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In Georgia, workers challenge a Russian oligarch

Tue, 2022-05-17 22:47

Mikhail Fridman is one of the wealthiest men in Russia and a close associate of Vladimir Putin. He was included in the earliest lists of individuals sanctioned by the West for his complicity in the criminal invasion of Ukraine.

Among his many investments is a Georgian mineral water company known as ‘Borjomi’ – which is the spa town where the local water has been bottled for more than a century. The sulphorous taste of the water is not to everyone’s liking, but for decades the company has profited from the perception that Borjomi water has certain healing properties.

After the collapse of Soviet rule, the company was privatised and nearly fell into ruin. Nine years ago, Fridman, whose properties include a home in London valued at £70 million, bought the bottling plants. Last year, following an industrial dispute, the company made a number of concessions to its 800 workers, including accepting the idea of a collective bargaining agreement to replace individual contracts.

But in the last few months, the company has changed its mind. No collective bargaining agreement. No negotiations with the union. And a series of vicious attacks on the workers including a 50% pay cut and the sacking of 49 workers who were identified as union activists and leaders of last year’s strike. They were told in a form letter that their jobs were cut due to ‘restructuring’ – which is demonstrably untrue. They were being punished for standing up for their rights.

The pay cut is especially mean, as the average wage for workers in the factory was just £245 a month. And there have now been threats that the workers’ wages from the last month will not be paid at all. Fridman claims that he cannot access any of his bank accounts which have been frozen.

I visited the Borjomi workers last week in the company of two Tbilisi-based union leaders, Giorgi Diasamidze who heads up the food workers union, and his colleague Lika Mebagishivi. This was the day that a government-appointed mediator arrived on the scene. I was allowed to sit in on the session where workers made their case. Prior to that, I had the chance to talk with Koba Gogoladze and Andro Bablidze, who were sacked after decades of work in the factory. From them I learned details about their lives and their struggle.

The workers want several of most notorious managers to be sacked. They want pay increases, not pay cuts. They want a collective bargaining agreement. And they want the Georgian government to take control of Fridman’s share of the business. As they put it to me, Borjomi water belongs to the people of Borjomi – not to this oligarch.

The Borjomi management has now temporarily shut down the factory. I was able to see the darkened factory floor. Management blames the impact of sanctions on their exports. But the workers told me that prior to the shutdown, the factory produced an enormous number of bottles — and these have been stockpiled in case of a strike.

With mediation now underway, the workers have to wait 21 days before they are allowed to strike or even protest outside the locked factory gates. But at the end of this month, if mediation fails, a strike seems inevitable. I suggested to Diasamidze that an international campaign of support could help – and we’re ready to do our part.

Justice for the Borjomi workers is long overdue.

This article appeared in Solidarity.

Review: Georgia – The Home of Wine, by Dato Turashvili

Mon, 2022-05-16 03:15

Dato Turashvili is one of Georgia’s best known writers, but unfortunately only a couple of his books are available in English translation. This new book is in both Georgian and English and is a lavishly illustrated love letter to Georgian wine. Turashvili makes a strong case – which not everyone will accept – that Georgia is the birthplace of wine. The country apparently has been making wine for at least 8,000 years, and the evidence that it was the first to do so is not only archaeological but linguistic. In those 8,000 years, the worst period was during the 70-year-long Soviet occupation in the 20th century, when the quality of the wine was radically reduced to meet the needs of the planned economy. According to Turashvili, the best thing that happened to Georgian wine in recent years was the Russian decision in 2006 to ban imports. The result has been a boom for the production of high-quality wines for export to Western markets.

Review: Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel

Mon, 2022-05-16 00:29

This is the third novel by Emily St. John Mandel that I’ve read this month. I’m binge-reading her books in no particular order, starting with the most recent, but that’s also pretty much her style. The books are told in non-linear fashion, with many different characters who meet and interact, or don’t, over a long period of time — in this case decades, but in her other books, centuries. There are common themes to all those books which I’ve read, including the possibilities of alternative universes and time travel, though she hardly qualifies as a ‘science fiction’ writer.

Station Eleven is mostly set in the near future when a virus known as the Georgian Flu kills off 99% of the human race in just a few weeks. But this is no ‘Mad Max’ dystopia – it’s mostly about a group of actors and musicians who travel from town to town in Michigan and Canada, performing music and Shakespeare plays. There is quite a lot of coincidence going on here and it’s very playful in that sense – you almost want to shout at the characters: ‘Ask him his name! Find out who is mother was!’ And so on. Paths cross and the characters don’t always see this as clearly as we do. But sometimes we too only see those in retrospect. This is another finely-crafted, compelling story about mostly ordinary people living through extraordinary times. Highly recommended.

Review: The Glass Hotel, by Emily St. John Mandel

Sun, 2022-05-08 23:18

Having read (and loved) Sea of Tranquility I was surprised to discover the same characters in this earlier book by Emily St. John Mandel. I may be reading the books in the wrong order, but once you realise that time doesn’t flow in normal ways in these novels, it doesn’t really matter. While the more recent book has been labelled a time travel story, which was its appeal for me, this is more of a ghost story. Though neither of those labels are really fully accurate. Let’s just say that these are stories with characters one grows to care about, even if these characters are deeply flawed. I finished the book with a profound sense of sadness, and yet I would recommend it to others. If that makes any sense.

Review: Sea of Tranquility, by Emily St. John Mandel

Wed, 2022-04-27 02:44

I love a good time travel story – and I loved this one so much that I finished it in two days. (To be fair, it’s a short book.). The author works with two well-worn tropes — time travel and also the possibility that we are living in a simulation (think The Matrix). How would we know if we were living in a simulation? And how can time travel to the past take place without altering the present?

In addition to these, there are many references to pandemics throughout the book, to lockdowns and vaccines. Sea of Tranquility may be largely set in the future, but it is also very much a book of our time. Highly recommended.

From Foxley to Facebook: Thinking the unthinkable about dictators

Sat, 2022-04-16 09:52

A few weeks ago Russia indicated that it might designate Facebook as an extremist organisation. To block such a thing occurring, Facebook’s parent company, Meta, clarified its position. It had recently changed its rules to allow Ukrainians to vent their anger against the Russian military. But as Nick Clegg, Meta’s President of Global Affairs, said, Facebook does “not permit calls to assassinate a head of state.” Facebook’s army of censors will remove all references to the desirability of Putin being killed.

It was not always thus. In June 1944, not long after the invasion of Normandy, the Special Operations Executive (SOE) was ordered to plan an assassination attempt on Hitler. The result of their effort was a 120 page report, full of maps, illustrations and photographs, laying out some ways that Britain’s number one enemy could be taken out.

While there was extensive discussion at the highest levels of SOE about whether killing Hitler was desirable — some thought it might lengthen the war –there was no discussion about whether it was legal or moral.

By this point in the Second World War, targeted killings of enemy commanders and political leaders had already taken place. SOE itself was implicated in (though it did not actually carry out) the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich in Prague in 1942. Earlier, the British had attempted a commando raid to capture or kill Erwin Rommel, the commander of German forces in North Africa. The Americans too engaged in similar operations, most famously the 1943 shooting down of a Japanese warplane carrying the architect of the attack on Pearl Harbor, Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto.

The SOE officers who prepared what became known as “Operation FOXLEY” came up with a number of scenarios. Some were realistic, such as having a sniper shoot Hitler on his morning walk in Berchtesgaden. Others were bonkers — such as hypnotising Rudolf Hess and returning him to Germany to kill Nazi leaders. Various poisons were discussed that could be used in either the Führer’s drinking water or his non-alcoholic beer. The one that was chosen was later made famous by Agatha Christie in one of her novels.

The Americans and Soviets too had their own plans to assassinate the Nazi leader. One of the American plans involved bribing the man in charge of Hitler’s vegetable garden to inject female hormones into the Führer’s carrots and beets. This would not have killed the Nazi leader, but the Americans believed it might cause his moustache to fall out and his voice to become high-pitched.

As the war moved towards it conclusion, none of the SOE plans were carried out. Hitler was allowed to live until 30 April 1945 when he shot himself in his Berlin bunker.

Looking back at Operation FOXLEY today, we remember a time when the world was at war, and enemy leaders were considered legitimate targets.

Whether similar plans are being drawn up today in London or Washington we cannot know.

But at least Putin can rest safe in the knowledge that no contemporary version of Operation FOXLEY is going to be published on Facebook.

Review: A World Without Email, by Cal Newport

Sat, 2022-04-09 14:12

If only! Productivity expert Cal Newport makes a compelling argument against the way we use email now, and anyone who struggles with overflowing inboxes will learn from what he writes. But he doesn’t have much to offer in the way of alternatives, particularly for individuals. The tools he recommends — Trello, Doodle — are well-known and I for one use them. He trashes Slack, and rightly so, and seems pretty dismissive of most instant messaging services — right again. He’s a big fan of face to face meetings (that didn’t work out very well during the pandemic lockdowns). He also thinks some organisations may have rushed things when they sacked all the personal assistants and told managers to look after their own calendars. So, no magic bullet then. It looks like email might be around for a while longer.

To understand Putin, read Karl Marx

Fri, 2022-04-08 11:00

Seventy years ago at the height of the Cold War a book was published in the US entitled The Russian Menace to Europe.  It made the case that “the major objective of Russian foreign policy … is domination of the world”.  It argued that regardless of who ruled Russia — the Tsar or Stalin — it didn’t matter.  “The policy of Russia is changeless,” the authors claimed.  “Its methods, its tactics, its manoeuvres may change, but the polar star of its policy — world domination — is a fixed policy.”

C. L. Sulzberger, who was then chief foreign correspondent for The New York Times, was fulsome in his praise.  “The editors of these papers and the publisher of this fascinating book are to be congratulated,” he wrote in his review.  “Surely this little book should be read by anyone seeking to understand what the Kremlin is up to now.”

The authors of the book — which is a collection of “articles, speeches, letters and news dispatches” — were Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels.

The Russian Menace to Europe was significant for a couple of reasons. 

First of all, the editors, Paul W. Blackstock and Bert F. Hoselitz, were attempting to put some distance between Marx and the regime in Moscow that acted in his name.  In their introduction, they wrote that “Real Marxism, i.e., the Marxism of Marx and Engels was, above all critical.  It knew no gods, was free of party lines and dogmatic pronouncements from above … Marx’s entire life work was directed against tyranny and oppression … The most categorical opponent of Stalin and all he stands for is therefore none other than Karl Marx.”

Second, the essays themselves are startlingly clear, well-informed analyses of Russia and its role in the world.  At the time Marx and Engels wrote them — and the last essay was from 1890 — most liberals and socialists in Europe understood that the tsarist regime was “the gendarme of Europe”.  The revolutions of 1848 in which the two authors participated were defeated in part because of the assistance given by Russia to the triumph of reactionary regimes.

Marx and Engels were committed to “containing” Russia — a term that would only be invented decades after their deaths.  When Britain and France joined Turkey’s side in the Crimean War, Marx fully supported their cause.  It did not bother him that those countries were “imperialist”.  He understood that the liberal capitalist societies of Western Europe were infinitely more progressive than the tsarist regime, which he would characterise as “semi-Asiatic”.

They were also outspoken supporters of the Polish people and their right to a sovereign state.  When the Poles rose up in rebellion against Russia, Marx and Engels were on their side.  “I hold the view that there are two nations in Europe which do not only have the right but the duty to be nationalistic before they become internationalists,” Marx wrote.  He was referring to the Irish and the Poles. “They are internationalists of the best kind if they are very nationalistic.”

A quarter of a century before the outbreak of the First World War, Engels explained the central role that would be played by Russia.  “The entire danger of a world war will vanish on the day when the situation in Russia permits the Russian people to draw a thick line under the traditional policy of conquest … and to attend to their own vital interests at home.”

Those words could have been written this week.  But they were written in 1890.

Just as Blackstock and Hoselitz understood Soviet foreign policy as a continuation of the aggressive, empire-building of the tsars, so we too understand Putin’s policies as yet another link in a long chain of conquests and wars.

On the Left today, particularly in the period leading up to the current war in Ukraine, there was much criticism of NATO and the West more generally.  Left-wing parties like the one headed by Jean-Luc Mélenchon in France, or Die Linke in Germany, or even Jeremy Corbyn’s wing of the British Labour Party, have not understood Putin’s Russia.  Some of them have turned their hostility towards the West into sympathy for a regime that now threatens world peace — just as the tsarist regime did back in 1890.

Blackstock and Hoselitz pointed out that many of the essays in The Russian Menace to Europe were unavailable in the Soviet Union for understandable reasons.  But the fact that their book has been out of print for decades means that those in the West who consider themselves to be Marxists will also not be aware of these writings and these important arguments.

Even for people who have no particular interest in Marx, The Russian Menace to Europe remains essential, as C. L. Sulzberger wrote so many years ago, “to understand what the Kremlin is up to now.”

In a divided world, the labour movement is united on Ukraine

Wed, 2022-03-30 05:25

Last week, the Governing Body of the International Labour Organization (ILO), passed a resolution strongly condemning Russian aggression in Ukraine. The resolution was not passed unanimously. The vote reflected divisions not only between countries but between classes as well.

The ILO was founded following the First World War and has a uniquely tripartite structure that “gives an equal voice to workers, employers and governments”. No other UN body works in this way.

A Workers Group of the ILO, closely linked to the international trade union movement, has a voice, as do groups representing employers and national governments. The Workers Group president is a leading figure in the Netherlands Trade Union Confederation (FNV). While independent and democratic trade unions dominate the Workers Group, there are also representatives of state-controlled trade unions. One of these is Jiang Guangping from the All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU).

The resolution condemning Russia was brought to the Governing Body by Ukraine and 49 other countries, including the UK. It declared that “the continuing aggression by the Russian Federation, aided by the Belarusian Government, against Ukraine is grossly incompatible with the aims and purposes of the Organization and principles governing ILO membership”. It called upon Russia “to immediately and unconditionally cease its aggression, withdraw its troops from Ukraine, [and] end the suffering it is inflicting on the people of Ukraine.”

In addition to condemning Russian aggression, the resolution made some concrete commitments for the ILO. For example, it decided to “temporarily suspend technical cooperation or assistance from the ILO to the Russian Federation” and also suspended “invitations to the Russian Federation to attend all discretionary meetings, such as technical meetings and meetings of experts.”

Within the limits of the ILO’s power, this is significant. One might have hoped for more, such as kicking the Russian government out of the organisation, but even this modest resolution met with some resistance from ILO members.

When the final vote was tabulated, 42 national governments had voted for the resolution. Russia and China opposed it, and a number of countries abstained, effectively supporting Russia. These included Brazil, Cameroon, India, Indonesia, Nigeria, Uganda and Pakistan. Those few countries represent a large percentage of the world’s population. Seven of ten most populated countries in the world have governments which refuse to condemn Putin’s war.

But while national governments were divided, the delegates representing the workers were unanimous in their support for the resolution. These delegates came from Angola, Argentina, Bulgaria, Canada, France, Iceland,Japan, Kenya, The Netherlands and the USA. Interestingly, the worker delegates from India and Nigeria voted against their governments and in solidarity with Ukraine.

One member of the Workers Group is not recorded as having cast a vote — the representative of the state-controlled Chinese trade unions.

At a time when many political leaders, especially outside of Europe and North America, are reluctant to condemn Russian aggression, it is encouraging that leaders of the trade union movement around the world are standing united in solidarity with Ukraine.

They can do even more.

Though the ILO may be limited in what it can do to support Ukraine, there are increasing calls within the ITUC to show solidarity by expelling the mis-named Federation of Independent Unions of Russia (FNPR). The FNPR was quick to express its support for Putin’s war.

Among those demanding FNPR’s expulsion have been all the major Nordic union federations, Solidarnosc in Poland, and the Ukrainian union federation KVPU.

It is time for unions in the UK and elsewhere to support that demand.

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

Why banning RT is a bad idea

Wed, 2022-03-23 06:37

A few years ago, when I was working on the Bernie Sanders campaign, one of our volunteers came to me with an interesting proposal. It turned out that he worked in London for Russia Today (now known as RT). He suggested that I or another campaign spokesperson might make an appearance on one of their shows. It would be good publicity for the campaign, he said.

I politely declined and explained why. RT is a propaganda arm of the Russian state and I wanted nothing to do with it. Nor did I want the Sanders campaign to be associated with it.

This week Ofcom banned RT from broadcasting in the UK. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen did the same across the EU, also banning Sputnik, another Russian channel.

I think those decisions were the wrong ones and will have — are already having — disastrous consequences. Especially for the Russian people.

The ban on RT was quickly denounced by the Russian government, but welcomed by many in Europe. RT has no particular “right” to broadcast its lies to the British and European publics, especially not at a time when Russian artillery are pounding Ukrainian cities into rubble. My initial reaction to the news was to think “good riddance” and well done to Ofcom and the European Commission. But I have changed my mind.

The European Federation of Journalists (EFJ) came out strongly against the decision to ban RT.

“The total closure of a media outlet does not seem to me to be the best way to combat disinformation or propaganda,” said EFJ General Secretary Ricardo Gutiérrez. “In our opinion, it is always better to counteract the disinformation of propagandist or allegedly propagandist media by exposing their factual errors or bad journalism, by demonstrating their lack of financial or operational independence, by highlighting their loyalty to government interests and their disregard for the public interest.”

It’s not entirely clear what Ofcom and the European Commission thought they would achieve by banning RT or Sputnik. Blocking RT’s broadcasts doesn’t put an end to Russian state propaganda. As we know, Russian intelligence services work overtime to influence public opinion and even to change the results of elections — with some measure of success. Of all the means the Russian state has at its disposal to influence public opinion in the West, RT was perhaps the least effective. I don’t know anyone who watches it, and I doubt it has any effect at all about how people think.

Still, having said all that, if there were no cost to the banning decision, then why not? If it makes us feel better about ourselves, like hanging a Ukrainian flag in our windows, that’s fine.

But there is a cost and a very serious one to this decision, and that’s why I oppose it.

The Russian state will retaliate by trying to ban access to Western broadcasts, including those of the BBC. They already banned the German broadcaster Deutsche Welle (DW).

As we know from the many years of the Cold War, and during the Second World War as well, the BBC broadcasts were like oxygen to people living under dictatorial regimes. That is true today as well.

Though RT was watched by hardly anyone, the BBC, DW and other Western broadcasters have large audiences in Russia. They are trusted to tell the truth.

If we’re making a trade — we shut down RT, they shut down the BBC — we do not come out ahead. And the Russian people, who are hungry for the truth, are the real losers.

This article appears in today’s issue of Solidarity.

Review: How Civil Wars Start – And How to Stop Them, by Barbara F. Walter

Wed, 2022-03-16 14:15

Barbara Walter’s book has a promising beginning. An academic who has been studying civil wars for some time now, she tries to come up with an explanation for why civil wars happen. A lot of what she learns is very interesting. For example, economics — apparently — has very little to do with this. And there are several ratings systems that can give one an indication of the risks of civil war in any particular country.

She reviews some of the better known civil wars in recent times including Rwanda, Bosnia, Northern Ireland and so on. The book is clearly building up to a discussion of the United States in recent years and that comes sooner rather than later. This is the part of the book that is weakest — especially a long section of fiction that imagines civil war breaking out in the USA in 2028 under President Kamala Harris (and no, I don’t think Kamala Harris will be US president then either).

The bulk of the book is about the US and it feels rather long-winded. Some of the discussion of the civil wars in other countries feels more cursory. For example, her explanation of why the IRA and the British government came to the negotiating table is superficial and inaccurate.

The main argument about the risk of civil war in the US is, however, a convincing one. This is a chilling book.

DSA needs to learn the lessons of SDS

Wed, 2022-03-16 05:05

Sixty years ago, the United States was still in the grip of the McCarthy era. The Attorney General would regularly update his list of “subversive” organisations. Communists and other leftists were denied platforms in many places, including universities. Racial segregation remained in place in the Southern states. And young people were largely depoliticised, attending university in record numbers but showing little interest in changing the world.

And then at a conference held in Port Huron, Michigan, the moribund League for Industrial Democracy decided to relaunch its student arm under a new name: Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). Few could have expected what happened next.

SDS exploded in growth. The rapid rise of the civil rights movement, including its more militant wing, combined with the Vietnam War completely transformed the country — and especially the campuses. Millions of people were in the streets protesting. Every group on the left, including long-dormant groups like the Young Peoples Socialist League (YPSL) began to grow. The mainstream Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party played a prominent role in the anti-war movement. But no one experienced anything on the scale of what happened to SDS.

By the end of the decade, it had a presence across hundreds of campuses in practically every state. It claimed a membership of 100,000. Nothing like it had ever been seen before in the long history of the American Left. And then, suddenly, in a puff of smoke it was gone.

SDS had increasingly fallen under the control of extremist groups — some Maoist, some anarchist. At its final convention, it was taken over by a tiny Stalinist sect known as the Progressive Labor Party. The minority wing went on to form the terrorist Weather Underground. Within a few months, all the competing factions had largely disappeared.

A number of the saner veterans of SDS found themselves in something called the New American Movement (NAM) which together with Michael Harrington’s Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee (DSOC) formed Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) in the early 1980s. DSA struggled for decades to grow, and while it had successes here and there, it never really took off. And then, in 2015, the independent Senator from Vermont, Bernie Sanders, decided to run for president. Sanders was a democratic socialist, but not a DSA member.

His campaign reinvigorated DSA and the American Left more broadly. Tens of thousands of new members, mostly young people with little experience on the Left, joined DSA. The group expanded to reach 100,000 members.

In addition to recruiting thousands of political neophytes, DSA also attracted some far Leftists who came into the organisation with their own agendas.

After a short while, very little was left of the organisational cultures and values that had sustained DSA for four decades. And nowhere is this clearer than in a statement adopted by the organiaation’s International Committee when Russia invaded Ukraine. Following a denunciation of the Russian aggression, the statement went on to say that “DSA reaffirms our call for the US to withdraw from NATO and to end the imperialist expansionism that set the stage for this conflict. ” In other words, America was somehow at fault.

For many members of the organisation, especially those who had been in DSA for a long time, this was the final straw. As one long-standing DSA activist wrote this week, “I don’t intend to renew my membership as I feel the NPC statement on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was an utter disgrace. This is not time to blame NATO or the West as this fascist bastard, Putin, dismantles a country and slaughters its innocent civilians. … It is with deep sadness that I see what the national organization has become with the leadership in the hands of sectarian purists.”

Those resignations are not yet on the scale of what brought down SDS a half century ago. But the pattern is clear. For the second time in my lifetime we are seeing the hopes of a new American Left, one with mass support among the young, being dashed by ultra-leftism.

Does DSA need to share SDS’s fate? That depends on the organisation’s members, on their willingness to stand and fight for the values that the group once stood for.

This article appears in today’s issue of Solidarity.

ITUC: Kick Putin’s union out

Tue, 2022-03-08 15:51

According to its website, the Federation of Independent Trade Unions of Russia (FNPR) is “a national trade union centre independent of the state, political and business structures.”

Founded in 1990, it is the successor to the state-controlled labour fronts of the Soviet era, and it claims to be the largest national trade union centre in the country.

It boasts of having some twenty million members — “which is about 95 percent of all organised workers in Russia,” they say.

They are one of two national trade union centres in Russia which are affiliated to the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC).

But it is now time to throw the FNPR out.

Because it has become abundantly clear that the FNPR is not “independent of the state,” but is a mouthpiece for the Putin regime.

As the war in Ukraine intensified and unions around the world joined with pretty much everyone else in condemning Russia’s brazen aggression, the FNPR rushed to issue a statement of their own.

It began by declaring that the FNPR “supports the decision of Russian President Vladimir Putin to carry out an operation to denazify Ukraine”. They refer to the elected leaders of Ukraine as “gangs of Bandera [followers], nationalists and accomplices of the Nazis”. They express sympathy with refugees — not all refugees, but those who “were forced to evacuate to Russian territory” and declare that those refugees (mostly from the Donetsk region) will be helped by Russian unions. The statement ends with the ringing declaration that “Hitlers and Zelenskys come and go, but international worker solidarity remains. Peace to the nations! War on the Nazis!”

Take a moment to consider that statement in its entirety. At best, we can say that the FNPR leaders who drafted it are either delusional or wrote this with a loaded gun pointed at their heads. At best. At worst — well, I’d rather not think about that.

As Frank Hoffer, a German trade unionist and former ILO staffer wrote recently for the Global Labour Column, the FNPR’s continued “membership in the ITUC is incompatible with the ITUC’s values and constitution that clearly states: ‘The confederation proclaims the right of all peoples to self-determination and to live free from aggression and totalitarianism under a government of their own choosing.'”

Hoffer also points out that while Russian individuals, companies, sports teams and others have been quickly expelled from international organisations, the ITUC has so far done nothing about the FNPR’s membership.

The FNPR’s president — who has served at his post for some 30 years now — is Mikhail Shmakov. Shmakov is a Vice President of the ITUC. He and Natalia Klimova, also representing FNPR, sit on the ITUC General Council. Shmakov also has a seat on the ITUC’s 22-member Executive Bureau.

Our trade union leaders sit with him on those bodies — leaders of Britain’s Trades Union Congress, the AFL-CIO in the USA, Germany’s DGB and the Canadian Labour Congress, among others.

As Hoffer writes, “Continuing business as usual and keeping the FNPR in its ranks will destroy any moral authority of the ITUC.”

He’s absolutely right. It is time for the ITUC to do the right thing.

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

Review: Extraterrestrial: The First Sign of Intelligent Life Beyond Earth, by Avi Loeb

Sun, 2022-03-06 13:00

Avi Loeb is the head of the Astronomy Department at Harvard University and is one of the world leaders in his field. He believes that ‘Oumuamua, an object detected in 2017 as it flew through our solar system, was advanced technology produced by an alien civilisation. Most scientists rejected the idea, but in this book Loeb makes a convincing case that we shouldn’t be took quick to dismiss this explanation.

The problem is that he makes that case very early in the book, and spends the rest of the time talking about his life growing up on a moshav in Israel, his parents, the second world war, where he goes on holiday with his family, his love of seashells, etc, etc. Surely he had enough material to fill up an entire book on ‘Oumuamua, but maybe his editors told him not to lay on the science too much. For whatever reason, this reads like a magazine article with some autobiography and unrelated musings about life tagged on.

On the other hand, it’s an amazing story and he may well be right.

Yes to Nato

Wed, 2022-03-02 03:20

There is a saying that generals are always ready to fight the last war. The same may be said of political leaders. The difference is that they are ready to stop the last war, and have learned the lessons of what caused it.

In the 1930s, when Japan, Italy and Germany began to menace neighbouring countries, a consensus began to emerge in the democracies — and in the Soviet Union — that only collective security could prevent another world war. But collective security proved to be unachievable, and by the end of August 1939 Stalin had signed his non-aggression pact with Hitler and the world war began.

A decade later, the leaders of Western European countries, Canada and the USA reached the conclusion that the only way to prevent a Third World War was to establish a permanent collective security organisation. That is how NATO was born.

Just as in the 1930s collective security was advocated across the political spectrum, from the Stalinists to Winston Churchill, so in the early days of the Cold War both Social Democratic parties and their conservative rivals agreed on the need for NATO.

And in the decades since, NATO has largely succeeded in avoiding large-scale warfare on the European continent.

This little history lesson is needed because far too many people on the Left think of NATO as a four letter word. One doesn’t say it — one sneers it.

This has been abundantly clear in the reaction of the far Left to Putin’s criminal war on Ukraine. Even socialists who support Ukraine in many cases feel obligated to add — as if anyone were asking — that their support for Ukraine does not include any positive comments on NATO.

An email I received yesterday from a group I hadn’t heard of before had the promising headline “Stop Russian aggression in Ukraine!” But this was immediately followed by “No Nato!” It demanded that NATO be disbanded, ending with a ringing call to “get rid of US troops and bases in Western and Eastern European countries!”

The Socialist Workers Party has produced articles with somewhat greater depth and fewer exclamation points. But the essential point is the same. One recent piece declared: “Any true socialist should stand up and oppose Nato and the system of imperialist rivalries that it represents.”

Even some groups which I respect feel a strange compulsion to toss in negative comments on NATO whenever they criticise Putin. The Ukraine Solidarity Campaign, for example, opposes “the unaccountable manoeuvres of the big powers and NATO deciding Ukraine’s destiny,” which rather misses the point. If NATO were the ones deciding Ukraine’s destiny, there would not be Russian tanks in Kyiv.

The statement goes on to condemn NATO saying that “increased NATO deployments in other parts of Eastern Europe are motivated by Western rivalry with Russia, to protect business interests and influence, not the needs of Ukrainians.”

This is the most simplistic, reductionist form of Marxism, a way of looking at the world that Karl Marx would not recognise. When he was alive, Marx was a sworn enemy of Russia’s expansionist empire, going so far as to support British and French troops in the Crimean War.

In the struggle between Russian imperialism and Europe, Marx knew which side he was on.

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

Review: Guadalcanal Diary, by Richard Tregaskis

Sun, 2022-02-27 14:01

Dick Tregaskis was a legendary American war correspondent who covered the Second World War, Korea and Vietnam. When he was just 26 years old, he accompanied Marines who landed on the island of Guadalcanal with the goal of taking it back from the Japanese. This book — his best-known work — tells the story of the first three months of that battle, which lasted many more months, and which ended in an American victory.

The historical significance of Guadalcanal consisted of the fact that it was the first land battle between American and Axis troops during the Second World War (the U.S. landing in North Africa came a few months later).

But Tregaskis was not interested in the broad strategy. This is history told at ground level, stories of men (always identified by their home town – e.g., Lieut. Col. William S. Fellers of Atlanta, Ga.) engaged in personal combat. Encounters with Japanese snipers, enemy craft bombarding the shore, Zero fighters coming in to bomb and strafe, are still frightening to read now, eight decades later.

Tregaskis does find some men who panic, some who flee, some who hide — but the vast majority display incredible heroism under fire. However, his description of the enemy is unflattering in the extreme and will make for uncomfortable reading today.

Review: Operation Mincemeat, by Ben Macintyre

Sun, 2022-02-27 13:35

Ben Macintyre is a brilliant storyteller – and this is a brilliant story.

The story is a relatively simple one: With an Allied invasion of Sicily imminent in 1943, the British decided to deceive the Germans as to the location of the landing, trying to convince them that the troops would be landing in Sardinia and Greece. To achieve this, they created some fake documents, put them into a briefcase tied to a corpse, and floated that ashore in Spain. Local German spies eventually saw the papers, believed them to be true, and spread the word. A considerable number of German troops were diverted away from Sicily, helping to ensure the success of that operation.

What Macintyre has done is to go into this story in forensic detail — turning it into a real page-turner, creating memorable characters and including much humour as well. No wonder this story was turned into a musical comedy in London in 2022.

Highly recommended.

For Lithuania’s workers, enough is finally enough

Wed, 2022-02-23 06:39

When the Soviet Union came crashing down three decades ago, among the very first republics to declare independence were the three Baltic states – Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. This made sense as they had been among the last to be brought under Soviet rule, back in the 1940s. There were people living in those countries who remembered independence in their lifetimes.

What many of us hoped for back then was a quick revival of the political parties that had been crushed under Communist Party rule, and the emergence of strong, independent trade unions to replace the state-controlled labour fronts.

But things did not turn out that way. As happened across the entire former Soviet Union, a kind of unrestrained capitalism filled the void created by the collapse of the Stalinist regime. Independent unions did emerge, but they were not always particularly strong. And in the case of Lithuania, it has taken them all that time — more than thirty years — to organise a strike against a private sector company.

That has now happened at the Achema nitrogen fertiliser plant, where almost half of the 1,300 employees went on indefinite strike on 8 February.

The significance of their action cannot be overstated. As Inga Ruginienė, chairwoman of the Lithuanian Trade Unions Confederation, put it, their strike is the first protest action of this scale in Lithuania since independence.

The workers are up against a particularly nasty employer. Achema CEO Ramūnas Miliauskas told LRT Radio that “a collective agreement, as a piece of paper, gives no guarantees to either side.” He refuses to sign an agreement with the union, but insists he’ll increase salaries without a collective agreement.

Union leaders have described the situation at the company as a “state of war” — and have called the company’s promise to raise wages “a bluff”.

Inga Ruginienė was quoted as saying that “in the history of independent Lithuania, this is probably the first such industrial action. Imagine how exhausted the workers must have been to make that decision.”

Here is what the “exhausted” workers at Achema are demanding: The remuneration system be spelt out in a collective agreement so that the company cannot change pay at will. They are also calling for wage indexation and clear rules on overtime. These are not crazy, revolutionary demands. But the company still refuses to budge.

The union asked for and got a strong statement of solidarity from the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC). ETUC Secretary General Luca Visentini wrote to the Achema management, saying that “we call on the immediate return to negotiations with the Achema Workers’ trade union, and in line with the principles of constructive social dialogue and mutual understanding, to reach an agreement.”

The union has also launched an online campaign on LabourStart, encouraging trade union members around the world to demonstrate their solidarity by sending a protest message. It is the first campaign to appear on LabourStart in Lithuanian, and translations into Estonian and Latvian are expected as well.

Birute Daškevičienė, the chairwoman of Achema’s trade union, said that the strike action will continue until the employer agrees to sign a collective agreement. Thousands of trade unionists around the world sending their messages of solidarity through the LabourStart campaign will help make that a reality.

Show your support the Achema’s workers here:

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

Bernie Sanders is wrong about Ukraine

Tue, 2022-02-15 16:09

A few days ago the Guardian ran an article by Bernie Sanders entitled “We must do everything possible to avoid an enormously destructive war in Ukraine.” He’s certainly right about that – no reasonable person would disagree. And he correctly names the culprit in the current crisis: Vladimir Putin.

But Bernie adds that he is worried about “the familiar drumbeats in Washington, the bellicose rhetoric that gets amplified before every war, demanding that we must ‘show strength, ‘get tough’ and not engage in ‘appeasement’.”

I disagree. Showing strength and getting tough are not terrible strategies for dealing with bullies, be they school-yard toughs or nuclear-armed aggressor states. And “appeasement” was not a good strategy back in 1938, and it’s not a good strategy today.

“Russian leaders,” he writes, “made clear their concerns about the prospect of former Soviet states becoming part of Nato and positioning hostile military forces along Russia’s border.” In Bernie’s view, “they are still legitimate concerns.”

Thirty years ago, when the USSR broke up, two things happened almost immediately. Every single one of the 15 constituent Soviet republics declared independence from Russia. And nearly all of those who could, applied to join NATO.

Whatever “legitimate” security concerns Russia might have had then (and now) are surely eclipsed the legitimate security concerns of those former Soviet republics. Those states, based on their own histories, are terrified of Russian attack and desperate for European and American support.

Among the first to join NATO were the three Baltic republics, tiny states that could not defend themselves against the twin horrors of Hitler’s Third Reich and Stalin’s Soviet empire. The idea that Russia is somehow threatened by these states is absurd.

Russia, he writes, has “an interest in the security policies of its neighbours” — meaning, presumably, a veto over which collective security agreements they might sign up to, such as NATO.

Countries, he writes, “should be free to make their own foreign policy choices, but making those choices wisely requires a serious consideration of the costs and benefits.” In other words, Ukraine in principal can look to Europe and the United States as potential allies, but they should think twice about this. There could be “costs”.

Maybe it’s time for Bernie and those who share this view to be given a short history lesson themselves — especially about NATO.

NATO was founded with the strong support of the British Labour government in April 1949. Social democratic and labour parties across Europe have long supported its existence. A powerful case can made that the collective security NATO provided ensured a peaceful end to the Cold War. Nearly all the countries that share a border with Russia understand this, and that is why they all clamour to join the alliance.

There should be no “costs” for sovereign states like Ukraine or Georgia when they want to join NATO. It is not only their right, but it makes sense for them. Putin’s threats confirm this every day.

The bottom line is we must do everything possible to prevent an aggressive Russian war in Europe. That means not repeating bits of Putin’s propaganda about the “threat” posted by states like Ukraine and Georgia.

The only threat worth talking about is Russian aggression — and the answer to that threat is a stronger, not a weaker, NATO.

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

Review: The Expectation Effect: How Your Mindset Can Transform Your Life, by David Robson

Wed, 2022-02-09 06:55

Science journalist David Robson makes something very clear early on in this book: this is NOT going to be one of those books (like Rhonda Byrne’s best-selling The Secret) that insists you can wish yourself to become rich or powerful. As he makes clear, we cannot — for example — prevent ourselves from ageing. But can influence how we age.

This is an evidence-based popular work on how what we expect influences how we live. Some of the studies are mind-blowing. I knew that placebos work nearly as well as real medicines in many cases. (Which explains the “success” of some alternative treatments.) But what I didn’t know was that studies have now shown that even when people are told they are taking a placebo, it can still work. Amazing.

A very good, positive and upbeat book – highly recommended.