy ‘Splash’. Well, Mira Grant, the author of staggering number of horror novels, some of which I’ve read and were quite good, has a rather different take. In this entertaining story, mermaids are super-predators with razor sharp teeth, and they hunt in packs. Their prey this time are the people trapped on board a cruise ship sent out into the Pacific Ocean to find evidence of mermaids (as if the video evidence from the previous voyage, which showed mermaids devouring everyone on board weren’t enough). It’s a great idea for a story (possibly even a film), but Grant sorely needs an editor. The book is over-long and repetitive, and with such a large cast, it became quite difficult to remember who was who — for example Holly, Heather and Hallie are sisters (two of whom were deaf, two — or maybe all three — were scientists). All the main characters, or at least the likeable ones, are women. But the mermaids turn out to be … well, I don’t want to give that one away. I can only add that if this ever did become a film, it would probably have the same effect as ‘Jaws’. No one will want to go anywhere near the water ever again.

From Vostok to laughing stock: Billionaires in space

Wed, 2021-07-28 02:28

On 12 April 1961, the first human blasted off into space. It was an amazing achievement and was a display not only of the remarkable technological prowess of those who designed and built the spacecraft, but also of the personal courage of the man inside the capsule.

His name was Yuri Gagarin and he was just 27 years old. The craft he piloted was called Vostok 1. He is correctly honoured across Russia, and his memory revered, while the Soviet leaders of that time are long forgotten. Gagarin sadly died seven years later in a plane crash.

Sixty years after Gagarin’s historic flight, the British billionaire Richard Branson and the American Jeff Bezos blasted off into space this month in vehicles built by their own private companies.

Branson’s Virgin Galactic has had a mixed record of success with their attempts to build a working spaceship. In 2014, one its vehicles crashed, killing pilot Michael Alsbury.

Bezos’ company, Blue Origin, has been around since 2000. It has named its spacecraft after the first two Americans in space, Alan Shepard and John Glenn. No mention of Gagarin, of course.

Branson and Bezos are hoping to trigger a new era of space tourism. There are already reported to be hundreds of wealthy individuals who have signed up to pay staggering amounts of money for the privilege of a few minutes of zero gravity and remarkable views of Earth. What an enormous waste of resources that could be better spent elsewhere.

The contrast between the flight of Vostok 1 in 1961 and the billionaires’ flights this summer could not be clearer — and not just because Gagarin was an actual cosmonaut whose flight lasted just under two hours.

Gagarin was a genuine hero, a pioneer whose extraordinary mission launched a new age of exploration, full of hope for all humankind. The Stalinist regime that stood behind his flight was a despicable one, but that does not take away from his heroism and the historic significance of what he achieved.

Similarly, when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin set foot on the moon just eight years later, the fact that they left behind a plaque with an anodyne message signed by soon-to-be-disgraced U.S. President Richard Nixon is not important. It does not take away from what they achieved.

Socialists are supporters of space exploration for the same reason that we support things like medical research — because believe in the potential of human beings to do great things. We know that there is plenty to invest in here on Earth, including ending poverty, dealing with the climate crisis, and so on. But we also know that we have the capacity as a global society to do more than one thing. At the same as we fix things here on Earth, we can also reach for the stars.

And we also know that much of the progress made in recent decades, including landing on the moon or inventing the internet, was not done by private companies and individuals. They were the collective efforts of large numbers of dedicated and talented scientists and engineers, funded by the public sector. This was true both in the Stalinist USSR and in the capitalist USA.

Bezos and Branson emerged from their very brief flights to the edge of place looking like the arrogant fools they are.

Branson, it turned out, had not even reached space according to some definitions of the word. Bezos flew a bit higher, just touching the boundary of space in his much-mocked penis-shaped rocket. Both flights lasted just a few minutes. Within days, NASA issued a clarification stating that neither Bezos nor Branson deserved to be called astronauts as neither had been “part of the flight crew” nor made “contributions to space flight safety”.

Upon his return to Earth, Bezos thanked “every Amazon employee and every Amazon customer because you guys paid for all of this.”

He was swiftly condemned by many, including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who tweeted: “Yes, Amazon workers did pay for this – with lower wages, union busting, a frenzied and inhumane workplace, and delivery drivers not having health insurance during a pandemic.”

In another sixty years, no one will remember Bezos and Branson. But Yuri Gagarin’s achievement will still be the stuff of legends.

This article appears in this week’s issue of Solidarity.

Review: Why the Germans Do it Better, by John Kampfner

Sat, 2021-07-24 07:06

First of all, they don’t. It’s a provocative title for a book, but ultimately a silly one — and it’s not what the book is really about. John Kampfner offers a wide-ranging view of Germany today (and by today, I really mean today: the book was updated earlier this year). When he makes the case that Germany does some things better, he means that in comparison to the UK. Kampfner is a critic of Brexit and Boris Johnson (and rightly so) and yes, Germany’s continued support for the European project is better than Britain’s withdrawal from it, and Angela Merkel is a far more serious political leader than Johnson. But on the rare occasion that he compares Germany to other European countries (e.g. the Nordic countries), it’s not always clear that Germany is doing anything better. And while Kampfner doesn’t ignore the rise of xenophobia, racism and even anti-Semitism in Germany today, I don’t think he places enough emphasis on it. Still, it’s a very well-written and informative book, but it would have served better by a different title.

It’s time for Georgia to choose

Wed, 2021-07-21 05:16

Two weeks ago, far-right thugs attacked the LGBTI community’s ‘March for Dignity’ in Tblisi, Georgia. Dozens of people, mostly journalists, were badly beaten. It was a tragedy that could easily have been foreseen — and prevented. And it has triggered a historic fight led by the journalists’ union with the full support of journalists’ unions around the world.

The attacks were orchestrated by supporters of the ruling party in Georgia, whose leaders bear some responsibility for what happened. Prior to the march, Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili said it was “not reasonable” to organise such an event which could lead to public confrontation. The Georgian Orthodox Church was also hostile to the idea of public LGBTI events in the streets of the nation’s capital. Nevertheless, the LGBTI community decided to go ahead with the event.

According to Zviad Pochkhua, President of the Independent Association of Georgian Journalists, the police didn’t provide adequate protection to media workers: “There was reason to fear that the situation would escalate as public calls for violence had been made, including from the Georgian Orthodox Church and the far-right. By ignoring the attacks on the media and not investigating them, the police is encouraging them”.

“There is,” he said, also “a lack of international pressure on Georgian authorities which allows authorities to close their eyes to the worsening media environment.”

A week after the violence, things got dramatically worse. One of the injured journalists, 37-year old camera man Alexander Lashakarava, died after being savagely beaten. Some in the Georgian government began leaking stories that he had died of a drug overdose. This was attacked by, among others, two former ambassadors to Georgia who denounced that as a tactic usually employed by authoritarian regimes, not democratic ones.

The attacks on independent media in Georgia are part of a pattern of such attacks around the world in such places as Belarus, Hong Kong and Myanmar.

The journalists took the to streets even before Lashakarava’s death, protesting at the Parliament building, demanding not only an investigation into the violence but also the resignation of the Prime Minister and other leading political figures.

The journalists’ protests have taken on very dramatic forms, including shutting down four television stations for 24 hours, crashing the meeting of the country’s Parliament, and demonstrating outside the headquarters of the ruling ‘Georgian Dream’ party. Protests continued this week, as the journalists held a silent protest in the seaside city of Batumi when European Council President Charles Michel arrived for an international meeting.

The International and European Federations of Journalists have been swift to condemn these unprecedented attacks on journalists. IFJ General Secretary, Anthony Bellanger, said: “We are appalled by the death of our colleague Alexander Lashakarava. We urge the Georgian authorities to identify and prosecute all the aggressors but also to recognise and act on its responsibilities for failing to guarantee media workers’ safety while doing their job.”

If any of this sounds familiar, it’s because the attacks on the LGBTI community have been going on for years, with the support of right-wing politicians and the church.

Three years ago when Pride events in Tbilisi were cancelled due to fear of violence, Peter Tatchell and I wrote: “This Saturday, as it celebrates the achievements of the first Georgian republic, which was a progressive, modern, secular and liberal society [Georgia] needs to decide whether the streets of its capital belong to those demanding full rights for the LGBT community or Hitler-saluting fascists and church leaders whose homophobia gives the far right comfort and succour.”

“It is time for Georgia to choose,” we concluded. That is even more true today.

This column appears in today’s issue of Solidarity.

Review: Red Milk, by Sjón

Sat, 2021-07-17 12:46

This is the second book I’ve read by this Icelandic author, the first being Moonstone: The boy who never was (2016). These are both very short books (novellas, actually) and both tell the stories of young men growing up in Reykjavík. And there the similarity ends. For while the earlier book had for a protagonist a young gay man who adored movies more than almost anything else, this book describes how a different boy, at a different time, can turn into a neo-Nazi. The book explains little and assumes a certain familiarity with the Second World War. For example, at one point the boy finally meets his aunt, who arrives just after the war from Norway. She had been described to him as being full of life, and beautiful, but instead he meets a deeply unhappy woman who has lost all her hair. In other words — though Sjón never says this — she almost certainly had a relationship with a German soldier during the occupation of her country, and was punished for it. This is not a simple story — nor was Moonstone — and features a challenging protagonist, but in the end I think it works.

Atomic Habits, by James Clear

Fri, 2021-07-16 03:53

As I write this, Atomic Habits has spent 85 weeks on the New York Times Best Seller list in the category ‘Advice, How-To and Miscellaneous’. This is extraordinary, and out of curiosity I decided to try it.

James Clear is not a scientist, though he’s a self-declared expert on habits, and my first impression of the book as I read about a childhood accident he had, his experience as a baseball player and businessman, was not a good one. But the book grew on me.

He writes well, he cites good sources (all footnoted), he sums up his main points at the end of every (very short) chapter, and the book makes sense.

The basic point – made by him and others who write about this field – seems to be to make small changes, be consistent, and over time you’ll get results.

If you’re struggling with the examples he frequently cites — you want to lose weight, read more books, do better in your profession, etc. — this book is not a bad place to start.

Review: A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal, by Ben Macintyre

Wed, 2021-07-14 07:17

Ben Macintyre is a great storyteller, but to be fair, this is a great story just waiting to be told.

Kim Philby is certainly a contender for the title of ‘most successful spy of all time’. Recruited to the Soviet cause while at Cambridge in the 1930s, recruited to the British secret service at the beginning of the Second World War, he went on to lead its counter-espionage operations for years — while serving as a Soviet spy. His loyalties were never in doubt: Philby believed in and served the Stalinist cause until he died in Moscow just as the Soviet system began to collapse.

Macintyre chooses to focus his story on the role of friendship, for Philby was a great friend to many and valued friendship above almost everything else. But he also betrayed those friends (including his wives). Those friends, including almost the entire senior leadership of MI6, took years to accept the fact of his betrayal. He could not have been a traitor, they believed, because he was “one of us”.

Highly recommended.